Aziraphale had worked tirelessly alongside two congregants to clean every inch of the sanctuary. He couldn’t remember working that hard in recent memory. At St. Peter’s, a volunteer team had shown up week after week without his intervention, the only evidence of their work a faint lemon smell that hung in the air when he opened up the church on Sunday morning. But St. Sebastian’s was not St. Peter’s. For instance, he had never been held up by a teenager with a knife outside of St. Peter’s.
He had never had to be rescued by a tall, red-haired man whose image had since made a home in Aziraphale’s mind, either.
Aziraphale was grateful for the work, even if he had never before found solace in cleaning. Physical labour had never been his forte. He washed window after window, reaching his hand deep into the bucket of soapy water and bringing it to the stained glass. As he wiped away what felt like decades of grime, he silently prayed.
Lord, I love the house where you live,
the place where all your glory dwells.
I lead a blameless life;
deliver me and be merciful to me.
He did not, had not lead a blameless life, but he could try.
The notes and instructions from the previous reverend had been sparse and barely useful. Aziraphale had thrown them out in a pique of frustration, only keeping a list of contacts. He knew that the next Sunday, at the end of his first full week with the church he would need to not only deliver a sermon, but serve Sunday tea for the underserved. Thankfully the young, American woman who answered his call at the partner shelter offered to shoulder the burden of the tea for at least the first week. Holding the phone to his ear, Aziraphale could have wept with relief. He felt wildly out of his depth.
On Sunday morning, after the cleaning and the phone calls and the sleepless nights, he almost felt as if the earlier altercation with the boys had been exorcised. Leaving the church the previous evening after ensuring all was in place for the service, he realized it was the first time in days he hadn’t looked over his shoulder for them. There were no sinister fourteen-year-olds lurking. He wondered if Crowley’s efforts were having a lingering effect, or if it were a case of lightning not striking the same place twice. While he hadn’t looked for the boys, a very small, private part of him remained alert for Crowley, but the man hadn’t appeared, last night or any night.
Aziraphale looked in the mirror above the sink in his bathroom. The iridescent lights made him look even more pale that he actually was (a feat) and there were dark circles etched below his eyes. He turned on the tap a moment to splash his face with warm water, mindful not to wet his shirt as well. As he looked to his reflection again, his eyes were drawn to his collar. He touched it lightly, adjusting where no adjustment was needed. It would do. He would have to do.
His first sermon had gone over well, in that it hadn’t been a complete flop. There were notably fewer congregants than he expected, hoped, but a few children. There had been no children at St. Peter’s and without their absence harkened to an end. While he found children to have a sort of chaotic energy he didn’t always know how to address, he trusted that God would guide him along the right way.
The congregants were cooler too, than his St. Peter’s crowd. Not as eager to chat or spend time with one another. Sunday service was less social for them, and more of a private reflection, a meditation. He would adjust. He had to.
The free lunch had been a considerably more popular affair. Many of the attendees clearly knew each other, suggesting the lunch would be a weekly ritual. There were whole families there, as well as individuals who seemed to be carrying their whole lives on their backs. Some looked more hard done by than others but their presence meant their options were limited. The atmosphere in the room was friendly, but frenzied. Voices yelled out to be heard, minor skirmishes between attendees were mediated by social workers and those who had been there before. Aziraphle hung back, observing, not wanting to dive in until he knew for sure he would be able to tread water.
In the kitchen, the shelter workers and a bevy of volunteers moved like a well oiled machine. They were headed by a striking young woman with dark hair and glasses who knew patrons by name and where everything was in the cabinets, down to the last utensil. She had made Aziraphale completely useless, and for that he was grateful. He observed her lead with quiet focus and warmth. She was exceptional, and he’d have to tell her so.
Moving through the room as the attendees ate, Aziraphale made efforts to learn names, ask questions. He had shed his vestments following the service, and had thrown on a tan knitted sweater, though his collar remained conspicuously visible. A skinny woman wearing an oversized skiing jacket who had eaten little but had grabbed four separate cups of tea reached out and grabbed his sleeve as he passed. “I have a question for you!” She had declared, coughing a little.
