Crowley’s ears were ringing. Pain flared along his spine, his body jarred by landing so suddenly on his back. He might have bitten his tongue judging by the coppery taste in his mouth. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the blinding sun, glanced around at the sand that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Not an ideal start to his Tuesday.
He lay on the sand, hand over his face, listening to the gentle lap of the ocean, coming to terms with the fact that he, a grown man, had just tripped over his own feet on a perfectly flat surface. He wasn’t twenty anymore, his joints would punish him for this like a jilted lover, taking their time to forgive and be kind to him again.
At least there weren’t any witnesses.
“Are you alright?”
Crowley groaned. Of course. The voice was nearby but he refused to move his hand from his face to see. “M’fine.”
“Are you sure? That was quite a tumble.” The Voice was more polite than worried. Maybe a little amused but Crowley couldn’t fault him that. He imagined he had looked like a baby giraffe unsure how to use its feet and ending up on its face.
“Meant to do that,” Crowley said. “New sunbathing technique.”
Crowley peered through the crack in his fingers and didn’t see anyone, just a haze of sunlight glancing off the sand. The sunlight took its time but eventually coalesced into a person. A sunlight type person. White hair, white skin, white jacket. He looked like he was modelling for the 1950s McCalls gentleman’s summer fashion. And he was gorgeous. Not gorgeous like a model flexing his abs on a billboard in tasteful black and white. Gorgeous like his skin would taste like milk and his hair like candy floss and he probably smelled like cinnamon or five spice.
“I don’t mean to make a point of it,” said the man whose hair caught the light like a sugar-spun halo, “But are you able to get up or do I need to send for some help?”
“M’fine,” Crowley insisted, preparing himself to make good on his bravado although he’d happily wallow here in his humiliation and lower back pain for another hour or two.
Biting back an old man’s groan behind his teeth, he sat up and cast around for where his sunglasses had fallen. He had well and truly lost his chance to make a cool first impression but maybe he could take a shot at a second or third. He found the expensive, flash, definitely-cool-guy-and-not-a-baby-giraffe shades and slid them back on.
The cliffs behind them dulled the wind, giving him a chance to collect himself without getting a mouthful of sand blown into his face. It could have been much worse. The monolithic slabs of rock and the rock pools between them dotted the beach, and any one of which would have cracked his head open or sliced him to pieces. Or left him at the mercy of the crabs. The briney sand had cushioned his fall well enough even if he was going to be finding sand in weird places for a week going forward.
The man offered a hand and Crowley glanced at it a moment before accepting. He took the stranger’s hand in his and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet. The man’s hand was very, very soft. Expensive hand lotion soft. Weekly manicure soft.
“Ah, there we are,” he said with a bright smile, bordering on amused but too polite to outright laugh.
“I’ll try to stay upright this time.” Crowley should have scowled and stomped away from the only living witness to his clumsiness, but it was an impossible task when warm blue eyes crinkled with the first promise of laughter.
“Do you live nearby?” the stranger asked, then blushed. “That is to say, will you be alright to get home, Mr..?”
“Crowley. Just Crowley. And yeah, just up…” He pointed vaguely over his shoulder.
“Ah, we must be neighbours then. I just moved in at the end of Rose Road.”
Crowley used both hands to shake the sand out of his hair. This man lived next door to him. At the end of Rose Road! Ten minutes walk, tops. They wouldn’t be able to avoid running into each other and that made him feel some kind of feeling.
It wasn’t… he wasn’t… This was just an upgrade from the sour-faced old couple who hadn’t liked him for a multitude of reasons from his sunglasses to his garden design to his taste in music. If either of them had seen him fall arse over tit on a clear beach he’d be getting snide looks and unsubtle reminders of it for months to come.
So he wasn’t going to complain that they’d been replaced by soft-hands, here. If his brain would stop rattling around in his head he might even remember how to flirt. Any second now.
He tried to tame his hair into something less like a clown wig and more like the sleek copper locks he was so very proud of. Moderate success.
