Airports always seemed to be such like a kind of purgatory, a transient place where all manner of people rubbed shoulder to shoulder, trapped in bleak halls and overpriced shops, buying bland and tasteless food while waiting for a journey to begin.
Aziraphale had always hated them, with their speakers and screens and arrows giving contradictory directions.
They were so much worse when one was in… well… to put it mildly a right state.
He shifted his canvas hold-all on his knees, fidgeting uncomfortably on the plastic seat. Yes, technically, he could go and sit in the lounge, but then – of course – he would fret and worry about whether they might change the gate or whether he’d read the screen wrong or… or any number of things that could go wrong in an airport.
So he sat and fidgeted, and as soon as they opened the gate for first-class passengers, he bustled up as quickly as he could. There were pleasantries and smiles from charming hostesses, but he couldn’t care less. The sooner he was on the plane and had something to drink, the sooner he wouldn’t have to think about the actual flight.
Once he found his seat, he tucked himself into it at once, gratefully knocking back a measure of the champagne the hostess had poured for him.
It would all be all right. It would be fine. This was just the difficult part. The… the flying.
As soon as he got to London and found Gabriel, then they could sort everything out and everything would be back to normal.
With fumbling fingers, he unlocked his telephone, staring at the last message. How things had changed since he received it, two days ago. [See you soon, hon.] Soon. Ha. As if Gabriel hadn’t telephoned the very next day, waxing lyrical about some devilishly delightful person he’d met.
Aziraphale’s thumb hovered over the screen. He really ought to send a message to let Gabriel know he was coming. He really ought to do something.
“But I’m – I thought – we’re meant to be getting married.”
“I know, I know,” Gabriel had soothed, as if he’d just spilled something on the tablecloth and not announced he was running off with some floozie. “You’re great, Az, you really are. Smart and funny and sweet, but Bea? She’s a spitfire. So much vim! So much spunk!”
“I have spunk!” Aziraphale protested, too stunned and shaken to be truly angry. “You always say I’m a feisty little thing!”
“And you are, but–”
“But not enough, clearly.”
He’d hung up and sat for close to an hour before the shock gave way to indignation and outrage. Half a bottle of wine and some furious telephone calls later and he had a plane ticket back to London to track down his stupid bloody errant fiancé.
Michael, Gabriel’s sister, had tried to talk him out of it. It was probably just a fling, she’d insisted. Getting it out his system before they settled down. Sowing his wild oats. It’d be fine. And anyway, she added, if Aziraphale left America, then he could kiss goodbye to his citizenship application. The very citizenship he had applied for to ensure he would be able to stay with his future-husband.
The cheating no-good imbecile.
He huffed and slapped his phone down on the arm of his plush first-class seat and took another mouthful of champagne, sneezing when the bubbles tickled his nose.
Economy passengers were flooding down the aisle and he watched them passing as he brooded over his drink. Some were clearly happily partnered off, giggling and touching, and he sank more morosely into the seat.
A colourfully-dressed young lady stumbled, almost falling over the arm of his chair and he reached out to steady her. She’d tripped over his bag, he realised, mortified.
“Oh, my dear, excuse me.”
She straightened up with a rueful smile. “Not a bother.” His eyes drifted to the extremely prominent swell of her midriff. “Yeah, that’s causing some of the balance problems.” She groped down for her bag and he scooped it up for her. “Thanks.”
“Surely, you’re not travelling alone…”
She peered around for her shoe, digging it out from under the opposite seat. “On my way home to my better half,” she replied. Grumbles from other passengers behind made her make a face. “No harm done. Better get moving or there’ll be hell to pay.”
Why he did it, he couldn’t say.
Perhaps the need to see some little bit of optimism, but thirty seconds later, he shuffled through the curtain into the far more crowded sections of the plane, leaving a very bewildered and very surprised pregnant woman occupying a plush first-class armchair that would certainly be far better for her than being sardined away in economy.
Mercifully, it was a window seat, but he still had to clear his throat to get the passenger in the aisle seat to move. The black-clad man was sprawled out in the seat, long legs accordioned up in front of him, and sunglasses on his – oh good Lord – tattooed face. Was that a snake? Who on earth had a snake tattooed on their face?
Aziraphale cleared his throat again, but when the man didn’t move huffed indignantly. “Excuse me.”
The man peered up at him. “What?”
Aziraphale sheepishly indicated to the window. “My seat.”
The man’s eyebrows rose, but he shrugged and unfolded out of the seat like a piece of origami. He seemed to be entirely made of long, gangling limbs.
“Thank you,” Aziraphale said, clutching his hold-all up to his chest and squeezing in to the window seat. As soon as he sat, he tried to put his bag under the seat, then frowned. How on earth was anyone meant to fit one’s feet in anywhere?
“I can shove it in the overhead,” Mr. Aisle-seat said. “S’plenty of room.”
Aziraphale eyed him guardedly, then the pitiful amount of leg-room. “That would probably be best,” he reluctantly agreed, handing the bag over, though he clung onto the handle. “Do be careful. I have a couple of fragile volumes in there.”
