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The city never looked so bright

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Aziraphale dusts off his wool coat and straightens his bow tie. It isn’t his first time gracing such an ill-reputed place, but it still leaves him uneasy. He has a job to do, however. Heaven would understand, he’s certain.

It’s 1926 in the back of an old shop fronting as a deli while running a betting scheme in the back, and Aziraphale’s heard the devil’s at work tonight. 

The back room is more spacious than the front counter but it’s still crammed full with tables. The owners are pouring drinks without a liquor license, and everyone has crowded around a cathedral-style radio placed in one corner. They’re listening and betting on the ponies. He’s surprised to see a mix of men and women scattered throughout the hall, but least of all surprised to see Crowley amongst them. 

The demon’s sporting an emerald green flapper dress, gracing just below the knees with a low cut back. It’s a startling burst of color to the usual all black affairs. She’s sitting at a table with two women he doesn’t know, and across from them their mutual acquaintance, Reginald Walt, sits nursing a whisky.

He’s a young chap working for The Morning Post as a photographer, and he sports an accordion-style Kodak in his lap, untouched. Aziraphale follows his gaze which lingers between the three women, catching on the slim line of Crowley’s calf. The demon seems unbothered and unaware. No matter what style of dress she chooses, she’s always presented an air of untouchability, catching the eye of men and women alike without ever returning their interest.

Aziraphale sighs and straightens his posture. Here goes nothing, he thinks and approaches the table.

Reginald catches sight of him at once. “Ezra!” he shouts, drunk already. “Fancy seeing you here. You’ve never struck me as the type for these--um--establishments.”

Crowley turns to look at him, lips forming an ‘O’ of surprise before schooling into a look of indifference. There’s a scowl there that only Aziraphale can read, and it makes him feel a bit smug. Caught you, he thinks. 

“I don’t think we’ve met,” she says, extending a hand. She’s turned the rest of her body away from him though, and through her dark glasses, he can feel her withering glare. “I’m Lily.”

“A pleasure, I’m sure,” he says, kissing the back of her hand. He pulls up a chair and positions himself between her and Reginald and signals for a waiter. A plan to thwart begins to develop in his mind.

“You don’t look like the sporting type,” she says. There’s a bit of a bite to her tone colored with amusement.

Aziraphale pats his pockets for change as the waiter comes around, as affable as ever. “I’m not usually, but I couldn’t resist. I’ve heard so much about this stallion, Ready Motion. The odds are in his favor.” He gestures at the waiter. “Something strong, please. Perhaps something, er, green if you have it.” He winks. Beside him, Crowley snorts.

“Certainly, sir,” the waiter says.

“Oh! And one for the lady as well.”

Reginald scoffs into his drink. “Don’t bother, Ezra,” he says, gesturing at Crowley. “That way lies madness. Haven’t seen a man win her over yet.”

"Certainly not one so dull to bet on such a predictable horse," she says, indifferent to Reginald's remarks. She turns away from Aziraphale, though she continues. "I'm much more interested in rooting for an underdog. It'd be quite the upset if someone like Astro Machine won."

Reginald scoffs. "This is why women don't belong in betting houses. They'd lose everything on a whim. My sister's like that. She thinks the horses are pretty."

"What about you? What's in it for you?" Aziraphale asks. 

Crowley grins. It's a sly and devilish smirk. "Entertainment. It would cause such a riot, I should think if the favorite didn't win, especially if Astro Machine just so happened to cross the finish line first right at the last moment."

Aziraphale spares her a withering look as the waiter returns with their drinks, though he does feel a bit relieved. Crowley wouldn't be sharing her plans if it were a real assignment from Hell. She's out for a bit of mischief, but she's letting him know she could be swayed at the right price. 

"Such fancy women have," Reginald says. Crowley's fingers tighten around her glass. Aziraphale looks between the two, sensing these comments have been coming all night. Under the table, Reginald presses his shoe against her leg, and she pushes back from the table without sparing him a glance. 

