Anathema, he decided, was going to hell.
Certainly there was no other option for the poor girl. Sad, but true. What else could Aziraphale assume given the sin she’d committed?
“It’s not right,” he told the server, a young woman with pink hair and an expression bordering on awed. “You don’t just give someone that sort of gift. It’s not a gift at all! Gifts are books, my dear. Or an excellent bottle of wine. Perhaps a decent pair of socks if we’re getting intimate. But to foster off something with such requirements attached to it, particularly on someone who is and should be treated as a loved one... it doesn’t bear thinking about. I cannot possibly express my disappointment in her.”
“Really? ‘Cause you’ve been doing well so far.” The server pointed at Aziraphale’s empty plate. “You want another slice or what?”
“Oh. Yes. Thank you. Now see, cake. That is an excellent gift.”
With those words of wisdom she left Aziraphale to his thoughts, his still growling stomach, and the letter he’d propped up against the salt and pepper shakers. Lesley had delivered it this morning, no doubt because Anathema was too craven to give it to him herself. At first Aziraphale had been rather touched by the gesture, sure that she was embracing his love of sophistication—not archaism, thank you—on the day of his birth, foregoing all that horrible, digital nonsense to send him a proper letter instead. How inspired! Ha. More fool him. What Aziraphale found was not the opera ticket he’d expected, or a monthly wine subscription, or even just a personal account of all that he meant to her...
No. Fifty years old and she got him dancing lessons. A month long, twice a week, fully paid for trap that Aziraphale either needed to suffer through or risk offense, to both her and the instructor. Someone who, Anathema had made quite clear, was already expecting him. Tonight. On his birthday. Had he mentioned that yet?
Outside of her instructions the rest of the so-called letter was a single line written in viscous, glittery pen:
You need to get out more ;)
“Poppycock,” Aziraphale muttered. “Oh. Pardon my language.” His server gave a snort as she laid down the second slice of strawberry shortcake. She skipped off before he could start another rant, though Aziraphale was happy enough to continue glaring at his ‘gift.’
Get out more? What rubbish. Aziraphale certainly didn’t need to pepper his time with dance lessons, of all things. He lived a perfectly healthy, happy life and didn't need a woman half his age saying otherwise. Why were they friends again? He hardly knew.
Aziraphale stabbed his fork straight through the slice. Not even buttery cake and macerated strawberries could cheer him though. The letter remained in view, taunting him.
As did the knowledge that he was expected at this studio come 7:00pm sharp. He, Aziraphale, was meant to spend a full hour in an organization titled Dancing With the Devil.
It was with a sigh that he slipped whipped cream past his lips and raised his hand. “Miss! I do believe I’ll be needing a third slice.”
Six and a half hours later found Aziraphale outside an apartment complex, the top of which clearly housed the studio in question. If that absurd name didn’t give it away—displayed in red, looping letters against the old stonework—then the music thrumming all the way down to the sidewalk would have done the trick. Aziraphale might have thought the place a disreputable club if not for the fact that the music was Sinatra.
...Not entirely horrible then. Not quite.
“Though by no means a redemption either,” he muttered, waiting for the elevator. As he did, Aziraphale took a moment to examine himself in the reflective surface, rather pleased with his choice of outfit. He’d gone with a blue vest tonight, a periwinkle that matched his bow-tie perfectly, and brought a spot of color to the browns and beige he’d otherwise donned. He wasn’t entirely sure what one was meant to wear to a dancing lesson, but surely you couldn’t fault style? He looked quite spiffy, all things considered. Besides, Anathema’s horrid little note had specified ballroom lessons. Not the sort of thing that involved traipsing about on the ground or attempting anything as unnecessary as a jump. And if it did? Aziraphale would leave. Simple as that.
“Quite,” he told his reflection and stepped inside.
The music grew louder as Aziraphale ascended, until he could feel the vibrations through the soles of his shoes. When the elevator opened on dim lights and smiling people, he was momentarily taken aback.
Some day, when I'm awfully low
When the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight
They must have just started this song because people were still coming together, men and women alike extending hands to partners, walking side-by-side to the outskirts of the room. To be entirely honest, most of those smiles seemed to stem from embarrassment. Aziraphale watched the couples—perhaps six of seven in total—fumble arms for a moment or come dangerously close to stepping on toes. A few individuals were so intensely focused on their feet he didn’t think they’d react if the whole studio came crashing down around their ears. None of it was very... good, per se. Aziraphale had seen just enough old films to know that the awkward gaits and simple steps he was witnessing weren’t much to write home about. But the attempts were charming in their own way and he was all too aware that it was more than he was able to do.
