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I think Beckett said it best

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It is not like in the movies, the dull pain throbbing during rainstorms and long, boring queues. It's the worst thing, that he can't rely on television to tell him how the world is. Anthony had stopped believing in God when he was eight because the Golden Girls were there for him more often than Jesus was. But then he found out that not the movies, nor the songs were sincere with him, and that hurt him more than everything else.

Sorrow found me when I was young, he openly sings at 11 pm in Central Manchester, speeding tickets be damned. He hadn't worked all his teenage's summers for his father to drive as if he were a frightened granny. As he sings, Anthony tries to understand what happened today, even if he knows he will fail.

He went to work this morning. He doesn't have a particularly fancy job, but it's been more than ten years since his first day (almost fourteen, good heavens) at Honeycomb Cafe, and he has seen it grow rather nicely. He couldn't sit through his GSCEs and didn't want to work in his father's garage; just a couple months before I find something better, he had thought that day, fastening the new apron behind his back. He hasn't yet found anything else - but just because his favourite client, a five years old brat with lungs of steel, would be very upset about it.

Focus. Focus. He needs to focus. Needs to have something to tell his therapist next week.

He went to work this morning. He was feeling well, almost happy: he chatted Mrs Appleseed up, who had a sour smile and he managed to make her laugh. He likes that, making people laugh. He had done the impression of the resident Grinch, Mr Witherspoon, whom Mrs Appleseed fancies quite a lot, and she shushed him, telling him he's not a very nice young man while stifling her own giggles, then proceeded to buy two salted caramel lattes, Anthony's speciality, for both Mr Wetherspoon and herself. He remained grouchy and unbearable, but the gift had made him smile a little.

Fuck!”, shouts Anthony as Brian Molko sings, with his blue lipstick voice, It's in the water baby, it's in the pills that bring you down, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Why can't he focus just for a moment? That's why Dr Waters hates him, he can't stay on topic for more than thirty seconds, that's why he doesn't have any friends, he doesn't listen to them, not ever, as self-involved as he always has been. Fucking focus goddammit!

He went to work. He was happy: thirty days since the last cut, there was cold milk for his cereals because he hadn't again forgotten to put it in the fridge, he had woken up early enough for an Adventure Time episode. At work, there was enough chaos to keep him busy, the constant buzzing of the clients replacing the one in his head. As he whistled an Italian song he didn't really understand and didn't really remember where and when he had learned (was it at John's? At Leonard's, maybe, he studies Italian and was rather good at it, and does a good impression of Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita) he had grabbed Bee, shouting E cambieremo il mondo, ma cambierà davvero!, twirling them around and earning a round of applause from the patrons. Maybe he was just a little bit happier than he initially thought. But it had been such a good day until -

It's so fucking stupid. Anthony, as he speeds after the Museum of Science (there's a lovely exhibition about fabric, and he means to go see it, but he always forgets), cannot really grasp the magnitude of his own stupidity, childishness and uselessness and what a fucking idiot he is, what a fucking waste of space he is.

At 5 after 4, a couple ordered two espressos and two chocolate chip cookies. He had made them himself and told them, as the day was so great. They had smiled at him, kind and pretty, and he had offered them a slice of carrot cake. "I'll take everything to the table, darlings," he smiled, happy to make them happy. That second-hand happiness is his favourite, because it means he is worth something. But then, at their table, he had seen the books, the pens - the chaotic background of a couple hours of studying. "We concentrate better with some noise, isn't that strange?", the young man had awkwardly smiled, as if it was something so ridiculous it needed an explanation he didn't exactly have. Anthony had glanced quickly at the books: something to do with Law. One of them had the purple pencil case of the University of Manchester. They were going to do something great, something good and perfect with their life. They were younger than Anthony, at least ten years his juniors. He hates them even now, smug little cunts who concealed so well their disgust for a 34 years old barista who obviously couldn't do anything better with his life because he's a stupid fucking little loser with a hole in his little silly brain, (a gaping hole with frayed edges hungry for more more more of all of this, whatever the fuck this is) good just for making coffee and sucking cock.

You are one of God's mistakes, you crying, tragic waste of skin, Brian Molko's voice paints all over Anthony's shivering soul as he hits the steering wheel several times with his open palms, ignoring the sting. His vision is too clouded to drive any more, so he abruptly stops as a tiny seething child in his head shrieks Why? a million times per second. He gets off the car, the freezing air cutting his wet face.

It's not like in the movies as it doesn't stop to hurt, the cuts don't really stop to throb, they just pretend to - they mask themselves as old scars starting to fade, the clever bastards, and then suddenly they flood open. He would start to shiver in the middle of the produce section, not knowing exactly why. Why? Why? Why? It doesn't make any sense. He doesn't make any sense.

It's too late in the night. He doesn't know what time it is, but it's too late. Time has always been more of a sensation to him, a grave feeling in his gut that had always made everything too late for him.

Anthony looks up and doesn't see any stars, (why can't he? Why should a city need so much artificial light?) and it pisses him off so much he starts screaming. The echo around him vibrates like the heavy bells of an abandoned church. He's melt in the middle of the road, he's the carcass of a cat tossed out of his home after another broken plate. His sobs are dry and hurt his throat. 

"Everyone's different, darling, nothing's normal and nothing's strange," he had smiled through the ache; the acting clubs were paying out, and he had returned behind the counter. He claimed his smoke break, choosing weed over tobacco. He didn't really care about what Bee had said about it last time Anthony had come into work smelling like an undercover police operation - plus, it was just weed. He doesn't lose control with weed, he just needed to soften the world's furious beating that was burning his fingertips.