She needs a distraction, Aziraphale thinks, from the fool at their table and from rigging the ponies. "My dear girl," he says, clinking their glasses together. "Have you tried this? It's simply divine." 

"And quite illegal." Crowley lifts the glass and studies the emerald color, a bright and shimmering green only outshined by her dress. She takes a sip and hums with appreciation, eyes closing. She looks at him with a discerning glance. She’s up to something, he knows and roping him right into it.

He feigns nonchalance with a shrug. "It's fitting for this place, isn’t it?"

Crowley titters, and if Aziraphale didn’t know the demon better, he’d think she was flirting. Beside him, Reginald shifts in disbelief. He glances between the two of them with furtive looks. Aziraphale knows what he must be thinking. How could a foppish, plain bookseller capture the attention of someone like Miss Crowley?

To her credit, Crowley takes note of Reginald's purpling face. She's oozing satisfaction as she catches Aziraphale's eyes through her glasses. All right, the look says. Let’s play a game. She brings the glass to her lips again, smelling the absinthe like fine wine, grasping it by her long, strong fingers with elegance. She looks right at their photographer friend and downs the drink in one go.

Touching Aziraphale's arm, she says, "Be an angel and order us another."

"I'll get you one, Miss Lily," Reginald says, rising from his seat. Underneath the table, Crowley snaps her fingers and the waiter rounds the corner before he can even stand upright. 

The waiter drops off two more drinks, and Aziraphale--frozen by Crowley's hand on his arm--stutters. "On my tab please," he says. "And keep them coming."

Crowley squeezes his arm, fingers tightening in the wool of his suit. It's a warning. Play it right, or don't play at all. 

They've done this before--not quite like this but a song and dance nonetheless. Aziraphale thinks of a small French cafe amidst a revolution, talking down the owners for fresh crepes and cream. There was a market in Jordan selling all sorts of produce once, and they had wandered from stall to stall bargaining for fresh dates and dried plums. Crowley had pointed out the worst of the lot, the men with secret wives, the blasphemers and the heretics, and he'd swindle them of their goods while Aziraphale rationalized to himself that they were not good people. Their fingers were stained purple from the overripe fruit, the juice dripping down their chins. In Venice, there’d been a pop-up market in the days leading up to  Carnevale selling masks. Crowley, who could sometimes be so vain, had found a dama embroidered with black silk and shimmering jewels, and they’d put on airs as very important people with connections until the vendor relented on the price. Then they’d gone off and gotten drunk before the evening festivities even began and wound up missing the whole thing. Aziraphale wonders whatever happened to that old Carnevale mask, a treasure amongst a sea of partygoers.  

He downs his next glass of absinthe like a shot and bolsters himself before draping an arm over Crowley’s shoulders. He hopes he looks relaxed, but his fingers are clammy and damp, and she gives him a sideways glance. With aplomb, she rests a hand on the inside of his knee. Reginald isn’t her only target tonight, Aziraphale thinks, not anymore, but he’s in for a penny, in for a pound. He signals for more liquor.

Reginald’s face contorts into a scowl, oozing with envy. “I’ll be damned,” he says, muttering under his breath.

You will be , Aziraphale thinks. He grips Crowley’s shoulder a little tighter. He leans into her to whisper in her ear, careful to make it look flirtatious. “This isn’t what I had in mind those centuries ago when we came to the Agreement,” he says. “I don’t enjoy leading a man to his damnation.”

Crowley smiles but behind her glasses, she rolls her eyes. To the other patrons at the table, it looks as though they’re sharing some intimate moment. “It’s this or I cause a full out brawl amongst the gamblers tonight. I’m bored. Besides, we’re not making him do anything. If he wasn’t drooling over me, it’d be some young unsuspecting girl instead.” 

Aziraphale makes a pained face. “There isn’t enough alcohol in the world for me to deal with this.”

“We’ll see about that.”