Aziraphale sat on the bench beside her, his body facing out towards the aisle while she remained angled towards her plate and collection of mismatched mugs. She paused for a moment, studying him. He wondered what she would ask. A logistical question about the lunch, or maybe about the Bible, Christ’s love, forgiveness? “Do you dye your hair?” If he had been drinking something, he would have spat it out. Seeing his shock, the woman smiled, her eyes bright. She was teasing him.
“No, I don’t.” He said, laughter lifting his words. He gestured with his hand to his hair. “It did this all on its own.”
“It looks like a halo. Like an angel. I guess that’s why you’re the priest.”
Aziraphale smiled down at his lap and clasped his hands together. “That must be it.” They chatted a little while longer. The woman’s name with Dahlia and she stressed that she came every single week that tea was served. She apologized for not attending the morning service, and Aziraphale had assured her that it was perfectly all right. When he asked where she lived, Dahlia deferred, changing the subject to the local football team. Homeless, maybe. He’d try to find out later.
“I’m going to help tidy up, Dahlia my dear. But it was lovely getting to know you, and I look forward to seeing you again very soon.” Aziraphale rose and joined the volunteers gathering plates and cups, wiping surfaces. As the patron’s filed out, he heard Dahlia yell to the dark haired woman in the kitchen.
“Bye, Anathema! I’ll see you later.”
Volunteers cleaned and slowly cleared out, Anathema dismissing them and thanking them each by name. There was a presence to her that Aziraphale found deeply impressive, and just ever so slightly intimidating. There was a smoothness to her movements, a certainty to every move she made. Aziraphale watched her for a moment, then cleared his throat. “You’re really, very good at this.” It wasn’t quite what he had meant to say. It certainly didn’t encompass the ever increasing respect building in him for her, but it was a start.
She turned from her place at the sink, pulling her dripping, gloved hands out. “Thanks.” She replied. An American. The woman from the phone. Of course. She pulled off the sudsy yellow gloves and left them on the counter, then wiped her hands on her long skirt for good measure. Extending her small hand towards him, she spoke again. “You must be the new vicar.”
He reached out to take her hand, delicately boned and soft in spite of the work she had been doing. “You can call me Aziraphale, please.”
She actually snorted in response, her other hand raising to her lips in a way that Aziraphale found very charming. “Aziraphale and Anathema. Our parents had unique senses of humour.” She giggled, pushing her glasses up on her nose. She really was remarkable looking creature. Large eyes and smooth brown skin. It made him like her more that she was here in a church basement and not modeling bathing suits somewhere on the French Riviera. She wasn’t his type, of course, but he was far from immune to beauty. In truth he craved it, almost constantly, and her face served as a sight for sore eyes in a corner of the city that had seemed to him at times relentlessly drab.
Aziraphale shrugged shyly. “Yes. Quite the names. We’re quite the pair, you and I.” Anathema took back her hand, and he perceived a momentary wariness run through her. Oh, dear. She had thought… she misinterpreted… “What I mean is -” He could feel himself stumbling over his words before he had even said them. “Just the names. Nothing else. I’m not… Oh dear. I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.”
She watched him placidly make a fool of himself, then smiled. She placed a hand on his arm lightly. “No harm done.” She knew. He exhaled. He didn’t know how in the mess of words she had heard what he meant to say, that he was not a threat, that he would never put her in an uncomfortable position, that she could feel safe with him alone down in this cinder block walled, windowless basement. “Did you enjoy yourself today? I know it’s a lot. Some of our guests can seem a little unpredictable.”
“It was perfectly fine! Lovely chatting. I hope I can be of more help next time.”
Anathema moved back to the sink, slipping on the gloves and picking up where she left off with the remaining dishes. Aziraphale approached, grabbing a nearby tea towel and began to dry the dishes she had finished. “You were a great help. I find most of our guests just want someone to talk to half the time. That’s why they come. And I suspect you have some experience hearing people’s problems.”
“That I do.”
They completed the last of the dishes in a companionable silence. As he locked the outside door to the church, Aziraphale asked over his shoulder, “Would you be at all interested in joining me for dinner tonight? I’m afraid in the run up to the weekend I’ve been a bit neglectful of sundries to make myself dinner and I was going to go to the pub up the way. The Three Roses, or something to that effect.”
