Chapter 1: In the Beginning...
In the beginning, God created two florists destined to hate one another upon sight…and placed them right across the street from each other.
Mix the daylilies with a splash of lavender, add an extra rose in the center, and presto—the perfect bouquet. Aziraphale stepped back from the counter with a delighted smile, rubbing his hands together as he inspected his handiwork. It was done just in time for his favorite customers, a mother and son pair that stopped in every weekend to pick up a fresh set of flowers for their coffee table. According to his watch, they should be arriving soon.
Aziraphale looked out the front window of his shop and let out a content sigh. He loved Sunday mornings, the way they unfolded lazily like delicate petals, with slow sunrises and people ambling down neighborhood streets. Rays of light shone through the glass, reflecting off the vibrant colors of his floral displays in a dazzling rainbow.
The bell above the door tinkled, pulling Aziraphale’s attention to the customers walking in. As expected, it was Mrs. Harriet Dowling and her darling son Warlock.* She was the wife of an important American ambassador, and as such, was frequently busy with other engagements, but she always found time to visit his shop. Years ago, when he first started out in the business, he’d worked as a gardener for her estate, a job he still looked back on with fondness.
“Mrs. Dowling,” he greeted warmly. “Good to see you.”
“Ah, hello, Aziraphale. Good morning to you,” she said, motioning for Warlock to come inside. He remained where he was, typing on his phone, and after a few moments, she dragged him the rest of the way inside.“Warlock, say hi.”
Warlock, who was now eleven years old, had discovered the unique joys of ignoring everyone around you in favor of your cellular device. Nose still buried in the screen in front of him, he grunted in place of a “hello.”
Aziraphale chuckled, shaking his head, then retreated to the counter. The bouquet he’d prepared just needed to be wrapped, and it would be ready to go. He picked a complementary creme-colored paper for the stems and tied everything together with a bow, using a style of knot that had become his signature over the years.
“Here you are, Mrs. Dowling.”
She rotated the flowers in her hand, inspecting every angle before nodding in appreciation. “It’s lovely, Aziraphale,” she said, “as always.” Mrs. Dowling was not a woman who outwardly showed much affection, but she flashed him a quick smile. That was always his favorite part of the job, knowing that he’d made someone’s day a little bit brighter and happier.
“I’m so glad you like it,” he said.
“What do you think, Warlock?” Mrs. Dowling turned and shoved the bouquet in Warlock’s face. Startled, he finally glanced up from his phone as he stumbled back.
“’S’alright,” he mumbled, annoyed at the interruption.
“Good.” After he was engrossed in his phone once more, she muttered, “Let’s have a kid, Thad said. It’ll be a joy, he said.”
Aziraphale cleared his throat, shuffling over to some ferns with a watering can in hand. Mrs. Dowling and Warlock often had these sorts of rows whenever they visited the shop, and his job was to pretend he didn’t hear a thing. “How is your husband, Mrs. Dowling?”
“Oh, you know,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Busy as ever.”
A buzzing noise from Mrs. Dowling’s purse interrupted their conversation, and she apologized profusely as she went to check her tablet. It turned out to be a reminder that she had a lunch appointment she needed to make. She corralled the still-distracted Warlock towards the door, desperately trying to get him to look up from his phone, and said her goodbyes to Aziraphale.
Once they left, Aziraphale glanced at his watch. It was just about noon, which meant it was time for his daily trip to the pastry shop three blocks down. They had the most delectable croissants and these little slices of cheesecake the baker would sometimes hand out for free if he got there early enough. He flipped the sign on his window to “CLOSED,” then left the shop. On his way out, however, he found himself pausing on the front step between the door and the sidewalk, staring into the window of the empty building across the street.
It was once a shop, but had since been long-abandoned, with cobwebs hanging from the ceiling inside and debris littering the floor. That was the way it had been since he’d opened his shop, but something was different now. The tattered “For Sale” sign that had been plastered to its door for years was gone, replaced by one that said “SOLD” in thick, dark letters.
With a smile, Aziraphale wondered who might be moving in across the way. Would it be a friendly shop owner? A young couple looking for a place to live? A potential new friend? How lovely would that be. He stepped down onto the street and hummed to himself all the way to the baker’s, excited by the possibilities.
One of Aziraphale’s guesses about the new tenant had been correct: he was a shop owner. But he was, to put it lightly, something of a bastard, and Aziraphale’s hopes of being friends with his new across-the-street neighbor were dashed as soon as they met.
On the morning of the move in, a Bentley came to a screeching halt outside the store, and out stepped a man in a fitted leather jacket, dark sunglasses, and tight black jeans. From the trunk of his car, he retrieved a banner that he hung above the door: “Crowley’s Flowers, Houseplants, and Other Assorted Leafy Green Things.”
He was a florist.
Mouth agape, Aziraphale watched through his window as the man—presumably this mysterious “Crowley”—turned the key in the door’s lock and went inside the old building.
The next few days were a constant cycle of construction workers making their way in and out of Crowley’s new store. Noises from the saws and drills and jackhammers drifted across the street whenever Aziraphale left his windows open or went to grab lunch, leaving him with a rather massive headache, and after nearly a week of enduring the ear-splitting sound of power tools, Aziraphale decided it would be in his sanity’s best interest to take a stroll across the street and politely ask them to stop making such a racket during business hours. He strode with purpose to the front door of Crowley’s Flowers, Houseplants, and Other Assorted Leafy Green Things, knocking a few times on the glass door before making his way inside.
Clean. Sleek. Modern. That was Crowley’s shop, all streamlined and monochromatic; aside from the potted flowers and bright green houseplants sitting on the shelves, there was nary a color in sight. It felt all wrong for a flower shop, Aziraphale thought. So…cold and impersonal.
Standing in the middle of it all, holding a spray bottle filled with water up to a fern, was Crowley. He still had sunglasses on, even indoors. He’d styled his hair with what looked like massive amounts of mousse. He was even wearing that ridiculous leather jacket Aziraphale had seen him in every day for the past week.
Then he opened his mouth and yelled at his plants.
“DO YOU CALL THAT GROWING?” He pulled the trigger on the spray bottle once, twice, three times. “WELL, I CALL IT PATHETIC. YOU LOOK PATHETIC, THE LOT OF YOU.” As he ranted, he waved the bottle about the room, pointing accusatorily at the plants in question.