Anthony loves learning and, in his own way, he loves studying. He has always wanted to become astrophysics. But someone had cracked his brain open like a rotten egg when he was born and all he could fathom now are YouTube playlists, he learns with voices and sounds and colours like a preschooler messing with wooden blocks, and he's just a school dropout who takes pride in frivolous, unimportant things, unlike these two future lawyers that of course still talk with their family and have tons of friends who love them and not just some fuck buddies -

He screams so loudly there's almost an audible pop that frees the tears before jailed behind his eyes. Nothing happened; he happened.

It's too late to call his psychiatrist (plus, he loathes Anthony from the bottom of his too kind heart), Bee's phone is broken, he wouldn't trust Leonard with his least favourite mug. He misses his mum, the bruise that once was his heart sizzling at the childhood memories of her back scratches, the soothing lullabies she sang even when he was a teenager (Cette chanson douce je veux la chanter pour toi, car ta peau est douce comme la mousse des bois, he would sometimes murmurs as self-soothing when the tide threatens to suffocate him), her dry sarcasm that's the only thing he has inherited from her. His finger hover over her contact photo: he wants to hear her, but she wouldn't pick the phone up, not since she had caught him with another boy. ("Please, mum, I'll change, I'll be better, I'll never see another man again, I'll be good, I'll marry a woman, a nice girl you'll like, please, mum, please, I love you, please please please please," he had begged her, voice scraped to its oozing sap, but she wouldn't listen, and one week later he was at that boy's house.)

His lungs hurt, his throat is burning, bloody and mouldy. There are no stars in the Manchester sky and all his poor life choices unfold under a merciless, pale moon with no daughters around her to bring him any solace.

He doesn't trust himself with the car any more, so he has to walk if he doesn't want to succumb to the concrete floor. He feels like the last survivor of a race doomed from the start. He can't think of an apt soundtrack, a piercing silence between his ears and nothing more.

The air, in December, knows no friends and cuts his face, his neck exposed because he's too stupid to even remember a fucking scarf.

Why today? He was having a good day. 

( "It's not that simple, Anthony," Dr Waters says, eyes weary and opaque; he's tired, he hates his job, he hates Anthony most of all. "There's not a simple answer, it doesn't go from A to B." But how can he believe it? He needs answers, reasons, explanations. He can't be always be told It is what it is. That is not fucking enough for his burning hunger, he needs a simple answer, a clean pair of scissors to cut hid mind's strings with, something with no shadows, no shade.)

He walks in a wasteland, not a trace of mercy around him. He loves Manchester so much he sometimes thinks she was made for him, a matronly grandmother waiting for him at the train station, but he keeps looking around and nothing is familiar, nothing waves at him.

Suddenly, as if God has built a lighthouse, a wall every time he has batted his eyelashes, he sees a pub on the left – a strange one at that: no crowd outside, no shouting about a football match – he hates football, as a proper faggot like him ought to do – no loud music coming from inside. He blinks a couple of times, just to be sure that is not a hallucination. The sign reads “The comet”, and it pinches Anthony's heartstrings. He, now, feels quite hungry and hopes the pub would serve him a tuna melt, or maybe a BLT. He doesn't remember the last time he ate. He often forgoes eating, a mixture of forgetting to and deliberately not wanting to. Today he has forgotten it, and his stomach rumbles, protests against his dictatorship. He drags his tired body towards the pub as if it is the only thing that's keeping him sane. He gingerly pushes the door open that feels too heavy for him.

“Oh, hello there.”

There is no one inside, save for the owner who has greeted him with a voice so kind it moves him deeply, cuts into him steel-clear.

“You can't see the stars,” he blurts out, looking at the bland middle-aged man behind the counter who's drinking something he can't see properly through the tears.

“I'm sorry, dear, I didn't quite catch it,” the owner says way, way too kindly, as if Anthony is still human, as if he still deserves respect. (he usually hates kind people, both because they remind him what real kindness is and that he has not one drop of it, and because he desperately wants them to be kind to him, and when they are he refuses them, because they smell like danger.)

“You can't see the stars in Manchester,” he says again, a little louder but as rugged as before, and he can hear how pathetic he is and it makes him cry harder which makes him even more pathetic if that's possible.

“Oh – oh, dear boy, come here...”

The owner goes around the counter, and there's a gentle arm around Anthony's shoulders, and he's ashamed to notice how strong, sturdy it is. What a little tart he is, what an eager cocksucker. His mum was right, as always.

Something sharp is nestled between his vocal cords. The owner helps him sitting at the counter, and Anthony flops over the chair like he's boneless. He can't keep his head up, so he leans over the counter, folding his arms and resting his head over them. If he closes his eyes, he can't see the stars he's so fond of, not even this way. His eyes sting, but at least they're drying.

“How about a peppermint tea, dear? It always helps me after a bad day.”

It irritates him for a moment – what's a bad day for him? What kind of troubles can he have that a fucking tea is able to fix them? What a fucking privileged southern pansy. He doesn't say anything, though, he doesn't protest. He just nods, for he's tired to be angry. It's time consuming. The owner smiles, taking out a delicate teacup, dainty lavender flowers all around the rim. He has a very sweet smile. Anthony has always been weak for a sweet smile. The sudden need of being fucked by this man is sour and scorching, black and grave on his tongue – he needs to beg and bleed all over the floor until he's reminded that he can be of use, that he, too, has a purpose in life. Anthony is fairly sure he wouldn't ask him to stop; he seems the gentle type of man capable to sense his partner's limits. (even if he wasn't, Anthony wouldn't ask him to stop. He wouldn't deserve it.)

“Now, we have just enough time to exchange some social pleasantries,” the man chirps. “What's your name, dear boy?”

