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Acts of Service

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Aziraphale sat down heavily on the empty bench seat on the Underground. He placed his shopping bag on the floor between his feet and exhaled. Leaning back on the bench, he shut his eyes lightly. He was exhausted. Since coming back to London he felt he had scarcely a moment to breath. Perhaps though, that was for the best. He didn’t want to give himself a chance to start cultivating regrets.

He had loved his quiet life in Cornwall. His congregation had been dedicated, but dwindling over the past several years. If Aziraphale hadn’t initiated the move, he was certain it would have come along anyway, and the church would have been shuttered. But it wasn’t the smaller number of congregants sitting in the pews before him Sunday after Sunday that had spurred him west. It was God.

God had spoken to him, as He had done twenty-five years ago when Aziraphale was young, when he had gotten the call to ministry. God had spurred him forward into this life, and there was nothing else he could have done. He could only be God’s servant. And so it had been three months ago, locking the front doors to St. Peter’s Church on a late Sunday afternoon in July, sun warming his back, that God had spoken to him and explained what he must do.

If Aziraphale had to explain it, he would say that it wasn’t like listening to someone speak, it was just knowing, but the knowing hadn’t come from him. The knowing was divine. Aziraphale knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had to leave the comfort of his small village, his neighbours he had known for nearly two decades, the streets he could have navigated blind, and go to London. He was to serve those who needed a kind hand, word, heart the most.

Aziraphale loved his loyal pensioners who showed up week after week, who brought him their baking and extended endless invitations to their tables, but they were not who needed him. They would be fine, and eventually they would merge with another church in the next village over, or if things got particularly dire, in town.

“Do not think,” Aziraphale had started, looking out at his congregation, “- do not think that I do not love you.” His voice had faltered as he caught 90-year-old Mary Dayton in the front pew with tears in her eyes. “But it is time for me to serve elsewhere.”

And here he was. On the underground with a bag full of cleaning supplies for his new home, St. Sebastian’s in Newham. The church had ostensibly had a vicar before Aziraphale but you couldn’t tell by the amount of filth that lined every surface of the sanctuary. The bishop had stressed to Aziraphale that St. Sebastian’s was not a “regular Sunday service and bake sale kind of church” but instead one that focused on serving the local community, whether or not they called the church home. This meant hot meals for the homeless, out of the cold programs in the colder months, and actively seeking out opportunities to do more.

Rocking gently as the train hurtled down the track, Aziraphale sighed. In his most secret heart, he was not excited for this assignment. He had become very accustomed to what he had. Life in Cornwall had not been challenging, nor was it uncomfortable. But it wasn’t like he had a choice. God had sent him here, and he was merely a servant.

Aziraphale opened his eyes and was startled to see a man across from him where moments before there had been no one. He hadn’t heard him sit down or pass him, he had been so lost in his own thoughts.

Aziraphale’s breath hitched slightly as his eyes drifted over the man’s form. Everything about the man was sleek. Dressed all in black, with sharp elegant angles. He was tall, and reaching out his arms across the back of the bench, took up space with an ease that Aziraphale was unfamiliar with. His hair was a dramatic shade of red, and strangely, for being on the train after ten at night, he was wearing sunglasses. There was something about the man that made Aziraphale’s heart rise towards his throat. He was struck by a strong sense of familiarity. Did he know this man?

The man’s face turned slightly towards Aziraphale and he gasped shallowly and looked at his lap, rubbing his palms down his thighs. He hoped the man hadn’t caught him openly staring. He gripped the fabric of his trousers and released it. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the man was known to him. Releasing the fabric, he swallowed, and allowed his eyes to drift up to the man’s face.

The problem with sunglasses was you could never actually tell where someone was looking, or if they were looking anywhere at all. The man’s face was turned towards Aziraphale, but he made no move that indicated he noticed the other man glancing his way. Aziraphale allowed his eyes to drift again, taking in the man’s long legs in dark jeans that stretched out into the aisle. His feet, in stylish black laced boots, were mere inches from Aziraphale’s feet in well-worn brown oxfords. Aziraphale’s eyes traveled up the man’s body and lingered on his chest, the lines and ridges visible under his tight black T-shirt. It was then the man cleared his throat.

The man’s face, which had moments ago seemed to not register anything happening around him, now displayed a thin smirk. He had seen.

Aziraphale felt his face flush violently as his gaze immediately returned to his lap. How deeply, deeply embarrassing. It had been so long since he had allowed himself to look at someone like that. To catalogue their details with such intense focus, with reverence. The pleasure of it, to look upon another person without expectation, he had forgotten how it felt after so long in a small and familiar place. He had lost himself however briefly, and now this man though he was a lech, or a pervert.