Aziraphale froze by the entrance, unsure of how to proceed. In that same moment, Crowley turned, bottle hovering in midair and arm extended, to face Aziraphale with what could only be described as a sneer.
“Bugger off. We’re not open yet.”
Aziraphale stumbled back, pressing a hand to his heart while he composed himself. He was absolutely aghast. Good heavens, what poor customer service. And the manners! But Aziraphale was not a man easily deterred by mean strangers. He put on his brightest smile** as he addressed Crowley.
“Pardon me, but I’m not a customer.” He pointed out the window. “I’m actually sort of your neighbor. I run the shop across the way.”
Crowley lowered his arm and gestured as if to say, And?
Aziraphale lunged forward, extending his hand. “I’m Aziraphale. Nice to meet you.”
This introduction was met with a snort. “Aziraphale?” But Crowley still gave him a firm, quick handshake.
“It’s a family name.” Aziraphale tugged self-consciously at the sides of his tweet jacket (the one with the little tartan pattern on the inside and the delightful matching pocket square he’d gotten at the local thrift shop). “And what kind of name is Crowley then, hm?”
“Nickname I got from the blokes in prison,” he said without hesitation.
“I beg your pardon?”
Crowley nodded. “Prison, yeah. Did a few years for tax evasion.”
He walked away—no, he sauntered; his natural gait was really more of a saunter—leaving behind a stunned Aziraphale. He sputtered as he tried to comprehend just who this new shop owner really was. “Wh—you—really?”
When Crowley turned to look at Aziraphale, he was grinning. “Nah, I’m just fucking with you. But you really did think I was in prison for a bit there, didn’t you?”
What on Earth could he even say to that? Aziraphale frowned, watching as Crowley spritzed a couple more plants, and his eyes bugged out when he saw the pale pink, bowl-shaped flower of Protea Cynaroides. Aziraphale had been trying to get a hold on several exotic species of flowers from the African continent for ages, and the national flower of South Africa had been top of his list for a long time.
“Where did you get all these…exotic plants?”
“I know a guy.”
Aziraphale waited, but Crowley offered no further response. Instead, he walked over to the radio sat on top of the front counter and turned it on. A melodic, male voice crackled from the speakers:
Caaaaan any-BODEE find meeeee SOME-BODY toooo loooove?
Aziraphale frowned. He’d never heard this song before. Granted, just about every song he listened to on his record player came from a classical composer; he much preferred the complexity of a good instrumental to the wailings of some singer’s voice. However, given what he’d seen of Crowley so far, he figured it might not be in his best interest to ask him to turn it off.
“So, erm, I actually came around to ask you for a small favor.” He had to raise his voice to be heard over the music. “You see, it’s been awfully loud these past few days, what with all the construction on your shop, and I was wondering if you might be able to keep it down just a little. My customers and I are finding it a bit distracting.”
Crowley turned abruptly towards him. The sneer was back.
“Why should I give a damn about your customers?” He pointed to himself. “I’m a florist.” He pointed to Aziraphale. “You’re a florist. Why the devil would I help you with your business? We’re competitors.”
A competition? That’s what this was now? Aziraphale stiffened and folded his hands in front of him. “Well…because it’s the polite thing to do.”
“If there’s one thing you should know about me, angelface,” Crowley said with a cocky smile, “it’s that I don’t really do ‘polite.’”
Aziraphale clenched his teeth and tried his best to remain cool and collected. Angelface? Just what was he playing at? He generally believed that everyone could be persuaded with a little charm and good manners. However, Crowley seemed to be a different breed altogether. He puttered about the shop, paying no mind to Aziraphale, who trailed behind him.
“Well, you know, I really think you should reconsider. We’re going to be living across from one another, so we might as well learn to get along. Even if we are, as you say, business rivals.” As Aziraphale continued to speak, Crowley went back to the radio and turned the volume up until the music hit a deafening pitch. “Oh for God’s sake, this is ridiculous!”
Crowley tapped a finger to his ear. “Sorry, what was that? Can’t hear you over the music.”
Before he could stop himself, Aziraphale stomped his foot and yelled, “How about you turn the fucking song down then, you absolute lunatic!” Upon realizing what foul language had come out, he clapped a hand over his mouth.
Crowley slowly rotated the volume knob until the music was all but a whisper. Then, to Aziraphale’s surprise, he grinned—a full, genuine one, too. “Alright, then,” he said. “All you had to do was ask. Had no idea you weren’t a Queen fan.”
“A what fan?”
“You don’t know who Queen is?” Crowley shook his head. “Never mind that. You know what, just for you, I’ll try to keep it down. Only a little. But your customers are fair game soon as I open up shop, got it?”
Aziraphale nodded, hands clenched into fists at his sides. He plastered a fake smile on his face, even though his entire body was alight with anger, a feeling he was altogether unused to. “Oh yes. I understand completely how it’s going to be.”
“Great. Glad we could come to an agreement.” He grinned again. “See you around…angelface.”
Not wanting to test the limits of Crowley’s fleeting patience and odd, sudden politeness, Aziraphale booked it out of the shop as quickly as he could. His heart pounded all the way across the street and didn’t slow until he closed the door of his own shop, back pressed against the glass as he took deep, calming breaths. Confrontation always messed with Aziraphale’s delicate constitution, so he tried to avoid it at all costs. But with this Crowley in town, he thought he might have to prepare for the worst.
He couldn’t concentrate for the rest of the day. Normally, he was attentive to his customers, nodding along and smiling during all the right parts of the conversation. But today, no—today he was distracted. Something about his new neighbor was driving him mad. He spent most of his shift trying to figure out how someone could possibly be so rude and arrogant, causing him to mess up two different flower orders, place the chrysanthemums next to tulips (what on God’s green Earth was he even thinking?), and almost forget to lock up the store when he left for lunch. His entire world had been rattled by the new arrival, and he didn’t like it. In fact, it gave him a bit of a tummy ache, and Aziraphale did not enjoy that at all.
Crowley threatened his profits. He would surely be a menace to the neighborhood. And everything in Aziraphale’s carefully planned life could potentially be in ruins, including the business he’d worked so hard to build. So, after lunch, he turned to plotting. Perhaps he could report Crowley to the local florist and gardeners’ association, get him banned for life? That would surely tarnish his reputation, but it could also backfire on Aziraphale if people knew he was a snitch. Or he could spread rumors about Crowley selling dead plants? If he was a better liar and had a weaker moral compass, Aziraphale might have considered it.
