Chapter 1: Ice Skating
Anthony J. Crowley hated a lot of things, and he was very good at it.
Took a special sort of skill to muster up enough feeling about things to hate them, he rather thought. Most people went through life with a sort of apathy about their surroundings that they occasionally exaggerated into hate, but Crowley didn’t have time for apathy. Tourists, tacky souvenir shops, cameras that made a big clicking sound when their buttons were pressed, gossip mags, the royal family, adverts that strobed unholy light at innocent people just trying to walk down the street, incompetent drivers, scented soaps and hand lotions in hotel rooms, scratchy shirts, dating apps, book editions that used a corresponding film poster as cover art, people who were early to meetings, people who were late to meetings, pop music, burnt coffee from popular chain cafes that would have over-roasted their beans if the beans were equipped with klaxon alarms to tell when they were done, and galoshes: Crowley hated it all.
He especially hated Christmas.
Christmas, in Crowley’s opinion, was one great big capitalist free-for-all hiding under a thin veneer of religion and mandatory good cheer, plunging one-half of the country into debt as they desperately tried to keep up with the other half, complete with sky-rocketing rates of disappointed children, domestic violence, and bigotry all wrapped up in the tidy bow of nosing-into-other-people’s-business. The insistence on being nice when nobody bothered the other eleven months of the year made for the worst of false kindnesses and competitive do-gooderism, complete with simpering well-wishes from people who wanted to be remembered in your shopping and gifts of ten-quid bottles of wine from people who remembered you in theirs, and then come the first of the year it was back to business as usual, leaving everyone ten pounds poorer and richer in nothing but cheap, bitter wine. Load of bollocks, if you asked Crowley, but no one ever did.
Until this year.
“Oi,” Beez had said, poking her head into his office. “Christmas. Thoughts?”
“Load of bollocks,” he’d answered, without looking up from his computer.
“Got any plans? Never mind, I don’t care.” She’d come in, slapping a file on his desk. “I need someone to take this file. Developer wants to close their deal on a property before Christmas. Small village called Tadfield. Just a purchase on a stretch of the high street, putting in condos, offices, probably a Costa or a Pret, that sort of thing. You’re going down.”
“Rural account?” He hated the rural accounts; the countryside really wasn’t his thing. “Isn’t that Dagon’s?”
“Dagon’s busy over the holiday,” Beez had said, with a look that dared Crowley to ask busy doing what. Something involving Aruba, electric blue drinks with little umbrellas, and Beez herself, no doubt. “And I’m not asking, I’m telling. You’re going.”
Crowley had looked up. “Hang on, I don’t know the project,” he’d protested. “How am I supposed to have a whole sale in hand before Christmas?”
“By doing your bloody job,” Beez had hissed, and she wasn’t just Beez standing in his office, but B.Z. Prince, the cutthroat negotiator and ruthless solicitor that had made Morningstar & Prince a force to be reckoned with. Luke Morningstar may have been the devil himself—and plenty of solicitors certainly thought he was—but Beez had been the one to organize his powerful personality into the firm they ran today. “You make this deal, and you’ll be looking at partner. You don’t make this deal, you’ll have a lot more problems than your high score on Solitaire.” She glanced pointedly at his computer. “You’re on thin ice.”
It wasn’t Solitaire, actually; it was Minesweeper, but Crowley had doubted that Beez would appreciate the distinction just as he doubted that she cared about the rest of his book of business with the firm—very successful, if he could add, and he knew with Beez he very well could not. “Yes, ma’am,” he’d said, with a winning grin. “I’ll do my best, but I don’t know how fast I can get it done. New counsel, new clients—might take a while.”
“Before Christmas,” she’d repeated, glaring. “Three weeks. Do the wining and dining, use the holiday angle to get everybody to compromise, you’re not stupid.” High praise from Beez. “I expect to see signatures in my email on Boxing Day. I’ll be checking.”
So Crowley had closed up his office, packed up his files, and headed out.
Small English villages had learnt early how to capitalise on Christmas, and Tadfield was no exception. It was only the first of December, and already the lamp posts were festooned with greens and red ribbons as Crowley rolled past, looking for parking; already the little shop fronts had snowflakes and candles and Santas lined up in their displays. It was all a sham, honestly, intended to draw in the city folks for a weekend away and charge three times as much for a scarf marked as hand-made just because a real person had operated the machinery.
He’d gotten the last room at the inn and pub on the high street, though he might’ve preferred the Comfort Inn just off the highway, because it was one of the properties that would be affected by the sale if it should go through and it was better to know your enemies. There were a handful of little shops pressed close together, all owned by the prospective seller—a cafe, an Oxfam shop, a bookstore, an off-licence—and those proprietors would obviously be the most likely to raise a fuss and make a sale difficult, especially during the holiday season. The lights up and down the street were all on, making everything look warm and inviting and a little magical with atmosphere. Crackling loudspeakers piped old Christmas carols into the night. A group of kids rode bicycles down the middle of the street, laughing and yelling at one another, scarves flying behind them like wings.
Everything had a little bit of a run-down look to it underneath their garlands and fairy lights, as if the shops were all holding their breath for the holidays, hoping that the shopping season would put their grimy little businesses back into the black after months of wallowing in the red. He wondered if they all knew that their livelihoods were about to be sold from underneath their feet, and if they knew that no amount of praying was going to bring them a Christmas miracle to save them.
That was none of his business, Crowley reminded himself. He was here to do a job. He was here to close a deal. He was here to be put up for partner at one of the top firms in London, and he was here to do it whether it was Christmas or not.
You’re on thin ice, Beez had said, but that was fine.
Crowley would just learn how to skate.
Chapter 2: Hot Cocoa
Crowley woke bright and early on his first morning in Tadfield.
Crowley did not enjoy waking bright and early. He particularly did not enjoy bright, under any circumstances, and early was a time of day that ought to happen exclusively to other people. But the window curtains of the Tadfield Inn and Pub were nothing but yellowing old lace, and even as Crowley grimaced and searched for his sunglasses he had to admit that they fit the general aesthetic: floral wallpaper, spotty WiFi, furniture old enough but not quite fine enough to be considered antique, and a proprietor that had introduced herself as Madame Tracy, which was either risqué or old-fashioned; he wasn’t sure, and didn’t think he wanted to know.
Should’ve stayed at the Comfort Inn after all.
Didn’t matter, he told himself, forcing himself out of bed. At least being up early would give him a chance to familiarise himself with the lay of the high street before his first meeting with the clients. He understood Zuigiber, Sable & White to be a small but highly specialised luxury developer with a reputation for putting up projects in idyllic villages and either improving or ruining the general atmosphere by bringing in commuters and corporate chain shops, depending on where you sat in relation to the cheque. Tadfield’s weaknesses in economy, infrastructure, residential population, and so on, could all be spun to his clients’ favour. He just had to know which way to twist.
The high street was busier in the early morning light than it had been when he’d gotten in last night, though the crackling loudspeakers were still playing carols. The pharmacy on the next block over seemed to be doing all right, and there was a Greggs tucked away between the post office and the bank that seemed to do the same brisk morning trade that Greggs’ everywhere seemed to do. There was a newsagents further down, and what looked like a late-night pizza and kebab, or maybe it was chips and gyros; a group of mothers with strollers jogged along, and another group of grandmotherly types dawdled in front of the post office. Crowley wondered if they saw themselves in each other—the cycle of a life lived and died, lived and died, never changing, never moving. Static.
