Aziraphale stared pensively out the window. He was not brooding; the Fell children had not been raised to brood. It was beneath their station to appear melancholy, or so Father had informed them when they were younger. Father was not there any longer, but the lesson lingered. Aziraphale was not brooding. He was simply observing.
What he was observing were the grounds of Havensgate, the family estate, and he was observing them from an upstairs window of his own small rectory, from which he could not see the family house – which he had grown up in, and only recently been forced to vacate – but which offered a decent view of some of the smaller, less impressive gardens that made up the edges of the property. There were no fountains out this far, no elaborate hedge trimmings, but the flowers that bloomed were just as beautiful as the ones adorning the more elaborate gardens, designed for guests and dinner parties.
Just as beautiful was the man currently on his knees, wrist deep in the dirt as he weeded the flowerbeds, his plain clothes streaked with mud and his fiery hair burning in the vivid sunlight, and this, if Aziraphale were ever to be fully honest with himself – and he rarely was, even in the privacy of his own mind – was what he was truly observing. Not the gardens, but the gardener.
He had been with the Fell family since he was a small boy, of an age with Aziraphale, when his father had been head of the groundskeeping staff. When his father passed, years later, the son, now a man of strength and fine feature, had taken the job. Aziraphale had watched the change from the windows of the family estate. He disliked the outdoors, and the outdoor staff were not allowed inside, so Aziraphale had observed from afar and admired. He had admired a boy becoming a man, growing strong, growing fierce, growing more beautiful with each passing day. Aziraphale had gained none of these qualities as he had grown, but he could not bring himself to envy them in others, and in this other in particular. And yet, in over twenty years of service, Aziraphale had never learned his name.
The gardener looked up, and Aziraphale turned quickly away from the window, heart thundering in his ears. He took two breaths, calm and steadying, and slowly turned his head back. The gardener’s eyes were fixed on the ground again. Aziraphale breathed relief and didn’t quite know why.
He left behind the window and the view of the estate and went downstairs. Aziraphale should have liked to be a man of leisure – he was raised with the notion, after all – but as the youngest son of three it could not be the case. Aziraphale did not dislike the church, which through the patronage of his own family provided his living, his small house, and his position as a clergyman, but it had to be said that Aziraphale was not the epitome of anyone’s ideal priest. He was well-read and always had been, from the moment he had been taught his letters, but he had a tendency to get caught up in the fanciful notions of literature, the likes of which were not always approved by the church. And he detested speaking publicly. But Aziraphale had few alternatives, and his joining the church had been all but his mother’s dying wish, and so he had gone, a dutiful son to the last. His studies at university, at least, had been fascinating. The reality of life, less so.
Aziraphale’s study, which doubled as a personal library, was currently littered with open books, as it so frequently was. Many of them were religious texts, exposing pages full of examples on which he drew, or more often cited word for word, when giving his sermons. He brushed his fingers over a few lines of text, appropriately reverent to the holy words, and then turned his attention to a more important book, closed but given a place of honour at the head of his writing desk, shabby from use and with torn bits of cloth and paper – whatever he’d had on hand at the moment – sticking out to mark passages he particularly enjoyed. He had read it many times, and it was the book in his collection that he worshiped most, though it would have been sacrilegious to say so. It was his copy of an English translation of the Iliad. Aziraphale had whole shelves dedicated to ancient writing, fiction and poetry and plays. He had copies of Plato’s Symposium, the few remaining fragments of Aeschylus’s The Myrmidons, collections of Sapho and Catullus, and even Petronius’s Satyricon. He loved them all, but particularly the epic greatness of the Iliad, the harrowing adventures and the heroism so different from Aziraphale’s life of ease. It was not that he wanted adventure, per se. But it was pleasing to read about regardless, and Aziraphale was of the opinion that the old authors wrote it best.
He ought to be preparing his sermon for the upcoming Sunday, only two days away and still untouched. And there was an approaching council meeting he would have to be ready for, loathe as he was to participate. At the very least, it would be wise to visit the Youngs, given Mrs. Young’s advancing pregnancy, to ensure the family was still hale and whole. He ought to, but Aziraphale did none of these things. Instead, he picked up the Iliad, made himself comfortable in his favourite armchair, licked his thumb and opened the book to his favourite passage. He put up his feet and settled in for a pleasant afternoon of reading.
It was a knock on the door that disturbed him, well into the evening, after the candles had been lit and a cosy glow had descended over the house. Aziraphale stood up with some reluctance, answering the door with his spectacles still set against his nose. A young boy stood there, apparently out of breath from running, sweat beading from his brow. “Letter for you, sir,” he panted, and held it out. Aziraphale paid him and sent him away with a tight smile, closing the door behind him and leaning against it as he turned the parchment over. If the handwritten address had not given it away, the wax seal would have, large and ornate and stamped firmly with the family crest. Aziraphale broke it, cracking the wings in half, and unfolded the letter.
My dear brother, it was addressed, we are neighbours, and yet I feel as though in recent years you have become a stranger. As it has been months since we last spoke properly, I would be gratified if you would join my wife and I for dinner tomorrow evening. We anticipate your arrival with much happiness. Gabriel
The letter was short, but Aziraphale was more than capable of reading between the lines. This was not an invitation. It was a summons, one which he was not permitted to refuse. Aziraphale sighed heavily, resisting his urge for anger. It was the frivolity of the whole affair that bothered him. They lived next door to one another, and they were brothers. Gabriel could have come to call himself, to extend the invitation without the need for pomp and circumstance. But he would rather waste the money and the paper, would rather make an awe-filled errand boy run, fetching Aziraphale like a wayward dog, than invest any time in a personal relationship. It had always been such; Gabriel, the eldest and brightest. Gabriel, the child who would inherit, the man who could do no wrong. The gap between them was large – much larger than between Aziraphale and the middle child, Michael, Aziraphale’s elder by two years. Gabriel had nearly fifteen years seniority. It might as well have been fifty, for all they spoke to one another. Aziraphale did not particularly like Gabriel, did not particularly wish to be more involved with his brother’s affairs, but that did not mean he appreciated being treated as another one of Gabriel’s hounds, to be summoned and sent away at his master’s leisure.
Still. He could not refuse to go. He did not bother to write a reply, nor endure the hassle of finding someone to send it at such an hour. Gabriel would neither need nor expect one. He would assume, correctly, that Aziraphale would come, and so Aziraphale would. Evening, he decided, meant perhaps five or six, so that was when he would go. For the time being, he left the letter by the front door and extinguished the candles in his study with a sigh. He was no longer in the mood to read, and so went to bed.
Morning brought with it fresh dread and questions. Gabriel so rarely sought Aziraphale out that it was unlikely an invitation would be a purely social call. Gabriel would want something, surely, but Aziraphale could not think what.
He spent the early morning preparing his sermon over breakfast and reviewed his notes for the council meeting over lunch. Difficult tasks, he’d found, were best accomplished over a pleasant meal. He hoped dinner with Gabriel would be no different, although his past experience had never drawn that conclusion before. Following lunch, he paid a visit to the Youngs, as he ought to have done the day before.
Mrs. Young greeted him cheerfully. She was a cheerful woman by nature, a natural motherly sort. This was to be her second child, the eldest a girl she had delivered some years ago, before Aziraphale had even left for university, much less inherited his living. Time had been kind to her; neither her beauty or her good humour had been diminished with age. She was pleasant enough to speak to, and she told him with much satisfaction that this pregnancy was progressing as smoothly as the last, and she looked forward to his performing services for the baby once it was born. Aziraphale thanked her and wished her well, and told her to give his regards to her husband as well. Aziraphale was less fond of Mr. Young than he was of the man’s wife, but Mr. Young did truly care for his family, and that was the most important thing in Aziraphale’s eyes, even if his overly stiff manner could be a bit off-putting. Aziraphale could never be sure if there was something he’d done to earn the man’s censure, or if Mr. Young simply considered the whole world with a slightly wary eye. He was, at any rate, far from the most unpleasant member of the parish.
Very high on the list of unpleasant members were Aziraphale’s dinner companions, and he turned then in that direction with a weary sigh. The sun, in full summer glory, had yet to sink beneath the horizon, but had begun to meander lazily in that direction, as if considering sleep with a fond, if not rushed, attention. Motes of dust swirled in the light, kicked up from the dirt road Aziraphale followed to reach the entrance of the estate. Far from the rest of the parish, Aziraphale was near out of breath before he’d even gotten halfway. He was not built for walking, but he did not own a horse, and he was unwilling to borrow one from a neighbour, either to ride – Aziraphale disliked riding even more than he liked walking – or to hitch to the little gig he owned in order to be transported. Besides, the neighbour it would be most appropriate to borrow a horse from was Gabriel, which rather defeated the purpose.
By the time he reached the gates, he looked a fright, his sweat-damp clothes clinging to him unflatteringly, his white-blond curls matted to his dust-stained brow. He glanced at his reflection in the fountain before the front door; hardly the look of a high society man, but there was nothing to do about it now.
He knocked. The servant who answered was not the first member of staff Aziraphale had seen, as a few of those who tended to the extensive grounds had been visible in the distance as he approached (although none bore the flaming red locks he had surreptitiously searched for), but she was the first he recognized. Dagon, she was called, if memory served correct. She was a woman of middling age and fair ginger hair, who had come from France along with Gabriel’s wife roughly five years prior. There was something about her that always made Aziraphale nervous. Something to do with her teeth, he thought. When she smiled, he always faced the irrational fear that she was preparing to eat him. She smiled often.
“Mr. Fell,” she said, and let him in. “The master is expecting you.”
“Yes, thank you.” Aziraphale smiled back weakly. “I’ll just go in, then. No need to announce me.” He left her behind him, standing by the front door, and hoped he was imagining the way she licked her lips.
He found Gabriel and his wife in the drawing room, and both stood when he entered. Gabriel strode across the room, broad-shouldered frame hulking closer until he was able to pull Aziraphale into a crushing hug, slapping his back hard enough to knock out what little breath Aziraphale had managed to regain. “Aziraphale,” Gabriel greeted him, voice booming. “It’s been too long. I’m glad you could make it.” As always, Gabriel did not have a hair out of place, immaculate from his dark locks and sculpted jaw down to the tips of his polished boots. He brushed some of Aziraphale’s dirt from the front of his suit as if it offended him, and turned back to his wife. “Darling, Aziraphale came. Isn’t that wonderful?”
She approached slower, and Aziraphale’s weak smile returned. Belle made him even more uncomfortable than Dagon. It wasn’t her thick French accent, or the eccentric, insect-like hats she wore. Nor was it her preference for dresses with more masculine bodies – often including a full waistcoat - which Aziraphale thought remarkably modern of her. It was the way she looked at him, with slightly narrowed, glittering black eyes. She frequently wore a veil, to hide an unfortunate skin condition that rendered her cheeks dry and patchy yellow, but even through the mesh her eyes shone darkly, as if she were spider and Aziraphale a most unfortunate fly.
She extended a gloved hand to him, and Aziraphale took it between his own and squeezed gently. “Aziraphale,” she said, her accent buzzing. “It is a pleasure, as always.”
“The, ah, pleasure is all mine,” Aziraphale managed. He released her hand and folded his own behind his back. “You look lovely. Is that, er, a new hat?”
She blinked slowly at him. He swallowed hard.
Gabriel appeared immune. Or, perhaps, he was aware, and simply enjoyed Aziraphale’s discomfort. Either way, he clapped Aziraphale on the back again. “Why don’t you go upstairs, rinse some of that dirt off? Don’t want you making a mess of the whole house. We’ll meet you in the dining room when you’re done, alright?”
“Of course,” Aziraphale said, and fled the room. In the first bathroom upstairs, there was already a basin of water laid out, along with fresh linens and a new set of clothes. Aziraphale washed gratefully, wincing as the clear water turned brown, and then towelled off his hair and face. The change of clothes pinched at him as he pulled them on; they had been his, once, when he was younger and thinner. Aziraphale suspected his brother, athletic and fit, kept them precisely for instances like this, and not entirely out of kindness.
It was as he was drying his hands a final time that a flash beyond the window caught Aziraphale’s eye. He peered out, and felt his heart rise into his throat. He pressed a hand to the glass and leaned closer. Distorted by the distance and the barrier between them, but no less clear of colour, Aziraphale watched as flaming hair bobbed in the sunlight, its owner’s head thrown back, laughing at something a fellow servant had called over. Aziraphale had no talent for the arts, but in that moment he had never wished more fervently for skill with a brush.
A knock on the door made him jerk back, tripping over his discarded clothes and landing with an inelegant thud in a sprawl on the floor. “The master wants to know why you’re taking so long,” Dagon drawled from the other side of the door. “Something wrong with the clothes?”
“Er, no!” Aziraphale called back, forcing mock cheerfulness into his voice. “Everything’s perfectly fine. I’ll be out in just a tick.” He sat up, wincing as the trousers pinched at him, and rubbed the back of his head where he’d hit it on the floor. He closed his eyes. A few hours, and then he would be home again, not in the mansion he’d grown up in but truly home, in his cosy little house with his library and his books. Yes, just a few hours to endure, and he would be alright.
He stood up and opened the door, withholding a yelp as he came face to face with Dagon on the other side, leaning against the doorframe with a bored expression. She lifted an eyebrow at him, but said nothing, and watched him scurry down the stairs.
In the dining room, Gabriel sat at the head of the table, with Belle beside him. Hesitantly, Aziraphale took the other seat, trying to ignore the length of the table behind him, stretching clear across the room and set for twenty. Another elaborate trifle of Gabriel’s. They could have eaten in any number of smaller, more appropriate rooms. But Gabriel enjoyed showing off. The chair made a thunderous, creaking scratch as Aziraphale dragged it in, and he winced, then folded his hands in his lap.
“I really am glad you could come,” Gabriel told him, signalling another servant to bring out the first course. “I know I sent the invitation a little last minute but—” he laughed “—I figured you’d probably come anyway.”
“How could I refuse?” Aziraphale’s smile was false, but so was Gabriel’s sentiment. Aziraphale might have been a clergyman, but he wasn’t a saint.
Gabriel laughed again. Belle let out a sound that might have been an amused chuckle or might have been a hacking cough. “It’s good you’re here, though,” Gabriel said. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
Oh dear. The first course wasn’t even out yet. Aziraphale steeled himself and did his best to keep his voice pleasant. “Oh?”
“It’s just, Belle and I were talking, weren’t we dear, and it occurred to me that we’ve been together five years.” He grinned. “Isn’t that amazing? Time really does fly.”
“Amazing,” Aziraphale repeated faintly. He had a sickening idea of where this was going.
“It is, isn’t it.” Gabriel’s grin widened, and he leaned forward over the table, steepling his fingers together. “And even though they live in London, of course, everyone knows that Michael and Uriel have had two blissful years already.”
“And my felicitations to them as well, of course,” Aziraphale said. His stomach had dropped and was cowering somewhere beneath his chair.
“And then there’s you,” Gabriel said. His features suddenly seemed more angular. Aziraphale was sure that to brush against him would cut. “Baby brother. We’re just so proud of you, joining the church like you did.”
“Yes, well, I-“
“And it just seems such a shame,” Gabriel interrupted, “that the leader of our little parish, who gets to marry all these happy couples, shouldn’t be married himself.”
And there it was. Servants bustled back into the room, setting the first course in front of them, but Aziraphale couldn’t even look at his plate. He felt ill, and briefly wondered if swooning into a faint would enable him to avoid continuing such a wretched conversation. Somehow, he doubted it. “Gabriel,” he said slowly, his voice very soft, “I appreciate the concern; however, it is unwarranted. I’m not even thirty yet, and it’s not unusual-“
“You’re not at Cambridge anymore, little brother. You’ve got better things to do with your time than bury your nose in all those dusty books.” Gabriel chortled.
“It is unusual—" Belle’s fork disappeared behind her veil and reappeared again “—why a man of the cloth should not take a wife.”
“Exactly,” Gabriel said. He gave his wife a besotted smile before turning back to Aziraphale. “Without you married, who will your congregation look to for a favourable example of matrimony?”
“Well, you, I imagine,” Aziraphale stammered. “The parishioners-“
“You flatter us,” Gabriel laughed. He reached for Belle’s hand. She allowed him to cover it with his own. “We are happy, I’ll grant you that. Overwhelmingly, perfectly happy.”
“Yes,” Belle intoned.
“But it’s not our job, Aziraphale,” Gabriel continued. His tone had shifted. There was less joviality in it, more command. “It’s yours.”
“I’d hate to see what people would say about our family, Aziraphale. If things didn’t change.” He lifted his eyebrows meaningfully, and two beats of echoing silence rang out across the room.
Aziraphale sighed and slumped in his chair. “I understand.”
He did. Gabriel controlled his living, his income. Their family had favour with a great many people above even their own station. Should Aziraphale refuse, there were things Gabriel could do, strings he could pull, and Aziraphale would not be able to stop him. He would have nothing.
“I do,” he said. The words tasted acrid, burning his tongue. “I must admit, I had been thinking of taking a wife soon. It’s just a shame there are so few eligible ladies around.”
“Nonsense,” Gabriel crowed. “I’ll tell you what. We’ll throw a ball. Won’t that be fun? We’ll host it here, even. Once word gets out that the leader of our little parish is seeking a wife, you won’t be able to stop them from coming!”
Aziraphale didn’t doubt it. He wasn’t well-liked, but money was money, and he had a steady income and a family name. For many people, that was plenty. “I defer to your judgement,” he mumbled bitterly.
“Excellent.” Gabriel finally sat back, and tucked into his own meal. He jabbed his fork towards Aziraphale’s plate. “Skipping the first course, Aziraphale? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you turn down food.”
Aziraphale pushed his plate away. “I’m afraid I’m not very hungry tonight.”
“Ah, well,” Gabriel grinned. There was a gleam of triumph in his eyes. “It’s probably for the best. That shirt is looking a little tight anyway.”
Aziraphale grit his teeth in a passable smile and said nothing.
It was well after dark by the time Aziraphale managed to excuse himself, waving off Gabriel’s encouragement to stay with the explanation that tomorrow was Sunday, and he really ought to be at home to prepare for church. Even subtle hints of robbers and bandits did not dissuade him; Aziraphale felt sure the walk home would be safe, and anyway he could use the path through the grounds, leading from the estate to his rectory. He bid his brother and sister-in-law goodnight and slipped out into the twilight.
There was little light. The moon was nearly new, and even the twinkling stars provided little assistance as Aziraphale stumbled his way along the path. His clothes still pinched, from his shirt to his shoes, and were he not a man of God he might have cursed aloud as he nearly tripped a third time. A hand caught his, steadying him, and Aziraphale yelped in fright.
“Easy,” a low voice soothed. Aziraphale turned. He could barely make out his sudden companion, just a mass in the darkness, voice drawling and masculine, hands strong and calloused from physical labour. Aziraphale’s heart sped, and his suspicion was confirmed as the tiny sliver of moon peered out from behind a cloud, stroking red curls with its dim light. The gardener’s face was cast in shadow, but that would have told Aziraphale very little, having only ever seen him from a distance. “Are you alright?” he asked, and his voice was smooth as honey, glossy as the book pages Aziraphale loved to stroke. Aziraphale wanted to stroke that voice, nonsensical as it was, wanted to pet it until it purred like a kitten and curled up in his lap.
He pushed the thought away. “I’m alright, thank you. Just returning home. I should have brought a lantern…” He paused. “Do you usually make your way around without one? It’s very dark out here.”
That earned him a laugh, and his heart fluttered. “I have pretty good eyesight,” the gardener said. “Even in the dark. I’ll guide you home, Mr. Fell.”
“Aziraphale, please,” Aziraphale said, propriety be damned. He would confess later, but in this moment, in the dark, he could be a little bolder. He could pretend to be brave. “I’m afraid I don’t know…”
Like the angel…for the second time that night, Aziraphale faintly wondered if he might swoon. He did not. “A pleasure to meet you. You’ve worked for my family so long, it seems a wonder we were never introduced.”
“It is a wonder,” Raphael returned. Aziraphale caught a flash of glinting teeth, a hint of a smile. “An unfortunate one.” His hand was still on Aziraphale’s arm. He did not remove it. “Would you like me to guide you home?”
“Oh, yes, please,” Aziraphale said, and was glad of the darkness as he blushed. He sounded too eager, he knew, but Raphael made no comment. He simply steered Aziraphale back onto the path, his pace leisurely.
“I’ve seen you at church,” he said casually.
“Really?” Another bit of nonsense. Of course, Raphael would have seen him at church. “I haven’t seen you.”
“Yes, well, I stand in the back, don’t I?” Raphael sounded amused. “You don’t seem entirely happy up there, I’ve noticed.”
Aziraphale sighed. “I do my best. It isn’t always easy.”
“Speaking to people. Inspiring them.”
“I think you’re plenty inspirational.”
“Of course. Listening to you…you might not always look happy, but your voice…”
Aziraphale looked at him, struggling in vain to make out his expression in the darkness. The moon had disappeared again, leaving nothing in its wake. “My voice?” he asked.
The vague outline of a nod. “It’s nice. Good voice for a clergyman to have. When I was young, before we came here, the priest at our old church could put me right to sleep with his droning. But you…I don’t think I could fall asleep listening to you. I hang on to every word. Even the ones I’ve heard before.”
Aziraphale’s blush deepened. “That’s…that’s very gratifying. Thank you.”
They lapsed into silence. Aziraphale tried desperately to think of something to say, but before he could latch onto anything, Raphael stopped. “We’re here.”
“What? Oh…” They had arrived at the edge of the grounds, where a small path in the hedges led onto Aziraphale’s property. Aziraphale turned to Raphael. “I suppose this is where I leave you, then. Thank you. I don’t think I would have made it without you.”
“It was my pleasure,” Raphael said. “I couldn’t leave you alone in the dark. Who would be at church tomorrow if I did?”
“I’m sure-“ Aziraphale began, and then stopped. He blushed under cover of night and smiled reluctantly. “I shall see you there.”
“Probably not,” Raphael said. “But I’ll see you.” There was a rustle as he passed back through the hedges, and then he was gone. Aziraphale stared after him, as if that would help in the darkness, as if this time he would see. His vision remained unchanged. His heart remained fluttering. He knew why, even if he did not permit himself to think it. Aziraphale turned his back on the hedgerows, on the estate that had once been his home, and walked away.
Aziraphale wouldn’t be lying if he said that he did not spend the entirety of his sermon scanning the back of the church for a flash of red hair. He did not. There were portions of it where his gaze was fixed on his notes as well.
He did not see Raphael. He did see Gabriel, seated apart with Belle and the rest of the high-class members of the parish. His brother gave him a significant look, and Aziraphale withheld a sigh. Knowing Gabriel, the ball’s date had already been set, and rumours would already be circulating about the reason. As he left the church, the stares became increasingly obvious, eyes appraising him, as if weighing his personality and unattractive figure against the promise of security and status.
He got the invitation later that day. The penmanship was not Gabriel’s, but it was impressive, and it informed him that he was invited to a ball just under a fortnight away, and that it would be a celebration to remember. It would, at the very least, likely be the event of the season. Not that Aziraphale had much of a frame of reference anymore. In the past several years he had rarely been invited to such festivities, and what ones he was invited to he never attended. It wasn’t that he believed it was inappropriate for a member of the clergy, although he knew some clergymen did. It was simply that Aziraphale’s idea of a good time was a solitary evening with a good book, and perhaps a bit of wine. Even as a younger man, he had been resistant of balls, even (especially) the ones thrown by his family, and had instead locked himself in the library when possible, far from the cacophony of laughter and the claustrophobic mass of bodies.
But this was one event which he would be unable to escape attending. He wondered idly if Gabriel would insist him married before the night was over, or merely engaged. If he was fortunate, he might buy himself a little time by saying there was more than one lady who caught his eye, and that he would have to weigh their merits. Or perhaps him simply showing interest in a woman would be enough to satisfy his brother, who could be assured at that point that Aziraphale would eventually ask her hand in marriage. Aziraphale disliked courtship rituals. He had not seen Gabriel’s courting of Belle, although from his understanding it had been elaborate, and he had been away at university throughout the course of Michael and Uriel’s engagement. But he knew from his mother’s stories of how their father had courted her, from tales of young lovers he read about in his books or saw in his parish. The whole thing seemed overly complicated, and anyway, Aziraphale had trouble even speaking to women outside of a professional capacity.
They weren’t like Raphael, a traitorous part of his mind whispered. He had been easy to speak to, little speaking though there had been.
Aziraphale did not much enjoy Sunday mornings, but he enjoyed the leisure of Sunday afternoons. Very rarely was he called on, and so Sundays were an opportunity to spend time with his books. He even occasionally took his reading out to the small garden around the back of his rectory, so he might read in the sunlight. Aziraphale had never been able to grasp how the flowers bloomed, the hedges kept trim and neat, without his assistance. He might have called it a miracle, but he doubted God put much effort into such minor matters. He had attempted at one point, early on in his tenancy, to see if anyone came in to tend to the garden during the day, and once during the night. The various day watches had proved fruitless, and he had fallen asleep during the night shift and not attempted one again. Aziraphale had put it down to a kindly neighbour and released the matter from his mind.
Today he was in the garden with a poetry book. It ought to have been a prayer book, but Aziraphale didn’t think the Lord would mind. There was a certain reverence with which Aziraphale approached all reading, and he was certain that made it alright.
And anyway, today Aziraphale was not actually reading. Oh, he had the book open on his lap, and every so often he turned a page, but he did not process any of the words that passed before his eyes. Instead, he was listening, hoping that perhaps he might hear Raphael on the other side of the hedge, perhaps laughing or humming while he worked. It was a fanciful notion; Aziraphale had never heard him before while he was in the garden, and indeed usually scurried inside if he felt that any of the groundskeepers of Havensgate or any other persons might be close, so as to discourage any chance of conversation. But after years of watching silently from afar, there was something about the chance encounter in the dark that appealed to the adventurist in Aziraphale’s heart. He had resolved that, were he to see Raphael again, he would not flee. He would be dignified. He would be…brave.
But there was nothing to be heard, just birdsong in the skies above and the occasional passage of a horse on the road in front of the parsonage. Every so often Aziraphale thought he heard strains of conversation of people passing by, but it hushed well before any voices became distinct, and started up again once they were nearly out of earshot. It was a disappointment, to say the least.
It was only when the sun began to dip below the horizon, making reading truly impossible, that Aziraphale gave it up and rose to his feet. He clutched the book to his chest and stared up at the sky, stars just beginning to dot the heavens with their gleaming light. He was about to make for the house when a voice broke the warm evening air. “Giving up so soon?”
Aziraphale whirled around, his heart leaping into his throat. Raphael stood in the gap in the hedgerows, half in shadow still, but a smile visible on his face. He held a trowel in one hand.
“Giving up?” Aziraphale queried, attempting to keep his voice level. He was not altogether successful, so sounding unfortunately cheery to his own ears.
Raphael did not seem to notice; he stepped into the garden, as if he had been invited, the shadows falling from his face like curtains. Aziraphale’s breath caught. Raphael had been beautiful from afar, but up close, even several yards away, he was stunning. His eyes, a golden amber like a harvest field, shone with mirth in the disappearing light. His hair was pulled up and away from his face, exposing cheekbones sculpted no less artfully than Gabriel’s, but by a gentler chisel. His complexion reflected his days under the sun, but he showed no signs of weariness. He gestured to Aziraphale’s chest and folded arms. “Your book,” he said, and Aziraphale remembered that he had asked a question. “It isn’t that dark yet. You could read an hour more.”
Aziraphale hugged the volume a little closer to his body, imaging he could feel the thrumming of his heart against the paper. “Perhaps you could,” he answered, recalling with a thrill a hand on his arm, and the easy way Raphael had guided him through the night, returning him home safely. “My eyes are not quite up for it, I’m afraid.”
Raphael took another step forward. He tapped his spade idly against one thigh, drawing Aziraphale’s eyes to it before Aziraphale forced them back to the other man’s face. “Why are you here?” he heard himself ask.
Raphael lifted an eyebrow and the spade before turning the latter over in his hands and lowering his eyes to the ground, chin tucked. He glanced up at Aziraphale through thick eyelashes. “I saw that your garden could use a bit of work. And since you never seem to do a thing about it…”
“You’re my secret gardener, then?” Aziraphale asked. “I did wonder.”
Raphael shrugged. “It seemed a shame, letting it go to seed.” He paused. “Is that alright? The properties are joined, but it’s true I had no permission to enter.”
“You have permission,” Aziraphale said, too quickly. The speed of his answer, or perhaps the answer itself, made Raphael smile. Aziraphale cleared his throat and tried to look dignified. “I mean,” he said softly, “that I am most grateful for your assistance. I only wish I had known. You have enough work as it is, I’m sure, and I should have liked to compensate you for your efforts.”
“Please don’t,” Raphael told him. “It would ruin it.”
“Ruin it? How so?”
Raphael hesitated, then strode to the bench Aziraphale had previously occupied and sat down, elbows resting on his knees, his hands folded together around the handle of the spade. “This is what I do for pleasure,” he explained. “To insist on…employing me for it, would take the joy away.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“In your brother’s employment, I must concede to his wishes, even when they are unnecessarily taxing or ill advised. This…” Raphael gestured around the garden, “this I may do to my own specifications. You have never complained, to my knowledge, and it allows me a modicum of control that I find myself much in need of.” He glanced sharply at Aziraphale,” I would never speak harshly of my master, of course. Mr. Fell treats us decently, even if he does not acknowledge our advice.”
“My brother does not often understand that others have thoughts of their own,” Aziraphale murmured in agreement. Raphael’s features smoothed, reassured. Aziraphale glanced around them, at the flowerbeds, and said, “So, you do this in addition to your own work?”
“I do. I come here at night, every week or so, to ensure everything is still growing smoothly.”
“But surely you must sleep sometime!”
Raphael’s smile was sharp with amusement, almost hungry in Aziraphale’s eyes, but not in the way Dagon’s so often was. “I sleep,” Raphael said. “But all too often I find myself restless. That’s when I come here and put myself to work. Better to make something beautiful with that energy than to let it go to waste.”
“I see.” Aziraphale hesitated. “Well, you are welcome in my garden. Did you tend it for the previous tenant as well?”
“I did not,” Raphael, although it did not sound like an admission. There was a suggestive quality to it that sent a pleasant shudder through Aziraphale’s body. “I found my…urging to attend to it came only after you took up residency.”
“I see,” Aziraphale said again. “You, ah, enjoy my sermons that much, then? I’m flattered.”
Raphael stood abruptly, spade falling in the dirt by his feet before he crossed the space between them in three long strides, stopping within arm’s reach of Aziraphale. His eyes all but glowed in the light of the setting sun. His head was cocked, his expression edged.
“I have a confession,” he said, so quietly Aziraphale strained to hear him.
“I…I think you ought to save it for the confessional,” Aziraphale stammered. “I…I’m not…” Bravery, he tried to remember, but bravery seemed a long stretch away, and to get to it he would have to reach around Raphael, who was suddenly too close.
“You are a priest,” Raphael said, and his voice pitched even lower. He took another step closer. “You are prepared to take it, are you not?”
“I know how you watch me.” Raphael’s eyes sparkled. “I missed it, when you went away to university. When you prepared to take your orders. I was afraid I might lose it, even when you returned. And yet, here you are, and still you watch.”
Aziraphale’s mouth remained open, but he found he could not fill it with words. Raphael’s smile widened. He stepped forward again, and now he was almost brushing against Aziraphale, so close Aziraphale swore he could hear both their heartbeats. Or perhaps that was simply his own, roaring in his ears. The book was a thin shield between them.
“It’s alright,” Raphael murmured. “I don’t mind that you watch me. I enjoy it. I relish it, even, crave your eyes on my body, on my face.” He lifted a hand, as if to touch, to stroke Aziraphale’s cheek, and Aziraphale suddenly found it in himself to move, darting back and out of reach.
“I can’t,” he said, trying to sound firm but coming out desperate. He backed away farther. “What you’re insinuating, I can’t. It isn’t right.”
“Isn’t it?” Raphael purred. “You would not have looked so often if you didn’t want it just as much as I do.” He advanced again, and again Aziraphale retreated, his back hitting the stone of his house. He pressed against it, his shoulders back as far as they would go, flat against the cold surface. Raphael paused, and for the first time doubt crossed his fine features.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said softly. “I’m a man of the church. I mustn’t.”
Raphael’s face fell, like a vase shattering against a cold stone floor. “Oh.” He stepped back again, and Aziraphale allowed himself to relax.
“I shan’t say anything of you,” he reassured him quietly. “I don’t…I don’t personally see anything wrong with it, for others. It’s my position, my family, you understand? It wouldn’t look…it wouldn’t be proper. For me.”
“And anyway, it couldn’t last. Gabriel expects me to marry soon, and if I don’t-“
Raphael’s head shot up. “You’re to marry? Who?”
“I, er, don’t know yet,” Aziraphale admitted. “You’ve heard my brother is throwing a ball, surely? He intends to find a bride for me there, and Heaven help me if I can’t find a woman I like well enough to marry.”
“You don’t like women, then? Just…”
Aziraphale shrugged helplessly. It was something he had never spoken of, had tried desperately never to consider. “I could tolerate a woman as a companion, I believe. The right woman. If I could grow to love one, I am…less sure of. But I must choose a companion, at the very least. Or everything I’ve worked for will be taken from me. I shall have nothing.”
“I understand,” Raphael said. His features had softened, losing the predatory look and taking on something milder. “There are worse things, I should think, than taking a wife.”
“Of course,” Aziraphale said, although his heart wasn’t in it. “If Mrs. Device were unmarried, I might have asked her. I doubt I am the sort of man she could love, or even feel any sort of romantic notion for, but we like many of the same things, and I admire her passion and her independence.”
“Careful,” Raphael teased. “What would the church say if they heard you speak thus about the village witch?”
“She is hardly a witch,” Aziraphale said. “That is archaic thinking. She is simply…free-spirited. And it’s a foolish notion, anyway. She is married, and to a man who thinks very highly of her.”
“Mr. Pulsifer,” Raphael acknowledged, with half a smirk. “A strange man, that one. His head always in the clouds.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being a bit of a dreamer.” Aziraphale would admit that much of what came out of Newton Pulsifer’s mouth perplexed him, but he was a kind-hearted young man, and he doted on his wife. After a moment and a glance up at the sky, darkening rapidly as nightfall descended, Aziraphale murmured, “I should go in. It’s getting late.”
“Right.” Raphael walked back, and picked up his spade. He glanced towards the gap in the hedges, then back to Aziraphale.
Aziraphale caught his meaning at once, and rushed to reassure him, “You’re still welcome here. My garden is yours to tend, as often as you should like.”
“Even though I’ve caused you discomfort?”
Aziraphale shook his head. “Your…advances were not unwarranted. In another lifetime, perhaps, I should have even welcomed them. No one is at fault, and I will apportion no blame.”
A slow smile spread across Raphael’s lips. “You’re very kind, Mr. Fell.”
“Aziraphale, please.” Aziraphale returned his smile with a shy one of his own. “Given the circumstances, I think we can be on a first-name basis, don’t you?”
Raphael’s grin widened, and he inclined his head slightly. “Very well…Aziraphale.”
When Aziraphale ascended the stairs to his bedroom, he paused by the window before retiring. Beneath it, just barely visible in the dim moonlight, he could make out the figure crouching amongst his flowerbeds. A moment later, the shape lifted its head, and raised a hand to Aziraphale. Aziraphale waved back, his cheeks colouring, and regretfully stepped away from the window. He undressed, then retired to bed, staring at the ceiling long after he laid down. Raphael’s advances were unexpected – not unwanted, but impossible to accept. Aziraphale could not be seen consorting with a man. He certainly could not marry one. If he was very lucky, and his wife the very open-minded sort, he might one day be able to reciprocate Raphael’s interest. One day.
For the time being, Aziraphale turned over onto his side, and attempted to find sleep. When it came, his dreams were kissed by golden eyes and honeyed lips, and although his rest was peaceful, he woke up feeling restless.
Aziraphale turned, prayer book in hand, and regarded the young woman who saw fit to run in his church. He fought to suppress a smile. He could not help it; Mrs. Anathema Device was a young lady best described as brilliant, with a sharp wit and a wild nature that Aziraphale greatly admired. Apparently, she was most disliked by the other members of the clergy, and the man who had previously occupied Aziraphale’s position had been quite fed up with her in the few years she’d lived in the village. Her sins, in the eyes of the church on the whole, included gallivanting about, questioning authority, and an improper insistence on being referred to by her maiden name, as opposed to being called Mrs. Pulsifer. She was a devout believer, although she drew her conclusions more from her interpretation of the holy book than from the men who preached from it, which Aziraphale could not find fault with. More interesting was that she seemed to, if not actually like him, have an amiable respect for him that made conversing with her quite enjoyable. He felt a pleasant, almost familial affection for her, perhaps akin to an uncle or elder cousin of sorts, and as he had told Raphael the previous evening, while he would never have contemplated marrying her for love, a marriage of friendship and respect, where she kept to her own devices and he to his, would have been most agreeable to him.
Behind her trailed her husband. Although his wife always appeared put-together, dressed neatly in smart colours, often dyed scandalous purple or blue, and with hardly a hair out of place, Mr. Pulsifer seemed run-down by comparison. It wasn’t that he was slovenly, just a bit unkempt, blinking at the world from bespectacled eyes. He worked for a local merchant, a Mr. Shadwell, who paid him next to nothing for his admittedly somewhat clumsy efforts, but it mattered little if Pulsifer brought home money at all. He was hardly from a poor family, and Aziraphale was aware that his parents had doted on him – his mother in particular - but Pulsifer had the good fortune of marrying not only for love, but marrying up. The Device family was extensive and well-known, nearly rivalling the Fells. It was why Mrs. Device insisted upon retaining her last name.
Aziraphale nodded at them both. “Mrs. Device. Mr. Pulsifer. What can I do for you today?”
“Is it true that your brother is hosting a ball?” It was phrased as a question, but Mrs. Device had a precocious habit of sounding like she already knew the answer to any question she posed.
“It is,” Aziraphale told her. “But you know I’m not one for gossip, my dear, so if that is what you’re after, I’m afraid I have other business to attend to.”
“Of course not, Mr. Fell,” Mrs. Device assured him. “I was merely curious if you would be in attendance. You’ve spoken to me extensively of the library, and I was hoping you might allow me to tour it.”
Aziraphale smiled, gratified. “I would be delighted.”
“So, you’ll be in attendance, then?”
Mrs. Device nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer. Then she turned to her husband and exchanged with Pulsifer a look that Aziraphale found himself unable to read before she returned her attention to him. “As parson here, I thought it only fit to inform you that we will be gaining a new parishioner, at least for a time, perhaps permanently.”
“My cousin,” she explained. “A distant relative. She is coming to stay with my husband and me. Her parents are dead, and as she is unmarried my family agreed that it would only be proper for my husband and I to offer her shelter, until she can find work or a husband. She arrives tomorrow evening, by carriage.”
“I see.” Aziraphale would have to make a note of it. “She will be coming to the church, then?”
“She is somewhat…odd,” Mrs. Device said. She glanced at her husband again. Pulsifer was not paying much attention, instead glancing around the church, apparently quite interested in something on the ceiling. She turned back. “She does not leave the house often, you understand. But she promises to attend on Sundays as often as she feels well enough to. She frequently takes ill, you see.”
“I understand,” Aziraphale said graciously. “I do hope the country improves her health, and I look forward to meeting her. Might I inquire the young woman’s name? For record purposes, of course.”
“Crowley,” Mrs. Device said with a smile. “Miss Antonia Crowley.”
“Very good.” Aziraphale committed the name to memory. “She will be quite welcome in our parish, and I look forward to meeting her.” He hoped she was like Mrs. Device. The parish could use a few more strong-willed women. Although, if Miss Crowley took ill often, that would greatly increase the number of house calls he was expected to make, and he could not say he was looking forward to that, no matter how polite he was aloud.
Mrs. Device took her husband’s arm, and Mr. Pulsifer’s attention snapped back to her, a besotted warmth blooming on his face. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Fell,” Mrs. Device said, inclining her head. “It is most appreciated.”
“Of course,” Aziraphale returned. “I always have time for you, Mrs. Device. And all my other parishioners, should they have need of me.” He watched them leave, and tapped the prayer book gently against his thigh. Miss Crowley’s arrival was, if nothing else, well timed. Perhaps a newcomer to the village would provide a bit of gossip, and turn the prying eyes away from himself. His condolences went out to the woman, should that be the case, but he could not deny a feeling of relief at the thought. It was damped quickly, however. A Device woman, even one who did not share the family name, would undoubtedly be the sort of match Gabriel would eagerly encourage him to make. He hoped, for both their sakes, that she was a tolerable woman to be around. He dared not hope for more.
He spent the afternoon in town, doing his shopping. He did not have a housekeeper, nor a cook to prepare his meals, but that was alright by Aziraphale. He had no special talent for the culinary arts, but he was capable of providing edible meals for himself and keeping his house in working order. In Shadwell’s shop, the short but thunderous man followed him with a suspicious eye, while his wife – plump and pleasant – clucked and cooed to him about nothing at all. They were an unusual match, but Aziraphale had long since learned that Mrs. Shadwell was one of a scant few who could calm her husband’s acidic tendencies. The man seemed determined to hate the world, with the exception only of his wife and, grudgingly, his young clerk Pulsifer. He appeared less enamoured with Mrs. Device, and had, on Aziraphale’s first week as the parish’s lead clergyman, spoken to him at length about his suspicion of Mrs. Device’s witchcraft and her plotting against the church. “You keep an eye out for that woman,” he’d said. “Or she’ll be trouble. Cursing the weather and blighting crops.” Aziraphale had promised he’d look into it. Shadwell was the sort of man who still believed the church ought to be burning witches. Aziraphale found the whole affair somewhere between uncomfortable and awkwardly endearing. It helped, he reflected, that Shadwell, like Mr. Young, was not the most unpleasant individual in the parish.
As it neared evening, Aziraphale found his way home, laden with bundles. He cooked a small supper for himself before retiring, although not before a surreptitious glance out the window, on the off chance there was a visitor in his garden. Disappointingly, but not unexpectedly, there was no one to be found.
Mrs. Device might have managed to keep her cousin’s arrival to herself prior to telling Aziraphale, but somehow the next day the parish was buzzing with it. People did not bother to lower their voices passing Aziraphale’s cottage, men and women young and old speculating wildly on what Miss Crowley would be like. Optimistic young men who appreciated Mrs. Device’s beauty hoped her cousin shared her looks, while unwed women hoped she’d be hideous and unappealing. Old married women clucked that it wasn’t right, a young woman travelling alone, and their husbands agreed. Mr. Tyler, Aziraphale’s least favourite parishioner – excluding Gabriel and his household – announced loudly to anyone who would listen that another Device woman was trouble, and they would be wise to scorn her, to turn her away from their attentions and, with any luck, their village. Aziraphale made a note for his Sunday sermon to particularly emphasize loving thy neighbour.
He did not, as he knew many of his parishioners were doing, find an excuse to linger near Jasmine Park, the Pulsifer-Device household. Those who could not make an excuse lingered out of doors anyway, hoping to catch a glimpse of the carriage as it came past. Aziraphale did not do this either. However, he was seated by a window, coincidentally, as his armchair had already been positioned by it for optimal reading light, and as the sound of hoof-beats approached, he did deign to look up.
Through the window, he could clearly see the carriage, large and black, ornately decorated, and with an armed driver doubling as a guard. It was, no doubt, personally owned by the Device family, and drawn by four proud horses, likely thoroughbreds, with glossy manes and shining coats. The windows of the carriage were covered, gauzy curtains obscuring the interior. Aziraphale could just barely make out a shape behind them, and the silhouette undoubtedly would belong to the Miss Antonia Crowley that everyone was so eager to see. The carriage passed beyond Aziraphale’s line of sight, and few children chased it down the road, whooping excitedly. Aziraphale put it from his mind with a faint smile, and returned to his book.
The stir of a new arrival had affected the whole parish. People seemed disinclined to disappear inside with the setting of the sun, instead choosing to light lanterns and candles, remaining out several hours later than usual. Aziraphale caught snippets of conversation as people made their way back to their houses, snatches of dialogue about the mysterious Miss Crowley. She was too hideous to gaze upon. She was too beautiful to look at directly. She was a proper lady. She was a scourge upon their village. Nothing was conclusive, mere speculation and guesswork from a few glimpses of her. The only conclusion Aziraphale was able to draw, he reflected, was that gossip was no worthwhile pastime.