Just around three o’clock, during the afternoon lull when few, if any, customers came inside the shop to look about, Aziraphale saw something out the window that deeply unsettled him. Across the street, Crowley stood on the sidewalk, holding a large sign. He climbed atop a small stepladder to string the sign along the side of his shop. Then, he stepped back to admire his handiwork for a second before ducking back inside. Once he moved, Aziraphale could read it, clear and plain as day:
“Grand Opening Sale - 70% off everything,” it said. Aziraphale gasped.***
He waited until closing time to inspect the sign further, glancing around to make sure no one was watching before he puttered across the street. Sure enough, Crowley was having a grand opening sale. But what Aziraphale hadn’t been able to see from his own window was that there was more. Underneath the announcement was smaller text. “Prices will most definitely be lower than A.Z. Fell’s Fantastic Flowers,” he muttered as he read aloud. Then, on the very bottom of the sign in letters so tiny he had to lean in to see them, Crowley had written, “Take that, you frumpy old fool.”
Aziraphale looked up. The lights in Crowley’s shop were on, and through the glass, he could see the man himself staring right back at him. He wasn’t wearing his sunglasses; in the light, his eyes appeared golden, shining with mirth as he watched Aziraphale read the sign. As he caught Aziraphale’s gaze, he winked. Aziraphale bristled.
That settled it. The bastard was going down.
Aziraphale would make damn sure of it.
*Mrs. Dowling had found the name Warlock from a parenting magazine article about unique baby names to make your child seem like an individual. What this article did not factor in was the likelihood of your child getting beaten up by other children as the result of a name like “Warlock,” as she discovered when he first went off to school.
**If you can imagine a thousand lightbulbs going off at once, or perhaps a flashlight shone into your eyes by an annoying sibling, then you have imagined Aziraphale’s brightest smile correctly.
***It is worth noting that Aziraphale has never, in the eleven years of owning his shop, held a sale on anything. Due to his dangerous propensity for giving people things for free, so long as they ask politely, he always considers holding a sale to be an invitation for people to take advantage of his sensitive nature.
Chapter 2: Just Enough of a Bastard
The world’s most terrifying child appoints himself as Crowley’s new assistant. Meanwhile, Aziraphale is getting extremely bothered (and maybe a little hot, but he’d never admit that) about his new neighbor stealing half his business.
The spawn of Satan had just walked into his shop.
Okay, perhaps Crowley was being a smidge dramatic*; he was only a child, after all. But there was something about the boy’s commanding presence and stone-cold eyes that made him shudder a little. He’d strolled in that Tuesday morning after the shop officially opened and made himself at home, perusing the displays without so much as a glance in Crowley’s direction. After about ten minutes of him walking around, Crowley decided to say something. He set his spray bottle down on the front counter.
“Can I help you?”
The boy regarded him briefly, then shook his head. “Probably not.”
Crowley pursed his lips, tilted his head. He appeared as if he was going to say something but found he’d been rendered speechless—not an experience he had very often. Meanwhile, the boy continued to walk about the shop, poking and prodding at various plants. Crowley’s eye twitched as he accidentally tore a petal off one of the tea roses.
“Shouldn’t your parents be with you?”
“Nah, Mum and Dad don’t care what I do, really. Back in Tadfield, they used to just let me play outside all day. Only rule was that I had to be back by sundown.” The boy pointed to a plant on display that had spiky leaves. “What’s this one?”
Crowley rolled his eyes, grateful for the cover of sunglasses. “It’s written on the sign right under it. Don’t they teach you to read in school, boy?”
“‘Course I know how to read. But like, where’s it from? Does it eat bugs and stuff?”
“It’s not a venus fly trap, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The boy’s lips twitched down. “Oh, alright then,” he said, looking up at Crowley. “I’m Adam, by the way. Adam Young. My parents just moved to London.”
To put it gently, Crowley had never been a…kid person. The last time he’d been allowed to hold a child, when one of his cousins gave birth a few years back, he’d nearly dropped the infant on her head. He was also firmly in the camp that believed all babies look a little bit like Winston Churchill, a comment that had gotten him kicked out of the hospital room after the child had been taken away from his grasp. Older children didn’t make much sense to him either, and as such, Crowley found himself with little to say to this Adam Young. But it felt a little too cruel to be outright mean to a child, even for him, so he settled for uncomfortable politeness.
“Right,” he said. “Erm, is London much different than Tadfield, then?”
Adam nodded. “Loads different,” he said. “There’s no woods here to play in, it’s all just cars and roads and buildings. So much more boring then back home.” He paused to appraise his surroundings. “But this shop is pretty neat. I like it in here.”
“Glad you’re enjoying yourself,” Crowley said, with only a whiff of sarcasm in his tone. He picked up his spray bottle once more and resumed tending to his plants, refusing to let the arrival of this strange and slightly terrifying child ruin his schedule. However, his silence did not seem to deter Adam, who continued following Crowley around the shop like a persistent dog.
“I could help out,” Adam said after a few minutes. “Be your assistant.” The way Adam phrased this made it seem less like a proposition awaiting Crowley’s approval and more like a command.
“I don’t really need any help,” Crowley said, slight sneer on his face. In all his years of commandeering different flower shops in cities across the UK, he’d never once hired any “help.” He preferred the do-it-yourself approach to business.
In a move so quick that Crowley barely had time to register it, Adam picked up a fern and tilted it sideways, causing some dirt to spill out the ceramic pot and onto the floor. With a malicious glint in his eyes, he said, “I could be your assistant. Or I could just dump this plant all over the floor—and all the others, too. Wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“Alright, fine, fine, you can be my assistant,” Crowley said as he snatched the plant away from Adam’s grasp. “Just don’t…touch anything else. And try not to ask too many annoying questions, would you?”
Adam’s face, for the first time since he’d walked into the shop, resembled something nice as he brightened and smiled at Crowley. “Wicked! Promise I won’t let you down.” Without warning, and making it apparent he hadn’t listened to anything Crowley said except the word “yes,” he then grabbed one of the nearby hydragneas. “Can I water this one?”
“For God’s sake, put that down,” Crowley said through gritted teeth as he lunged forward—for the second time that day—to pull the plant from Adam’s grasp and place it gently back in its spot.
