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Constancy to An Ideal

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Aziraphale sighs then immediately tries to pretend he hasn’t, sitting up straighter and rubbing at his nose as though he had stifled a cough. He had imagined that poetic composition might be a little more -- engaging to be near. William’s earlier poems had been all blood and thunder -- oh, what bliss to be alive! and all that -- and it seemed increasingly unreal that they had been composed by this rather quiet-looking man in this rather dingy-looking kitchen. True, he’d been quite friendly that morning, even suggesting Aziraphale and Crowley spend the night in the place instead of repairing to an inn. Then he’d more or less folded in on himself. No wonder Crowley had wandered off.

Aziraphale sighs again and this time Dorothy’s eye is definitely upon him. William is lost in thought, tapping the tip of his pencil against the sheet of paper in front of him, staring up at the ceiling as though the word he wants might be written on the smoke-stained rafters.

‘Feeling all right, Mr Fell?’ Dorothy asks, leaning over and pushing the teapot in his direction. She had been doing needlework. Or rather, a bit of needlework lay to one side of a lovely piece of stationary. A letter, Aziraphale assumed.1 It was hard to tell which was the distraction and which the task.

‘Thank you -- I’m quite fine. Just -- not used to all this fresh air, you know.’ Aziraphale mimes a theatrical yawn. ‘Tiring to us city folk.’

Dorothy smiles but he gets the distinct sense he’s being humored. She leans over again and stage-whispers: ‘He’ll be like this for hours, I’m afraid.’

Aziraphale leans in, too, and mock-whispers back: ‘What do you do when he’s like this?’

She shrugs and holds up her sewing and not, he notices, the paper. ‘Oh, the usual things. Cooking. Mending. Whatever there is to hand, really.’

There’s a burst of muffled laughter down the hall and Aziraphale starts; Dorothy just looks a little more tired and goes back to her needle. ‘Your friend. He knows Coleridge?’

‘Er -- well --’ Aziraphale hedges. ‘He -- he hadn’t mentioned it. But… er.. -- he gets on well with people.’

Dorothy nods, nibbling at her lower lip, then glances at William and leans towards Aziraphale again. This time, it’s a real whisper. ‘You might want to go check on him. If he’s not used to such things, Sam can be -- overwhelming.’

Aziraphale wanders into the little hall beyond the kitchen; the cottage isn’t large but it gets its share of watery Lake District light. He can see the trim ankle of a lanky figure just through the parlor door. Its owner is sitting backward on a wooden chair, face bright with excitement.

‘Well, but that’s just the thing!’ The red-faced man says, leaning forward on two of the chair’s spindle legs. ‘I had to take over and preach the sermon! Now, granted, I can do an oration with the best of them--but you may as well have Satan as me.’

‘More Beelzebub’s thing, really,’ Crowley says with evident mirth. He’s cozied himself into the chimney corner, and is making free with Dorothy’s elderflower wine.

‘Ah, poor Toulmin, though, he was the preacher fellow,’ Coleridge puckers his brow, face falling grim. ‘Lost his daughter, you know.’2

To Aziraphale it seems highly unlikely any man could fly from a laugh to a tear in a single go. But perhaps he meant it?

‘I’m not interrupting, I hope?’ he asks. Crowley waves him in. Rather drunkenly, for just past lunch.

‘You know Coleridge, don’t you? He’s--eh--tell him about the horse regiment!’ Crowley slaps the back of Coleridge’s chair, and the man perks out of his sobriety again, spreading a broad smile.

‘Signed up under a false name on a lark; Silas Tomken Cumberbatch.’ He snaps his fingers. ‘That’s almost as bad as yours--what is it again? Ezra Gabrielsnerve Fell?’

Aziraphale blinks, completely confounded. Crowley, on the other hand, spills out of his chair and onto the floor in mirth.

‘Last nerve,’ he corrects between giggles. ‘Ezra Gabrielslastnerve Fell.’

Aziraphale blinks again over the noise of Crowley’s laughter and is just about ready to say that he has no idea what’s going on and how on earth have they managed to get this drunk in the two hours since lunch when Crowley pulls himself to his knees and sits back on his heels, flapping a hand at Aziraphale. ‘S’right, isn’t it, a-- Ezra? Didn’t get it wrong, did I?’

‘Hell of a name, sir,’ Coleridge smiles and offers a hand, which Aziraphale takes rather reluctantly.