Crowley hated static.
On this side of the high street, the properties were quiet. Very quiet. As if they’d always been quiet, and always would be. This development will be a blessing on this town, he thought.
Only the cafe appeared to be open, and so Crowley popped in for a coffee and a shot at their WiFi, which he could only hope was an improvement on the Inn’s. It was one of those places where old men dotted the counter seats and griped all morning about the good old days, eating the same greasy breakfasts that had been served there for the last sixty years or more; there were ornaments hanging in odd arrangements from the ceiling, and a lot of gold tinsel to go around. He ordered a to-go cup from the woman at the counter, who wore a name-tag that said, inexplicably, Anathema, stirred in some cream and sugar, and turned to go check out the local war memorial—
—and promptly ran straight into someone else.
“Oh!” A hand shot out to grab his. “So sorry!”
There was agonisingly long, slow-motion moment where Crowley slammed his eyes shut, waiting for the coffee to hit. He was going to be burnt. He was going to be soaked. It was not going to be an attractive look. He was already trying to remember where the nearest hospital was, and trying to calculate whether he would need A&E and whether he would even be able to drive if his hands were burnt, what the recovery time would be, whether he’d be calling Beez for back-up, whether he would lose his job because someone in a bloody cafe in bloody Tadfield couldn’t watch where they were bloody well going. He was—he was—
He dared to look, but yes: he was still holding onto his coffee, safe in its cup, safe in his hand, which was safe in someone else’s.
Someone Else was wearing a bow-tie. An earnest bow-tie, which was something else these days, and a certain sort of professorish look, complete with a waistcoat and a pocket watch and a concerned expression that was obviously prone toward absent-mindedness and probably some rambling on about whatever took his fancy on any given day. “Are you quite all right?” he asked.
Crowley tried to snarl. A lifetime of living in London wanted to snarl, and to jerk his hand back and tell Someone Else off, but the adrenalin of his life flashing before his eyes and the warmth of the hand on his had taken his response out at the knees. He strongly suspected that what his face was doing was a slow relieved grin sort of thing instead. “Yeah,” he said, looking at his hand, held tight in Someone Else’s. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Someone Else followed his gaze, flushed pink, and the hand slid away. The hand, the flush, the gaze: he was—well, attractive wasn’t the right word, exactly, because people who wore earnest, professorish bow-ties just, well, weren’t, but his face was—the line of his nose, the definition of his mouth, the fluff of white-blond curls—interesting. Arresting, maybe.
And, well—hadn’t Crowley just been thinking that he needed to familiarise himself with the town? Residential population included?
“Let me get you a cup of coffee,” he said, collecting himself. A cup of coffee, a little conversation, a few pointed questions, and Crowley could have all the information he needed to swing his negotiations right into his client’s favour. “It was a miracle, you catching me like that; we could’ve both been scalded.”
“Oh,” Someone Else shook his head, with a brushing-off sort of laugh. “It was no bother—”
“Would’ve been a bother to me,” Crowley answered shortly, already turning back to the woman behind the counter. “Another coffee, if you could?”
The woman looked at Crowley, then looked back at Someone Else, and back at Crowley, putting two and two together and coming up with a number she apparently quite liked. She grinned and leaned in conspiratorially, watching Someone Else like she was about to whisper a secret about him. “He usually takes hot cocoa.”
Crowley looked over as well, smiling as if he’d heard a secret, even though they were talking at a perfectly normal volume. “Oh, does he? No caffeine, even at this hour?”
“Keeps odd hours, our Aziraphale.”
Aziraphale. That seemed unlikely. Crowley looked at the woman’s name-tag again, which still read Anathema, and wondered if he’d accidentally walked into a horror-film type of situation. Christmas cult, perhaps? That would’ve surely come up in the research. And our Aziraphale: that seemed unlikely too, given Someone Else’s age—closer to Crowley’s—and the woman’s—closer to twenty. Affectionate, then, not romantic, and definitely part of the game.
“Ours?” he repeated, eyebrow raised.
“Oh, honestly,” Someone Else cut in, increasingly flustered, “I’m not anybody’s,” and then he seemed to realise what he’d said, gave Crowley what he probably thought was an extremely subtle once-over, and turned crimson. “Just the cocoa, please, Anathema.”
“Hot cocoa it is, then,” Crowley agreed. Anathema rang it in, gave them both a look like she really wanted to give them both a thumbs-up, but restrained herself and instead disappeared into the kitchen. Crowley slid into one of the counter seats, and gestured for Someone Else to join him. “Crowley,” he introduced. He hated when people called him by his first name, and so tended not to give it.
“Aziraphale,” Someone Else returned properly, and he didn’t ask after Crowley’s first name, and Crowley didn’t hate that. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Crowley shrugged. “You didn’t either.”
“I did, or you’d have been burned,” Aziraphale pointed out, a little primly. “Clearly.”
“So it’s a protesting sort of guardian angel,” Crowley said with a grin, and all right, he was laying it on a little thick, so sue him. A bit of flirting never hurt anyone. Normally he hated flirting—it was so pointless, the whole thing of it, trying to be clever, bantering with someone as a form of trying to sort out whether you liked them when really all he needed to know was what they thought about the practicality of driving vintage cars, whether they knew what a Châteauneuf-du-Pape was, and whether they were likely to be bothered by late nights at the office. So far nobody had met the criteria—though he hadn’t had a serious date in probably fifteen years, so maybe that was on him.
This wasn’t flirting, though. This was reconnaissance. Crowley could do reconnaissance. And if it happened to be reconnaissance with an arresting face, that was just the luck of the draw.
“I hardly think that doing the right thing warrants guardian angelship,” Aziraphale was saying, though with a little smile of his own. “I didn’t expect to become responsible for you, you know.”
Crowley laughed. “All right, all right,” he said, placating. “Changing the subject, then. You lived here long? In Tadfield?”
It was Aziraphale’s turn to shrug. “Born and raised,” he said, then he gave Crowley a look, eying his black denims, his dark sunglasses, his snakeskin shoes. “You’ve lived here—all of five minutes?”
“Just visiting for the holidays,” Crowley explained smoothly. Anathema came back in through the kitchen doors, another to-go cup in hand, and Crowley took this as his cue—he might be grateful to her for the quick assist, but he suddenly wasn’t dying for an audience. “Could use someone to show me around, actually. If you’re not busy.”
Aziraphale laughed, a bit nervously, then seemed to realise that Crowley was perfectly serious. “Oh, erm,” he hedged, taking the cup from Anathema, who stared rather wide-eyed and meaningfully at him. “I—sure. I mean, of course.”
“Fantastic,” Crowley said. “I’ve got to run, have a few meetings today, but tomorrow’s wide open. Meet me right here, say, ten o’clock?”
“Ten o’clock,” Aziraphale nodded. “And thank you for the cocoa.”
“Thanks for saving the coffee,” Crowley returned, standing and gathering up his things. “See you then.”