It was the following day that he met the source of the rumours. He went, as dictated by manners, to call upon Jasmine Park, although he went early in the morning, greeting the new arrival almost with the sun. It was practicality, he convinced himself. The sooner he was done with it, the better. And, although he was loathe to admit it, a tiny part of him was curious.
The door was answered, not by the staff, but by Mrs. Device herself; Aziraphale knew she rose early naturally, as he had seen her afield more than once, examining the landscape. She preferred to oversee the tending of her estate herself, citing the ‘feeling’ of the land as being vital to its growth. Aziraphale took her word for it. She did not appear surprised to see him, although Mrs. Device rarely appeared surprised at all. She smiled kindly. “Mr. Fell. How good of you to visit.”
He inclined his head, removing his hat and holding it in front of him. He worried at the brim with his fingers for a moment before he forced them to still. “I would be remiss in my duties if I did not greet our newest parishioner personally. Is the young lady up?” He glanced hesitantly towards the stairs.
“She is,” Mrs. Device confirmed. “But if you’d be so kind as to wait in the parlour, it may take a few minutes to bring her down. Her condition is delicate, you may recall, and we must prepare her for company.”
“If she is too ill, I can come back another time.”
“No!” Mrs. Device said, a touch too quickly. Aziraphale frowned. She shook her head. “Miss Crowley will be happy to meet you. It will only be a few moments, I assure you.”
“Then I shall wait.”
She led him to the parlour, and he took a seat. Then she bustled from the room, leaving him to look about it, admiring the many bookshelves that lined the walls. He recognized several editions that he himself possessed, and many he did not have in his personal collection, but with which he was familiar. He did not recognize most of the contraptions littering the shelves, nor the diagrams spread haphazardly across a far table, but those he assumed to be the possessions of Mr. Pulsifer.
It was some time later – perhaps ten minutes or so – that Aziraphale heard footsteps descending the stairs. He turned, and when the parlour door opened, he stood, hat pressed against his heart. Mrs. Device entered first, leading by the arm a tall young woman with soot-black hair. Aziraphale at once understood the conflicting rumours about her attractiveness: like Belle, Miss Crowley’s face was concealed behind a veil, although hers was considerably thicker and far less gauzy than Belle’s usually were. Aziraphale spared half a thought to wonder how she could see through it.
“This is Miss Crowley, my cousin,” Mrs. Device introduced her.
“Parson Fell, at your service,” Aziraphale returned, giving her a short bow. Mrs. Device escorted her cousin to the sofa opposite Aziraphale, and as they sat, so did he.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Miss Crowley’s voice was soft, pitched slightly higher than Aziraphale had expected, in so much as he had expected anything of her. “I have heard a great deal about you, Mr. Fell.”
“Good things, I should hope.”
“My cousin and her husband both speak very fondly of you.” Miss Crowley inclined her head. From her tone, Aziraphale could envision lips curving up into a smile. “Won’t you say you’ve heard much of me?”
Aziraphale flushed. “To say so would be somewhat fallacious. Mrs. Device only informed me of your arrival two days since, and what little I have heard since then has been unsubstantiated. But your cousin does speak of you with fondness as well. I am sure you will be a welcome addition to our parish.”
“It is kind of you to say so.” Miss Crowley shifted, crossing one leg over the other beneath her dress, which was heavy and black, obscuring the shape of her body, but adorned with golden thread and buttons. It was, no doubt, very expensive, whether the gold was real or not. “I wish to apologize in advance for the days I will be out of church. I mean to attend services as often as I am able.”
“Yes, Mrs. Device informed me of your ill health.” Aziraphale gave a sympathetic smile. “Do not cause yourself undue stress. God will forgive the lapse, as will I.”
“Very kind,” Miss Crowley said again, the smile still in her words. Her voice had grown a little stronger, as if finding its footing. She turned to her cousin. “Could you perhaps give us a moment alone? There is something I wish to discuss with the parson privately.”
Mrs. Device nodded and rose easily, but Aziraphale stiffened, looking between the women with wide eyes. It was not entirely propitious for him to speak to Miss Crowley alone, outside the church, and certainly not on their first acquaintance. Clearly seeing his distress for what it was, Miss Crowley assured him, “I do not intend to be untoward, Mr. Fell. It is simply a matter which I intend to keep between myself and the Lord. And you, of course, as priest. Therefore, I would feel more comfortable without my cousin in the room. If this concerns you, I will wait to speak of it in church.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Aziraphale said, although he was not entirely convinced. He rose again as Mrs. Device left the room, and was then surprised to find that Miss Crowley had risen too, circling the table between them to stand beside him, a little over a foot away. They both sat down as one, occupying either side of the same sofa. When Miss Crowley spoke, her voice was lowered slightly, both in volume and pitch.
“Mr. Fell, I’m sure you’ve heard many rumours about what type of woman I am.”
“I have heard speculation. I assure you, I don’t put any stock in it.”
“And I thank you for it. However, as my priest, I feel it my duty to inform you that I am not a woman the church will likely approve of.”
Aziraphale squeaked, but managed to hide it with a cough. “That’s quite alright. Mrs. Device does not seem highly approved of either, but I consider her a pillar of the community.”
“Yes, but Mrs. Device is a devout woman.” There was something akin to trepidation in Miss Crowley’s voice, but it was tinged with coyness, as if she was neither as reluctant nor honest as her tone implied. “I’m afraid, on my part, the instances of missing church are merely the beginning.”
“As I said—" Aziraphale swallowed hard, abruptly aware of how little space there was on the sofa between them, “—missing church is excusable if you are too ill to leave the house.”
Miss Crowley slid towards him an inch, and for the second time that week Aziraphale realized he was being advanced upon. “But, as I said, it is beyond that. I have…thoughts…commit actions…which the church considers unbecoming.”
“I wish to be a good woman, to do honour to my family. I do not seek to embarrass my cousin or her husband while I stay here. That is why I wished to speak with you, Mr. Fell. You’re a good man, a devout man. Surely, if any man of the cloth could curb my unrighteous behaviour, it is you.”
Miss Crowley set her hand down between them. So little room was there that her gloved little finger nearly brushed Aziraphale’s thigh. He jumped, standing hastily, and snatched his hat up again, pressing it over his heart as if to contain its wild beating. He coughed. “I’m, ah, afraid have another engagement. I recognize your concern, and I approve wholeheartedly of your intention to recommit yourself to God and his favour. I recommend weekly confession, to start, on whatever day you feel able to come to the church. If in a few months or so your…urges…have not subsided, we shall speak further on how to resolve the matter.”
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Fell.” Miss Crowley stood as well, and although she remained all in black, Aziraphale could swear she had brightened. There was a touch of amusement in her voice. “It is such a relief to hear you say that. I shall endeavour to go as soon as I am able.”
“Very good.” He gave a short bow. “Give my regards to your cousin and her husband for me, and I shall see myself out. Good day, Miss Crowley.”
“Good day, Mr. Fell.”
Aziraphale made his retreat, measuring his pace just enough so as not to appear inappropriately eager to leave. He did not want to cause offense. Still, his nerves did not settle until he closed the gate behind him again, and left Jasmine Park behind.
So perhaps the rumours about Miss Crowley had not been entirely unfounded. Aziraphale supposed this might be an instance of being careful what one wished for. He had hoped Miss Crowley would be spirited, less inhibited like her cousin Mrs. Device was. Miss Crowley was certainly spirited, if nothing else, and certainly uninhibited. Aziraphale simple hoped such spirit would take on slightly less promiscuous overtones in the future, at least when directed at him.
And indecent behaviour aside, she seemed a pleasant enough woman. Aziraphale preferred to be optimistic, when possible, and if Miss Crowley really was eager for the church’s instruction, perhaps over the course of her stay she would settle slightly, and become an entirely agreeable young woman.
But the sun was rising in the sky, and excuses aside Aziraphale really did have other duties to attend to, so for the time being he put Miss Crowley from his mind.
The sky was darkening by the time he returned home, and Aziraphale found he had a visitor. His heart swelled unexpectedly as he caught sight of flaming curls, and he circled around the back of the parsonage, where Raphael sat on the ground. He had his spade buried to the hilt in a flowerbed, but rather than paying attention to it he appeared more interested in watching Aziraphale’s approach, as if he’d been eagerly anticipating it.
“Raphael,” Aziraphale greeted him warmly. “I did not expect you back so soon.”
“Yes, well,” Raphael’s smile was slow and sly, almost snake-like in its qualities, “even the Fell estate isn’t immune to rumours. There’s been a good deal of buzz amongst the staff.”
“Oh? What about?”
“What else? The lovely Mrs. Device’s cousin, of course. I assume, as parson, you’ve called on the household already?”
Aziraphale stiffened, trying to hide his disappointment. He hadn’t expected Raphael to take an interest in the new woman. Aziraphale took a seat on one of the garden benches, folding his hands primly in his lap. “If you’ve come here for idle gossip, I regret to inform you that I don’t partake in such matters. If you’re seeking information regarding Miss Crowley, you shall have to procure an introduction to her yourself.”
Raphael raised his hands in surrender. “There’s no need for such icy words, Mr. Fell. I have no intention of wooing this Miss Crowley. After all, why pursue a crow when I might have an angel?”
Aziraphale turned scarlet. The words were brazen, with little room for respectable interpretation. And it was true that he, like Raphael, had been named for an angel. “Well, I wouldn’t say…” he started, and then stopped again. He straightened, and smoothed down his lapels. “I did not say I thought you were interested in wooing her.”
“No, but you implied it.” Raphael sat back in the dirt, stretching his legs out before him. “Jealous is not unbecoming on you, Mr. Fell.”
“Aziraphale, Raphael, please.”
Raphael chuckled. “Of course, Aziraphale.” He toyed idly with the stem of a flower, running his fingers from head to root. “The truth is, I wondered if I had cause to be jealous. After all, you told me you’re seeking a wife, and perhaps a newcomer to the parish is precisely what you needed.”
“I’m not seeking a wife.” Aziraphale sighed. “I’m simply…expected to acquire one.”
Raphael snorted. “There is little difference, in my experience.”
“Oh? And you have much experience, do you?”
“That jealousy again,” Raphael teased. “I find I like it more and more.”
“I’m not jealous!” Aziraphale protested. He could not have Raphael, this he knew. It would not have been appropriate to ask him to wait for a time when that might change, and therefore Aziraphale had no right to dictate with whom he spent his time. He hesitated. “But have you? Experience, I mean. I’m sure I could do with the advice.”
“I have not, I’m afraid.” Raphael sat back, bracing himself on strong arms. He gave Aziraphale a significant look. “There’s only one person I’ve ever sought to woo, and that encounter did not turn out entirely to my satisfaction.”
“You mean to say…” Aziraphale boggled. “That is…”
“I know how you feel about the seduction of a man. Don’t worry, I don’t intend to try it again.”
Part of Aziraphale, nonsensically, felt disappointment at this. He pushed it away. “It’s not that I don’t wish to,” he began, clumsily.
Raphael shook his head, a small smile gracing his lips. “I understand. Your family, you said. And the church.” He pulled his legs in and rested his elbows on them, propping up his chin with his fists. He had dirt in his hair, a faraway part of Aziraphale realized fondly. “So,” he said. “Tell me about Miss Crowley. Is she the sort of woman who might tempt you?”
Aziraphale balked. But…but surely this wouldn’t count as gossip. He was speaking to someone he was fond of, seeking counsel about a difficult situation. He relaxed slightly and considered. “She is…agreeable in some ways.”
“I do not wish to sound unkind.”
“It’s just us, angel,” Raphael soothed, and Aziraphale’s heart skipped a beat. “No one else will hear a word of it.”
Aziraphale’s resolve crumbled. “She appears very loose.”
Raphael blinked. “Loose?”
“We have only met the once, of course, but I believe I am not mistaken in thinking she was attempting to…seduce me.” Aziraphale blushed and squirmed. “I understand, of course, that behind closed doors, relations may not be as…propitious as the church or society would like to believe, and to each their own, I suppose, but I…I find myself reluctant to engage with that sort of behaviour.”
“So, it wasn’t just me, then? Because I’m a man?”
Aziraphale melted. “No, my dear. If I had been inclined to accept any such advances, it would have been yours.” He forced himself to turn his head away, lest he fall into staring. “Miss Crowley is a pleasant enough woman, and she wishes to induce herself to behave more appropriately in society, but if she intends to continue pursuing me in such a manner, I find myself uneasy at the thought of remaining long in her company. I don’t think I could fall for such a woman. I would have to seek out a companion elsewhere, and I have the misfortune of very few tolerable options.” He sighed. “I doubt my brother will take pity on my limited choices. He does not seem inclined to consider allowing me a match for love, or at least some sort of affection.”
Raphael cocked his head. “And if Miss Crowley’s behaviour changes? Do you believe you could fall for her then?”
“I do not feel for her as I feel for you.”
A softness bloomed in Raphael’s eyes. “That is not what I asked.”
Aziraphale leaned back, tilting his head up to observe the waking stars. “I believe…there would be hope.”
“Believe in hope, then,” Raphael said. Aziraphale looked to him again, and Raphael was smiling. “Perhaps she was just overeager. You are a difficult man to resist.”
“You flatter me.”
“Only so much as the truth is flattering.”
Aziraphale was getting used to his cheeks being in a permanent state of flush. He found himself minding it less and less. “Raphael, I-“
“Shh.” Raphael got to his knees, resting his hands on Aziraphale’s thighs, low and light enough to still be soothing rather than seductive. “I told you I understood your resistance, and I meant it. Don’t trouble yourself.”
Aziraphale reached down, and then hesitated. He withdrew, lacing his fingers together against the urge to touch back, to cup that perfect cheek in his hand and stroke the skin with his thumb. “You don’t intend to stop your attentions, do you?”
“I do not, although I’ll endeavour to keep them chaste, even platonic. Is that alright?”
“You could find happiness elsewhere,” Aziraphale told him, although the mere thought tore at his breast. “Another man or woman, and one who wasn’t about to be promised to somebody else.”
“I could,” Raphael allowed. “But I’d like to search for that happiness with you, if you’ll permit it. Even if it means waiting for a marriage to someone who isn’t me.”
“You hardly know me. I’m not worth that.”
“On the contrary.” Raphael gave Aziraphale’s thighs a squeeze. “You’re worth so much more.”
Aziraphale wanted to refute it, but his throat refused to open. They sat in silence for a moment. “I should really go inside,” Aziraphale murmured at last. “It’s getting late.”
“Stay awhile longer. Just a few minutes more.”
“A few minutes,” Aziraphale agreed. He stared breathlessly down at Raphael’s face, barely outlined in the scant moonlight. The new moon was just days away from gracing the sky, and Aziraphale found himself strangely displeased with it, displeased that one of God’s creations would seek to hide from his view that which was so beautiful to behold. He would stay a few minutes, then, and look while he could.
Friday morning found Aziraphale awake at the church earlier than he’d intended. Council meetings usually took place later in the day, with local magistrates and church and town officials gathering together to discuss important business: events and crime and the like. Aziraphale found the meetings dull, and was glad that in this particular parish, at least, the duty of leading such meetings, which likely should have gone to him, instead were assumed largely by his brother, who had taken over as head magistrate after returning from abroad five years since. Such monthly meetings were generally the only time Aziraphale saw his brother, and they rarely spoke directly to each other even in the meetings. Aziraphale couldn’t help but miss those days. The meetings were not usually so early, but Gabriel had called them all to push it forward, stating he had business later in the day that could not afford to be rescheduled. The meeting had been moved accordingly and without question. Aziraphale should have liked to question it, but had no grounds, and Gabriel would surely have dismissed him at best, or taken offense at worst. As Aziraphale wanted to incur neither outcome, he said nothing.
He’d received another letter from Gabriel the day before, supposedly requesting confirmation that he would be attending the approaching ball, and would he care to visit on Saturday again, to discuss arrangements?
Aziraphale was seated in a pew near the front of the church, turning the letter over in his hands and debating whether a reply was necessary, when he heard the door open behind him. He did not turn at once, but waited until the footsteps approached him, and then slowed. He folded the letter so the person might not read it over his shoulder, and looked up.
“Parson Fell,” Miss Crowley said softly. She was still clad in black, veil falling thickly over her features.
Aziraphale’s throat thickened. He smiled warily. “Miss Crowley. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I thought I’d get the lay of the town, since I’ll be spending quite some time here.”
“Anathema…Mrs. Device rises early as well. It is a habit in our family.” She glanced at the pew where Aziraphale was seated. “I thought I might visit the church. I hoped you’d be in.”
Reassured slightly – although not entirely – by her demure voice, Aziraphale set the letter on his stack of meeting notes and slid the whole pile a foot away, then followed it, indicating Miss Crowley might sit on the bench beside him. She did so, and folded her hands in her lap. She looked at him. “I wished to apologize for the other day. I can’t imagine what you must think of me.”
Aziraphale looked at her in surprise. “You wish to apologize?”
Her head dipped. “I am…that is to say, I was not lying, when I said the church would not approve of me. And I do believe there is something to be gained for me from private confession. But I would hate for you to think I was as wild as my actions implied.”
“Oh! Oh, well-“
“It’s just that my cousin has spoken so well of you, and when I found myself in your presence at last, I was quite overcome. I did not mean to be so forward.”
“I see.” Aziraphale relaxed fully. Raphael, it seemed, was right. He smiled kindly. “Your apology is accepted wholeheartedly, although I must confess, I see little about myself that might overwhelm a woman from society such as yours.”
“I would say you were too modest, Mr. Fell, but then I should expect little else from a priest.” Miss Crowley’s voice filled with warmth. “Is it true you are to be married soon? Or are those rumours pure speculation as well?”
“It is undecided as of this moment,” Aziraphale said.
“Then will you be attending the ball at Havensgate the Saturday after next?”
“Might I ask that you save two dances for me? I am sure there will be a queue, so I should like to put my bid in early. I would like to continue to make up to you for my poor behaviour on our first meeting.”
“I assure you, no further apology is necessary,” Aziraphale said, but there was something blossoming in his chest that he found strange. He had hoped, upon hearing of Miss Crowley’s arrival, that she might be someone he wished to spend time with. He had hardly dared to consider that she might be interested in spending time with him. It was not yet romance, nor friendship, but it was more than he had anticipated. “Queue or no, you shall have whichever two dances you wish. You have my word.”
“I thank you for your generosity, and for your time.”
“A time which in this instance, I’m afraid, I shall have to draw to a close. I have somewhere to be, and it would not do to be late.” It was nearly time for the council meeting, and although he felt bad claiming other responsibilities a second time to end their conversation, in this case it was fully true, and could not be helped. He stood, and Miss Crowley did too, edging out of the pew and watching as he gathered up his papers. When he had them tucked securely in a pile beneath one arm, he turned to her and gestured with the other. “Shall I escort you out? Or did you have other business here?”
“Not today.” Miss Crowley followed him out of the church, their steps falling in together as they clicked against the stone. On the threshold, she said, “I look forward to hearing you preach this Sunday. I’ve been told you’re quite good.”
Aziraphale gave her a gratified smile. “So have I, although I personally find my abilities average at best. I do hope you come, although do not harm yourself if you find it too difficult to make it.”
“Your concern is noble.”
They parted ways outside the church, and Aziraphale made for the meeting hall. He was not late, as he had feared, as he saw other members of the council were still trailing in. To his private satisfaction, each looked as irritated at the time change as he himself felt.
Gabriel was already seated at the head of the table when Aziraphale took his seat. His brother usually spared little more than a glance for him, but not today. Today he smiled, and Aziraphale returned it uneasily, holding his gaze for only a few seconds before looking down at his stack of notes, and feeling Gabriel’s eyes remain on him.
“I see you got my letter,” Gabriel said. “Can I expect a positive reply?”
Aziraphale shuffled it automatically to the bottom of the pile. “Yes, of course. I shall see you tomorrow. For supper?”
“Come earlier, if you can. We have so much to discuss.”
Aziraphale squashed down a sigh. “Earlier?”
Gabriel shrugged, although the gesture was anything but nonchalant. “Does, say, three sound acceptable?”
It didn’t, but then no time would have. “Three will be fine,” Aziraphale said, and flicked absently at his notes. A clap on his shoulder startled him, and his head shot up, eyes wide as he stared at Gabriel, who was grinning at him.
“We’ll have fun,” his brother said, squeezing Aziraphale’s shoulder so hard it hurt. “And next Saturday-“ He cut himself off, and Aziraphale realized the table was full. “Hold that thought,” Gabriel told him, and let go. Aziraphale heaved a sigh of relief as Gabriel stood. “Welcome, gentlemen. Let’s get down to business, shall we?”
Gabriel launched into a discussion of irrigation, as it pertained to the end-of-summer harvest, and Aziraphale sat back in his chair. He did not quite tune his brother out - to do so would not have befit his role in village affairs - but he was not entirely listening either. He gave input where he was asked, and when Miss Crowley came up, he dutifully reported that she appeared just as upstanding as the rest of the Device family, that she had already shown a great deal of interest in the church despite her illness, and that he believed she would be a respectable addition to their parish. Mr. Tyler, seated opposite him, snorted loudly, but before he could launch into a tirade Gabriel was already moving on, and the subject was closed.
When the meeting adjourned, Aziraphale gathered up his papers and made to leave, but his brother’s hand, once again gripping his shoulder in a vise, prevented him from moving. “Just a minute, Aziraphale,” Gabriel said jovially. “I want to speak with you.”
Aziraphale wanted to point out that Gabriel would be able to speak with him as much as he liked tomorrow, but he held his tongue and turned back. As the last of the council members trickled out, Gabriel released Aziraphale and folded his arms behind his back. “Are you looking forward to the ball?”
“I…expect it will be interesting.”
“Ha!” Gabriel barked a laugh. “Interesting. It’ll be magnificent. Belle has been in just a frenzy over it this past week.”
Aziraphale couldn’t picture Belle in a frenzy over anything. “I’m sure.”
“We’ve invited most of the village, of course. All the women of marrying age. Well, most of them, anyway.” Gabriel grinned. “No sense inviting the pretty ones, right?” Aziraphale stiffened, but Gabriel didn’t seem to notice, barrelling on. “I’m just kidding. Anyway, had to ask. This Miss Crowley. Mrs. Pulsifer’s cousin. Thoughts?”
Aziraphale blinked. “Thoughts?”
“On inviting her,” Gabriel prompted. “Of course, we have to, it’d look rude if we didn’t, and the rest of her family. But you’ve met her. Shall we extend a personal invitation, or simply let the Pulsifers know she’s more than welcome to tag along?”
Aziraphale frowned. “Invite her, of course. We wouldn’t want to offend the family, and Mrs. Device-“
Gabriel waved him off. “Of course, of course. What I meant was, do you think she’s worth a personal invitation?”
Gabriel’s meaning slammed into Aziraphale and nearly sent him reeling. For his brother, the suggestion was remarkably subtle. He considered the best reply, and slowly said, “Miss Crowley is…likely to be a very remarkable woman. However, as I do not truly know her yet-“
“Say no more.” Another slap on the back, this one hard enough that Aziraphale coughed as the air was punched out of him. Gabriel gave him a look that would not have been decent in polite company. “I’ll make sure she gets her invitation. Personally.”
“Oh, I…I didn’t mean-“
“After all, we don’t want to appear rude.” Gabriel gave him one last, thankfully much softer, strike across his shoulders, and strode from the room without a farewell. Aziraphale stared after him and easily – if slightly reluctantly – suppressed the urge to swear. The panic that rose in him was less easy to manage. Perhaps calling Miss Crowley very remarkable had been a mistake. Gabriel clearly had his intentions all wrong, and if Aziraphale knew his brother, he was as apt to make things worse, rather than better.
He followed his brother out of the hall and made for Mr. Shadwell’s store. The bell rang overhead when he entered, and Mr. Pulsifer’s head popped up from behind a display. “Mr. Fell! A pleasure. What can I help you with?” As always, his voice was a bit overeager, if admittedly very friendly.
Aziraphale approached the counter, leaning over it and lowering his voice. He winced at the clandestine nature of his manners, but it couldn’t be helped. The store was occupied by several patrons, and he didn’t want to be overheard. Already he could feel eyes on his back. Mr. Pulsifer got the nature of his gesture and leaned in as well. “I wanted to inform you,” Aziraphale began, and then stopped. He started again, “You are aware my brother is throwing a ball Saturday next, yes?” It had been mentioned before when he’d been in Pulsifer’s company, of course, but Aziraphale worried on occasion that the man was as dim and scatter-brained as he often appeared.
Mr. Pulsifer bobbed his head eagerly. “My wife and I got the invitation, you remember. You’re to show her the library? She’s ecstatic over it, mark my words.”
Aziraphale smiled. Not so dim, then. He lowered his voice further. “I thought it should be mentioned that my brother intends to deliver personally a separate invitation to Miss Crowley. Not to, ah, sound unkind, but he may have some indecorous ideas about the nature of my meeting with Miss Crowley, and I’d hate her or your wife to be offended by anything he might imply.”
“Understood, sir.” Pulsifer nodded smartly. “But I promise you, he won’t find Miss Crowley at Jasmine Park this afternoon.”
Aziraphale frowned, cocking his head. “Why not? Is she still about? I saw her a few hours ago, at the church, and that’s an awfully long time for her to be away from home unaccompanied, especially-“
“No!” Aziraphale blinked as Pulsifer’s voice rose to near a shout, drawing several more curious looks before he blushed and lowered it again. “I mean, no, that’s not what I meant. Miss…Miss Crowley has taken, ah, ill. That’s it. Taken ill from, er, the strain of her walk today. So no visitors.” He nodded again, even more sharply, looking pleased with himself. Aziraphale stared at him, baffled.
Eventually, he said slowly, “I’m sorry to hear it.”
Pulsifer blinked, and then shook his head as if to clear it. “Of course. Tragic. Her condition. Anyway!” he went on, with forced cheeriness. “I’ll relay the message to her and Anathem- er, Mrs. Device, and when Mr. Fell, that is, the other Mr. Fell, your brother, I mean, comes calling, we’ll let him know the invitation is most appreciated, even if Miss Crowley cannot receive it herself.”
Aziraphale should have been relieved by the news, but Mr. Pulsifer’s bizarre behaviour dampened his enthusiasm, leaving curiosity and befuddlement instead. He inclined his head slightly, “Thank you…Mr. Pulsifer. I’m glad to hear it.”
“Always a pleasure, Mr. Fell.”
Aziraphale left the shop, still studiously ignoring the prying eyes plastered to his back. The door did not hit him on the way out, but it might as well have. What should have been a reassuring conversation had left him more worried than before. Miss Crowley’s health taking such a turn, when she’d seemed perfectly hale upon visiting him mere hours before – at least, as far as he could tell, veil being in the way and such. Mr. Pulsifer and his oddities. And his brother, who would likely not be pleased at what his personal efforts would be met with when he arrived at Jasmine Park. And that was on top of his expected appearance tomorrow at Havensgate at three, to endure whatever it was Gabriel felt the need to discuss with him.
At least, Aziraphale thought, he might have the luck of a certain gardener beneath his window tonight.
Aziraphale was in a foul mood. He wouldn’t have described it as such aloud, and likely would have denied it altogether, but it was impossible to deny to himself. It was a hot summer’s day, one of the hottest the season had seen yet and, Aziraphale suspected, one of the hottest he’d ever endured in his life, and he was tramping over to his brother’s house in the middle of it, forgoing the main road for the path from his rectory to avoid the dust and to find some minor relief in the shade of the hedgerows. He was no more eager to see his brother than he had been the day before, and likely was less so.
Raphael had not come. Aziraphale should have expected such, but he had not seen the gardener in a few days now, and he was unsure when Raphael saw fit to return. The guesswork made him nervous.
That was the other reason why Aziraphale chose the connective path to the estate rather than the dirt road. But in spite of his best efforts, eyes straining against the glare of the sun across the lawn, no flash of red eased his mind.
He was, at least, less sweaty and dishevelled than he had been upon his previous visit. Dagon looked no more impressed when she answered the door and let him in.
Gabriel was in the ballroom, alone. Dagon stood by the doorway and gestured Aziraphale in ahead of her, and Aziraphale stepped in with a prickling at the back of his neck that did not go away entirely when the doors closed behind him. His footsteps echoed across the wooden floor as he crossed it, towards the large glass windows that lined the far wall. The light streaming in outlined his brother like his own angelic namesake, and cast an enormous shadow along the floor behind him.
“Gabriel,” Aziraphale greeted him when he came within a few yards of his brother, determined not to sound out of breath. “I’m here.”
Gabriel turned and regarded him with vague amusement. “So you are. And precisely at three.” He snapped his pocket watch closed. “I’m thrilled you remembered.”
“Of course. Wouldn’t want to miss it. We had an agreement.”
“So we did.” Gabriel greeted him properly with a squeeze to the shoulder, and Aziraphale returned his smile with a weak one of his own. “The meeting went well yesterday, I thought,” Gabriel said.
“Er, yes. I suppose it did.”
“But then, council meetings always go well.” Gabriel laughed and shook his head. “Thank you so much for letting me lead them. Things are so much better this way, aren’t they?”
“It’s more than supposing!” Gabriel clapped his hands together, and the sound echoed around the empty space. “We get so much more done than we used to. And, well, you have to admit you’re not the best public speaker.”
Aziraphale schooled his wince, but it was the truth. “Yes, I know.”
Gabriel gave him a look of sympathy that failed to hit the mark. “Of course, in church it’s a different matter. You make a perfectly fine clergyman, Aziraphale. It’s just the place for you.”
“Ah, thank you?”
Gabriel waved it off. “Anyway, speaking of public speaking, events, what have you, I thought you might like to know how preparations for the ball are coming! I think you’re really going to like it. I’ve got Sandalphon going all the way to London for some of the decorations.”
“How…extravagant of you,” said Aziraphale, who behind his brother’s back made a face at the mention of Sandalphon, Gabriel’s right-hand man. He was a former soldier turned suck-up, and he always gave Aziraphale such an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach, almost as much as Belle’s right-hand woman. At least he would be away for nearly the whole week, if he was to London.
“Isn’t it just?” Gabriel grinned. He strode off across the room suddenly, forcing Aziraphale into a light jog to keep up. “Of course, the bulk of the party will be in here. Why else have a ballroom, after all? Belle is having the servants do it up in the French style, very classy, and we’ll serve dinner beforehand for some of the more…distinguished guests.” He gave Aziraphale a sly smile. “I’ll see if I can’t get Miss Crowley seated next to the place of honour. Her health permitting, of course.”
“Yes, I heard she’d taken ill again.”
Gabriel didn’t make any indication he’d heard. “And then, of course, the dancing and the music, we’ve got the music taken care of, of course, Sandalphon is bringing them in from London as well. And then-”
They reached the back of the house, Aziraphale struggling to conceal his panting as he trotted along behind Gabriel’s lengthy strides. His brother threw the doors open and gestured out to the gardens beyond. “What do you think?”
Aziraphale thought he’d like a lie down. He braced his hands on his knees for a moment, catching his breath, and then straightened and looked around. The gardens immediately to the rear of the manor had always been elaborate. There was a fountain, which piped in water year-round – excepting the winter freeze – and fell in arcs into a delicately sculpted basin. It was surrounded by stone walking paths, dotted with carved stone benches and animal statues, lions and rearing stallions and the like, and lined with hedges trimmed waist-high. This had been added to since Aziraphale had last seen it. Now, several of the hedges had been cut out, and reformed into leafy sculptures of birds in flight. There were flower beds, freshly planted, with bright and often exotic-looking blooms. Stone columns had been inserted around the outskirts between taller hedges that went quite over Aziraphale’s head, forming a semi-circle that blocked from either side of the patio and fenced in the garden. From the columns hung garlands of ivy and vines dripping with white flowers. It looked like something that belonged to a palace and it was, in Aziraphale’s opinion, entirely too much.
“Will…people even see the garden?” he asked tentatively. “Gabriel, I hate to think you went to all this trouble-“
“People will see it,” Gabriel interrupted, his mood no less buoyed by Aziraphale’s reluctance. “They’ll be able to hear the music, even out here, if we keep the doors and windows open, and the patio is excellent for dancing with someone, away from the crowds.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Aziraphale in a morally indecent gesture, which Aziraphale pretended to ignore. “Anyway, I’ve been wanting to redo it anyway. This is just an excuse. It had been looking drab, you know, and it wouldn’t do to have the grounds falling into ruin!”
Not embellishing an already elaborate garden was not Aziraphale’s idea of a place falling into ruin, but he knew convincing Gabriel of that would be fruitless. Instead, he said, “It is very attractive. I’m sure your guests will be very impressed.”
“Our guests, little brother.” Gabriel slung his arm around Aziraphale’s shoulder and drew him in, knuckling his hair. Aziraphale winced at the pressure on his skull, and carefully stepped out of reach when Gabriel let go. “Remember,” Gabriel said, unperturbed, “this is just as much for you as it is for me. More, even!”
It didn’t feel like it. But then, Aziraphale had given up on any of Gabriel’s attentions to him being for him when they were children. This was just another in a string of the same. So Aziraphale made the effort to smile, and to thank his brother for all his hard work, and kept his true feelings to himself.
Gabriel took him on a tour of the grounds, not far, but enough to show off the pond, restocked with fish for the season, and the work he’d ordered done on some of the less impressive gardens. He’d jokingly suggested, come hunting season, that Aziraphale might this year deign to join them, and he laughed when Aziraphale had reminded Gabriel that hunting, for sport or otherwise, was not a fit activity for a parson.
“So long as you don’t say that about dancing,” Gabriel had chuckled. “We’ll make you fun yet, Aziraphale.”
Aziraphale had no interest in being fun by Gabriel’s definition, and they both knew it.
When they got back to the house, Belle was waiting for them. She was veiled, as usual, and again Aziraphale was struck by how difficult it must be for Miss Crowley to see beyond her own veil, as Belle’s were so sheer so as not to obstruct vision. Today’s was dotted with knottings of black, like flies caught in a web, and the hat that secured it had similar black puffballs on top. Aziraphale gave her a shallow bow, one which she did not bother to return before addressing Gabriel in French. Aziraphale had never learned the language. He knew Latin, of course, and had studied a bit of the Germanic languages in his own time, but the Romance languages all escaped him. Belle knew this, which meant she either did not care, or did not want him to hear what she was saying. Knowing his sister-in-law, it could easily have been either.
Gabriel and Belle exchanged a brief conversation in French before Gabriel turned back to Aziraphale. He held out his arms, as if in welcome. “You must stay for dinner again. And no excuses about tomorrow being Sunday, either. We insist on having you.”
“Well,” Aziraphale gave a reluctant smile, “when you put it that way…”
“Excellent!” Gabriel clapped his hands together and then took his wife’s elbow. “We’ll have it in an hour or so. In the meantime, you could freshen up if you like, Aziraphale. You’re looking a little…” He waved his hand around his own face and hair, and grimaced meaningfully. It conveyed absolutely nothing, but Aziraphale nodded.
He did go upstairs, but he did not go to the bathroom as he knew Gabriel expected. Instead, he bypassed it, turning instead farther down the hall, and entering the bedroom of his childhood. It had been nearly a year since he had the opportunity to enter it, but the room remained unchanged. He had half expected Gabriel to do away with his things the moment Aziraphale was settled in the parsonage, and turn this room into a study or some other thing he could use to his own purposes. But Aziraphale’s room it remained, although, he reflected, he supposed having a place for Aziraphale to spend the night did serve Gabriel’s purposes, in its own way.
He patted the bedspread, the linens freshly changed, and then wandered over to the window. He could not quite make out the rooftop of his rectory from here, beyond the expansive lawn and hedgerows, but he imagined he could see it in the distance. He turned, leaning against the windowsill and letting his head rest on the cool glass panes. He surveyed the room. A mirror in the corner. A chest of drawers. A four-poster bed with a trunk at the foot of it. A basin and pitcher set aside, and a bell to ring for the servants. No personal touches, really, save for a few books he had left behind, and a handful of assorted implements he had used prior to university. He knew the chest of drawers would still contain his old, now slightly-too-tight clothes, but otherwise the room could hardly be called his anymore.
Eventually, when he felt he could no longer remain upstairs without his brother setting Dagon on him, Aziraphale splashed some water on his face to refresh himself and made his way down to the dining room. He could tolerate Gabriel’s boisterous prattling and Belle’s chilly stares over dinner. He had done it the week before. He could manage it again. And this time, he even managed to eat.
What he did not manage was to extract himself before it was well past a reasonable hour for him to return home, and Gabriel sent him upstairs without listening to a single of his protests on the matter. Aziraphale could admit he was not keen to stumble home in the dark, without even moonlight to guide him, but conjured memories of strong hands leading him were not without their romantic appeal.
His nightclothes pinched at his chest and stomach, but his legs were gratefully free of the same torment. He latched his door firmly, twisting the lock, and for good measure blocked the keyhole. He wouldn’t put it past any of Gabriel’s staff to spy on him in the night, with or without his brother or sister-in-law’s direct order. He crawled into bed and endeavoured to sleep.
He was near to drifting off when a rattle drew him back to waking. He frowned, glancing about the room, but could make out nothing in the blackness. He settled again, burying his face in the pillow. Then the rattle returned, sharper now. Aziraphale sat up, and the third sound was more definitely a clack than a rattle, and Aziraphale realized it was coming from the window.
He stood up, now grateful for the summer warmth that kept the floor from freezing his feet, and padded to the window. He drew the curtains aside and lifted the sash, then yelped as another stone came sailing past his cheek and clattered on the floor behind him. The new moon forced him to resort to squinting, but even so he could not identify the figure below. Not until it spoke.
Aziraphale started. “Raphael! What the devil are you doing?”
“Getting your attention.” The figure grabbed ahold of the wall, bracing himself, and pulled himself up a few feet. “Come on, help me up.”
“You’ll break your neck!”
“No, I won’t. Stop shouting, you’ll wake the house.”
“You’ll wake the house,” Aziraphale muttered to himself, but he couldn’t help the fondness that suffused the words. He bent low, wincing as he heard a distinct rip from somewhere across his shoulders, and clasped Raphael’s arm when it came into reach, the gardener nimbly climbing the wall with no more trouble than a hopping bird. “You shouldn’t have been throwing stones. How did you even know the right window?”
Raphael hauled himself, with Aziraphale’s help, over the windowsill, sliding down in a heap on the floor at Aziraphale’s feet. Aziraphale closed the window and stared down at him. Raphael grinned up, white teeth flashing. “You think, just because they don’t let me in the house, that I don’t know which one was your room? I saw you watching, remember? The whole time we were growing up.” He got to his feet and leaned back on his heels. “Nice place.” He whistled lowly.
“I don’t see how you can tell. It’s pitch dark in here.”
“Told you, angel, good eyesight. Light a candle if it makes you feel better.”
Aziraphale did so, and a glow washed the room, dancing across Raphael’s grinning face. He coiled himself around the bottommost post of Aziraphale’s bed. “Love the nightclothes, by the way.”
Aziraphale brushed at them self-consciously, wincing when he found the place where they had torn. “They’re old,” he mumbled. “I’m not as…well, I was never particularly well-proportioned, and now-“
“I think you’re well-proportioned.” Raphael swung the other way around the post, hip cocked out. “And so would anyone with eyes. You’ve got the money to eat well, angel, and it shows.”
“Well, I suppose, but Gabriel-“
Raphael snorted. “Your brother’s just jealous.”
“I really don’t think so.”
“Well, he ought to be.” Raphael dropped onto Aziraphale’s bed with a bounce, and then sprawled out leisurely along it. “You’re a sight handsomer than him, anyway. He doesn’t have those beautiful curls. He’s not soft. Bet the missus has an awful time trying to cuddle up to all those angles.”
“This really isn’t appropriate, you know.” Aziraphale set the candle down on the nightstand and sat on the edge of the bed.
Raphael flipped over onto his stomach and grinned up at him. “Oh yeah? Which part?”
“Any of it. You, coming into the house when it’s forbidden. Speaking ill of your master. Being…” Aziraphale blushed and lowered his voice further still, as if it wasn’t already nearly a whisper. “Being in my bedroom, on my bed.”
“Hey.” Raphael pushed himself upright enough to point a finger at Aziraphale. “I don’t care if he is my master. He’s a prick for making you think badly of yourself.” He tilted his head, considering. “Well, he’s a prick regardless, but especially for that.” He laid down again, resting his chin on folded arms. “And I’m being good. I’m not seducing you, right? Just…having a chat.”
“Late at night, in my bed,” Aziraphale added dryly. “When you aren’t supposed to be in the house to begin with.”
“So tell on me, then,” Raphael grinned, tongue flicking between his lips. “Go tell your brother that I’m being naughty.”
Aziraphale winced. “Please never mention my brother in that tone of voice ever again.” He drew himself up onto the bed fully, leaning back against the headboard, amongst the pillows. Raphael crawled forward, resting his cheek against Aziraphale’s leg. The playfulness had disappeared from his expression.
“You aren’t going to turn me in, are you? I promise I’ll behave.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Aziraphale gave in to a years – decades, really – long urging, and set his hand in Raphael’s hair, carding his fingers through the wavy tresses. They were long, and a little rough from his time outdoors, but still lovely to pet at, and Raphael made a pleased sound and leaned into the touch. “No,” Aziraphale told him. “I won’t tell my brother you’re in here. That would implicate us both, wouldn’t it?”
“I didn’t mean-“
“Shh.” Aziraphale placed a finger over his lips, and then went back to stroking. “What’s done is done, and I can’t say I’m displeased to see you. Even if it means you recklessly climbing up the side of the house.”
“I’ve climbed higher walls before. I wasn’t going to fall.”
“Well, it gave me a fright anyway.” Aziraphale fell silent, enjoying Raphael’s warmth against his leg. He wasn’t dressed for sleep, still in the clothes he would wear out on the grounds, layers upon layers of them, but he was still warm, even through them. “Why did you come?” Aziraphale asked softly.
“I wanted to see you.”
“You could have seen me yesterday. Or the day before.”
“I was working. And I have to sleep sometime.”
“But not tonight?”
“Not tonight. Not yet, anyway.”
Aziraphale tugged lightly at Raphael’s shoulder, and he got the message, pulling himself up so he could lean against Aziraphale’s chest. It was playing with fire, Aziraphale knew, but in the flickering candlelight, the new moon hiding them from the world, he couldn’t resist the need to have Raphael in his arms, at least the once. “I suppose you’ll try to convince me to let you sleep here?”
“Your bed is a lot more comfortable than mine,” Raphael teased. Then he sobered and shook his head, “But no. I’ve got to be up early tomorrow, and I don’t think you’ll take kindly to me creeping out before the dawn. And that’s assuming no one catches us first.”
“Tomorrow is Sunday,” Aziraphale frowned. “Surely you don’t mean to work.”
“Not to work, angel. That’s not why I have to be up.”
“Preparing for church.”
Aziraphale smiled at the silly answer. “My dear, I doubt you need more time to prepare than I do. After all, I’m the one who speaks most.”
Raphael nuzzled into Aziraphale’s shoulder. “Maybe I want to dress up, hmm? Get all washed up and pretty for you. I mean, for the Lord, of course.”
“You’re the one letting me into your bed.”
“Hmm.” Aziraphale scratched absently at Raphael’s scalp. “So I am.” He turned his head, his nose just brushing the edges of Raphael’s hair, wisps tickling at his nose. It would be so easy to lean forward, to place a kiss there, to bury his face in it and never leave. He did not. He was allowing himself too much indulgence as it was tonight.
Raphael broke the silence between them this time. “I know you had a council meeting today. I trust it went well?”
“I assume so. Admittedly, I don’t pay as much attention as I ought.”
“Scandalous,” Raphael teased. “What would the church say?”
“They do not appear to notice.”
“Hmph. No one in their right mind would ever take their eyes off you.”
“And yet I’m very grateful that they do.”
“Fair,” Raphael conceded. He snuggled closer in spite of the heat, tugging at his collar and loosening it up. “Anything interesting happen, at least?”
“Nothing of note.”
Raphael sounded almost disappointed, and Aziraphale cast about for anything he could tell him. “Well, I did see Mis Crowley this morning. Although apparently this evening she took ill.”
“Oh?” Raphael perked up. “You spoke to her again.”
“You are entirely too interested in that woman,” Aziraphale said, without rancour. “One might think you were more interested in her than you were in me.”