‘Yes. Very odd parents,’ Aziraphale says, slowly and distinctly, because he has a feeling that’s the only way he’s getting anything across to anybody in this room.

‘Clapham?’3 Coleridge inquires and Aziraphale only barely avoids a shudder. He had met some of the Saints and, quite frankly, if they weren’t Sandalphon’s idea, he’d eat his hat, Crowley’s hat, and any others he could find. They’re just the sort of nonsense you get when angels who don’t really know humans start playing about with inspiration and get it confused with paperwork.

‘No, just -- eccentric,’ he settles in and Coleridge nods, throwing himself back in his chair and stretching his legs out like a small child playing on a wooden horse.

‘Well, we know all about eccentricity here, don’t we, Anthony?’ he says.

‘S’right,’ Crowley says cheerfully, scrambling to his feet and picking a decanter off the table. ‘Wine?’

‘Er --’ Crowley’s filling a glass before Aziraphale can say anything and so he accepts it and takes a sip. It’s bitter, almost like wormwood, all the flowery delicacy of the elderflower drowned, and he coughs over the mouthful. Crowley is watching him, glasses slipped far enough down his nose that Aziraphale can see the glitter of his eyes.

‘Packs a bit of a wallop, doesn’t it?’ Crowley inquires, filling his own glass and sliding the decanter down the table to Coleridge who has one hand out, snapping his fingers like an eager child.

‘It’s --’ Aziraphale tries to work what he’s just drunk and whether he’s supposed to say it’s lovely; holding the glass out against the afternoon light from the window, the only thing he can find to say is that it’s colourful.

Coleridge takes a mouthful from his own glass and smacks his lips in appreciation. ‘You were right, Anthony -- that place down by the docks is much better than the chemist’s I was going to.’

Crowley dips his glass in acknowledgement of the compliment and takes his seat again, lounging this time rather than sprawling, his eyes on Aziraphale. ‘It’s the sailors. Always coming and going. No time for the stuff to get stale.’

‘The -- stuff?’ Aziraphale inquires, sniffing at his glass. Now he thinks of it, there is a very faintly familiar -- oh, dear. Laudanum.4 ‘Oh, Anthony. Really?’

Crowley shrugs with an unrepentant grin and takes an ostentatiously large drink. ‘You wanted to see artistic creation in the flesh, Ezra.’

Yes, but not sloshed out of its mind, Aziraphale very carefully does not say. At least that explains why William has been staring at the rafters for forty-five minutes; he must be one of the sort that takes a contemplative turn. Aziraphale puts down his glass on the nearest flat surface and looks out the window. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk. Before it gets dark.’

‘Wonderful idea! Excellent idea!’ Coleridge rockets out of his chair. ‘Marvellous idea. Everything’s better with a little in you. C’mon, Anthony.’

And before Aziraphale can do anything, Coleridge has caught Crowley’s hand, pulled him out of his chair, and towed him out of the room past Aziraphale.

‘Coming, Ezra?’ Crowley asks with an outright malicious smirk as he’s tugged past and Aziraphale can do nothing but turn and follow.

Aziraphale falls behind the other two, trying to keep within eyesight but out of earshot because Coleridge, it turns out, is a wordy inebriate. Words spill from him like ashes from the grate, words about everything: the road they’re on, the fence that runs beside it, the distant glitter of lake water, the parsnips in the garden they pass. And it isn't as though Aziraphale doesn’t enjoy Coleridge’s work -- it’s a little fantastic, perhaps, but with something solid at the core. He just hadn’t realised quite so much of the fantastic was fuelled by laudanum -- nor had he realised exactly how chummy he was with Crowley. Crowley quite definitely had not mentioned knowing Coleridge when they came down in the coach so either Crowley had deliberately left Aziraphale in the dark or--

Aziraphale frowns to himself. No, Crowley had deliberately left him in the dark and he doesn’t know what that means.

‘-- imagine,’ Coleridge’s voice floats back to him on the breeze as the man flings out one arm, the other comfortably linked through Crowley’s, in a sweeping gesture. ‘All of this a thousand years from now and not a sign that we were ever here.’

‘Well, some sort of sign,’ Crowley says and kicks a rock so that it bounces out of the road and off the stone wall. ‘Walls don’t build themselves.’

Coleridge laughs. ‘What a monument to mankind -- a stone wall!’ He drops Crowley’s arm suddenly and dashes to the wall, trying to scramble on top of it and, when he can’t, standing beside it with arms spread like an orator. ‘To thee, O Wall, an ode of gratitude--’

‘Oh, good heavens,’ Aziraphale mutters and walks up beside Crowley who is watching Coleridge with a slight tilt to his head, as though the human is confusing him somehow. ‘Is he always like this?’