Halfway to the door, though, he stopped, turned back around. Aziraphale was nursing his cocoa like it was a whisky, as if he weren’t quite sure what had just happened; through the haze of shimmering fairy lights and gold tinsel, he really did look a little heavenly. “Oh, and angel?” Crowley called back to him. “I’m not, either, right now. Just so you know.”
Aziraphale turned, blinking at him. “Not what?”
“Anybody’s,” Crowley said, and then he was out the door.
Two hours later, Crowley was knocking on the enormous oak doors of Tadfield Manor, settled in the hills on the outskirts of town like a bad omen. The drive had been wreathed in fog, despite a clear morning in the village, and he wished he’d had a hot cocoa like Aziraphale’s now, to keep him warm in a cold place like this.
He was being ridiculous, he told himself, shaking off the nerves as a butler showed him into a hall decorated with great tusks and antique rifles. His clients were gathered around a desk, bent over blueprints and glasses of amber alcohol, though it was barely even noon.
“Mr Crowley,” Carmine Zuigiber said, giving him a sleek smile. “Welcome to our War Room.”
Chapter 3: Winter Wonderland
It was just a bit of reconnaissance.
All part of the job, really. Lots of people had jobs. Lots of people had jobs they weren’t particularly wild about and did anyway, because the idea of having a job that was one hundred percent likable was a pipe dream fed to teenagers on the Internet by balding non-profit CEOs who’d inherited their start-up money from their grandparents and still made half a million pounds a year, and lots of people had jobs they had never particularly envisioned themselves doing, because nobody had ever gone up to their gran at their fourth birthday party and said, “Listen here, gran, I’m going do payroll for a mid-level corporation in Birmingham when I grow up,” and yet there were hundreds of people working in payroll departments in mid-level corporations in Birmingham every day. It was what it was.
There were things Crowley hated about his job, obviously—pushy clients with illegal ideas about how to accomplish their business goals, pushy clients with morally corrupt though somehow not illegal ideas about how to accomplish their business goals, long hours spent pouring over ridiculously complex contracts written more in Latin than English, the sheer amount of bloody paperwork—but there were also things Crowley did not hate about his job. It was challenging, for a start, and interesting; the pay really was quite good, even for London, and Crowley was really quite good at doing it, and when he managed to pull it all together, when he got exactly the right pieces in exactly the right order, when the compromise worked and the negotiations settled and the deal fell together—there was nothing quite like it.
And it was never the same case twice, never the same call, never the same project. It was always something new.
Walking up the high street of a half-forgotten village in Oxfordshire alongside a bloke with a bow-tie and a propensity toward giggling was definitely new.
“All right: Tadfield. Let me guess,” Crowley said as they set out up the street toward the square, nudging Aziraphale’s arm. “Farmer’s market on, let’s say, Thursday mornings. School panto twice a year; probably some sort of 5K race in the spring, starting there--” he nodded at the squat little clock tower in the middle of the square-- “and running through the countryside ending victoriously at the local pub for a cause nobody can ever remember. One listed building within five miles, two within fifteen; local population runs toward old farming families who haven’t had land to their names in decades but still remember it and the more recalcitrant, unsociable Oxford types. Two pubs, one grocer, the pharmacist is a gossip.” He grinned out of the corner of his mouth. “How’d I do?”
Aziraphale took a sip of his cocoa to hide the fact that he was smiling, which was not at all successful. “You cheated,” he accused. “You’ve looked all that up.”
Crowley laughed. “Hey, not all of it,” he defended, and Aziraphale laughed too. “Bit about the pharmacist was a lucky guess.”
They’d met, as planned, at the cafe at ten o’clock that morning, or thereabouts—Crowley had been there at ten, at least. Aziraphale had been fifteen minutes late, still pulling his coat on by the time he’d rolled through the door, already apologising, soothing Crowley’s irritation with a smile that could only be called beaming. Crowley didn’t think he’d ever seen anybody beam before. Must be they didn’t teach you that in London.
Anathema had slid a coffee and a cocoa across the counter, already ready to go. She threw a look at Aziraphale that Crowley only caught out of the corner of his eye but which may have been a wink, and Crowley had bustled Aziraphale out of the cafe quick as he could. She was going to be a menace, that one. He could tell.
Together he and Aziraphale went up the high street, ambling and exchanging the sort of first-meeting conversations Crowley'd perfected in a million networking events—Aziraphale had been raised in town, Crowley had been raised in London, if you could calling it being raised; Aziraphale did not recommend the Queen's Head pub but Garrison's wasn't bad; weather's been frightful, have you had it bad here?—before turning off to pass the local war memorial Crowley had intended to see the day before, which Aziraphale knew more about than the people who’d built it probably had, and in turn Crowley offered something about the ding in his car that had happened during the Blitz during the early 1940s, all documented in the repair records, and how he’d left it during the restoration job just because he thought it was worth remembering: that the whole world could come down around your ears, and things would still survive.
A heavy silence fell between them as they looked over the memorial. Real mood killer, that one, Crowley berated himself, but then Aziraphale turned and said, with cautious delight, “Your car is how old?”
There were a lot of things in the world the Crowley hated, but he did have a few bone-deep loves, and the Bentley was one of them. He told Aziraphale about finding her as they walked on, about the state of her when he’d first seen her, about doing the research overseeing every step of the restoration, about getting into the garage himself when he was able to help pull staples out of the old upholstery or even to just hold the bloody wrench. It was easy to talk about the Bentley.
It was easy to talk to Aziraphale.
“You must be very proud,” Aziraphale said, teasing, as they came to a stop outside the historic stone church, just outside the main stretch of town on a hill that was probably called Priest’s Hill or Beggar’s Knoll or whatever. A group of men were bullying an enormous fir tree into the churchyard. “A regular old vintage car mum.”
“You would be too, if you had her,” Crowley shot back.
“I probably would,” Aziraphale agreed. The men with the tree were not having a great time of it; their ropes and pulleys had the better of them at the moment. “There used to be a big Christmas celebration here every year,” Aziraphale said, nodding at them. “Whole of Tadfield, just transformed into a winter wonderland. Christmas market down in the square, fairy lights in all the trees, skating down in the park. The Manor put it all on—Tadfield Manor, do you know it? Just outside town.”
And: oh, right, Crowley remembered, grimacing. Reconnaissance.
“I know it,” he said slowly. “One of your old listed buildings, right?”
Aziraphale nodded. “For a long time it was an event hall sort of space, rented out for parties, weddings, that sort of thing. They did huge weekend getaways for tourists, tree lightings and Christmas balls and everything. Then the hall was bought out, turned back into a private residence. Some of the town tries to keep up with the spirit of it—” he gestured at the men fighting the fir, who were losing— “but, well. The local parish’s tree lighting ceremony doesn’t have quite the same marketing value, does it?”
It wasn’t an especially unusual story: the money-making industry moves on, and all the money with it. Whatever growth and strength Tadfield might have had would be sapped away entirely without the development Zuigiber, Sable & White were planning, but with a promised sponsorship for a Christmas festival, Crowley could definitely turn this in his favour. As far as gossip went, this was an absolute win—and if he could swing the deal on time, he was willing to bet the cost of a shiny new plaque with his name above the word Partner that it would make Aziraphale’s face light up like a Christmas tree.