Raphael threw back his head and laughed, quieting only when Aziraphale shushed him, stifling his own giggles. Raphael tucked his head back into the crook of Aziraphale’s neck. “I could never. You’re the one who brought her up! And if she’s the woman you intend to marry-“
“I never said I would marry her-“
“-breaking my heart in the process,” Raphael threw his head back dramatically, a hand flying against his forehead like a fainting damsel as he sighed, “then I suppose I should hear everything there is to be heard about my bitter rival.”
“You’re being dramatic.” Aziraphale suppressed a smile. “She apologized for her behaviour. For coming on so strongly, and being unladylike.”
“That’s good, isn’t it? It’s what you wanted.” Raphael turned onto his side, staring up at Aziraphale. “It is what you wanted, wasn’t it?”
“Well, yes,” Aziraphale said. His strokes trailed lower, petting softly at the curls twisting at the nape of Raphael’s neck. “Although I would hate for her to be too ladylike. By societal standards, anyway. Her cousin is still a proper lady, even if the church doesn’t necessarily approve, but she doesn’t sacrifice her personality for it. I would hate Miss Crowley to suppress her own self for the sake of propriety.”
Raphael stared at him, the tiniest smile curling at his lips. “What?” Aziraphale asked defensively.
“You have very specific ideas about what you want, Mr. Fell.”
“Oh, quiet you.” Aziraphale flapped a hand. “You’ve caught me out and it’s late. Half of what I’m saying is nonsense anyway.”
“Forgive me.” Raphael took Aziraphale’s free hand in his and kissed the back of it, eyes imploring. Then he broke back into a smile when Aziraphale huffed a fond sigh. He pushed himself upright, dislodging the hand in his curls. “So you want someone with personality, then? To marry? Someone true to themselves?”
Something unpleasant was growing in the pit of Aziraphale’s stomach. He swallowed hard. “I don’t wish to talk about it anymore.”
“Raphael, please.” Aziraphale gave him a pleading look. “If I had my way, I wouldn’t be marrying now. Perhaps at all. And I don’t want to discuss it further tonight.” He squirmed miserably. “I am a prisoner in my brother’s house for the night, held captive in these constricting clothes, and I would not put it past Dagon to spy. If I am blessed by your company, even for a short while, I would prefer our time not be spent discussing unhappy matters.”
“Of course.” Raphael quieted. “I might make a joke about removing your clothes, were they so constricting, but I don’t believe you would find it amusing.”
“Perhaps not.” Aziraphale cupped his cheek and, as he’d wanted to do before, stroked the skin with his thumb. Under the dirt, it was soft to the touch, weathered but smooth. Raphael turned his head and pressed a kiss to the pad of Aziraphale’s thumb, then tilted his cheek farther into the touch. “You should go soon,” Aziraphale said softly. “If you do not wish to sleep here. I should be abed, and I don’t want anyone questioning the candle. And as you said. We both ought to be up early.”
“You’re right.” Raphael pulled away with visible reluctance. He sat back, tracing patterns in the bedsheet with his fingers, and glanced towards the window again.
Aziraphale wavered. “Are you sure I cannot convince you to stay?”
Raphael laughed quietly. “I don’t believe you offered before. But no. No, I think not. Not tonight.”
“Another night, perhaps?”
The look Raphael gave him was odd, amused and curious in equal measure. “Perhaps. If your good sense has not returned.”
Before Aziraphale could ask him what that meant, Raphael was gone, the window sliding shut behind him with only a gentle thud, and then no sound beyond. Aziraphale stayed upright for a long moment, staring after him. Then, with his early morning in mind and his bed suddenly too large for one, Aziraphale turned to the candle on the nightstand and blew it out.
Church was sweltering. The morning sun peaked and shone with no sign of stopping, hotter still than the previous day had been. Aziraphale felt sure he was melting beneath his robes, the black doing his body no favours as sweat slicked his skin and dampened the pages he read from. His parishioners, he could see, fared no better. Several women beat air at their faces with fans at varying rates of desperation, but there was no apparent relief in any of them. A thin sheen of sweat seemed to linger over the whole room, dampening spirits as much as skin. Aziraphale spoke only as long as he could justify for propriety, and dismissed the room the second he deemed it appropriate. The parishioners shuffled gratefully out, seeking rooms less crowded with bodies, or perhaps sources of water or shade. Despite his insinuation of dressing up for church, Aziraphale noted that Raphael did not appear to be among them.
Miss Crowley was, despite her illness the previous afternoon. She sat beside her cousin, stiff-backed and leaning forward ever so slightly every time Aziraphale glanced her way. As the rest of the parish vacated the church, Aziraphale noted from the corner of his eye that Miss Crowley set a hand on Mrs. Device’s arm, murmuring something indistinct. Mrs. Device nodded, and then escorted her husband from the building, leaving Miss Crowley behind. She approached him. “That was a lovely sermon, Mr. Fell.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“It was very welcoming. Particularly the bit about how loving thy neighbour should encompass especially those you disagree with. You didn’t make such an effort just for my arrival, surely?”
“Little effort was involved, I assure you.” Aziraphale gestured towards the pews, indicating they should sit. They did, and Aziraphale said, “Are you sure you would not like to remove your veil? As hot as I am, I can only imagine you faring far worse, and I would hate to have you faint from the heat.” Miss Crowley was in her heavy black dress, as usual, and Aziraphale grimaced in sympathy.
However, Miss Crowley’s response was to shake her head. “I’m quite alright. I’ve grown accustomed to heat. I shall be alright, so long as I don’t exert myself.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. But if you do feel faint, please seek medical attention at once. In your condition-“
“I appreciate the concern,” Miss Crowley interrupted him, sounding amused, “but I did not wish to speak of my health.”
Aziraphale bit his tongue. “Ah. Yes, of course. What did you wish to speak of, then?”
“My cousin was telling me of your extensive library. She says you have quite the collection of books.”
“Er, I do, yes.” Aziraphale tilted his head. “Reading is of interest to you, then?”
“I am not a great reader,” Miss Crowley admitted, as if revealing a shameful secret, but one which she delighted in unveiling. “I should have liked to have been, but I find the practice difficult. Focusing on letters and words for so long…I have not the attention span for it, I’m afraid.”
“Why ask after my library, then?”
“I know you have some books which my cousin does not. And while reading myself is a difficult task for me, I am a lover of stories, particularly the ancient ones, which Mrs. Device says you specialize in collecting. I was wondering if you might be so kind as to lend one or two to me, so that my cousin might read to me, when she has the time. Reading the words causes me trouble, but I like hearing stories told aloud a great deal.”
“I see.” Aziraphale hesitated. It might not have been entirely proper, but no lady had sought him out like Miss Crowley had. Even the women in the parish, eyeing him now as they did, made no further effort to encourage him, now that the rumour of his intended nuptials was out. But if here there was someone who might have an interest… “Mrs. Device is a busy woman. I know she spends a great deal of time attending her estate.”
“This is true.” The smile was creeping into Miss Crowley’s voice again.
“And I must admit, I am reluctant to let my books leave my library. Several are delicate, you understand, and copies are hard to come by.”
“That is to say, it might be more prudent, should you still be interested, for you to visit the parsonage, and allow me to read to you there. In the afternoons, perhaps. When my duties are completed.”
“I should like that very much,” Miss Crowley agreed swiftly. “Only…doctors have warned me of being about on summer afternoons, what with the heat. Perhaps in the evenings instead?”
Aziraphale’s heart cried out in protest. Evenings were for Raphael, and he did not want to part with any of them. “I am not sure it would be proper, a young lady being at my house so late. And alone.”
“What if Mr. Pulsifer were to accompany me? He could chaperone us, and I know he has little to do in the evenings.” As if sensing his reluctance, she pressed, “It would mean a great deal to me to be allowed the privilege of you reading to me. Even just once or twice a week would be more than enough.”
He did not want to discourage her. And once or twice a week was not very often indeed. “Then that is what we shall do. Speak to your cousins, and send word about which days might be best.”
“Thank you!” Mis Crowley leaned forward, and Aziraphale startled when her hand brushed his. He pulled back sharply, staring at her, and her hands darted back into her lap, where she folded them. “My apologies. I’m just very happy you’d take the time to indulge me.”
Aziraphale gave her a small smile. “I look forward to it. It will be a chance to get to know one another better, I think. Outside of church.”
“Have you been to confession yet this week?”
“I have not.”
“Best do it soon then.” Aziraphale cast a meaningful glance at her hands but kept his voice free of rebuke. “If you’re concerned.”
She laughed. “I shall. And I will endeavour to keep my hands to myself, Mr. Fell. Even in moments of gratitude.” She huffed the end of the laugh. “It is very hot, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Aziraphale agreed. He was looking forward to a long bath later, and to get out of such dark clothes. He stood, and offered her his arm. “Might I walk you home? We both ought to get out of this heat, I should think.”
She stood as well. “We should, and you may.” She took his arm, and Aziraphale led the way. There would certainly be rumours now, he knew. He saw a cluster of children stop their games to stare as they went past, and whispers reached his ears even when he did not look back.
To Miss Crowley, he murmured, “We seem to be causing quite a stir.”
She held her head high, but there was mirth in her voice as she replied, “Let them wonder. We are doing nothing wrong.” They had separated the moment they had exited the church – Aziraphale’s hands were slick with sweat, and Miss Crowley was hot to the touch, which he imagined was comfortable for neither of them – but they still lingered in each other’s space, walking close enough that the folds of Miss Crowley’s dress brushed Aziraphale’s calves every few steps. “And anyway, heat breeds gossip like insects. If not us, they would find something else to whisper about.”
At her gate, she turned. “You have not forgotten my request, have you?”
“The dances at the ball.”
Aziraphale smiled. “Of course not. I gave my word, and so you shall have them.”
“Just a week now,” she said. “I anticipate the evening.”
“I wish I could share your sentiment. I am not much for parties.” He grimaced at the thought, but then reassured, “But your presence, and that of your cousin and her husband, will be most welcome.”
A few locks of her black hair had escaped their styling, aided by the heat in curling over her face, and she brushed them back. For a moment, Aziraphale could swear they darkened a patch of her shiny black gloves, matting the silk, but perhaps the lustre was merely dampened with sweat. At any rate, she then folded her arms behind her back and inclined her head. “I will speak to Mr. Pulsifer about chaperoning us, and I will have him send a letter as soon as he is able.”
Aziraphale nodded in acknowledgement. “I look forward to his correspondence. Good afternoon, Miss Crowley.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Fell.” She opened the gate and made for the house. Aziraphale waited until the door opened to admit her, and then made for his own home.
He drew himself a bath almost the moment he crossed the threshold, not bothering to heat the water in the slightest. He shed his clothes, not folding them as he should but allowing them to scatter across the floor in vaguely damp heaps to be attended to later. He sank into the tub, sighing in relief as the cool water enveloped him, prickling at his overheated skin and soothing it. He dabbed his hand into the water and wiped his brow with it, nearly moaning as it trickled down his temples and cheeks. He slid lower in the tub and tilted his head back, permitting himself the indulgence in light of the discomfort. He was not accustomed to dealing with the summer heat; when he had been a boy it had been near-unbearable, and his time away at school had been in colder parts than this. Coming back an adult had not changed his tolerance.
Gabriel probably didn’t sweat, he mused bitterly. His brother and his French wife probably found sweating beneath their dignity. He’d seen them in church, and they’d hardly appeared affected by the weather. At least the heat meant it would rain soon. Aziraphale liked the rain, liked how cosy it felt to curl up with a book in his armchair by the window and listen to the droplets pattering against the glass. It was a kind of solitude, like an island set apart, but it never made him lonely.
Perhaps the heat was why Raphael hadn’t been in church – if he hadn’t, as opposed to Aziraphale simply not seeing him. Gabriel likely wouldn’t consider servants or groundskeepers beholden to the Sabbath, and with the heat wilting his carefully made-up gardens, plus preparing for the future rain, Raphael might very well have been kept busy tending to his work. Aziraphale pictured Raphael, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his hair tied back and frizzing under the glaring sun. Sympathetically, he pictured sweat beading on Raphael’s forehead, rolling down his neck and into the hollow of his collarbone, his cravat aside and his shirt slightly unbuttoned to combat the heat. A heat of his own stirred inside him, and Aziraphale’s eyes snapped open, sitting up sharply and taking a few steadying breaths. It was far from the first time he’d had those sort of thoughts, although the first time that he’d had them about Raphael since learning his name. His hands gripped the sides of the tub, metal digging into his palms.
It wasn’t right for him to think such things. It wasn’t fair, to him or to Raphael. Last night had been a mistake, allowing him so close, allowing himself to touch the true object of his affections when he ought to have been distancing him. Aziraphale could not have Raphael. Not now, perhaps not ever.
His thoughts turned to Miss Crowley, and he laid back again, staring at the ceiling. Not that it would have been proper to think about her that way, but if he was inclined to have those thoughts, they should have been about her. They were not. He tried to picture lifting her veil, wiping the sweat from some vague concept of her brow, but every image in his mind turned back to one of Raphael. He sighed, squeezing his eyes shut and turning his head to the side, cheek pressed against cold metal. She was a pleasant woman. She seemed to like him, or at least the idea of him, and he was finding himself growing fonder of the idea of her. She could be charming, funny, and she apparently liked the classics as he did. It could be the foundation of a relationship.
But it was not Raphael.
Aziraphale sank beneath the water, holding his breath and remaining there until his lungs strained with the effort, burning at him in an entirely different way. He resurfaced, hair dripping water into his eyes as he blinked them open, his head chilled but his mind no more settled than it had been before the action. His thoughts were no cleaner, no less muddled. Aziraphale sighed and reached for the soap. He could, at least, scrub the sweat and grime from his body.
When he dressed again, it was only in two layers: his smallclothes and the thinnest possible garments he could wear over it while maintaining decency. It was too hot for more, and he didn’t intend to leave the house again unless absolutely necessary. He had started sweating again the moment he’d left the bath, and already his clothes had begun to cling to him unpleasantly.
He opened the door only once, to receive a pair of letters from a post boy. The first was less a letter and more a memo, in Mr. Pulsifer’s scrawling handwriting. It took some deciphering, but when Aziraphale finally unravelled it he found it suggested Monday and Wednesday evenings, as he worked later for Mr. Shadwell on Tuesdays, and often found himself busy later in the week. Aziraphale agreed, and drafted a brief response to send back the following morning. As he did so, a smaller scrap of parchment drifted from the letter, and Aziraphale frowned and retrieved it from the floor. The sweat on his fingertips smudged the ink slightly, but it was still far more readable than Mr. Pulsifer’s handwriting. In exceedingly careful letters, as if the hand writing them had put a great deal of time into it, the jagged scrap of paper read: I will see you soon. The pair of s’s curled like snakes, coiling into the other letters, but otherwise the hand was very neat. Aziraphale blinked, a startled sense washing over him as he realized the hand must belong to Miss Crowley. No wonder there was such care in the letters. To have written him, and to have snuck it in Mr. Pulsifer’s letter, would have taken a great deal of care indeed. Still, he found himself strangely smiling. This was a sort of wildness that he found he could approve of.
He turned then to the other letter, and his stomach twisted nervously. This hand he recognized on sight, and he could not be sure if it was a good thing or not. Once again, the family crest sealed the paper, and Aziraphale slit it open with caution.
Aziraphale, it read, our brother seems up to his tricks again. He has sent Uriel and myself word, through Sandalphon, of his intent with the ball this upcoming Saturday. In his letter, he expressed a wish that we might come, if at all possible, as the evening was bound to be one of great import. I can only assume, dear brother, that this means his attention has finally turned to you, as I expected it would sometime after my own marriage, and that he intends to wed you to whomever he deems fit. I would urge you not to listen.
I am sure Gabriel has made insinuations of what he might do if you do not marry. I do not mean to dismiss them. I am not the eldest. I have very little say in the family fortunes. But you will always have a friend in London, perhaps two, as I seem closer than ever to swaying Uriel to fondness for you. We are happy together, but I must admit I think sometimes on how much happier I might have had the potential to be, without Gabriel’s interference. Yes, you read correctly, brother. Gabriel gave me the same indications as he gave you. His concern with appearances is all.
I cannot say ‘do not marry.’ It would be reprehensible of me to suggest it, knowing what our brother may have seen fit to threaten you with, knowing you have always been…how shall I say this kindly? A bit odd, my dear brother. I do not mean it cruelly, Aziraphale, but we both know it to be true. All I can say is that, if Gabriel will entice you to marry, you do not choose whomever he throws at you first, without heed. Find someone you can love, and barring that, someone with whom spending your life will not feel like a battle or a waste. Do not give in to Gabriel’s bullying. Find a companion.
I give you this advice in this letter because I cannot give it to you in person. Uriel and I are needed here in London, and a week is not enough notice for us to make the journey. It would do Gabriel wise to remember that in the future, although between us I expect he will not. Since I cannot see you at the ball on Saturday, or likely for many months further, I give you my best wishes, Aziraphale, and hope you will find happiness in spite of the odds.
Aziraphale read the letter twice through. He did not entirely believe it. He and Michael had never shared a particular closeness, although it was true that Michael had always been kinder than Gabriel (not that the bar was particularly high). For Michael to admit to Gabriel’s interference with Uriel, and to further advise Aziraphale not to simply bow to their brother’s whims, was unexpected. Perhaps time and distance had mellowed Michael in unexpected ways. Or perhaps talk of marriage had reminded Michael of advice he might have wanted to receive two or three years since.
The comment about Aziraphale’s oddness was less unexpected. There had always been an implication, growing up, that Michael – and indeed, much of the household – had known, or at least suspected. Aziraphale had tried to suppress it, to bury the instincts, and had been almost successful on many counts. But the suspicion had persisted, and he found he could not blame them for it. He was odd, in every insinuation of the word. He just hadn’t expected Michael to reference it so kindly.
Aziraphale read the letter through a third time. Then he set it on his desk and stared at it. It seemed only right to reply, but what could he say? That he was sorry Michael’s marriage was not as pleasing as hoped for? That he wished neither of them faced Gabriel’s interference as first-born and heir? That he appreciated the sentiment, the advice, but it was difficult to know if he could be compelled to love a woman, even the interesting Miss Crowley, enough to tolerate her companionship for the rest of his life? All of those things were true, but none of them felt appropriate.
In the end, his response was brief. It thanked Michael for the letter, and for thinking of him, and that Aziraphale hoped for Michael’s happiness to ever increase, until it was where Michael wished it to be. Both it and the letter for Mr. Pulsifer Aziraphale left on his writing desk, to be sent out in the morning. Then he went to his personal library, marked out a few shelves he might point Miss Crowley to, for their reading tomorrow, and selected a book for the evening. His fingers twitched momentarily towards the Satyricon, but after the bath he’d had, Aziraphale stilled his hand and redirected it towards a safer text.
Outside, rain and night began to fall together.
“Really, you needn’t have come,” Aziraphale said, ushering Mr. Pulsifer and Miss Crowley over the threshold. The rain, which had started up over the night, had continued into the morning and then held off throughout midday. Still, the roads were muddy, as evidenced by his guests’ boots and the hem of Miss Crowley’s skirts, and dark skies overhead threatened a return of the rain any minute.
“After so kind an invitation, I didn’t want to decline our very first meeting,” Miss Crowley responded. She was wearing a light cloak to guard against the weather, which she shed and Aziraphale took, hanging it up by the door. “So long as we keep out of the rain, I’m sure it will be alright.” She sounded brighter than ever, turning this way and that to look about the entry room with apparent interest. “You have a lovely home.”
“Thank you. It suits me well, and a parson need not worry about elaborate furnishings. Shall I show you to the library?”
She followed him eagerly, with Pulsifer taking up the rear. The young man did not appear bothered by their closeness, as Miss Crowley laid a hand on Aziraphale’s arm to be escorted. He was instead digging through his bag, which was slung across his shoulder, and which made a soft clinking sound every time he moved, exacerbated by his rummaging. Aziraphale decided not to question it. He directed Miss Crowley into his library, and offered a seat to Mr. Pulsifer, who collapsed eagerly into the window-seat and began pulling assorted small crafting tools from his bag. Aziraphale stared at him a moment, incredulous, and then turned back to Miss Crowley.
She was turning on the spot, her head tilted up to marvel at the shelves. Aziraphale’s library was by no means massive – certainly it had nothing on the library of Havensgate – but it was undeniably a rather large library for a parson to own. “You have so many books,” she said, sounding breathless almost to the point of a hiss. “Have you read them all?”
“Nearly all. Although I keep coming back to old favourites, rather than reading the ones I have not,” Aziraphale admitted. “I’m sure Mrs. Device’s personal library rivals it, and you must have seen far more extensive collections growing up, what with your family.”
“My…family?” Miss Crowley appeared distracted, still turning, and it was only when Mr. Pulsifer cleared his throat loudly that she shook her head, snapping back. “Yes, my family! The Device family. Of course. We do have some very impressive libraries in the family, yes, but none quite like this. Such an interesting contrast of the classic and the contemporary!” She trailed her finger gently over one spine. “My cousin said you’ve even read some fantastic modern novels, like that one with the doctor…oh, what was the name? Something German?”
“Yes, Mrs. Device lent it to me,” Aziraphale said. He flushed. “I was…admittedly somewhat curious. It was something of a novelty, although I’m not sure I liked it very much. Talented prose, but the concept…” He cleared his throat. “You said you were interested in the Greek and Roman? I have a few shelves marked, here and here. If there was something in particular you were hoping to read.”
Miss Crowley scanned the shelves dutifully, her head cocked. A finger tapped at her lip, over the veil, giving the slightest of definitions to the shape of her mouth. She turned to Aziraphale. “They all look so tempting. Which one is your favourite?”
“My favourite?” Aziraphale blinked, wondering if he should answer honestly. He glanced at Mr. Pulsifer, but the man was busy assembling some sort of tiny device involving quite a lot of tangled wires. He looked at Miss Crowley again, and then picked up the Iliad from its place on the desk. He offered it out to her, and she took it, turning it over in her gloved hands.
When she said nothing, Aziraphale rushed out, “It’s highly historical. It’s supposed to be based on true events. And the Iliad is considered one of the greatest works of its time.”
She offered it back to him. “Then that is the one I want to hear. You sound so passionate when you speak of it.”
Aziraphale gave Mr. Pulsifer another glance. He still wasn’t watching them. “Yes, very well.” Far be it from him to deny himself another opportunity to read it. “Would you sit down? You could remove your veil, and perhaps sew or draw, if you wanted something to do with your hands.”
One of the said hands, in its gloved sheath, lifted itself to the veil, but rather than remove it instead confirmed its position. She sat down gingerly in Aziraphale’s armchair, folding her hands in her lap. “I’m afraid I don’t draw well. Or sew.” With humour, she added, “I’m something of a disappointment as a lady, I know.”
“No, not a disappointment,” Aziraphale reassured. “Not every woman is inclined towards sewing or drawing, as not every man is inclined towards reading or…or manual labour.” It was unusual that a woman from a family such as the Devices would not be trained in at least one of the two, but perhaps her studies had been focused elsewhere, or perhaps she had been trained but not taken to it. “Is there something else you’d prefer to do while I read?”
“I’ll just listen, if that’s alright.”
“Perfectly alright,” Aziraphale said, although he wasn’t sure he liked the idea of being watched as he did so. He took a seat in his desk chair, opened up to the first page, cleared his throat, and began.
An hour in, the rain was coming down hard beyond the window. Aziraphale paused, holding the place with his thumb. “Do you think you ought to return home? It’s getting dark, and if the rain doesn’t quit soon-“
“Oh, but it might quit soon!” Miss Crowley rushed, even as Mr. Pulsifer looked up and opened his mouth to speak. “Surely just a little longer? I mean, unless you’re tired…”
“I’m not tired.” Aziraphale settled again, adjusting his position to sit more comfortably. Truth be told, he didn’t want to stop either. He glanced at Mr. Pulsifer. “Assuming that is alright with you, sir?”
Pulsifer blinked. He was still fidgeting with the gadget in his lap. “Er…yes, alright. I suppose that’s fine with me.”
Miss Crowley leaned forward, arms braced on her knees as Aziraphale began to read again. The rain continued to patter, growing stronger, until it beat against the doors and windows, drowning out Aziraphale’s voice. Beyond the second hour, he stopped again, and again was urged to continue by Miss Crowley. By the third hour, it was a proper gale, and Aziraphale closed the book firmly. “The storm is getting worse. It doesn’t show any sign of stopping, and if the weather goes any more poorly than this, you’ll not be safe going home.”
Miss Crowley made as if to protest, but Pulsifer cut her off, “I think, Miss…Miss Crowley, that Mr. Fell is right. Anathema will be worried, and I don’t fancy walking home even in rain this bad. You can continue on Wednesday. Please.”
“Very well. I’m sorry I kept you here so long,” she apologized, then turned back to Aziraphale. “And thank you so much for entertaining me. It’s been wonderful. Your reading voice is just as good here as it is in church. Better, even.”
Aziraphale flushed. “I…thank you. That’s very kind.” He walked them to the door, helping Miss Crowley with her cloak. He hesitated with his hand on the doorknob. “It really is bad out there. I…I do have a spare room. It mightn’t be proper, but if walking in the rain might damage your health…”
“No!” Miss Crowley objected, even before Mr. Pulsifer could voice what was likely the same sentiment. “No,” she said, more quietly. “It would not be proper, and we’d hate to impose. Jasmine Park is not far, and I doubt a little rain will do me harm.”
“Well, it is more than a little rain, but if you’re sure-“
“I am.” She put her hand over Aziraphale’s on the knob, and he swallowed hard. She was very close to him now, but when he looked at her, although he could not see her face, he sensed tenderness, rather than heat. He exhaled softly and turned the knob, and she lifted her hand away, and she and Mr. Pulsifer disappeared into the night. Aziraphale shut the door firmly against the wind which blew rain into his house, and watched them leave from the window, sending a prayer up that they reach home safely, and with no ill effects.
So loud was the rain as he prepared for bed that he almost did not recognize the knocking at first, confusing it for a tree branch or suchlike scratching against the house in the torrent. He dismissed it. It wasn’t until he reached his bedroom, where the knocking was the loudest, that he realized what it was, and he let out an exasperated sigh even as his heart sped to match the pounding storm. “Oh, for heaven’s sake.”
He opened the window. “Raphael, what on earth possessed you to go out in weather like this?”
“Wanted to see you, angel!” Raphael shouted up from below. His hair whipped in the wind, coiling like living serpents about his head. “Are you going to let me in? Or am I going to have to climb?”
Aziraphale shut the window firmly, clucking under his breath, but he went down to the backdoor and opened it. Raphael stepped inside, water streaming off him and forming a puddle on the floor. “Oh, you’re absolutely soaked,” Aziraphale fussed. “Let me get you a towel.”
He watched as Raphael attempted to towel off, frowning at the heightened colour of his cheeks. “Have you been running?”
“What?” Raphael paused, and then shrugged. “It’s wet out.”
“I can see that. You oughtn’t have gone out with the weather like this at all.”
Raphael grinned. “What, not romantic enough for you? Me standing outside in the rain?”
“It might be more romantic if you didn’t now look like a wet rat,” Aziraphale pointed out. Raphael wiped at his hair, smearing a few dark streaks of wet dirt on the clean towel. He still looked bedraggled. “That’s not doing anything for you.”
“That hurts my feelings, angel.” Raphael clutched at his chest dramatically, nose in the air as he sniffed with mock-tears.
Aziraphale shook his head. “I meant the towel. You’re still positively dripping, my dear. Hang on a tick.” He hurried upstairs.
When he came back, Raphael’s boots and socks were where he’d left them, but the man in question was missing. Aziraphale blinked and looked around. There were water droplets on the floor, and Aziraphale followed them to the library, where a damp Raphael was stroking the outline of the Iliad on Aziraphale’s desk. Aziraphale cleared his throat, and Raphael turned. His fingers lifted and hung in the air.
“Sorry,” he said slowly, withdrawing his hand fully and folding it behind his back. “Couldn’t resist a look about.”
Aziraphale offered out the bundle of clothes he’d brought. “Something to change into,” he said lamely, his eyes fixed on the Illiad and the faint wet smudges circling it. “Please don’t drip all over my books.”
Raphael took the towel, slung it around his neck, and dried his hands again before taking the proffered outfit. “I wouldn’t do that to you, angel. I know how much your books mean to you. Especially that one.” He nodded at the Iliad. “I know it’s your favourite.”
Aziraphale’s heart missed a beat. “How…how did you…”
“Place of honour like that? It’s got to be.”
Aziraphale flushed. “I could have left it out.”
“Am I wrong, though?”
“Bit unusual for a priest’s favourite, isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be the Bible?”
“Well, yes,” Aziraphale admitted. “Or some scripture, at least. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the classics.”
Raphael seemed to be withholding a smile. “Not modern fiction?”
“Oh, not really. I’ve tried, but I’m afraid- oh, my dear Lord!”
Raphael looked up from where he’d begun unbuttoning his shirt, half his chest already revealed. “What?”
“You’re…you’re taking your clothes off!”
He raised an eyebrow. “You offered me a change of clothes. Are you suggesting I put them on over the wet ones?”
Aziraphale blushed. “Well, no, but…”
Raphael grinned and pulled his shirt off, leaving him bare from the waist up. “Look away if it bothers you.”
Aziraphale coughed and turned around. He bounced nervously on the balls of his feet. Behind him, he could hear the sound of fabric rustling, and of damp clothes hitting the floor. He coughed again. “Why did you really come?” He kept expecting arms to encircle him, and had a brief fantasy of Raphael pressing up behind him, nuzzling into Aziraphale’s neck and peppering kisses there.
Instead, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to find Raphael fully dressed in Aziraphale’s spare nightclothes. He was slightly taller and slimmer, so they hung oddly, but they did fit. Raphael shrugged. “I told you,” he said. “I wanted to see you.”
“In the middle of a rainstorm?” Outside, the wind made no signs of dying down. Instead, it was picking up, and Aziraphale winced as this time a tree branch really did crack against the side of the house.
Raphael reached for his hands, taking them in both of his. “I wanted to see you,” he said. “And that’s the honest truth.”
Aziraphale studied him. “Is this about Miss Crowley?”
Raphael stiffened. “What about her?”
“Did you see her leaving and decide to press your advantage?”
Raphael let out an incredulous laugh. “My advantage?” He dropped Aziraphale’s hands in favour of folding his arms across his chest. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, you always bring her up! You say that…whatever this is,” Aziraphale gestured between them, “is alright for you, and then you turn around and call her your rival, as if there was any chance…” He trailed off, the words suddenly acid on his tongue.
“No, say it,” Raphael murmured. “I want to hear you say it.”
Aziraphale sighed. “As if there was any chance I could pick you.”
“Don’t ‘angel’ me, Raphael. How do you expect this to work, hmm? I sneak out after the wedding to see the gardener behind my wife’s back? You won’t be able to throw stones at my window when I’m sharing a bed with someone else. How can I believe you’ll be alright with that?”
They stared at each other. Raphael broke it, his gaze falling to the floor. “I love you.”
Aziraphale barked out a laugh, bordering on hysterical. Outside, the first flash of lightning licked the ground, and thunder chased after. “You can’t love me! We don’t even know each other. It’s been a week since we first spoke. That’s not love, that’s…that’s a fantasy. One we’ve both been indulging for too long.”
Raphael blinked. He took a slow step back, and in spite of himself, Aziraphale felt the air gush between them. “Why indulge in the fantasy at all, then? You could have turned me away. You could have said ‘no, never.’ But you didn’t.”
“Because I wanted…”
“You could have it.”
“No, I couldn’t.” Aziraphale wasn’t shouting anymore. The air was gone from his lungs. He was tired, and he was empty, and he was ice cold. “I can’t. I have to accept that.”
He turned away. “You shouldn’t have come tonight.”
And there it was, the hand on his shoulder that became arms encircling him that became a chest pressed to his back, a head lowered against his neck, lips pressing desperate kisses to the skin. “Please don’t go,” Raphael begged. “It will work out. I promise.”
“You can’t know that.” But Aziraphale wavered. He stayed still, allowing Raphael’s touch, even though every ounce of common sense told him he ought to pull away.
“I can. I do.” Raphael’s kisses tapered off, until he was simply breathing against Aziraphale’s neck. “Trust me, angel. Please.”
Aziraphale swallowed hard. “Do you want to spend the night?”
Raphael froze. He lifted his head. “Really?”
“We shouldn’t. But yes, really.”
“I’d like that.”
Aziraphale showed him the way to his bedroom, and when they got into bed together Raphael kept a respectful distance. Aziraphale laid on his side, watching him, and Raphael watched back. Outside, the storm raged, thunder rumbling and lightning flashing, but inside the storm was over. “I’m sorry,” Aziraphale whispered into the darkness.
“For getting upset. For saying those things.” Aziraphale reached out, and found Raphael’s hand on the bed between them. He held it. “I’m just so confused.”
“What confuses you?”
“The way I feel about you…it’s wrong. I’ve been told it’s wrong. I’ve tried to stop it, but I can’t. And giving in…it feels so good, and yet part of me hates it, hates myself for allowing myself to sin.”
“It’s not a sin to love,” Raphael murmured. “It’s never a sin to love.”
“It isn’t,” Raphael insisted. “It can’t be.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Raphael said, and smiled in the darkness, “but bollocks to what the church says. You know you don’t agree with all their teachings. Why should this be any different?”
Aziraphale fell silent. Raphael had a point. He turned his face into the pillow, feeling the press of it upon his cheek. He spoke into it. “How can one person feel affection for two people at once? Is it even possible?”
“Of course it is.” Raphael squeezed his hand. “People do it all the time. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I don’t wish to be an adulterer.”
Raphael quieted. His thumb swiped gently across the back of Aziraphale’s hand, back and forth at a soothing pace. Finally, he asked, “You really feel affection for her? For Miss Crowley?”
“I…” Aziraphale faltered. “I don’t know. I...I think I might develop it, given time. Already there is an…attachment, although I don’t know that I would call it affection just yet.” He sighed. “And she seems to like me, which is unusual in and of itself.”
Raphael laughed. “It shouldn’t be.”
“But it is.” Aziraphale closed his eyes and buried his face further into the pillow. “I did not expect the luxury of being liked by a potential partner. I don’t know if it makes it easier or harder.”
“It will work itself out,” Raphael said. “I promise you.”
“So you said. But you cannot predict the future, my dear. You have no way of knowing how things will turn out.”
“Call it a hunch, then.” There were fingers on his face, and Aziraphale lifted his head slightly, looking into Raphael’s eyes. His expression was open, earnest. There was no hint of seduction, no coyness or tease. Just love, although Aziraphale still hesitated to name it such. Raphael’s fingers were hot where they touched him. “Go to sleep, angel. Things will look brighter in the morning.”
And in some ways, they did. When Aziraphale woke, the sun was shining, reflecting beautifully off the rain-kissed grass. There had been no lasting damage from the storm, save for a slight churning of flowerbeds. The sweet scent of fresh, wet earth hung in the air, and a promise of coolness after the torrent of heat danced about the breeze. Aziraphale woke rested and relaxed, his turbulent emotions calmed like the storm. The tension had released, and things did indeed look brighter.
In some ways. In other ways, Aziraphale reflected, taking in the empty side of the bed and his spare nightclothes, neatly folded, things looked much gloomier indeed.
Raphael did not make a reappearance the rest of the week, much to Aziraphale’s disappointment. He should have liked to apologize again, to beg forgiveness for his emotional lapse. He suspected Raphael would say it was unnecessary, but Aziraphale wished for it all the same. And there was an ache in his chest, the longer the gardener stayed away.
Miss Crowley, on the other hand, he saw plenty of. The day after the storm, she went to confession, although Aziraphale had been mistaken in thinking – worrying, really – that there would be anything untoward about it. Her voice was gentle, truly regretful as she confessed to lying and lust, and was forgiven for her transgressions. He saw her again on Wednesday, for another reading session, and this one went better than the first, lasting nearly four hours and without the rain to hurry them to a close. They had only read for perhaps three of them, spending the last hour discussing the narrative and its implications. Mr. Pulsifer did not join in conversation, but kept to tinkering. Aziraphale still had no idea what device he was building, or if it even was a device at all, and not a mangled mess of gears and wire.
When Thursday rolled around, Aziraphale’s anxieties renewed, although in a different capacity. Now they were directed at the approaching Saturday evening, and the façade he would undoubtedly have to erect to maintain his composure throughout the night. There was a great deal of chatter in the village, excited young women discussing what embellishments they would add to their gowns, young men teasing each other about who they might ask to dance.
Aziraphale elected to ignore it. Instead, he visited Mrs. Young, asking after her health and the baby, who she said was growing fine and strong. The doctor suspected a boy, she told him, which was alright by her, and particularly pleased her husband, although she confided to Aziraphale that she would be equally happy with a second girl, if such the baby was. So close to her delivery date, she was no longer fit to leave the house, so as not to cause undue stress to her or the child, but she maintained her cheerful manner in spite of it.
He paid a few other visits, as was dictated of him, but he kept them brief. Many of them had questions for him, about Miss Crowley or the ball, even if they tried to disguise their interest and intents. Aziraphale had no desire to discuss either.
Friday brought with it another note from Gabriel and renewed dread. This note was not a summons (which was a small mercy) but it was a reminder of Gabriel’s expectations for Saturday, thinly veiled hints at the ball’s true intentions and what Aziraphale would be expected to achieve through it. It turned his stomach, and he retired early and without supper – a most unusual occurrence for him – to abate the nausea.
Saturday morning did not ease his nerves; indeed, it made them worse. Aziraphale woke well before dawn, unable to return to the fitful sleep he had managed to achieve, and spent the early hours staring at the ceiling and contemplating if he could claim ill convincingly enough to satisfy his brother. The odds were not in his favour.
He had some dress clothes. They were quite plain in comparison to many of the ones he’d had in his youth, but Aziraphale liked them better. They were still ruffled, still suitably soft and comfortable, and largely in white and cream colours. They were perhaps a bit more ostentatious than befit a parson, but if Aziraphale was forced to dress up like a performer, he at least wanted to be comfortable. Gabriel would expect him to be there early, even earlier than the dinner guests would be arriving, to make final alterations to both the house and, more importantly, to Aziraphale, and so he dressed quickly and made for the estate.
The garden path was muddy as he made his way along it, but at least the cooler air kept him from becoming covered in sweat and clinging dust. He let himself in through the back, checking his reflection in the fountain before allowing himself admittance. The doors were all thrown open, airing the house out in preparation for the evening, and Aziraphale had to side-step many servants bustling to and fro in an attempt to please their master and mistress.
The rain, it seemed, had not dampened Gabriel’s spirits. He was cheerfully directing it all, stationed in the centre of the entry hall, as smooth and polished as the tile beneath his feet. Aziraphale had thought his own clothes were extravagant, but he had nothing on Gabriel’s. His brother looked fit to be royalty, for all the finery he was wearing, and Aziraphale supposed that must have been the point. Gabriel was nothing if not a king in his own mind, and tonight he was king of the estate, welcoming his beloved subjects into the fold.
Aziraphale came to a halt behind Gabriel, maintaining a distance of several yards. It was not his brother who noticed him first, but Belle, out of her dark colours and faintly masculine finery, and into a vivid red dress with a massive skirt. A necklace heavy with what were presumably genuine rubies glittered like eyes around her neck, and her veil was held fast by an elaborate hairdo affixed in place by several ornate, jewel-encrusted pins. She muttered something to her husband, who turned and gave Aziraphale a once over.
“Absolutely not,” Gabriel told him, before Aziraphale could open his mouth. “Upstairs, right now. This is your big day, Aziraphale! We can’t have you looking like you just rolled out of bed.”
Aziraphale blinked. He didn’t believe the metaphor was in any way accurate. Gabriel continued, “I took the liberty of having the servants lay out something for you in your room. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Perfect. Go get changed, and come back when you’re presentable, alright?”
“Of course.” Aziraphale waited until he was partway up the stairs to sigh, once he was out of Gabriel’s earshot. He startled as he looked up. From the landing, Dagon grinned. She meandered down the stairs, Aziraphale taking great care not to brush against her as she passed him, and he hurried up and away from the people below.
He physically recoiled when he saw what was laid out on his bed. Still light in colour, only these garments were nearly entirely white, as if showing off just how much Gabriel could afford to spend on Aziraphale’s misery. They were trimmed with silver edging, which caught in the light when he gingerly held up the fabric to examine it. Even the shoes were light in colour, although Aziraphale doubted they would remain unblemished by the end of the night. He sighed and began to disrobe. There was a basin of water and a brush prepared, and Aziraphale took the hint and attended to his hair as well. To his surprise, when he donned the new clothes, they fit snuggly, but not so much as to be uncomfortable. Gabriel must have ordered them, tailor-made, possibly from London, and Aziraphale cast a spare thought of thanks to whatever had possessed his brother to not torment him in this one respect.
When he descended, he felt less like himself and more like the prince Gabriel undoubtedly intended him to be in their little charade. Gabriel cornered him almost the moment his feet touched the landing, both his hands curling tightly around Aziraphale’s soft biceps, keeping him at arm’s length to get a look at him. “Much better,” Gabriel pronounced, and let him go with a slap on the shoulder. “Follow me.”
He led Aziraphale into the ballroom, where a band of musicians was preparing their instruments. They looked up briefly at the brothers’ entrance, but then returned to the task at hand. The man in front of them, in muted beige finery, turned and smiled at Gabriel. It was not a warm smile. It was not unlike Dagon’s, mean and sharp in ways that contrasted with the man’s subdued attire. Sandalphon nodded at Gabriel and leered at Aziraphale.
“How was London?” Gabriel asked as they came astride him.
“The trip was long, but we made it back in good time,” Sandalphon reported. Although Gabriel stood between them, watching the band with interest, Sandalphon peered around the mass that was Aziraphale’s elder brother to continue staring at him. Aziraphale shuddered, and clasped his hands tightly behind his back, keeping his gaze fixed on the musicians as well.
“Glad to hear it,” Gabriel said, as if unaware of his man’s fixation on his brother. “Will they be ready for tonight?”
“Ready and eager.”
“Wonderful.” Gabriel’s hand landed on Sandalphon’s shoulder, although not nearly as hard as he might have touched Aziraphale, given that Sandalphon’s knees didn’t even buckle. “Right, lots more to do, and only a few hours before guests start turning up.”
Aziraphale allowed himself to be dragged about the house like a leashed dog, hauled from room to room at Gabriel’s whim. The servants kept out of their way, and once or twice through the window Aziraphale thought he caught a glimpse of red hair in the garden. He never got an opportunity for a second look. On occasion, Gabriel would ask his opinion of something – the menu, the seating arrangements, the decorations, and so on. Aziraphale was never given more than a second to respond before his brother moved on, and so kept to impressed-sounding noises and the occasional indication of awe.
As the sun crossed the sky and began to dip towards the horizon, the bulk of the staff disappeared, scurrying out of sight so as not to be in the way, leaving behind only those Gabriel deemed essential for serving their guests. He kept a firm hand on Aziraphale’s shoulder as he steered him towards the door, planting him in the entry hall to greet guests as they arrived. Aziraphale attempted to force a smile, even a false one, onto his face, and was unsuccessful. He was already exhausted and dinner, much less the event to follow, had not even begun.
Those fortunate enough to receive a dinner invitation pulled up in carriages. Even those who did not own or could not afford a carriage had managed to find others with whom they could share the cost. Busybodies like the Petley’s arrived first, and Aziraphale managed not to grimace at Julietta, the daughter who undoubtedly was the reason for the invite. She was polite enough, but Aziraphale did not think a marriage to her, at the expense of knowing her parents for extended lengths of time, could survive. The family simpered a great deal upon greeting, thanking Gabriel profusely for the honour of attending, and telling Aziraphale how blessed they were for the invitation. Aziraphale’s smile came out a grimace, but no one looked at him long enough to notice.
Following the Petley’s were families like the Young’s: less eager, less desperate to make a good impression, but still polite and aware of the advantages of a match. Mrs. Young, naturally, would not be in attendance, but her husband was. Their daughter, barely sixteen, was not quite sulking as she followed her father into the house, but she certainly did not look happy. Aziraphale shared the sentiment. While it certainly was not unheard of for a man his age or older to marry a girl so young, the idea personally turned his stomach. Something of it must have showed on his face, because she relaxed minutely and curtsied without the glare.
