Aziraphale looked up at the spooky old castle in Drumul Carului. The cobblestoned road that led to it wound through dark woods to a deep ravine, at which point it became a bridge that led to a perfectly massive double door. Turrets. The infernal thing had turrets. It was perfect. For once, Gabriel would be pleased.
Aziraphale ordered the driver to hurry. The light wouldn’t last much longer, and Aziraphale simply had to get some shots of the place before the sun slipped behind the Piatra Craiului mountains. He’d brought his brand new Nagel Vollenda pocket folding camera, and he knew this breathtaking vista was worthy of being its first subject.
Unfortunately, the closer they drew to the castle, the slower the car seemed to go.
“Is there a problem, my good man?” Aziraphale asked in broken Romanian.
The driver wouldn’t look at him, let alone answer. He just stared up at the stone edifice before them, looking even paler than when Aziraphale had mentioned his destination in the first place.
When they pulled up into the bailey, Aziraphale got out, but the driver did not.
“I say, are you coming?” Aziraphale asked, but the man shook his head tersely and wouldn’t look at the door. He mumbled a word that sounded like “blestemat” but damned if Aziraphale knew what that meant.
So Aziraphale ambled up to the giant oak door. No bell or any such modern thing, but there was a huge old-fashioned knocker. He raised the heavy, black metal ring, and let it fall. He could faintly hear the echo on the other side reverberating through what must be an enormous empty hall. He clutched his camera close as his excitement rose again. It was meant to be, he was certain. Now, if he could only convince the owner.
Aziraphale waited breathlessly for several long moments. Then he waited longer, breath returning. Then he waited longer, and his excitement began to wane. Until finally, he’d had enough of waiting, and he turned away to abandon the attempt—for that day, at least—when the hinges creaked behind him.
“Vă pot ajuta?” said a voice from the shadows just inside the door.
“Oh! Dear me,” Aziraphale said hurrying forward. “I do hope you are the owner of this lovely piece of property, I-I mean, castle. It’s quite…it’s quite something, isn’t it?”
The man, who was in his early forties perhaps, had hair like a fire tornado with a hint of curl at the tips. He wore dark glasses, despite the shadowy interior, and his skin was paler than the driver’s. He was tall, carrying himself with an easy grace that said he was a man used to power. But none of that bothered Aziraphale. Aziraphale had to put up with being bossed around by Gabriel Gray on a daily basis. He was used to working with the…eccentricities of powerful men.
Aziraphale stuck his hand out towards the stranger, saying, “Beg pardon, let me start again. My name is Aziraphale Ange, and I am the location scout for Gray Productions.” When the man didn’t shake his hand, he took out his business card instead, handing it to the man, who took it without a word. It finally occurred to Aziraphale to wonder if he spoke English. He then chided himself for insensitivity. This was no way to ingratiate himself before asking for an enormous favor.
“Terribly sorry, er, do you…speak…?”
“French,” the man said. His voice was dark and seductive with just a hint of gravel underneath. If Aziraphale had been impressed before, he was downright intimidated now. No wonder the driver was nervous.
“You speak…French?” Aziraphale said, confused. Wouldn’t the man have pronounced it français if he were actually French?
“Enough to recognize that your last name means ‘angel,’” he said in perfectly fluent, if accented, English. He lifted Aziraphale’s business card as if to illustrate his point.
“Oh, yes. Yes, it does. My family immigrated from France in 1793, though we kept the name. Obviously.”
Aziraphale worried his bottom lip. He felt wrong-footed, as if he’d shown up to a dinner party wearing the wrong clothes. This man was nothing like he’d expected. He’d imagined an older, wealthy couple perhaps, or a marmish museum docent. The man in front of him was anything but marmish.
“I’m sorry, are you the actual owner of this house, or should I be speaking with someone else?”
The man sighed heavily. “I am her caretaker. I’m not sure anyone is capable of owning her.”
“Oh. I see,” Aziraphale said, though he didn’t really. “What is your name, if I may ask?”
“Crowley,” the man said, finally extending his hand. “Antonin J. Crowley.”