“Come on, angel,” he said, just to make Aziraphale grin, stepping away from the church and the tree and the memories. Everything Aziraphale remembered might be gone, but that didn’t mean it had to be lost. “What’s good for lunch in this town?”
It was just a bit of extra reconnaissance, really.
After all: a job wasn’t everything.
Chapter 4: Baking
Back to things Crowley hated.
Clients. Over-involved clients. Pushy clients, slimy clients, insistent clients. Clients who thought they were the only client you had; clients that thought they were the smartest client you had; clients that only retained you to say yes when they proposed something because they thought they knew more than you did; clients who asked the question, well, is it legal or isn’t it?
Zuigiber, Sable & White were, among the three of them, all of these clients.
This should’ve been a job for a whole bloody team, Crowley thought, driving away from Tadfield Manor with a headache. No wonder Dagon was eager to get rid of them.
And they were creepy, was the thing, they were chilling, they were weird, like looking at ghosts made corporeal but only if you looked right at them and they disappeared whenever his back was turned. All three of them moved preternaturally quietly and all three of them seemed particularly prone to staring; they continuously exchanged looks amongst themselves that sent chills down Crowley’s spine, as if they were plotting the end of the world instead of a three-story condo and office combination development in a rural village, as if they had nuclear commands tucked away in the wood paneling of their damned spooky house that would blow Oxfordshire right off the map.
“Creating goodwill in the community,” Crowley had been saying, “would go a long way toward making a deal once the negotiation begins in earnest, and help with the acceptance and support while the project is in progress.”
The three had stared at him as if unseeing. “Goodwill,” Sable had repeated.
“Acceptance,” White had said.
Zuigiber had sat back in her chair. “The community is not in control of this property,” she’d said. “We’re not interested in them.”
And that had been that.
Clients that only saw numbers; client that only saw dollar signs; clients that only saw their own little selves in their own little bubbles: Crowley hated these things. It made the projects boring, and stale and meaningless and static, static, static, and it gave Crowley a headache to even think about it.
The Tadfield Inn and Pub was, thank God, a pub, and it was darkly lit only by piles of fairy lights here and there, thank God, and Crowley was the only person in it, thank even bigger God, even if it did smell like boiled sprouts. He didn’t even bother going up to his room first; he just slid into a bar stool and waved at Madame Tracy, who had been studying the multi-coloured string lights she had been hanging up over a window, and she came over. He must have looked as wrung out as he felt, because she left the overhead lights off, put on a sympathetic pout, and patted his hand.
“Whisky,” Crowley said.
“You know what you need,” Madame Tracy said, wagging a finger at him. “A nice cup of tea.”
“Or a whisky. Whisky’d be nice.”
Madame Tracy patted his hand again. “Tea,” she said firmly. “You stay right here and I’ll bring you a cuppa.”
Crowley didn’t have the energy to fight with her, even though this was ostensibly a pub and not some gran’s living room. Instead he slumped down in his seat and waited, trying to shut his mind up, until she came back with a cup and saucer and a couple of misshapen biscuits. “Been baking all day,” she said, with a nod at the biscuits. “Nothing like a homemade biscuit to cheer up a bad day.”
The tea was milky and hot; the biscuits buttery and crumbly. Crowley took a long sip, then dunked half a biscuit and took a bit. She was right, of course: nothing like tea and biscuits. He hadn’t realised he’d been so cold until the tea took hold of him, spreading warmth through his core, and his headache was forgotten almost immediately. It was a little like being tucked in, actually: covers pulled up around his ears, a kiss on the forehead. The odd piles of fairy lights, waiting to be strung up in their lines, made it feel almost fae, like some underground hiding place with impossible magic lights. Even the pervasive smell of sprouts suddenly seemed comforting. This was not a pub built on numbers, Crowley thought. This was not a pub built on who controlled what and whether they could pay for it.
He swallowed his tea, hard, and managed a weak smile at her. “Thanks. You were right.”
“Always am.” She still had her sympathetic pout on, and now she tilted her head in that way bartenders everywhere had. “Long day, was it?”
“You want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” He couldn’t, obviously. Confidentiality and suchlike.
But Madame Tracy didn’t press. Instead she patted his hand again with a smile, and went back to her window, considering the fairy lights she’d been hanging up. “Heard you went out with Mr Aziraphale yesterday,” she said carefully.
News travels fast in a small town, obviously. There was never any chance that Crowley, the newcomer in all black that wore his sunglasses even indoors, could walk up the high street in broad daylight with anybody and not be asked about it. He sipped his tea and took another biscuit and watched Madame Tracy in the grimy mirror over the bar as she reached up on her toes to rearrange her lights.
But Crowley found, quite surprisingly, that he didn’t hate that she had asked. There was a smile in her voice, and a sense less of prying and more of optimistic happiness, and she kept her eyes firmly on the window, giving him the privacy he needed to smile into his cup of tea.
“Yeah,” he said finally, clearing his throat. “He was just showing me around a bit. New in town, and all. Seeing the sights. Warning me off the pharmacist.”
Madame Tracy just hummed, saying nothing, and reached for another puddle of lights to string up over the next window. She didn’t have a stool or a ladder or anywhere near enough height, but she did have the spirit--she just tossed the lights up, hooking the belly of the string over the be-laced curtain rods, again and again until the whole length of the window was accounted for.
“He was nice,” Crowley added. “Is nice, I expect. Really into his hot cocoa, isn’t he?”
At that Madame Tracy laughed. “And other things too,” she assured him. “But your gut instinct is right, I think. I’ve known him since he was just a little thing, and yes, he’s always been such a nice one.” Now that the fairy lights had been hooked up onto the curtain rod, she stood on her tiptoes here and there to adjust it, just as she had with the other string. “It’s only too bad, you know—how often the world goes bad for the nice ones.”
What do you mean, was right there on the tip of Crowley’s tongue, but he didn’t ask it. Aziraphale was nice, and kind and unexpectedly funny, but Crowley had noticed that he kept himself close to his own chest. He hadn’t offered a last name; they hadn’t talked about what he did for a living; he hadn’t given up his deepest secrets and darkest desires. And Crowley was, after all, just a strange man in a strange place, passing through—here to ruin the village with corporate real estate developments and get on with his life. He’d be gone before they even struck ground.
“Tell you what,” he said to Madame Tracy, sliding off his barstool. He was at least eight inches taller than she was. “I’ll get the lights if you get me more of those biscuits.”
She patted his cheek this time, instead of his hand, said, “There’s a love, thank you,” with a knowing smile, as if he had passed some kind of test, and left him to it.
In the end, the pub glowed under the fairy lights in pink and orange, and she never did charge him for the tea.
Chapter 5: The Nutcracker
The sound of sticks slamming together echoed through the park, along with wild shrieks and the cascade of laughter. A group of kids chased each other down the trails, and Crowley caught bits and pieces of the game: something about mice and tin soldiers and a thrown shoe.
“The Nutcracker,” Aziraphale said, tracking Crowley’s gaze. “They all saw it at school two weeks ago and it’s been the game of the season.”