Suddenly, Aziraphale felt rather out of place.
The exception to stiff movements and lowered heads was the man who cut through the middle of the floor, the only one without a partner. He wore slacks, but short heels that appeared to be dance-specific; a collared shirt, but with red hair that fell down past his shoulders. Perhaps the most notable accessory though was a pair of dark glasses perched on his nose, entirely unnecessary in this lighting and thus looking rather absurd. No doubt he thought himself one of those cool men who could never pass the age of twenty-five. Aziraphale didn’t need any official introduction to know that he was the instructor though. The way he moved said it all.
Like liquid. Like grace incarnate. He put more hip action into walking than Aziraphale could ever manage in a Salsa and it was, to be frank, bordering on obscene.
The man was also heading his way.
“You must be Zira!” he called, loud enough to turn every head. Aziraphale shrunk, his hiding spot obliterated. “Beginner’s class? 7:00? You’re late. Can’t have that. First day here and you’re already slacking? You’d think a guy dressed like you would want to make a better first impression.” The man grinned.
Of all the—!
“It’s Aziraphale,” he hissed, the first and most important thing to tumble out of his mouth. “I don’t do that nickname nonsense. And I’m not late. I’m not slacking! I’m not—oh. Well I suppose I am here for the beginner’s class. But that’s the only thing you got right and one out of four is nothing to be proud of.”
He could feel the heat in his cheeks and the arrogant, downward turn to his mouth. Aziraphale had been told on more than one occassion that this was why he so rarely got customers (not that he particularly wanted them...) and why he had so few, close friends. Thus it was more than a bit surprising to find that his default state didn’t immediately get him chucked out of the class. What a pity. Rather, the man seemed to enjoy his ire. He continued grinning, quite manically, finally throwing out a hand with purple, painted nails.
“Name’s Anthony Crowley, but everyone here just calls me Crowley. I am about the nickname nonsense. Sort of, anyway. Let’s see...” Crowley’s fingers tapped the top of Aziraphale’s hand, sending a jolt all the way up through his arm. “I own this studio. Own the flats downstairs too. Guess that doesn’t make me much of a slacker, but I enjoy a good TV binge every now and then. And you’re right.”
“Right?” Aziraphale parroted.
“You’re not late. Fifteen minutes early, in fact. This lot,” he jerked his head at the dancers. “Have just been with me before. Know to leave time to warm up.”
Crowley finally released his hand and Aziraphale immediately plastered it against his thigh, trying and failing to be inconspicuous about wiping the sweat away. Crowley eyed the movement, lips twitching. “Well. You’re gonna be rubbish at this if one handshake gets you all nervous.”
Aziraphale gaped. “How rude!”
“Anathema said you’d be a handful.”
For a moment surprise warred with offense. The surprise won. “You know Anathema?” He’d been under the impression that this little ‘gift’ had no further strings attached. How foolish of him.
“Sure!” Crowley waved a hand. “We’re old girlfriends. She talks about you some. I’ve been telling her to get you in here for ages. Never said how you two know each other though.”
Aziraphale drew himself up. “Anathema is a frequent visitor to my shop. Over the years I’ve been able to procure a number of rare books for her. Our love of literature all but ensured that we would be fast friends.”
“Huh. Cool. I hit her with my car a few years back. Anyway, c’mon!”
Aziraphale was left, open-mouthed, grappling with the image of an Anathema three years ago with bruised face and a broken arm. Apparently Crowley wasn’t one for explanations though, as he was already striding back across the room, clearly expecting Aziraphale to follow. Obeying such a high-handed command was a horrible thought.
...standing there awkwardly was worse.
“Excuse me, pardon me, ah...no, no, go on as you were!” Despite their slow movements and few numbers, getting past the dancers was a surprisingly difficult task, those capable of dancing and looking up simultaneously casting him amused smiles. By the time Aziraphale reached Crowley—now standing beside a row of chairs on the outskirts of the room—he could feel the heat in his cheeks and the slight dampness beginning to consolidate beneath his shirt. Hardly his fault. It was so dreadfully hot in here.
Crowley eyed him up and down once more, that smirk too knowing for Aziraphale’s tastes. With a huff he straightened his bow-tie with one hand and thrust out the folder he’d been carrying with the other.
“I've done research,” he announced. “Quite extensive. Not to speak too highly of my own abilities, but it’s rather a talent of mine and one that I put a great deal of stock in. Thus, after much deliberation I have decided that if I am to learn any formal dance is should be the gavotte.”