Aziraphale took his hand, ignoring the icy hot sensation that zinged up his arm at the touch. “Oh, thank you. I…well, as I mentioned, I am a location scout for a production company, and it’s my job to-to find filming locations.”
Crowley folded his arms and leaned against the door, as if settling in for Aziraphale’s practiced speech. It only threw Aziraphale off a little. Lord, but the man was beautiful. It was quite distracting.
“We’re producing an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and we are looking for a location that befits the gothic milieu and tenor. Your premises are just too perfect to pass up. You simply must consider letting us film here.”
“How do you know? You’ve never set foot in it.”
“I can just feel it. It has a majesty to it that would not only translate well to film, but would enhance the experience of the production overall. I would not set it anyplace else, if I could help it.”
“That is very flattering, I suppose. But what’s in it for me?”
“Money, of course. There is a healthy budget set aside for developing a project of this scope. I’m sure we can negotiate a price.”
“I’m sure we can,” Crowley said smoothly with a wry twist of lip. “But your money is of no use to me.”
“Of no use? What do you mean? Everyone needs money.”
“And yet, I do not.” He let the answer hang awkwardly in the air between them.
“Then…what do you want for the privilege of filming our production here?” Aziraphale asked finally, his cheeks blazing. He’d never had someone turn down money before. He’d had to talk people down from insisting on outrageous sums of money, but never this.
“How long will the filming take?”
“Oh, about three weeks or so?”
“Well, then it is not a small thing, is it? Would rather put me out, I should think. Three weeks? That is a long time.”
“Honestly, most productions could take several months to film on location. We would do the majority of our scenes on set back in Los Angeles. We would mainly need your space for outdoor shots and perhaps a few hallway…” Aziraphale stopped himself, noticing Crowley’s widening smile. He cleared his throat before continuing. “I would do everything in my power to make it as painless for you as possible. We would of course stay in the village between—”
“That will not be necessary. You are welcome to stay here during filming, if I agree. I merely pointed out that I will need something of equal value in trade for such an imposition.”
“Yes, of course. I would be happy to offer you anything you ask within reason.”
“Have dinner with me.”
“Have dinner with me. Tonight.”
“You want to have dinner with me? That’s it?”
Crowley straightened from where he’d leaned against the interior of the doorway, still smiling. Still dangerously gorgeous. Aziraphale began to be the slightest bit afraid. Not of Crowley, but of his own highly inappropriate reaction to him.
“Is that request ‘within reason’?” Crowley asked with a softly mocking tone.
“Y-yes, I suppose. I just can’t imagine—”
Crowley interrupted him with a gesture. “Send your driver on his way. One of my servants will take you back to your hotel afterward.”
Aziraphale fidgeted while he silently panicked at the realization that Crowley meant right then, that he wanted Aziraphale to stay for several more hours at least.
“Alright,” Aziraphale said finally, baffled at the turn of events, and went to talk to his driver. The man barely heard his explanation before he ducked his head back into his car and took off at a decent clip down the circle drive and out through the portcullis.
Aziraphale returned to where Crowley waited for him, his camera clutched in his grip. If he was lucky, he could sneak off and take a few interior snaps for Gabriel. The producer could not possibly find fault with Aziraphale’s choice of location this time. It was exactly as described in the source material. They’d never be able to replicate a set as authentic as this place. And if all the proprietor wanted was dinners with people, then perhaps they could afford to shoot the whole picture here.
Crowley gestured him inside. The second Aziraphale crossed the threshold, an intense shiver shook his spine from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. It was as if he’d been unexpectedly drenched with a bucket of water, except he was perfectly dry. He wondered at the sensation for a split second before his attention was arrested by the grandeur of the castle hall.
“Oh, good lord,” he breathed. “It’s glorious.” He spun in a small circle, taking in the sloping, gothic arches, the decorative masonry, the point-tipped, leaded-glass windows, the sweeping staircase circling the perimeter in a spiral of regal splendor.
“Do you like it?” Crowley asked.