He has left the tea to steep; it's been long since Anthony had tea. He doesn't really drink it any more - he hasn't really ever liked it, to be honest, he just liked his mum's tea because it meant quiet time for just the two of them, away from all his siblings. (“Antoine,” she would say in her thick French accent; only he had a French nickname. “Antoine, please, come here. Whatever you're crying about, we'll figure it out together. Have your tea, mon étoile,” and then she would dry his tears and they would drink and eat the secret biscuits his mum would hide from the rest of the family.) He hopes this tea is good. Not as good, just good.

“Name's Anthony,” he says without sniffling, actually proud of himself for that. “Yours?”

“My name is Aziraphale, but everyone around here calls me Ezra, or Zira. It's easier to say.”

Anthony looks up; he's drying a glass with a towel, still smiling, as if that's his standard expression.

“Aziraphale's better,” Anthony mumbles once he's not looking at him, too self-conscious to be saying nice things with an open face. “Strange, though.”

“It's a family name.”

“Yeah.”

The silence has a cotton feel to it, rather pleasant. He can smell the ghosts of customers all around him. (he had met Peter in a pub. Sucked him off thirty minutes after, slept with him for three months. He needs to stop this, he needs to colonize his own body again, reclaim lands that have freed themselves from him. His groin speaks a code for other men to decipher, alien to him. Sex is power only when you use it for self-preservation, not self-destruction.)

“Oh, thank you. You would be the first to think that. Well, the third, actually. I rather like my name, and Lawrence liked it too.”

That triggers something in him, something he seldom says out loud. Should he say it now? Aziraphale is not going to care about it, maybe it is better to save the words.

“My original name's Raphael,” he says anyway, because his mouth is disconnected from everything else, “I mean, I was meant to be called Raphael. Mum was dead-set on that, and apparently my dad was too, but then he went to register me and changed his mind. Gave me a borrowed name – his grandfather's, something like that. So I'm Anthony Crowley. Raphael Crowley should've sounded better, even Raphael Anthony Crowley. Raphael and Anthony sound nice together. Bet my life would've been great. Nothing bad can happen to Raphael Anthony. He's too cool for bad stuff.”

And with a snap, it unfolds in front oh his heavy eyes (they're burning, he wants to whine and complain like a toddler), the improbable future he has always dreamed about, written about for years in his diaries as if it were his real life: if his parents' wedding had worked out (his mum wiser, his father gentler), if he weren't a faggot, if he weren't bullied in primary school, if he were smart enough to pass the exams for a grammar school. He sees a nice apartment, full of natural light, that he does not have to share with anyone, just out the city centre but within a walking distance from the Art Gallery. He's an artist in this life, with long hair and a prettier body, strong in the right places, syrupy around the collarbones. A different name somehow would have meant a body that can store a little body fat, even just in the thighs; it's a body that has songs in it, that remembers sweet kisses and that has never sunk on dirty floors. It's a body his mum loves still.

“Anthony is a beautiful name too. My first love's name was Anthony, so it's very dear to my heart.”

Anthony, not tired to do it again (he senses he could do it every day all day) looks up at him, and it hits him: there are people happy with what life gives them. “You gay?”

“I could be bisexual, you know,” he teases, huffing a bit for dramatic purpose. He's wiping beer glasses by hand. Who does that nowadays? He's delicate with them, as he would be with a child. “But yes, I'm a good old fashioned southern pansy.”

“That's a slur.”

“And I'm reclaiming it,” Aziraphale smiles, on the verge of cocky, still serene. Has he always been this comfortable in his skin? (how does his skin taste? Does it taste soft, with a faint citrus sound? Is it heavy on the tongue, or is it going to melt under it?)

“Here's your tea, dear.”

He had forgotten about his tea. The little steam wrinkles remind him of Van Gogh. Raphael likes Van Gogh, but his real love is Pre-Raphaelitism, at first because of the name that encapsulates his, and then because he has often found himself seized by those 'stuck between a dream and the world' faces, tragedies turned beauty, the strange delicacy of resilient sunflowers. Anthony is too stupid to finish a book; he buys a lot of second-hand hardcovers because of their weight, precise and concrete in his head, and because of their covers, always so beautiful, but they all gather dust on his bookshelves. At least they are pretty and they bring him a simple, bite-sized joy. (he tries, he really tries, because he loved reading when he was a child; but his brain wanders around the room, he reads a sentence then he thinks about an actor that would be perfect for the main lead, and 45 minutes after he's looking at snakes on Instagram.)

He sips his tea, and it's surprisingly good, doesn't taste like the stuff he sometimes buys at Aldi's, nostalgic but still penniless.

“Do you like it, Anthony?”

It sounds nice, his name, when Aziraphale says it, but it's his borderline disorder (is it still a disorder, when it owns him? When it takes more space each and every day, when it has shaped him?) talking, that thing that fills his mouth really quick when he's offered the most shapeless kindness, enough for him to fall in love. He's so empty he wants to swallow the world whole, crushes it under his canines, absorbs all its juices. That would be enough, maybe that would give him enough pause to stop him cheapen his core for every pretty-eyes-pretty-words bastard that calls him “darling pet”.

He nods to Aziraphale, sipping again, looking around. This is the nicest pub he has ever seen and he has seen more pubs that he cares to remember. Books neatly stacked in bookcases up to the ceilings (but the books don't follow any sort of order; they're not from the tallest to the shortest, nor divided by colour), chairs and sofas that look high end, clearly chosen with care. (Raphael likes the finest furniture because he's a bit of a posh cunt, but he makes up for it with the sweetest personality, so every one of his large friend groups doesn't really care about it; they laugh at him for his snobbishness, but it's more like a joke rather than an insult, because they love him dearly.) Then he looks up to see exactly when the bookcases end, and he sees it – or, more correctly, he sees them.