The last of the families to arrive was the only one Aziraphale could claim any true interest in, and he actually managed a real smile when the carriage pulled up. It was easily recognizable, being more ornate than any of the others they had seen, and of course decorated with the family crest. Mr. Pulsifer got out first, his hair still askew but otherwise much more presentable then he usually appeared. He helped down his wife next. She was in an elaborate blue dress with purple accents, complete with feathers in her hair so she resembled a large and elegant peacock. Green stones shone in the trim of her skirt, making her glitter as she moved.
And she was followed by Miss Crowley. Aziraphale breath caught unexpectedly. He could recognize feminine beauty, of course, but he had never been particularly drawn to it in such a way before. Miss Crowley was still in black with gold trim, but she had traded the practical dress for a gown with a full skirt, laden with ruffles that rustled softly as she approached. Her collar remained high, but dipped just low enough to reveal a fraction of her neck where the veil ended, framed by her cascade of dark curls and studded with red gemstones and gold embroidery. She was in front of him before Aziraphale recalled his need for air, and he sucked in a sharp breath and bowed slightly on instinct, taking her gloved hand between his own and kissing it. When he straightened, he found himself on the receiving end of four surprised stares, although Gabriel and Mrs. Device’s were both tinged with amusement, while Mr. Pulsifer appeared more befuddled and Belle colder. Aziraphale cleared his throat. “We’re so pleased you could make it.” He addressed it to Mrs. Device, although he could not stop his eyes from sliding back to Miss Crowley.
“The pleasure is ours,” Mrs. Device replied warmly. She glanced at Mis Crowley. “My cousin has much been looking forward to it.”
Miss Crowley ducked her head, as if embarrassed. Aziraphale wondered if she was blushing beneath the veil. “I’m glad my health permitted me to attend,” she said.
“Well, a little dancing is good for the constitution,” Gabriel said smoothly. “Please, come in. Dinner will be served shortly.”
They entered, led down the hall by one of the servants. The front doors were closed, and Gabriel turned to Aziraphale. “What was that?”
In the face of his brother’s incredulity, Aziraphale blushed. “What was what?”
“You kissed her hand,” Gabriel said, as if this alone was an astonishing feat.
“I was being polite.”
“You did not do this with any of the other ladies.” Belle eyed him suspiciously.
Gabriel made a gesture of agreement towards his wife. “Exactly. I mean.” He huffed a laugh and shook his head. “We weren’t even sure you had it in you. You’ve always been a little…you know…” He waved a hand at Aziraphale, who stiffened. “But this bodes well. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”
Aziraphale coughed, although what he really wanted to do was be sick all over Gabriel’s polished shoes. “We shouldn’t leave our guests unattended,” he managed. “It would reflect poorly on us as hosts.”
“You’re absolutely right.” Gabriel offered his arm out to Belle, who took it, even as she narrowed her eyes at Aziraphale. “Come now. Let’s not leave them waiting.”
Aziraphale followed, and took his seat to Gabriel’s left at the dining table. It always appeared too large when it was empty, but now that it was full the room seemed to close in on Aziraphale, suffocating him with the compactness of the space. To his own left, Miss Crowley had her hands folded in her lap, apparently looking at her cousin across the table. She glanced towards him as he sat, and Aziraphale offered her a small smile. He took her hand as expected when they said grace, and was fairly certain it wasn’t his imagination when she gave it the slightest of squeezes.
Faint music played in the background as the meal began, but Aziraphale didn’t bother to search out the source. He turned instead to Miss Crowley, who was digging into her first course with relish. She paused with her fork under her veil, and then extracted it again, still full. “Mr. Fell?”
“I just wished to extend my thanks again that you were able to attend tonight.”
The smile returned to her voice. “I would not have missed it for the world.”
“Your physician does not worry about any undue strain?”
“My…physician thinks that dancing may do me good.”
Across the table, Aziraphale could feel Belle glaring daggers at the pair of them. As to why, he had only an inkling, although he suspected it had something to do with the way his sister-in-law had lifted her veil so it no longer obscured her sallow face and eyes, instead bunching like netting at her hairline. He ignored her and bent his head a little closer to his conversation partner. Miss Crowley mirrored the gesture. “You look lovely this evening,” he told her. “Shall I ask why you are in black? Is it not traditionally a colour of mourning?”
“It can be,” Miss Crowley allowed. Amusement curled her voice. “But I believe black suits me. Shall I ask why you are in white?”
Aziraphale flushed faintly. “It was my brother’s idea, not my own. I’m afraid it does not suit me quite so well as black suits you.”
“I may disagree,” Miss Crowley said. Beneath the table, Aziraphale felt her fingers brush gently against the side of his arm before she removed them. “I think we make a handsome matched pair.”
“Then I defer to your judgement on the matter,” Aziraphale said graciously, unsure how he could refuse the compliment to himself without offending Miss Crowley. Belle’s eyes were not the only ones fixed on them. The Petleys, towards the far end of the table, were glaring at him as well, although Julietta seemed more enamoured with the food before her. Aziraphale had to concur with her on that point; Gabriel’s kitchen staff was very talented, and it took great restraint on his part not to throw his table manners to the wind. He returned to his meal, and Miss Crowley to hers, and they remained silent throughout the rest of the course.
Upon the second course, Miss Crowley initiated conversation again, her voice so low that only Aziraphale might hear. “You do not appear particularly happy this evening. Is something wrong?”
Aziraphale spared a brief glance for Gabriel, who was pretending to appear as though he wasn’t attempting to listen in and looked quite put-out that he could not. He turned back to Miss Crowley. “I must confess, I’m not much for dinner and dancing. Well, dinner perhaps, but not so crowded a meal.”
“Such events make you uneasy?” she translated. “Is it the people?”
“Not you,” he hastened. “But…yes. I find myself at a loss in crowds.”
“I understand. I imagine it can be…overwhelming.”
“Is it not for you?”
“I rarely find myself in much company.”
Ah, yes. Her health would likely prevent such frequent attendance at parties. Aziraphale gave her a small smile. “I must say, I vastly prefer an evening in. Wednesday particularly of this past week is precisely the sort of thing I like best.”
“Reading and intellectual conversation?”
“Then perhaps we are well matched in that respect as well.”
Aziraphale’s heart fluttered, followed by a chilled feeling. He sat up straighter, his gut suddenly churning, an image of Raphael’s face flashing into his mind. He tried to recall Raphael’s words, that it would be alright, that he understood Aziraphale’s feelings for another, but the attempt just sickened him further. He turned away and stared at his plate, unseeing, and tensed when Miss Crowley put a questioning hand on his arm again. She withdrew, and shame washed over Aziraphale on both fronts. It was selfish of him, to wish for both, and in the end, it would win him neither.
When desert came, a sound to his left startled him out of his personal misery, jarring enough that it quite put self-flagellation out of his mind. Miss Crowley covered her mouth, or roughly where her mouth would be beneath the veil, as most of their end of the table turned to stare at her, responding to the distinctly unladylike – and surprisingly guttural – moan that had left her mouth upon consuming the first bite. It stirred something in Aziraphale that harkened back to bathtubs and collarbones, and he shoved it forcibly from his mind. Miss Crowley cleared her throat delicately. “This is delicious,” she covered weakly. “My compliments to you, Mr. Fell—” she addressed Gabriel “—on presenting so fine a table.”
Gabriel stared at her, and for what Aziraphale realized might be the first time, looked like he was reconsidering bestowing his regard. He coughed. “Um…thank you.”
The table settled, although people continued to give Miss Crowley strange looks. She turned towards Aziraphale. “I’m sorry,” she said, and Aziraphale was startled to hear true regret and concern in her voice. “I didn’t mean to cause a fuss or behave inappropriately. I’ve just never been allowed to eat like this before.”
Aziraphale blinked. “Really?” Then the implications caught up. “Yes, of course. Your health?”
“Er, yes. Precisely. The…dietary restrictions are unnecessary, in my opinion.” She set her hand once again upon Aziraphale’s elbow, and for once Aziraphale believe the touch to be both earnest and entirely with innocent intent. “I did not expect to enjoy it so much, or I would have better controlled myself.”
“It’s alright,” Aziraphale said kindly. “We all have lapses of control. So long as we seek to improve in the future, it can be forgiven. And this truly is a delicious meal. I don’t blame you in the slightest for reacting so.” He leaned in and lowered his voice, sharing a secretive smile with her. “It is perhaps the one aspect of visiting my brother that does not fill me with dread.”
She laughed, and Aziraphale was reminded again of Raphael, although with pleasanter reason. They both laughed beautifully, and even quietly it was with the whole body. He could feel her quivering with mirth beside him, and he suppressed the desire to laugh himself, although he still smiled fondly, pushing away for the moment the guilt it dredged in his stomach. There would be time for guilt later, and right now there was desert to eat and a surprisingly agreeable dinner companion to make conversation with.
The meal, however, ended far too soon, music from the ballroom picking up and echoing loudly through the house. Gabriel dismissed the dinner table with frivolity and caught Aziraphale’s arm so that he might not escape with the rest. Aziraphale assured Miss Crowley that he would be with them soon, for the library tour he had promised her and her cousin, and she too adjourned. The moment she was out of earshot, Gabriel asked, “What’s wrong with her?”
Aziraphale blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’ll admit, I liked the prospect at first, but we do have to think about the family reputation, and-“
“The Device family is extremely well-connected,” Aziraphale said icily. He met Gabriel’s gaze head-on, with more bravado than he’d thought possible. “Miss Crowley is sheltered, that’s all. There is nothing wrong with her that couldn’t be sorted out by a firm hand.” Not that he had any intention of laying anything of the sort on her. He quite liked her as she was. “The family reputation could suffer little ill from being associated with her, and might in fact suffer more ill from spurning her company.”
Gabriel appeared moderately reassured, if still slightly uneasy about it, and he relaxed again. “Of course,” he said. “Well then. Let’s rejoin our guests, shall we? And you can see about breaking her in.”
Aziraphale winced internally. Outwardly, he nodded his confirmation, and with his brother swept out into the hallway and towards the front door. More guests would be arriving shortly, and they had a duty as hosts.
After far too many minutes suffering the fawning of parishioners, directed both at Gabriel and himself, the newcomers slowed to a trickle, and Aziraphale managed to extricate himself from Gabriel’s side. He found Mrs. Device, flanked by her party, close to the ballroom door. Her gaze swivelled to him expectantly nearly the moment he stepped within eyeline. She met him halfway, and he inclined his head. “Mrs. Device. I believe I made you a promise.” The words were formal, but there was gratitude infused in them at the opportunity for escape.
Mrs. Device smiled. “So you did. Shall we?”
He spared a glance for Miss Crowley before he took Mrs. Device’s proffered arm, leading her down the hall and away from the crowded ballroom. The library, by contrast, was starkly empty when he pushed open the doors, revealing the expansive room. His three guests marvelled, even Pulsifer appearing impressed with the extent of the collection Aziraphale’s family had amassed over the years. Aziraphale did not blame them; even having grown up with such a library, his heart swelled anew each time he stepped inside.
“We have extensive sections of both nonfiction and literature,” Aziraphale told them as they stepped farther into the room. He pushed the door shut behind them, so as not to be disturbed, and then led them to the centre, where the wood flooring gave way to tile, white and blue, arranged so that a ring formed, with the cardinal directions marked. The room itself bent with the floor, maintaining an illusion of roundness even on the sides that ought to have been flat. Curved windows marked the eastern wall, overlooking a portion of the back garden, the nearest two columns just visible. The walls themselves were lined with bookshelves, accommodated to the slope of the room, and a staircase led up to a second ring of bookcases on another level. Directly above their heads, a chandelier with twisting crystals like compass needles glittered in the light of the setting sun.
“There’s a reading room farther back.” Aziraphale indicated it with a nervous gesture when his guests remained silent. He brought his hands together, lacing his fingers so as not to fidget. “There are more shelves back there, of course. And a sitting area, for reading and such.” He licked his lips, and babbled, “I spent a great deal of time here, when I was younger. Gabriel, of course, has never been much of a reader, so he’s never in here to appreciate it, and naturally since Michael is in London-“
“It’s amazing,” Mr. Pulsifer said. He sounded breathless, and he was the first to stop craning his neck and look at Aziraphale again. “Do you have any books on engineering?”
Aziraphale indicated the section, which was buried in the back, just next to the cosy alcove of chairs and tables that made up the sitting area. Mr. Pulsifer went that way. Mrs. Device remained where she was, spinning slowly on the spot. She appeared, for once, actually surprised.
“This is beautiful, Mr. Fell,” she murmured, awestruck. “The sheer amount of knowledge in this room…”
“I wish I could offer you unlimited access,” Aziraphale told her. “If I had inherited the house, I certainly would have. Alas, even I cannot come here without my brother’s permission now.” Not that he thought Gabriel would refuse him, but there would be expectations if he did so, favours he would be required to return by his calculating brother.
Mrs. Device gave him a sympathetic smile. “That’s alright,” she said, “but thank you. May I…?” She gestured to the shelves, and Aziraphale nodded encouragingly. She took immediately to the narrow staircase, ascending with ease to explore the second level. Which left Aziraphale functionally alone, in the centre of the room, with Miss Crowley.
He watched her for a moment. She had glanced around the room upon entering, but she was not looking about now. As far as Aziraphale could tell, all her attention appeared to be fixated on him. “What do you think?” he prompted her softly.
“I think,” she said, drawing out the words in a tone just shy of seductive, “that sunset becomes you, Mr. Fell.”
Aziraphale frowned, and then half-turned. The sun, going down, did indeed wash the room in a faint glow, although not as bright as it would have been had the windows faced west. It did give him, clad in all white, the appearance of glowing as well. He looked down at his hands, examining them, and then looked at Miss Crowley again. She had stepped closer, although maintaining enough distance to be appropriate. The fading sunlight made the red jewels of her gown burn. “I think sunrise would become you even more,” Aziraphale returned quietly. His heart pounded in his ears. They were not alone, not really, but Mr. Pulsifer was out of sight and Mrs. Device was otherwise occupied, and it was very easy to take another step closer to Miss Crowley, Aziraphale drawn in like a moth. “Miss Crowley, I…”
He could not see her smile, but even before she spoke he could picture it in his mind. Her gloved hand touched his. “The library is magnificent,” she murmured. “A shame it’s kept so locked up, inaccessible.”
Aziraphale took her hand properly, stroking the silky material of her glove with his thumbs. “Sometimes things are inaccessible for a reason,” he said, and he wasn’t talking about the library. “And sometimes, quite unexpectedly, they become accessible for someone very remarkable.”
“Do you think I am remarkable, Mr. Fell?”
“I think-“ Footsteps hit the floor, and Aziraphale was torn from the intimacy of where he stood with Miss Crowley, dropping her hand like it burned and taking several short steps back. He flushed guiltily as Mrs. Device returned, and she glanced between him and Miss Crowley with lifted eyebrows.
“Have I interrupted something?” she asked, and although her voice held no judgement, Aziraphale’s blush deepened anyway.
“No,” he said quickly. “Of course not. We were just discussing the room, is all.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Device said. Her dry tone betrayed her true opinion, but still there was no rebuke. She glanced between them again. “Let’s see where my husband has disappeared to, shall we?”
Aziraphale followed her deeper into the room, Miss Crowley falling into step beside him. He stole a glance at her, and his heart fluttered when he realized she was looking back.
They found Mr. Pulsifer spread out at a table with several open engineering books, the man flitting back and forth between them like a particularly exuberant and mechanically-minded butterfly. There was a fireplace, tucked away in the corner, but it was cold, without even a pile of wood beside it in the summer months, just as Aziraphale remembered as a child. His mother had been especially fond of books, and to have a fire in the library, even a perfectly safe one, had been something she agreed to only reluctantly, and only when winter made it too cold to otherwise occupy the room.
Mrs. Device trailed her finger over a few book spines before plucking one from the shelf and settling into an armchair with it, crossing her legs delicately beneath the elaborate ruffling of her skirts. Miss Crowley remained standing, examining the stone fireplace with interest, her fingertips brushing against the mantlepiece. Aziraphale lowered himself into an armchair and watched her, and after a moment she turned, as if feeling his eyes, and came to sit beside him.
“The selection of classic literature here is even greater than my own,” Aziraphale told her, indicating a section behind them. “If you should like to examine it.” It certainly was more expansive, he thought, although Havensgate’s classic collection was not so carefully curated as his library, with only the most appropriate of books acquired. The Satyricon was not in it.
Miss Crowley gave the shelves half a glance but did not move. “I must confess, as exceptional as this library is, I find I prefer yours.” The hand nearest Aziraphale rested on the arm of her chair, and he only just managed to prevent himself from reaching out for it.
“Really?” he asked. “My books are not near so many, nor so varied. Nor are the editions so rare or elaborate.”
“Perhaps not,” Miss Crowley said, “but it is intimate, and comfortable, and you are there. I find that matters to me a great deal more, don’t you think?”
Aziraphale opened his mouth to respond, his heart swelling like a crescendo, but for the second time that night, he was interrupted. A scaly voice crashed over him. “There you are, Mr. Fell. Your brother’s been wondering where you got off to.”
“Dagon,” Aziraphale stammered, jerking to his feet, his back ramrod straight. “I was just showing the Devices the library-“
“My master wants you in the ballroom, Mr. Fell. It wouldn’t do to be spurning the attentions of all your guests for only a few.” She cast an unimpressed look about the party, at Pulsifer, who had paused at the conversation and who was slightly flushed and a sight more dishevelled than when he’d arrived, and at Mrs. Device, whose features had gone stony. She did not even bother to look at Miss Crowley. “If you’ll return to the festivities, please.” It was not a question, nor a particularly polite statement. Aziraphale took a step towards her on impulse, and then paused.
He turned to Miss Crowley and offered her his hand. “Would you care to accompany me to the ballroom? I do believe I promised you two dances.”
She took his hand and stood as well. “I would enjoy that, Mr. Fell.” She spared a look for Mrs. Device, who nodded her consent to be left alone, and then Aziraphale followed Dagon out of the library and in the direction of the ballroom.
That's right, the ball is so big, it needed two chapters to itself.
I've been seeing all your lovely comments on this story. Thank you so much for your support. As I've mentioned to some of you, due to life reasons, my other ongoing Good Omens fic, Further Omens of a Wondrous and Unusual Nature, has just gone on hiatus (unlike this one, that is a true work-in-progress, so updates were not guaranteed the way these are). To compensate for that, you lovely readers are going to get two chapters of this fic every week that I don't update Further Omens. The second update will most likely be on Fridays, starting with this one. I hope you continue to love this story, and I love hearing from you about it! I've seen your questions and, rest assured, they'll be answered.
It was difficult to say if the music was the more overwhelming sensation, or the claustrophobic press of people. Both increased as Aziraphale approached the ballroom with Miss Crowley, Dagon disappearing behind them when she felt satisfied he would obey. People stared as they entered the room together, and Aziraphale’s stomach churned at being the centre of attention. The only thing that stayed him was Miss Crowley’s hand on his arm, the feeling of her walking beside him, her dress brushing at his ankles and calves. Likely able to feel his stiffening beside her, she leaned closer and murmured, “It’s alright. They’re just jealous.”
“What would they have to be jealous of?” Aziraphale said without thinking. His voice was pitched slightly higher than usual with nerves.
Miss Crowley laughed. “Of me, and the beautiful man on my arm, I should think. Or possibly of you and the beautiful woman on yours. Or both.” They took their positions in the dance, and Miss Crowley added, “Forgive me if I step on your toes. I’m afraid I’m not a particularly talented dancer.”
“I’m afraid the sentiment is mutual,” Aziraphale admitted. He gave her a small smile. “At least we continue to be well matched.”
And they were, much to Aziraphale’s astonishment, although not precisely in the way he had expected. Aziraphale was not especially graceful, but he had been schooled in dancing throughout his childhood, and so he was at least passable at it. Miss Crowley seemed uncertain of the steps, often hitting them a beat later or performing them in a variation Aziraphale was not entirely familiar with, but she moved with incredible grace, her body swaying to the beat. Every time they passed by each other, it was electric.
A thought flashed into his mind, wondering what it might be like to dance with Raphael in such a fashion, and it was enough to trip him over his own feet. He stumbled and caught himself, flushing scarlet, and bowed to his partner as the first dance ended. They whisked on into the second one, and Aziraphale banished thoughts of Raphael again from his mind.
Far too soon, it was over, and Aziraphale found his brother’s firm hand on his shoulder, drawing him back a step before he could move towards Miss Crowley again. She looked between them and then disappeared into the crowd as Gabriel muttered in Aziraphale’s ear, “I don’t mind you playing favourites, but there are appearances to keep up. You can’t spend the whole night with one lady.”
“Yes, of course,” Aziraphale sighed, and was thrust figuratively into the arms of Julietta Petley without further ado. She was very polite, and relinquished him agreeably to the Young girl as soon as it was done. Now that she had confirmed for herself that Aziraphale had no interest in her, she seemed quite happy to dance, although Aziraphale did note her spending most of it watching a young man across the floor. He was the son of a merchant in town, and would make her a nice match, assuming her regard was more than a childhood affair. He smiled, and when the dance was over nudged her in his direction with a knowing look. She grinned in return and skipped off.
Aziraphale had encountered worse fates than being passed around like a piece of meat, his brother’s nagging being one of them. Most of the women who he danced with were very polite, and few of them made any attempt at conversation. The ones who did remarked on the liveliness of the ball, or the eloquence of his speech, or occasionally on the benefits his position in the church must offer him. Even the one who boldly commented on his lack of a wife, and how it might befit a parson of his station to marry soon and well, seemed subdued somewhat in her efforts. It seemed Aziraphale was not the only one Miss Crowley had made an impact on. The room at large appeared to acknowledge it.
Just as his feet were beginning to ache, with no apparent end in sight to the dancing and the conversation, he turned, and a magnificent peacock lifted her eyebrow expectantly. With relief, Aziraphale extended the invitation, and it was Mrs. Device, not himself, who led them back onto the dancefloor. Aziraphale caught Mr. Pulsifer watching from the sidelines, leaning casually against the wall.
“You like her a great deal, don’t you?” Mrs. Device whispered to him shrewdly, taking advantage of the moments they passed close for conversations. “My cousin.”
“I…I do,” Aziraphale admitted. “She’s very spirited, and we have many interests in common.”
“You are not concerned about her illness, or the veil she wears?”
Aziraphale hesitated. “Of course I pray for her good health, and I must admit the veil is peculiar, but-“
“She likes you as well, you know.”
“I do. She has made her regard clear to me.” More than clear, really. Aziraphale suspected he could propose that night and she would almost certainly say yes.
“Mr. Fell, I will not mince words. There is another you have an attachment to, yes?”
Aziraphale’s heart stopped, and he choked on air, only just managing not to trip. “Mrs. Device-“
“I am not casting judgement, Mr. Fell. Does he have a name?”
The pronoun was not lost on Aziraphale, who looked about the room wildly. It was unnecessary; there was no chance of them being heard over the music and chatter and laughter. He looked back to her, eyes wide, and found her own placid as she gazed back. Finally he said, “Raphael. His name is Raphael.”
“Do you love him?”
“You have seen Miss Crowley much of late. What of him?”
She stepped close, closer than necessary, halting in the middle of the dancefloor, and Aziraphale halted with her as she whispered urgently, “You are a man torn, Mr. Fell, between what you believe you should want and what you actually want. Others may not see it, but to me it is plain as day. You must rectify these pieces of yourself, or you will never be truly happy.”
Aziraphale jerked himself from her, stumbling backwards. Eyes were on him, but he found himself unable to care, his heart in his throat, choking him on acrid, coppery blood. He shook his head, as if to clear it, but all it did was cause specks of light to swim in his vision. He fled, tears pricking his eyes, his breath coming short and gasping. He did not stop running until he reached the outside, throwing himself past the fountain to the back of the garden, where the lights of the house didn’t touch. He collapsed in an alcove by the hedge, wrapping his arms around his knees and hugging them to his chest, his body wracked with sobs. He sat there, shaking, uncertain how much time was passing but uncaring if it did. He would have sat there the whole night, if only to hide from Mrs. Device and her piecing words.
He did not think she meant them unkindly. Her eyes had been honest, her expression soft. But she had cut to the heart of him so swiftly that Aziraphale felt exposed, his insides spilling out for all to see. His chest heaved and stuttered as he attempted to choke back his sobs. Mrs. Device was his friend, he was certain, and remained so. She could see to his heart, as she saw everything. If only he could do the same.
There was a rustling behind him, and Aziraphale froze. It settled, and a gentle voice – muffled slightly – murmured, “What’s a man like you doing in a place like this?”
Aziraphale turned, dropping his legs and twisting, but there was no one behind him, just the thick mass of hedge. He could not see through it, certainly not in the dark, but he pressed his hand against it anyway. “I thought I might have lost you. After what happened…what I said…”
“You haven’t lost me, Aziraphale. You never could.” Raphael’s voice was kind, positioned so that Aziraphale thought he might be sitting too, on the other side of the hedge. “I’m sorry I left, but I’m here now. I got the feeling you might need me.”
“I do,” Aziraphale breathed. He hesitated. “Why can’t I see you?”
“I’m not allowed in the garden tonight. None of the groundskeepers are. Your brother’s rules.”
“Oh. But surely-“
“Let it be, Aziraphale. I’m here. Can that be enough?”
“Always.” Aziraphale leaned into the hedge, heedless of the scratching of twigs at his face and hair. “Raphael, I am a man torn apart.”
“I thought you might be.”
“Mrs. Device knows about you. I told her but…I think she must have guessed beforehand…?”
“You do leave certain impressions, angel. It’s not your fault.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale quieted for a moment, turning that over and accepting it as truth, and then said, “I believe I am falling in love. I didn’t think it possible, but there it is. And it’s breaking my heart.”
“Oh, my angel, why? Why would love break your heart?”
Aziraphale squeezed his eyes shut. “Because I already love you. I love you, and I shouldn’t. It’s not allowed, and my family would never overlook it, even if we could find a way to make it work. And now I am falling for someone else…someone perfect for my family, for the church, for society…the sort of person I would be expected to marry, who would be welcomed. And I feel as if I am betraying you.”
“But you still love me.”
“I don’t think I could ever stop.”
There was a rustle, and Aziraphale though Raphael might be pressing into the hedge as well, a thick wall of leaves preventing them from touching. “Then you haven’t betrayed me,” the gardener whispered. “It…it is Miss Crowley that you mean, isn’t it?”
“It is. She…captivates me, in a way I hadn’t expected.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“I…suppose.” Aziraphale sighed. He turned, sitting cross-legged and leaning back into the hedge. “I didn’t think I was capable of loving a woman.”
“I never have before. It’s never been the sort of thought that crossed my mind.”
“May I ask you a question, Aziraphale?”
“How do you know you love men?”
Aziraphale opened his eyes. He blinked, and then frowned, and then tilted his head. “I suppose I’ve always known. It just seemed…natural. When we were growing up, I remember watching you, and my heart cried out to know you.”
“And who else?”
“Men is plural, Aziraphale.” Raphael sounded somewhere between amusement and kindness, not like he was making fun of Aziraphale, but as though there was a mirth he could see that Aziraphale was not yet privy to. “Who have you wanted besides me? What men have made you want?”
“Well…” Aziraphale thought about it and was startled to determine that he couldn’t think of any. He’d assumed it had to do with his self-control, the work he’d done to force down that aspect of himself, but other than a general appreciation for aesthetics, he found he could not name a particular example who had inspired that response. “It’s just you,” he said eventually. “You’re all I’ve ever wanted. Until now.”
“Just me.” Raphael’s voice had gone breathless, like the answer was a gift that Aziraphale had given him, one that he had half-expected but was still surprised to receive. “Oh, angel…”
“Raphael-“ Aziraphale began, and stopped himself. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say.
“It’s okay, Aziraphale,” Raphael murmured. “It’s okay to want things, you know. And you don’t want very much, do you?”
“It isn’t…I shouldn’t…”
“You shouldn’t what? You shouldn’t love? Aren’t you meant to love all things? All the Lord’s creations?”
“Aren’t I one of them, angel? Isn’t Miss Crowley?”
“Yes, but it’s different.” Aziraphale sighed. He tilted his head back, staring up at the stars. If only there were a simple answer, one that didn’t make him feel stretched and crushed into a million pieces. One that didn’t have him sure that, no matter what he chose, someone’s heart would be broken.
“I don’t think it is,” Raphael said. He hesitated. “I’m no expert, but I know that love is something worth cherishing. That’s it’s worth holding onto, in all its forms.”
“Maybe.” Aziraphale picked at the grass, running his fingers through it in lieu of a hand to hold. “It’s not very fair to her, is it?” He felt the confusion in Raphael’s silence and explained, “Miss Crowley. It’s one thing for you to say it’s alright for me to love you both, but it’s another for her. She doesn’t know that my attentions are…divided.”
Silence fell between them. Then Raphael murmured, “I’m upsetting you, aren’t I? I’m causing you stress where there needn’t be any.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” Aziraphale sighed. “I’m the one in the wrong. I’m leading that poor woman on…well, perhaps not leading her on, but I might as well be lying to her for what I’m keeping secret.”
“If I were a better person, I’d give both of you up and be done with it!”
He closed his eyes again. “I won’t. I can’t give you up. Certainly not you. And Gabriel will not permit me to…”
Raphael’s voice came nearer, as if breathing directly through the hedge. “You’re a good man, Aziraphale. But I don’t want this to upset you anymore.” He paused, and then sighed. “You have two options.”
“You have to marry. You could…you could try to forget about me, and marry her or some other woman instead without the fuss. You could fall in love with just her, and be happy.”
Aziraphale shook his head. The mere idea was enough to form a lump in his throat. “I don’t think I could be happy without you.”
Raphael sounded like he’d expected that answer, his relief palpable in his voice. “Then your other option is to spare yourself some of this pain. Tell her the truth. She may…she may surprise you.”
“Tell her the truth?” Aziraphale repeated. He turned to look, as if Raphael’s face would be revealed to him. It was not. “As much as I’d like to think her as…open-minded as her cousin, I’m not sure that can be wise.”
“Could you love her if she wasn’t accepting? If she didn’t love all of you, as I do?”
That was true. If she didn’t accept him, love all of him, Aziraphale knew a marriage to her could become miserable intolerably quickly. He bit his lip. “You really think I should tell her?”
“Just as much as you feel comfortable with. I promise you, if she’s the woman you love, she’ll understand.”
“I do hope you’re right.” Aziraphale got his knees under him, and brushed off his trousers. He took a few steadying breaths. “I probably ought to return soon. I expect I’ll be missed eventually, and I suppose I made a bit of a fuss, rushing out as I did.”
Raphael laughed, full-bodied and beautiful. “I’m sure you did.”
“I could stay with you a few minutes more…?”
“No, go,” Raphael told him. “I relinquish you to the world. Go find Miss Crowley. Talk to her. I’m sure she’s looking for you now.” There was a sound like Raphael was hauling himself to his feet, a rustling of the hedge leaves, and Aziraphale rose too. “I’ll see you soon, angel.”
His earnestness earned him another laugh. “Not tonight. Tomorrow, if you like. I’ll come to the garden in the evening, and you can tell me all about the ball.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Aziraphale murmured, bringing the promise close to his heart and letting it warm him. “Goodnight, Raphael.”
“Goodnight, angel.” There was another rustle, and Aziraphale was left alone. He took another deep breath, straightened out the ends of his waistcoat, and then lifted his chin and strode confidently in the direction of the house.
He turned the corner of a hedge and nearly crashed into Miss Crowley, yelping and losing his footing. “So sorry,” he stammered. “My feet seem to have quite gotten away from me this evening.”
She giggled and helped him up. “I think I’ll forgive your feet, since it seems they were taking you to me.”
Aziraphale blushed. “Er, they were, actually. I was going to find you.”
“For the moment.” Aziraphale realized he was running his palms nervously over his trousers, and forced himself to stop. He offered Miss Crowley his arm. “Might I escort you back to the house?”
“Since between the two of us, I appear to have the better lay of the dark, perhaps I should be escorting you,” she teased, and took his arm. Aziraphale smiled and let her lead. As they approached the house, the lights and music grew brighter and louder again, and Aziraphale could see silhouettes moving about the windows, dancing and conversing. He set his hand on Miss Crowley’s wrist and halted her just as they passed the fountain, stepping onto the stairs leading up to the patio. She turned to him curiously, and he wondered if it was his imagination that she seemed almost expectant.
“Miss Crowley,” he said carefully. “I think it is apparent that I have a very high regard for you.”
Her voice sparked with mirth. “I have gotten that impression.”
“And it seems you have a high regard for me.”
“I do indeed, Mr. Fell.”
Aziraphale’s hands were clammy, and he folded them behind his back. His tongue felt swollen, his mouth dry, but there was little he could do about that. He cleared his throat. It did not help. “Miss Crowley, I don’t know if you’re aware of why my brother is hosting the ball this evening, but am I wrong in assuming the rumours have been made known to you?”
“He intends to find you a bride, or so they say.”
“Er, yes. Quite.” He flushed and cleared his throat again awkwardly. “Miss Crowley, I-“
“Whatever you have to say, Parson Fell, I welcome it.”
“I’m not proposing!” he said hurriedly, nearly squeaking. “That is, ah…” He sighed. “I really am no good at this sort of thing.”
The amusement did not leave her voice. It wasn’t cruel, but warm, and Aziraphale found it steadied him when she said, “I didn’t think you were the sort to propose so soon. After all, we’ve hardly known each other a fortnight, Mr. Fell. But I’m sure whatever else you might have to say will be well met.”
“Right.” He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I find myself caring for you, very deeply. More so than I was expecting, to be perfectly frank. And it is because I care for you that I must speak to you thus.” He hesitated, and when she said nothing, spurred himself on. “I would wish to court you, if you are amenable, but there is something I need you to understand before I do.”
She tilted her head. He sat down on the fountain’s edge, and she sat as well, placing her hand over his. Aziraphale looked at them, swallowed hard, and then withdrew, placing his own in his lap. “You are not the only person I care for in this way,” he told her, and the honesty was a balm that soothed the fear even as it rushed forth, cooling painful fires of anxiety in his chest. He continued, “It does not lessen my feelings for you in any way. But this other person, I cannot be with publicly. It would not be proper. I’m…I’m afraid I lack the strength to let them go.” He laughed softly, self-deprecating. “Even if I were to court you, perhaps even if I were to someday marry you, as I’m sure my brother would hope, I don’t…I don’t intend to stop seeing them in some capacity.” He hesitated, stealing a glance at her, but without access to her face he could not judge her reaction. He looked down at his lap again.
Miss Crowley’s hand came into his line of vision, and once again grasped his. He looked up. “I understand,” she said quietly. “Forbidden love causes quite the heartbreak, does it not?”
“I…yes. I’m finding it does.”
“And you do have regard for me? As I am?”
“As you are.”
“Then it’s alright,” she said. She squeezed his hand. “I will not ask you to choose.”
He stared at her, disbelieving. “But surely you couldn’t be happy like that, in the long run.”
“I think I could. If I had you, your heart. I think I could be very happy indeed.”
“Even if you shared it with someone else?”
“Will I not already share it?” she asked. “With your family, your friends?” She leaned closer, teasing, “Your books? No, I think I will be quite content to share your affections, so long as you had some remaining for me.”
“Even…” Aziraphale swallowed hard. He forced himself to look at her. Part of him whispered that she need not know, that he need not tell her, but if she did not already suspect, she would soon, or else Mrs. Device or someone might tell her for him. And she deserved the truth. “Even if you shared them with a man?”
“Does him being a man make you care for me any less?”
“Then it matters not.” She squeezed again, and Aziraphale allowed himself to cover her hand with his other one.
“I’m not sure I deserve you,” he admitted. Or Raphael, he added privately to himself. It was starting to dawn on him that, miraculously, he might manage to have both.
He could have sworn she smiled. “You do not have me yet. I believe there are certain formalities that are required first.”
“Miss Crowley, would you permit me to court you?”
“I would enjoy that greatly, Mr. Fell.”
Unable to help it, Aziraphale grinned and then laughed, the joy forcing itself out of him. “Oh, thank you, my dear,” he said affectionately. He stood up, and took her hands. “Let’s rejoin the others, shall we? I’m afraid that there’s still propriety to be observed.”
“How unfortunate,” she chuckled, and held his arm as he led her up the stairs. A few other couples had amassed on the patio, enjoying the moonlight and a respite from the ruckus. They passed by them, and were separated shortly thereafter by women Aziraphale had yet to dance with petitioning for their turns, and Miss Crowley gave him up good-naturedly, retiring to her cousin’s side and murmuring to her. Every now and again, Aziraphale must have caught her eye, because she would give him a little wave. Aziraphale would beam back, giddy with the evening. He did not even mind the dancing.
It was very late when the guests were finally shepherded out the door. Events of Gabriel’s had gone longer before, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning, but this was one respect that Aziraphale had been insistent upon; the guests would be gone before midnight, before the Saturday night turned over to Sunday. “I will have church,” he had posited, “and so will everyone else. If this event really is for me, this is a very small request that you can grant me, Gabriel.” Gabriel had acceded.
Now, as the final partygoers trickled out, Gabriel pulled him aside, leaving Belle to formalize their goodbyes. Aziraphale had long since bid the Devices good night, and found his pleasant mood beginning to sour with the lateness and the growing ache in his feet. His smile faded as Gabriel murmured, “So things went well, then?”
“Good.” Gabriel patted him, a little gentler than usual, for which Aziraphale was grateful. “Miss Crowley, was it? Given that you had your eye on her, and then you disappeared into the gardens-“
“I haven’t proposed.”
Gabriel blinked. Aziraphale hardly believed his daring, interrupting his brother. He dared further, lifting his eyebrows. “I didn’t think it would look right, a parson proposing to a woman he only just met, and one who comes from a family of such esteem. I did, however, ask to court her, and she accepted.”
“What’s the difference?”
Aziraphale held in a sigh. He was very tired. He wanted to join their guests in returning home. “It means that in a few months, if all goes well, then I shall propose to her.”
“Why not now?”
“Because I don’t want to!” Aziraphale burst out, surprising them both. He took a breath. “I would like to court her, brother, before I marry her. It’s important to me. I will concede to your wishes, Gabriel. I will take a bride. But please do me the courtesy of allowing me to ensure she is someone I actually like.”
Silence fell between them. The doors shut, and Belle returned to her husband’s side, glancing between him and Aziraphale. Eventually, Gabriel gave a jerky nod. “Right. That…that seems reasonable. Good…good luck with Miss Crowley, then.”
“Thank you.” Aziraphale inclined his head. “Now, if you don’t mind, it is late, and I would like to go home.”
Gabriel scoffed, bouncing back as he waved his hand dismissively. “There’s no need for that. It’s dark out, and-“
“I will take a lantern,” Aziraphale said firmly. “I am aware it is late, but I expect I will be quite safe on the walking path, so long as I have proper illumination. I can change back into what I was wearing before, if it is important to you, but otherwise I am going, Gabriel. Goodnight.”
His brother rocked back on his heels, blinked wide, and said nothing. Aziraphale did not change, but he did go upstairs to retrieve his clothes, descending the stairs again and taking a lit lantern from one of the servants by the kitchen. He nodded briefly at Gabriel and Belle before he took off into the night, the way lit by the lantern and the waxing moon. Once he was out from under the house lights, he couldn’t help but giggle to himself. His feet hurt, and he was tired, and possibly more emotionally drained than he had been in a long while, but the look on his brother’s face had him positively giddy. He couldn’t recall ever having stood up to Gabriel like that. It was a minor infraction, but it had broken his brother’s façade just a crack, and Aziraphale savoured that along his entire walk home.
He half-hoped he might run into Raphael again, but so late at night it was not surprising to him that he made it home without a sighting.
As he prepared for bed, he caught sight of himself in the mirror, and could not help but grin. He approached, surveying the mess that was his hair – apparently no one had thought to pick out the leaf from behind his ear – and the faint white lines of twig scratches across his cheeks. He squinted and tilted his head, then twisted to get a better look at his shoulder. He brushed at it, the flecks of black on his coat coming off on his hands. He lifted it to eye level and examined it. Dirt, perhaps, but it looked darker and felt different than what he was accustomed to soil feeling like. It reminded him of soot, although Aziraphale for the life of him couldn’t imagine how soot would have made it onto his shoulders.
He shrugged it off. It was a curiosity he was unlikely to solve, so it didn’t bear further consideration. He changed into his nightclothes, blew out the lantern, and went to bed.
To say that the aftermath of such an event was subdued would have been an understatement. Tired from staying up so late – and likely later even than they had gone home, discussing what had transpired at the ball well into the early hours of the morning – and from dancing, a great deal of Aziraphale’s parish struggled to keep their eyes open in church. He was sure they would rebound after some sleep, and then rumours would truly begin flying. As it was, Mrs. Shadwell had already complimented him on securing Miss Crowley’s hand, and had appeared quite surprised and even a little put out when he’d informed her that she was mistaken.
Miss Crowley had not actually been at church, which concerned Aziraphale greatly. He approached Mrs. Device afterwards, inquiring after her health, and Mrs. Device had informed him politely that Miss Crowley had taken ill that morning, likely as a result of the strain of the previous night – although it was implied that avoiding gossip might have well contributed to keeping her abed – and that she would be fine with some rest. Aziraphale sent his best wishes, and Mrs. Device promised that she would relay them.
On the other hand, Aziraphale had caught a flash of red hair at the back of the congregation as he’d delivered his sermon. When he exited the church, his thoughts were confirmed; Raphael leaned against the building, grinning at him. He was dressed in his Sunday finest, his hair tied up with the usual strings that held the mass of curls in place. Aziraphale’s heart stuttered. “Raphael,” he said softly.
“I couldn’t wait until tonight,” came the reply, and Aziraphale glanced around on instinct. Nobody was near.
He looked back. “I’m glad,” he said. “You will still come, of course?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
“I look forward to it.”
“Angel—” and here, Raphael took a step forward, pushing off the wall so Aziraphale could better hear him when he lowered his voice “—are you alright? I know yesterday probably took a lot out of you. I wanted to make sure you weren’t…you know. Having one of your panics.”
Aziraphale smiled. “I am not having ‘one of my panics,’ although I appreciate your concern.” He looked down, and then up again shyly. “I expect one will come along, sooner or later. You know what an old silly I can be. But for now, I am quite settled.”
“Good.” Raphael nodded. His lips quirked up. “And you’re not old, Aziraphale. Not by a long shot.”
“I’m nine and twenty, Raphael. Nearly thirty.”
“So what? So am I. Twenty-nine is hardly old. If it was, your brother would be ancient. Does he look ancient to you?”
“No,” Aziraphale admitted. “I suppose he doesn’t.” But then, Gabriel was fit for his age, and still had a full head of dark hair. Aziraphale’s had gone from pale blonde to pure white before he’d reached his twenty-fifth birthday, and he knew there were distinct creases around his eyes.
“Hey,” Raphael stepped closer into his space, not touching him, but close enough that Aziraphale could feel the puffs of his breath against his cheek. “Whatever you’re thinking about, it’s wrong.”
“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”
“You’re thinking something about Gabriel being better than you, and it’s not true.”
Aziraphale blinked. “How could you possibly…”
“I know you, angel.” Raphael smiled kindly. His hand twitched towards Aziraphale’s face, as if to cup it, but he clenched it into a fist and folded it behind his back. “I should get going. Work to be done this afternoon.”
“But it’s Sunday!”
Raphael rocked back on his heels and grinned. “And yet the plants continue to grow. I’ll keep it light, I promise. You’ll put in a good word for me, won’t you? Since I’m tending to His creations and all.”
Aziraphale found himself blushing again. “I’ll…I’ll do that. I’ll see you this evening.”
“See you then, angel.” He strutted off, and Aziraphale watched him go with a sigh. When he had disappeared around a corner, Aziraphale shook himself, and went his own way.
By early afternoon, people seemed to be adequately rested, because the village was positively buzzing. Aziraphale could hear it from his window; happy chatter and gossip as people shared and speculated about the previous night’s events. He saw at one point the Young girl walk past, escorted by the boy she’d had her eye on the night before, and he smiled to himself. They were of an age for each other, and the Youngs would surely approve of him. For the most part he could not make out conversation, but from snatches of dialogue he was able to glean that the Petleys were most displeased, although their glares in church could have told Aziraphale that. Julietta, at least, did not appear bothered by the fact that Aziraphale had no interest in her. Other ladies in the village appeared less satisfied, and Aziraphale caught more than a few dirty looks thrown at his house from women passing. He didn’t understand it. He hadn’t be considered a catch before, even with his position and status, so he didn’t much see why that would change once it was known he was actively seeking a bride.