It was then the train announced his stop. Aziraphale grabbed the shopping bag between his feet and muttered “Thank God” to himself as he stood. It did feel like divine intervention, to get off the train then. As he stood by the door waiting to exit, he could feel the man’s eyes burning holes in his back. He daren’t look and check. At a minimum, he was sure his face was still red with mortification. The train slid to a stop, the doors opened, and Aziraphale nearly launched himself through them, walking as quickly as he could without seeming conspicuous. He also doubted he could have ran as far and fast as he wanted if he tried. Best to avoid adding insult to injury.

As he reached the station exit he exhaled. He was not far from the church now. He would drop the supplies off, walk to his spartan flat, and wallow in humiliation for the remainder of the evening. As he opened the door to leave he instinctively checked behind him. Aziraphale always held the door for others.

Taking long strides across the station foyer, was the man from the train. Still smiling slightly, but not acknowledging Aziraphale further. Feeling almost lightheaded, Aziraphale stared at the ground, but dutifully held the door. It almost felt as if it were the least he could do, after his episode.

The man in dark glasses passed by him, mere centimetres between them. Aziraphale could swear he felt heat coming from the man, emanating from his very core. Or maybe he was just blushing again. Exiting and pulling out a package of cigarettes from his jacket, the man turned his head back to Aziraphale. “Cheers, mate.” He said, placing a cigarette between his lips and lighting it in a smooth single motion.

Aziraphale made a noise in response. Was it a hum? No, more than that. A voiced, but wordless acknowledgment, that was higher pitched than he’d have preferred. Good Lord, he was pathetic.

He watched the man’s back as he walked away, mercifully in the opposite direction of St. Sebastian’s. The light from his cigarette occasionally flickered into view, and then the man turned a corner and out of sight.

Letting out the breath he had been holding for what felt like several minutes, Aziraphale started his walk to the church. It was dark now, and autumn had settled over the city. He had always loved the autumn, for if nothing else it meant Advent would soon be upon him, and that was his favourite time of year. (He knew it was supposed to be Easter, as every vicar claimed theirs was, but he liked Advent and he knew God was fine with it.) But autumn in the city was not autumn in Cornwall. He felt unsettled, in part he knew due to the gawking he had just been caught out on, but he just wasn’t sure how he felt about the city yet. He had grown up on the city’s outskirts, but that felt so long ago now. Everything in London was new and unfamiliar and busy, and so, so loud. It was a city full of distractions, some more significant than others, and he knew that meant his job here would be more difficult than ever.

Aziraphale turned down a side street and saw the small, urban church of St. Sebastian’s emerge ahead of him, cast yellow by the dirty streetlights. The sidewalks were deserted. He felt himself unclench. The church wasn’t much, but it was a church. He would stay for awhile, he decided. He would pray, meditate. Try to ground himself. Try to commune with God. He would never see that man again. Not in a city this size. He just needed to refocus, and to move on.

He climbed the few stairs to the front door the church and pulled his keys from his jacket pocket. He stared at his key chain for a moment. When did he get so many keys? He used to have one for his home, and one for St. Peter’s. Now he had two for his flat, one for the front door to St. Sebastian’s, the back door, his office, the petty cash box, and the list went on. Had he any foresight whatso-ever he would have marked them in some way because in this dark light it was imposs-

“What’s in the bag?”

Aziraphale froze at the unfamiliar voice. It was aggressive, testy. He closed his hands around his keys and turned, to see two men at the bottom of the steps. Not men, really. Aziraphale nearly laughed. They were boys. Fifteen years old, maybe. Fourteen was more likely. They had beanies pulled over their ears, and glared at him in a way he understood was supposed to be intimidating. He smiled at the boys, hoping they would see him as reassuring, friendly, and held the bag out. “Good evening, boys. What’s in the bag is washing up liquid, household cleaners. Nothing terribly exciting, I’m afraid.”

The boys seemed momentarily lost for words. The taller one in the front looked back at his shorter companion, who shrugged, unsure. The tall one looked back to Aziraphale. Aziraphale watched the boy think, and as he watched the boy smiled menacingly and puffed out his chest. “What about your fucking wallet? What’s in that?”

“Nothing for you.” Aziraphale replied, his smile dropping. This was not the way he had wanted this to play out. “You should go home.”