The man grinned at him, teeth astonishingly pointed and white, and hoisted the bag over his head. It disappeared into the overhead locker, and the man concertinaed himself back down into the seat.
Aziraphale occupied himself finding both ends of his seat belt, tilting one way, then the other, and tried to ignore the feeling he was being watched. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Mr. Aisle-seat looking in his direction, though it was hard to tell with the sunglasses.
“Didn’t you have a glass of champers up in first class a minute ago?”
“Er…” Oh look! The two ends of the belt. Fitting together. And not at all reminding him that he’d–
“You did!” the man exclaimed. “Fizzing like anything, it was! What happened? Decided to see what life’s like for the plebs, eh?”
Heat bloomed up Aziraphale’s cheeks. “Um. I gave it away.”
Mr. Aisle-seat was fully gaping now. “You what?”
Aziraphale threw up his hands. “I gave it away! There was a poor young lady coming through and she’s expecting and I said, here, have my seat! More room for her and the baby!” He glanced uncomfortably at the man next to him, suddenly worried that the rather dangerous-looking man with his face tattoos and dark glasses might take it personally. “I do hope it wasn’t the wrong thing.”
One side of the man’s mouth curled up. “Well, aren’t you just an angel,” he drawled.
“Oh!” Aziraphale flushed. “Thank you… ah…” He raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
The man’s sharp grin softened a bit at the edges. “Crowley.” He offered a skinny hand. “Anthony Crowley. Most people just stick with Crowley.”
“Crowley.” Aziraphale echoed, nodding as he shook the man’s hand. “Yes. Very good.” He jumped when the plane juddered to a start and shot a panicked look out the window. “Oh Lord…”
“Leaving on time. That makes a change,” Crowley said, leaning over to peer out the window.
“Yes. Very good.” Aziraphale fumbled with the seat belt, trying to fit the tongue in the hasp, as the pre-flight recording started playing on the screen in the back of the seat in front. The buckle done, he grabbed for the instruction card, frantically looking between it and the screen.
“Bit nervous?” Crowley inquired, sprawled back comfortably in his seat.
“I-I don’t usually travel solo,” Aziraphale mumbled, scanning the images on the card. Oh why, why, why had he given up his seat in the nice part of the plane with wider aisles and easy access to the doors instead of pinioning himself into a corner like this?
“Ahhh.” Crowley said as if Aziraphale had made some great explanation. “You’re one of those.”
Aziraphale blinked at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“Bet you have your chaperone,” Crowley continued, smirk curling his lips. “Someone to hold your hand and tell you there there, it’ll all be all right.”
“Well, techn–” Aziraphale huffed. He was a grown man, for Heaven’s sake! “No! Absolutely not! I-I-I can travel quite well on my own in fact! I’m a business man and perfectly capable of–”
“Of what?” Crowley swayed, grinning, clearly enjoying himself. What a nasty man. “Of lying back and thinking of England?” He leaned a little closer, wiggling his eyebrows. “Y’seem the type. Buttoned up and always need someone to look after you like the pillow princess you–”
“How dare you!” Aziraphale reached over and jabbed the man in the chest. “You don’t even know me and you make such crude assumptions and accusations entirely based on my appearance! I find that the height of contempt and you ought to be ashamed of yourself and–”
And he found all the frustration and anger and everything else had couldn’t direct at Gabriel just poured out. He kept jabbing the man in the bony chest repeatedly with a finger to make his point, and all the while the stupid, stupid man just grinned at him, like he’d won the lottery.
“And on that matter,” he concluded, “I think it’s none of your business.” He sniffed haughtily and folded his hands in his lap.
“Right, yeah, no, totally agree,” Crowley said amiably. “Just out of curiosity, though…”
“What?” Aziraphale snapped.
“What do you think of the view?”
It took a moment for the words to sink in, then he turned to the window, staring out.
They were in the air.
He hadn’t even had time to panic about the take-off, too busy pouring forth his vitriol on his neighbour. Who had seemed entirely amused by his ranting. Who had… who had distracted him and kept him from the inevitable terror and meltdown that usually loomed when he travelled.
“Oh…” he breathed, watching the edge of the Eastern seaboard vanish below as they curled out over the Atlantic. He twisted in his seat to look at Crowley, but the man was already off up the aisle and heading towards the toilets. Aziraphale looked back out the window, a mortified flush rising in his cheeks. “Oh dear.”
"A bit of crumpet" is English slang - it's the equivalent of calling someone a snack :)
The bugger about the loos on a plane was that they were designed for a certain shape and size of people.
Crowley balanced himself precariously on the rim of the toilet, his knees wedged up against the door, and carefully fished a small bundle out of the inside pocket of his jacket. Handy thing about wearing a leather jacket was no one really paid attention to the smaller leather thing inside it.
He unwrapped the cloth to check the small, leather-bound book inside, a sigh of relief escaping him that it got through the cack-handedness of American security without damage. Seam intact and the concealed sachet of seeds tucked in the spine still secured in place. One customs cleared. One more to go.