He dithered in his library awhile. He had almost completed the Iliad with Miss Crowley, and so considered what she might be interested in reading next. He had some Greek and Roman poetry volumes, including a few of love poetry, although he thought that might be inappropriate with a chaperone. The Satyricon, of course, was completely inappropriate for company, and he blushed at the thought of Miss Crowley reading it at all, recalling her mannerisms towards him upon their first meeting.
In the end, he selected a few plays that he thought she might be interested in reading together – perhaps she would be able to focus better in an exchange of dialogue, as opposed to blocks of text – as well as a book of nature poetry and a novel or two. He stacked them on his desk, beside the Iliad, and dusted his hands, satisfied.
There was an itching under his skin, an excitement that filled him with restless energy. He suspected the source was his rendezvous with Raphael, which did not make waiting any easier. He attempted to read, but found his mind wandering to the window to watch the garden and, when he took to the garden to continue the book, found his gaze falling repeatedly on the gap in the hedgerows as opposed to the pages in his lap. Eventually, he set the book aside, closed his eyes, and simply allowed himself to bask in the sunlight.
Evening fell, and brought footsteps with it. Aziraphale opened his eyes and sat up eagerly, and was rewarded with the sight of his gardener rounding the hedge. He was still dressed up, if a little dirtier now, pulling strings from his ringlets to shake out the curls and retie them a little more artfully. He dropped gracefully onto the bench beside Aziraphale, wrapping his arm around the backrest so that his fingers played tantalisingly close to Aziraphale’s spine. “Hello, angel,” he murmured. He leaned in, giving Aziraphale time to move away, and then planted a soft kiss on his cheek before settling again, head cocked.
Aziraphale blushed and ducked his chin. “No spade today?”
Raphael spread his knees apart a little, drawing Aziraphale’s eyes to the juncture between his legs. “Not in that sense,” Raphael teased, and Aziraphale went beet red.
“Really, now,” he clucked. “Shameful.”
Raphael nudged him. “I’m teasing you, you know that.” He adjusted his posture again, into something a little less suggestive. “But no. No spade. Didn’t need the pretence today. Your garden looks fine. Growing well.” His tongue flicked out along his lower lip, but somehow it didn’t appear obscene. “The plants aren’t what need my attentions today, I think.”
“You might be right on that count,” Aziraphale admitted. “I really have missed you.”
“And I, you.” Raphael inclined his head. “I shouldn’t have stayed away so long. I thought you might want some space, and to get to know Miss Crowley on your own, without bouncing back to me every night.” He leaned back, making himself comfortable and angling his body towards Aziraphale expectantly. “So, let’s hear it. I want to know everything. Tell me about last night. How’d she look? Did she like the library? Did you two dance-“
“Hang on.” Aziraphale frowned. “I don’t believe I told you about the library.”
Raphael blinked. “Didn’t you?” Aziraphale shook his head. Raphael waved it off. “Must have assumed. Mrs. Device is quite the bookworm, everyone in town knows that. And with you reading to Miss Crowley in the evenings, it makes sense that you’d want to show off the family collection.”
Aziraphale conceded his point. “She did like it. Not as much as Mrs. Device or Mr. Pulsifer, I expect, but she liked it. She told me she liked my personal library better, though.”
“Well, naturally.” Raphael grinned. “Your library’s got you.”
Aziraphale blinked. “That’s what she said.”
Raphael’s smile faltered for a moment. “Everything alright, angel?”
Aziraphale shook himself. “Yes. Sorry. Just having an incredible sense of déjà vu.” He adjusted his seat on the bench, and then said, “Why don’t you come inside? It’s a good deal more comfortable than out here.”
“If you’re offering, I wouldn’t say no.”
They relocated to his library, where Raphael examined the stack of books Aziraphale had laid out with interest. Aziraphale watched him from the doorway. “Anything you’ve read?”
Raphael laughed, “I sincerely doubt it.” He dropped into an armchair and squirmed, getting comfortable. At Aziraphale’s quirked brow, he clarified, “I’m not a great reader. Self-taught, mostly, so I’m slow at it. Honestly, I’m not sure I could tackle much above a school primer.”
“Oh.” Of course. People in Raphael’s position weren’t afforded the same luxuries as Aziraphale’s family. He took a seat at the desk, turning his chair towards Raphael. “I could teach you, if you like.”
Raphael tipped his head, considering. Then he shrugged. “I wouldn’t want to be an imposition-“
“It wouldn’t be, really.” Aziraphale leaned forward eagerly. “I can’t say I’ll be much good as a teacher, but I would be willing to try.”
“I’ve always wanted to have a crush on a schoolteacher,” Raphael teased. “I suppose this is the next best thing.”
“Oh, hush.” Aziraphale deliberated a moment, then picked up the Bible. “I expect you’re familiar with most of the passages here?”
“Enough of them.”
“We can start there, then. It will give me a sense of where your reading level is at, so we might continue appropriately.” He sat on the edge of Raphael’s armchair, holding the book in his lap. Raphael leaned into his side.
They spent a little over an hour at it before Raphael grew restless and distracted. Aziraphale decided they were done for the day and set the Bible aside; Raphael did struggle with reading as much as he claimed, but Aziraphale suspected that with a little assistance he could get quite good at it. Possibly even good enough to exchange letters. The thought thrilled him.
The sun had just barely begun to set, but Aziraphale was loathe to let his companion leave just yet. “Would you like something to eat?” he suggested. “Tea, perhaps? Or a light supper?”
Raphael’s face broke into a grin. “Don’t want me to go?”
“I’ll stay. I’ll help you in the kitchen.” He led the way, and Aziraphale watched his hips sway seductively, blushing when Raphael threw a glance over his shoulder and caught him looking.
They moved together in the kitchen with an almost practiced ease, like they had been made for it. As they worked, Raphael said, “So, you still haven’t told me about the ball.”
“It was acceptable,” Aziraphale told him. “You know I’m not one for those sort of events. But Miss Crowley and the Devices did make it more comfortable.”
“Did you take my advice? About speaking to Miss Crowley?”
“I did.” Aziraphale sighed fondly. “She reacted as you predicted. Better than I expected. She said she was more than willing to share my heart, even with a man. She agreed to court me.”
“That’s good.” Raphael nudged him slightly. “It all worked out, then.”
“You aren’t going to ask me why I didn’t propose?”
“You’ve known her a fortnight. I know it’s done, but proposing so soon seems a bit premature.”
“Precisely.” Aziraphale smiled. “You see it more plainly than most, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the rumours.” Raphael leaned against the counter and studied him curiously. “So how do you intend to court her?”
“I…” Aziraphale came up short. He blinked. “You know, I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“Really. None at all?”
“I never intended to court a woman. I’m not precisely aware of what rituals it requires. And again, as you said, we have not known each other very long. I can’t be certain what Miss Crowley would like or expect from me.”
“I believe flowers are fairly traditional.” Raphael sounded amused, and Aziraphale forced himself not to look, rather than be confronted with a smirk. “Strolls together…occasional moments alone where you act as though you’re already married.” The leer was in his voice, and Aziraphale whipped around to stare, scandalized, which just made Raphael laugh and slink a few steps closer, into Aziraphale’s space. “Moments where she begs you to kiss her…to touch her…where she guides your hands over her skirt and shows you just where she likes it.” Aziraphale squeaked, and Raphael stepped smoothly back, grin still fixed in place. “Or you could read to her from across the room. That’s also acceptable.”
Aziraphale’s blood pounded in his ears, and his trousers had tightened a fraction. He willed himself calmer, and when he was composed, he managed, “The flowers and the reading, I should think. I’m not…I’m not much one for walking. And…well…”
“Yeah, you’ve made it clear how you feel about the touching.” Raphael was still teasing, but it didn’t sound harsh. “I’m sure she knows it too.”
Aziraphale sighed. He set down his knife and leaned against the counter, head bowed. “It’s not that I don’t want to,” he murmured. “That is, it’s not to say I haven’t thought about it. Well, tried not to think about it. It’s just…”
“I know.” Raphael’s arms encircled his waist, and Aziraphale melted as a soft kiss was pressed to the base of his neck. “It’s alright, Aziraphale. It’s alright.”
“It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with thinking about it.”
“But the way I was raised…my position in the church...”
“I know. I know.” Raphael shushed him with more gentle kisses between words, peppered along his spine. He rested his forehead between Aziraphale’s shoulder blades. “The church doesn’t deserve you. You follow their commandments better than most.”
Aziraphale thought guiltily of his books, and his reluctance to preach, and the man who held him fast. “I don’t know about that. I do my best, but being pious is not without difficulty.”
Raphael chuckled against his back. “And I tempt you too much.”
“I’m not sure I would say ‘too much.’ But to consider you my own personal serpent in Eden is not an unapt metaphor.”
The chuckle turned into an all-out laugh, Raphael’s body shuddering with delight against his. Raphael unwound himself and nudged Aziraphale away from the counter. “Go on, then. Go set the table for us. I’ll finish up in here, and then we’ll see what I can tempt you into eating, hmm?”
Aziraphale blushed and did as he was told.
Dinner with Raphael was remarkably domestic. The teasing died down, and instead Raphael treated him to anecdotes from his work, feuds with plants who refused to grow the way Gabriel – and therefore Raphael – demanded of them, and about the animals he sometimes saw. “Real snakes,” he told Aziraphale. “Not usually poisonous, but some of them have a nasty bite if you startle them. And birds, Lord knows I see so many birds out there. Sometimes I stay out late in the evening, just to hear the nightingales singing.”
“I’d love to hear it sometime,” Aziraphale murmured. In the candlelight, Raphael’s eyes were molten gold and gleaming. It was hypnotising to watch.
Raphael smiled softly at him. “I’d like that. Of course, I don’t think your brother would like it, if he catches you around the groundskeeper quarters.”
“Does he ever go that far from the house?”
“Not usually. Except during hunting seasons. Then the whole property is fair game. We’re pretty far back, but I don’t exactly live alone, and you know how servants like to gossip.”
“You certainly have a knack for it.”
Raphael grinned. “You caught me, angel.”
Aziraphale chuckled. Then he sobered. “You really think my brother wouldn’t like it?”
Raphael shrugged. “He’d have questions, wouldn’t he? What you were doing out there. And there aren’t really answers that wouldn’t get someone in trouble. Can’t say anyone’s sick or pregnant. Even assuming someone backed the lie, your brother is as liable to turn them out as keep them. You don’t have a say over the estate so it can’t really be business related. And anything else, well…” He gave Aziraphale a significant look. “If he knew I was here, alone, with you-“
“But he doesn’t.”
“No.” Raphael softened. “He doesn’t.”
Impulsively, Aziraphale reached for Raphael’s hand across the table. “Will you spend the night again? I…I found it peaceful, having you in my bed.”
“You didn’t mind waking up alone?”
Aziraphale hesitated. Truthfully, he answered, “It is a price I am willing to pay for what time you’ll give me.”
“I’d give you all my time, if I could.”
“And I you.”
“What about Miss Crowley?”
Aziraphale paused, the same sort of guilt he’d felt at the ball seeping into his stomach, but in the other direction. Raphael wasn’t looking at him with ire or suspicion. His face was open and honest, soft with affection, and he squeezed Aziraphale’s hand when he hesitated too long.
“Perhaps someday you could meet her,” Aziraphale whispered eventually. “I think you would like her a great deal. Perhaps someday, we three might even achieve some sort of domestic life together.” He frowned at Raphael. “Why are you smiling like that?”
Raphael fought to cover it. “I’m not,” he said, even as his teeth flashed in the candlelight. He pursed his lips together, but could not keep the corners of them from quirking up. “Domestic life for…the three of us. It’s a nice thought, angel.”
“The way I feel for you both…neither diminishes the other, you know.”
“I know, angel. That’s what I’ve been saying all along.”
Aziraphale hung his head. He withdrew his hand, balling both of his into fists on the table. “It’s difficult not to feel guilty,” he murmured. “It’s selfish of me, what we’re doing.”
“It’d only be selfish if you were taking advantage of me…of us.” Raphael surged forward, standing so he could wrap his fingers around Aziraphale’s wrists. “Look at me. You aren’t doing anything wrong.” He tilted Aziraphale’s chin up, and laid a chaste kiss on his lips.
Aziraphale jerked back, shoulders stiffening. “No!”
Raphael immediately stood up, releasing Aziraphale and raising his hands. “I’m sorry. I thought-“
“No, I…I…” Aziraphale stammered, and then shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m being silly.”
Slowly, Raphael took his seat again. “Not silly,” he said. “Cautious. It’s alright to be nervous.” He hesitated. “Do you still want me to stay?”
Part of Aziraphale hissed that he should send him away, if not forever then at least for the night. It would be better, safer. But he shook his head again. “No, I want you to stay.”
Relief coloured Raphael’s expression. “Then I’ll stay.” He offered half a smile. “I’ll even sleep on the floor if you don’t think I can be trusted in the bed.”
Aziraphale blushed. “You can share the bed. Provided, of course, you keep your hands to yourself.”
“I promise.” Raphael grinned fully. “You’re too easy to tempt, angel. You’re lucky I’m not looking to take advantage of you.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale murmured. “I suppose I am, very lucky.”
Raphael tilted his head, and then extended his hand. “Come on, angel. Let’s get ready for bed.”
“We need to clean up.”
“I’ll do it. Why don’t you draw a bath, hmm?”
Raphael laughed. “I’m not going to share it with you. Not yet. But I’ll wash your hair, if you’ll let me.”
Aziraphale relaxed. “Oh. I’d like that.”
“Good.” Raphael stood up and collected their plates. “Go on, then. It’ll take a minute to heat the water. I’ll take care of things down here.” He shooed Aziraphale towards the stairs, and Aziraphale went.
By the time the bathwater was on its way to heating, Raphael had joined him. He poked at the shelves of the bathroom with interest, examining the various bottles and implements Aziraphale kept there. He picked up a hairbrush and turned it over in his fingers a few times, before setting it down and moving onto a row of vials. He uncorked one and sniffed it. “What is this?”
“A sort of oil. I put it in the bath sometimes. The scent is supposed to be relaxing.”
“We should use it then.” Raphael tipped a few careful drops into the tub as Aziraphale began to fill it and set the bottle back on the shelf. “I don’t suppose you’ve got bubbles anywhere?”
Aziraphale laughed. “I’m afraid not. It always seemed a bit too frivolous. I couldn’t justify it to myself.”
“Pity.” Raphael stirred the water with a lazy finger. “Temperature feels right.” When Aziraphale made no move, he lifted an eyebrow. “You’re not going to bathe with your clothes on, are you?”
He smiled. “Don’t worry. I promise I won’t look.” He dropped into a sprawl beside the tub, eyes closed as he tipped his head against the rim. Aziraphale hesitated a heartbeat longer, and then slowly began to undress.
Raphael sat up when Aziraphale lowered himself into the tub, the slosh of the water wetting just the ends of his hair. He turned over, folding his arms over the edge and resting his chin on them. Aziraphale blushed and fought the urge to cover himself, but Raphael’s eyes remained on his face. “You’re beautiful,” he murmured. “You know that, right?”
Aziraphale’s blush deepened, and he shook his head defensively. Raphael pushed himself upright, insistent. “You are. You’re gorgeous.”
Aziraphale looked away, wrapping his arms around his stomach like a shield. “Pass me the soap, please?”
Wordlessly, Raphael handed it over. He settled again by the head of the tub, so Aziraphale’s back was to him. “I wish you could see what I see,” he whispered, barely audible. “I wish you knew how I felt when I look at you.”
“You’re to be the devil on my shoulder tonight, are you?” Aziraphale asked, fighting to make light of it, even as the words crawled inside him and lodged themselves uncomfortably beneath his heart.
“How do you know I’m not the angel on your shoulder?” Raphael countered. Aziraphale nearly flinched as a hand settled lightly on his shoulder, stroking from the curve of his neck down to the soft flesh of his upper arm a few times before retreating. “You’re not the only one who shares a name, after all.”
Aziraphale closed his eyes and shuddered. His hands stilled in washing himself, the soap nearly sliding out of his grasp as he squeezed his fingers into fists. “Raphael, please.”
“This is too much? Really?”
He heard Raphael sit back with a muffled thump against the wooden floor. “I do mean it, you know,” he said, but his voice wasn’t quite so low anymore. “Looking at you is like looking at a sunrise, angel. Resolute. Divine. Beautiful enough to steal your breath away.”
Aziraphale bowed his head and swallowed hard. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. “No one has ever treated me the way you do.”
“I should hope not.” The words were too gentle to be a tease.
He tried again. “No one has ever been so kind.”
There was silence. Aziraphale twisted around to look, and met Raphael’s gaze. Raphael’s forehead was creased, his eyes sorrowful. He leaned forward, fingers curling around the nape of Aziraphale’s neck, his thumb stroking the edge of Aziraphale’s plump cheek. “The worst part is that I believe it,” Raphael murmured. “But please believe me when I say that I mean every word.”
Raphael smiled, and laid a chaste kiss on Aziraphale’s cheek. “Finish your bath,” he said. “I’ve been promised those curls, and I intend to get my hands on them.”
Aziraphale finished washing and then allowed himself to be guided back, Raphael’s hands tender on him as they wet his hair, guarding his forehead against the sluice of water and then combing through the dampened curls. His fingernails scratched lightly at Aziraphale’s scalp, the pads pressing in gently as Raphael massaged his head. “You’ve got beautiful hair,” Raphael told him.
“Mmhm,” Raphael hummed. “Like spring daisies.” He kissed the top of Aziraphale’s head. “Like the resilient snowfall, or the clouds that shield us from the blazing sun. All beautiful in their own right. None hold a candle to you.”
“You’re a poet.”
“Aren’t all lovers poets?” Raphael teased. He finished soaping Aziraphale’s hair and again cupped his head, tilting it back farther to keep the soapy water out of Aziraphale’s eyes as he poured. “Love stirs it in us.”
“I’m afraid the sentiment does not extend to me. My words could never do justice to your own beauty, Raphael, and it far surpasses my own.”
“And that, angel, is a kind of poetry in itself.” Raphael’s voice sparkled, and he produced a cloth, rubbing Aziraphale’s hair dry. “Although I may have to differ in opinion.”
Aziraphale did not belabour the point, but leaned into the touch with eyes closed. He opened them only when Raphael took his elbow, encouraging him to stand up from the cooling bathwater, his eyes once against closed as he offered Aziraphale a towel. Aziraphale took it and dried off, wrapping a robe about his body. “Will you bathe too?”
Raphael opened his eyes and regarded him. “Not tonight, I think, tempting though it is. I’ll clean up in here. You finish getting ready for bed.”
“You oughtn’t clean up after me. You aren’t my servant.”
“No, but I don’t mind playing house for you,” Raphael teased. “At least, until Miss Crowley takes the job.”
Aziraphale shook his head, smiling, and retired to the bedroom. Raphael joined him a short while later, stripped down to his smallclothes and with the rest draped over his forearm. Aziraphale gave him the same spares as before and left him to change, returning with the hairbrush from the bathroom. He indicated Raphael’s hair, still tied up. “I’d like to brush your hair, if you’ll permit it.”
Raphael hesitated, and the uncertainty that crossed his face sank like lead into Aziraphale’s stomach. He back-peddled, “Of course, I’ll take no offense if you’re against the idea. I just thought, since you were so eager to touch my hair, I might return the favour.”
“It’s not that I don’t want you to,” Raphael rushed, leaning forward on the bed and dragging Aziraphale down to him urgently. His hands wrapped around Aziraphale’s. “I like that you want to brush my hair. I love it. I just…”
Raphael looked away, then back at him. He seemed to make a decision. He released Aziraphale’s hands and turned his back on him, reaching up to untie the strings that held his hair in place, the curls cascading free in waves of red that fell about his shoulders. Aziraphale had never properly realized how long it was. “Go ahead,” Raphael told him, trepidation in his voice.
Aziraphale’s first touch was equally hesitant, a slow stroke of his fingers rather than the brush. Silky might not have been an accurate description; it was soft, yes, and slid smoothly over his fingers, but outdoor labour had made it slightly coarse, and the occasionally fleck of black dirt came away clinging to Aziraphale’s finger. He applied the brush, and found only slight resistance, his hand trailing after each stroke to keep the brush from pulling too hard. “There’s so much of it,” he murmured.
Raphael’s response was reluctant. “I know I keep it very long. Longer than is fashionable for men, these days.” There was a slight quaver in his voice that touched Aziraphale’s heart.
“I think it’s beautiful,” he said, pausing in his brushing to cup a handful of full, bouncy curls. “It doesn’t have to be fashionable, I should think. And it suits you.”
“You don’t think it’s too…effeminate?”
Aziraphale frowned. “Long hair has been in fashion for men before, and it wasn’t considered effeminate then. I should not be surprised if it someday is again.” He sniffed derisively and resumed brushing. “And anyway, even if it were, it would not matter to me.”
“Of course not. You are magnificent precisely the way you are, Raphael, and I would never even consider suggesting you change that. If it makes you happy, there is simply no reason for it.”
Raphael relaxed, releasing a tension Aziraphale had felt him holding, his shoulders slouching as he pressed back into the brushstrokes. “People have commented on it before.”
“People ought to keep their opinions to themselves,” Aziraphale said scathingly.
Raphael chuckled. “I needn’t have worried with you, did I?”
“You did not,” Aziraphale confirmed. His lips quirked, “You know, I thought keeping it tied up was intended to minimize the amount of dirt that got caught in it while you worked, but you really have quite a lot of it in your hair.” There was a small handful of it on the bedsheets now, as well as what clung to the hairbrush and Aziraphale’s fingers and palm. He raised a hand to eye-level, examining the flakes. “The soil must be particularly rich to be this dark. It looks almost like-“
Aziraphale stared, and Raphael was the one to blush for a change. He had whirled around, snatching Aziraphale’s wrists and pulling them from his face. He released Aziraphale, cheeks as red as his hair, and quickly brushed the bedspread clean. “I mean, it happens. Why don’t we go to bed now? It’s getting late, and I find I’m suddenly tired.” He set the brush on the nightstand, grinning at Aziraphale with a smile that did not quite reach his eyes, and blew out the candle illuminating the room.
Aziraphale blinked, unable to make sense of the strange outburst or the following behaviour. Slowly, he laid down beside Raphael. After a moment, his bedpartner twisted beneath the sheets, wrapping around Aziraphale’s back, an arm curled possessively over his waist. Aziraphale covered Raphael’s hand where it rested on his stomach, stroking his thumb over the bumps of tendons and veins. He was still puzzled, but in the dark, in the comfort of Raphael’s embrace, he found himself quickly succumbing to sleep. He dreamt of blazing hair that crumbled to soot, and of melting golden eyes spilling out in ribbons across a great stretch of black.
He awoke alone, but with a single brown string, tied neatly into a bow, sitting on his nightstand, and that was cause enough to smile.
Miss Crowley resisted his suggestion of playreading, although not without a note of regret. She showed interest in the poetry instead, and Aziraphale honoured her request to read both the original Latin and the English translations. If his pronunciation of the former was lacking, she made no comment, and towards the end of the night admitted that her only experience of Latin was through the church rather than any personal training in the language.
With Mr. Pulsifer across the room, this time without his fiddly gadget but with a sheaf of paper that he appeared to be sketching some sort of design on, Aziraphale deigned to sit a bit closer to Miss Crowley than previously, pulling his stool so it sat only a foot or so away from her armchair. When they had finished the Iliad, before starting on the poetry, Aziraphale had spoken to her in a quiet voice, their closeness to each other and distance from Mr. Pulsifer allowing a shallow sense of privacy.
“I am aware,” he said softly, “that there are certain formalities to be observed. Do you know who in your family it would be best to contact, should we continue our…arrangement?”
“Contact?” Miss Crowley tilted her head. “I’m not sure I understand your meaning.”
“Whose permission need I ask?” he clarified. “If we were to become engaged. I am aware your parents are no longer with us, but I am unsure, given the extensiveness of the Device family…”
“My cousin,” Miss Crowley cut in smoothly. “Mrs. Device has charge of me, and of my inheritance. Her and her husband.”
“I see.” Aziraphale frowned. Something poked at the back of his mind, and after a moment he realized what it was. “You must be very young, for Mrs. Device to handle your estate. She’s hardly five and twenty.”
Miss Crowley laughed. “You mean to say no one has told you my age, Mr. Fell? You never inquired?”
He flushed. “I…I did not think to ask…I’m afraid I assumed we were of an age, or at least that you were somewhat older than your cousin. Was I mistaken?”
Miss Crowley shook her head, amusement and something less identifiable audible in her voice. “My cousin holds my estate because…because she is married, and because she is the closest to me in our family tree. We are of an age, assuming you are twenty-nine, as I have been informed.” She paused. “Is that acceptable?”
It was surprising, but Aziraphale supposed that a woman of her status had the luxury of marrying late. Still, he said, “It is more than acceptable, but I have to ask: why have you not married before now? If it’s not too personal.”
“It is not. There are few people who would consider me an acceptable bride.”
It was on the tip of Aziraphale’s tongue to argue when he remembered their first encounter. Tactfully, he did not mention it. “Your health?”
“Among other things.” She looked away. “Anyway, there was no one I wanted to marry. No one has ever caught my eye. Except for you.”
Aziraphale blushed and stammered, “I’m flattered.” He hesitated. “I’m very pleased to see you’ve recovered from yesterday. I’m sorry if it was our dancing that exerted you.”
“On the contrary, our dancing made the night worthwhile.”
“That is…gratifying to hear.” Aziraphale smiled. Without knowing where the words came from, he added, “I was wondering if you might like to take a stroll with me sometime. Perhaps next Sunday afternoon, unless you might be available sooner? Of course, Mr. Pulsifer and Mrs. Device are most welcome as well.”
Miss Crowley glanced at Mr. Pulsifer, who gave her a quizzical look and a shrug. She giggled. “I shall bring it up with them, but it sounds agreeable to me. Are you sure a walk? I mean no offense, but you don’t seem the type.”
“Ah…” Aziraphale winced. “I confess I’m not normally one for extensive exercise, but it was…recommended to me by the…friend we spoke of the other night. He seemed to think it appropriate for courting couples, and I’m sure my brother would allow me to give you a tour of the grounds. We need not go far.”
“Then a walk we shall have,” Miss Crowley said. She leaned closer, and Aziraphale could almost feel her grin. “And tell Raphael thank you for me.”
“I shall.” Aziraphale cleared his throat, and Miss Crowley removed herself from his space. He held up the poetry book. “Shall we continue, then?”
He received confirmation on Wednesday that Mrs. Device and Mr. Pulsifer would be more than happy to accompany him and Miss Crowley on a stroll about the grounds Sunday afternoon, and acquired permission from his brother the day after. In the meantime, Raphael had visited him twice more, for reading instruction and on one of the instances to again share his bed. The gardener had seemed amused when Aziraphale had relayed Miss Crowley’s thanks.
“Perhaps we shall see you Sunday,” Aziraphale had said hopefully.
To his surprise, Raphael had stiffened briefly, and spoke with a forced cheeriness in his voice. “Perhaps, but unlikely. I will not be around Sunday afternoon.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale frowned and bit his lip. “Does this have to do with Miss Crowley?”
Raphael looked to him, and then blinked at the distress in Aziraphale’s face. “Oh, angel,” he sighed, and his smile became genuine. “Not in the way you’re thinking. I…your brother is anxious about your future engagement. He wishes to make a good impression, and so some of the staff have been instructed to keep out of the way while Miss Crowley is around. Myself included.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale relaxed. That sounded like Gabriel. “Another time, then.”
By the time Sunday arrived, Aziraphale was positively anxious. He met with Miss Crowley and the Devices on the church steps, after his sermon. The day was cooler than the past several had been, the summer’s first concession to the approaching autumn, but it was still warm, and Aziraphale took in Miss Crowley’s heavy dress, veil, and gloves with sympathetic flashes of heat. He’d intended to bring flowers, as per Raphael’s advice, but was afraid they’d be quite wilted by the time his companions arrived.
“Are you sure you’re not overdressed?” he asked when they approached. “I should hate it if the heat or exertion caused you to faint.”
Mrs. Device and Mr. Pulsifer exchanged looks, but as Mrs. Device opened her mouth to answer, Miss Crowley replied, “I shall be alright. If we keep to the shade, and stop occasionally to rest, I promise I will be no trouble at all.”
“Very well then.” He offered her his arm, glancing at Mrs. Device to ensure it was acceptable, and then led the way.
He took them by way of his own rectory. They had seen the estate through the front gates, and would be at least somewhat familiar with the gardens closest the house. Aziraphale’s path – or Raphael’s path, as he had begun to consider it in his mind – proved more private, and offered slightly more shade in the wake of the hedgerows. It had been a long time since Aziraphale had explored the grounds with any thoroughness, and even then he had never strayed far from the house, but there were several trails clearly marked, dotted with the occasional gardens and leading into the wooded area behind the house, disappearing between proud clusters of trees. He conveyed his unfamiliarity to the members of his party with a faint blush, and added, “So long as we keep to the trails, Gabriel says we shall find our way. It will be an adventure for all of us.”
Mr. Pulsifer and Mrs. Device walked a few paces behind them. They were close enough to observe any goings on between them, but not so close that their conversation could not be private, if kept in a low enough whisper. When they stopped in the first garden, whose fountain was shaped like a leaping fish, water pouring from its lips, Miss Crowley seated herself on a bench while Mr. Pulsifer examined it, leaning in nearly to the point of falling in, while his wife kept a close watch on him. Aziraphale stood beside Miss Crowley, watching her.
“The flowers are beautiful here,” she said idly after a while. She reached down, brushing her fingers over the petals of one bloom. “Your brother must have excellent gardeners.” There was a curious note of mirth in her voice, and Aziraphale flushed.
“He does. Raphael is one such, and the head of them all.”
“Is he, now?”
“You sound as if you already knew. Are you teasing me, Miss Crowley?”
“Tease a parson?” He could hear her grin widening. “I wouldn’t dare.”
There was a faint splash, and Mr. Pulsifer sputtered as Mrs. Device hauled him backwards by the buckle of his waistcoat, sparing him the indignity of wetting any more than the bottom of one boot. “Time to be moving on, I think,” she said dryly, and Aziraphale held in a chuckle. Miss Crowley snorted, and then covered her mouth as if to recapture the inelegant sound. Aziraphale smiled and, as she stood up, once again offered his arm. She wrapped both hands around it and tilted her head up at him, as if curious. They stood there a moment, looking at each other, and then the sound of Mrs Device clearing her throat broke them apart slightly. She looked amused, and Aziraphale flushed. They started off again.
There were fewer fountains and more topiaries as they made their way farther back into the estate’s grounds, sparing Mr. Pulsifer further water mishaps. Eventually the topiaries gave way as well, replaced instead by carefully trimmed flower bushes that sprung up every so often along the path, as if to indicate a casual, natural sense of their growth, instead of the careful calculation of their placement. Then the bushes gave way to forest.
They stopped at the edge of the trees. It was perfectly light out, but Aziraphale found himself with a strange sense of trepidation at the idea of entering the wood. The same sense did not appear to infect any of his companions, however, although they were grateful for the brief break. Mrs. Device took a seat on a boulder, artfully placed at the entrance and tellingly free of moss or lichen, and Mr. Pulsifer sat by her feet, their heads bent together as they murmured to each other. Aziraphale offered Miss Crowley a seat on the boulder’s counterpart, but she declined, and so he took it instead, wiping his brow with a handkerchief before tucking it back into his breast pocket.
“I’m told there are a few glens,” he told Miss Crowley hesitantly, casting a glance over his shoulder into the shady wood. “Some are quite secluded. They aren’t quite gardens – much more difficult to keep the animals out – but some of them are apparently quite pretty.”
“I look forward to seeing them.”
“I believe the groundskeepers live somewhere back here as well,” Aziraphale said. He hadn’t seen their lodgings anywhere else on the premises, and the woods weren’t so far from the house. A messenger could easily be dispatched between the two.
“Well, I’ve never been. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
She nodded. Across the way, Mrs. Device and Mr. Pulsifer stood up, and Aziraphale reluctantly did the same. This time, it was Mrs. Device who led the way, her husband at her elbow, and Aziraphale and Miss Crowley followed. The shadows of the wood brushed Aziraphale’s shoulders, and he looked up into the sun one last time before it disappeared behind the canopy above. Something dark gnawed at his stomach, and he grimaced.
Miss Crowley put a questioning hand on his elbow. “Are you alright?”
He started, and gave her a weak smile. “Fine. I’m fine.”
“You look unhappy. Is something wrong?”
“I’m just a little uneasy. I don’t like the woods. It’s dark, and there are animals…”
Miss Crowley looped her arm around his. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe.”
She was of a height with him – slightly taller, in fact – and with the strength of her voice, even under the laughter, Aziraphale found himself believing it. He relaxed slightly, and allowed himself to be guided deeper into the forest.
There really was no cause for his unease. The paths were clearly marked, and even with the tree-cover sunlight did manage to penetrate down to their level. The foliage was lush and green, spared the dry heat of the demanding sun, and somewhere in the distance a bubbling brook made lovely background music to their stroll. After a fashion, Aziraphale even found he was enjoying himself.
It was when he was at ease that, naturally, he found himself startled again. Mrs. Device and Mr. Pulsifer rounded a bend in the trail, and a sharp tug at his elbow nearly had Aziraphale stumbling as he was pulled to the side, Miss Crowley tugging him behind an expansive tree and holding him there, their shoulders pressed tight together. Over the veil, she put a finger to her lips, and Aziraphale stared at her. She tugged him a little farther off the path – but no, they were still on the path, just a slightly narrower fork of it, and a few steps in Aziraphale found himself in a clearing, surrounded on all sides by some of the thickest trees he had ever witnessed, obscuring much of the path beyond. He noted, with a distinct drop in his stomach, that Mr. Pulsifer and Mrs. Device were well out of view.
He turned back to Miss Crowley, eyes wide as he pressed back against one of the trees. She darted away from him, peering out of the clearing, as if checking that they were alone. When she faced him again, she paused. Raphael’s suggestive words hissed into Aziraphale’s ears, and his throat tightened. He swallowed around it with difficulty and opened his mouth, but found no words.
Miss Crowley rocked back on her heels, as if caught between the urge to step forward or back. “You can relax, Mr. Fell. I did not bring you here to seduce you.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t quite believe you.” He regretted the words as soon as he said them. He couldn’t see Miss Crowley’s face, but the way her arms folded defensively, and the way she turned her back on him spoke volumes.
“I don’t blame you,” she said softly. “My behaviour has been untoward in the past. You know I’ve had…thoughts. But I swear to you, that isn’t my intent.”
Aziraphale hesitated. Then he reached out and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned. “Aziraphale?”
He flinched, withdrawing his hand and folding it behind his back. But he kept his voice soft. “What…what is your intent, then?”
Miss Crowley’s gloved hand came up, as if to touch his cheek, and Aziraphale took a conscious step back, bumping against the tree again. She lowered it. “Aziraphale-“
“Mr. Fell, please.” The panic was rising in his throat, doubled by the fact that he liked the way it sounded, his name on Miss Crowley’s lips. It sounded like familiarity, like affection. The way Raphael said his name.
She faltered. Her voice faded, less certain. “I…I wanted a moment with you. We’re watched, all the time. And we were alone, at your brother’s party. It was…I liked it. The two of us. I feel as though I can be more…open with you. More myself.”
Aziraphale softened. Carefully, aware of the implications, aware that his profession would be ashamed, but unable to prevent his heart from breaking any other way, he took Miss Crowley’s hand between his own. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’m sorry…Antonia.” She looked up sharply, and he swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to offend. You’ll find I’m a bit of a worrywart, and Raphael…”
She nodded. “He suggested I might corner you, and when I did, you naturally assumed the worst.”
“I didn’t mean to.” He squeezed her hand gently. “Please forgive me.”
“You are forgiven for assuming, so long as you forgive me for upsetting you.”
“No forgiveness is needed. You did nothing wrong.”
She laughed softly. “Perhaps not nothing. I did endeavour to get you alone with me.” She took a step closer, and against the odds Aziraphale’s heart settled again. He relaxed, and she murmured, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Aziraphale glanced around them. There was a majestic beauty to the glade, the circle of trees. Aziraphale did not believe in fairies, but something about it – the creeping vines laden with purple flowers, the ancient and gnarled bark that peered out beneath them, the wrap of roots that formed a near perfect circle of earth that kept the underbrush at bay – gave the area around them an almost magical quality. “It is beautiful,” he said softly. “I might have missed it, if you hadn’t brought us here. I don’t know how you spotted it.”
“Oh…” she stuttered oddly over the answer. “I have very good eyesight. I just…noticed it off to the side and I thought…” They stared at each other. Or, rather, Aziraphale stared at her. He assumed she stared back.
“Antonia,” he murmured, and to his delight – and slight concern – the name felt better in his mouth the more he said it. “If I might ask a personal question…”
“Why do you wear a veil?”
A laugh burst from her throat, as if startled out of her. After a moment she managed to contain it, although it still sparkled in her voice when she said, “I wondered if you would ask. I must say, I expected it a great deal sooner. Or was it propriety that kept your silence?”
Aziraphale opened his mouth, then blushed and shut it again. She covered their joined hands and squeezed. “I’m sure you’ve heard rumours. Made your own guesses.”
“People seem to think it has to do with your…physical attractiveness. You know, of course, I don’t put much stock in rumours. I thought it might be a physician’s recommendation…?”
She chuckled. “Are you asking if I’m beautiful? You want to know if you’ll have an ugly bride?”
“No!” Aziraphale protested at once. He shook his head. “No, that wasn’t my intent at all!”
She squeezed again. “I’m teasing, Aziraphale.” She hesitated, “May I call you…?”
“Just this once, I think it will be alright,” he relented. He was only a man, after all, and he liked the way it sounded too much. “While we’re here. But then we really ought to stop. You…you understand?”
“So…why do you…?”
“To say it’s for my health is not…entirely inaccurate.”
“I see.” It didn’t actually answer his question, Aziraphale realized, but when Miss Crowley said nothing further on the subject, he did not push. He supposed he would get an answer eventually, assuming they continued on their current course, and anyway, it didn’t matter to him if she was pretty or not.
She tilted her head. “Aziraphale…there is one thing I would like very much. I understand that’s it’s not necessarily done, but…if you would permit it…”
“Do you trust me?”
Aziraphale hesitated, pondering the question. Miss Crowley waited, and after a moment, Aziraphale nodded. “I believe I do.”
“Then close your eyes? And keep them closed.”
He blinked, brow furrowing, but when she stayed unmoving, he softened, and obediently closed his eyes. He felt her hands extract from his, and then heard a silky slide of fabric. He startled slightly when a gloved hand cradled his cheek, the touch warm even through the fabric. Tempted though he was to open his eyes, he did not, and was rewarded with a pair of lips brushing chastely against his own. He gasped, but Miss Crowley did not press the advantage. She kept the kiss chaste, and Aziraphale responded in kind, melting into their embrace. She was right; it was not done. Except Aziraphale might have been a priest, but he was no fool, and he knew that it was done, even if it ought not to have been, and it felt good to hold her close, to kiss her. He would ask forgiveness later.
“Mr. Fell? Miss Crowley?”
The calling voices broke them apart, but by the time Aziraphale opened his eyes Miss Crowley had turned away, her veil safely lowered again, giving him the briefest flash of a sharp jawline as it fell into place. When she glanced back at him, he flushed, and reached out for her hand. She reached back, giving it a brief squeeze before separating again. “The next time I kiss you like that, Aziraphale, we shall be married,” she whispered. “This I swear.”
Aziraphale’s heart stuttered. “Antonia-“
“There you are!” Mr. Pulsifer poked his head into the clearing, then strode in, neck craning up at the trees in fascination. “We wondered where you had gotten off too.” Mrs. Device followed. Aziraphale was prepared to defend his honour, and Miss Crowley’s, but stopped short when he realized neither of the married couple looked particularly concerned.
“We stopped for a brief respite from the walking,” Miss Crowley said. “I was just showing Mr. Fell the beauty of this particular glen. I’m ready to continue, if you are.”
“Let us go, then,” Mrs. Device said, and pulled her husband along. Aziraphale and Miss Crowley once again followed, and if Aziraphale caught himself examining what little he could make out of her profile from the drape of the veil, any potential guilt was soothed by the knowledge that he caught Miss Crowley studying him just as often.
They made their way out of the woods again. As the trail swung around, it passed by a small bunkhouse, the cabin situated just within the boundaries out the wood. Aziraphale examined it with interest; this was where Raphael slept when he did not share Aziraphale’s bed. It seemed a nice enough abode, although Aziraphale was not certain of how many people Raphael shared it with.
“It’s nice,” Miss Crowley murmured, as if sharing his thoughts. She clung to his arm a little tighter. “There are worse places to live, I’m sure.”
He looked at her quizzically. “I’m sure,” he said slowly. “Have you…much experience, with servants’ quarters?” He hadn’t paid much mind to her parentage before, but was reminded abruptly that as a Device – if only in heritage and not in name – even a lesser branch of the family would have had servants. Even Mrs. Device kept them, although she had fewer than Aziraphale knew her station afforded; according to her, she didn’t like having so many people in the house. She felt it infringed on their privacy. “Did your parents treat them badly?” he asked. “Your servants, I mean.”
“My…servants…” Miss Crowley sounded adrift, like the words weren’t registering properly. Then she shook herself. “No, nothing like that. I just know that it could be worse, is all.” She tugged on his arm. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Aziraphale spared one last curious glance at the quarters, and then allowed himself to be led away.
It was creeping over into evening as they left the wood, the first crickets beginning to chirp in the grass as they headed in the direction of home. As they neared the parsonage, Aziraphale offered, “You could stay for supper, if you like. I’m not entirely prepared for guests, but I’m sure I could find something for you all.”
“A generous offer,” Mrs. Device said, “but I think we ought to be getting back now.”
“Very well. Shall I walk with you to Jasmine Park?”
“There’s no need. This afternoon has been quite pleasant. I’m sure we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.” There was a chorus of nods from her companions, and Aziraphale smiled.
“Well then. This is goodnight, I suppose.” He gave both Mrs. Device and Mr. Pulsifer a short bow. Then he hesitated, turned to Miss Crowley, and in a fit of boldness took her hand between his own, bending to place a kiss on the back of her glove. He straightened up. “Until tomorrow.”
“Until tomorrow.” Miss Crowley sounded breathless, her voice pitched lower than he expected in surprise. She flexed her hand, then cradled it to her chest with the other. “Goodnight, Mr. Fell.”
“Goodnight.” He saw them off, and then returned to his house. Very gently, he touched his fingertips to his lips. They still tingled slightly, and he closed his eyes and pictured once more the soft but passionate press of Miss Crowley’s against his own. He had underestimated her character, it seemed. Someday, perhaps, he would find the courage to kiss Raphael like that as well. But for the time being, Aziraphale savoured the memory of the kiss, and the knowledge that woman who gifted it to him would someday soon become his wife.
Mrs. Young gave birth just before summer’s end to a golden-haired male baby which she named Adam, and whose christening Aziraphale performed a few weeks after his birth. It was about all he had to do; with the harvest Raphael spent longer days in the field preparing for winter, too tired after to make even the walk to Aziraphale’s house after the intensive work, and with the seasonal chill growing Miss Crowley took ill more often than not, to the point where she and Aziraphale had been forced to cancel their reading together in favour of her remaining home, behind closed doors. He had tried to visit once, and been barred by Mrs. Device, who informed him that Miss Crowley was too ill even for visitors. Even village meetings came and went with little for Aziraphale to do.
He was bored. More importantly, he was lonely.
Aziraphale had been surprised to find this the case. He had been alone most of his life, from childhood even through university. It had never bothered him before. Quite the contrary, Aziraphale had even preferred the solitude. But after so many weeks of Raphael and Miss Crowley’s near-constant company, Aziraphale found himself bereft without it. He ordered some new books from London and read to pass the time, but found even his greatest pleasure in life struggled to capture his attention for long.