“There are stars in Manchester?”, he gasps, almost breathless. Pictor, Draco, Corvus, the Pleiades, Serpens (he has Serpens on the small of his back, he caress it sometimes when he needs to remember the vastness of the world, of space), Orion, Vulpecula, Pegasus, Caelum – and, oh, there are stars on his mug. “Stars!”, he cries dumbly, pointing at them, overwhelmed like a child. He lifts the mug up to show it to Aziraphale, as if he were in the dark about them. And his dainty teacup has little stars too, all around the rim. With a little chuckle, he brings out other mugs from under the counter; there are dawns fixed in ceramic and the moon phases embossed on both sides, and there are sunsets scattered with white dots. They are all so perfect they fill Anthony with a glass-clear joy.

“Indeed there are stars in Manchester, but I'm afraid I've stolen them all.”

Anthony gasps, outraged. “Not fair, Aziraphale! You can't privatise the sky, that's some Tory bullshit!” He squints. “Are you a bloody Tory? I won't hesitate to throw this mug to your head if you're a Tory.”

Aziraphale blinks a couple of times, then bursts into laughter. “Lovely to see you so passionate about politics, Anthony. No, I'm not a Tory, but it's not polite to talk about such a topic with someone you just met.”

“My mum used to say this kinda bullshit. What else should you talk about? The weather? There are just two kind of weather in England: cold and bloody cold. Not much to quibble about.”

“Oh, that's because you forgot the best one: cold with a chance of sunlight.”

“Yeah, sorry, always forget about summer. Dunno why.”

“It requires a lot of hope,” he says with a strange calm, marbled with a kind of damp sadness – but Anthony feels that that was for him.

He takes another sip of tea, which gets lovelier and lovelier, even if it's cooling down a bit. He thinks about asking Aziraphale where he had bought them just to keep his mouth busy and not ask if he can come back every day to use each cup at least ten times.

(Raphael would be a very good match; Raphael would cook him hearty meals for them in their detached house in Hale. He really likes Hale – couldn't live there, though, too much stillness for him. But Raphael would feel at home in such a darling, quiet village. It would suit him. It wouldn't suit Anthony, too vulgar and too loud.)

“You didn't buy these cups at TKMaxx, did you?”, Anthony asks, trying to de-escalate himself. Aziraphale smiles.

“No, I didn't. I commissioned them from a very sweet girl who's trying to make a living doing pottery. I fancy myself a patron of the arts, which nowadays mainly consist of browsing Etsy shops looking for penniless local young people with a lot of talent but often not the faintest idea about anything else beside it.”

Anthony quirks an eyebrow as if Aziraphale is boosting about a grandiose dream. “A patron? With the golden earnings of this place?”

He regrets it as soon as it escapes his mouth, and he looks anxiously at Aziraphale who, once again, laughs. There are wrinkles all over his sturdy, ethereal face, which lightens up every time he laughs, handsome in a delicate way. (and there's a beating heart on his sleeve; Anthony must be careful not to touch it.) He usually prefers more virile men who can annihilate him – always taller than him, larger men who can hold both his wrists in one hand as they merciless fuck into him, as he thinks Please, let it be enough for now. But Aziraphale's beauty is a quirk in its own, enchanting in a new, fresh way, as sweet and exciting as chicks of a just-discovered bird.

“You're right. The truth is that I come from money, I'm running this place just for fun, you could say. I had a bookshop before this job, where I cultivated a bit of a clique. We would eat together after closing, so when I moved to Manchester and I saw this old building, I thought Why not?,” and he gestures towards the room as to show it, and Anthony notices how supple the skin of his hand is; surely he puts a lot of money and care in his skincare routine – he hisses internally at that expression, skincare routine, it sounds so pretentious and disgustingly posh, but how can he piss on posh now that he's falling for a very posh middle-aged pub owner? (Are you falling for him? Are you falling for him? How dare you fall for him? You're falling for him just because you're alone, it's always the same with you, dirty whores like you like to fancy themselves with a heart. You don't have one, stop pretending you have, stop kidding yourself and every one around you, filthy slut.) At least he's not a bloody Tory. Can't really fault people born into wealth if they're not hoarding dragons. Is Aziraphale a hoarding dragon?

“Do you give to charity?”

People are usually taken aback by his wandering speech. Aziraphale just slightly frowns, nothing else. Doesn't groan about it. “Come again?”

“You said you come from money. Do you wash your bloody hands with a bit of donation here and there, just to sleep at night?”

“I'll have you know that I, indeed, donate both money and time to charitable causes, comrade. I also bake for my niece's primary school's charity bake sale, some very successful brownies. Is that enough?” Aziraphale says and it looks like boosting, something that usually Anthony hates but that, on him, is quite charming.

“Maybe.”

Aziraphale is good. Too good. Anthony should stay away, as he's especially good at spoiling things, like a reverse King Midas. (Raphael is not. He's a guardian of good things, which flourish under his care. One of the good ones, Raphael is.)

“I have some brownies left, if you want.”

“Oh.” His stomach grumbles. “I – I'd like one, please.”

He doesn't really have a sweet tooth, but the brownie tastes heavenly; soft and not overwhelmingly sweet and even he can taste that this is fine chocolate, not the unbranded shit he sometimes buys after work. “Wow” is the only thing he says instead.

“Thank you,” Aziraphale smiles, taking a piece for himself. “They're better fresh out of the oven with a glass of milk.”

“I don't like milk. It messes with my stomach.”

“Then it's more like you have a lactose intolerance, rather than a matter of taste.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

The brownies look good too. It's almost infuriating; he could have snapped some photos for Instagram, though, but his phone has died an hour ago. (he didn't recharge it last night because he's a dumb cunt.)

“What do you usually eat?”, he asks, surrendering to his train of thoughts. He doesn't know yet if posh food is going to be a deal-breaker, though.

“You want to know where I eat, right?”

“... yeah.”

“You're not going to like my answer, dear boy,” Aziraphale smiles, dabbing the corner of his mouth with a handkerchief. Yeah, posh food is not going to be a deal-breaker.