“Like it?” Aziraphale said, still reeling from the awe. He left off basking in the resplendence of the hall to turn his gaze to his host. “Dear boy, the word ‘beautiful’ does not do it justice. I’m truly at a loss for words. How extraordinary that you live here and get to experience it every day.”
Crowley stared at him unspeaking, smile completely gone. He wasn’t frowning exactly either, but Aziraphale felt as if he’d said something amiss, and he regretted it at once. Perhaps he’d been a touch too extravagant in his praise? He hadn’t considered that it might make Crowley uncomfortable. Perhaps he ought to apologize.
He opened his mouth to do just that, when Crowley seemed to shake himself out of some altered state and turned on his heel to lead Aziraphale to an adjoining room.
Deciding that discretion was indeed the better part of valor, Aziraphale followed obediently and without comment.
If anything, the dining room Crowley led him to was even more impressive than the hall. Art works from some master painter graced the walls, luring Aziraphale in with their pastoral vistas and romantic portraiture. Crowley wandered off while Aziraphale wasn’t paying attention. When he noticed, he worried that maybe he’d offended him after all before becoming unequivocally enamored of the next painting. They simply took his breath away. And he couldn’t help but wonder, with as many as there were, all clearly brought to life by the same brush, if Crowley himself weren’t the master artist.
It was obvious now that Aziraphale had wandered into a trap set just for him. Gorgeous castle, gorgeous man, gorgeous art. The only thing that could net him more thoroughly was…
“I hope you are hungry,” Crowley said from the other side of the room.
Aziraphale turned at the words to see three servants transferring several expensive looking silver serving dishes from a delicate glass cart to the massive stone table in the center of the room. Twenty or so black, high-backed chairs punctuated the table, blocking most of Aziraphale’s view. But nothing blocked the smell wafting from the platters. Aziraphale’s mouth instantly watered, and he drifted as if on a cloud to the chair next to Crowley’s.
Crowley tilted his head, indicating one of the many narrow windows framing the burnt orange and sienna sky. “It was already time for supper. The food was nearly ready when you arrived anyway. No point in letting it go to waste.”
Aziraphale slid into his chair, which, while heavy and made of thick, black wood, was comfortably padded with a red velvet cushion riveted in place to the center of the seat.
“This is… This is extraordinary. This food, this ambience,” Aziraphale gestured to the lit candelabras interspersed throughout the room, “this…charming company,” he said and blushed. “I feel as if I owe you even more for this meal than I would for use of your castle.”
Crowley smiled, lifting a goblet of red wine to his lips and taking a sip before responding.
“I am glad you approve,” he said finally.
Servants placed silver chargers on the table, one each in front of Crowley and Aziraphale, followed by wide shallow bowls of ebony and gold. Silverware with the most peculiar texture and shape, though clearly of a quality that Aziraphale wasn’t used to. This whole experience was so far removed from the glitzy grime of Los Angeles that he might as well be on the moon.
The scent wafting from the soup course soon made him forget his wonder over the silverware. At a nod from his host, Aziraphale sipped a spoonful of the most amazing bouillabaisse he’d ever tasted, and he included his mother’s in that assessment. He couldn’t have helped the embarrassing noises of appreciation he made if he’d wanted to.
He set down his spoon and dabbed at his lips with the cloth napkin that had somehow appeared in his lap. The servants were quite adept at avoiding notice.
“My goodness. I believe the ability to speak cogently has quite left me. Your chef’s preparations are exquisite. I’m not sure I deserve such princely treatment.”
Crowley scoffed, waving off his comment. “It’s just soup, angel.”
The endearment speared straight through Aziraphale, leaving him tingling and lightheaded. Had Crowley just…had he just called him…? Then he remembered their earlier conversation wherein Crowley had noted that Aziraphale’s last name meant “angel” in French. That must be what he meant. What else could it possibly be?
Aziraphale hid his astonishment by eating more soup, which now tasted bland in comparison to the idea he’d entertained, even for a moment, that Crowley had meant something else. What had gotten into him? He was here on business. And even if he weren’t, there was not a chance in Hell that a Grecian God like Crowley could possibly find portly, aging Aziraphale attractive.