Seconds ticked by. Aziraphale shook the folder in the air between them. Crowley failed to take it.
“I’ve done research,” he repeated, just in case that first part hadn’t been clear.
“You’ve really got no idea how this all works, do you?” Crowley asked. To Aziraphale’s great relief he finally took the gathered materials—
—only to toss it all right over his shoulder.
“How dare you!”
“Jeez, you’re a sensitive one. How dare you this, how rude that. We’ve got to loosen you up a bit first. Everyone, watch your floorcraft!”
The students behind them dutifully maneuvered around the now scattered collection of papers, a few giving audible laughs at the turn of events. Aizraphale felt that blush creeping down his neck and instinctively bent to gather them up.
Crowley intercepted, taking him into his arms.
He might have struggled. Perhaps he should have, the shock of someone touching him in such a manner without permission just the sort of thing Aziraphale normally would have riled against. But when Crowley dipped his glasses also slipped, and for a moment (a moment was all Crowley needed) Aziraphale was left breathless and rather easily swayed.
It was his eyes. They were...well, quite stunning. If he was entirely frank. A brown that appeared almost gold in the right light, but more distinctive were the pupils that bled downwards into his iris, creating a surprisingly oval shape. The effect was akin to a keyhole. Or, if one were being fanciful, something not quite human.
Crowley, of course, noticed him staring. His grin was slow. Like he had to pull it into being one muscle at a time. “Coloboma,” he said, the word sharp and quick. “I was lucky enough to get it in both eyes.” Crowley briefly removed his hand from Aziraphale’s to push the glasses more firmly onto his nose. Then they came back together, the movement almost unnoticed. Aziraphale was still peering closely.
“Is that why you wear those?” he asked. “Even inside? In this lighting?”
“Mm-hmm. Tends to freak people out. Sometimes. Enough times. Need to get used to it first.” Crowley’s head titled to the side, red curls falling between them. “Does it bother you?”
Aziraphale was aware that he owed this man precisely nothing. Certainly not honesty for the sake of honesty. And yet, he found it slipping out nonetheless. “Not at all, dear boy. In fact, I think your eyes are quite beautiful. Rather like a snake’s.”
As soon as the words hit the air Aziraphale stumbled, the compliment his mouth had seen fit to give suddenly catching up with his brain. Crowley went rigid too, though because of the “beautiful” or the “snake” part Aziraphale couldn’t be sure. Because a second later he murmured,
“People normally say 'cat.'” His voice was rough and rather...shaky?
“...Ah. Of Course. Logical.”
Well. That had gone swimmingly! Yes, old boy, insult and act inappropriately with your instructor five minutes into the lesson. What a positively perfect way to begin a month-long course. Not that Aziraphale cared if Crowley decided to cut him. Not at all. Hadn’t wanted to be here in the first place.
Funny thing though, it was a lesson and not a bad one at that. All at once and without Aziraphale’s knowledge they'd fallen into their respective roles. While they’d been speaking, Crowley had taken the hand he’d snagged and the underside of Aziraphale’s shoulder blade, just sort of... steering them around the room. They weren’t doing any of the fancy footwork that the rest of the group was immersed in. Just a little shuffle there and back, like one might see during a slow dance at senior prom. Yet it was steady, and soothing, and all at once Aziraphale was hyper-aware of exactly how close they’d gotten. He tried to ignore the smell of Crowley’s cologne—delightfully spicy. He’d have to ask his barber for something similar—and how soft his hand was, palm pressed to palm and fingers cupping fingers. His brief faux pas was quickly forgotten. When Crowley seemed content to simply sway and hum along to the music for some undetermined amount of time, Aziraphale finally cleared his throat.
“What, if I am ask, are we doing?”
Crowley blinked. “Dancing.”
“I would hardly term this dancing.”
“Well that’s because you’re the ignorant student and I’m the former Blackpool competitor.” He spoke right over the protest. “What’s the best kind of learning? The kind that doesn’t feel like learning. Duh. Look at you go. Walking backwards like a champ.” Crowley suddenly stopped, Aziraphale stopped too, and somehow his gaze seemed more shrewd, even behind the glasses. “Why?"
“Why? Why what?” Aziraphale tried valiantly to regain his balance.
“Why did you stop?”
“Because you stopped.”
“No, no, no, stupid answer. What bearing does me stopping have on you stopping? You could have just kept going, straight out the door! Anathema said you were smart. Where’s that now? One more time...” They started moving again, parallel to the line of chairs, and this time when Crowley stopped—
He hummed in the back of his throat, catching Aziraphale’s expression.