It was chilly in the park, but not quite yet frosted over; some strange hint of autumn still lingered in the trees and the flowerbeds. The paths were wide and paved, winding around a pond, between old lampposts and around the bases of enormous, ancient trees. It looked a little morose, just now—the dying leaves, the wilting bushes, the bare branches—but Crowley could imagine how it would look in the spring, bursting with flowers and lush with greenery, fresh and new and verdant.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d walked through a park. He hadn’t realised how much he missed the earthy smell of it, the openness of it; he hadn’t realised how different the sunlight was when it wasn’t being reflected off steel and glass, filtered through the windows and harsh fluorescents of his office. He hadn’t been planning on doing it today, either, but he’d run into Aziraphale in the entryway of the Inn just after lunch and the conversation had started to linger, and when Aziraphale said, “You know, do you fancy a walk around the park?” Crowley had grinned and said, “Lead on, angel.”
This time when they’d stopped at the cafe for their now-customary coffee and cocoa, Anathema hadn’t even pretended not to wink.
“They’re certainly a lively bunch,” Crowley said, watching the kids go. The particularly cherubic-looking boy was clearly the leader, directing the game this way and that; once the Mouse King, played enthusiastically by a rather grubby boy, was defeated, they all seemed content to pick up the sticks and start the battle over, and nevermind the Land of Sweets. Perhaps that part came later.
“Bit of a group of trouble-makers,” Aziraphale agreed, sounding fond. He was wearing a scarf today, mostly cream with just a line of faintest blue running through it. It made his eyes look deeper, endless, like the whole of the cosmos was happening just out of sight. “But they’ve got heart, and that’s what counts, isn’t it?”
Crowley couldn’t remember the last time he’d known anyone who had heart. Not really the done thing, in his line of work.
The kids had made their way around the entire circuit of the pond, running in that tireless way kids had. “Excuse us Mr Aziraphale!” one of them shouted, “Excuse us Mr Aziraphale’s friend!” and then the whole group was slipping right between Crowley and Aziraphale, joyful and jostling, and Crowley couldn’t help but smile.
“Careful now!” Aziraphale called after them. “Mind how you go!”
“I don’t think I was ever that young,” Crowley said, once the shouting had gone far enough away that they could hear one another again. “Already forty by the time I learned to walk, probably.”
Aziraphale grinned. “You don’t remember much of it? Growing up?”
“Nah, not really. Not a whole lot to remember, I don’t think. Mostly absent parents, not a lot of friends.” He pushed his sunglasses further up the bridge of his nose, an old nervous tic, and hated that he still did that sometimes. “Went to uni because--I dunno. Thought if I could just ask the right question, I’d unlock the secrets to everything. Change the world. Turns out the world’s too damn--” he gestured vaguely.
“Ineffable,” Aziraphale finished softly.
“Yeah,” Crowley said. “Ineffable.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Suppose I never even got so far as looking for the question,” he said, huffing a self-conscious laugh. “Things in Tadfield--they just are. Have been for years. Everyone’s so certain of it.”
Crowley stopped on the path, looking over at him, remembering what Madame Tracy had said about bad things happening to good people. Aziraphale’s eyes looked unseeing over the still waters of the pond, bright and peaceful in the weak sunlight, before his face crumpled up into another one of those smiles, so unlike the beaming he’d done the last time they’d gone out.
“Are you?” he asked.
There was a pause, and Crowley wondered if anyone had ever bothered to ask Aziraphale before, if he liked things the way they were. If he wanted something different out of what life in Tadfield could be.
“Best not to speculate,” Aziraphale said firmly.
Crowley was just about to tell him what a load of crock that was when another voice cut in, smaller and far more excited. “Mr Aziraphale?” one of the Them asked, marching up to Crowley and Aziraphale again. The other three trailed behind, clearly interested in whatever mission this one had been sent on but not wanting to do it themselves. “Mr Aziraphale, can I ask you something? And your friend, if he knows.”
“‘Course,” Crowley said instantly, holding out his hand for the kid to shake. Couldn’t have been more than eleven, and he already had the pinched look of a tax accountant around the eyes. The kid shook the proffered hand extremely seriously. “I’m Crowley.”
“I’m Wensleydale, actually,” the kid returned. “What we want to know is, was The Nutcracker was a book first, or a film? Because Pepper says she had a book of it when she just a little kid, but I actually had a book of it when I was just a little kid, which means they’re both as old as each other. And then Adam--” here the cherubic one in the back stood a little straighter-- “Said, here now, Mr Aziraphale knows all about books, and he’d know whether it was a book first, or something else. So which was it?”
Now Aziraphale’s smile turned, and there it was: the beaming. That golden, shining beaming. “Well,” he said, adjusting his scarf, and Crowley watched as he transformed into a storyteller, beckoning the other children closer, leaning in as if to impart to them some great secret of the world. “The very first time the story was told…”
And Crowley watched as he laid out an overly-complicated history of The Nutcracker, from Hoffman to Dumas to Tchaikovsky, unable and entirely unwilling to look away from the dancing hands, the expressive eyes. He looked ridiculous, truth be told, but he looked, in that instant, completely, uncomplicatedly happy.
What a contradiction he was, Crowley thought. That he could say with one breath, best not to, but then turn around and answer question upon question upon question. As if the only questions not worth asking were his.
When the kids were finally satisfied and took off again, now to play Drosselmeyer carving his magical toys out of the various sticks and stones of the Tadfield park, Aziraphale turned that beam onto Crowley. “Sorry about that,” he said lightly, clearly not really meaning it.
“Not at all,” Crowley said, grinning back easily. “Who knew any one person could know so much about The Nutcracker? Felt like I was in school again for a second there.”
Aziraphale blushed. “Oh, it wasn’t too much, was it? I never know quite how much to tell Them when they ask, you know--”
“No,” Crowley cut off. “It was perfect, angel. Tell them everything. They deserve to know it. They deserve to be able to ask.”
The blush deepened, and the beaming softened, and Aziraphale looked at Crowley with those eyes, those endless eyes, and said, “They do, don’t they?” in a voice like maybe it meant something else entirely, something a little bit daring, and all of a sudden and for the first time in years, Crowley wondered what it might be like if Aziraphale could see him looking back.
“They really do,” Crowley said, but they both heard what he really meant: So do you.
Chapter 6: Naughty & Nice
“And when should we expect to see the first draft of the offer?”
Crowley squirmed as he paced up and down his tiny room at the Inn. White’s voice was always low and slick, especially when they smiled, and listening to it over the phone was like having motor oil poured down his ear. “I can draft up the offer over the weekend and have it to you on Monday,” Crowley said. “There are still a couple of loose ends I’ll have to wrap up before anything’s finalised—checking some of the records, making sure the deeds check out, getting the funds in escrow--but negotiations can begin next week as long as the seller is ready and willing to meet. I have an email in to their solicitor.”
White grinned. Crowley could tell, because something in the way they breathed down the line oozed, making him cringe. “Good,” they said. “Our contractors are ready to break ground immediately after the new year. We’d like this deal to be certain.”
“Absolutely,” Crowley promised. “The offer is solid. We’re here because the seller was open to the deal to begin with, so it should just be a little matter of crossing some T’s and dotting some I’s, and you’ll have the deal in hand by Christmas.”
And he would be gone. Probably.
The call eventually dripped its way to an end, and Crowley tossed the phone aside, exhausted and sore from being bent over his laptop all day. Already past six. If he’d been in London, he would’ve been home by now; he’d have slithered out of the office early, picked up some takeaway—Chinese? or maybe Thai—and melded himself to his sofa for a Golden Girls marathon. Instead he’d spent the day in a rush, researching proposed clauses and shuffling digital papers and making useless calls.