The boy was bold now and he reached his hand into his pocket, producing a small knife. He encroached on Aziraphale, backing him against the large wooden church doors. Aziraphale had lost his sensible train of thought now. He didn’t truly think the boy would hurt him, would he? He was so young. This close Aziraphale could really see how young he really was. “Don’t…” he started. Don’t what? He couldn’t think of how to finish the sentence.

“Just give me your wallet, you fat fu-”

“Excuse me? Hi! Hello!” Both Aziraphale and the boy snapped their attention to the male voice down the street. A man stood about fifty feet down, silhouetted by the porch light behind him.

“Fuck off!” Yelled the boy clutching the knife.

“Yeah, fuck off!” Yelled the second one, but with no bravado backing it.

The man approached, slowly, almost leisurely, as if Aziraphale and the boy were having a casual chat and the boy hadn’t just clearly threatened to cut him for the scant forty quid in his wallet. “No, I don’t think I will, thanks.” The man moved into the light of the nearest streetlamp, and it was only then that Aziraphale realized it was the man from the train. He leapt from feeling relieved, to deeply anxious, to more embarrassed than he could remember feeling in recent memory.

“All right lads. How about you leave this gentleman be and you run along home to your mum. Probably wondering where you are. Don’t you think?” There was a sinister underpinning to the man’s voice, even though he had delivered the suggestion smiling. He still wore the dark glasses from before. Aziraphale couldn’t see his eyes, yet he knew somehow they were hard.

The boys looked to one another, suddenly scared. Suddenly very scared. The tall boy turned and walked down the stairs, and the two of them together began to back away. “Yeah. All right. Sorry.”

The man walked closer to Aziraphale and the church as the boys slowly backed away. “Don’t say sorry to me.” He gestured with his head towards Aziraphale, the intention unspoken.

The tall boy turned his face to Aziraphale, his eyes wide with anxiety. “We’re sorry.”

“That’s okay.” Aziraphale said automatically. And then he thought. “I forgive you.”

The red haired man next to him scoffed, but not meanly. “Better man than I would be,” he said almost to himself, looking at the ground in front of him. He then returned his gaze to the boys. “Get out of here. Go home. Don’t come here again.”

Nodding, the boys turned and launched into a full out run. Aziraphale and the man watched in silence as the boys cantered away, and eventually turned a corner. They stood for a moment after the boys disappeared in quiet, not looking to one another.

“I’m… I don’t… thank you.” Aziraphale couldn’t figure out what to say, how to say it. He held his arm in front of him and opened his hand. He had been clutching the keys all this time. The imprint of the teeth left jagged red ridges across the soft flesh at the base of his thumb.

“Don’t worry about it.” The man turned towards him now, and Aziraphale forced himself to look up into the man’s face. As he did, the man smiled broadly, displaying white, straight teeth. “You must be new to the neighbourhood.” He voice was kind, but there was something layered beneath is. Was it teasing? If it was, it wasn’t the kind meant to injure.

Aziraphale gave a self-deprecating chuckle. He shoved his keys back into his pocket and ran his hand through his short, white blond hair. “Is it very obvious?” He found it hard to look at the man for more than a second at a time. He had now embarrassed himself twice over, and he could barely stand it. He didn’t think the man had saved his life per se, but he had gotten him out of a sticky situation. He had to be grateful, but what he wanted at this exact moment, was to sink into the concrete and to never be seen by any living person ever again.

“Yeah,” the man replied, smiling and scrunching up his nose in a way Aziraphale would describe as cute. “Pretty much. Always have to keep your eyes open here at night. Not a really bad spot, but you’ve got to keep your head out of the clouds.”

“Duly noted,” Aziraphale replied quickly, hoping the faint light from the street lamp wasn’t revealing his flushed cheeks. “You should go. I’m sorry to have-”

The man extended his hand and interrupted Aziraphale’s stuttering. “Crowley.”

Aziraphale rubbed his hand on the leg of his trousers quickly, hoping it wasn’t sweaty, and took Crowley’s hand. He wasn’t sure he had succeeded, but Crowley’s hand was dry and cool, not hot like Aziraphale had anticipated. His long fingers wrapped around Aziraphale’s hand tightly, and he was briefly lost for words.

“And you are?” Crowley asked, the smile never leaving his face. Aziraphale shook his head and looked up from their clasped hands.

“Oh, dear, I am sorry. Aziraphale. I’m Aziraphale. I’m the new reverend, here.” He gestured toward the church with his free hand, still holding the bag of cleaning supplies.

“A man of God. You do have a bit of an aura, don’t you? Noticed it back on the train.”