They fast become the bartender’s favorite patrons. The absinthe makes Crowley turn to liquid, her arms gesturing in wild arcs, her smile wide and loose. She’s a comma tucked against his side, at once grounding them both while addressing the rest of the table, playing the ever enigmatic socialite. Aziraphale is molten inside, his eyelids heavy and his hands and feet leaden. Every word and movement he makes drips like molasses. He at once feels every point of contact yet also like he’s floating from the ceiling looking down. Beside him, Reginald’s become a little louder, a bit drunker, and ruder, and Aziraphale can’t tell which deadly sin is winning more, the lust or envy. Crowley’s playing it up now, giving Aziraphale cow eyes even through her glasses just to watch the photographer tie himself up into further knots of jealousy.

Aziraphale, too drunk to protest, lets it happen. Coveting is an ugly look on the otherwise congenial fellow. Crowley has that effect on people, he thinks, no matter that lust has never been the demon’s temptation of choice.

The evening comes to an end when Crowley stands to use the loo and instead tips over into Aziraphale’s arms. He’s incapable of doing much more than be a cushion to her fall, hands rising in slow motion to grab onto her narrow, pencil-thin waist. “I need to sober up,” she says, looking at her legs like they belong to someone else. 

“Not here,” he slurs. “They’ll see.”

“It’s a m--moo--it’s a moot point anyway. I can’t remember how.”

Aziraphale frowns, looking over Crowley’s bare shoulder at his empty tumbler. He concentrates for a moment, squinting hard, but he too can’t sober up. “It’s the--um--green fairy, I think. The absinthe. Terribly potent stuff, I’m afraid.” 

“You talk too much,” she says and rights herself. 

Reginald, although very drunk, has not been dipping into the absinthe all night. He stands with her, wobbling just a bit. “Do you need a ride?” he asks. He goes to steady her, a hand gracing just a bit too low on the small of her back.

She steps on his foot, clumsy with drink, and the sharp point digs into the toe of his shoe. “I have a ride, thank you.”

Aziraphale frowns, sprawled across his chair. Terror rises in him unbidden when he thinks of the Bentley, a rather recent purchase of Crowley’s. He’d shown up at the bookshop and offered to take him to lunch, and for the first time, Aziraphale had arrived at a restaurant without an appetite. “The hell you do,” he says, sitting upright. He braces himself against the table with one hand and swallows while waiting for the room to stop spinning. 

Crowley scowls and turns to him. She aims a finger at his chest, about to tell him off, but misses by about six inches and jabs him in the armpit. The rest of her follows her finger, tipping forward once again. She smacks her lips and lets out a series of unintelligible noises before conceding about driving. “You may have a point.” 

“All right then. We’ll have to walk.”

The three of them stumble out the front of the deli, Aziraphale and Crowley propping each other up. “I’ll flag you a cab,” Reginald says. “My treat. Where do you live?”

Aziraphale’s fingers tighten around her waist, and he draws her in against his side. “That won’t be necessary,” he says, voice sounding firmer than he feels. “My bookshop is just around the corner. She can stay with me.”

He knows what it sounds like, he does, but he’s drunk, exhausted, and tired of Reginald’s hamfisted attempts at wooing. Crowley procures a cigarette from somewhere, the tip already aflame. She draws a deep breath and then shoves the cigarette holder to Aziraphale’s lips, holding it for him while he draws. 

“Shall we?” she asks. They’re dancing somehow in sync, he thinks, without knowing any of the steps. She tucks her arm in the crook of his elbow and leads him off towards the bookshop without looking back. It might be the drink, but Aziraphale can feel Reginald’s disbelieving stare stabbing him in the back.

When they round the corner out of sight, Crowley stops and kicks off her heels. “Bugger,” she says. The fine nylon of her stockings catches on the sidewalk. 

“It’s filthy out here,” Aziraphale protests. 

She spares him a look of incredulity. “Angel, we’ve lived through the plague. I’ve seen people dump shit from their chamber pots into the street. I think I’ll survive.” She lets go of his arm in favor of holding her shoes, and they walk in silence, teetering the rest of the way to the shop. 

