Aziraphale stood in the foyer of his building, a dismal, nervous fellow that otherwise took away from a cheerful atmosphere. It was bustling and busy, bright and vibrant, and everything that Aziraphale knew he wasn't. To say he was feeling inadequate was an understatement. In comparison, he was a dull, monotone fellow who everyone seemed to steer clear off, and for which none seemed eager to give a second glance. He supposed it might be his trouser; he'd run out of starch, and they weren't as tiptop as they should be. Other possibilities included his hair, which was in a disarray of pale curls atop his head, or his general lopsided appearance, as he leaned heavily on his crutch. Then again, it might just be the utter terror he was currently feeling at the moment. The book and camera he held in his left arm were unreasonably burdensome and felt too heavy. His feet were currently glued to the marble tiles, eyes locked on the large outward-facing windows. He was stuck to the spot and had no immediate inkling of if he could even move from said location.
Today was a wonderful break in what had been a dreary week of misting rain and lingering clouds. Those had all been burned away by the sun, leaving the sky blue and radiant. When he had woken to the dewy chill in the air and sun shining on his face, he'd been struck with the idea to go outside. It was a wonderfully silly idea, but one he couldn't get out of his head. It was a good day. His back was all-around functional. Pain levels bearable and being treated by a beautiful cocktail of muscle relaxants and painkillers. He'd woken up, put on his trousers and his jumper, snagged his most comfy set of loafers, and took up his walking crutch. Up until getting off the lift, he'd felt confident and resolute in finally leaving his flat complex. By all rights, he should be able to get outside and do something.
So here he was, in the foyer, lollygagging like a complete dope. Across the street was the garden, and it was just a bustling and full of life as he'd imagined. His eyes lingered on toddlers and parents playing kickball among picnicking lovers and a vendor on the corner, selling fish and chips. He thought it looked like something from a painting. Georges Seurat would make a lovely rendering of this day if he were still alive.
If only he could make himself take the steps to get to it.
Instead, Aziraphale's ears were ringing, a deep drone that vibrated in time with his heartbeat. The whole room had an aura about it—a fuzzy touch to reality that had him swaying in place. Behind him, the lift dinged, cheerfully releasing its occupants. The sound of tromping shoes wasn't reassuring in the least. In his ears, a feminine voice played through his headphones, her voice a familiar comfort. 'Keep calm. Breathe in and out and let your body settle in this new location.' Oh, God. He hadn't even made it to said new location. He was such a raving mess—a crazy loon who couldn't even leave his damned flat!
I should go back up. This was a moronic idea.
"Hey. You okay?" Aziraphale jerked from his indecisive reverie. Leaning heavily on his arm crutch, he turned in place to see whoever had spoken. It was probably some far off conversation that had nothing to do with him. But when he looked up, it was to meet the richest, most yellow set of eyes he'd ever seen. They were attached to a kind, sunbitten face that was nothing but sharp angles and thin lips. Whoever this man was, he looked something like a bird, with that beaked nose. He also happened to be looking directly at Aziraphale.
Aziraphale stuttered a soft apology and hurriedly looking down to avoid direct eye-contact. His eye lingered on the working bucket that the other man grasped with dexterous hands, complete with trowel and hand rake. Oh! This was the gardener. Aziraphale had never seen him up close before. Previous encounters had been of the solo variety. Glimpses from his third-story window, while the other man worked on the flower bed just outside Aziraphale's window, baking in the hot sun. Aziraphale stared. His hand white-knuckled where it clutched around the binding of his book. He really hadn't expected him to be such a looker. He was nothing but a semi graceless beanpole from afar.
"I'm sorry. Were you speaking to me?"
"Yeah, of course." The other man smiled, scratching a hand through his stylish red hair and shrugging. "You looked a little ill. I just wanted to see if you're okay. Do you want me to call somebody for you? Do you live in the area?"
Aziraphale blushed a bright red, turning his head down to stare at the floor. Oh, what a dunce. He couldn't even look normal just standing there. The gardener was wearing converse shoes. Who wore converse to work in? Sounded painful on the arches.
"Oh. No, I don't really have... People." He explained, glancing back outside. The hazy glow had eased some from around his eyes. He could actually focus on the cars driving past without flinching. Maybe it was worth giving a go? "But I live here. So please don't call the law. I'm fine."