Gabriel had certainly made it clear that Aziraphale’s physique was the reason their relationship hadn’t worked in the end. Aziraphale had grown too…comfortable…for Gabriel’s tastes. So he’d ended their romantic relationship, he’d said, in favor of preserving their working one. And if Gabriel was a marble Adonis, beautiful and cold, Crowley was the living embodiment of that which the ancient sculptors had sought—in vain, apparently—to replicate. If Gabriel was too good for Aziraphale, then Crowley was further beyond his reach than the stars in the sky.
“You’ve gone quiet, angel. I hope the soup still pleases you.”
“Yes, of course. I apologize, dear boy, I was simply woolgathering. Your castle here is… Honestly, it takes my breath away. Are you sure you don’t want something else in exchange for our use of it? As I said, I will do everything in my power to make it seem that we are not even here, but I do not feel it’s appropriate to trespass on your good will for the price of simply keeping you company for an evening.”
“You underestimate the worth of your company,” Crowley said simply. “Try your wine.”
Aziraphale complied, making more embarrassing noises as the velvety texture slid over his pallet, plucking notes of dry plum, wild berry and spice. It was the most heavenly wine Aziraphale had ever drunk, and he was starting to wonder if he’d wandered into a dream. Were that the case, he prayed he’d never wake again.
“We have our own vines, of course,” Crowley said. “Our vintner is seventh generation.”
“Good lord,” Aziraphale said, dabbing at his lips again, just as the duck course was served. “I really must think of an entertaining anecdote or three to make this extravagance worth all your trouble.”
“No trouble. I’m curious about you.”
“I’ve never met an American.”
“Oh, I’m not American. I was born in England. I traveled with my…er, with Gabriel, that is…to California. The moving pictures are not yet taken off in England, you know. Most of the advances in film are happening in New York and California.”
“Your accent is difficult to place.”
“Yes, Gabriel wanted me to sound more American, especially when working. He believes my English accent is a detraction during negotiation.”
“That’s preposterous,” Crowley said, frowning severely. “While you are in my presence, I invite you to use your original accent, or any way of speaking you prefer.”
“That is very kind of you, to be sure,” Aziraphale said, allowing his Americanized vowels to relax into their native cadence.
“Do you like working for this man?”
Aziraphale suppressed a laugh. “‘Like’ is perhaps an overstatement. But the work is satisfying. I love spending time in beautiful settings. Though, I must say that you have quite ruined me, my dear.”
“How could any other setting compare to this?”
“I suppose you have a point,” Crowley said, with an amused grin and perhaps a touch of pride. “Tell me more about yourself, angel.”
“What would you like to know?” Aziraphale asked, his heart sparkling like champagne bubbles at the pet name.
“Start at the beginning, and tell me everything.”
So Aziraphale obliged him. He told Crowley everything he could think of about his childhood, up to and including the time his Uncle Merton had spooked the Lawsons’ pig, and they’d ended up chasing the sow through the town square on market day. Crowley’s laugh at the ridiculous story lodged itself directly beneath Aziraphale’s breastbone and would not budge. So Aziraphale spent the remainder of the dinner doing his level best to incite the laugh again. He knew he was in trouble, but with every bite of delicious food and sip of intoxicating wine and bubble of Crowley’s laughter, Aziraphale cared less and less about extricating his teetering heart.
“It must be getting late,” he said finally, as he sipped his after-dessert tea. “But I confess, I have never in my life passed such a delightful dinner with such a consummate host. I hope I have not overstayed my welcome.”
“Not at all. You have fulfilled your end of the bargain admirably.”
Aziraphale blushed into his cup, dropping his gaze as he sipped. Then he had a thought that the wine had made him just brazen enough to voice.
“I say, would you mind, dear boy, if I made use of the facilities?”
“I do not mind,” Crowley said, rising to his feet to accompany Aziraphale to the edge of the dining room. “Down the hall, third door on your left.”
“Thank you,” Aziraphale said, still blushing, camera in his grip. “Won’t be a moment.”