When they reach the door, she waves a hand at the lock and pushes her way inside. Aziraphale loiters on the steps of his own home, reluctant to see the night end, though he doesn’t know why. He follows her in, slow and careful with his steps, and they stumble up the back stairwell to his living quarters upstairs. 

She throws her shoes in one corner and yanks on the string of pearls around her neck until the clasp breaks free. He follows behind her, picking the necklace up off the floor where she’s abandoned it, watching her tip backward onto the lumpy bed, a mattress that’s held court in his little flat for almost fifty years, mostly for show. 

“You know,” he says looking down at her. “I’m actually knackered for once.” 

“Then do something about it,” she says, mumbling into the pillow. 

He toes off his oxfords and lies down with careful but unsteady movement next to her. She rolls to her side to face him. “Should I say thank you?” she asks.

“No, best not,” he says. “I fear we damned him tonight.”

She hums, then reaches up to tug free his bow tie. “He was already damning himself.” 

Her fingers grow slack, tangled at his collar. He looks at her, really looks, the thin lips and creased brow, the downward slope of her nose. She’s transformative, a shapeshifter, even while wearing the same skin. When her face grows slack with sleep, she changes once again, the harsh angle of her cheekbones and the clench of her jaw softening. She breathes in her sleep, even when she doesn’t need to, and he wonders what they’ve become here on this earth; if they’ve gone rogue. It’s a damning thought. It’s the absinthe , he tells himself. He lets his eyes drift shut.

 

In the morning, Aziraphale wakes to muted sunlight through the window. It’s already mid-morning, and he cannot, for the life of him, figure out how he ended up in his disused bed. His teeth feel fuzzy, his head fuzzier still. Green, there was something green, he thinks, and cigarette smoke. 

From the floor, he hears a groan, low and miserable. Crowley’s head appears over the edge of the bed, glasses missing and eyes narrowed into tiny slits. “Aziraphale? What in heaven’s name happened last night?”

He blinks back at her. “Nothing good, I’m sure, though I can’t for the life of me remember.” He looks down and discovers he’s missing a sock. “We need to stop drinking.”

She snaps her fingers, and oh blessed heaven, his headache disappears. She looks a little less glassy-eyed, her usual astuteness returning. “Is it worrisome that I’m no longer surprised whenever we lose a few nights?”

“You think after a few centuries we’d learn.” 

“Bah,” she says, standing and straightening out her dress. She frowns at the state of her stockings. “I’m off to, you know, spread dissent and all that. I’ll call on you later?”

“Not until next week, if you please. I need time to recoup.” He won’t see Crowley for months, he knows, but protesting is part of their song and dance. She leaves without another word, slinking down the back steps and out the alley exit. 

 

Later--years later in 1941--Aziraphale does not think about the night in the back of a speakeasy and several bottles of absinthe. He’s sitting in the passenger side of the Bentley, knuckles gripping the door while staring out the windshield with ill-feigned nonchalance. Crowley’s humming under his breath. He’s ditched the hat in the back of the car, though he’s kept the sunglasses despite it being the middle of the night. There’s dust on his shoulders still from the bomb, a white smattering of crumbled stone over his otherwise neatly pressed suit. 

He’d saved the books, Aziraphale thinks. Crowley saved his books, danced on sanctified ground, and offered him a ride home all in one breath. Looking at him now is a bit like staring at a solar eclipse, enchanting and blinding all at once.

“Easy there, angel,” Crowley says. “I’m not even going that fast.” 

“Just drop me off at the bookshop, please.” His voice cracks as he says it. Lord above, he needs to be alone. He needs to think.

However, when the Bentley pulls up to his flat in Soho, Aziraphale finds himself hesitating, his hand on the door. “Crowley, I really should say tha--”

“Don’t,” Crowley says. He turns to look at him, his face tired. They can’t age, yet he still looks older somehow, worn at the creases of his mouth.