"Pssh, never! I'm the new groundskeeper. It's been a couple of months, but I still don't know everyone's face yet!" The other man explained, following Aziraphale gaze outside. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it? Good for a walk?"
"Uh...yes, my thoughts exactly. I saw what I thought was a Nightingale in that tree." Aziraphale waved to the tree where he'd spotted the little bird. He'd heard its song from his living room window and had been undeniably eager to get a look. Only the creature had been, up to this point, horribly tenacious in its invisibility. The closest he'd come was a bit of brown tail feather. This was just another reason why he'd found himself in this current predicament, clinging to his British Bird Guide and camera like they were his last anchor in a rising tide. "I just...need a minute, and I'll be on my way."
"I can show you around?" His new companion offered. Aziraphale barely heard the question, instead drawn to his voice. It was like honey, silky, and alluring. "I'm heading that way anyway."
A gentle touch to the small of his back had him jumping in place. The rubber of his shoe soles squeaking on the marble tiles. It was shockingly pleasant that broad warm palm. And without him realizing he felt the world calm. That constant overwhelming brightness becoming bearable, the singing of the lift fading to nothing. The terrifying drone of cars passing by and of people's chatter, all narrowed down to that soothing, curious flutter of fingers. Before he knew it, Aziraphale was being guided out of the front doors. His feet following the warm pressure of the other man's palm, leading him along.
Blinking, Aziraphale realized he was being spoken to. "See those petunias over there? They've been a hassle recently. I can't decide if they should be dug up and tossed, or if I should just let them work through their issues." Thank goodness, he was a chatty one, filling in the awkward space with his presence and chatter, making it really not that awkward at all.
"I do like the petunias. They're the only flower I can see from my window," Aziraphale admitted, looking up at that charming face rather than his surroundings. If he stumbled a bit, the hand moved to support him, guiding him about as if they'd done this a dozen times before.
"Oh yeah? They're a nice hybrid color. It's why I like em. Hate to see a good flower go just because it needs a little more special care." The gardener explained with the enthusiasm of a true plant lover. "Look at that, grassy land!"
The words took a moment to register. Once they did, Aziraphale stumbled to a halt, feet rooting to the ground as the texture beneath his shoes changed from asphalt to cushy green carpet. Looking down, he caught sight of the lushest, greenest of lawns—the plush grass curling around the toes of his shoes. Scanning around, his mouth went dry as he looked upon the rest of the park. The layout was familiar, but he'd only ever seen it from above. Now he was in it, among trees that seemed to tower above him, clashing with the blue of the sky and casting shadows here and there thanks to the midday sun. A butterfly fluttered past, a bright yellow with little black sports. More sunshine glistened warm and tender on his cheeks.
It was terrible.
"Oh....shite." When was the last time Aziraphale had been outside? It had to be two years now. Two years of complete isolation and utterly miserable loneliness. He was outside.
God, he was outside!
Somebody whimpered beside him. No. That was him whimpering. He was panicking. Pathetic. So pathetic, but he couldn't help it. "I-I, oh dear, I can't breathe." Aziraphale gasped for breath as his throat constricted down to the size of a straw. He could feel the blood leaving his head and traveling somewhere into the pit of his stomach, a horrid dread of a thing balling up and building into crushing terror. It pushed aside any logical thought, drowning him in a well of growing panic until he felt faint.
"Fuck! Hey, are you okay?" Aziraphale heard the sound of the mystery man's voice, like a distant echo that he has no will or ability to address. Numbly he drops his camera and books. They fall to the grass, alone and forgotten.
"Okay, okay, you poor thing. Come on. Let's just...go over here." Aziraphale stumbled but again found himself blundering to follow after that gentle pull of the other man's hand. The grass dragged along his feet, his arm crutch sunk into the damp ground with every step, making it difficult to find some sort of footing. When he was bodily tugged and pulled to set down, he collapsed with a gushing gasp of air and a sobbing whimper. Releasing the handgrip to his crutch, he desperately wiggled his forearm out of the brace, wrapping his hands around himself in a bid to self-soothe the growing anxiety.
The woman on his headphones was discussing breathing methods to calm anxiety. How ironic.