He eyed the telly in the corner of his room dubiously, and decided to risk Anathema at the cafe instead.
Only Anathema wasn’t behind the counter when the cold evening breeze blew Crowley through the door. There was instead a tall-ish young man who looked rather startled at having been interrupted at the project he had laid out--taking apart a calculator, by the looks of it, and trying to put it back together. The lights had been turned quite low, which suited Crowley just fine, and there was some quiet Christmas pop playing on a little radio in the corner. Two or three of the little tables had people at them, mostly teens who likely didn’t have anywhere else to secret themselves away and who were trying to look very grown-up by drinking black coffee and sharing plates of chips, and the lad gamely straightened himself up and offered Crowley a seat and a menu and a promise to be right back.
Black coffee sounded terrible, Crowley thought, reading through the options. Fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, cheese toasty—well, he hadn’t exactly been expecting a run-down cafe to be reinventing the classics, did he?
The lad did not come back though. Anathema did.
“Oh, I thought I’d escaped you,” Crowley said, groaning extravagantly.
Anathema brightened like she couldn’t have been more pleased. “Newt told on you,” she said. “He looks sweet but you can’t trust him. Outright tattler, every time. Said that Aziraphale’s friend was in here, without Aziraphale.” She didn’t actually wink at him again, but the way she said friend made sure that Crowley knew it was implied.
The lad—Newt, Crowley supposed—sidled back out of the kitchen, giving Crowley an extremely casual sort of look. “I get it,” Crowley said. “It’s like good-cop, bad-cop, isn’t it? You lure me in with the nice one, and then bring out the big guns while I’m stuck waiting for a cheese toasty and a black coffee.”
“One cheese toasty,” Anathema repeated, whipping out an order pad, “and a black coffee. Anything else?”
“Not even…a hot cocoa?”
“Not tonight, cafe girl.”
Anathema only giggled. “You’re in a mood. Perhaps you’d be in a better one with a hot cocoa.” She looked at him a little harder. “Perhaps you’d be in a better one if you called in a reason for a hot cocoa.”
“You’re awfully forward on his behalf, aren’t you?” Crowley said. He wanted to feel annoyed. He wanted to feel pushed, and irritated, and like he was going to take his cheese toasty to go if he had to walk out with the cafe’s plate in hand. Instead he felt--well, all of those things, but mostly like he probably would be in a better mood if he called in a reason for a hot cocoa, and therefore a little caught out.
She shrugged. “He deserves someone on his side, is all. Also you’re a bear to deal with without him; thought I’d make the night easier on us both.”
Crowley looked at her carefully through his dark sunglasses; she looked back as though she could see right through them. “And you think I’m the sort of person he deserves to have on his side, do you?”
“I think if you weren’t,” she answered, “you wouldn’t even have asked.”
She didn’t know though, Crowley reminded himself as she flounced off, handing the torn-off slip from her order pad to Newt with a smile like she’d found the sun over there, dressed in a stretched-out olive t-shirt and dark-rimmed glasses. She didn’t know what he’d spent all day doing: negotiating the death of her cafe and its inevitable replacement with some chain that served unusual vegetable lasagnes and burgers called things like the doomsburger. She didn’t know that by the time Crowley left town, there’d be nothing but destruction and mass-marketing left in his wake.
He should’ve stayed in with the dubious telly after all.
Newt brought the cheese toasty out to him, as well as a coffee black enough to feel like a punishment, but he didn’t say anything about Aziraphale, and Anathema didn’t come back.
But then the bell sounded over the door, and Anathema didn’t have to: here was Aziraphale himself.
His cheeks were flushed from the cold outside, his bow-tie a little askew. He made it halfway to the counter before he spotted Crowley, and his face lit up. “Oh, hello,” he said, with an awkward little wave.
Annoyance, irritation, and gratitude all crowded to the front of Crowley’s mind, and he was smiling before he could stop himself. “Hey, angel,” he said, making Aziraphale’s cheeks pink a little more. “Nice night?”
“Bit chilly,” Aziraphale answered. “And you?”
“Quickly improving. Take a seat?”
Aziraphale hesitated. “You don’t mind? You do look like you’ve had a bit of a rough day, dear boy.”
Crowley laughed, because of course Aziraphale would see it, and of course he wouldn’t go without saying anything. In less than a minute, he’d taken in the slump of Crowley’s shoulders and the lines in his forehead, and he’d known. Barely looking, but seeing everything: he’d known. “You know what, angel? I don’t think anything could help me more right now.”
Aziraphale’s gaze lingered a moment, as if he wanted to reach out and touch, but then he slid into the seat across from Crowley. “Is it the sort of rough day where you’d like to pick it to pieces,” he asked, “or the sort of day where you’d like to pretend it never happened?” and God, Crowley didn’t hate that, and he didn’t hate nosy, interfering Anathema, and he didn’t hate this stupid cafe with its stupid pop music and its stupid cheese toasty at all.
“Pretend it never happened,” he sighed, thankful, and Aziraphale smiled.
By the time Newt came back, still looking quite startled and eying Crowley like he might snap at any second, Aziraphale had already launched into a ramble about a book he’d been reading, which spanned everything from inaccurate representations of ancient Golgotha to criticisms of the job the publisher had done in the type-setting. He paused only to order a cocoa and an eggy in the basket—which hadn’t, Crowley noted—been on the menu at all, and then set about nit-picking generic three-act-structures with barely a breath.
The sound of him rolled over Crowley, rolled through Crowley. The golden haze of the cafe lights and the tinny sound of Christmas songs faded into nothingness, and for a moment the whole world was reduced to a spotlight: a chipped blue formica table, and the remnants of a cheese toasty, and Aziraphale’s hands, moving and brushing, sweeping Crowley along, making him feel a little lost at sea, a little adrift among the stars, and he didn’t mind. It was easy, this—to sit and to listen, to laugh when the bubble in his chest got too big to hold, to lean in and argue back about Douglas Adams and the true meaning of 42. It was easy to forget. It was easy to only exist here, right now, across the table from a guardian angel who somehow knew just how to pull him out of himself.
Who pulls you out of the dark, Crowley wondered, watching Aziraphale’s laugh lines fold down the length of his cheeks as he wiggled, victorious and pleased with himself. Who raises you up to the light?
Aziraphale’s hand gestured wide and broad across the table, and Crowley reached out, unthinking, and caught it.
The rush of words drifted off, treacle-slow, and stopped.
He ought to let go. He really ought to let go. He hadn’t meant to do it, after all, and it was strange, wasn’t it, and they’d really only bumped shoulders a few times, unless you counted the first time with Aziraphale’s hand around his arm, catching him, steadying him, and Aziraphale’s hand was as warm now as it had been then and suddenly Crowley realised he could remember it, viscerally, like the palm print of his hand was still there, still glowing against the pulse in Crowley’s wrist, and yeah, he ought to let go, because Aziraphale wasn’t saying anything and it was awkward and instead Crowley looked up and said, through a trembling mouth, “All right?” as if he’d never asked anyone if anything was all right before and he weren’t quite sure how to pronounce the words.