‘Mmm? Dunno,’ Crowley murmurs and Aziraphale curses the dark lenses like never before. He could split them with a thought, shatter the glass, rend the frames -- or even do something as simple as reach up and take them off Crowley’s nose.

‘Well, you don’t usually drink with strangers.’

‘Are you joking, angel? I always drink with strangers.’

‘Not laudanum, you don’t.’

‘Well.’ Crowley grins at him. It is not a very sober grin. ‘I didn’t have that much. Just a--a thimble--or something. Small.’

Aziraphale looks from him to Coleridge -- who has now managed to yank himself on top of the wall and is pacing along the top, ranting at the sky -- and back again. ‘So he’s had most of it?’

Crowley nods thoughtfully. ‘Sss’a dose that’d make de Quincey think twice.’

‘Oh, my.’

‘I expect he’sss been working up tolerance.’

Aziraphale purses his lips. He may as well ask the questions outright. Crowley was never very good at lying, and especially bad at it when drunk.

‘And you know’ he asked. Crowley leans forward just enough to support his liquid weight on Aziraphale’s shoulder.

‘Do I know him?’ he asks, then cranes his head slightly back as if to get Aziraphale in better focus. ‘Why, angel. I believe you’re jealous.’

Anything Aziraphale might have answered is lost in a bellow from Coleridge who bursts in between them, grabbing Crowley’s hands and towing him up the road. Crowley goes willingly enough. But there is a cloudiness about him Aziraphale can feel, and it bothers him. Should he follow? Up ahead, he can see the two men strolling, practically tangled up together and laughing. He smoothes his waistcoat. No. Crowley said he knows his mind, who am I to say otherwise?

Anyway, there’s really nothing but heath and lake. They won’t be gone long. Surely.

William is still lost in contemplation of the rafters when Aziraphale returns. Outside it’s gloaming, and the hills are losing themselves in a twilight haze. Dorothy offers toast and tea, the scant welcome of a home continually only just scraping by.

‘Still out, are they?’ she asks.

‘Ah. It seems so.’ Aziraphale accepts the tea and refuses the food, claiming a headache. And in fact he feels he might as well have one. ‘Mr Coleridge often goes on night walks, does he?’

A pained sort of expression crossed Dorothy’s face.

‘Sometimes all night. It’s the muse,’ she says, then, a little more ruefully, ‘The one in the bottle. Your friend, he isn’t terribly used to all the... exercise?’

Aziraphale tries very hard to think in strictly literal terms.

‘I’m sure he’ll keep up,’ he said, and, taking his tea, retreats to the attic loft that serves as a spare room.

Aziraphale leaves the tea to go cold on the small table by the door and sits down by the slanting dormer window to watch the last of the sunset.

Coleridge and Crowley do not return until well after dark. An hour and twenty-six minutes after dark, to be exact, because Aziraphale is counting. He has plenty to say to his demon when Crowley finally makes his way upstairs. Except he doesn’t. Aziraphale chews on his lip and listens, because after all angels have very good hearing when they want to.

A small noise--a scrape--announces a chair being dragged. Then the heavy sound of someone or something slumping into it. Then the sound of Coleridge’s voice:

‘Oh, lad, you had more than your fair share!’ He sounds on the edge of a laugh. Aziraphale holds his breath and listens carefully; there had been a reply but he’d missed it. Meanwhile, glasses are clinking. ‘The cure is always more, you know.’

Well, that was not true. Aziraphale chews the end of his thumb. Crowley certainly knows his limits and has the ability to defend himself not to mention to sober himself. But he had to do the latter before the former, and frankly…

Aziraphale closes his pocket Shakespeare and makes his way down the stairs. He pauses outside of Coleridge’s room. He’d been given the briefest tour by Dorothy earlier, and though he’d only glimpsed the interior, it was far more bedroom than sitting room. Which didn’t mean anything, of course, Aziraphale reminds himself. Unavoidable in such a small house. Nothing to worry about at all. And no reason to be pressing his ear to the door so carefully. Very quiet voices filter out to him.

‘Pleasure dome,’ he heard Coleridge whisper. ‘In caverns measureless to man.’

Caverns, Azirphale tells himself. Perhaps there are some, nearby and they had been discussing geological features--? As if Crowley had ever been interested in geological features.