“I can’t.” He turned to look at her, and she seemed genuinely disappointed which he found encouraging. “Some things to finish up at the shelter. It’s gotten so busy with the weather turning.” As she spoke, she wrapped her arms around herself almost in demonstration. It had been getting unseasonably cold as of late. “But, it was really nice meeting you tonight, and I hope we can get a chance to talk some more. The last minister, reverend, whatever, he wasn’t… he wasn’t fit for it.”
“What do you mean?”
She looked up, searching for words. “He never would have sat and spoken to Dahlia like you did tonight. He mostly just wanted everyone to say Grace and then he split. I can tell you’re different, that this is what you’re supposed to be doing.”
His heart caught in his throat a bit. He hadn’t realized how much he had needed someone else’s certainty since coming here. “Anathema, dear. Thank you so very much. Your faith is so reassuring to me.”
They bade farewell and moved in opposite directions, she towards the shelter, he to the pub. Even though Anathema was not with him, it was the first time since coming to London he had not felt so relentlessly alone.
The Three Roses was warm and inviting inside, with a fire lit in a corner fireplace and several booths, the banquets lined with leather, soft from years of use. Aziraphale hadn’t been here yet, but he instantly felt like maybe this could be a place for him, besides St. Sebastian’s. That is, if the food was any good.
He ordered the Sunday roast and a glass of red wine at the bar and chose a secluded table in the corner, near to the fire. Wishing suddenly he had brought a book with him, he searched around him for a newspaper, The Times of London, preferably, but he would take a Daily Mail if things felt particularly dire, when he froze.
There, at a table on the opposite side of the pub, was Crowley, and despite the sunglasses he was still mysteriously wearing, Aziraphale knew he was staring right at him.
For a moment, neither of them moved. Aziraphale didn’t think he was breathing. Over the past week he had tried to stop his mind from creating circumstances where the two would cross paths again, with little success. He had looked at the contact number for Crowley in his phone several times, and at one point had made a move to delete it, but something held him back. And now here Crowley was in front of him in the most mundane and obvious way, at the local pub.
From his table, Crowley smiled, and drawing his legs in, he picked up his glass, rose, and walked directly over to Aziraphale. Aziraphale had to remind himself to breathe.
Crowley was in all black again. If Aziraphale hadn’t catalogued his appearance so thoroughly the first time they had met he might have made the mistake of thinking he was wearing the same thing. But it was different now. A button-up shirt instead of a soft cotton t-shirt, a suit jacket instead of the leather motorcycle jacket. Aziraphale was gawking and he didn’t want to be.
“No trouble then?” Crowley stood across the table from him, holding his pint and smiling down at Aziraphale.
“I haven’t heard from you, so my guess is you’ve kept yourself out of trouble.”
Aziraphale felt the heat rise in his face, made worse by the fact that he knew the nearby fire had nothing to do with it. “No, no. No trouble for me.” He glanced up at Crowley, feeling discomfited yet eager in his presence.
Crowley reached down and touched the back of the chair across from the reverend. “Can I join you?”
Aziraphale sat up straight, and reached out to pull in his glass of wine, making space at the table. “Please.” The response was too quick, and Crowley smirked in response, but it wasn’t unkind. He pulled out the chair and sat down. Crowley leaned his elbows on the table, arms crossed, still looking, always looking towards Aziraphale.
“Do you live around here?” Aziraphale asked, hoping it wasn’t too intrusive a question.
“No. I’ve just had some business in the area.”
“And what is it you do, Mr. Crowley?”
“Just Crowley.” He said, taking a drink. Crowley didn’t respond to Aziraphale right away, but his face gave nothing away. “I’m in security,” he finally answered, in a tone that didn’t invite interrogation.
It was then that the server approached and laid down Aziraphale’s meal. Both men leaned back to make space. As the server left them, Aziraphale studied the empty space in front of Crowley. “Have you eaten? Are you eating?” He asked, the concern in his voice more obvious than he would have preferred.
“I don’t eat much. Don’t let me keep you.”
Aziraphale glanced down on his plate, self-consciousness getting the better of him. He was not used to being the only person eating at the table, not when he wasn’t by himself. And he certainly wasn’t accustomed to someone watching him eat. He had a brisk internal debate over whether it would be more awkward to eat or not, and he landed on deciding to eat. He would take small, deliberate bites. Only to appear measured, he told himself. It had nothing to do with wanting to stretch this encounter out as long as possible.