There was much speculation in the village as the autumn approached; Miss Crowley was so rarely seen, and it had been known her association with Aziraphale. Rumours flew. Had he proposed? Had she turned him down? Had her illness come about to avoid accepting him? Had she accepted, and her illness prevented them from announcing it, lest it prove fatal and therefore break the engagement? Had he withdrawn his affections once her illness had taken such a serious turn, unwilling to have an infirm wife? Mr. Tyler was of that thinking, and had congratulated him on avoiding marriage to a woman clearly so vile as to be cursed by such plagues. Mrs. Shadwell, on the other hand, had patted his hand when he went in to buy groceries, and said it was just as well they wait until she recovered, for spring weddings were the most beautiful. The Petleys sniffed, and said that such a temperamental creature would make a poor wife indeed, and pointed out that their Julietta was still the picture of health even now, and wasn’t Mr. Fell a fool for not seeking her out instead.
Aziraphale listened to the rumours numbly, and did not confirm nor deny any of them. His heart ached more with each passing day. He would later blame the harvest moon, at its height and clearly fit to influence a man to madness, for his actions.
It was twilight, the horizon a burnished orange giving way at last to the insistent press of navy, and the crickets sang underfoot as Aziraphale made the trek through the estate grounds to the cabin in the woods. He hadn’t given it much thought, just finished his dinner and gone straight out the door like a man possessed. As he neared the groundskeepers’ quarters, sense began to inhabit him again, and his gait slowed. This was nonsense. He didn’t even know which room belonged to Raphael, or if he had a bunkmate. He ought to turn back.
And then footsteps had crunched the dirt path, and chattering voices echoed through the air, getting closer. Aziraphale ducked behind the corner of the cabin, peering out and watching as roughly half a dozen figures made their way up to the house, illuminated by lanterns, their unsteady pace belaying a bone-deep exhaustion contradicted by their cheerful voices. Aziraphale caught a flash of red hair in the lamp-light, and his heart soared.
“I’ll be in in a minute,” Raphael called out to his friends, waving them inside. A chorus of ‘goodnights’ answered back, and Raphael stopped and leaned against the wall of the cabin, cracking his neck and stretching idly.
Aziraphale swallowed hard and stepped out from around the corner. “Raphael?”
Raphael jumped, and bit back what sounded like half a curse. “Aziraphale! What the hell are you doing here? It’s not safe!”
Aziraphale faltered. “I…I missed you.”
Raphael blinked. Then he softened. He beckoned Aziraphale a little closer, and when Aziraphale obeyed took his hands, pressing their foreheads together. “I missed you too,” he murmured. “So much. I’m sorry, it’s just you know how it is at harvest time, and-“
“I know,” Aziraphale shushed him. “It’s alright.”
Raphael let out a long sigh. His body slumped, and Aziraphale caught him and held him close. “Oh my dear,” he murmured. “You really are exhausted, aren’t you?”
“’m sorry. It’s why I haven’t come.”
“I won’t keep you,” Aziraphale murmured. “I just…I just needed to see you. Go on to bed.”
Raphael blinked at him, hesitated, and then shook his head. “Hang on.” He took two steps away, then whirled back and pointed firmly at Aziraphale. “Don’t go anywhere.” Then he disappeared around the corner. Aziraphale stared after him, frowning, and obediently waited.
A few minutes later, he was back, gesturing Aziraphale to follow him. “Come on. But be quiet. There’ll be hell to pay if anyone catches you here, especially at this hour.”
He led Aziraphale into the house. It was less one structure and more a handful of joined structures, with arches overhead to protect from weather and tree-falls. Raphael kept to the shadows, and so Aziraphale did too, following him along the wall until Raphael turned into one of the structures and slipped through an open door partway down the hall. He closed and locked it behind them, and Aziraphale looked around. The room was small, but there was a bed and a chest of drawers and even a little trunk with a heavy lock affixed to it. Raphael moved over to the window and shut the curtains firmly. Then he turned back to Aziraphale and let out a breath. He gestured to the bed, and Aziraphale took a seat.
Raphael sat next to him, their thighs pressed together. “How have you been?” he asked softly.
“Lonely,” Aziraphale returned. “I haven’t been sleeping well. It’s funny, really. I got so used to being alone, and then suddenly there were people in my life I felt quite at home with. And now they’re gone, and I find myself unable to cope without them.”
“Right.” Raphael nodded, looking away. “Miss Crowley’s illness.”
“I haven’t been able to see her.”
“You really have no other friends? Just me…just us?”
Aziraphale shrugged. “I…don’t make friends easily. I suppose I might consider Mr. Pulsifer and Mrs. Device friends, but they are often busy. And of course, I have acquaintances in the village, but I’m not sure I could count any of them as friends.”
“That’s a lonely way to live, angel.”
“I suppose. It didn’t used to bother me.” He sighed. “Now it does.”
Raphael leaned into him, threading their fingers together. Aziraphale looked at him. “What about you?” he murmured. “How have you been? Busy, I’m sure.”
“Busy,” Raphael confirmed. He ran his free hand through his hair, the string coming loose and losing several clumps of curls. He paid it no mind. “I’m dead tired, too. Your brother gets demanding this time of year. Wants us to work miracles. Sometimes I think he expects us to be able to make flowers bloom in the winter.”
“Nah, I’m used to it by now.” He lifted their joined hands to his lips and kissed Aziraphale’s knuckles, then rested his chin against their interlaced fingers. “I’d leave him in a heartbeat, though. If the right offer came along.”
“If I could afford a gardener-“
Raphael laughed. “That’s not what I meant, angel.” He nuzzled against their hands, pressing his cheek to them so he could look at Aziraphale. His hair was soft where it brushed against Aziraphale’s forearm and wrist. “I’m not asking you to…to buy my affections.” He sobered, and a peculiar look came into his eyes. He kissed Aziraphale’s hand again, then released it. “It’d be nice to get away. Just you and me.”
“And Miss Crowley?”
“Hmm? Oh.” Raphael gave Aziraphale half a smile. “Yeah. Her too.”
Aziraphale could see his distraction. He stroked a lock of hair out of Raphael’s face. “You’re tired, and I’m keeping you up.”
“No, it’s fine.”
“It’s not. You need your rest.”
“I need you.”
Aziraphale shook his head. “You have me, my dear. I’ll still be here when the work dies down.”
“Call me that again?”
Raphael’s eyes were wide and pleading, and Aziraphale smiled. “My dear,” he murmured. “My darling.”
“My angel.” His hand came up to cup Aziraphale’s cheek, very briefly, and then he yawned. “You might be right about sleep.”
“Then into bed with you,” Aziraphale said firmly. He pulled back the covers as Raphael stripped down to his smallclothes, not even bothering to put anything else on. He watched Raphael crawl beneath the covers, and then smoothed them down, tucking him in. He hesitated, then leaned down and pressed a kiss to Raphael’s forehead. Raphael blinked up at him in surprise. “Promise me I’ll see you soon,” Aziraphale murmured. “Even if I must chase you down.”
“Mmm, I won’t make you chase me, angel,” Raphael grinned, snuggling into the covers and watching him with one golden eye. “I’ll see you soon enough.”
“I look forward to it.”
“And I’m willing to bet you’ll hear from Miss Crowley soon too. I’m sure she misses you as much as I do.”
“Perhaps.” Aziraphale gave him a small, fond smile. “Goodnight, my dear. Sleep well.”
“Goodnight, angel. Be safe.”
Aziraphale supposed the platitude had a charm-like effect. No one encountered him leaving, and as he trekked back home under the light of the full moon, elation bubbled in his chest. It had only been a short meeting, but after so long without it was a balm on his heart. He had spent many restless nights without Raphael by his side, but that night, he tied the string he’d been left around his wrist and fell asleep smiling, stroking the cord with his thumb, and imagining it was flame upon his pillow. He slept well.
The following morning bore another surprise, and equally welcome. It was a letter from Jasmine Park.
Mr. Fell, it read, We at Jasmine Park know you have been most concerned for Miss Crowley’s health these few weeks past. It has been appreciated, as has your patience. We think this evening she might be well enough for visitors, perhaps shortly after supper, if you should like to stop by and give her your best wishes. Knowing your regard, we shall expect you then, unless informed of some other occupation of your time. Mrs. A. Device.
If Aziraphale supped slightly earlier than normal in his eagerness to honour the letter, that was between himself and the Lord.
It was technically night when he arrived, the evenings already shortening in preparation for the changing seasons, but the hour was still fairly early, and so he was admitted by a housekeeper, who directed him first to the parlour. Mr. Pulsifer greeted him warmly, if a bit distractedly, from his desk, where he was busy assembling a crude mechanical structure. Mrs. Device sat in an armchair, and when he entered looked up from her book and set it aside. “Mr. Fell,” she said. “We’re pleased you could make it.”
“Thank you for extending the invitation,” he said. He hesitated. “May I…may I see her?”
“This way.” Mrs. Device stood and led him upstairs. At a closed door, she knocked twice, and then turned to him. “She is in absolute darkness, and I must insist you keep it that way. The physicians say it is her best chance at recovery. There is a chair beside the bed.”
He inclined his head. “Thank you.”
She opened the door, and he slipped through. It was indeed pitch dark in the room, and Aziraphale nearly stumbled over the chair before he caught himself and lowered into it. He set his hat in his lap and rested one hand on the bedspread. As his eyes adjusted, he could just barely make out the figure on the bed, curled on its side away from him. “Miss Crowley?” he whispered, and then, “Antonia?”
“Aziraphale.” It was a breath more than a word. Her voice sounded light as it ever did, no hint of a rasp or a cold.
“I’m here,” he murmured. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better now you’re here.”
She turned onto her other side, and Aziraphale found himself straining in the dark, trying to make out her features, but in vain. Finally, he settled, sitting back in the chair, petting the bedspread as a substitute for stroking her side comfortingly. “I have missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too. I’m sorry I’ve been away so long.”
“It’s only a few weeks,” Aziraphale reassured her. “And it’s hardly your fault.”
“Still. I miss you reading to me.”
“I would read to you now, if I could. But your cousin said you must be kept in darkness, and I’m afraid I don’t have the capacity to see in the dark.”
She laughed, a full-throated sound. “No, I should think not, although I find I can see you well enough.”
“Your eyes are adjusted by now, I’m sure.”
“This is true.” She shifted, her leg sliding closer to where Aziraphale’s hand stroked over the covers. Aziraphale stilled, then resumed the motion. “You look well, though. A bit tired, perhaps?”
He blushed, and wondered if she could see that in the dark too. “Last night was the first good sleep I’ve had in weeks.”
“Your gardener has been afield?”
“I’m afraid so. He…” Aziraphale blushed deeper and lowered his voice. “He sleeps in my bed, some nights. Just sleeps, mind you. But I find it difficult to be without him after a while. I’m afraid I’ve been quite spoiled by his company. And yours.”
“I’m sure you will have us both back soon. Once the harvest has passed.”
“Are you sure you’ll have recovered by then? It really is dreadful, knowing you’ve been ill for so long.”
“It will pass. The physicians are sure of it.” She sounded confident, and Aziraphale made a mental note to ask Mrs. Device whether they used the local physician or not. If so, he might inquire after their opinion himself. It was perhaps a bit presumptuous on his part, he knew, and possibly a slight abuse of his position, but he supposed that if he asked permission first it would be alright. After all, Mrs. Device had trusted him alone in her cousin’s room. He knew the expectations that went with that.
He cleared his throat. “Antonia…Miss Crowley, you know my regard for you-“
“If you’re going to propose, Aziraphale, I beg you don’t.”
He blinked. “Oh. May I inquire why? It was my understanding that we were rather fond of each other.”
“We are,” she sighed, and he could hear her smile, small but undeniably fond. “But you don’t know me very well yet-“
“I do! I know what matters. About what you like to read, and how you can hardly sit still, and how you’re about as ladylike as your cousin in the best way possible, in ways that excite me and intrigue me and make me want to spend the rest of my life in your company.”
“And you think I may not have very long?”
Aziraphale drew up short. He straightened, and folded his hands in his lap. “Well, I’m not sure I would say that…”
“Aziraphale.” Miss Crowley propped herself up on one elbow. “Please don’t ask me now, because you think I’m sick and it’s expected. I know the rumours, what people about the village are saying about us. Don’t give in to them.”
“The thought hadn’t crossed my mind.”
Aziraphale stared at his lap. He couldn’t even see his hands in the dark, just indistinct shapes against the blob of his knees. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought…I thought that was what you wanted. A proposal. To marry me.”
“I do,” she murmured. “I’d like it more than anything. But not now.”
“Ask me again when I’m no longer locked away. When I can return to your side, and we can read and talk for hours, about nothing and everything, and you can be sure I’ll remain there in good health.”
“I’m by your side now,” Aziraphale said, “and I’ll be here as long as you wish it, talking about whatever you want.”
The indistinct shape of a hand reached out to him, and then stopped and withdrew with some effort. “Just a little more patience,” she soothed. “The harvest will soon be over, and your love…your loves will be by your side once more.”
Aziraphale took a steadying breath. “You’re quite right.” He offered a sheepish smile that she may or may not have been able to see. “Foolish, really, trying to propose now.”
“Not foolish. Lonely.”
He laughed, soft and sad. “Yes, I suppose so. Do you think me pathetic for it? A parishioner without a friend in the parish?”
“I don’t think you pathetic. You’re many things, Aziraphale, but pathetic is not one of them.”
“You speak too highly of me.”
She chuckled. “It isn’t high to say you are not pathetic. To call you honourable, virtuous, intelligent, sweet, these are praises. And these also are true.”
“Antonia. While we are alone.”
“Antonia. I wish I could praise you thusly, but I find I am quite without words to describe you.” Aziraphale paused, and then clarified hurriedly, “I mean that well, and as a compliment. When I heard you were coming to town I had hoped you would be interesting, and free-spirited, and intelligent, and you are all these things in spades. You are truly remarkable in every way.”
“I’m pleased you think so.” She laid back down again, squirming until she was comfortable against the pillows. “May I ask you a question?”
“Will you promise to answer? Even if you do not want to?”
Aziraphale faltered. “I…I shall try my best.”
“You said you shared a bed, on occasion. Just to sleep. But, when you think about…laying with someone…do you think of Raphael? Or do you think of me?”
Aziraphale coughed discreetly. “I, well, that is to say…”
“Aziraphale?” There was a curious quality to her tone, a concern and a fear, although Aziraphale could detect no hint of jealousy from her voice. Some instinct told him that was not the question’s purpose.
He cleared his throat. “I…try not to think about it.”
“It wouldn’t be proper.”
She laughed. “Your propriety again. Surely you are not always propitious. Surely there are moments when you feel.”
A heat bloomed under Aziraphale’s collar. He shook his head firmly. “I exercise great restraint in order not to feel those things. If you’re worried about our marriage bed-“
“I am, although not in the way you may imagine.”
He drew up short and frowned, cocking his head. “Oh?”
She hesitated. “I just…I don’t wish you to be disappointed. I do not doubt that you feel love for me, and that you feel love for Raphael, but love and lust are not the same thing, and I’d hate us both to find ourselves unsatisfied because we desire different things.”
“Oh, my dear,” Aziraphale murmured, and it felt as good to call her that as it felt to call Raphael. “Please don’t trouble yourself about it. I do not think there is any cause for your concern.”
“No. I am not…entirely comfortable discussing it with you now, but please rest assured that I foresee no trouble of that nature between us.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do not. But we will cross that bridge when we get to it.” Hesitantly, aware of the liberty he took, Aziraphale reached out and found Miss Crowley’s ankle, a gentle but solid jut of bone beneath the covers that separated their skin. He squeezed lightly and released it. “If I permitted myself to think about it,” he whispered, “I should think about the both of you.”
He could still sense her tension, but it relaxed some, and he smiled. “I should go. I’ve kept you quite long enough as it is.”
“Must you leave?”
Aziraphale had half-risen, but at her words sat down again. “It is getting late,” he said. “To stay much longer would be-“
“Impropritious.” She chuckled. “I see.”
“I can stay a few minutes more.” They sat in silence, their breathing as one, more at peace than Aziraphale had been in quite a while. Eventually, when he could justify it no longer, he stood and left the room, closing the door gently behind him.
Mrs. Device was no longer in the parlour when Aziraphale peering in, but Mr. Pulsifer still bent over his desk. Aziraphale asked that he give Mrs. Device Aziraphale’s best, that he was taking his leave of them and thanked them for their hospitality. On his way out the door, he paused and turned back. “If it’s not inappropriate to ask, might in inquire after the physician you’ve consulted for Miss Crowley’s health?”
Mr. Pulsifer’s head snapped up, startled. He blinked at Aziraphale from behind his glasses for a moment, gaping like a goldfish, before stammering, “Er, just the local one in town, I should think.”
“You should think?”
“Yes,” he said, a bit more firmly, as if gaining confidence. “That’s who we consult for her health. It wouldn’t make sense to bring in anyone else.”
Aziraphale frowned, but it was late at night, and Mr. Pulsifer was always a bit odd. He inclined his head. “My thanks for the information.”
“Of course. I’m sure you’re…you’re very worried about her. But she’ll be fine.”
“She seems to think so too,” Aziraphale said, glancing back up the stairs with a warm smile. “I look forward to her proving right. Goodnight, Mr. Pulsifer.”
“Er, goodnight, Mr. Fell.”
Aziraphale returned home. With any luck, the bulk of the harvest would be completed in a week or two, and he would find himself a lonely man no more. In spite of the first tendrils of winter’s creeping chill, he felt warmer already.
A letter arrived a few days after his visit with Miss Crowley, unexpected, but as usual, Aziraphale recognized the handwriting.
I’m sorry to have been so delayed in writing this, but Uriel and I have kept quite busy in town. We heard from Gabriel’s lackey, Sandalphon, on his most recent trip to London that the ball was not a complete waste for you, and that you had possibly set your eye on a young lady you appeared to hold in high esteem. I was surprised at the news, but it is not unwelcome. Should we expect a proposal before Christmas?
You may be pleased to know you’ll be given the opportunity to answer in person, for it is my intent that Uriel and I should leave London and visit you and Gabriel for the holidays this year. I know they are still months away, but such planning is required to get us that far. I hope to meet this lady friend of yours then, and I look forward to seeing you, my brother. Perhaps if Gabriel is particularly insufferable this year, you may even consider putting us up, assuming you have the room. Regardless, I wish you the best of luck with any proposal that may or may not be on the horizon.
Aziraphale could not be sure if he welcomed the letter and the news it carried or not. On the one hand, he was much closer to Michael than he was to Gabriel, and the rapport between them was considerably better. At the very least, Michael did not order him around like an obedient dog, and his affection appeared more genuine. On the other, they were still not very close, and while he had the space to put them up, the idea of it did not particularly appeal to him, in part because of the close quarters for an indeterminate amount of time, and in part because it would almost certainly put a stop to any potential visitations from a certain gardener. In the end, his reply was the usual brief sentiment. He thanked Michael for the letter, expressed that there was a woman he hoped to propose to, and possibly soon, and indicated that he looked forward to a holiday visit. It would be a few months before Aziraphale would have to give it much consideration. For the time being, his message would suffice.
Raphael had managed to make one more trek to his house, although he had been nearly falling asleep on his feet when he arrived at Aziraphale’s door, and Aziraphale had berated him gently for not thinking of his health. Raphael had replied that he was thinking of his health, and that Aziraphale was quite good for it, and then promptly collapsed into Aziraphale’s bed. Aziraphale had made him promise not to do it again until his labour load was not quite so intense before he acquiesced to climbing in beside him and holding him close. He once again vanished before sunrise, but Aziraphale could not complain when it led to such a restful sleep.
For all his reassurances in the moment, Miss Crowley’s question, her concerns, lingered in the back of his mind, unwanted and unwelcome. They arose at inconvenient times: as he was preparing his sermon, or in the bath, or as he attempted to fall asleep. Aziraphale was a disciplined man, but he was only so strong, and even he could not entirely block out the thoughts, the phantom sensation of Miss Crowley’s lips on his, of Raphael pressed at his back, at imagined hands tracing over his thighs and higher. He did not indulge, but the dreams the images incited were enough to wake him in the morning, embarrassed and damp with sweat, with his blood pumping and his body tingling. It was like a fever, a madness, one he had never before experienced and could now just barely control.
At least his assessment to Miss Crowley had been correct. He wanted them both. In every way.
After church on Sunday, both Miss Crowley and Raphael once again absent, Gabriel pulled Aziraphale aside. Aziraphale wondered guiltily if his brother intended to comment on his flushed state, or the nature of his sermon, which had been a broad discussion of avoiding indulgence and a specific reminder to himself about the importance of his denial, but if Gabriel had even noticed he did not comment. Instead, he said, “Miss Crowley isn’t here. Again.”
“I noticed. She’s still ill, I imagine. I was able to see her this week. She seems to be finally recovering.”
Gabriel grimaced. “You’re still set on her then?”
Aziraphale frowned. “I thought you approved of her. As I’ve pointed out, her family-“
“Even the Devices would understand turning down such a match, if the woman in question wasn’t a suitable bride.”
Aziraphale bristled, but he kept his anger under wraps. “Unsuitable?”
“You have to admit, it’s not exactly an attractive quality in a woman, being ill all the time. For all you know, she won’t last the winter.”
He stiffened, but kept his voice level. “There are doctors looking after her, and she’s made it nearly thirty winters so far. I should think she’ll make this one just fine.”
Gabriel’s expression darkened. His jaw set. “You need to think of the family-“
Gabriel blinked and drew himself up to his full height. “No?”
Aziraphale lifted his chin. “I have considered the family enough in making my decision. You would have me married off to…to…to Julietta Petley, given half the chance-“
“I mean, you are both…” Gabriel muttered, making a vague shape with his hands that raised Aziraphale’s hackles.
Something in him snapped. “A Device woman is socially acceptable. That is all that should concern you. But I chose her because I love her, because Miss Crowley is someone who I could spend the rest of my life with and never grow tired, or trapped, or bored.”
“You don’t even know what she looks like!”
“I don’t need to!” Aziraphale planted his feet, squaring up to Gabriel and bracing himself, his voice harsh. “You chose a beautiful wife, one who complemented your need to control the rest of us. You insisted Michael marry, and he was lucky enough to find Uriel as an acceptable companion. And now you’re doing the same to me. But I will not be bullied into choosing whomever you decide, Gabriel. I am a grown man, and I can make my own decision, and I choose her. Better still, she chooses me.”
Gabriel stiffened like a statue. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. “So…you’ve proposed?”
“No. But I intend to. After the harvest. When she’s recovered.”
“You don’t know that she will.”
“I do,” he said firmly. He stared defiantly at his brother, and his voice chilled. “I will marry, Gabriel. That was your request. But I am getting married, not you, and I will choose my bride.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Now, I believe, your wife is waiting for you. Give her my best, will you?”
Gabriel gaped. Then he straightened up, cleared his throat, and pointed a finger at Aziraphale. “This conversation isn’t over.”
“I rather believe it is. Good day, brother.”
Gabriel glared at him, and then turned abruptly on his heel and stalked down the aisle to where his wife waited at the end of it. He muttered something Aziraphale couldn’t make out, and Belle shot him a sharp look, which he returned with a polite but unfeeling smile. It was only when the doors banged shut behind them that he allowed himself to crumple, collapsing in on himself as he sank into a pew, breathing hard. He placed a hand over his heart, not surprised to find it racing, and took a few measured breaths. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. His stomach had tied itself into a tight knot, but his chest was light, and after a moment a laugh bubbled up from his throat, unravelling the string in his stomach the more he shook with delight. There would be retribution from Gabriel, of that he could be certain, but at the moment there was only elation. For a few minutes, Aziraphale was untouchable. He had briefly touched the sun.
In this chapter (and the next few, I believe) there's more open discussion of internal and external homophobia (and other period-typical anti-queer sentiments). It's very mild, and I think you'll very much enjoy this chapter, but I wanted to warn just in case.
It was the custom of the village to throw a ball the night after the harvest’s completion. It had been tradition for as long as Aziraphale could recall, although he had never attended one himself, save for one occasion in his youth at his father’s insistence. The whole village was invited, the upper class and the servants alike, as a celebration of the hard work before a long winter. Even those who did not attend directly could be found making merry about the parish, in smaller get-togethers or out in the street. There was laughter, singing and dancing, good food and good cheer.
At least, there was good cheer for most. Aziraphale found himself in the thick of it for the first time since his childhood, but he could not say it was entirely pleasant. He was there for one reason, and one reason only. Raphael would almost certainly be there, and possibly Miss Crowley. So far, neither had made an appearance.
And there had been one other incident. Aziraphale had seen the village physician earlier that evening, not entirely sober and in very good spirits. He’d asked after Miss Crowley’s health, and the man had laughed.
“How should I know?” he’d crowed. “That family and their fancy doctors. Mrs. Device turned me away at the door! Mark my words, if they trusted my opinion over whatever highfaluting half-wit they brought in from town, you’d be up and dancing with your lady right this minute!” He’d strolled away, leaving Aziraphale stunned in his wake. Mr. Pulsifer had insisted they’d consulted the doctor in the village, but Aziraphale couldn’t for the life of him work out why he’d been inclined to lie.
A tap on his shoulder startled him, and he whirled around. Raphael, his hair tied up elegantly and dressed in his finest, stood behind him, grinning. “I’d ask you to dance,” he said, “but I think an awful lot of people here might take that as a bad sign.”
Aziraphale’s instinctual smile faltered, and he winced. “Unfortunately,” he murmured. “It wouldn’t do to be scrutinized in public. We’d be fortunate if an arrest was the only result.”
Raphael studied him. “You’re not frightened of the rope?”
“I am. It’s simply…” Aziraphale shrugged. “I find it unlikely it would come to that. My family wouldn’t permit that sort of scandal. It’s more likely I’d be sent away, to America or one of the colonies, so as not to cause them any further embarrassment.” He hesitated, and frowned. “Does it worry you?”
“Nah.” Raphael shook his head. “I don’t think we’ll be caught. Anyway, it’s not the laws of man that concern me.”
Aziraphale’s eyes flicked skyward on instinct. They were outside the dance hall, the glow of lanterns lapping at their feet, the stars twinkling overhead. “It’s also against His law to love as we do.”
“I don’t believe that. And you shouldn’t either. I’ve told you before; I don’t think it can be a sin to love.”
“I wish I could believe that.”
Raphael went silent. He was quiet so long, Aziraphale looked at him, a slight alarm ringing in his chest. Raphael looked sullen, contemplative. He met Aziraphale’s eyes. “Would you marry me?” he said softly, and with a biting edge to his tone that took Aziraphale aback. “If there were no laws against it, would you marry a man?”
Aziraphale gaped, and then stammered, “It’s a moot point. We can’t-“
“But could you? Would you? If you thought it was just Him telling you that you couldn’t?” Raphael’s eyes burned into him. “If you took me to your bed, could you love me as a husband? Or would He prevent that as well?”
“My dear, I don’t know where this is coming from-“
Raphael scoffed. “You don’t let me kiss you. You say you could love us both, but could you? Could you love us like that? Could you love me?”
“Never mind.” He shook his head. “It’s stupid.”
“Are you drunk?”
Raphael blinked. He rocked back on his heels. Aziraphale glanced around, making sure they weren’t being watched, and then drew Raphael around the corner. Raphael stumbled a little, unsteady. “I’m not drunk,” he muttered when Aziraphale sat him down against the wall. “I only had one drink.”
“One seems to have been plenty.” He knelt before Raphael, who wrapped his arms tightly around his knees. “You know I love you, my darling.”
“You’ll kiss her lips, but not mine. You told her you that you would think about both of us, like that, if you could. Was that a lie?”
Panic’s dagger stabbed Aziraphale. Had a servant overheard their conversation? Did others know? “How do you know that? Raphael, who else knows?”
Raphael’s eyes widened, his head shooting up at Aziraphale’s desperate tone. He shot forward, grabbing Aziraphale’s hand. “Just us, angel. It’s okay. No one else knows. Just us.”
“It…it doesn’t matter,” Raphael insisted desperately. “I…I went to see her. I know Mrs. Device, we talk about groundskeeping and gardening and stuff, I know the family, she let me in.”
“You…” Aziraphale relaxed slightly, the anxiety abating, replaced by perplexment. “You went to see her? You met her?”
Raphael nodded. “Yeah. We’re…acquainted.”
“Oh. Have you…have you been acquainted long?”
Raphael squeezed his hands. “Worried we’re talking about you?”
“Well…” Aziraphale flushed. He bit his lip nervously.
“It’s alright.” Raphael took a shuddering breath. “It’s alright. It’s going to be alright.”
Aziraphale hesitated. “Raphael…you spoke to her about…about our discussion.” His blush deepened, and he ducked his head. “About…intimacy. I didn’t lie. Or, at least, it wasn’t a lie at the time. I didn’t put thought to it intentionally. But after, it was difficult to ignore. I had dreams, even.”
“About the both of you. And myself. Doing…things.” Shame burned in his stomach as he recalled them and the fever they had ignited in him. “I hesitate to call them indecent, because of how I feel for you, for the both of you, but they were…they were very explicit.”
Raphael stared. “You’ve been having erotic dreams. About us.”
“Well…yes.” That Raphael was his lover in every other way, and that Aziraphale loved him deeply, was the only thing keeping him from wishing the ground would swallow him whole. “So please. Rest assured that I do feel affection for you, of that sort as well as chaste. I…God may not condone it, but I’m too selfish to deny it for myself. Not forever.”
“You want us both,” Raphael murmured. His eyes fixed on the ground, but the look in them was very far away.
“That’s what I’ve been saying.” Aziraphale reached out, cupping Raphael’s cheek and drawing his chin up. “After I’m married, my dear. I promise you, if you can wait that long-“
Raphael pulled out of his grip, his eyes squeezing shut as he turned his head away. “You really think you’ll commit adultery.”
“For you, I don’t think it really would be. After all, you know of each other, and you seem to be on good-“
“I should go.”
Aziraphale blinked. He frowned and sat back on his heels. Raphael sighed. “I’m tired. I’ve been working hard. I’d like to sleep some of it off.”
“I understand.” Aziraphale stood, offering his hand out to Raphael, who hesitated and then took it, rising to his feet. “I don’t think I’ll be much for celebrating tonight either,” he admitted. He hadn’t seen any of the Devices, much less Miss Crowley, and he had a suspicion they would not make an appearance. There was no reason to stay. Especially not in the mood he’d fallen into. “Would you…would you like to spend the night?”
Raphael studied him, and then shook his head. “Not tonight, angel. I just want to go home.”
“I see.” The words stung, and Aziraphale swallowed hard, blinking swiftly at the pinpricks of tears at the corners of his eyes in an attempt to hide them.
Raphael caught the look anyway. He squeezed Aziraphale’s hand before he let go. “It’s not that home isn’t with you, Aziraphale. Just…not yet.”
“Will you let me walk you, at least?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Goodnight, angel.”
“I…” Aziraphale started, and then stopped. He watched Raphael walk away, his hair shining in the starlight like a dimming candle, disappearing into the night. “Goodnight!” he called after him, a touch of desperation in his voice. Raphael did not turn around.
Aziraphale slumped against the wall, sliding down it, heedless of the dirt that would surely stain his coat and trousers. He dropped his head into his hands, and scrubbed furiously at his eyes. He would not cry. He would not.
When he’d stemmed the traitorous moisture and eradicated the pathetic hiccups from his breathing, Aziraphale allowed himself to rise. He brushed fruitlessly at his coat, knocking off the worst of the dirt, and then lifted his chin. No one seemed to notice him leaving the party, still in full swing. For them, the night was still young. For Aziraphale, it was all but dead.
His house was pitch dark when he entered it, but he did not light a candle. He paced like a ghost down the length of the hall, pausing to run a hand over the doorframe of his library. Slowly, he reached for the knob and drew the door shut with a soft click. He went upstairs, shedding his party-clothes across the floor, knowing he would have to pick them up and press them come morning, but in the moment unable to care. He left himself in his smallclothes, and though it was cold with the crisp bite of autumn, he did not don appropriate sleepwear. Instead, he simply crawled under the covers as he was, burying his face in the pillow and closing his eyes, barely able to breath against the fabric. He groped for the nightstand, his fingers closing around the string he kept there, and he drew it to his chest, knuckles bloodless and white as his fist shook against his heart.
He could not put a name to what was wrong, could not voice what had so distressed Raphael. He could only see – could only feel – the withdrawal, some strange space between them that had not been there before. “It’s alright,” Raphael had said, but the words rang hollow as they echoed across Aziraphale’s mind, haunting him well into sleep, even after his tenuous control lapsed and his pillowcase dampened with tears.
Sleep eased the symptoms, but upon waking the ache remained. Aziraphale spent many minutes laying still, on his back and staring up at the ceiling as the morning light began to creep across it. He considered what might happen if he remained abed the whole day, if he simply turned over and returned to the fitful rest which he had awakened from. But ultimately, he rose, with the sluggish efforts of a man under duress, dressing presentably and picking up his discarded clothes from the night before without any feeling. He had duties to attend to, and Aziraphale was not afforded the luxury of lying around feeling sorry for himself. Raphael would return to his side, surely, and Aziraphale would be able to rectify whatever wrong had distanced them. He was sure of it. He had to be.
After the previous night’s discussion, Aziraphale hesitated on the threshold of the church, but nothing happened when he crossed it. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting. The thoughts had already existed, after all. Voicing them could not matter. Not after everything else he had said. Still, he braced himself against the back pew, his head bowed, and took a few deep breaths.
Footsteps passed him, a steady rhythm that hesitated for a moment by his side, and then continued with slightly more tension than before. Aziraphale lifted his head, and was met with the sight of a familiar black dress, edged with gold thread, and thick black curls. Miss Crowley did not look at him, but strode on, stepping into the confessional and closing the door behind her. Slowly, Aziraphale stood and followed.
When he was seated, his door latched, she said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” There was the sound of swallowing on the other side of the partition. “It has been…” She chuckled, a little sadly, “A few weeks, I believe? Since my last confession. I…I would have come sooner, but I was otherwise occupied.”
“It’s alright,” Aziraphale murmured. “Why don’t you tell me what you’ve done?”
She laughed again, bitter and piercing. “What haven’t I done?” She took a deep breath. “I’ve been…lustful. And angry, for a lot of reasons, but partially because I don’t think that should be a sin, to feel, to want things. And I’ve hurt people…well, a person, close to me, because I want things, and that just makes it worse!”
“That’s…” Aziraphale found himself at a loss for words. “That’s a very difficult situation.”
“But the worst is the lying.” She took another breath, and this one shook, like there was a rattle in her chest with the attempt not to sob. Aziraphale stared through the partition. She’d mentioned lying before, but always with a bit of a tease. Never had she sounded about to cry. “I’ve lied and lied and lied, to someone I care about, and now it’s all crashing down and I can’t keep doing this.”
“That’s good,” Aziraphale said, trying to sound reassuring. The distress in her voice was beginning to affect him, tightening his chest with concern. “Telling the truth-“
“He’ll hate me,” she interrupted. It wasn’t quite a wail, but it set Aziraphale’s hair on end. She collapsed forward, burying her face in her hands. Through her fingers she mumbled, “Lying is a sin, so deceiving a priest has to be even worse, and he’ll hate me.”
The words pierced Aziraphale’s heart. “Antonia-“
“You’ll hate me,” she whimpered. She shook her head desperately, “I can’t…I have to go.” She fumbled with the latch of the booth.
Aziraphale darted out of his side, reaching out for her as she fled. His hand made brief contact with her hair, his fingers coming away soot black. He stared at it, skidding to a halt for a moment, and then redoubled his pace, running after her. He caught her just before the church doors, panting with the exertion, and caught her by the wrist, dragging her to a halt. She froze in his grip, and Aziraphale took the pause to catch his breath, his lungs burning. When his breathing evened out, he straightened up, and loosened his hold slightly, although he did not let go. “Antonia,” he said softly. “I forgive you.”
“I do. Whatever you lied about, I’m sure-“
“I’m not a Device.”
Aziraphale blinked. He opened his mouth and then closed it again.
Miss Crowley took advantage of his silence. “I’m not Mrs. Device’s cousin. I lied, and I asked her to lie for me, to help me. And I’m not ill. I’ve never been sick, not like I said I was. That was a lie too.”
“Because….” She took a shuddering breath, and then pulled her hand gently from Aziraphale’s grip. She lifted them to her veil, ever-present and impenetrable, and unhooked it, lifting it from her face. Golden amber eyes, tear-swollen and terrified, looked back at Aziraphale. Then she looked at the floor, and her voice fell in pitch, not quite as low as Raphael’s, but somewhere between the two. “I said I was selfish.”
Time had frozen for Aziraphale. A dozen little things, curiosities and questions, were slowly falling into place. He was fairly certain his heart had ceased to beat. It was a long time, or perhaps only a few moments, before he found his voice again. “I don’t understand.”
“You needed a wife. I wanted to be that.”
“A woman?” Raphael…Miss Crowley shrugged desperately. “I am. At least, I feel I am. Some of the time. Sometimes I’m not. But I thought sometimes might be enough.” She looked up at him through damp eyelashes, and Aziraphale’s heart gave a pathetic squeeze. “It was…impulsive, and I know I lied, a lot, but I thought maybe, if you loved me when I was Raphael, you might love me when I was Antonia too.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” It wasn’t Aziraphale’s only question, but it was the most pressing. He took a step closer, imploring. “If I’d known from the beginning-“
“I didn’t want you to love me as a man in a dress.” She shook her head. “That’s not what I am. Not usually. I am a woman. I know…I know He doesn’t make mistakes, that you might think it’s not right, but I can’t help the way I feel. Right now, I’m a woman. Sometimes I’m a man. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“No.” The word surprised both of them. Miss Crowley’s chin rose and her forehead creased. Aziraphale gave her a small smile. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said gently. “As you said, the Lord makes no mistakes. I can’t pretend I’m familiar with the idea, but I’m willing to try to understand. After all, many people would say the love we share is wrong. I was one of them.” He reached out and took her hands, the fabric of the gloves and veil bunching under his fingers. “Can you forgive me, my darling?”
“You…you’re really alright with this?”
“I have a great many questions,” Aziraphale admitted. “And I’m a bit cross that you lied to me. I think I can understand why you felt you had to, and I’m willing to listen to you explain yourself further. But if you mean, do I still love you, do I still want to marry you, the answer is yes. I’m not sure there’s a thing you could say to make it no.”
To his surprise, that was what did it. She gasped out a sob, tears abruptly streaming down her cheeks, and she collapsed forward into him. He caught her, holding her close, and pressed a kiss to her forehead, drawing out his handkerchief to wipe her cheeks. “It’s alright,” he murmured. “It will be alright. Don’t cry, my darling.”
“You don’t hate me.” Her voice was a wet whisper, muffled by his shoulder.
He smiled. “I couldn’t.”
“And you still want to marry me?”
“Well, I’m not sure this is precisely the moment to propose,” he teased gently. “I was hoping for something a bit more romantic. But I’ve just found out that both my lovers are in fact the same person. It seems foolish not to marry you, given that.”
“Even though I’m a man?”
Their conversation the night before. Raphael’s distress. Aziraphale kissed her forehead again, and brushed her hair back out of her eyes. More of the black came off on his fingers, but he paid it no mind. “You’re a woman too,” he reminded her. “Isn’t that what you said? I can certainly marry a woman. And I’m thinking, more and more, that it might be alright to marry a man. If that man was you.”
She shuddered in his arms, a happy, disbelieving laugh bursting from her throat. She nuzzled her cheek into his chest, clinging to him more tightly. “I’ll explain whatever you need me to,” she promised. “I’ll tell you everything. Just never let me go.”
“I’m afraid I have to, my dear. However much I’d like to, I’m afraid we can’t stand here forever.” She pulled away, sniffing and wiping her eyes, and Aziraphale handed her his handkerchief. He stroked her arm. “Does my brother have any need of you today?”
She shook her head.
“Then why don’t you go to Jasmine Park. I have a few things to do here, but when I’ve finished I can meet you there, possibly with Mrs. Device and Mr. Pulsifer? I should only be a few hours, and then you can tell me everything. Does that sound agreeable?”
She gave him a small smile, and Aziraphale realized that even before, when he’d pictured her smiling beneath the veil, it was the same mischievous ones that Raphael loved to give him. It would be a tremendous lie to say he’d known, but perhaps his subconscious had realized something he hadn’t. “It sounds very agreeable,” she said. “I’ll see you in a few hours, then.” She turned to go.
“One last thing, my darling.”
She turned back, and Aziraphale indicated the veil in her hands. “I think perhaps you’d better put it back on before you leave. I assume, with the effort you put into the façade, that you wouldn’t want anyone else recognizing you?”
She nodded. “It’s…a bit difficult, on my own. Could you…?”
Wordlessly, he helped her refasten it, then chastely kissed her cheek through it. “There.” He bit his lip, and then laughed softly.
“I believe you asked once if I was hoping for a beautiful bride. I told you that wasn’t the intent of my question. Regardless, I think I shall have a very beautiful bride indeed.”
He couldn’t see her cheeks, but he didn’t have to to know she was blushing. He held the church door open for her, and watched her walk away. At the bottom of the steps, she looked back over her shoulder. Aziraphale smiled, and she nodded, and made her way down the road.
His duties were light, but his heart was lighter, lifted after the reassurance that his lovers…his lover still wanted him. He was positively whistling by the time he left the church, and although he had questions, he was sure they would be answered to his satisfaction.
Mrs. Device answered the door at Jasmine Park and let him in without a word, directing him to the sitting room. There was an air of tension as he stepped inside, and Mrs. Device closed the door behind him with a click that echoed about the space. Miss Crowley sat primly in an armchair, without her veil, with her hands folded and her legs crossed. Mr. Pulsifer sat on the sofa, and his wife took a seat beside him, indicating that Aziraphale should do the same. He lowered himself into the armchair across from them, looking over at Miss Crowley curiously. She bit her lip and gave him a tiny smile.
They all stared at each other in silence for a moment, as if waiting for one of the others to speak first. It was Mrs. Device who broke the silence. “Mr. Fell. I’m sure you have questions.”
“Given the circumstances, I believe it would be alright if you called me Aziraphale,” he told her. He hesitated, and then addressed Miss Crowley. “To start with, my dear, I really do need to clear up a few things regarding your sex.”
She stiffened, and her cautious look became slightly more suspicious. “How so?”
“You said that sometimes you’re a woman, and sometimes you’re a man. The two names you’ve given me, Raphael and Antonia. Are they the ones you wish me to keep using? Or is there some other one? And do you have a way for me to refer to you, a way to perhaps tell when you’re inclined one way or the other, or what I should call you when referencing your history or outside a particular context?” He blushed. “I, ah, don’t want to offend you. I’ve never encountered anything like this before.”
The whole room was staring at him now. He looked around. “Is that…have I done something offensive already?”
“No,” Mrs. Device said slowly. “It’s just that most people don’t take to the idea nearly that quickly. You’ve had, what, an afternoon?”
Aziraphale blinked. Miss Crowley’s lips were pursed, as if to keep from smiling. Cautiously, he said, “Well, yes. But I should like to think, after some missteps, that I have a more open mind. And, as a great reader, I am familiar with the concept of being educated in things by more knowledgeable individuals.” He indicated Miss Crowley. “In this case you, my dear.”
She broke out into a grin and inclined her head. “I do like the names Raphael and Antonia. I supposed picking one could make it easier, but there’s no one name I really like. Obviously in public you ought to choose one or the other based on my state of dress, for appearance’s sake. Regardless, the way I differentiate it to myself is with my hair.” She reached back, untying it so it fell about her shoulders in black waves, and put forth the silky ribbon it had been tied with. “No matter what else I wear, a ribbon for me means female, and a string means male.” She re-tied her hair, a little messier than it had been before, but still attractive nonetheless. Aziraphale remembered what it felt like under his fingers and withheld the urge to stroke it. She smiled at him. “Otherwise, it does not matter to me, how you think of me. I am the same person, either way. Does that clear things up?”
“It does, thank you.” Well, the first of his questions, anyway. “May I ask, how long have you known you were this way? Man and woman both, I mean.”
She shrugged. “I suspected I wasn’t entirely a boy as a child. But I didn’t explore it until I reached my twenties. And I never presented myself as a woman in public before this little charade.”
Aziraphale nodded in understanding. “Which brings me to the other bit. This plan of yours. How did you even devise such a thing?”
“It was my idea.”