As he watched Adam nod and mumble an apology, Crowley hoped this new assistantship wouldn’t end up biting him in the ass at some point. He had a strong feeling that it would, though.
Aziraphale sucked on his now-bruised thumb to stop himself from swearing out loud. Perhaps trying to use a hammer when he’d never so much as touched a screwdriver with his manicured hands wasn’t his greatest idea, but it seemed, at the time, the only logical way to hang a banner above his door. After the pulsing in his finger died down, he put hammer to nail once more and finally managed to secure the sign. He stepped down from his ladder, looking up at his shop’s newest adornment.
“SALE - 60% Off Everything Inside.”
With a heavy sigh, he read and reread the words that had pained him so dearly to write. It had become apparent to that Crowley’s arrival to the neighborhood put a decent dent into his profits, as he’d discovered while maintaining his ledgers the previous week. The grand opening of Crowley’s Flowers, Houseplants, and Other Assorted Leafy Green Things had, unfortunately, been a great success, with curious people all over the city coming to check out the new shop. Aziraphale had even spotted a few of his own regular customers popping into the store across the street, a fact he noted with immense disappointment.
Thus, he’d decided it was time he put his old habits aside, grit his teeth, and hold a sale on his merchandise. He’d just gotten some particularly beautiful blooms in stock and was hoping to attract some new customers with lower prices, as well as the elegant new displays he’d curated for his windows. And if he happened to steal away some of Crowley’s business, well, that would just be a nice perk.
With the sign hung, he went inside to open up shop and wait for customers to arrive. The first hour went by slowly, but as people began to take notice, they started coming inside to have a look. Aziraphale tended to each and every customer with a smile on his face and a personal touch, just as he’d always done, and by the time the morning was over, he’d made far more sales than expected. As he went to close for lunchtime, he paused to look out the window to the streets outside, inhaling deeply with a satisfied smile.
The door slammed open. Startled, he turned to look at whoever was barging into his store.
“What are you doing, Aziraphale?” The sharp, annoyed voice of the one and only Anathema Device**—professional descendant of a famous occultist and current owner of a witch-themed memorabilia store—rang out. “You’ve never held a sale before. I just about fell over when I saw the sign outside.”
“Oh, yes,” he said with a sigh. “Have you met Crowley yet?”
He then launched into the whole sordid tale: his expectations of a fellow business owner to befriend being squished beneath the toes of Crowley’s combat boots, the loss of customers, the loss of prestige, the humiliation of that sign Crowley had put up. Anathema listened, studied him for a moment, and then flicked her gaze outside.
“You’re talking about the new guy across the street, right? The one setting up a flower stand right now?”
Aziraphale’s head snapped up, and he ran*** toward the window, nearly colliding with the glass in his haste to see what was happening. On the street corner, Crowley had built a small kiosk adorned with flowers, arranged in (admittedly beautiful) displays. A small crowd gathered around the stand, admiring the bouquets, and Aziraphale watched as he assembled one on the spot and handed it off to a customer.
“That bastard,” Aziraphale swore. “He’s doing this just to get to me, I know he is!”
“I don’t know, Aziraphale,” Anathema said. “I think it’s just good business.”
Aziraphale shook his head in disbelief, pulling himself away from the maddening scene unfolding before his eyes, and retreated back inside the store proper. He plucked a few lilies from the pile he had sitting out on the front counter and threw them down into the bouquet he had been in the middle of putting together before Anathema’s interruption. She observed him as he worked with a wary expression.
“So, you’re coming to my wedding, right?” she finally asked, slipping a card across the counter. It had a photograph of her and her fiancé, Newt Pulsifer****, on the front with “Save the Date” written in swirly, purple letters. “I need you to RSVP like, yesterday.”
“Yes, yes, of course I am.” Aziraphale frowned. “I must have forgotten about the one I got in the mail. I’m so terribly sorry, I’ve…I’ve been awfully distracted lately.”
Anathema placed her hands, which were balled into fists, on her hips and cocked her head. An amused smile danced across her face. “Does it maybe have something to do with your very good-looking and dastardly charming new neighbor?”
Aziraphale, who had been in the middle of sipping the cocoa he’d left on the counter, spit his drink into the mug. He coughed a few times. “Charming? He’s nothing of the sort!”
“I think you doth protest too much, my dearest Aziraphale,” Anathema said with a slight giggle.
He stiffened, tugging the lapels of his favorite tan blazer inwards as he took in a sharp breath.“Well, no one asked you for your opinion, anyway,” he said. The skin of his face felt as though it had caught fire, and he tried to think calming thoughts to ease the flush on his cheeks, hoping Anathema wouldn’t notice.
While Anathema changed the course of conversation to discuss her ongoing wedding dilemmas (which included such thrilling topics as choosing between creme and ivory-colored napkins and whether or not to invite Newt’s odd second cousin who sometimes picked his nose during dinner) Aziraphale drifted towards the window once more, squinting to get a better view of the street corner. Now that it was mid-afternoon, Crowley was at last taking down his kiosk, balancing multiple flowerpots in his arms, two of which he handed to a small child who appeared to be helping him out. Aziraphale scoffed. Of course Crowley would be the kind of man to see nothing wrong with using child labor.
It was in that moment, as he watched Crowley go back into his shop, that Aziraphale had a thought. A nasty, wicked, very bad thought; a thought more suited to a hooligan than someone like himself, and one that violated just about every part of his carefully crafted moral compass. But it was also just the sort of thing to get rid of Crowley once and for all—or at the very least, set him back a few sales.
Mind made up, Aziraphale steeled himself. He was going to do something he swore long ago he’d never do:
He was going to intentionally kill a plant.
When he’d first purchased his new shop, Crowley had been hesitant to rent the space above it for his new flat. Usually he kept a good distance between his home life and his work life. But the deal on the flat was too financially sound to pass up, so he’d signed a lease. Even up through his move, he’d been uncertain about this choice—but the night Crowley that heard a thump from downstairs, followed by the muffled sound of a door slamming shut, it appeared that his decision had probably been a good one.