With that, Aziraphale wanted to cover his face in shame. Why couldn’t he have just pretended that that hadn’t happened. Instead, he released his hand from Crowley’s grip and attempted to bid farewell. “I am so very thankful, Mr. Crowley, for your intervention. I’ll be fine now. Good night.” He turned towards the door and grasped for the keys in his pocket, finally getting a hold of them. He could feel Crowley watching him just feet away, as he found the one for the church door and slid it into the lock.

Before he could open it, Crowley’s hand came from behind him and held the door closed. “How about we do this?” He started, his tone matter of fact, and not one that welcomed argument. “You do whatever you need to do in there, and I’ll wait for you and get you home once you’ve finished.”

Aziraphale swallowed, casting his eyes to the side to look at the man’s wrist, taut against the door, slim and pale and dusted with hair where it emerged from his black leather jacket. He couldn’t think of an excuse, and inside himself, in the most honest part, he knew he didn’t want to find one. “Yes, that’s fine.”

Crowley pulled back from the door wordlessly, and Aziraphale opened it and placed the bag gingerly just inside. He would deal with it in the morning. As he closed the door and turned the lock, Crowley spoke from behind him. “That’s all?”

“Yes,” he replied, pulling his key out. “That’s all.” He turned to face Crowley who looked up at him expectantly. “Oh, um, I’m not far from here. Just down on Walton Road.”

Crowley extended his arm in the direction of the street. “Lead the way,” he offered, eyebrows raised high above his dark glasses.

The two men walked in silence. Aziraphale wracked his mind for things to say, but nothing emerged that wouldn’t serve to humiliate him further. He was hyper aware of the taller man next to him, who moved through space with such enviable ease. Crowley appeared so very comfortable in the dark, unbothered. Aziraphale snuck glances in Crowley’s direction, then coughed in embarrassment the final time when Crowley was looking straight back.

As they reached the terrace of the squat, brick row house that contained his flat, Aziraphle couldn’t determine if he was disappointed or relieved. Perhaps it was both. He turned to Crowley looking at the man’s feet, the stylish boots he had first observed on the train. “Thank you, Mr. Crowley. You have been exceptionally kind.”

“Anything for the good Reverend.” Crowley responded.

Aziraphale hazarded a look up, and Crowley gazed down on him, smiling so slightly it was barely there. Goodness, he was tall. Maybe six inches taller than Aziraphale.

“Do you have a phone?”

Aziraphale shook his head so slightly, as to discard his previous thoughts. “Pardon me?”

“A mobile. A phone.”

Aziraphale reached into his back pocket to produce an older model smartphone. Immediately, before Aziraphale could react or protest, Crowley had taken the phone, and started opening apps.

“You don’t lock your phone! Confident man.”

Aziraphale stood dumbfounded, hand outstretched and unmoving from the position it had been when Crowley took his mobile. Before he could speak, Crowley had put the phone back in his hand. The screen showed a new contact.

“You shouldn’t have to worry anymore. About the church. Getting around. But if something comes up and you need -” He paused, looking right into Aziraphale’s eyes, “- assistance. You can text me. Call me. Whatever.”

Aziraphale’s fingers closed around the phone. “I should hope that won’t be necessary. But thank you again.” He didn’t know if he could bear to see Crowley again. The offer felt genuine, but he didn’t want to be seen as needing this virtual stranger. This incredibly handsome stranger who made him hot in the pit of his stomach.

“Right. Goodnight then.” Crowley waited a beat, then turned on his heel and walked back in the direction of the High Street.

Aziraphale made to turn for his door when he realized he had one question he needed answered. “Mr. Crowley,” he called just loud enough to maybe be heard, not wanting to disturb the neighbours. Crowley turned immediately, almost as if he had expected Aziraphale to call for him. “Did you know those boys? They seemed to know you.” They had known him, and they had been scared.

“Yeah, they knew me. I didn’t know them.” He smiled down towards the ground and looked up, over the sunglasses. If Aziraphale had been closer, he might have caught the colour of his eyes. “Sleep tight, Aziraphale.”

Crowley turned again and continued his walk into the night. Aziraphale stared after him, feeling as if that response had muddied things rather than provided a modicum of clarity. He sighed, and wrapped his arms around himself, suddenly aware of the crisp chill in the air. He turned towards the door to the house and let himself in. He needed to pray. He needed to speak to God. He needed to cast Crowley out of his mind if he ever wanted to sleep. He thanked the heavens that in all likelihood he would never see Crowley again.

He saw Crowley next the following week.