It was hard to explain though. The fact that he was literally connected to another person obviously played its part, but there was more to it than that, what Aziraphale suspected his teacher was trying to convey. Something about how the hand at his back had pressed suddenly, becoming a barrier he didn't want to push past. The hand in his had tightened, almost pulling in the opposite direction. Something else about the feeling of Crowley’s body so near to his, subconsciously picking up on the change in his weight...
Aziraphale wasn’t sure how to articulate any of that though. What came out was a disgruntled noise that made Crowley laugh.
“Connection,” he said, clearly taking pity on him. “You know where and how far I want you to go because of how closely connected our bodies are. From here,” he shifted them to the right. “To there.” Back to the left. “The slightest touch, just a little, tiny press—” Aziraphale suddenly knew that he was to take a step backwards and when he did Crowley’s smile was magnificent. “It can accomplish a shit ton.”
Aziraphale snorted. “Is that a technical term? 'Shit ton'?”
“Oh yeah.” Crowley suddenly grew serious. “But if you don’t have that connection...” His arms went limp, his chest pulled back, and Aziraphale hadn’t the slightest clue where he was meant to go now. When Crowley suddenly stepped backward he was scrambling to catch up. “See? All falls apart. It’s about balance. Push and pull. Like you’re standing on the edge of a knife and the both of you have to maintain perfect position so that neither of you falls...You manage that and you can manage just about anything.”
"A relationship," Aziraphale said, his mouth once again running away with him. No reprimand came though. Just a quick squeeze of his hand that felt like praise.
Crowley had taken him in his arms again—what he referred to as the frame a few moments later—and with the careless delivery of someone commenting on the weather, told Aziraphale to step back, back again, and then side together, off to his right. No, not quite that fast. Yes, that’s better. A slow, a slow, quick-quick pattern. Again and again until Aziraphale realized, with no small amount of shock, that they were mimicking the other couples around the dance floor.
“See?” Crowley said. There was only a bit of smugness seeping into his voice. Already Aziraphale counted that as a win. “You’re a natural.”
He thought of long-ago gym classes and his brother Gabriel’s attempts to take him jogging. “You’d be the first to think so.”
“Or I’m just that good a teacher. Hmm. Might be leaning towards that one. But the fact that you can take two steps without panicking or tripping over your own feet is a major plus.” Crowley leaned in close, sharing a conspiratorial whisper. “Most of this lot still don’t know their right from their left.”
It should have been cruel coming from their instructor, but Aziraphale had the distinct sense that Crowley meant it in only the most loving way possible. A chuckle wound its way up his throat because yes, what just fifteen minutes before had seemed so out of reach now appeared... quite simple really. Whatever had he been worried about? Across the ballroom some poor chap was nearly trampling another—who astoundingly managed to keep a polite smile in place—while two women behind them were taking each step with an agonizing slowness that had thrown them off beat. Aziraphale had never considered himself to be terribly adventurous, never quick to embrace any change, but even that was a bit slow for this tastes.
With Crowley, the room spun at perfect speed.
“It’s all that stuffiness,” he was saying, oblivious to Aziraphale’s thoughts. “You’re all,” and Crowley drew his shoulders up to his ears, miming someone overly stiff with a pursed lips and squinty eyes. The display fell apart with a laugh at whatever expression Aziraphale pulled. “Nah, nah, it’s good. Gonna have a devil of a time with you in the Latin styles, but smooth? Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.”
“I like lemons,” Aziraphale commented, unsure how else to respond in the face of more unexpected praise.
“Please don’t tell me you just... eat them.”
“What? No! I mean lemonade. Or squeezed over veal with capers.”
“Okay good because I once knew this guy who’d just fucking peel them—”
So it went, with Crowley rambling on about, apparently, whatever popped into his head each moment, all while leading Aziraphale round and round the room with an ease that spoke of years of practice. He was far less graceful, stumbling now and again, but largely able to move and hold a conversation simultaneously, which was far more than Aziraphale would have assumed himself capable of, especially after such a short period of time. In fact, with Crowley’s arms a warm press and those absurd opinions filling his ears, it was all almost a bit... fun.
Damn it all. Anathema could never find out.
The song—another of Sinatra’s—finally drew to a close and with it the lights rose, shaking the group out of their daze. People put distance between their partners, thanking one another, laughing over perceived faults, and Aziraphale felt a pang when Crowley moved to do the same.