Ripping off his sleep mask, Crowley grumbled to himself as he stripped away the sheets on his bed with a flourish and got up to find out what the bloody hell was happening in his shop. In the corner of his room, he kept both a baseball bat and a pistol, for use in scenarios just like this one. Once he heard another crash, however, he assumed he probably wouldn’t be needing the gun, based on how clumsy this burglar appeared to be. Creeping down the stairs, bat in hand, Crowley hoped that he wouldn’t need to get the police involved; due to a number of personal reasons, he wasn’t exactly the biggest fan of law enforcement.
Thankfully, though, when he made it to the bottom of the steps and pushed open the door, he found it was only…Aziraphale?
Yes, it was definitely Aziraphale. Although he’d dressed himself in all black and even covered most of his face, the delicate, spotless hands holding an open bottle of bleach gave him away instantly. When he spotted Crowley, he jumped several inches into the air, then capped the bottle as quickly as he could.
“Relax, Aziraphale. I know it’s you.”
With a sigh, Aziraphale peeled the mask off his face, casting his eyes down towards the ground.
“Were you trying to kill some of my plants?” Crowley squinted to get a better look at his intruder. “You were, weren’t you?”
Aziraphale put on a nervous smile, shifting so that the bleach in his hands was now behind his back; however, he neglected to notice that Crowley could still see it perfectly well.
“No, I—of course not, no! What on Earth would give you that idea?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe that bottle of bleach in your hand there,” Crowley said with an exaggerated shrug. “That and the fact that it’s two in the bloody morning and you’re standing in my shop, which, as I’m sure you noticed when you broke in, has been closed for about eight hours now.”
Aziraphale pursed his lips, round cheeks going pink. He appeared to be formulating an excuse—Crowley could practically see his brain at work. But he also knew a bad liar when he saw one, and Aziraphale was about the worst he’d ever met. Eventually, his face drooped, and he set the bleach down on the shelf next to him.
“Yes, I must admit I’ve been quite jealous of your success. I don’t know what possessed me to do something so stupid and…and criminal, at that, but I’m terribly sorry.”
Crowley blinked a few times. He knew he should be angry. Furious, even. After all, Aziraphale had just broken into his shop with the intention of killing his plants and sabotaging his business. And yet, there was something about the idea of angelface of all people having such a thought—let alone the balls to execute said plan—that he found absolutely hysterical.
So he started laughing, and once he started, he couldn’t seem to stop.
Aziraphale eyed him, his expression somewhere between “nervous” and “barely masked concern for Crowley’s sanity.” “You’re not…angry? Or going to call the police?”
“No, no this is bloody hilarious.” Crowley wiped a stray tear from his eyes, shoulders shaking from laughter. “Here I was, thinking you were Mr. Polite, always doing the right thing. And next thing I know, you’ve broken into my shop—badly, I might add—and are trying to kill all my damn plants.”
As he looked back at Aziraphale, something bubbled up inside Crowley that he’d never felt before. It might have been trapped gas, he supposed, but it also felt a lot like admiration for the man in front of him. Give it another week or two, and this little plan of Aziraphale’s might have come straight out of Crowley’s playbook. But he didn’t know how to express such a feeling, so he settled for doing something he knew he was good at: making Aziraphale squirm. He leaned in towards Aziraphale, lips quirking slowly upward in a smile, so close he could smell the cologne on his skin.
“But now, angelface? I’m starting to think you might be just enough of a bastard to be worth knowing.” He lingered for a few seconds before he stepping away, pleased to note that the flush had spread to Aziraphale’s neck.
Aziraphale huffed, loudly. He appeared as if he were trying to pull himself together. “Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
“I’ll leave that one up to you.” Crowley sauntered towards the front counter and hopped up to take a seat, crossing one leg over the other. “So, what was the end game here? You kill my plants…and then what, exactly?”
“Well…to be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure what I thought going into this,” Aziraphale admitted, refusing to look at him. “Maybe I figured I’d set you back a few sales. It’s been hard with you here. All these people, for the past eleven years, used to come only to me for their business.”
“Well, that’s just competition, innit?” Crowley said. “We make each other better business owners and florists just by existing near one another.”
“I don’t think that’s been the case for me,” Aziraphale said. He finally looked at Crowley, his eyes sad and somewhat resentful.
Crowley blew a raspberry, startling Aziraphale. “Oh, bullshit,” he said. “I saw you had a sale recently. Did that not help you make a bigger profit? Did you not have more sales because of it?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“See, that’s my point, angelface.” Crowley had gotten up from the counter by now and was gesturing wildly as he spoke. “We push each other to be better. We’re friendly competitors, that’s all.”
“We’re not friends.”
“Don’t you think we could be?”
The earnestness of the question clearly threw Aziraphale, who looked as if a thousand gears were turning in his head at once. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, like he was searching for a response, but didn’t say anything. At last, he took a deep breath, shoulders falling with his exhale.
“Well, I guess that’s not…entirely out of the question.”
Crowley grinned, almost involuntarily, and felt that emotion bubble up within him again. This time, he didn’t bother to push it back down.
“Good. Glad to hear it. Now, pardon my French, but would you mind getting the hell out of my shop? I’ve got to sleep to keep this—” he pointed at his face and drew a circle with his finger—“Looking sharp.”
With a roll of his eyes, but the hint of a smile, Aziraphale said, “Yes, of course.” Then he grew serious once more. “I really am sorry, you know. I won’t do anything of the sort ever again.”
“I believe you,” Crowley said. The strangest part of all was that he actually did.
As Aziraphale gave him a parting wave and walked out into the night, Crowley tried his best to ignore a rapidly increasing heart rate. Through the window, he watched his new almost-friend make his way across the street, then gazed up at the inky night sky, wondering just what he’d gotten himself into.
*To offer an analogy, if being dramatic was a sport, Crowley would have skipped the Olympic trials and gone straight to the podium for his gold medal.
**When Anathema had first arrived to the neighborhood, she and Aziraphale became fast friends, bonding over having family names that always took strangers off guard and held up the Starbucks line for at least ten minutes while they spelled it out loud for the cashier.
***In certain counties of the UK, Aziraphale’s “run” could only legally be considered walking.
****Anathema’s aforementioned famous occultist great-grandmother had once predicted that she would “meet and make love to a weird, skinny man with an inferiority complex and technological deficiencies.” This man turned out to be Newt Pulsifer, who became her fiancé within just a year of dating.
Chapter 3: Us versus (the) Them
A gang of feral children forces Crowley to seek help from his rival. But you know what they say: keep your friends close and your enemies jammed together with you in a storage room.