“Right, yeah,” Crowley said. “Saw it was for sale. You from London?”
“Is it so obvious?”
It was. “Nah. You’ll fit right in.”
Not a lie. Having one gay man in the village made the local busybodies feel very cosmopolitan. Having two would thrill them. Especially since soft-hands looked like the type who would join the knitting circle and help out at bake sales.
“Oh, that’s a relief, if you think so,” said the man with a little flutter of his hands. Adorable. “It’s a bit daunting after Soho. There’s a certain anonymity in the city.”
“Yeah,” Crowley shrugged. He’d lived in London for forty years and wouldn’t have recognised his neighbours if he passed them on the street. Really he tried his best to keep to himself here, too, but there was only so much one man could do. No one escaped the neighbourhood watch, especially not ne’er-do-wells like him. He was pretty sure his wisteria arches were the only reason he hadn’t been run out of town with torches and pitchforks.
Crowley gave up on his hair and tugged at his t-shirt, trying to get the sand out. It was a losing battle. This was a full shower-and-change situation. He could only imagine what he looked like to his new neighbour – clothes askew, hair wild, leaning heavily to one side as his ribs cramped in protest of all this excitement. He looked like a drifter who had come to the beach to get stoned in peace and here he was, standing next to Mr. Seaside 1953 who looked like he should be wearing a boater and carrying a giant striped umbrella. Not Crowley’s style but he could admit when someone was put together.
No, this wasn’t going to do at all. It had to be remedied.
“So, I should…” Crowley gestured toward his house.
“Oh yes, I shouldn’t keep you. Jolly nice to meet you.”
Jolly nice. Was he actually a time traveller? Was that a possibility? Or was he just the most unironic person in the South Downs? “Yeah. I’ll try not to make a habit of the… uh…”
Soft-hands stifled a smile, glancing to the sky. “More for your sake than mine, I’m sure.”
“Well, if you need anything, I’m just down the road. Do borrow a cup of sugar now and then.” The stranger smiled. It was a real, genuine thing, as milk white and warm and sweet as the rest of him. It had been a time since someone had smiled at Crowley like that and he found himself sort of swaying into it, his face returning a goofy smile before the rest of him entirely caught up.
“I… right… sure, I’ll just…” Crowley wrestled his face back into a neutral expression and tried to remember how to talk. This saint of a man, this angel, clearly radiated this kindness even for beach bums and giraffes and local hooligans. He didn’t need Crowley slobbering all over him his first week in town.
“Of course. Until next time, Mr Crowley.” Soft-hands inclined his head and started on his way down the beach toward Rose Road, giving Crowley the twin emotions of finally having the privacy to recollect his dignity and suddenly no longer seeing that smile.
“Just Crowley,” Crowley muttered to himself, although the man was out of earshot. Wait. He yelled after him, “Hey, wait! I didn’t catch your name.”
Soft-hands turned back to him. He had to call out as the breeze tried to take the words from him. “Aziraphale!”
Crowley paused. “Really?”
Aziraphale didn’t answer, instead smiling brilliantly and letting the wind sweep away his laughter as he continued down the beach.
Crowley watched him go, feet sinking into the sand, the taste of salt and seaweed at the back of his throat that slowly leached the milk and cinnamon from his thoughts. This was definitely an upgrade from the last neighbours.
He’d do better next meeting. He’d wear something flattering, Aziraphale didn’t look like he appreciated faded band t-shirts from 2003 rock shows. He wouldn’t stutter next time, he’d be suave, smooth, offer to show him the sights, help him settle into town. He’d tie his hair back and be in control of his own face.
Aziraphale started to fade into the sunlit glare of the sand as Crowley watched, but the light caught his hair again, a gloriole to suit him.
The taste of sand and salt against his tongue clued him into the fact that his mouth was open. He came back to reality and realised that instead of going to his house, cleaning himself up and getting an ice pack he was frozen in place on the beach, lips parted, watching Aziraphale walk away and fantasising about their next meeting.
Ah, he thought to himself. I’m fucked.