When he got to the indicated door, he poked his head in and found a toilet equally as lavish as all the rooms before it. But he ducked out as quickly and made his way round the staircase to another doorway that entered a marvelous ballroom, perfect for the masquerade scene where Dracula first seduces his intended victim.
Aziraphale took out his camera and snapped multiple shots from various angles, each of them as impressive as the last. He peeked into the dining room again as he passed to see Crowley reading a letter of some sort while he finished his coffee. And though the domestic sight melted Aziraphale in ways he didn’t care to admit, he nipped off again to tip-toe up the staircase to the second floor. The hall leading in either direction was covered in art, clearly from the same artist, and as Aziraphale looked closely at the loopy A that served as a signature, he felt even more sure that Antonin Crowley was indeed the painter responsible.
Despite the beauty of the works, Aziraphale avoided photographing the art itself, focusing solely on the architecture, especially where he thought Gabriel would be impressed.
“Find something of interest?”
Crowley’s voice floating out of the shadows behind him made Aziraphale jump nearly a mile out of his skin.
“Goodness gracious me!” Aziraphale said whirling to look sheepishly up at Crowley. “Oh, dear, I beg your pardon. I was startled half out of my wits.”
“I did mean the third door on the left on the first floor.”
“Oh-oh, yes. Of course. I do apologize. I became quite distracted by the lovely surroundings.”
“Did you get enough pictures?” Crowley asked as he led Aziraphale back to the staircase and started down again.
“I-I suppose so. I will of course be using them solely in relation to my work as location scout. I would never presume—”
“Relax, angel. I’m not upset.”
Aziraphale let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding as they reached the main floor. “Oh, thank goodness. I had worried I’d ruined everything by snooping—I mean, scouting. Yes, scouting. I should have asked first.”
“It’s fine. When is your crew scheduled to arrive?” Crowley asked.
“When might the castle be available? We do not wish to step on your toes, as it were, if you have prior engagements.”
“No, no engagement to speak of, prior or otherwise. You may begin tomorrow, if you wish.”
“That is quite generous of you, truly. But it will take several weeks to complete preparations. We’ve only just hired the actors. There’s rehearsals and costuming and more besides. We have to order film. Would the first of October be convenient?”
Crowley’s smile faded at the news. “But that’s two months away. Is it not preferable for you to rehearse in the space in which you’d be filming? And there are tailors in the village. Film can be shipped here, can it not?”
“I—I cannot presume to impose on you for such a long period of time. It would double the length of our stay, at least.”
“I have all the time in the world, angel, I promise you. And I find myself increasingly amused by the idea. I must insist that you return as soon as possible.”
Aziraphale stared at Crowley, gobsmacked for perhaps the hundredth time that day. “Alright. I will speak with Gabriel at once.”
Then whatever mischievous spirit had possessed him to wander off on his own before took hold of Aziraphale again, whispering another impudent idea into his ear.
“I have taken the liberty of asking my man Ligur to drive you back to your lodgings,” Crowley said. “I hope that is an acceptable arrangement.”
“Yes, thank you. I appreciate your putting yourself out for me.”
“It’s no trouble, angel,” he said with an almost wistful expression.
Then screwing up his courage, Aziraphale asked, “Crowley, would you mind if I took your picture as well? Not to show the others, but for me. To remember this incredible evening before the chaos descends.”
Good lord, if he blushed any harder, he was certain to burst into flame.
Crowley’s expression, however, turned from wistful to aching and then to sardonic in such a flash that Aziraphale wasn’t sure he’d interpreted his expressions correctly.
“I heard a rumor once that if you allow someone to take your photograph, they have captured your soul forever.”
“Oh, tosh. That’s silly. It’s only a picture.”
“Call me superstitious,” Crowley said as he opened the heavy oak door with barely an ounce of exertion. “Good night, angel. See you next week.”
“Next week?” Aziraphale squeaked. “I don’t know that we can prepare that—”
“One week, Aziraphale,” he insisted, ushering Aziraphale out into the night. “Don’t disappoint me.”
“I…will do my best,” Aziraphale said, but the door had already closed.