TRIGGER WARNING: Homophobic slur towards the end of chapter
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
So it turned out that his new assistant Adam had friends—and to Crowley, they were equally as terrifying. There were three of them in total, two boys and one girl, and they all had loud, squeaky voices that made him want to start punching things. One particular Saturday morning (it was a cold, blustery sort of day, which meant it had started as Crowley’s favorite type of day), they burst into the shop with all the finesse of a herd of stampeding elephants and swallowed Adam up in a group hug. Then they ran rampant amidst the plant displays, picking up pots and setting them down with no regard for proper organization and aesthetic principles.
“Adam, this is wicked,” one of the boys, who had the sort of face that suggested his fingers were constantly sticky, said. “London is so much cooler than Tadfield.”
From slightly behind the others, the quieter boy adjusted his spectacles and piped up, “I don’t know, Brian. Tadfield just feels so much safer than London. What if we get robbed or something? Our parents wouldn’t like that.”
“Don’t be such a worrywart, Wensleydale,” the lone girl of the group said. Her voice was brash and authoritative. “Besides, that’s assuming you even have anything worth taking.”
Adam watched the entire scene unfold with bright eyes and a small smile on his face; it was the happiest Crowley had seen him since he’d first set foot in the shop. “I missed you guys.”
From the little Crowley could follow of their lightning-fast conversational dynamic, he gathered that the kids referred to their group as “the Them”* and that they were some sort of child…gang? Their main hobbies seemed to include playing in the woods, following rules that Adam made up (which only provided further evidence for Crowley’s belief that Adam was the most frightening child on Earth, and perhaps the spawn of Satan), and terrorizing the adults in Tadfield. After around fifteen minutes of these feral children roaming around his shop, Crowley decided to restore some order to his business; some of the other customers were starting to stare, and a couple had even left already as a result of the chaos.
“Could you all just shut up for a moment?” he barked. When the four children looked at him with sad eyes, he coughed and lowered his voice. “Is there something I can help you with, or are you just going to continue bothering my customers as you please?”
The kids looked at one another and shrugged. Crowley frowned as he noticed there were only three of them now. The last one, Wensleydale, was currently—
“Excuse me, mister, can I have this one?” Wensleydale held up a small fig tree and gazed at in admiration. “She’s a beauty.”
“How do you know it’s a girl plant?” Pepper reached out and yanked the pot out of Wensleydale’s hands. “That’s just sexist.”
Almost as soon as Pepper gained possession of said plant, Brian stole it from her and lifted it up into the air. “Hey, Wensleydale! Catch!”
Crowley watched in what felt like slow motion as Brian raised his arm, cocked it, and launched the potted plant towards the other boy. It sailed through the air, spinning a few times before landing on the ground with a crash as Wensleydale dodged out of the way to avoid being hit. Soil spilled out into a sad heap onto the newly cleaned floors, much to Crowley’s anguish.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“Woah, neat. I wanna try next!” Adam, who had been watching the entire scene unfold with all the calmness of a monk, suddenly decided he wanted in on the action, as he picked up a plant and hurled it towards Brian.
Crowley lunged forward. “No, goddammit, stop that!”
It was too late; Brian surprisingly had managed to catch the plant in his grasp, but only for a moment before it slipped from his hands and suffered the same fate as the fig tree before it. The kids cheered and clapped in delight, then scampered around the shop looking for more things to throw. By now, nearly all his other customers had been chased away by the renegade children, who paid no mind to Crowley’s outbursts. In fact, Adam seemed to delight in the chaos around him, grinning wildly as he watched his friends run amok.
Crowley decided he’d had enough—this was his shop, dammit. Just as Pepper had a plant lifted in the air to presumably smash on the ground, Crowley snatched it from her hands.
“This is a place of business, not a fucking playground. Stop touching my merchandise, or…or I’m calling your parents.”
The kids fell silent. Adam studied him for a moment. Then, a slow, terrible, wicked grin crossed his face as he looked at Crowley.
“Hey guys, I think I thought of a new game we can play,” he said, “where we take over the shop for the day, and I’ll be the boss instead. How does that sound?”
“What in the bloody—”
The kids’ cheering drowned out Crowley’s protests.
“What’s your first order as boss?” Wensleydale asked Adam.
Adam looked at Crowley again. “I think we should play a game of tag,” he said, then pointed at Crowley. “And he’ll be ‘it.’”
As the four children stared down Crowley, appearing like a pack of lions ready to begin a hunt, Crowley had the distinct feeling that his life had spun wildly out of his control. So, he did the only reasonable thing a fully grown adult such as himself could be expected to do in a scenario such as this:
He bolted out the door of his shop and hightailed it across the street into the relative safety of A.Z. Fell’s Fantastic Flowers.
Aziraphale, by all accounts, had been enjoying a rather pleasant Saturday. Business was slow that morning, so he’d spent a half hour or so perusing a copy of Leaves of Grass while sipping his morning tea. Then he’d taken it upon himself to take care of some flowers he knew needed a good watering. He was leisurely inspecting his inventory when Crowley arrived to interrupt his fragile peace somewhere around ten, flinging the door open with a bang as he barreled over Aziraphale in his haste to get inside.
“Crowley? What in God’s name—”
Crowley grabbed Aziraphale by the shoulders and shook him. “I need your help.” He sounded out of breath. “Is there someplace I can hide?”
“Yes, but what—”
Crowley whipped his head around to look out the window, then turned back and shook his shoulders again. “There’s no time to explain!”
Aziraphale didn’t know what had gotten into Crowley, but he did know he looked rather distressed. And if there was one thing Aziraphale couldn’t bring himself to ignore, it was a person clearly in need of help.
“Alright, alright.” Aziraphale pulled Crowley’s hands off his shoulders and trotted to the back of his shop, where he had his storage room. He reached into his sweater vest pocket, pulled out a set of keys, and unlocked the wooden door before ushering Crowley inside and shutting the door behind them. “We can hide in here.”
Crowley nodded, glancing distractedly around the room. Piled from floor to ceiling were stacks of books old and new, thick and thin, and Aziraphale could see Crowley scanning some of the titles as he looked at them.** Aziraphale’s actual supplies were shoved into the far corner, as his collection took up the majority of the shelves and the room itself.
Outside, Aziraphale heard the shop door open and close.