“So you're admitting you're a posh cunt.”

“You don't keep anything to yourself, do you?”

He technically knows that Aziraphale is just teasing – he has said it with a good-spirited chuckle, a sweet smile – and this is just a bit of banter, but somehow he feels like he has let Aziraphale down with all his insults and that he ought to stop to be so much like himself – tongue for years, that one, a foul mouth that should always be kept occupied and full. He suddenly feels small, with too much skin and too many bones and, worst of all, too many teeth, as sharp as undiscovered sea creatures'.

(Raphael has ice-cream lips, summer fields hair. Raphael has not been ever alone, bone-marrow alone, that black cape under which you fight or you die. Raphael did not think of suicide at his twelfth birthday, when everything was too bright and violent and loud and Anthony just wanted to sleep because he was so tired – his parents screaming, his siblings throwing things to each other and him, the house cat dying alone God knew where. Raphael is an only child, deeply wanted and as precious as rubies.)

“I -” his throat is dry, every letter as heavy as rocks, “yeah. Indeed. Big mouth, me.” He can't cry again (what an ugly, pitiful thing he is. Be a man, be an adult.) so he thinks he should leave, but he's pretty sure Aziraphale is the only, flimsy barrier between him and another round in the psychiatric ward. “Do you have anything good to drink?”, he asks instead, stupidly. “I can pay. Nothing too fancy, though.”

Aziraphale clicks his tongue, takes a good look at Anthony (the usual match sizzling between his index and middle finger: Please stop VS Please see me), and he learns that kindness is a hue between grey and blue. “I have some organic apricot juice from Italy. More apt for the moment, I think.”

It is strange, how Aziraphale says I think. It normally means insecurity, doubt. But when he says it there is not a hint of uncertainty, he's damn sure he's right, he just adds it for the aesthetic of his sentences, to fill a bit more of air.

“Not in the mood for juice,” Anthony sighs, although he would really like to have juice, but apricots wouldn't slow down the shame that is eating his heart, gnawing at it like moles.

“I don't think I have anything else to serve you, dear.”

He's so infuriatingly smug (the cockiness well-warmed and buttery over his lips, as not to appear patronizing) the urge of bruising it away with thorn kisses tickles Anthony under the nose. “You're going out of business very soon, then.”

“I don't think I want a business when I give poison to the sick.”

Anthony suddenly realises that Aziraphale cares about him, and the siren between his lungs wails. He knows about empathy for a stranger; compassion is easy when he can give them money, sandwiches, a chat, when it's just an exchange, so he knows what Aziraphale is doing and his body panics. Empathy's a bitch and piety is too, he needs not to be pitied, he wants not to turn into a victim again. He needs to get out, get back to his car, cry a bit more, maybe jerk off a couple of times before heading back home. (Raphael would have charmed Aziraphale. He could jerk off to the idea of them fucking. The only resemblance between them is that Raphael, too, is a bottom. Sometimes a service top, but usually men love to spoil and pamper sweet, perfect Raphael. Aziraphale would take such good care of him. It's not fair he's plagued with Anthony instead.)

“Anthony, would you like to have a chat? Or just sitting with me for a bit. I'm tired to stand up and I'd like some company at the table, if you're amenable.”

No. No. No. he does not want that. He does not -

“Yeah, sure.”

His heart is a filthy traitor, scarlet red and sulphur-yellow, that beats prayer after prayer after prayer; Please, I can't save this one alone, can someone help me?

“Can I have that apricot juice, then?”

“Sure, dear. I also have peach, apple, and pear. I like pears, do you? Would you like one?”

He shrugs because he doesn't want to look greedy; he's quite sure Aziraphale will not let him pay. He, obviously, smiles again and pour one of each in long glasses that Anthony is sure are not usually used for such childish beverages. Aziraphale gives him two and walks to one of the tables. They're going to chat and drink under a sky full of stars – and beauty and miracles and fragile hopes, honey-sticky behind his neck. This is the first nice date he has been to in a while.

(how dares he think of this as a date? Aziraphale is taking pity in him as he would do with a three-legged kitten. That's the problem with good people, they have too much stardust shining in them, they have to sprinkle a bit every day over their charity cases. Raphael is made of stardust too; Anthony is made of melted plastic and broken matchsticks.)

The chairs are plush and comfortable; Anthony just plops over the first one he sees as he did before at the counter, without asking first, because the glasses are too cold in his always-cold hands; as he blows on one, he pushes the pear juice towards Aziraphale.

(how long has he been in the pub? Months; years. He could live here; there are stars.)

“Thank you, dear.”

“Why do you call me dear?”

“You don't like it?”

“It's not that. 's just curious. My grandmother used to call me dear.”

“Oh, so it's a good thing. I'm all about nostalgia.”

Aziraphale has big, white teeth, even and straight. Anthony has strangely sharp canines. (“You need fangs,” his mum once said when he was examining them in the bathroom mirror, a little worried about how pointy they were. He pushed a thumb under them. “You always will. You're lucky you have them.” A traitorous snake, she called him before throwing him out of the house. So now he has a red-belly snake tattooed on his hips, as a warning sign to wide-eyes wanderers.)

Silence falls; Anthony bounces his legs nervously as he sips his apple juice because he hates being forced into uncertainty. Everything could happen and his monkey brain is screaming alarmed nonsense.

“I came out to my family during Christmas dinner,” Aziraphale starts, his finger tracing the brink of the glass. “I was 23 and fresh out of university. English literature, of course,” he adds for Anthony's amusement, and Anthony snorts. “I wrote my thesis about Shakespeare's alleged homosexuality and got so excited I read five hundred years worth of poetry about the love that dares not speak its name. I didn't mention Sappho because it would have been far too obvious, boring, and I have standards.”