Aziraphale swivelled to look at Mrs. Device. She lifted her eyebrows. “Antonia and I were already quite well acquainted. You know I tend my own grounds. I’ve been seeking her gardening advice for years now. I was aware of her dual nature.”
Mrs. Device exchanged a glance with Mr. Pulsifer, who gave her a small, shy nod. She continued, “She confided in me after observing my interactions with my wife in private.”
Aziraphale blinked. His gaze flickered between the two people on the sofa. “Wife?” he clarified.
The apparently true Mrs. Pulsifer nodded, blushing faintly. “It’s why Anathema doesn’t use my family name. Out of respect for me. It’s only in private. The staff knows, but they’re very discreet.” She rubbed her hands nervously on her trouser legs. “For me, the clothes aren’t as important. I don’t mind wearing either. They don’t make me feel like less of a woman either way. But at home, I go by Mrs. Pulsifer or Natalie.”
“I see.” Aziraphale filed this information away.
Mrs. Device cut back in. “As I said, Antonia and I were well acquainted. When it became known that your brother intended you to take a wife, she was quite…distressed.” She shot a sly smile at Miss Crowley, who blushed and stared at her lap. “I pointed out that you already seemed to have an affection for her, and that as a woman, she could become your bride. I offered to introduce her as my cousin; we were close enough, and my family pays so little attention to the extended branches that if word got to them, they would assume she was just one more half-forgotten relative.”
“Why not use your family name, though?”
Miss Crowley spoke. “Crowley was my mother’s maiden name. It was…important to me that I was called by it, by my real name. Antonia comes from it as well; legally my middle name is Anthony, although I think Antonia is much prettier.”
Mrs. Device nodded. “The veil we could pass off as an eccentric quirk or a matter of illness, the latter of which is was important to establish in case anyone questioned why Antonia spent so little time outside, when she had to work her job as Raphael. And, of course, since it was important that no one recognized her, the veil worked as concealment.”
“And the gloves.” Miss Crowley drew them off, displaying her slightly rough, calloused fingers. “It wouldn’t do to suggest a woman from my implied background had worker’s hands. The voice was easier. I used that already, with Anathema and Natalie.”
Aziraphale nodded along, working it out. “So, you needed to present a legitimate presence in public, so the village would not question the woman I was…well, who quite frankly was wooing me.” She laughed, and he smiled. “Presenting as a Device cousin was logical. It gave you the apparent status you needed, and allowed for an explanation of some of your behaviours.”
“Others it made difficult,” Miss Crowley admitted. “Reading with you…I do like hearing your voice aloud, but as you might have guessed…”
“You aren’t a great reader,” Aziraphale finished. “Although, I must say, you’ve improved greatly since we’ve been working together.”
“And it explains why you weren’t trained in the languages. Or sewing or drawing.”
She nodded. “They aren’t things a supposedly male labourer would have been trained in. I had to make other excuses.”
“Well, it worked,” Aziraphale admitted. He had been just blind enough for them too, which he supposed was the point.
“Everyone believed it,” she said. “But then you started to fall in love with me, properly. As both Raphael and Antonia. I hadn’t…I hadn’t considered how that might distress you, and I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “I’ve already forgiven you. Such distress has made me more aware of myself, of the way I think and the way I am. I do not regret it.”
“Still. It got…more difficult to lie, especially as the harvest came. Especially with all the running back and forth, having to act as two people in two places. Part of me thought I might get away with it until our wedding. I think…I think I’m glad it unravelled sooner, though. I’m not sure I could have walked down the aisle still deceiving you into believing I was two people.”
“It might have been a much greater shock,” Aziraphale acknowledged. “Perhaps not the sort of thing suited for a happy wedding day. I only foresee one problem.”
“If it’s my lack of a dowry-“
He shook his head. “That’s not my concern. I live comfortably enough for two, and I still have the affections of at least one brother, should I ever need assistance. But I am…concerned…about how this charade might work in the long run. My brother’s staff will question it, if you always spend the night with me. And I’d hate to have you walk back and forth in the dead of winter. Sooner or later, we will be caught.”
“We’re still figuring that out,” Miss Crowley admitted. “But we will figure it out. I promise.”
“I hope it’s soon,” Aziraphale said. “I already feared losing you once, my darling. To lose you like that might well and truly break me.”
She stood up and came over to sit on the arm of his chair, wrapping one arm about his shoulders. “I won’t let you lose me,” she promised softly. “Everything will be alright.”
“As for a dowry,” Mrs. Device broke in, causing the whole room to look at her, “she won’t actually be without.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “I have a great deal of family money, and not much to do with it. And I have claimed you as my cousin, after all. I don’t see why I shouldn’t provide my cousin with at least some family money to ensure her future happiness and well-being.”
So close to her, Aziraphale could see the tears welling in Miss Crowley’s eyes as she shook her head, unable to contain her smile. “You don’t have to do that, Anathema.”
“I don’t,” she said. “But I’d like to. Natalie and I have already discussed it.” Mrs. Pulsifer nodded in confirmation. “We’d be delighted.”
“Thank you! Oh, thank you.” She hugged Aziraphale more tightly. “You’ll have a truly proper bride after all, angel.”
“I was under the impression I already would.” Aziraphale smiled up at her. He lifted one of her hands to his lips and kissed the back of it. “But it has nothing to do with money or material possessions.” He paused. “I just have two more questions, I believe, and then I think we can put this whole matter to bed.”
He turned to Mrs. Device. “At my brother’s ball, you spoke to me of my heart. You told me I had a choice to make, but you knew I was choosing between the same person.”
Mrs. Device understood the implied question and smiled, shaking her head. “I’m sorry you interpreted it that way. It’s not what I meant. I told you that you were caught between what you thought you should want, and what you actually wanted. You wanted two people when you thought you should want one, and it was tearing you apart.”
Aziraphale bowed his head. “Fortunately for me, as it turns out, I only really wanted one person in the end.”
Miss Crowley smiled, and Mrs. Device nodded. “In the end. But I think you sorted it out beforehand, didn’t you? You found a way to accept yourself.”
“I did.” In hindsight, it seemed foolish, the stress he had put himself under.
“What’s the other question?” Miss Crowley asked.
Aziraphale blinked, and then laughed. “Your hair, my dear. Why on earth did you coat it in soot?”
“Oh.” She turned as bright red as her natural locks. “Red hair isn’t exactly common, and it’s unheard of in the Device family. Natalie suggested colouring it black might be a way to strengthen the difference, and soot was a temporary but reasonably effective option. I should like to stop eventually. It stains everything.”
Aziraphale laughed, and she grinned at him, swooping down as if to kiss him. He stopped her, and she cocked her head, frowning. His smile widened. “I believe you made me a promise, that you wouldn’t kiss me like that until we were married. We aren’t even engaged.”
She pouted, but there was a hidden brightness behind it that showed she wasn’t truly hurt. “Then I suppose I’ll just have to wait.” She darted back down, planting a kiss on his cheek, and then stood up. “Tea, anyone?”
“I’ll help you,” Mrs. Pulsifer stood too, and together they left the room.
Mrs. Device looked expectantly at Aziraphale. “Will you stay for tea? You’re welcome to, if you like.”
“I think I will.” He gave her a grateful look. “And thank you for encouraging Antonia to pursue me. While I can’t always say I approved of her methods, I can say I’m much better off for having her in my life.”
“You would have had her anyway,” Mrs. Device pointed out. “She already was intent on seducing you as Raphael.”
“Yes, but I would have only had half of her. She would have been holding back a part of herself. I don’t want that. I want all of her, and I want her to be happy. I don’t think she would have been if she hadn’t pursued me as a potential wife as well.”
“That’s true,” Mrs. Device agreed. “And neither would you have been.”
As always, Aziraphale thought, Mrs. Device knew what she was talking about.
The note arrived the following morning, and it got Aziraphale out of bed earlier than he wanted to be. He hauled himself downstairs in answer to the rapping on the door, still in his nightclothes and blinking sleep from his eyes. He took the note and shooed the delivery boy away as politely as he could, breaking the seal as he started in the direction of his library.
He stopped dead before he got there, his eyes scanning the short message, dumbfounded and with a slow ice creeping into his veins. He dropped the note and scrambled upstairs in his haste to dress, and was out the door before his coat was even fully on.
In his brother’s flowing script, without even so much as an address, had been three short words.
Come home now.
Aziraphale was damp with sweat and breathing hard by the time he reached the door, and he knocked frantically, practically spilling into the hall when Dagon opened it, stumbling forward and catching himself awkwardly. His gaze darted around the room. “What’s going on? Where are they?”
“In here,” Dagon said, and bared her teeth in a smile. She gestured him into the sitting room, where Gabriel was waiting, half-perched on a desk. In a chair to his left sat Belle. Flanking him to his right stood Sandalphon.
Dagon closed the door behind Aziraphale with a snap, standing in front of it so he could not go back, and Aziraphale stuttered to a stop on the ornate rug, his shoes leaving slight imprints of grass and mud. “I got your letter,” he wheezed. “What’s wrong?”
“You are.” Sandalphon grinned at him like a knife. Gabriel nodded to him, and then pushed off the desk, folding his arms as he strode towards Aziraphale, whose eyes widened. Instinctively, he shrank back a few steps.
Gabriel stopped a few feet away from him and raised his eyebrows. “We always knew there was something wrong with you, Aziraphale, but I thought you knew better.”
“I…I beg your pardon?”
Gabriel looked back over his shoulder. “Do you want to tell him, or should I?” When Sandalphon merely continued to grin, inclining his head in Gabriel’s direction, Gabriel turned back. “Two nights ago, at the village dance, Sandalphon here noticed something…disturbing.”
Aziraphale’s stomach dropped.
“You pulled one of our groundskeepers, a Mr…what was it? Opita?”
He looked to Belle, but it was Dagon who answered in a cackling rasp. “Ophidia. Raphael Ophidia.”
Gabriel snapped his fingers. “Raphael. Exactly. Sandalphon saw you talking, and then you pulled him down an alley.”
“Mighty suspicious,” Sandalphon put in.
“Suspicious,” Gabriel echoed. “So he watched. Apparently, there was a great deal of…touching.” He pulled a face. Aziraphale’s stomach tightened and threatened to empty itself on the rug. Gabriel continued, “Of course, even with you being, well, you…” He gave Aziraphale a disdainful look, “Some touching isn’t enough to really make a claim.”
“Even if it is intimate,” Sandalphon added with a sneer.
“So, I asked Belle if she would get Dagon here to do a little investigating. And according to her, an awful lot of the groundskeepers seem to think that Mr. Ophidia has spent several nights sleeping elsewhere. And that a few of them even suggest they last saw him on those nights taking a stroll, oh, in the direction of a certain parsonage.” He folded his arms behind his back and waited. “Well?”
“I…I’m not sure what you want me to say,” Aziraphale stammered. Breathing was suddenly very difficult, his airway constricted further with each word out of Gabriel’s mouth. He looked over his shoulder at Dagon, who blocked his exit like a fox lying in wait over a rabbit hole, then back to Sandalphon and his hungry eyes. Belle’s lip was curled in disdain.
“You’re not even going to deny it?”
“Deny what?” Aziraphale’s voice rose in pitch, outside of his control. “You haven’t even accused me of any-“
“Bad enough you had to be…that way at all, but to actually break that law?” Gabriel sounded disbelieving, even more so than his clear disgust. “You’re a priest, Aziraphale, you should know better than to…to…fornicate with-“
“But I haven’t!”
“I don’t believe you.” Gabriel jabbed a finger at him. “It’s clear there’s something between you, and he was in your house, presumably in your bed.” He shook his head, pressing a fist to his lips as if to keep down bile, and then cleared his throat. “We have witnesses, Aziraphale. Sandalphon and Dagon, half the staff. If you weren’t family, I’d have marched you straight to town hall last night. But you’re family, and you’re a priest. So I didn’t.”
Aziraphale’s heart sank deep into his stomach, churning with the nausea that roiled there. The words “I’m sorry” pressed to his lips, but he bit down hard on them and forced them back. He was not going to apologize for something he hadn’t done, something he was starting to think wasn’t all that wrong in the first place. Not to his brother. He fought for composure, and half-managed it. “What will you do, then?”
“The only thing I could do, given the circumstances.” Gabriel glowered. “He’s gone. I sent him away.”
“I had to! You should count yourself lucky that I didn’t turn him over for…for that. It’s disgusting, Aziraphale.” He took a few threatening steps forward, hovering just at the edge of Aziraphale’s space, as if unwilling to come into contact with him even for the sake of intimidation. “If he so much as shows his face in this village again, I will turn him over, and I’ll personally make sure he hangs. Understood?”
“I…I understand,” Aziraphale whispered. He shrank back from his brother, trying to make himself very small.
Gabriel stepped back. “Now, if you haven’t proposed to that woman yet, like I asked you to, you do that as soon as possible, and you put this nonsense behind us. Is that clear?”
“Now get out of my sight.”
Aziraphale turned to go. He paused at the door, which Dagon still blocked. She licked her lips and grinned, then slowly stepped aside. Aziraphale took a deep breath and wrapped his fingers around the handle. Then he stopped.
In his periphery, he saw Dagon frown. He straightened up, and faced Gabriel, who looked equally surprised. Even Sandalphon’s eyebrows raised. Aziraphale lifted his chin. “For the record, Gabriel? I didn’t ask to be a priest. I was told I ought to be. But perhaps my profession has given me more clarity than you, because I may not have chosen to be the way I am, to love the way I do, but if the Lord made all of us in his image, than he must have made me this way intentionally, and there is nothing perverse or disgusting about that.” He wrenched open the door and gave the room a defiant glare. “Good afternoon.”
He slammed it behind him, and then strode out and slammed the front door too for good measure. He stood beyond it a moment, covered in sweat and dirt, his heart racing and his chest heaving as the constriction of his throat finally eased. The brief moment of elation was replaced quickly with panic. Raphael was gone. He would hang if he wasn’t. They were running out of time. For the second time that day, Aziraphale broke out in a sprint, running across the lawn in the direction of his house, his mind racing out ahead of him, unsure where he had to go but knowing he needed to get there.
He burst through the gap in the hedgerows and collided with a solid body, sending both of them sprawling into a heap on the ground. Aziraphale blinked at the sky, brief stars of pain dancing behind his eyes, and then sat up as the other person moaned and shifted under him.
“Aziraphale?” Raphael, hair tied up with string, blinked at him, squinting as he rubbed at his chest, where Aziraphale’s shoulder had knocked into him.
Aziraphale gasped and cried out in delight, tackling him back to the ground and hugging him tightly. “You’re still here.”
“Oof, angel, you’re squashing me,” Raphael panted as the air was squeezed out of him. He patted Aziraphale’s back, and Aziraphale loosened his hold so they could both sit up again. “Of course I’m still here. Did you really think I wouldn’t be?”
“Gabriel can sod off to hell, for all I care.” Raphael helped Aziraphale to his feet, his hands lingering on Aziraphale’s forearms. “Even if I was going to leave, I wouldn’t have left you without saying goodbye.”
Aziraphale swallowed hard. “But…you’re not leaving?”
“Well, Raphael might not make another appearance in the village—” he winked at Aziraphale “—but I expect Miss Crowley will be around a great deal more. For now, at least. Haven’t you heard? She expects a proposal any day now.”
Raphael burst out laughing. “What happened to romantic, angel?”
“I’m serious, Raphael. Marry me. Now, as soon as possible. Please.”
Raphael’s forehead creased, and he cradled Aziraphale’s cheek. “Hey. It’s alright. Take a deep breath.”
Aziraphale did so, shuddering in his arms.
“Now look at me.” He stroked Aziraphale’s shoulder soothingly. “There’s no need to panic.”
“They’ll hang you if they figure it out.”
“They won’t figure it out,” Raphael said firmly. “No one’s going to hang. Look at me.” He lifted Aziraphale’s chin, forcing blue eyes to meet gold. His voice softened. “Ask me again. Properly.”
“Will you marry me?”
“Of course, angel.”
“We should…we should do it soon. Before-“
“Relax.” Raphael squeezed his shoulder and kept his voice gentle. “We have a little time, and I’d like a proper wedding, if you’ll indulge me.”
He sounded so earnest that Aziraphale melted. He swallowed hard and nodded.
“Good,” Raphael murmured. “Why don’t we go inside? We can send word to Natalie and Anathema to meet us here, and we can all talk it over together. Okay?”
They went inside. Aziraphale scribbled a brief note and went out again to the front of the house. He summoned one of the children passing by to take the note to Jasmine Park as fast as he could, pressing a few coins into his palm to encourage him. The boy’s eyes went wide, and he took off so fast he forgot the note, and had to double back to retrieve it from Aziraphale before he scampered off again.
Aziraphale went back inside. He found Raphael in the kitchen, making tea, and accepted the cup when it was pressed into his hands. “To calm you down,” Raphael told him, and steered him gently in the direction of the library. Aziraphale allowed himself to be guided, and sank into his armchair, staring into the cup and watching the surface ripple with the trembling of his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“What for?” Raphael asked, taking a seat at Aziraphale’s desk and setting his own teacup on it.
“I really did want a romantic proposal. Something meaningful, to both of us. Not something rushed and terrified.”
Raphael smiled indulgently. “Think of it this way,” he said. “You proposed to me as Raphael because you were afraid I’d be leaving. Once we have a plan, you can propose to me again, as Antonia, the romantic way you wanted. Does that sound fair?”
Aziraphale blinked. “Yes, I suppose it does.” He took a sip of his tea, and was delighted to find it prepared just the way he liked. He relaxed a little, and sank back into the chair with a sigh. “You’re too patient with me, my dear.”
“I like to think I’m just patient enough.” Raphael stretched his legs out in front of him, draping an arm over the back of his chair. He cocked his head and smirked. “You know, you do look something of a fright, angel.” He gestured to the streaks of dirt on Aziraphale’s trousers and the sweat-stains on his shirt. “Is that all from running after me?”
Aziraphale blushed. “Ah, well, not precisely. When Gabriel summoned me, I was concerned. The wording was less flowery than usual for him, so I thought something might be amiss. According to him, it was.”
Raphael nodded, tapping his toe idly against the corner of the desk. “Our alleged perversions, you mean.”
“Quite.” Aziraphale smiled slyly. “I might have told him off.”
“Oh?” Raphael sat forward and grinned. “Do tell.”
“I told him that the Lord made me as I am, and how if that’s the case, how I love can’t be wrong.” He giggled to himself, relief already lightening the terrifying memory. “It feels good to say that.”
“I’m glad,” Raphael said. “I’m really glad you’re able to say it. It’s a lot better than hating yourself because you think God hates you, isn’t it?”
Aziraphale nodded. “I can’t promise I won’t doubt,” he cautioned. “But, I do think it will be easier, in the future, to remember that just because the church says it, doesn’t make it true.” He sat, thinking for a moment, and then giggled again.
“I stood up to Gabriel about you as well. A few weeks ago.”
“He was questioning whether or not you’d be a suitable bride for me, what with being ill and odd.” Aziraphale snorted and sipped his tea. “I told him in no uncertain terms that I loved you, and that I planned on marrying you whether or not he approved.”
“Aww.” Raphael looked away, trying to hide his blush. “That’s sweet, angel. He really said I wasn’t good enough for you?”
“Well, not good enough for the family,” Aziraphale allowed. “I don’t think he cared much about my standards. He’ll approve of you now, of course. He’ll approve of any woman he thinks will catch my eye enough to stop me from committing…well. What he considered indecent acts.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I love you. That’s what’s important.”
“You’re going to make me blush.”
He was already blushing, but Aziraphale didn’t say that. Instead, he simply smiled. “I’m afraid I’m getting quite comfortable standing up to my brother.”
“Good. It’s about time.”
A knock on the door interrupted them, and Aziraphale rose to get it. He let Mrs. Device and Mrs. Pulsifer in, directing them to his library, and offering them tea. When everyone was situated, he and Raphael relayed the situation, Raphael’s banishment, the threatened hanging, and the need to have the wedding sooner rather than later.
“The only problem,” Aziraphale said when they’d finished, “is that I’m not sure what we can do after the wedding. I don’t want to keep Raphael locked up in the house all day, but staying here is incredibly risky.” He cast a worried glance at his lover, who returned it with a milder version. “I’m just not sure where else we can go.”
Mrs. Device hesitated, and then said, “I might have a solution.”
Raphael lifted an eyebrow. Aziraphale set his teacup back in the saucer. “I’m more than willing to hear it.”
“I have a house up north, that my family left to me. It’s been vacant for some years now, but it’s quite spacious. Plenty of room for, say, a pair of cousins, their spouses, and a small but discreet staff.”
Aziraphale opened his mouth and then closed it again. “That’s…incredibly kind of you to offer, but-“
She shook her head. “We’re friends, Aziraphale. I have precious few of those, certainly none who encourage my interests the way you do.” She squeezed her wife’s hand. “And none who accept the most important parts of my family so wholeheartedly.” She smoothed out her skirt and sat forward a little. “The parish it’s in is very small, and there is a great deal of space between the houses. We’d not be disturbed on the grounds, even without hedgerows. If we held the wedding two weeks from now, we could likely be moved in there before the first frost.”
“I can’t impose on you like that,” Aziraphale said firmly. “To leave would mean abandoning the church, and without that support I’ll have nothing. Certainly no family money. I may not particularly like it, but-“
“I thought of that.” Mrs. Device smiled slyly. “My family name has a great deal of pull in politics, you understand. Even the politics of the church. The priest there is getting on in years, and finds the cold somewhat damaging to his health. I highly suspect that one well-worded letter suggesting they replace him with a younger man and send him elsewhere might provide a job opening that would almost certainly be offered to you.”
Aziraphale gaped. “But I can’t ask you to do all that for me!”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Not just for you. For Raphael as well. Besides, what good is family connection if you can’t use it to your advantage every once in a while?”
Aziraphale made to protest again, but then caught sight of Raphael, whose eyes were wide and hopeful. He stopped and inclined his head. “If you’re really willing, then I’m in favour of your plan.”
“I’ll send the necessary letters at once.” Mrs. Device grinned. “And you—” she pointed at Raphael “—are going to help me plan a wedding in under two weeks.”
Hope bloomed in Aziraphale’s chest. He had friends. He had a bride-to-be, one he loved dearly and who loved him in return. And they had a plan for happiness. Every fear of the morning had been turned on its head. He turned to Raphael. “I expect you’ll stay with Mrs. Device and Mrs. Pulsifer until the wedding?”
“We’re on a first name basis, Aziraphale,” Mrs. Device cut in.
“Natalie and Anathema, then.”
“That would…probably be best,” Raphael admitted, a touch reluctantly. “We’ve been apart this long. Two weeks more seems doable to me.”
“Two weeks,” Aziraphale echoed. It seemed an eternity. He finished his tea and set the saucer aside. “Knowing what lies at the end, I think we can bear it.”
Raphael smiled. “Yes, we can.”
Mrs. Device had apparently foreseen the outcome, and had brought with her a bundle, which she then unwrapped, and Aziraphale was treated to watching Raphael don the familiar dress he wore to be Miss Crowley in public. He made a face when Mrs. Device drew out the container of soot, but made no complaint as she coated his hair. At last, they affixed the veil, and with one last kiss to Raphael’s cheek Aziraphale saw them off.
After they had gone, Aziraphale went to his desk and pulled out a sheet of paper, on which he printed a London address, and then wrote:
My dear brother,
I’m terribly sorry to inform you that we will likely not be seeing each other for the winter holidays this year. However, I hope you will not hold it against me. The woman we spoke of before, Miss Crowley, has agreed to take my hand in marriage. Unexpectedly, her cousin, a Mrs. Anathema Device, expects to move up north, and hopes to take myself and Miss Crowley with her. She thinks it would greatly improve her cousin’s health, and their physician and myself both agree. If all goes well, we shall acquire the necessary licence, and the wedding shall be a fortnight from the date on this letter, and we shall set off a few days after. I’m sorry that you will likely be unable to attend, given the short notice of the event, but I trust we will be in your hearts, and have your best wishes regardless.
If you despair that I may be leaving the church out of pursuit for this love, rest easy. Mrs. Device tells me of a potential clerical position in the parish that she can recommend me to. I have faith that things will work out to our best efforts, and that come winter I will be preaching elsewhere. We may even be closer to London, and I may then be able to visit you more frequently.
I do not know if Gabriel has contacted you recently, but if he has you may suspect that my decision to move is influenced by it. Whatever he has told you, I hope it does not make you despise me as he does. I am motivated only by love, innocent and pure. I cannot deny, however, the appeal of being away from him and his ability to summon me like a dog for his every whim. I believe I understand more and more why you chose to make London your home.
I hope this letter finds you well, and that you and Uriel forgive me if I do not see you soon. Know that I will be happy, soon a married man, honouring the family my way instead of our brother’s.
My very best wishes to you,
He read over the letter once, nodded in satisfaction, and set it on the desk. He would give it to Mrs. Device to read before he sent it, to be sure she approved the story. He could only hope it would reach Michael before any contact from Gabriel did. Aziraphale was developing a newfound affection for his brother, and he could only hope for the opportunity to nurture it in the future.
He didn’t know what Michael would say if he suspected Aziraphale had been having sex with a man. With any luck, he would not care, or would dismiss Gabriel’s speculation. Either way, Aziraphale hoped his letter would be met well.
“Alright, yes, I’m coming!” Aziraphale called, hurrying down the hall towards the sharp, insistent rapping. “Just a moment, please!” He reached the door and pulled it open, and his smile froze on his face. He blinked. “Michael?”
His brother grinned, and threw his arms around Aziraphale, hugging him tightly. “Surprise!” He released Aziraphale, who reeled back a step or two, mouth agape.
It took a moment, but when he recovered his wits, he asked, “How are you here?”
“We got your letter a few days ago, and I couldn’t miss my brother getting married!” Michael bounced on his heels. Beside him, his more serene wife gave Aziraphale a nod hello. Aziraphale gave her a weak smile back. He’d only met Uriel once or twice, at family gatherings, and he wasn’t quite sure how to respond to her. She was a stately, dignified woman, who spoke seldom and softly but with a rich, firm voice that brooked little room for argument. Mostly, they’d kept out of each other’s way.
Aziraphale shook his head in disbelief. “I sent that letter a week ago! You would have had to leave almost as soon as you’d gotten it. I’m terribly sorry, if I’d known the trouble you were going to-“
Michael shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, truly. For this, we were willing to make time. Especially since we won’t see you this winter!” He grinned. “Are we going to stand outside all day, or will you invite us in?”
“Oh! Oh, of course.” He ushered them over the threshold. “Please excuse the mess. Packing, you see.”
“Have you got the position, then?” Michael asked, surveying the hall, cluttered with trunks and the like, with interest.
“Well, we haven’t gotten confirmation yet, but it seems incredibly likely. Here.” He guided them around a particularly precarious stack by the library door and gestured them into the sitting room. As they all took seats, Aziraphale hesitated, and then said carefully, “You didn’t reply to my letter, so I don’t know what Gabriel’s said to you, but…well, it isn’t true.”
“Aziraphale,” Michael said, his voice shockingly gentle. He leaned forward, resting a forearm on his knee. “May I speak bluntly?”
“I know you like men, Aziraphale. At least, I know you had something of a crush on one of our gardeners growing up. And it wouldn’t surprise me if you and he were together in some capacity now.” He smiled kindly. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
“Does your Miss Crowley know?”
“And she’s alright with it?”
Aziraphale fought the delirious urge to laugh. He nodded stiffly. “She is.”
Michael nodded and leaned back. “That’s alright, then.”
“Really.” He glanced over at Uriel, who sat straight-backed and rigid, her eyes travelling slowly across the room with vague interest. She paused, looked back at him, and lifted one eyebrow. Michael broke into a wider smile and settled, throwing his arm over the back of the sofa and returning his attention to Aziraphale. “I’m glad you were able to find her, you know. A few letters doesn’t do it much justice, but it sounds to me like you genuinely like her.”
“I do.” Aziraphale could not help his fond sigh, thinking on the flurry of wedding plans and Miss Crowley’s ecstatic explanations of them. “She makes me very happy.”
“I have something for you,” Michael told him. Wordlessly, Uriel withdrew a small box from her skirts and passed it to her husband, who took it and gestured out with it. “Go on.”
Aziraphale hesitated, and then reached for it, and when he opened it he blinked. Michael shrugged. “It’s not entirely from me. More from our mother. She gave it to me just after you went off to school. Seemed to think Gabriel might try to hold it over you, or take it for himself.”
“I…I don’t know what to say.”
Inside the box, nestled snugly in paper, was a ring.
In terms of wedding ring heirlooms, the Fell family had a few. There was a gorgeous gold one, set with diamonds, which had most recently been worn by a great-grandmother on their mother’s side, and which currently adorned Uriel’s finger. Belle had apparently disliked the sapphire one their paternal grandmother had worn, until Gabriel had reset it with much larger stones, so that it was much bulkier and glittered in awkward chunks on her hand. But their mother’s wedding ring, a tasteful gold band twisted into leaf shapes and set with a single cut ruby that glistened like a ripe apple, had been, to Aziraphale knowledge, missing since her death. Now he knew better.
“I don’t know if you have a ring already,” Michael murmured, “but I thought you might like to give her that one.”
“I…thank you, Michael.” Aziraphale closed the box reverentially and set it on an end table. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
“I believe I might,” Michael teased. “You look ready to cry.”
Aziraphale sniffed, and dabbed self-consciously at his watery eyes. “I think, in this instance, I should be allowed.”
“Then I’ll allow it.” Michael grinned. He patted his thighs, and then stood up, offering his hand out to Uriel and lifting her from her seat. “If your Miss Crowley isn’t busy tonight, invite her to dine with us at Havensgate. I’d love to meet her before the wedding.”
“But…” Aziraphale stared. “Gabriel…”
Michael’s eyes glinted mischievously. “I might have given our dear brother the impression that it would only be proper to have you both over for dinner, now that I’m back home.”
“It would be rude,” Uriel put in with quiet satisfaction, “not to introduce your fiancée to the entire family. And what would the other Devices say if they knew we’d been rude?”
“I’ll…I’ll see if she is available.” Aziraphale picked up the ring box again and turned it over in his fingers. An idea was forming, one which would make braving his eldest brother’s dinner table absolutely worth it. “I’ll walk you out, then?”
“We ought to get back,” Michael acknowledged. “We’ll see you tonight, Aziraphale.”
He gave them a little wave as they left, and Michael returned it with a smile, holding the gate open for his wife, who nodded at Aziraphale politely. Aziraphale shook his head as if to clear it and squeezed the ring box tight. Not a figment of his imagination, then. His brother really was here.
He tucked the box in his pocket and returned to the house to change into something a little more appropriate for an important dinner. Then he made his way along the lane to Jasmine Park.
For once, Aziraphale pulled up to the family estate in a carriage. Mrs. Device had lent it to them, on the insistence that after all Gabriel had said, he deserved a reminder that they were on equal footing with him. The whole – admittedly somewhat short – ride over, Miss Crowley fussed with her veil, peeled her gloves on and off as she resituated them on her fingers, and retied the ribbons in her hair no fewer than three times. Eventually, as they approached the gates, Aziraphale leaned forward and stilled her hands. “Relax, my dear.”
“I’m not sure I can,” she admitted. He didn’t entirely blame her. If she was caught by Gabriel or anyone else in his household, then she was in grave danger.
He gave her a reassuring smile. “Gabriel will not find out. I doubt he’ll be able to look either of us in the face tonight.”
“That’s not my concern.”
He blinked. “Then what is?”
“I remember Michael, and I respect him. He’s an honourable man. I’d like to make a good impression on him and his wife.”
Aziraphale laughed. “You will, I’m sure. Michael finds eccentricity charming, and you look absolutely stunning tonight.” She did; there were pearl beads in her hair and lining her dress, which had a beautifully full skirt with swirls of elaborate embroidery snaking around it. The compliment, he knew, would have made her blush behind the veil, but he meant it with all his heart.
The carriage pulled to a stop, and Aziraphale got out. He offered Miss Crowley his hand to help her down, and then led her to the front steps, where his brothers and their wives were waiting. He stopped in front of them. “Michael. Uriel. Might I introduce Miss Crowley, my fiancée? Miss Crowley, this is my brother and his wife.”
She curtsied. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Michael gave a shallow bow, then briefly took her hand between his own to squeeze before releasing it. “The pleasure is ours. Aziraphale speaks so highly of you. It’s wonderful he found someone so lovely and intelligent to spend his life with.” He gestured to the door, “Shall we go inside?” And he breezed right past Gabriel and Belle, who were watching the exchange with slightly sour expressions. Uriel followed without looking at them, and Aziraphale gave Gabriel a hard look before following too, with Miss Crowley on his arm. Her gloved hand tightened over his, but it was the only indication of any fear on her part.
Dinner was an interesting affair. Michael regaled them with stories from London, occasionally turning to Uriel for her input, or begging her to tell a particular tale, which she mostly obliged him with a patient and quiet fondness. Whatever unhappiness they might have feared when Michael had wrote Aziraphale earlier that year, they seemed to be quite recovered from it.
Gabriel said nothing, only grunted occasionally when Michael directed something his way. Belle, veil-less and sulking, glanced back and forth between the other two women with hackles raised, as if a cat defending her territory from interlopers. Michael did not bother to engage her at all, and Uriel paid her no heed, instead sometimes breaking through her husband’s happy chatter to ask a question of Miss Crowley or Aziraphale. They were largely about literature, and for once Aziraphale did not feel in a hurry to leave his brother’s table, eagerly engaging with his sister-in-law and listening to Michael’s anecdotes with delight. Under the table, when he thought he could get away with it, he sometimes allowed his fingers to brush against Miss Crowley’s arm. She said nothing, nor made any indication that she was aware of the touch, but every so often she returned the gesture, and without fail Aziraphale smiled.
As the evening wore on, they retired from dinner to the drawing room. Belle excused herself, saying that she was feeling rather ill, and didn’t think she would be good company. Her words were accompanied by a slight glare at Miss Crowley, but she was dismissed with little fanfare, although Aziraphale politely told her he hoped she felt better after some rest. Gabriel prowled the corners of the room like a caged animal, poking irritably at the shelves and mantlepieces that lined the walls. Michael sat in the centre of the room, sprawled out comfortably in a chair with his back to Gabriel, intentionally ignoring him. Uriel sat at the piano, and without prompting began to play a soft and sweet melody.
“I really am pleased to have met you,” Michael told Miss Crowley when she and Aziraphale took seats opposite him. “You’ve every bit as lively as your cousin. If she weren’t a woman, I don’t doubt Mrs. Device would be running the village, simply for something to do!”
“If she were allowed to be a member of the village council, I’m sure she would be,” Miss Crowley acknowledged. “I look up to her a great deal.”
“Oh well,” Michael said. “Perhaps up north they’re less strict about such things. Are you excited to go?”
“I am. I’ve never been, but Mrs. Device says the family house is quite beautiful.”
“Aziraphale has suggested I may be able to visit, or that you may come to London to visit me. What say you to that?”
“I say you’re welcome any time, so long as you call ahead.” She laughed. “I would hate you to come all that way, only for us to not be prepared to receive guests.”
Aziraphale smiled and sat back, watching the exchange. Now that she had met Michael properly, as her feminine self, Miss Crowley had relaxed greatly.
Across the room, Uriel spoke up. “Do you play piano, Miss Crowley?”
She tensed, glancing at Aziraphale. “I’m afraid not. My parents did not care for me to learn. But you play beautifully. I’m quite envious.”
Uriel cracked a small smile, something Aziraphale held seldom seen cross her face, and she beckoned Miss Crowley over. “Sit by me. I’ll teach you something simple.” After a moment’s hesitation, Miss Crowley joined her at the bench, and the two women leaned over the instrument together, speaking softly to each other. Aziraphale and Michael watched them a moment, and as halted, stuttering notes began to drift into the air again, turned their attention back to each other.
“You’ll have to write to me as soon as you have the address,” Michael said. “I think the north will be as good for you as it will for her.”
Michael nodded, smiling. “If I remember correctly, you hate the heat. I’m sure summers here are nearly unbearable. It’ll be cooler, there. And you seemed happier when you were away from home, at university. I think the distance will be good for you. The world is large. You should see more of it outside your books.”
Aziraphale repressed his own smile. “I’ll take it under advisement.”
It quite escaped Aziraphale’s notice that the night was wearing on. He and Michael had not been particularly close before, but perhaps the distance, or perhaps the shared experience of Gabriel meddling in their personal affairs, seemed to have drawn them closer than before. It made conversation more comfortable, and as Uriel taught Miss Crowley gradually more complex tunes on the piano, Aziraphale and Michael remained absorbed in conversation. Gabriel had, after an hour or so, vacated the room entirely, with some mumbled excuse that no one had heard, nor cared to. By the time Aziraphale looked up, and made out the time, it shocked him how late it had gotten.
“We ought to be going,” he told Michael, rising from his chair. “It’s quite late, and I ought to return Miss Crowley to her cousin before she’s missed.”
“Nonsense.” Michael rose too, and gave them a beaming smile. The piano-playing stopped as Miss Crowley and Uriel became aware of the conversation, watching them curiously. “Miss Crowley is as good as family.” He turned his smile towards her. “Hopefully enough to earn me a first-name basis very soon.” He looked back at Aziraphale. “She’s welcome to spend the night. We have plenty of room.”
“I’m not sure Gabriel will be pleased that you’ve extended the invitation.”
Michael waved it off. “Gabriel may own the house, but it’s ours as well. If he doesn’t like it, he can tell me to my face, instead of sulking around. Please. Stay.”
Aziraphale glanced at Miss Crowley. It was down to her, really. Spending the night increased the risk of discovery greatly. But she nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Aziraphale told his brother, “Alright. We’ll stay.”
“Excellent! Sit down. It’s too early for bed. The night is still young!”
Aziraphale laughed, and obligingly took a seat. The piano started up again, and conversation resumed.
It was very late indeed, then, by the time they made for bed. Michael and Uriel bid them goodnight, and retired to their own room. Aziraphale wished he could share a bed as well, but under the circumstances he didn’t bother to suggest it. Instead, he led Miss Crowley to one of the guest rooms. At the door, he stepped close, so as not to be heard, and murmured, “Keep your door locked, and block the keyhole. Dagon especially is likely to pry.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Will you be alright? I’m sure they’ve laid out clothes for you, but your hair-“
“I will be alright.” She took his hands. “Don’t fret. I’m just down the hall from you.”
“So far,” Aziraphale whispered, the tiniest smile ghosting across his lips. “So close, and so very far.”
She laughed softly. “Goodnight, Aziraphale.”
“Goodnight, Antonia. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She stepped back from him, and closed the door. Aziraphale waited until he heard the click of the lock, and then retired to his own room, taking the same advice he had given Miss Crowley about locking it at blocking the keyhole. He stared with disdain at the nightclothes that had been left out for him. They were the same as the last time he had spent the night, although the rip in the shoulders had been repaired. He set them on a chair instead, and stripped down to his smallclothes. He was just preparing to blow out the candle and crawl into bed when a knock on the window startled him.
He rolled his eyes, muttering to himself about the dangers of scaling house walls, and went over to it, throwing open the sash and stepping back so Miss Crowley could swing inside. He closed it behind her, folding his arms and lifting his eyebrows. “You do know how dangerous that is, my dear? Think what might happen if you fell.”
“We’re only on the second floor,” she pointed out. “I’d most likely survive.” She had removed her dress, veil, and gloves, but had not replaced them with nightclothes. She raised her hands to her hair, deftly untying the ribbon, and took a seat at the vanity, methodically stripping the soot from her hair until the water in the basin turned black. Then she tied the ribbon around her wrist, and looked at Aziraphale. “You don’t mind sharing a bed tonight, do you?”
He softened. “Certainly not.” He pushed back the covers and patted the mattress, inviting her to join him.
She climbed in beside him and teased, “Are you sure? I’m certain it’s impropritous to have an unmarried woman in your bed.”
Aziraphale snorted. “I think just this once I can allow it. So long as you keep your hands to yourself.”
“Mr. Fell!” She mock-gasped, clasping her hands over her heart. “Are you suggesting I would be so vulgar as to seduce you?”
“I’m only suggesting, my dear, based on past occurrences.”
She laughed, and snuggled into his side. Her long, red locks spilled over the pillows like flames, and Aziraphale allowed himself to stroke one gently. She opened one eye. “Now who can’t keep his hands to himself?”
“My apologies,” he smiled. “It will not happen again.” He settled himself, and fell asleep with the warm weight of her pressed into his side.
When he woke up, she was still there.
Aziraphale propped himself up on one arm, smiling as he observed her in sleep. Her face was soft, barely illuminated by the first few rays of the sun creeping over the horizon. He reached out, cradling her cheek, and brushed a tangle of curls out of her eyes. Then he rose, taking the ring box from where he had left it the previous night, and dressed again. He found a scrap of paper and wrote on it one word: library. Their reading lessons had been coming along. But just in case, Aziraphale took one of the books from the shelves – a geography book, with a large decoration of a compass on the cover - and set it on the nightstand beside the bed, putting the scrap of paper on top. He hoped it was a clear enough message. Then he slipped out the door.
The house was utterly silent. Aziraphale suspected some servants might be up, but it was likely many of them were still abed this early, and the ones who were awake would not dare go near the second-floor bedrooms for a few hours yet. Quietly, his footsteps echoing across the stone floors as he descended the stairs, Aziraphale made his way to the library.
The massive window lit up the whole room, the compass on the floor appearing almost to glow as the rays of the rising sun crept across it. Aziraphale came to a stop at the point facing due east, tilting his head back and smiling as the morning light brushed his face.
A few minutes later, the door opened and closed behind him. He turned, and his breath caught.
“I was right,” Miss Crowley said. “The sunrise becomes you.”
“I believe I was right,” he corrected. “It becomes you even more.”
She crossed the floor to him, her dress swishing about her ankles. He did not know where she had gotten the soot from to blacken her hair again, but it was, and tied safely up with the ribbon. In her hands she held her gloves, and also her veil. She stopped by his side, staring out the window.
“It’s beautiful like this,” she said softly.
“It is,” he murmured, but he wasn’t looking at the sunrise.
She turned to look at him, and grinned when she caught sight of his expression. “You look thoroughly besotted, Mr. Fell.”
“I believe I am, Miss Crowley.” He reached up and cupped her cheek, stroking his thumb across the soft skin. “I made you a promise,” he murmured.
“A promise for romance.” He knelt.
Her eyes went wide, and her hand flew to press against her heart. “Aziraphale-“
He pulled out the ring box and opened it. “This was my mother’s. I don’t know if her marriage was a happy one, but I can say with all my heart that I am certain ours will be. I absolutely adore you, my darling, and that you love me back is a gift I will never stop cherishing, as long as we live. I know you’ve already accepted me, but in light of the circumstances I hope you’ll accept me again, with just as much love as before.”
“Yes,” she breathed, and Aziraphale was startled to see tears welling in her eyes. “Yes, Aziraphale, yes!” She drew him up, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. “I can’t wait to wear it. I’ll cherish it always.”
“Would you like to try it on?”
She nodded, and allowed them to separate enough that Aziraphale could slide it onto her finger. As if by miracle, it fit perfectly, the gold and red complimenting her skin and – were it not coated black with soot – her hair. The sun caught it as she flexed her fingers, twisting to see it in the light, and sent sparkles dancing across the floor around them. “It’s perfect.”
The library door opened, and panic lanced through Aziraphale. He pushed Miss Crowley behind him, blocking her with his body as she fumbled for her veil. Michael poked his head in, and frowned. “Am I interrupting something?”
“No!” Aziraphale shook his head frantically. Miss Crowley straightened up, peering over his shoulder. Her veil hung loosely, poorly clipped into her hair. Her bare hand wrapped around his bicep, and he could feel her fingers trembling.
It was the wrong move. Michael’s eyes lit up, and he strode into the room, the library door falling shut behind him. “You gave her the ring?”
“I…I thought she might like to see it before the wedding.”
“It suits you,” Michael told her. Through the side of her veil, Aziraphale saw her blush. Michael came to a stop a few feet away, bouncing on his heels. “I never thought you’d be an early riser, Aziraphale.”
“I wanted to show Miss Crowley the sunrise.”
Michael nodded in understanding, a grin spreading across his face. “Very romantic, isn’t it? Our mother loved to watch the sunrise from here. She really loved this room.”
