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my dear acquaintance

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In 1868, in the heart of Moscow, Aziraphale left the opera in high bad temper. He was out of sorts for three reasons. Firstly, the opera had been of middling quality, verging on poor. Secondly, he was being snowed upon, which would soon leave his overcoat unpleasantly damp. Thirdly, and least acknowledged in his mind, Aziraphale had not yet recovered fully from his tiff with Crowley some years prior. He pushed his way past the crowd in a huff, until he found a bar tucked away in a basement beneath several shops, and let himself in out of the cold.

The bar was comfortably full. Chief among the clientele were groups of university students, garrulous as they spent their thinly-stretched stipends on cheap vodka, toasting the end of exams: to good marks this term and better ones the next. A cluster of mournful bureaucrats sipped beer in the corner, raspy voices muffled under the student's cheer. Aziraphale sat at the bar, to the right of a very quiet man dressed in dark clothing.

Aziraphale ordered a small plate of goose liver with vinegary pickled cucumbers and mushrooms, along with a well-aged ararat brandy. He rocked the wide-bowled glass back and forth, and silently wished that progressive judicial reform did not require so much paperwork.

The man beside him was writing a letter, pen scratching diligently. He looked terribly sad.

Aziraphale coughed quietly. The man glanced sideways, then back down at his letter.

"Have you seen the new opera yet?" Aziraphale asked. He regretted it immediately — now he would be required to be politely complimentary of a mediocre performance.

The man blew a derisive snort and didn't look up. "The Passenger? It is awful. The music — hah — might as well have been a play, for the skill of composition."

Aziraphale made a surprised noise of pleasure — at last, someone with taste! — and turned on his stool to more fully face the man. "I quite agree."

At last, the man raised his head. He had a well-groomed beard, hair dark and swept back over a refined brow and fine features. "Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky," he said. "Perhaps we may become acquainted." He set his pen down on the bar and presented his hand to shake.

"Ezra Fell." Aziraphale took his hand and smiled.

They spent the duration of two drinks complaining about the stale arias and uninspired motifs of The Passenger, and by the third Tchaikovsky had brightened. He ordered them a pair of shots — to new friends, he said, raising a toast — and tossed it back. The vodka, Aziraphale found, was of low quality and flavored heavily with dill, but he was glad to have found a companion nonetheless.

"Who are you writing to?" Aziraphale asked.

"A dear friend who is very unskilled in writing back," said Tchaikovsky, and the wistfulness of his gaze sent a twin of its emotion thrumming through Aziraphale — but what it was he couldn't fathom. Tchaikovsky noticed and nodded in understanding that Aziraphale didn't share. "I see you have a similar friend," he said quietly.

"We had a fight," Aziraphale said. He wanted to ask what had left Tchaikovsky so sorrowful, and instead found himself revealing his own history. "Half a decade ago."

"And have you spoken to your friend since?"

"No. He asked something of me and I couldn't, it was too much — and now I don't know how to go back. I think — I think I may have ruined us. He was the only one in the world — well, it doesn't matter now."

Tchaikovsky pushed an icy glass of vodka towards Aziraphale. The scent of dill washed over them both. "I got married."

"Congratulations?" It wasn't a fitting sentiment, and he knew it. But Tchaikovsky laughed and raised his glass to it with a wry za dam.

"It won't last. My nature will not allow it; I see that now," Tchaikovsky said bitterly. "Do not try marriage yourself."

"Ah — no," Aziraphale said. "I don't plan to."

"Good," Tchaikovsky said, and Aziraphale still didn't understand; he could follow the surface of the conversation but not the second, essential meaning underneath. It was so close, like the shimmer of movement behind smoked glass, and if he could only reach out, capture it — but it was impenetrable.

They spoke of simpler things, afterwards: Tchaikovsky's compositions, and his apartment's thin walls, and a short argument over whether or not Aziraphale would look more fetching with a beard. (Tchaikovsky insisted he had the cheekbones and jawline for facial hair; Azirapahle was certain it would make him look wispy.)

It was late when they left together, Tchaikovsky promising to point Aziraphale in the direction of a better hotel than the one he was currently patronizing. Before they parted, Tchaikovsky laid a gentle hand on Aziraphale's shoulder.

"Thank you for easing my loneliness for the night," he said.

Then he kissed the air beside each of Aziraphale's cheeks, his beard brushing against his skin, and finished, to Aziraphale's shock, by kissing him on the lips.

"Oh!" Aziraphale gasped into Tchaikovsky's mouth, and pressed forward. It made sense, now, the ache behind his breastbone as Crowley stood a few careful feet away. He wanted this, and — Heaven permit — he knew who he wanted it with.

He kissed Tchaikovsky back, and while their lips met they were both kissing another person.

Shortly thereafter, Tchaikovsky's music was noticed by a wealthy widow. She funded his composing and advised him through the tumultuous two and a half months of his marriage before it ended. They never met in person; all of their correspondence was via an exchange of letters. It's possible that Nadezdha Von Meck would have looked familiar to him if they had ever chanced to meet face to face. Or perhaps Tchaikovsky was too drunk that night to remember Aziraphale's features, and all he knew of the angel lived in a trunk of letters signed with a widow's name.

It was over a century before Aziraphale kissed anyone again. When he did, it wasn't with human in a Moscow alleyway, swaying from the lingering burn of spiced vodka. He kissed Crowley in St. James park, positively giddy due to the sheer existence of it all (also due to champagne) and he wasn't bewildered for even a moment.