He didn't need the hands that settled into his shoulders but accepted their guidance well enough. Pressure was placed on his back, urged him forward. Willingly he pressed his face to his knees, hunching over and dragging in great gasping breathes of air that were much too fast and panicked. It hurt, this new position, straining on scar tissue and barely functional bones. He ignored it. Breathing was more critical at the moment. For something so basic, he was failing miserably at it. Between his legs, he could see the bright grass again, so he squinched his blue eyes closed against that distraction.
'Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose, count of 4. Hold your breath to a count of 7. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of 8.' His audiobook urged. Aziraphale struggled to follow, whooshing where he wasn't supposed to and breathing in through his mouth at all the wrong moments.
"That's a lad. Try to breathe deep breaths, pumpkin. Here. I have an idea." Hands sought out his phone, wiggling into his trouser pocket with very little permission on his part. "You look like a classical man. How about something to block it out, huh?"
Aziraphale couldn't even honor him with a response. His body had taken to rocking in place all on its own, the wooden bench creaking under his weight as he worked himself into a full-fledged panic attack. "Right, I'm gonna do my best not to touch you, but if you'll hold out your finger?" With the barest of touches, Aziraphale found his finger pressed to his phone, unlocking it. A moment later, unfamiliar new-age classical music kicked in, a soft, quiet background noise that increased slowly by decibels.
It drowned out the sound of the city better than the self-help book he'd been listening to, overwhelming it with orchestral strings and horns. Aziraphale breathed in a great sigh of relief, breath hitching in his throat. It took a few moments, but eventually, he managed to bring his panic down to a manageable level. All the while, the gardener stayed with him. Rubbing a hand up and down his back, murmuring reassurance and warning of incoming things that might further Aziraphale's panic. Muttering things like: "Look at this doofus on his unicycle, think he's gonna fall over?" and "We've got ourselves a would-be pianist. Ignore the clashing keys. What you're listening to is much better."
Followed by, "Think this driver's gonna honk." The words pierced by a loud honking sound that had Aziraphale jolting visibly. "Yup, guessed it. I'm not saying I'm flipping the cunt off right now, but who am I kidding. I'm definitely throwing him the big one!"
Aziraphale laughed, the sound coming out strained and surprised at the sheer audacity of the gardener fellow. He'd never laughed during a panic attack. The man was utterly ridiculous. He was usually treated like a defective ninny when things like this happened. His reactions were outside the norm entirely.
"Listen to that! Methinks the Bird has a naughty side. Should I flip someone else off for you? I ain't promising I'll stick around for the fight, but these fingers are itching to start something." He was ridiculous, a marvelous idiot in blue jeans. "Are you feeling okay in there?" Aziraphale couldn't bring himself to speak, just force himself to give a nod that wobbled and was utter trash. Of course, he wasn't okay, he was a mess, and he was in the presence of someone way outside his league.
"Wanna coat tent? I can make ye the best coat tent right now. It'll be fantastic."
Aziraphale sniffled, wiping fear sweat from his brow. "What does that even mean?" He questioned, turning his head towards the sound of the other man's voice.
"Probably better to show you actually, mad skills, is what this involves. Alright, three... two-one!" The wuffle of fabric in the air was quickly followed by the sun blocking out from his vision, and Aziraphale forced his eyes open, only to find himself surrounded by black leather. It dangled on his head and pressed down his curls. The scent of fertile soil, grass clippings, and lingering cologne enveloped him. Dark and warm on his nose. He inhaled through mucus and tears to catch more of it, drawn to the smell just as he was to everything else about the man.
The gardener was under the fabric as well, looking at him for all the world like he was the most important thing in the whole park. His odd yellow eyes flashed in the dim light. That, combined with the drawling thrum of the cello on his ears, was deeply calming. Taking in a ragged breath, Aziraphale felt daring enough to keep that eye contact, a small grateful smile twisting his lips. The other man smiled back, white teeth glinting; he looked predatory, like a shark, if sharks were sexy and had great hair.
"Hey there, handsome, getting it under control?"
Aziraphale blushed at the endearment, a furious heating of his cheeks taking over. He jerked his eyes away, twisting his fingers on his lap and laughing shakily. He was a gummy mess of anxiety and agoraphobia. The likelihood of his being remotely attractive at the moment was close to nill. "Let's try not to be ridiculous." Aziraphale squeaked.