What was it about Crowley that resonated in him? The way he looked was of course part of it. Crowley was exactly the type of man that had always caught his eye: tall, lean, sharp featured. So different from himself. But it was more than that. Crowley left Aziraphale in a state of nostalgia, a longing for something that was. He felt drawn to him, compelled. Every thought of the man, every imagined scenario left Aziraphale with a dull, deep ache. That Crowley could even possibly feel something similar was impossible to Aziraphale. He was merely a familiar face. The good reverend pitifully eating alone at the local pub. Crowley was doing him a kindness, just as he had done before.
“So what’s your story then?” Crowley asked casually, leaning back in his seat, and looking towards the door, almost as if waiting for someone. “Why set up base in sunny Newham?”
Aziraphale gave what he hoped was an annotated version of the past several months, while leaving out some details - the bit about hearing God speak directly to him, for instance. He knew the way that sort of thing put people off, non-church goers at any rate, and Crowley didn’t strike him as a church goer. “It is a very big change, but I’m looking forward to it. A new and welcome challenge.”
“Brave man, uprooting your entire life to help an ungrateful populace.”
“Not entirely ungrateful. Not in my experience.”
Crowley picked up his pint glass, realizing with a slight start that it was empty. “I’m going to get another. Can I…” As he rose he reached over and touched the rim of Aziraphale’s empty wine class, extending his offer to the man seated across from him.
Aziraphale allowed his eyes to rest momentarily on Crowley’s hand, then continued up his arm until he had reached his face. Meeting Crowley’s eyes, he nodded once. He would have another. Indulge.
He watched Crowley walk to the bar and place the empty glasses down. He spoke briefly with the bartender, and if Aziraphale wasn’t mistaken, the older woman behind the war seemed almost nervous of Crowley, not friendly and engaged as she had been when Aziraphale had ordered. Did Crowley have a reputation here? The man had approached Aziraphale’s table tonight but had barely offered any information about himself, except that he worked in “security,” and what in the world did that really mean? And why, for God’s sake did he wear those sunglasses indoors? Everything about this man was maddeningly opaque. Working with congregants, Aziraphale wasn’t a stranger to drawing information out of them, or if he were bring less generous with himself, prying. But in spite of how familiar Crowley seemed to him, he was too new. The last thing he wanted to do was scare Crowley away.
Crowley returned to the table with two full glasses, sliding the red wine over to Aziraphale. Neither man spoke immediately. Crowley turned himself towards the fireplace. The flames cast flecks of light and shadow across the defined plains of his face. For a moment, Aziraphale allowed himself to receive this image without judgement. Something settled inside of him, and when he spoke next, he did so without thinking.
"You seem very familiar to me. I can’t say why that is." As Aziraphale spoke, Crowley turned away from the fire, and Aziraphale was momentarily concerned that the brief spell had been broken, that he had crossed some invisible line. But Crowley smiled and brought his beer to his lips.
"Maybe we met in a past life. Does your lot believe in that?"
Aziraphale smiled into his wine. He was sure Crowley was poking fun, ever so slightly, but he liked it. "Not strictly speaking. No."
Crowley shrugged, taking another long sip of his beer. “A mystery then."
They had finished their drinks making small talk, discussing the football team (an unsurprisingly popular topic in these parts), the price of housing (ridiculous, so expensive), and the quality of local take-away spots (middling to poor, across the board).
When they left together, Aziraphale’s mind felt fuzzy around the edges, drunk more on light conversation with a man he found attractive than the two glasses of wine. It had been such a long time. Aziraphale had almost forgotten what it felt like.
“Well, good night, Crowley. Thank you for keeping me company.” Aziraphale could feel himself smiling, and tried to draw it back, even a little.
Crowley reached out to him, and for a moment, Aziraphale wondered if he was going to hug him. He said a swift and silent prayer that he would not, as he thought he might implode if the other man touched his body to his. Instead, to his great relief, Crowley grabbed Aziraphale’s shoulder and gave it a small, quick squeeze. He then backed up a few steps and raised his hand in farewell. “I’ll see you around.”
Aziraphale raised his hand in response, bringing it down slowly as he watched Crowley walk away. He forced himself to turn and walk back towards the direction of his flat. Under his jacket and sweater, the place where Crowley’s palm had applied pressure burned. I’ll see you around. It had sounded like a promise.