A sighing Crowley answers. Something about fertile ground and incense bearing trees. The Garden? Surely he wouldn’t tell Coleridge about the Garden? Aziraphale kneels at the keyhole, aware suddenly that this is a very suspicious thing to be doing (and doing it anyway).

He can see firelight, and one long lean calf, definitely Crowley’s and he knows that not because he’s been studying Crowley’s legs enough to know them on sight but because he had been with the demon when he bought that particular pair of shoes. He can’t see nearly enough to make assumptions, he chastises himself--but there is it again, Coleridge’s voice. He is just out of view. He must be behind Crowley--

‘As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, a mighty fountain momently was forced.’

A sound like the squeaky wheel of a rag and bone cart chirps from Aziraphale’s throat. He claps a hand over his mouth--but now it’s Crowley and--

‘As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted by woman wailing for her demon-lover!’

‘That’s it!’ Aziraphale shoves the door open, rather surprised to find it wasn’t locked to start with. A startled Coleridge looks up from the--from the-- ‘Why are you lying on the floor?’ Aziraphale demands.

‘Think better like that?’ Coleridge is, in fact, upside down and blinks at Aziraphale as though the answer to his question is entirely obvious. His head rests near the hearth and his legs are flung up against the edge of his bed, as if he’d just been tossed there.

Crowley is languidly strewn across his chair. ‘Writin’ poems and such. Care to join us?’

‘Poems.’ Aziraphale repeats the word like he’s never heard of it before.

‘Yeah. Cobble--Cubby--something. Whassit, Sam?’ Crowley asks, and it’s Sam now, is it?

‘Well, you are done now.’ Aziraphale swoops into the room before his resolve abandons him and lifting Crowley to his feet by his armpits.

‘Hey! You can’t just take the muse away like that--what if I never finish this poem?’ Coleridge demands.

‘You’re a poet in a house of poets,’ Aziraphale huffs as he pushes an unprotesting Crowley through the door. ‘I’m sure you’ll figure it out.’ Muse, indeed!

They are half way up the stairs before Crowley speaks.

‘Khan! That’s it. Kubla Khan.’ Aziraphale is prepared to scold, but the ridiculous delight on Crowley’s face at having remembered is utterly disarming.

‘You were really writing poetry in there?’ he asks, one hand on the stair rail.

‘All day. S’all he ever talks about--how he’s got these big bloomin’ ideas and needs a muse to rattle them off to.’ Crowley stifles a yawn. ‘Dunno why he doesn’t just talk to Dorothy. She seems the brains of this outfit.’

‘Ah. Yes. Quite.’ Aziraphale climbs to the attic landing, a deep blush suddenly coming up hot all over his face. He’s grateful for the bad light. He keeps his eyes averted from Crowley, who must surely see how embarrassed he’s become, and goes back to his seat by the window, dropping into his chair and pushing the window wide.

‘Eh, angel?’ Crowley asks, still in the doorway. ‘What did you think was going on?’

Aziraphale doesn’t answer because it’s glaringly obvious to the meanest intelligence -- which Crowley most definitely is not -- what he had thought was going on.

Crowley takes a deep breath and gives his head a brisk shake; Aziraphale hopes there’s no-one in the front room at the moment to see the level in the wine bottle rise of itself. Crowley takes his glasses off, and rolls his shoulders, then crosses the room to Aziraphale. He drops on his knees, folds his arms over Aziraphale’s thighs, and rests his chin on the back of one forearm. ‘You’re mad at me.’

Aziraphale shakes his head. ‘No.’

Crowley nods, digging his chin into his own arm. ‘Ah, but you are. I can tell.’ He taps his temple with one long finger. ‘Clever, me.’

‘I just -- don’t enjoy surprises like you do.’ Aziraphale swallows back anything else that might have to do with the slight burning sensation in his chest when he thought of Crowley with someone not himself, someone who wouldn’t touch him with the requisite care and affection, someone who wouldn’t know him. Aziraphale had always known that there would be a hitch with the fact that they never talk about what happens between them sometimes when -- well, what sometimes happens between them. Aziraphale’s not quite sure what the requirements are, honestly, except he’s been aware for the last century or so that he wants them to arise more often but now he wishes -- he wishes--

Crowley’s forehead wrinkles. ‘Surprises?’

‘You and Coleridge.’

‘What about me and Coleridge?’