"Nothing about this is ridiculous, 100% human, is what we have going on here. Who doesn't need to hide under a jacket tent some days? Feels nice too. The sun is a bloody disaster today." He explained, his expressive brows accenting his every word.
"Don't you have work to do?" Aziraphale questioned, not daring to look out past the darkened leather world he currently resided in. If he did, he knew whatever composure he had was going to fall apart.
"Nah, plants don't have a time frame; they are good like that." The gardener explained, scratching black painted nails against his chin. The paint was chipped, the once nice manicure verging on needing a redo. "So, you have a thing for Nightingales, huh?"
"Mmm, y-yes." His voice felt weak, a whisper compared to usual, but the gardener had been listening. Such consideration could not be ignored. "Most birds, really." Sniff. "But Nightingales are a lovely little paradox. T-they are so plain but have the song of an angel. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard."
"Ah, is that what I've been hearing, an Angel?" There was a wicked gleam to those yellow eyes, and Aziraphale was observant enough to hear capital A in that, oh did he. It left him with the feeling that the other man wasn't talking about birds at all.
"You are...ridiculous," Aziraphale admitted, not intending to say the words aloud.
The grin that lit up those features was worth the slip-up. "Is that so?" He seemed pleased, and he leaned in closer, bringing with him a renewed hit of cologne.
"Aziraphale!" The sound of his name interrupted them and had him jerking in his seat. Breaking eye contact with those hypnotic orbs, Aziraphale turned his head towards the sound of his name, letting out a very masculine squeak of distress. He recognized that voice, and she would not be pleased with him.
"Anathema? Crap!" He felt his eyes widen and winced visibly, clutching his coat tent desperately to the top of his head in an attempt to hide under it. The gardener's concerned face disappeared behind its drapes, and he had a moment of thinking he'd dodged the witchy woman.
"Aziraphale, I know that's you under there. What are you doing outside, darling?!" She questioned, her voice drawing near. The disappointed tone was heavy and reprimanding, and he groaned, that trembling feeling kicking into overdrive in his chest.
"Miss, calm down. Can't you see your frightening the poor thing?" The gardener chimed in, like a true gentleman, bless his soul.
"And who are you?" Anathema snorted, and Aziraphale could just sense her upturned nose.
"I-Well...I'm the gardener." How horrible, Anathema was chasing the poor man away, and all he was trying to do was be kind.
"Oh! Well, that explains a lot. I'm his Case Manager, so I can take over from here." Anathema announced, making it sound like he was some problem child to foist off. Aziraphale's heart sank somewhere into the pit of his belly, and he shrunk in on himself, somewhere between mortified and completely, horribly ashamed. If he had the ability to slouch he would just slump down into a puddle on the grass and hope to be stomped into oblivion.
"Hey, now! I don't think that's something you should talk about to strangers?!" The gardener questioned, sounding offended. That was nice, at least he wasn't the only one feeling upset at Anathema's words. This had all gone horribly wrong. There was no saving whatever this interaction had been, so he had best retreat and treat his wounds. Aziraphale scrambled for his walking stick, fingers trembling as he got hold of the arm strap and slipped his hand through it.
"And what would you-"
"It's alright, dear," Aziraphale hurriedly interrupted Anathema. He wasn't sure who he was reassuring but thought it best to intervene before they dug themselves into a real tiff, "Really, I should probably go. I-I shouldn't have tried this today, messed it right up." Aziraphale straightened, knowing he looked utterly absurd under the leather of the gardener's coat, but unable to make himself care. Best to flee, before he embarrassed himself further.
"Anathema?" He held out a hand, grateful when he felt the crook of her arm settle into his. "If you don't mind dragging me on back to the flat, I'll do my best not to break down." He whispered in her general direction, his voice low and distressed.
He couldn't bring himself to say goodbye to the kind man with the yellow eyes. Instead, whispering a soft thank you under his breath and allowing Anathema to lead the way. If he'd been able to see past the coat, he would have noticed the gardener fellow a few steps behind. He didn't, though. It took only three steps for the rest of the world to creep back in, overwhelming even the gentle harvest of string instruments playing in his ears. He gasped at the sound of a vehicle's brakes shrieking, jerking closer to Anathema on instinct. She patted his hand, but the touch was awkward and discomforting compared to the gardeners. If she was talking, he couldn't hear it past his rapidly increasing heartbeat and the feel of his shame rushing in his head.