Aziraphale looked at their hands, joined there on the table, and then he looked back up at Crowley and said softly, “Yes, I rather think it is all right.”
And he didn’t take his hand away. He didn’t take his hand away when Newt came back with another coffee and cocoa, or when a cheese toasty and an eggy-in-the-basket turned into slices of a slightly-burnt apple tart; he didn’t take his hand away when he noticed Crowley grimacing over his black coffee, or when he dumped half his cocoa into that coffee with a fondly exasperated huff; he didn’t take his hand away when Crowley laughed and called him angel, and he didn’t take his hand away when he grinned and called Crowley demon, that’s you, in the tone of voice that said he didn’t really think so at all.
Finally, at nearly half-ten, Anathema came back round the table and told them she was kicking them out. “You can pick it up tomorrow,” she said, not looking at their hands wrapped together there on the table, and somehow that felt more telling and more intimate than if she had.
So they made their excuses, and Aziraphale disappeared off into the night, going the opposite direction of the Inn next door; Crowley watched him as he passed the cafe’s windows, that bright pillar in the dark.
“Thanks for calling him,” Crowley said into the silence of the cafe.
Anathema moved out of the shadows behind the counter, a teal plaid coat already buttoned on, Newt close behind her. She looked at Crowley again like she could see beyond his dark lenses, and it was unsettling, a little. Even Beez hadn’t learnt that trick, in all the years they’d known each other.
“I didn’t,” she said. “He comes in most nights, you know. Just a coincidence.”
Crowley frowned, studying her; she had no tells at all. Newt behind her did, though, and his tells were all clear: admiration and love, confidence and faith. Newt believed her because Newt knew her, and there was no doubt in him. And Crowley believed her too.
“Why not?” he asked. “If you thought he deserved someone on his side?”
“Because you weren’t sure,” Anathema answered, as thought it were the most obvious thing in the world. “And I thought, even if just for tonight, you deserved someone too.”
Chapter 7: Snowmen
Crowley woke up the next morning with his sunglasses still on, digging uncomfortably into the ridge of his brow, and the sunlight streaming in brilliant and diamond white. Next to him, his laptop was nestled in the coverlet; he must have fallen asleep sometime late last night, somewhere in the middle of editing his proposal for Zuigiber, Sable & White.
The paperwork Dagon had left behind had included some bare bones information about the leases currently tied to the properties that would be affected: which shops paid what rent, general terms of the leases, appraisal numbers from some six years ago, line graphs of fair market rates in similar properties in similar towns, complete with comparisons to rates after redevelopment. The numbers were not encouraging.
He had, of course, written in a right of first refusal for the current lease-holders, but the rise in market rates post-development priced out ninety percent of lease-holders even in healthy economic communities. While Tadfield could expect a rise in economy, given the introduction of new housing being proposed in the upper floors and the draw from the surrounding area, the boom would be short-lived, and the likelihood that the current proprietors could survive the rise in rents even with the brief economical advantage was slim to none.
What Crowley really needed was an agreement to freeze rents for a twelve-month period, giving all the proprietors a chance to stabilise in the new development before the rent raise went into effect, but he could only propose it to his clients as part of the offer package. He couldn’t demand Zuigiber, Sable & White put it on the table, and he couldn’t sit on his hands and hold the deal hostage on behalf of parties that had no standing in the negotiations. He’d been up half the night trying to figure out how to phrase it, how to pitch it, how to make the seller align their weight behind it without compromising his ethical duty to his own client.
Ethics schmethics. It was a damn shame that lawyers should be so constrained when nobody else bloody well was.
Crowley finally heaved himself out of bed, straightening his sunglasses, and peeked outside at the morning sun. It had snowed last night, it looked like, and the world outside was fresh and new.
He hated snow. He hated the ice and the rivulets of dirty sludge that made the streets difficult to navigate. He hated the cold of it, blistering against his fingers and cheeks; he hated the wet of it, getting his socks damp and making his denims feel somehow moist even when they weren’t. He hated the way it seeped into his bones, burning in his lungs as he tried to breathe. He shivered at the thought of it already, and resolved to be in a shit mood all day.
Only the shit mood wouldn’t hold, because last night—last night.
Crowley was practically giddy as he got ready for the day, remembering Aziraphale’s golden laugh, that broad smile, the warmth of his hand, and he was feeling so particularly fond of Anathema of all people that coffee seemed in order once again, and he was pretty sure he’d be able to get her to make it half-coffee, half-cocoa if he asked nicely enough, the way Aziraphale had done last night when he’d realised Crowley was trying to drink it black.
But Madame Tracy stopped him when he finally made his way downstairs, calling out, “Mr Crowley!” and beckoning him closer. She was laying out what appeared to be a tarot deck onto the polished bar. “Goodness, where is your scarf?”
“No need,” he waved her off, grinning. He doubted even the snow could dampen the furnace is his chest. “Just off for a coffee—did you want me to bring you anything?”
“Oh, the cafe will be closed, love. First snow, you know.”
Crowley pulled up short. “Closed?”
Madame Tracy nodded. “First snow,” she repeated. “Lucky that it was a Saturday, really. Everyone’s gone down to the park. It’s tradition.”
“Of course it is,” Crowley grimaced. Of course he’d end up in the sort of small town to think larking about in the snow was a good enough time to make a tradition of doing it. There’d probably be snowmen, horror of horrors, and he’d bet anything that even as he stood here now, that lot of kids—the Them, as Aziraphale had said it—were starting a veritable hoard of snowballs. But then: everyone, and if it were everyone—well. “But you’re not going out?”
“Got a reading with Mrs Ormerod in fifteen minutes, but I’ll be down after.” She waved him off with one of her tarot cards—the Ace of Cups, he thought it was. “And take a pair of gloves from the cupboard by the door, please, love.”
Crowley sighed, but did as he was told. There was, after all, no question about where he was going.
There were snowmen.
Of course there were. A veritable army of them, knee-high, had already been rolled out across the park by the time Crowley got there, even though the snow wasn’t all that thick and the grass tufted out of the white expanse here and there. The kids were going quite mad in it, flinging great handfuls at one another and screeching, flopping down on their backs and getting too much of it in their faces, and Crowley spotted Newt and Anathema with an enormous snowbank at the far end, which they seemed to be carving into a snow-castle.
“Mr Crowley!” a young voice called, and Crowley looked up to see the four Them, clearly doing some plotting around the bushes that lined the paths of the pond. Wensleydale, the lad that had asked about The Nutcracker, waved him over rather excitedly. “Mr Aziraphale promised he’d help us,” Wensleydale explained, “but he’s not here yet.”
“Oh, that rotten Mr Aziraphale!” Crowley said, laughing. “What’s he’s supposed to be helping you with?”
“He won’t do the snowballs,” the girl said, in a bit of a complaint. “He helps Wensley draw the maps instead. For our battle.”
One of the other boys, the particularly cherubic one, interceded quickly on Aziraphale’s behalf. “He says he’s a pacific, so it’s against the rules for him to do the fighting bits.”
“A pacifist,” Crowley corrected automatically, and added, “That’s me too then,” mostly because it would have been an unfair advantage to the Them against whoever they thought they were going to have a battle with. He briefly considered whether it were fair at all to have an adult help them, or whether that was particularly wise on his part, but decided that he could at least help keep the game safe and even from the thick of it and that he might as well. “What’s the rest of your names?”