“Of course you have.” Anthony rolls his eyes. Aziraphale, young and intact, belly full of Yorkshire puddings (he pictures him plump, pale, as delectable as cream, even though he usually doesn't like twinks, but he bets Raphael would have made a wonderful portrait of young Aziraphale, the gentle light playing through the curved lines of his sweet curls), maybe trembling a bit under the pressure of a secret about to spill and flood, like too-much-carbonated water.

“Well,” Aziraphale resumes with the slightest pout brushed over his smile, “after that, it was time I dared speak my name. I was naïve, a tad too idealistic for my own good.”

Anthony is familiar with both of those sins, and for once that knowledge makes him happy; Aziraphale and he share something.

“So I told them I was gay just after dessert. My mother was the one who took it better: he packed two suitcases for me and gave me enough money for a week in a nice hotel. She said that it was Christmas time, after all, so ultimately I chose a good day for a coming out.”

Anthony doesn't like this, families ripped apart and destroyed d by something so trivial. “Have you seen them afterwards?”, he asks, anxious, but Aziraphale shrugs in a sad way.

“I have not. My parents died three years after in a car accident, when my brother was taking them to the airport. He died within a week, but at least I was able to say goodbye, praise the Lord. Gabriel didn't hate me, it was just hard for him to understand why I was gay.”

“What is there to understand?”, Anthony hisses. “It's not something – there's no explanation, and it shouldn't be, I don't -”

“I know, dear. You're not Catholic, I take it.”

“No, I'm not, thankfully.”

“Well, it explains a lot. You see, in a Catholic world -”

“Is that different from the real world?”

“A bit, maybe. Because there everything is decided by God, and God made man and woman for a reason. So, something about me went wrong down the road, but at the same time it was an error that God made for a reason. It's hard for someone with a very rigid world view to understand, and Gabriel was no exception.”

“But did he still love you?”, Anthony asks on the verge of tears, because that is all that really matters. “Even if he didn't understand you?”

Aziraphale smiles, fondness stretched over his cheeks. “He did, dear. We saw each other once every two months for afternoon tea, each time in a different place. We loved to explore London, when we were younger, so we kept up our tradition, so to speak. He didn't every ask me about my love life, even when I asked about his. He was engaged to his childhood sweetheart, a girl about whom I still cared about. We still chat from time to time. Sometimes she would send me pictures of Gabriel; she's married now, with the two most amazing children, but something in her is still in love with that handsome devil. Oh, I was so jealous of him, growing up, of his popularity with both boys and girls. He ate much more than I but he didn't even gain a pound, never, whereas I was scolded if I asked a second slice of cake. I still feel guilty sometimes, when I eat a second candy bar.”

“I'm unable to gain weight,” Anthony grumbles as he drinks the last drops of apple juice. “I tried, when I was a kid, because everyone made fun of me because I look like a scarecrow, with an eagle beak in the middle of my face, and it's getting even more prominent as I age. 's going to eat my whole face someday.”

“Be gentle with yourself, Anthony. Words are too powerful a tool to -”

“Yeah, yeah, you were talking about a sad southern pansy story,” he deflects, because what the fuck. “You from London, right?”

“Guilty as charged. Mayfair.”

“I like Camden Town. Manchester's better though.” He now sips the apricot juice and, during a second of silence, realized he has interrupted Aziraphale countless times. “Fuck, I'm sorry, I can't even let you finish one sentence.”

“No need to be sorry, dear boy. My story is not going everywhere, I have all the time in the world to tell you.”

Can we live here? Can you stop the time in a dimension inside which I'm normal, inside which I don't need wine and come dripping down my thighs, inside which you call me dear and love and pet and kiss me goodnight even if the night never ends? I can bleed for you, I can scream and cry and I'd be happy to if you'd like. Keep me with you under the stars, please. I'll take down the moon for your eyes.

“As I said, I lived in Mayfair. We,” a little rough sound from the throat, “also rented in Mayfair.”

“Holy fuck – sorry, I did it again -”

For a brief moment (but one set in stone) Aziraphale touches his hand with warm, butter-soft fingers, and Anthony stops in his tracks, aborted apologies under his tongue. “It's all right, dear. I mean it. You don't need to apologise, and I don't want you to.”

Anthony doesn't want to be called anything else but dear from now on and he also wants Aziraphale to be the only person in the universe to pronounce it.

(“Don't put yourself in danger, Anthony, don't let your sickness fall in love on your behalf,” sighs Mark when Anthony talks about his new boyfriend – a new fuckbuddy, to be completely honest, but he's tired to say that word, so he's going to use a softer one, plus he has a good feeling about David, he's pretty it's going to last and bloom into a prettier thing. He wants pretty things, soft things, he needs them to keep on living, daisies and watermelons dancing around his lungs, and if the world isn't going to give them he's going to create them. He demands to be filled with light and lake water.

I don't love him,” he pouts, because it's true for now, “'s just a bit of fun.”

Mark doesn't believe him; he never does because he's an asshole. “I know you and I know the signals,” he says, and Anthony suddenly, bitterly hates him. “You mistake basic human decency for the love of the century because you're too hungry, but you have to protect yourself, don't let your pain sweet-talk you into a wolf's trap.”

I won't! What the fuck are you talking about?” he shrieks, veins popping all over his arms, and he's furious and he's gone and he's being fucked against a wall, David's breath against his neck, way harder than he likes – but David likes rough sex, loves that Anthony is slim and weightless because he can lift him up, dragging him everywhere. David is not soft, but he's sweet, he talks about old movies and old romances, Anthony likes to hear him speak. And rough sex never killed anyone.)

Well, Mayfair. After I inherited everything, I decided to sell it all to the last piece of furniture and I moved to Hale.” Aziraphale laughs, confusing Anthony. There's nothing funny about selling apartments.