Stupid-stupid man, can't do anything right. He drew in ragged breaths, in 4, out 8, hold 10. No, that was wrong, always so wrong. When the frustrated tears started to fall, he was so grateful for the jacket covering his face. The blustering gust of in house conditioning announced their entrance back onto the flat complex, and his crutch took to the marble with gusto, leaving behind little prints of mud in its wake. Sniffing, he managed to make his way onto the lift with help from Anathema, only bumping into one person in the process.
The doors closed with a ding. He shut his eyes, finally alone.
"I'm sorry, Aziraphale-" That sent his anger blazing.
"Ezra!" He corrected, jaw clenched around the word. "I've told you not to call me that a dozen times! Only he called me Aziraphale." Aziraphale snatched the jacket from his head, turning his blue, tear-stained eyes to glower at the younger women. It hurt to hear his name spoken aloud. No matter how he referred to himself, he much preferred the name Ezra when others spoke to him. It was trivial, but it was something he had reminded Anathema of dozens of times!
She had the decency to look embarrassed, "I'm sorry, Ezra. I shouldn't have said that out loud in front of a stranger. He was right." Anathema was undeterred, but she nodded her head in understanding, her eyes wide and concerned as she took in his teary complexion.
"Yes, well....best if we put it behind us." Aziraphale sniffed, wiping at his cheeks and glancing around the lift. This he was familiar with, and while his anxiety was still on full force, he thought he could handle the rest of his walk to his apartment. "I trust you can get yourself back home from here?"
"Of course, maybe I'll stop by tomorrow?" Anathema's expression was hurt, but he didn't think he could handle reassuring the woman at this point. Their friendship would need to be mended on a different date. He nodded his head in agreement with her question. The lift slowed, and he braced himself on the rail before moving towards the opening doors. Turning to the left and heading away without either of them saying their goodbyes. Her eyes pierced the space between his shoulder blades, but he managed to stay tall, limping only just a little.
When the door to his apartment closed behind him, he groaned in relief, not bothering to remove his shoes before heading right to the medicine cabinet above the microwave.
He didn't dwell on the jacket as he laid it on the countertop. Instead, pulling down his tray of medication and digging through it with shaking hands. Three tablets-anxiety, sleep, and pain. That's what he needed. The aura obscuring his vision made it difficult to read the labels, but through much blinking and cursing, he managed. Twisting the caps, he dropped the various tablets into his palm. They tasted bitter on his tongue, but he succeeded in getting them down with a suck at the open faucet of his sink, too anxious to even think of holding on to a glass.
Dragging himself to his room, he settled on to the bed, the springs barely giving under his light weight. Rubbing a hand over his face, he tried to take in a couple of deep breaths. Soft classical music still sang through his ears, eagerly reminding him of gentle hands and rich cologne. Reaching to take off his shoes, his movements were hampered by pain and awkward as he attempted to lift his legs enough to untie them. The laces didn't come close to his fingers, so he gave up in favor of toeing each one off. It was more work to drag himself up into the nest of pillows he had made for himself, but he managed to settle in among the body cradling fluff, dragging in grateful gasps of air. The medicine was kicking in already, the combination of the three medications pushing back the anxiety and worry into welcoming numbness and fatigue. This he could handle, this he is used to.
The bedroom was warm and comforting in its familiarity. He had decorated it with hoards of books and pictures of his favorite birds. They were pictures from before. From a time when he had willingly ventured into wildernesses unknown just to find a rare feathered friend. He'd had someone at his side back then, but that'd been years ago.
Dragging a pillow to his chest, he looked over the mementos of time past, a flicker of golden yellow caught his eye, and he lingered on the fluffy form of a Yellowhammer bird, a tiny little thing with bright plumage unusual for the British isles. He looked at it and thought instead of warm yellow eyes and a kind touch. How odd, for such a short encounter to make such a deep impression.
If he has himself a small cry over the missed opportunities, no one is around to scold him, and he keeps it to a maximum of fifteen minutes, a good healthy cry, nothing too dramatic. By then, the antidepressant had hit, and he let's exhaustion overcome him, dragging him down into heavy, fitful slumber.