‘I didn’t realise you knew him so -- so intimately.’ Aziraphale pauses to make sure his voice is steady before he lies. ‘I don’t mind, dear, I just--’ ...haven’t had to be civil to one of your lovers over breakfast before. That I know of.

Crowley scowls at him. ‘I don’t know him. Never spoke a word to the man ‘til we walked in here this morning.’

Aziraphale blinks. ‘Really? Then how did you come to have laudanum with you?’

Crowley snorts. ‘’S’not exactly a secret.’ He shrugs. ‘Anyway. Encouraging vices -- s’what I do. ‘F not him -- someone else.’

‘Then why not tell me -- Crowley, I don’t understand.’

‘Oh…’ Crowley screws up his face and sags back so he’s sitting on his heels. ‘D’you have to? D’you have to understand everything, angel?’

‘Well, not everything--’ Aziraphale’s train of thought goes off the rails when Crowley pushes himself between Aziraphale’s knees.

‘Maybe I wanted to see if you’d notice,’ Crowley says, reaching up to run his fingers lightly over the bone buttons of Aziraphale’s waistcoat. ‘If I paid attention to someone else. If you’d do anything or say anything or--’ Crowley hooks a finger into the top button and shrugs. ‘--just let me go my way.’

‘And -- which did you want me to do?’

Crowley looks up at him for a long moment then, before Aziraphale can say anything, Crowley shoves himself up from his knees and cups Aziraphale’s face in both hands.

‘Just tell me, angel.’ Crowley’s voice is rough, his hands cold where he’s touching Aziraphale’s cheeks and Aziraphale raises his own hands to cover them. ‘Tell me you’d rather have lunch with me than hang about with daft poets in damp cottages.’

And there it is. Aziraphale had missed it almost completely. It wasn’t his jealousy at all.

‘Oh my dear Crowley.’ Aziraphale slides his fingers between Crowley’s, and tries to think, to think of the long-term, the Plan. But he can’t, really. Not tonight. ‘There’s never anyone more interesting to me than you.’

‘Not even bloody daffodil hill Wordsworth?’

‘Oh lord, no, Crowley,’ Aziraphale beams. ‘Not ever.’

Crowley’s breath comes out in something between a sigh and a groan and he pushes in between Aziraphale’s knees to kiss him.

Downstairs, Coleridge has descended into what Dorothy refers to simply as ‘a mood.’ Forced to give it more specific contours she might say ‘acting like a spoiled child denied cake on May Day.’

‘Just goes off and leaves me!’ he mutters, arms folded and legs outspread where he sits against the wall. ‘I thought we were mates.’

Dorothy pours tea and sets about making something for dinner. There’s half an apple pie left in the pantry which is a blessing. Will has begun to lift above the haze and he's always nosing for sweets after.

‘How long have you known him?’ she asks.

Coleridge wrinkles his nose. ‘What does it matter? I’ll never finish that poem now.’ He sighs dramatically, letting himself sag even further down the wall. He watches her for a minute, then makes a face. ‘You're not making eggs for dinner again, are you? You know I don’t like how you make eggs.’

Coleridge could not recognize a long-suffering look. So Dorothy gives him two.

‘Eggs?’ William strokes his bearded chin. ‘Yellow yolks. A bit like daffodils.’ His watery eyes rove the kitchen. ‘Where did that Ezra fellow go?’

‘To bed,’ Dorothy says gently. Then because it seemed to lack a certain seasoning: ‘With headache.’

‘Ask her where the other one got off to,’ Coleridge pouts. Dorothy did not like to speculate. She rather suspected he, too, had a headache. Envy didn't suit anyone, of course, but she'd quite like to be having a headache with her own dear friend just now, if Mary wasn't away to London.

‘Well, the two of you are always excellent company for each other,’ she says philosophically. ‘I’ll get on with some supper.’

And then she‘d put the kettle on, and hope the noise of steam rising might offer just a hint of a screen for her less literary guests above.

1. A letter. To Mary. Who was out of town and wasn’t the world a much duller place?

2. Coleridge took over a parish briefly from the Reverend Joshua Toulmin after the latter’s daughter drowned. It’s hard to say whether this was a good choice or not.

3. The Clapham Sect or Clapham Saints were a group of Church of England social reformers based in Clapham, London. Aziraphale thought their work toward social justice all well and good, but the self-congratulatory morality was enough to make Gabriel blush.

4. A tincture of opium and alcohol; bitter as Beelzebub’s knickers.