What?”

You have Of course it's bloody Hale all over your face.”

Anthony's body heats up with embarassment. “It's not my fault you're a walking stereotype. You couldn't live anywhere but in Hale.”

And indeed I live there.”

It's too small for me. Too quiet.”

I agree. Hale doesn't look like a you place.”

And what do I look like?”

Like Manchester was born around you.”

Anthony blinks a few times like he's sure he would snap out of his dreams if he blinks enough times. This is so stupid and tender and so, so -

(danger! Danger! DANGER!)

You read too much,” Anthony rumbles again, eyes glued to his glass; he wishes for a straw, something to fiddle with and keep his hands occupied instead of scratching his palms with blunt fingernails. “Only a person that reads too much could come up with this kinda nonsense. It's not something you should say in real life.”

Aziraphale laughs again, this time a little sunnier, fuller. “I'm told this often. I'm pretty fine with this.”

Bet you were bullied a lot.”

I was,” and he's serene about it like it doesn't matter any more. How can he do that?

Why Hale, though?”

Because I haven't been there before. My family and I spent a lot of weekends around England, but never went to Hale. When I was looking for a new house, my favourite one was there, so it seemed like a sign for a new life. I don't live there any more, though.”

Why?”

There's a little pause and Anthony regrets the question.

I made a few very good friends there, some kindred spirits who had been kept far from me during my London life, one of the greatest injustice we've suffered.” He smiles; but there's a blue shadow over the soft line, something slightly sick. “I met the love of my life in Hale. I married him and he died three years after.”

Anthony's heart has been chipped two times, like an over-used teacup; once because Aziraphale's soul is not free for him to grab, and once because Aziraphale's soul is chained to a ghost that he could never outshine.

What happened?”, Anthony whispers, as if it were still a secret for the stars.

Heart attack. He had some heart problems and we were sure we were keeping them under control. But it was not the case.”

Anthony doesn't know what to say; I'm sorry doesn't cover it, is surely not enough. He just nods; Aziraphale understands, or at least it's what Anthony hopes. He doesn't look like he's bleeding still; he looks like the scar is there, beating sometimes, itching.

It took me three years before I could take my ring off. Then I had both molten together.” He fishes out something under his jumper; a comet pendant. “I had to move again, but I couldn't go back to London. My friends suggested Manchester, as many of them had already moved or were about to. Once again I sold my house, crying all the way through, and... I decided to build this pub. And an apartment over it, large enough to have a few friends over at the same time.”

Why a pub? You should live in a bookshop. You said you had one before. Manchester could use an independent bookshop that's not going to fail because the owner wipes his face with 50 quids banknotes”

They're talking, they're drinking, they're sharing. It's so comfortable. It's warm, it has a silky taste to it.

(danger! Danger! Danger!)

I had one before, in Altrincham. It would have scorched me, having one without Lawrence. And my friends and I, we love our alcohol. Besides, I'm not actively advertising my pub. It's more like a very articulate excuse for us to meet up and drink to our heart's content. Well, not just my friends from Hale. I got a bit of reputation amongst queer children,” ducklings, as his mum called him, “the more quiet ones who don't go to parades and are not out with their families. They gave me a bit of purpose, after Lawrence. I talk to them about him to remind them there's happiness in this world, there's love waiting for them, even if it was hard to believe at first.”

Fake it till you make it.”

Indeed. And here I am.”

What about Anthony?”, he asks before the silence settles again. He doesn't want silence now.

What about him?”

A ghost of me . “Your first love. You told me before.”

Ah, yes, you're right, dear. I met him at Cambridge and we lived together when I was thrown out my parents' home. It went well for a couple of years. Anthony was, and still is, a tremendously private person, but we lived in Croydon – a very quiet part of London – so he sometimes would kiss me goodbye on the doorsteps as we parted ways for the day.”

Anthony, even if he would never admit it, likes that he talks like a romance novel. It fascinates him. He also thinks that Aziraphale would craft his words very carefully, as to distance himself from the stories he shares. Anthony can't live even within a walking distance from his stories.

We cherished each other like never before in our life, we thought about adopting a cat, then a dog, then a rabbit, then a turtle, but never did. We were happy, then we were not. We parted ways, heartbroken.”

Anthony just nods, even if he's not really familiar with the topic. He knows the theory but not much else. “Are you still friends?”

No, not really, I'm afraid. Although kintsugi is a lovely form of art, not everything is meant to be glued back with gold.”

Nervousness crawls up Anthony's arms.

(DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!)

I like kintsugi, but I don't know much about art. 'm too thick for that.”

Not everyone has a clue about kintsugi, dear.”

It's not – it's just all over the internet and I waste the majority of my time scrolling through my smartphone. 's not impressive or whatever.”

Aziraphale's eyes shine warm, a lovely piercing gaze. Anthony is jealous of that past Anthony and feels sorry for himself because he had not met Aziraphale when he was young. How old is he now? He's already in his forties, maybe around 45. Anthony is going to be 35 in March. He feels older, though. Ancient, dust and mould where veins used to be.

I remember being like you. Frayed and sharp.”

Anthony frowns. This is not right. He's too close. This is not – it can't be -

Yeah, sure.”

Even rich people cry sometimes, you know. We just do it in a Jacuzzi,” Aziraphale teases and Anthony smirks, painstakingly, but he's tense, too tense. This is bad, this is bad, he's too close, too -

After Lawrence's death, I was -”

( DANGER!!! )

Why are you telling me all this?” A shrill scream, cutting through his bones, GET AWAY! GET SAFE SOMEWHERE!