Adam, Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale were quite satisfied with Mr Aziraphale’s replacement, even though he didn’t know the lay of the park very well—he didn’t even know about the secret hollow in the base of the Big Willow, the gall of him—and together they sketched out a little plan in a fresh bit of snow. The rival gang was made up of Greasy Johnson and his friends, apparently, and they were known to fight dirty but not so dirty that anybody got into any real trouble, because where was the fun in that.
“And you’ve checked that your snowballs aren’t packed too tightly, is that right?” Crowley asked, double checking a few of the ones Pepper had dumped at his feet. “No rocks, no ice? That’s cheating, now.”
Adam drew himself up to a very dignified height. “There’s no cheating here,” he declared, very much the leader of the group, “as a matter of honour,” and the other kids all agreed.
“All right then. Pepper and Brian, you’re going around this tree here to box Greasy Johnson’s gang in.” Crowley drew the route on their little snow-map with a long stick that Brian had presented to him very solemnly. “Adam and Wensley, you’re going on the offensive, stay away from the pond, is that understood? Save your snowballs for the people who’re in the battle only, all right, no going off and getting anybody’s little sisters—” here he looked over to Pepper, who nodded grimly— “and we observe the code of honour like all knights of the realm: no civilians and nobody who’s surrendered.” He put his hand on his heart, swearing them to the oath, since kids liked oaths and knights and were more likely to follow good rules if an oath was involved. If only that worked so well on the grown-up versions. “Yes?”
The kids all swore “Yes!” and packed up an armful each of the snowballs before taking off along their assigned routes. Greasy Johnson’s gang was only a minute or two behind them—kids all about the same size, and they did fight a little dirtier, but nobody was getting hurt. Newt did get a snowball to the chest, but that was his own fault for walking into the field of battle to wave at Madame T, who wisely skirted it instead.
“I see I’ve been replaced,” a voice said at Crowley’s elbow, about ten minutes into the battle, after all the snowballs had run out and the kids were just picking handfuls of snow off the ground to toss around. Aziraphale was there, grinning beautifully and wearing that cream scarf again, eying the stick in Crowley’s hand. “I believe that was supposed to be my sword. Did you knight them properly before they all went off to their honourable ends, dear boy?”
“Oaths on the heart, angel,” Crowley answered, feeling positively silly with smiling. He handed the stick over, and received in return a large tartan thermos which actually matched Aziraphale’s bow-tie, and something inside Crowley’s chest stuttered in sheer, overwhelming affection.
“Tea,” Aziraphale said, nodding at the thermos. “You look positively frigid.”
He was, now that someone had mentioned it, his denims practically frozen to his thighs and his cheeks prickling with cold, and now that the sun was reaching midday the brilliance of the reflection on the snow was beginning to be too much. Crowley closed his eyes against it for a moment, and gratefully opened the thermos and took a sip. Just a good, strong builder’s tea: perfection, on a day like this. “Thanks,” he said, and they both turned to watch the group laughing and yelling on the make-shift battlefield. “You do this every year, then? They were expecting you.”
Aziraphale winked. “It’s me on this side, yeah,” he said. “And you see that boy there? With the longer dark hair?” Crowley nodded. “That’s the Dowling boy. His father, Ted, does the other side.”
“Ah, I see,” Crowley laughed. “A conspiracy.”
“The kids all thing they’re getting a secret assist, and we get to monitor from start to finish. It used to be Adam’s dad, Arthur, but I was unanimously voted in the year before last when Arthur picked up the footie matches, and we all went to school together ourselves so it’s worked out fine. And it’s good for kids to have an adult other than a parent, really.” His eyes flicked up to Crowley’s briefly, and then focused again on the field. “Just in case.”
Crowley couldn’t agree more. “They won’t mind me stepping in?”
The chilled flush in Aziraphale’s cheeks darkened considerably. “It’s fine. They, erm.” He laughed nervously. “They know you’re with me.”
Well, then. Crowley pinked too, and his cheeks prickled with the cold under the force of his grin. “Oh,” he said.
Aziraphale flushed a little further, bumped Crowley’s arm with his, and then cleared his throat. “Do you know,” he said, as if he’d just decided something, tapping the stick-serving-as-sword on the ground, “I think I ought to go say hello to Madame Tracy and everyone.”
“All right,” Crowley said, and they grinned at one another a second longer, but he couldn’t be arsed to feel embarrassed about it. He screwed the lid back onto the thermos and held it out. “Here, then.”
“Hang onto it,” Aziraphale told him, and then they couldn’t just stand there grinning like loons any longer, so he took off around the battlefield to where Newt and Anathema and Madame T were starting to carve turrets into the snowbank. Madame T and Aziraphale bussed each other easily on the cheeks; Anathema said something to him that made him swing back around and look at Crowley, smiling in some secret sort of way.
Crowley turned back to the battlefield, trying to focus. It was getting harder in the bright midday light. He called out once for Brian to drop a stick he’d picked up, decreeing that this was a hand-to-snow combat and no swords were allowed, which Adam helpfully seconded. Now that Crowley knew there was another adult on the other end, it was easy to spot the guy—Ted, Aziraphale had said, and there he was: tall and broad and moustached and somehow vaguely American.
It was a solid community like this, Crowley thought. It needed support, not antagonism, and his mind whirred over the clauses of the deal proposal, wondering whether the negotiations—now set to begin properly on Monday, per the email from the seller’s counsel—would be more like the kids on the battlefield, clashing and warring, or more like the parents behind him, tapping their noses and working together for the desired outcome.
He could get the developers to agree to the rent freeze. He could. He knew he could. And there’d be changes to this village, of course there would, but it would grow, it would strengthen, it would thrive. He could do that.
Monday, Crowley decided. He’d give himself until Monday, until he had the rent freeze in place for certain, and then he’d tell Aziraphale. He’d tell Aziraphale everything.
He deserves someone on his side, Anathema had said, and fuck if she wasn’t right. Crowley had a feeling Anathema was always a little bit right, not that he would ever tell her that, and Aziraphale did deserve to know. Confidentiality schmonfidentiality. Even if it didn’t affect him directly, Aziraphale deserved to know.
When Aziraphale came back, he looped his arm boldly through Crowley’s and pressed their sides together. “How goes the battle?” he asked.
“I think we’re winning,” Crowley said. “Pretty sure they think they’re winning too.” He looked over at Aziraphale and tried not to smirk. “Didn’t you have a sword with you?”
Aziraphale laughed, low and even. “I did have.”
“And what happened to it?”
“I gave it away.”
Crowley looked at him properly; Aziraphale’s grin was threatening to break open Crowley’s chest. “You what?”
“I gave it away.” He looked across the battlefield to Madame T, who now had the long stick in hand, holding it like one might hold a riding crop as she watched the game playing out between the kids, and then back at Crowley. “Thought I’d try the Queen’s Head for lunch today. Do you feel like warming up, or would you prefer to stay here and turn into a snowman yourself?”
“Angel,” Crowley said, sweeping the hand with the thermos wide in a lead-the-way sort of gesture, “I thought you’d never ask.”