“They’re here,” Crowley hissed, raising a finger to his lips. Even though he was the one talking to begin with, Aziraphale thought with mild annoyance.
“Hello? Crowley, are you here? We were only joking, you know. We’ll give you your shop back.” There was a pause. “And you don’t have to be ‘it’ anymore.”
It sounded like a younger voice. Curious, Aziraphale went to the storage room door, opened it just a hair (to the sound of Crowley’s gasp), and peeked through the crack. Milling about his shop were four school-aged children. One of them, a boy with curly hair, appeared to be the leader of the group, judging by the reverential expressions of the other three.
“Crowley’s here, I bet. Let’s just hang out here until he shows up.” The boy paused to glance around the room. “The guy who owns this shop? Crowley never shuts up about him.”
Aziraphale flushed. Crowley talked about him?
He shook his head. No, never mind that; knowing Crowley, it probably wasn’t anything good. With a roll of his eyes, he closed the door once again and turned to face Crowley as he lowered his voice to a whisper. “Oh for Heaven’s sake, Crowley, they’re children. And here I thought you were being mugged, or… or robbed at gunpoint!”
Crowley looked up at the ceiling and muttered, “I might as well have been.” Although Aziraphale couldn’t see his eyes behind those infernal sunglasses he always wore, he was pretty sure that Crowley was wearing the most pathetic expression he’d ever seen on the normally arrogant man. “They’ve taken over my shop. I’ve lost all control.”
Aziraphale eyed him suspiciously. “Do you know them?”
“Well,” Crowley said. “One of them is my assistant.”
Aziraphale recalled the boy he’d seen helping Crowley take down his flower stand. “Oh, yes. The taller boy, correct? I think I’ve seen him around your shop.”
“So you’re watching my shop, eh? Spying on me?” The smirk was back on Crowley’s face before Aziraphale even had a chance to say, Bastard.
“Yes, that’s precisely what I was doing. You’ve figured it out,” Aziraphale said, resisting the urge to roll his eyes again. “How did you end up with a child for an assistant anyway?”
“I don’t know! He just kind of… talked his way into it.”
Just as Crowley appeared as though he were about to launch into an explanation, a voice rang out in the main part of the shop.
“Wait, I think I heard something from over by the counter.”
Crowley practically launched himself off the wall and clamped a hand over Aziraphale’s mouth to silence him, shoving him against the opposite side of the storage room in the process. His shoulder collided with one of the thicker books, which flopped onto the ground with a loud smack. Silence followed. Most embarrassingly, Crowley stood just inches away, his head turned sideways so that Aziraphale could follow the curve of his jaw. His chest heaved up and down with nervous breaths, mirroring Aziraphale’s own. Their position felt entirely too intimate, and Aziraphale did not know what to make of this predicament; so, he decided he needed to get out of it.
After a couple minutes of shuffling outside, followed by the kids calling out Crowley’s name, Aziraphale peeled the offending hand off his mouth before making his way to the door. Ignoring Crowley’s silent protestations, Aziraphale squeezed back through the door and into the shop. The four children immediately fell silent and stared up at him as he gave them one of his signature bright smiles.
“Why, hello there,” he greeted. “I’m Aziraphale, the shop owner. Can I help you? Are you picking out some flowers for your parents, perhaps?”
“We’re looking for Crowley,” the taller boy, the ringleader, said. “He’s the guy who—”
“Oh, yes, I’m familiar.” All too familiar, Aziraphale thought. “But I don’t believe I’ve seen him around the neighborhood at all today. He certainly wouldn’t be here.” He laughed, wiping a hand behind his neck where sweat was starting to accumulate. “No, no, definitely not.”
“I told you we went too far, Adam,” the boy in the glasses said. He had a squeaky, matter-of-fact sort of voice that even irritated Aziraphale.
“I hate to say this, but…I think you might be right, Wensleydale,” the taller boy—or Crowley’s assistant, rather—said. “Let’s just go back and wait for him.”
The kids all looked at one another and nodded (although based on what he’d observed, Aziraphale doubted any of them would’ve dared to suggest otherwise.) Without so much as a goodbye, the gang of children walked out, leaving Aziraphale and Crowley behind. Once they were safely out of the shop, Aziraphale went back to the storage room, knocking lightly on the door.
“You can come out now, Crowley,” he said. “They’re gone.”
After a moment’s pause, Crowley slunk out of the storage room. “I don’t even want to know what my shop is going to look like once I go back.”
“Best not to think about it,” Aziraphale said with a sympathetic smile.
“Well.” Crowley tugged on the lapels of his leather jacket, fixing Aziraphale with a steady gaze. His sunglasses, to Aziraphale’s surprise, were now tucked into the neckline of his shirt, and his expression was surprisingly open, without a hint of his usual arrogance or bravado. “Thanks for… you know. Saving my arse back there.”
Aziraphale grinned. Rocky relationship aside, it was rather nice to feel appreciated. “It was no problem at all,” he said.
Crowley shifted from one foot to the other as he fiddled with the sunglasses. “So, I owe you one now, right?”
“Oh, no, no. Don’t worry about it,” Aziraphale said.
“At least let me buy you a drink, angelface,” Crowley said, raising his eyebrows. “It’s the least I can do.”
Aziraphale blinked a few times, taken aback by Crowley’s suggestion. Not only would this require him spending money on his self-professed rival, but it would also mean extended time spent in one another’s company. But Aziraphale had to admit that he was becoming less and less repulsed by the idea of being around Crowley, and as he’d pointed out, it was only fair that his good deed be repaid in kind.
So he sighed, and against all better judgement, said, “Fine. But only one drink, no more.”
The bar Crowley selected for their evening rendezvous was hardly the sort of place Aziraphale would normally frequent. It was dark, noisy, and smelled overwhelmingly like cigarette smoke, not to mention the patrons who all looked as though they possibly belonged to some kind of biker gang. As soon as he walked inside, he could feel eyes on him picking him as an outsider. Thankfully, Crowley standing next to him seemed to act as a shield of sorts, protecting him from the insults surely brimming in strangers’ heads. Crowley waltzed up to the bartender, a grizzled man with several tattoos on his left arm, and asked for two gin and tonics without any measure of hesitation. He slid the drinks across the bar, and Crowley took them, motioning for Aziraphale to follow him to the back room of the bar, which was much quieter. He chose a small wooden table for them to sit at.