Because – because, Anthony, I know that you -”

Aziraphale can see through him. He can see the castle's ruins, how many unholy knights feast around corpses, he can see the swamps, the mud, poisonous ivy rats are munching on, and he's disgusted, and he's going to -

Who the fuck are you? Who the fuck do you think you are? Telling me all these sob stories -” he's trembling, the world beats too fast, hurting his skin, “Do you enjoy it? Do you get off on showing yourself to men you don't know? Is it – that's your fetish, isn't it? Do you do it with the kids? You play the part of the sad widower -” what the fuck is he doing? The fuck is he saying? Aziraphale's eyes are big, enormous with fright and a small part of Anthony rejoices.

Anthony, you -”

I? I what? What do you know about me?” Feel my terror, you now really understand me. “Nothing! You don't even know if Anthony's my real – and, and I don't know either about yours! What kinda name's Aziraphale? Sounds so fucking made up.”

His speech is starting to speed up, slurred and smeared over his face, spit-slick. He stands up, kicking the chair that falls with a sharp cry. The stars too are falling like meteors with him as a target. He wishes for the extinction of the human race.

Anthony, please, calm down, breathe -”

Fuck off!” he shrieks as he bolts out the pub, his blood electric and plagued, green-sick and blistered. I used to be the king rings in his ears, but they took everything, but he barely understands the words, as the world is ringing around him, medieval violins and the smell of old blood. He bites his arm as he get into his car. He shouldn't drive, he's aware of that, but he will. They even stole my crown, I'm gonna track you down.

 

//

 

He deflates at some point during the night; he comes back to himself, to his itchy skin that's too dry and chapped to move comfortably. His surroundings are unfamiliar, full of toothed secrets. His heart is too big and too small. It has been a while since an episode like this, debris under his nails, under his teeth; a while since he has been this out of his mind with fear. Aziraphale was being too quick, too full of a kind of love he can't stomach, of which he could not crack the code, of which he has tried to eat the meat time and time again, but he has never been able to swallow. The kind of love he usually nibbles on is foreign to this.

It is dangerous to be seen by good people. They try to fix you but they can't, obviously, because you're rotten and flies feast on your open wounds; they can't fix you, so they hate themselves and they don't leave you, exactly, but almost, enough to make you run before they do. And run he did but, fuck , he wants to go back. A shy sob vibrates between his teeth, and he makes the mistake to let it out his mouth, and then he's crying again, because he's a fucking worm.

It's not the first he is full with that kind of need, but it is the first time it's mixed with longing and weariness, with an exhausted hope that makes his teeth ache. He can't understand, but doesn't want to, because he's sure that knowledge would leave him weeping in shame. He sets up Google Maps before he could really think about it.

 

//

 

It's 2 AM, it's cold, but Aziraphale is waiting for him outside. Well, he's just sitting, reading a book, and Anthony hopes he's waiting for him. He walks towards him, legs heavy, feet made out of concrete. It feels like crawling, like a walk of shame – but Aziraphale lifts his head up and sees him, but not before Anthony has the chance to lay his eyes on the back of his neck. He has always liked that part of men's bodies, maybe because it's fragile, it's exposed, could be their only unarmed corner. He likes planting kisses there, smiles like sugar.

I've got you cookies,” he says, because he feels sorrow rippling in the pit of his stomach. “There was a Tesco on my way here.”

I see that.”

I like them. They're chewy.”

I'm familiar with the Tesco bakery.”

They're raspberries and white chocolate.”

Thank you, it was very kind of you” and he fucking smiles, and Anthony is destroyed by that, by his acceptance.

I'm sorry,” he says, trying to hold back the miserable noises he feels creeping up his throat. “I'm so sorry.”

No need to, my dear. I understand. Lawrence had his fair share of those throughout our marriage.”

(what?)

That doesn't make it right. I am – it was – horrible. I'm sorry.”

Aziraphale looks at him. Really, really looks at him. Anthony can't stand his eyes, so he hangs his head. He needs new sneakers. (he forces himself still. He can't run again.)

Thank you for your apology. I'm sorry too, it wasn't my intention to scare you.”

No, no,” this is not right, good people don't have to apologize, never. “It's not – it has nothing to do -”

Anthony,” Aziraphale says, and Anthony stops. He wonders why he's now Anthony and not dear any more; it's unsettling, he doesn't like it. He wonders what he has to do to be dear again. “It's all right. I'm not angry, I swear. I wouldn't have waited for you if I were, would I?”

Anthony scoffs, but he's indescribably happy. He hasn't ever been as happy to be right about something. “There would be, like, a million reasons for you to do that.”

Like what?”

He shrugs. “Dunno. Maybe just waiting to see if the nutjob would've come back, like... like a squirming worm.”

Well, it wasn't my reason. I had a feeling, and I am a very sentimental old man, so I trusted it.”

Anthony shifts from foot to foot, undulating like a metronome. The air is heavy and still between them. Aziraphale doesn't clam up, though. He's still seated; he waits for something, maybe a question, maybe some poetry to explain the world.

Can I sleep here, please? In – up – in your apartment? I can sleep on the chairs in the pub, too, if you don't want me near you,” he offers last minute, to not force an answer.

Of course, dear boy, of course,” oh, he's dear again, what a joyful moment.

Aziraphale gets up; he wasn't reading a book, but a diary. Anthony hasn't the time to recognize any clues about the owner.

I don't want to be alone tonight,” he almost says, but bites it down just in time. Aziraphale invites him in with a nod. Anthony steps inside and the stars shine brighter than before. He's more cautious about how he walks as if the pavement would crack if he's not careful. Aziraphale (broad shoulders, broad back) guides them towards a door Anthony doesn't remember from before – probably because of the yellow-algae fog.

I think I have pyjamas your size,” Aziraphale says.

Just for tonight, I swear,” Anthony replies.

Aziraphale turns his head and doesn't say a word. He just smiles, and Anthony, now, has a feeling too.