That is, until he ducked into a low bow, brushing a kiss against the back of Aziraphale’s hand.
“Thank you for the dance,” he said, tone overly formal, eyes alight with mischief. Aziraphale might have called him out on the contradiction if his thoughts were even in the vicinity of coherent.
Crowley left. Or rather, rejoined the rest of his class. Which honestly felt to be much the same thing. Aziraphale had to tramp down on the absurd burst of jealousy that flared when Crowley briefly took another man into his arms, leading him through a slightly longer, more complicated step. Thankfully though that stint of madness was brief. With a self-conscious cough Aziraphale smoothed down his vest and joined the others in front of the mirrors. They were all lining up, seemingly expectant, and all at once Aziraphale was the odd man out again. Unsure of where to stand; overly dressed next to the others' jeans and t-shirts.
Then Crowley paced before the lineup and tilted his head just so, allowing the light to reflect through his glasses. Aziraphale could have sworn he dropped him a wink.
“Welcome! Excellent warm-up, all of you. Though I could have done without so many feet watchers.” A few titters flowed through the group. “Seriously, are your shoes really that interesting? Because if they are I want to know where you got ‘em. Drop me a brand name after class. All right, all right. Enough of that. Good to have you all back. Good to see some new faces too. This is Bronze One, Smooth Dancers for Beginners, and today we’ll be learning the Foxtrot... though I’ve already gotten the sense that you lot won’t be beginners for long.”
His gaze was definitely on Aziraphale and he burned for just a moment, caught. As Crowley began his lesson, Aziraphale straightened his bow-tie one more—just for luck—and vowed that such a complimentary statement would not be said in vain.
A minute later, as Crowley helped him partner up with a lovely young woman looking similarly unsure, Aziraphale quite forgot that he’d never wanted to be here in the first place.
July, one year later.
“Honestly, I don’t know what that girl is thinking! It’s an insult, my dear. Plain and simple. I hope as you grow you’ll develop better manners than my supposed friend has.”
“I’m thirty-five, sir.”
Aziraphale sat in the same café, at the same table, with the same waitress listening to him rant about the misuse of birthday presents. The only true changes were that he’d since learned her name was Amber and Amber now sported green hair instead of pink (with blue and orange somewhere between the two).
This was old hat by now. “Two slices of the key lime pie then?”
Aziraphale’s lips twitched. Amber only just caught it. “Relax, dear. I’m not quite as stressed as that.” The ‘Not yet’ was muttered into his water glass. “I’m merely expecting company.”
Which was the cue for the door across from them to open, Crowley sauntering in with sundress and hat, heels and $200 shades. Amber huffed out a laugh, allowing her hand to briefly clasp Aziraphale’s shoulder.
“Three slices it is then,” and she wandered off.
Crowley took her place.
Aziraphale scowled. “I’ve told you not to call me that.”
“Hey, if the shoe fits... speaking of,” Crowley slouched in his chair and stuck one long leg out from beneath the table, showing off his yellow, strappy heels. “You like?”
“Your continued obsession with footwear that now eats a hole in our joint bank account? Never.” But Aziraphale nevertheless eyed the new addition with admiration. “Can you dance in those?”
“Nah. Not enough traction. You’re due for a new pair though. Can’t go competing in those worn-out practice shoes.”
The mere thought of his first competition nearly undid Aziraphale’s appetite, but for now at least anger overrode the fear. “I was under the impression that Anathema was buying some for my birthday!”
Crowley blinked. “She’s not? It’s what she told me she was getting you.”
"Oh no, no, no. I received a package this morning that was most certainly not shoes..."
As Aziraphale leaned across the table, nearly upending water and silverware in his haste to share the news, Amber returned with three plates of pie and some complimentary mints. She arrived just in time to see Aziraphale whisper something into his partner’s ear that turned his cheeks roughly the same shade as his hair. The grin though... there was nothing self-conscious in that.
“That sly girl,” she heard, aiming to remain professional even in the face of Aziraphale’s angry huff. “Can’t say I’m surprised. When was the last time she gave you the present you were expecting?”
“I am this close to murdering her, Crowley.”
“Sure you are.” Amber’s last glimpse was of the two of them tucked together, sunlight streaming across the table, heads bent so close in conversation they nearly touched. Crowley took a bite of the pie as Aziraphale quite obviously watched his lips.
“I'm sure we'll figure out some use for her generosity." The sarcasm was apparent, even from across the room. As was Crowley's amusement.
"Besides, I’d say her last gift turned out just fine.”