Aziraphale can see a smudge of dirt on his jaw, or perhaps the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow. The urge to smear his thumb along that dark smudge overwhelms him, this unbidden realization of love overcoming him. It’s not just love though, he knows. It’s want as well, longing. He wonders just how long it’s been simmering under the surface, waiting for the right moment to boil over. 

It’s boiling over now, spilling over the edges. “Well then, good night,” he says. He pushes out of the car, turning back for his books before rushing into the bookshop. The door slams shut behind him, and in the dark, he takes big gulping breaths. He looks up to the ceiling, but there’s no God there to greet or reassure him, just plaster and cobwebs. 

Instead, he looks down at the floor. He’s standing on his post.

He sets the books down just inside the entrance and bends down to scoop up the mail. On the top is a manila folder addressed to Ezra Fell in a tight but messy scrawl. It’s postmarked from France of all places. Curious.

Aziraphale moves to sit at his desk, flicking on the lamp with a motion of his hands. He peels back the glue of the envelope with care and peers inside, eager for the distraction. He wants something, anything, to take his mind off Crowley. Inside, he finds a letter and a photograph.

 

2 September 1941

To the esteemable Ezra Fell,

Hello, old chap. I apologize for losing touch with you. I hope this finds you in good spirits. I’m writing to you from France, if you can believe it. Me and my camera, I finally got a job as a war correspondent. It’s dreadful business, the things I’ve seen, so I thought I’d send along some good cheer. 

I was going through some old undeveloped film, and I came across a picture I took of you and that Lily Crowley. What a riot, she was! Do you still keep in touch? Don’t take offense when I say I never thought you had it in you to land a woman like that. Confirmed bachelor, I thought you were. 

I admit I was awfully envious of you that night. I hope that’s not why our correspondence ended. You’re a decent fellow deserving of the best. I just hope she didn’t eat you alive.

Your old friend,

Reginald Walt

 

Aziraphale ponders over the letter several times, trying to recall a Reginald Walt. A young chap, he thinks, who carried around a small accordion Kodak wherever he went. They’d become friends through The Morning Post, long since out of publication. The woman in the letter most obviously referred to Crowley, though again Aziraphale draws a blank. The demon’s taken on many aliases and styles throughout the centuries, and it’s hard to keep track of them all. Lily, of course, referenced Lilith. The angel’s lips twist into a small smile; the demon’s never been subtle about his choice in names. However, he can’t for the life of him figure out how he and Crowley both knew the same man nor how Reginald came to the conclusion they were a… that they were like that. 

He reaches back into the envelope and shakes out the photograph and then gasps. They’re hardly recognizable. For all his faults and misconceptions, Reginald is a good photographer. They’re caught out under a street lamp outside an old deli Aziraphale recognizes. He used to get coffee and charcuterie there before they shut down some ten years prior. He’d ignored the unsavory happenings in the back of the shop. In the photo, he’s in his usual fair, the wool great coat and corduroy waistcoat, but his face is nigh unrecognizable. There’s a sheen to his face, glassy-eyed and rose-cheeked, evident even in black and white. But it’s Crowley he’s drawn to in a shimmery flapper dress stopping just below the knees. Her heels catch the light of the lampost, and she towers over him, head thrown back in a throaty laugh. They’re pressed together, sharing a cigarette, drunk as can be. 

Aziraphale closes his eyes and tries to recall a memory but draws up blank. They look good together, a surprising thought. How long has he felt this way, he wonders, that others could see it and capture it while he himself was blind?

He looks to the ceiling again. The night is quiet despite a few slow cars passing in the street. I’m damned , he thinks, hands shaking. He stands, cradling the photograph in his hands and shuffles to the back of collections. He keeps a selection of his very rarest bibles away from prying eyes, and he chooses one from random, stuffing both the picture and the letter between the pages. Crowley will never look there, not without risking singing his fingers. 

God, he thinks, I’m in need of a drink. With a flick, he turns out the light.