“I can understand why,” Miss Crowley mumbled. She ducked her head. It was a mistake, as the veil slipped, dropping to the floor. Her eyes went wide, and Aziraphale clutched her hand, praying silently.
Michael bent down and retrieved it. He passed it back to Miss Crowley, his smile softening. “I see,” he said quietly, looking between the two. “I had wondered…”
“I won’t tell a soul,” he promised. “Raphael, is it? Or do you prefer Antonia?”
Miss Crowley’s mouth opened in shock, and then she closed it again. “Either is fine,” she said.
“There’s no need to be frightened,” he told her kindly. “I can see now why you’re in such a rush to get north, where no one knows you. Life will be easier for you, I imagine.”
“That’s our hope.”
“I hope I’m still invited to visit you when you go.”
Aziraphale’s heart, which had begun to pound the minute Michael had entered, slowed to its usual rate again. He smiled, and looked at his betrothed, even as he spoke to his brother. “If you’re willing to keep this secret, then you’re more than welcome.”
“I told you that I want you to be happy, Aziraphale.” Michael nodded at Miss Crowley. “That extends to both of you. It’s clear you make each other happy. I might not be able to understand it, but I can respect it.”
“The life you’re preparing to lead is dangerous,” he warned them. “You need as many people in your corner as you can afford. I assure you, I will be one of them.”
Miss Crowley straightened up, although she did not detach herself entirely from Aziraphale. She was still trembling, but there was relief in her face. “Thank you,” she echoed Aziraphale.
He inclined his head, and smiled slightly. “I’m sorry to have intruded on a private moment. I’m afraid my excitement got the better of me. I’ll take my leave of you now.”
He turned to go, an on an impulse Aziraphale called out to him, “Michael.” When he paused and looked back, Aziraphale said, “I’m afraid I don’t have a best man. I know it’s short notice, but since you’ll be at the wedding anyway, I was wondering if you’d do me the honour?”
Michael’s smile broadened. “The honour would be mine.” He closed the door behind him, and they were left alone.
Miss Crowley slid the ring from her finger and gave it back to Aziraphale, who set it securely in its box while she donned her gloves. Aziraphale took the veil from her and fixed it into her hair, although he left it pulled back out of her face. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “If Michael had been any less of a good man-“
“You don’t need to apologize,” she told him, wrapping her arms around his waist and drawing him close. “You are not responsible for your brother’s actions. And anyway, it’s my fault, for not wearing the veil. I was just too curious about your message to wait.”
“Was it worth it?”
“Considering the outcomes, I should say so.” She smiled at him, and rested her forehead against his. Aziraphale’s eyes flicked reflexively to her lips. For a moment, he was tempted, but he restrained himself, looking back into her eyes. The gesture had not gone unnoticed; her smile had turned positively snake-like. Her tongue darted out slowly, wetting her lower lip, and Aziraphale’s pulse quickened.
“One week,” he said, his voice strained. Heat pricked at his blood, and he took two deep breaths, begging it to cool. “One week, my darling, and then I promise you, I’ll take you to bed.”
She laughed, and withdrew. “Are you promising me, or yourself?”
He blushed. “Both, I suppose.”
With her back to the window, the rising sun lit her head like a perfect halo. Miss Crowley smiled, like an angel. “One week,” she said, “and we will be bound together forever.”
“You already own my heart,” Aziraphale told her. “It seems only fitting to give you my life and my soul.”
“This from a man who once said he couldn’t speak poetry.”
Aziraphale smiled. “Well, then, you were right, my dear. Love makes poets of us all.” He reached out his hands, and took hers in them. “Come. Let’s see if we can’t find something for breakfast. We might as well be a bit more of an imposition on Gabriel’s household before we leave.”
She giggled, and drew the veil down over her face. “I am always willing to be an imposition on Gabriel. If I weren’t in the presence of a priest, I’d have some very unladylike things to say about him.”
Aziraphale clucked his tongue, teasing. “Whatever will I do with you?”
“Marry me, I should hope.”
“I do believe I shall.” And taking her arm, he led her from the sunrise and out the door.
This chapter is just pure indulgence. Firstly because I wanted to show off my research on Regency wedding practices. And, secondly, because we've finally hit the wedding night. With all its implications.
The walk to the church early in the morning, Michael in-step beside him, was perhaps the most anxious moment of Aziraphale’s life. He clutched at his hat in his hands, wringing the brim until Michael pulled it from him and plopped it back on his head where it belonged. “Relax,” his brother told him with a smile. “It’s your wedding day. It’s supposed to be a happy occasion.”
Aziraphale took a deep breath. “Of course. You’re right, of course.”
He was dressed in white and cream, rather than the more traditional white and black, with delicate silver embroidery tracing elaborate patterns across his waistcoat. Aziraphale might have been satisfied with something more modest, but Michael had cajoled him into it by pointing out that Aziraphale should want to look his best for his bride. Aziraphale didn’t really think Miss Crowley would care, but he conceded his brother’s point anyway. There was a part of him that did want to look good for her.
The remaining clergy of Aziraphale’s parish were waiting for them in the church, as well as the parish clerk. Their guests, and those who would double as witnesses, took seats in the pews. Gabriel and Belle were in attendance, although neither appeared particularly happy about it – and indeed, Aziraphale had put a great deal of effort into avoiding his eldest brother in the past week so he wouldn’t have to deal with Gabriel’s sulking. Mrs. Device and her wife were also in attendance, and Uriel sat near them rather than the Fells. A small smile graced her lips when she caught sight of her husband and brother-in-law.
As they took their place before the altar, Aziraphale’s heart began to race once more. It was not that he feared what was to come, or felt concern that he would be left alone last minute. But he could not help but be nervous.
The church door opened once more, and Aziraphale turned to look. His heart, fluttering like a hummingbird, suddenly ceased to beat, and his breath caught in his throat. It was as if time, for one brief moment, stopped, so he might take in the most magnificent sight of his life and commit it to memory.
Miss Crowley stood alone. She had no father left to walk with her, nor had she wanted anyone else to give her away. The rumour of it had scandalized most of the village, but it wasn’t unheard of, and Aziraphale hadn’t even batted an eye at the choice. For once, she was not in black. She’d teased him, when the dress was being made, that if she wore black to the ceremony, his family might think her to be a common labourer. Instead, it was bright yellow, gold thread shining like her eyes, her hair tied up in matching gold ribbons that stood out against the black, along with little white flowers tucked into the twists. Her veil was not black but white – not unlike the French tradition – and Aziraphale withheld a chuckle at the thought of what Belle’s face might have looked like at that moment.
She came to stand beside him, a beacon like his own personal sun, and Aziraphale forced himself to breath again, his hand twitching with the desire to reach out and touch, to ensure that she was not a fantasy but flesh and blood and his.
Turning to address the room, the curate began to speak. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.
“First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy name.”
Aziraphale’s fingers twitched, and his eyes flicked briefly to the floor. They wouldn’t be able to have children. It wasn’t possible for them. He didn’t think it was important; he had never particularly wanted children, even if he liked them well enough, and he hoped that they could be satisfied without.
“Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.”
At the word “undefiled,” Aziraphale fought hard to contain his blush. His dreams had lessened but not ceased, and it was with only slight guilt that he found himself looking forward to finding release from his torment. A brief glance to his side convinced him that, though he could not see it, behind her veil Miss Crowley was smirking.
“Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.”
The curate cleared his throat and raised his voice slightly. “Therefore, if any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his piece.” He looked between Aziraphale and Miss Crowley. “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgement when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it. For be ye well assured, that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their matrimony lawful.”
Neither Aziraphale, nor Miss Crowley, said anything. The church and state might not have called it lawful, but Aziraphale knew in his heart that God was on his side. For one brief moment, he wondered if Gabriel would speak up, if he would find an excuse and make it, stopping the ceremony. Michael could have done it, knew enough to expose what they were doing, but Aziraphale’s brother was smiling, and it was not harsh or cruel, but with eyes full of light and warmth. Silence held the church.
Finally, the curate turned to Aziraphale. “Aziraphale Fell. Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”
The curate repeated the question to Miss Crowley, who nodded firmly. “I will.”
The minister took Miss Crowley’s right hand, gave it to Aziraphale, and charged him to repeat: “I, Aziraphale Fell, take thee Antonia Crowley to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.”
Their hands broke apart, and Miss Crowley took Aziraphale’s right hand firmly in her own and repeated, “I, Antonia Crowley, take thee Aziraphale Fell to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.” Her voice quirked, almost imperceptibly over “obey,” and a spark of amusement set in Aziraphale’s chest.
The curate eyed her, but did not comment. The rings came forth; Miss Crowley had asked if Aziraphale would wear one – neither of the other Fell brothers did – and Aziraphale had agreed wholeheartedly. The simple silver band was placed on Aziraphale’s finger, and then Aziraphale took Miss Crowley’s hand again, placing the ring that had been his mother’s on it. “With this ring,” he murmured, adoration suffusing the word, “I thee wed. With my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
They knelt together, and the curate said, “Let us pray. Oh eternal God, creator and preserver of all mankind, giver of all spiritual grace, the author of everlasting life: send thy blessing upon these thy servants, this man and this woman, whom we bless in thy name; that, as Isaac and Rebecca lived faithfully together, so these persons may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made, (whereof this ring given and received is a token and pledge,) and may ever remain in perfect love and peace together, and live according to thy laws; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” He took their hands and joined them. “Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” Then he lifted his head and spoke, “Forasmuch as Aziraphale Fell and Antonia Crowley have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witness the same before God and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth either to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a ring, and by joining of hands; I pronounce that they be man and wife together, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
The words were followed by a blessing and a psalm, prayer and sermon, but Aziraphale barely heard it. He answered his bits instinctively, but inside he was buzzing with delight. Antonia was his wife. When the sermon ended, they received communion together, and then were brought to the vestry to enter the marriage lines in the parish registry, sealing in ink what they had done.
“We’re married,” Aziraphale murmured as they made their way out of the church.
She took his arm and squeezed, and Aziraphale did not have to see behind her veil to know she was grinning ear to ear. “We’re married.”
They stepped outside the doors, the sunlight flashing blindly onto them, almost as disorienting as the raucous cheer that went up. Aziraphale blinked as bits of rice pelted him, and Antonia laughed with delight. The turnout was astounding; Aziraphale estimated nearly half the parish congratulating them. Towards the front, he saw Julietta Petley, who waved brightly at them, flanked by her more dour parents. Mrs. Shadwell cried out happily at them as well, her husband lurking behind her, and the whole family of Youngs, baby Adam cradled in his mother’s arms. Even Mr. Tyler had come, although he sulked in the back of the crowd, glowering at the couple. Aziraphale had not been well-liked by many, but a Fell-Device wedding was something to celebrate, and Aziraphale was certain that even those who would not be invited to their personal celebration would find some small way to brighten their own days with the spirit of love. Aziraphale found he could not even be embarrassed at the attention; the woman he loved most dearly was on his arm, and he was married to her in the eyes of the law and God. There was no room in his heart for fear. Even Gabriel seemed a little less dreadful in Aziraphale’s eyes.
Michael had wanted to throw a proper celebration, and had been a little put out when Aziraphale had informed him that, due to the urgency of their travel plans, the wedding breakfast would be all they had planned, although he welcomed Michael to throw a reception if he desired, so long as he was aware that Aziraphale and Antonia would likely not be in attendance. Aziraphale had received a letter two days ago, confirming Mrs. Device’s reassurances that he would be offered a position up north, and they intended to leave in the morning. Save for a few things – essential items for their last night in the village – they were packed and ready to go.
He could not deny, however, that the wedding breakfast was truly something to behold. Whether Gabriel had reluctantly surrendered control of his house to this new, more exuberant and confident Michael, or if he had simply been able to put aside his pride in some manner enough to provide a proper feast as befit the circumstances, Aziraphale did not much care. All he cared about was his wife by his side and the frankly delicious spread. It was the cake at the end of the table that particularly caught his attention, and he felt amusement radiating from the woman beside him every time he gave it a longing look.
Over the meal, Michael chattered about the event he had planned for the evening. “It’s very small, mind you,” he told them, “just a handful of families, since I had almost no time to plan, but I’ve managed to get in a few musicians and I expect it will be quite an enjoyable time. It’s such a shame you’ll be missing it.”
“I’m sure it will be an event to remember,” Antonia said warmly. “But we really ought to retire early, if we want to get enough sleep before tomorrow morning.”
Belle stabbed viciously at her plate and scowled. “It seems unnecessary to leave,” she grumbled. “You could just as well stay here.”
Gabriel shot her a look. “Yes, but as nice as it is to have Aziraphale here, it really might be best if they…got away from the family, for a while. Enjoyed each other’s company instead.”
Aziraphale could read between the lines. An obedient brother to boss around was one thing, but one who mouthed back and engaged in supposedly scandalous behaviour was not something they ought to be bringing on themselves. He found he did not care. Gabriel had indicated that if Aziraphale was to preach elsewhere, he would still be more than welcome to his portion of inheritance, as well as a sizable bonus – a wedding gift, he had called it, in the one brief conversation they’d had before the wedding, and had implied that it was to be an incentive to keep well away for a while. Money had been the one remaining consequence that concerned Aziraphale, and that fear too had been alleviated. There was nothing left for him to do but enjoy the day.
“You’re drooling, angel,” Antonia told him playfully as the cake was cut. “Shall we make sure they wrap up a portion to take with us?”
He flushed, and ducked his head, and she reached for his hand and laced their fingers together, which only reddened his cheeks further. He did not pull away.
The cake was delicious, but Aziraphale found himself remarkably distracted from it. Michael noticed, and laughed as he shooed them from the table. “We’ll send a portion of the leftovers to your cousin’s house tonight, for your trip. Now don’t let us keep you. I’m sure there’s a great many things you’d rather be doing than sitting here with us.” Aziraphale nearly squawked with embarrassment at his suggestive tone, but he could not deny the appeal of escaping long before any of Michael’s guests arrived. Antonia seemed to have the same idea, because without any further prompting and only the briefest of polite farewells, she dragged him from the house. Rather than take the road, though it was only a short distance, she pushed him into one of Gabriel’s carriages, ordering the driver to take them home before climbing in too and pulling shut the curtains. Aziraphale hardly had time to voice a question before he was provided with a lapful of amorous wife.
She threw back her veil, which detached and fell to the floor somewhere, her lips attacking his jaw and neck in a series of biting kisses. Aziraphale’s mouth fell open in surprise, and his head fell back against the carriage wall with a thunk that smarted, although the pain was nothing in comparison to the sudden sparks of pleasure emanating from every place Antonia’s lips touched. He left out a soft but embarrassing whine as his trousers tightened, blood rushing downward as she squirmed in his lap, attempting to press closer to him on the seat in spite of her skirts being in the way. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close, squeezing his eyes shut and panting into her neck. It was torturous to still her, to force her lips away, but he managed, shaking his head.
“We’ll be home momentarily,” he said, his voice breathless and high. “I will not do this in my brother’s carriage, of all places.”
She gave him an apologetic smile that lost some of its sincerity in the coyness of it. “My apologies,” she purred, her voice thick with an almost predatory lust. “I don’t know what overcame me.”
Aziraphale couldn’t help but laugh, drawing her close so he could press their foreheads together. “I believe we have been in this situation before, my dear, if not in precisely this location.”
“I can’t help it, angel. I’m a naughty woman. Just think about what sort of sinful things I could be getting up to if I weren’t married to a priest.”
A few choice images flashed through Aziraphale’s mind and he moaned, burying his face in her neck again. She threw back her head and laughed, then pet at his hair. “Don’t worry,” she cooed. “I’ll let you reform me all night long.”
“We have to be up early,” he protested, but it was weak. Aziraphale was only a man, and currently he had a lapful of serpentine divinity, offering him the very temptation he’d been dreaming of for weeks. The carriage bumped to a halt, and Aziraphale pushed her gently from his lap, righting himself and wincing at the clear line of arousal in his trousers. He took a few deep breaths, trying to steady himself, and possibly to will it away. He was unsuccessful. He envied Antonia her skirts, for all she did was smooth them down, grinning smugly, and reaffixed her veil, hiding any evidence of their passions.
Accepting it as a lost cause, Aziraphale braced himself and exited the carriage, trying to keep his front angled away from the driver. He wasn’t sure he was entirely successful, but he supposed it didn’t matter much, as Antonia laughed and dragged him towards the house.
Once inside, she threw off the veil again and pushed him back against the doorframe. Aziraphale’s knees went weak as one of her thighs slid between his, pressing enticingly. He whimpered, and rocked down against it.
“You’re so responsive,” she murmured. “You poor thing. You really never pleasure yourself, do you?”
“Oh, naughty boy.” She bit down on his earlobe, scraping her teeth over it. “When was this?”
“W-when I started university.”
She drew back and stared. Her voice tinged with disbelief. “You haven’t touched yourself since university? That was years ago.”
“It wasn’t proper!” He blushed. “And anyway, it didn’t seem pressing at the time.”
Her leg was suddenly gone, replaced with her hand cupping him firmly through his trousers as she purred, “It seems pressing now.”
He nearly fell forward when she released him abruptly, stepping away and leaving nearly a foot of space between them. His body cried out in protest, his groin throbbing at the sudden lack of pressure. He collapsed back against the door, his fingers fumbling for purchase as he panted. It was undignified to be so lost over a few kisses, a few touches, but it really had been a long time, and Aziraphale’s body was a tensed coil, preparing to release.
Antonia’s smile was kind, surprisingly gentle. “I would love to have you right here,” she murmured, “but I think we should retire to the bedroom, don’t you?”
Aziraphale swallowed hard. It was all he could do to nod. She offered him her hand, and he took it, allowing her to lead him up the stairs and into the bedroom, where she sat him gently on the bed and cupped his cheek. “I’ll be right back,” she whispered, and was gone before Aziraphale could voice a protest. He sat there, staring after her, unsure what he should do. Finally, he stood, shrugging off his coat and hanging it up before going for the buttons on his waistcoat.
“I hope you don’t intend to do all that without me.”
He turned around, and for the second time that day was struck speechless by her. She had shed her wedding dress, left in just her petticoats, and washed the soot from her hair, untying it so that it fell in red waves over her shoulders, the ribbon relocated to her wrist. “Oh, my dear,” he murmured, and reached out for her. She stepped agreeably into his arms, encircling his neck and leaning in to give him a long, slow kiss on the lips. It was less hurried, but no less passionate, than the kisses that had come before, and Aziraphale returned it in kind.
When they broke apart, she said, “I believe I promised you that the next time we kissed like that, we would be married.”
“So you did.” Aziraphale stroked a lock of her hair back out of her face. “And now that we are, please feel free to do so any time you wish.”
“What if—” she interspersed the words with chaste kisses, pressed along his cheek and jaw “—I wished to do it in front of our cousins?”
“I…I might allow that.”
More kisses, lingering, quickening his pulse. “In front of your brother?”
“What if I wished to kiss you on Sunday in church, in front of your whole congregation, so that they might know you were mine?”
She laughed, and nipped playfully at his lips again. “I’ll restrain myself, I promise. Even if I’m tempted.”
“But not too much, I should hope,” Aziraphale told her.
She grinned. “It wouldn’t be any fun otherwise.” Her fingers traced sensually down his arms, and she drew him over to the bed again, this time sitting down on it herself, scooting back until she could rest against the headboard. She drew him to kneel over her, arching up to kiss him again. Then her fingers stroked over the buttons of his waistcoat. “May I remove this, angel?”
“Yes,” he breathed, and shuddered as she slowly peeled him out of it, pushing it down off his shoulders. He attempted to return the favour, but got caught in the laces of her corset, and she laughed again as she helped him untangle it. Every inch of skin revealed was tantalizing, and his erection, which had faded for a time, began to press insistently at his trousers again.
Her hands trailed down to pet at him, cupping and squeezing, and Aziraphale gasped and squirmed at the feeling, his hips rocked into the touch of their own accord. It seemed to please her, to embolden her, because she deftly undid the flap and slid her hand in, so that only his smallclothes separated her from his aching cock.
“Antonia,” he begged. “Please.”
“Please what?” she teased him, fluttering her fingers. “Please stop?”
“No!” he yelped, and then blushed. “Please…please touch me.”
“I am touching you.”
“Alright.” She pressed one last, mirthful kiss to his lips, and then withdrew her hand. Aziraphale was about to protest when she instead moved to unbutton his trousers, divesting him of them with his assistance. She reached for the shirt, and for a moment he did not let her touch, only moved away and smoothed it down nervously. She stilled, and waited. “I’d like to see all of you, angel. There’s no part of you that I could not love.”
He hesitated a moment longer, and then nodded, and her hands slid up under it, nails pricking pleasantly at the skin, leaving hot trails as she pressed up his chest. Her thumb flicked over a nipple and he cried out in surprise, so she did it again and again until he was shaking, and then drew the shirt off him entirely, followed by his undergarments, until he knelt before her, bare and trembling, his cock flushed and erect, jutting out from his hips, quivering and leaking slightly from the head.
“Beautiful,” she murmured, and Aziraphale’s blush darkened.
“You have me at something of a disadvantage,” he murmured, reaching out to toy with the folds of her own clothes. “Would you permit me to return the favour?”
It was her turn to hesitate, but she let him undress her, with a bit of assistance whenever the laces gave him trouble, until she sat just as naked as he was, and just as aroused. She shifted and did not meet his gaze, and it occurred to Aziraphale to ask, “Is this your first time as well, my dear?”
She blinked, and then looked up at him. Her cheeks coloured slightly, and she nodded. “I…I might not be so restrained as you when it comes to self-pleasure, but there’s never been anyone else I was willing to share this with.”
Knowing he was not the only one in it without experience emboldened Aziraphale, and he reached out carefully. “May I touch?”
“If you like,” she said shyly, and then gasped as his fingers curled curiously around her cock. It was longer than his, but more slender, like her, and the head oozed a few drops of precum when he swiped his thumb across it. She shuddered, her head falling back against the headboard, and moaned when Aziraphale gave her a polite little tug, getting accustomed to the weight in his hand. “Wait,” she breathed, and stilled his strokes with a hand on his wrist. She pushed him back gently, and he watched as she climbed out of bed, fumbling in her discarded clothes and withdrawing a small bottle, which met with a triumphant sound from her as she returned, guiding him onto his back and straddling his waist. She wriggled the bottle at him. “Olive oil. The Greeks didn’t just write poetry.” She unstopped the bottle and slicked her fingers before setting it aside before shuffling forward and pressing their cocks against each other, wrapping her hand around both and pumping them together.
Aziraphale cried out at the burst of pleasure, which burned hotter and brighter with every pass of her hand. With some effort he sat up, pulling her in to kiss desperately, tucking his face into the crook of her neck and panting. His sac tightened, and he whimpered.
“Shh,” she soothed. “You’re close, aren’t you?”
He nodded, overwhelmed and embarrassed tears pricking at his eyes.
She pulled his chin up to look at her, stilling her hand and using the other to wipe away his tears. “It’s alright, angel. You’re doing so well for me.” She let go of her own cock to continue just stroking his, and each pass of her hand dragged Aziraphale to a precipice of ecstasy. “Come whenever you like,” she murmured. “I want to see you. Come for me, angel.”
He sobbed and spilled over her hand, the orgasm punched from him with a force that whited out his vision. When he came down, she had found something to clean off with – presumably the sheets – and was petting at his hair, carding her fingers through the sweat-damp curls. She was still hard, her cock pressing up against her stomach, and Aziraphale flushed with shame.
He couldn’t say it. He’d crossed many boundaries in a few weeks, things he’d never expected of himself, but speaking frankly about sex wasn’t one he was ready to cross just yet.
It didn’t matter. She knew, and smiled, and shook her head. “Don’t apologize. I asked you to, I wanted you too.”
“But-“ He gestured helplessly to her own erection.
Her grin widened, and she pressed twin kisses on each of his cheeks. “I’m not the pent-up one,” she teased him. “I’m not the one who wouldn’t relieve themselves, even after dreaming about it. You needed that more than I do, angel.” She guided him back down against the pillows, leaning over his body, her hair hanging in curtains on either side of his face, blocking out the rest of the world. “Believe me. It’s my wedding night.” She paused, then smirked. “Well. Wedding afternoon, for now. I intend to be very satisfied before it’s over.” She pressed a long, lingering kiss to Aziraphale’s lips, her tongue tracing over the lower one until he allowed her entry, stroking over his soft palate in a way that made his spent cock twitch with interest. She pulled back, her eyes hungry. “And I know precisely what I’d like to do next.”
“I want you,” she purred, dragging out the words, “to turn us over, and fuck me first with your fingers until I’m nice and loose for you, and then with your cock until we both come. How does that sound?”
Aziraphale’s cock certainly liked the sound of it. It twitched again, making a valiant effort to harden. He winced. “I may need a moment to, ah, rise to the occasion.”
She threw back her head and laughed, and Aziraphale couldn’t fight the smile that spread across his own face. Thrilled, he flipped them over, a surprised but no less delighted “oh!” escaping Antonia’s lips as she hit the mattress. She bit her lip coyly and spread her legs, inviting him between them. He accepted, stroking a hand up her calf until she bent her knee and then reaching for the bottle of oil on the nightstand.
“I know how to do this in theory,” he told her, “but I’ve never done it in practise. Please don’t hesitate to tell me if I do something wrong.”
“You’ll be fine.” Antonia grinned. “Come on.” She wiggled her hips at him. “I’m waiting.”
“Temptress,” he muttered affectionately, slicking his fingers and reaching hesitantly for her. His hand shook as he found her hole, stroking the pad of his finger over it carefully before pressing in just a fraction. Her skin was burning hot, and while she was tight, he had expected her somehow to be tighter. He pressed in farther, and she took the whole finger without complaint, moaning as he pushed it in to the second knuckle.
“Might have…done a little work…this morning,” she panted, and when Aziraphale raised his head to look at her he saw her eyes were screwed shut, her mouth half-open with pleasure. “I wanted to be ready for you.”
A wave of affection washed over Aziraphale, and he turned his head to press a kiss to her thigh, which jerked slightly under the touch. He pumped the first digit a few times and then added a second, scissoring them apart. She opened beautifully under his hands, and feeling daring, Aziraphale trailed his lips higher, pressing a row of kisses along her leg until he reached the juncture where it met her body, scant inches away from her throbbing cock. She moaned, and pushed back against his hand, rocking her hips insistently against him. “Please.”
“Please what?” It was his turn to tease.
A chuckle burst from her lips. “Touch me, you bastard. Touch my cock.”
“Language, my dear,” he chastened without heat, and then swiftly pressed a kiss to the head of her cock.
She all but shrieked. “Aziraphale!”
“Oh, you do like that,” he murmured. His tongue darted out, kitten-licking the head so he might taste her, salty and bitter. He liked it too, more than he expected, and as he added a third finger inside her, he wrapped his lips around the head and sucked.
Her hips arched up off the bed as she cried out, forcing a few inches down his throat, enough to make him sputter before he instinctively pinned her to the bed and swallowed her down again. Aziraphale might never had done this before, but he knew the theory, and as with many things he was a quick study. He didn’t try to take the whole thing, knowing he was likely to choke, and what didn’t fit in his mouth he wrapped his hand around, squeezing in time with his sucking as she thrashed and sobbed with pleasure.
He could feel her getting almost imperceptibly harder in his mouth, her cock swelling slightly as she approached orgasm, and just before she could he pulled off, resulting in a cry of distress as she swore at him, calling him a bastard again. He pulled his fingers free and stroked his cock, half hard again at the picture she made spread out before him, idly coaxing himself back to full hardness. “Really, my dear,” he said softly. “There’s no need for that kind of language.”
She panted, giving him a half-hearted glared that made way to a fond, incredulous laugh. “You’re a sadistic man, Mr. Fell.”
“I am not. I’m simply doing as you asked.” He was fully hard now, and guided the head against her, just enough for her to feel it. “Would you like me to proceed, or shall you continue calling me names?”
“You drive me crazy, do you know that?”
“I feel much the same way.” He leaned down to kiss her, copying her movement from earlier as he licked into her mouth, aided by the way she gasped as he began to press into her. He groaned against her lips as his cock was enveloped in tight heat. He rocked farther in, and she pressed back, urging him on. It took a great deal of effort not to come on the spot, and Aziraphale was suddenly grateful for the earlier orgasm. He sank in to the hilt and then held himself there, breathing hard. “Antonia?”
“I’m good,” she said. She was breathing as hard as he was, her body clenching around the intrusion, sending shocks of pleasure through Aziraphale’s body. “I’m good, you can move, angel, please.”
Aziraphale obeyed, giving a tentative thrust and groaning softly. He pushed Antonia’s legs up farther, and she bent with him. “Is this alright?”
“Stop asking me that and fuck me,” she panted.
Aziraphale’s next thrust was rougher, and he set a quick pace, the strength increasing until he was pounding into her, his thighs smacking against her arse with every thrust. She cried out, clutching at him, her nails raking dark red lines down his back. “Don’t stop! Fuck, Aziraphale, so good, don’t stop.”
Aziraphale was beyond words. He’d never felt anything as exquisite as the tight clench of her body around him, the sheer bliss of burying himself in her over and over, pumping his hips desperately in search of release. Even touching himself had never been so good, had never satisfied the way she did. He adjusted the angle, screwing his hips, trying to find the spot inside her that would intensify her pleasure, wanting to give back as much as he was receiving. She screamed when he did. “Aziraphale!”
“You feel so good,” he panted, pressing kisses across cheeks, her neck, her shoulders, everywhere he could reach. “You feel so good, my darling, so tight around my cock.”
The vulgarity punched a moan out of her. “Yes,” she hissed. “Talk to me, tell me how good it feels, how hot and tight I am for you, how sweet it is to give in to temptation.”
Aziraphale could feel his body tightening, knew his second orgasm was approaching. “I’ll never be able to resist again,” he told her. “Being inside you is like Heaven. You welcome me in, take me so well. I never want to leave. I could stay here forever and never be fully satisfied.”
“Want you to come in me,” she breathed. “Fill me up, claim me, make me yours inside and out.”
Aziraphale wrapped his hand around her cock. He was too uncoordinated to stroke in time with his punishing thrusts, jackhammering into her with new, desperate vigour, but it didn’t seem to matter. Within seconds she was crying out her pleasure, painting his fist and their stomachs with ropes of cum. Her body squeezed tight around Aziraphale’s cock, clamping down on him like a vise, and Aziraphale groaned and followed her over. She milked him for it, drawing out his orgasm until he whimpered with oversensitivity, collapsing against her chest.
She held him close, so he could feel the beating of her racing heart as it gradually slowed, metering out into a steady rhythm. Eventually, he managed to lift himself off her, pulling out carefully and falling onto his back beside her.
“Oh,” he said quietly.
She turned onto her side, propping herself up on one elbow and grinning. “Oh?”
“Heavenly?” she teased. “Divine?”
Aziraphale blushed. “It was very good. I had no idea…”
“Was it worth the wait?”
She laughed. “If you can still use words like that afterwards, perhaps I didn’t do it correctly.”
“I don’t know how much more correctly I can take,” Aziraphale admitted. His body was still thrumming with the afterglow. “But I shall certainly be willing to try.”
She laughed again. “In a minute.” She pressed closer, snuggling into his side. “I could use a nap, I believe.”
“What happened to ‘reform me all night’?” Aziraphale teased.
She smacked his shoulder lightly. “It’s not night yet.”
“No, it’s not.” Aziraphale settled, stroking Antonia’s curls gently. He allowed his eyes to close, to rest them for just a minute, and found himself falling headfirst into sleep.
This is it. The end. I want to thank everyone who came on this journey with me, especially those of you who commented every week. It has been a true joy to share this story, so dear to me as it is, with all of you. I'm actually a bit beside myself, now that it's coming to a close.
But enough of my sappiness. You want to see how it turned out. So thank you for reading, and without further ado: The End. I hope you like it.
Aziraphale woke to a delicious, wet heat enveloping his cock. He blinked his eyes open, smiling down at the mass of red curls bobbing between his legs. He reached down to pet them, tangling his fingers in the silky locks. Antonia stilled, and then redoubled her efforts, and Aziraphale’s head fell back against the pillow with a moan. He’d already been on edge from her ministrations, and he hardly had time to issue a warning before he was spilling down her throat. She swallowed, and then pulled off, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and grinning up at him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t resist.”
“Don’t apologize, my dear,” Aziraphale said. He drew her back up to him, so she lay across his chest. “I quite enjoyed it.” He ran his fingers lightly down her side. “Would you like me to return the favour?”
“Mmm. Maybe later.” She rested her head against his shoulder, closing her eyes again. She threw her arm across his waist, and catching sight of her bare wrist, Aziraphale realized the ribbon was now absent.
“And what are you this morning, my darling?” he asked, running his thumb along the pulse point.
He got a vague grunt in response. “Couldn’t find my string. Didn’t want to get up to go looking for it.”
Careful not to disturb his husband too much, Aziraphale leaned over to the nightstand, where he kept the string that he’d been left, and then tied it tenderly around Raphael’s wrist. Raphael opened one eye and watched him curiously. Aziraphale lifted his hand to his lips and kissed it, explaining, “I wear it to bed, sometimes. Tied around my wrist. When I was missing you, it was a way to keep you close.”
“You’re sweet, angel.” Raphael closed his eyes again.
They had slept through the afternoon, to the point where the sky beyond the window was dark blue, but without searching for his watch Aziraphale could not tell if it was late evening or early morning. “We should see what time it is,” he murmured.
Raphael grumbled, and held him tighter, preventing him from moving. Aziraphale chuckled. “Alright, my dear. I’ll stay.”
“Until we have to finish getting ready to leave, anyway.”
“Fair enough.” Raphael fell silent for a minute, and then asked, “Are we only going to have sex when I’m a woman?”
“If that’s your way of asking if I’m up for another round, I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline. But broadly speaking, no.” Aziraphale looked down, and met Raphael’s golden amber eyes. “It took some time for me to adjust to the idea,” he murmured, “but it seems silly to deny ourselves. After all, we are married. And we love each other. I think that’s sufficient cause.”
Raphael nodded, satisfied, although there was a great deal of emotion behind his eyes that he did not otherwise betray. He pressed a kiss to Aziraphale’s shoulder and then settled again.
Eventually, they were forced to rise, as the first rays of morning crept across the sky and through the window. There was little left to pack, and they did so quickly, leaving a little extra time for trading lazy kisses as they waited for the carriage to arrive. Eventually, it did, and their luggage was hoisted atop it. It was largely clothes and books, and so some of the trunks went up easily, and others took three people to lift. But finally, Aziraphale and Raphael took their seats inside the carriage, opposite Mrs. Device and Mrs. Pulsifer. It was too early for anyone to see them off, the village still sleeping off the celebrations of the night before, and so Raphael wore a dress as the former Miss Crowley, now Mrs. Fell, but had not bothered to coat his hair or don his veil. They had no need of either anymore.
In the past, Aziraphale had travelled very rarely. They had taken a few holidays as a family when he was a child, but those were never more than a two- or three-day’s journey from the estate. The farthest he’d ever gone was away to university, and then it hadn’t been practical to come home, so he had only made the trip twice. For a man inclined to his privacy, he worried that the journey, being cooped up in a carriage with three other people, would prove taxing on him. He found it quite the opposite. He kept a few books with him, and those he read either to himself while Raphael occupied himself with napping lazily against his shoulder or observing the scenery passing by outside, or aloud to his companions, usually at Raphael’s request. Neither Mrs. Device nor Mrs. Pulsifer seemed to mind.
The first night of their travels, when the horses could go no more, they stopped at an inn. Mrs. Device had shown Aziraphale the map, carefully charted so that, barring unforeseen issues, they might spend nearly every night of the journey under comfortable shelter. Nervousness twisted up in Aziraphale’s stomach as he helped Raphael down from the carriage, the latter clutching at his skirts to keep them out of the mud the horses had churned up. Raphael noticed his expression and asked softly, “Everything alright, angel?”
Careful not to be overheard, Aziraphale murmured back, “This is the first time you’re presenting in public as my wife without the…you know.” He made a vague gesture towards his face and head. “What if someone recognizes you?”
“No one’s going to recognize me,” Raphael assured him. “But I’ll put the veil on, if it’ll make you feel better.”
Aziraphale shook his head. “No. I ought to get used to it. Besides,” he smiled, “how then would I see your lovely eyes?”
Raphael blushed, and shoved his shoulder against Aziraphale good-naturedly.
Raphael was right; Aziraphale needn’t have worried. The innkeeper and the patrons paid them little mind as they were given two rooms, one for each married couple, and retired for the night. Raphael seemed particularly eager for the time alone, and Aziraphale couldn’t help but feel a bit bad for whoever roomed next to them. He found it difficult to keep quiet under his husband’s ministrations, particularly when he did that thing with his tongue.
When they set off the following day, Aziraphale realized he could use the journey to another advantage, one that Raphael gladly agreed to when he suggested it. For at least an hour or two every day, they bent their heads together and continued the reading lessons that they had begun weeks ago.
Day five of their journey brought rain, and with it bitter cold, so that they had to wrap up tightly. Aziraphale found that, although his fingers quickly grew numb, keeping them warm was a simple matter of tucking them beneath Raphael’s cloak, even if his husband complained about how icy his hands were. He most definitely preferred it to the blistering heat of the summer, because it enabled him to cuddle close to Raphael without discomfort.
On the final day the rain turned to snow. The mud from the rain had been difficult for the horses, slowing their gait and, on one occasion, sticking the carriage wheels so deep in the muck that it had taken all of them to haul it out again, and the rest of that day had been wet and muddy and miserable until they had reached the inn, where Raphael had made love to Aziraphale on a rug before a blazing fire. Aziraphale had initially been uncertain about being on the bottom, but Raphael had promised that if he didn’t like it, they didn’t have to do it again, and between the warmth of the hearth beside them and the warmth of Raphael’s body surrounding him, inside and out as he thrust deep and hard, Aziraphale had decided that he did like it very much indeed.
With the snow, the ground froze, so mud was no longer an issue. Now ice was, and patches of it in dips in the road threatened the horse’s ankles and the carriage’s wheels in an entirely different way. Every jostle made Aziraphale nervous, to the point where Raphael had rolled his eyes affectionately and told him that if he was going to keep flinching like that, he could get out and walk. But he’d wrapped a comforting arm around Aziraphale as he said it, making it clear that the words were in jest.
It was early afternoon when they arrived in the new parish, although they were scarcely able to tell when they crossed the boundary. It was, as Mrs. Device had promised, small in population but vast in land. “Most of the houses aren’t occupied,” she told them as they peered out the curtains, looking for flashes of buildings beyond the trees and fields. “Families use them as summer homes, or as a place to escape to when they tire of life in London.”
They passed by the church, a grey stone building with an impressive steeple, much larger than Aziraphale’s previous had been. They would expect him within a week, when he had finished settling into his new home, but for now he contented himself with examining the outside of it, studying the stonework with an appraising eye. Raphael hugged his arm and pressed against him, looking too, and as they went by murmured, “It’s nicer than the other one.”
“It is nice,” Aziraphale agreed.
“The artwork inside is spectacular,” Mrs. Device told them as they sat back. “They’re particularly proud of it.”
“I look forward to seeing it.”
Finally, they pulled up before the grand Device estate, which was some distance from the road, so that – as Mrs. Device had said – even a person roaming the grounds would likely not be seen by any passers-by.
Officially speaking, Aziraphale and Raphael were not to reside in the house. The rectory that he had been offered abutted the land, and the four of them had agreed that the privacy, and having a house of their own, might be very pleasant for the new couple. When the Device’s hadn’t been listening, Raphael had teased into Aziraphale’s ear that it was because Anathema didn’t want to have to deal with walking in on them every time Raphael got the urge to worship Aziraphale in a common space. Aziraphale had made him promise, in no uncertain terms, that would he would not attempt to do so in their cousins’ house. Raphael had agreed, once Aziraphale had conceded that, were they to spend the night, whatever bedroom they were in was acceptably private enough for ravishing.
The snow dusted their shoulders as they stepped out of the carriage and onto the lawn, invisible in Aziraphale’s hair but stark against Raphael’s. The latter grinned and stuck his tongue out, catching snowflakes on the end of it like a child, and Aziraphale felt the familiar surge of affection crash over his body again.
The small staff of Mrs. Device’s most trusted had been sent on ahead, to prepare things for them. “You’re welcome to come inside,” Mrs. Device told them. “It will still be light out for some hours. I’d love to show Raphael the conservatory.” She smiled, “I would have liked to show you the gardens, but with the snow I’m afraid they’ll be quite covered by now, if they were blooming before at all.”
“Another time,” Raphael said. He glanced at Aziraphale, who nodded his encouragement, and Raphael took his cousin’s arm. “To the conservatory, then.”
They stayed only a few hours, long enough to marvel at the impressive number of rooms, the massive chandelier that hung in the front hall, and the library, which was not quite as extensive as the one Aziraphale had grown up with, but was no less beautiful. It had no compass on the floor, but there was a picture window stretching floor to ceiling, facing west. “You could stay,” Mrs. Device offered. “Sunsets from here can be particularly spectacular.”
But Raphael and Aziraphale had traded looks, and known that they would not stay for sunset. Not that day, at least. And without them saying a word, Mrs. Device had smiled in that knowing way of hers and nodded. She’d bid them a good evening, and told them to send word when they were ready for company again.
The trek to their new home, the rectory they had been given, was slightly longer than the distance between Aziraphale’s old house and the Fell estate, although not by much. In the spring and autumn, Aziraphale didn’t think he’d mind it at all. The exercise would be good for him, and if he took that walk with his husband by his side, he thought it would be quite pleasant indeed.
Their things had already been moved in, while they’d been with the Device’s, although very little had been unpacked, due to the servant’s discretion. There was a little room – traditionally a study – for Aziraphale to turn into his library, and although it was covered in a few inches of snow, there were flower beds in the front yard for Raphael to tend to if he wished.
“It’s perfect,” Raphael said, shaking the snow from his hair and shoulders and looking around the entryway. As he watched his husband poke around the shelves, opening boxes on the floor at random to see what was inside, Aziraphale found that he agreed wholeheartedly.
Later on, after they’d christened the bed properly, they lay together quietly, not in a hurry to move, just enjoying the silence and each other’s company. He’d been happy before, Aziraphale realized, but now that they were away from his brother, away from the hometown that had left him stressed and isolated even in a room full of people, he was finally content.
Beside him, Raphael spoke up, “You know, I think I’m going to miss being Antonia Crowley. It’s a nice name. Even if being Antonia Fell is better.”
“I don’t see why you can’t have both,” Aziraphale pointed out. When Raphael gave him a quizzical look, he explained, “Of course you’ll be Antonia Fell. But if you’d like to be Raphael Crowley too, I don’t see why that should be a problem.”
Raphael turned that over. “Hmm. It does have a nice ring to it.” He turned onto his side, propping himself up on one elbow. “You know, people are going to question why Antonia Fell and Raphael Crowley look so alike, if they ever see me both ways.”
“I suppose we’ll find an excuse.” For once, Aziraphale found he wasn’t worried. They had overcome so much already. A little more would not matter. He teased, “How would you feel about pretending to be your own, illegitimate half-brother?”
Raphael stared at him for five full seconds, and then threw back his head and laughed, collapsing against the mattress and holding his stomach. Still giggling, he suggested, “And I’m trying to repay for my father’s sins by working as a gardener for my half-sister’s husband, the local priest?”
“If you like.”
Raphael shook his head. “I love you, do you know that?”
“I believe I do.” Aziraphale smiled, and cupped Raphael’s cheek. “And I love you, my darling.”
Raphael sobered, his brow creasing in a look of pure adoration. Without any further prompting, he leaned over, capturing Aziraphale’s lips in a long, slow kiss.
As it happened, the parish didn’t care much why Antonia Fell and Raphael Crowley looked alike. When they saw one or the other gardening in the spring and summer, they whispered to each other that wasn’t that family odd, and weren’t they so alike, and wasn’t it kind of Parson Fell, taking them both into his life as he had. But then, the Devices were known to be a little odd, and the gossip soon turned onto other matters.
To his great pleasure, Aziraphale never woke up alone again. Some mornings he woke to a husband who hogged the blankets in the winter and pushed them all off the bed in the summer, who now that he was his own master never rose before dawn if he could help it, but who loved Aziraphale with all his heart and soul, and who Aziraphale loved back just as dearly.
And sometimes, Aziraphale woke to a wife. Which one he woke to didn’t matter. All that mattered was the love. And that never went away.