Once Aziraphale was nicely settled in his seat, he took a cautious sip of his drink. It was strong, that was for sure—but even though he might have preferred a nice wine, he could certainly hold his liquor. “So,” he said, clearing his throat. “Erm, do you come here often?”
Crowley, who had been in the middle of taking a rather long drink, set down his glass after a few seconds. “From time to time,” he said, glancing around the room. To their left, two men with ripped leather jackets and multiple piercings played some kind of card game, leaning in towards one another.
“Well, it’s certainly, um…”
“You hate it.” Crowley was looking at him now.
“Well now, I didn’t say that,” Aziraphale said. “It’s not exactly to my usual tastes, but perhaps it’s good for me to broaden my horizons every now and again.”
Crowley nodded, and then they fell into a silence that wasn’t uncomfortable, per se, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable either. Unlike most people, Aziraphale didn’t mind making small talk with relative strangers, and in fact, was rather good at it. But to him, Crowley was inscrutable. He still had no idea what to make of this man who seemed to vacillate wildly between ‘bloody bastard’ and ‘decent human being.’
“You didn’t have to buy me anything, you know,” he said finally. “Or take me out.”
This statement was met with a scoff. “‘Course I did. It’s only fair, since you saved me and all today.”
Aziraphale decided it would be best to refrain from reminding Crowley he’d been so frightened by a gaggle of children and took another sip of his drink. “I’m just surprised you’d be willing to spend time with me outside any necessary interactions.” He gestured between the two of them. “I mean, given that we’re so different, I wouldn’t think this would be an enjoyable occasion.”
Crowley snorted, tilting his glass slightly to the side so it appeared to be pointing at Aziraphale. “Geez, Aziraphale, make it more obvious you don’t want to be here, why don’t you?” he said. “You know, we’re probably more alike than you think we are.”
Now it was Aziraphale’s turn to scoff. He could already feel the warmth of alcohol in his belly, loosening both his tongue and emotions. “My dear boy,” he said. “I can assure you, we have absolutely nothing in common.”
“Dear boy? You’re five years older than me, tops,” Crowley said. “No need to be so patronizing.”
“Right, yes.” Aziraphale felt his cheeks heat up. He knew Crowley was right—he did have a tendency to speak as if he were looking down on others. Not intentionally, of course, but on occasion it did happen. “Sometimes I tend to be a bit… condescending if I’m not careful about it. I apologize.”
Another silence followed.
“So, I’ve been meaning to ask, angelface—why do you have the London Library’s entire collection in your storage room?” Crowley said, a slight smile edging at the corners of his lips.
Aziraphale shifted in his seat, coughed a bit. “I read a lot. Need a place to keep the books I buy.”
“Ever heard of the library?”
At this, Aziraphale cocked his drink back and finished the last few gulps of alcohol. As it went down, he relished in the burn it provided, which tipped him off that he was getting closer to drunk than he realized.
“Well yes, of course, but you see, I had a bit of a misunderstanding with the London Library a number of years ago involving a very rare book I checked out and might have, perhaps, accidentally misplaced.” Aziraphale looked down at the bottom of his now-empty glass, wishing the alcohol had allowed him to feel slightly less ashamed—maybe he wasn’t quite drunk enough yet. “So, I’m sort of…banned for life.”
Crowley burst out laughing, drawing the attention of the men next to them, who were still playing their card game. They eyed Crowley with a mixture of what seemed like fear and curiosity, and Aziraphale suspected his expression mirrored the same.
“You just keep getting more and more fascinating, don’t you?” Crowley finally said after coming down from his fit of laughter. “I’m beginning to suspect you’re quite different than what I thought.”
“Well,” Aziraphale said. His body was warm all over, and he smiled. “There’s always more to people than you think at first, isn’t there?”
“‘Spose you’re right.” Crowley took another glance around the room. As the night wore on, the bar had started to become more crowded, the air filling with loud chatter and aggressive smoke, to the point where Aziraphale had even started to cough a bit. “I’m going to be honest with you, angelface. This bar is just too damn crowded now.”
Aziraphale smiled. “My dear boy, is this the first time we’ve actually agreed on something?”
“Might be,” Crowley said, giving him a rare, genuine smile. “I’m not going to make a habit of it, though.”
“No, I don’t suppose you would. Shall we leave, then?”
Crowley nodded, and the two of them began to wind their way through the crowds by the bar, with Crowley in the lead pushing people aside with his shoulder and Aziraphale trailing behind him, politely muttering, “Excuse me” every time they passed someone. Close to the door, there was no gap to be found, so Aziraphale found himself reaching out and grabbing onto Crowley’s shoulder. With surprise, Crowley turned back to look at the hand, and Aziraphale thought he might have imagined it, but his expression looked softer than normal.
“I’ve got you, angelface,” Crowley mouthed.
With a tug, he pulled Aziraphale through the gap to the other side, where the door mercifully awaited them. Aziraphale sighed in relief. However, what he failed to notice was that the sudden motion had caused one of the bar’s patrons to spill his drink, which went splashing onto the floor by Crowley’s feet.
“Watch where you’re going, faggot.”
The slur came from a broad-shouldered, mean-looking man with a droopy face and eyes like daggers that bore into Aziraphale’s face.
“Oh, dear.” Aziraphale gaped up at him, hands gesticulating uselessly as he struggled to find an apology. “I’m so—I’m very—I really am so sorry.”
“Oh, piss off,” the man said as he quickly rounded on Aziraphale, who remained frozen. At his side, Crowley snarled, and as the man advanced, Crowley suddenly lunged forward and had him by the collar, his feet dangling over the bar’s wooden floors.
“What the fuck did you just say to him?”
*In their own view, the Them were brave warriors and fearless explorers, creating their own little worlds to play in that endlessly enchanted their days. To the rest of Tadfield, they were “a menace” and “the little bastards that stole from my shop,” “my shop” being any store within a fifty mile radius of the Them.
**As a general rule, Crowley did not “read for fun,” and his knowledge of any of the books found in Aziraphale’s collection was most likely limited to plagiarized essays and book reports for his English classes in secondary school and college.
Hi guys! I apologize for the delayed update; my life has been pretty hectic lately. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed this update, and I appreciate all your support in the form of comments, kudos, bookmarks, subs, etc. :)