He wrapped it back up again, tucking it close to his chest, before slipping out into the aisle again. Squeezing his way around the trolley-dolly, he palmed a couple of bottles of… well, something. Didn’t really matter, did it? Bit of booze was a bit of booze.
His neighbour glanced up at him, pink-cheeked, when he flopped back down into his seat.
“Er.” He said.
Crowley snickered, snapping the seal one of the bottles and chugging the lot. Ugh. Some kind of fizzy white wine. Not even good fizzy white wine.
“Um,” his neighbour continued. “Excuse me?”
“Hm?” Crowley peered at him, raising his eyebrows.
The flush bloomed across the man’s cheeks. With the sunlight shining in the window behind him, making his white-blond curls shine like a halo, he looked like he’d tripped out of a Botticelli, landed in an Edwardian gentleman’s wardrobe before staggering onto a plane. “I… um…”
Crowley turned his attention back to the second bottle. Oh yes. Nice miniature Scotch.
“May I ask you something?”
Crowley glanced at him. “M’not stopping you.”
“Those… things you said before, when the plane was taking off…” The blush was turning into an impressive full pink-sunset glow. “I mean… you… were you just saying them to make me angry, or do I– am I–” He huffed. “You don’t really think I’m some sort of… of… you know.”
God, he recognised that expression.
“Nah,” he said, holding another of his small bottles – vodka this time – to the man as a peace-offering. “I thought raking up the stereotypes was the easiest way to get you all… het up.” To his relief, the poor sod actually chuckled weakly at the pun, accepting the bottle. “Never judge a book by its cover, that’s my rule.”
Crowley couldn’t help himself. “What? Don’t think I know how to read?”
The receding blush returned full force. “I– er–”
He laughed. “Calm down, angel,” he said, tilting his own bottle in the man’s direction. “I don’t bite.”
The man unscrewed his own bottle and after a moment of cautious hesitation, tapped the neck against Crowley’s bottle. “Well… cheers then.” And necked the full bottle of vodka, much to Crowley’s surprise. “Ah! A nice kick.”
“See that,” Crowley said, waving a finger at him. “That, I wouldn’t expect from someone like you.”
The man looked both pleased and smug. “Don’t seem the type to hold my spirits?”
“To be honest, you look like a tea-and-crumpets sort.”
As the man methodically replaced the cap on his miniature bottle, his lips pursed up a bit. “Well, who’s to say one can’t have both?”
“Both is good,” Crowley agreed amiably. “Like a bit of both, me.” He peered at the man. “D’you have a name, then, or am I just going to have to call you angel for the whole flight?”
“Oh!” The man clutched his chest like a maiden aunt. “I forgot! How rude of me.” He held out the same hand. “I’m Aziraphale.”
The man gave him that we-are-not-amused pursed look. “Don’t be facetious. It doesn’t suit you.”
Crowley grinned at him. “Yeah, but it’s fun.”
Aziraphale – what kind of bastard of a parent gave their kid a name like that? – wrinkled his nose. “Fun for you, maybe.” He glanced out of the window again, staring down, and Crowley spotted the way his shoulders bunched up, his fingers twisting the bottle over and over.
“You going to correct my assumptions, then?”
“I beg your pardon?” Aziraphale turned back to him.
Crowley tossed him another small bottle, which he fumbled to catch. “Well, you got testy enough about me making them and insisting they weren’t right.” He raised his eyebrows. “You don’t strike me as the bear type.”
Aziraphale sputtered into his second bottle and coughed damply. “No. No, certainly not.” He groped into the pocket of his jacket, fishing out a phone and unlocking it. “This is my fiancé. Gabriel Archer. He’s a rather famous novelist. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
Crowley peered at the screen. Good-looking man, but looked like he knew it as well. Tall, dark and chiselled kind of thing. ‘Classically handsome’ people would call it. But with a generous vibe of Smug Bastard rolling off it as well.
“Can’t say I have,” he said. “And he normally travels with you, does he?”
Aziraphale’s expression shut down. It was impressive, collapsing slowly like a flan in a cupboard. “Ah. Well. Yes. Usually he does. But he was– he’s in London for a publishing event and I thought I would pop over and join him for a few days.”
Liar, Crowley thought. It was tempting to poke and upturn the stone, see what drama was wriggling underneath. Bit of free entertainment for the trip. Definitely more interesting than watching a middle-aged man spend the whole flight borderline panic-attacking.
“What about you?”
Aziraphale tucked his phone away, sounding calm, but for those white, white knuckles. “Someone special waiting for you at the other end?”
“Nah.” Crowley shifted his shoulders against the seat. “Not really a settle down type, me.” Which was a load of bollocks, but it wasn’t as if Sneeze the angel needed to know that. “Go where the wind takes me and all that.”
It was amazing how so much judgement could be loaded onto a single syllable.
Crowley rolled his head back towards his neighbour. “Who’s falling for the stereotypes now?” he said with a wicked grin.
Aziraphale went puce like a switch had been flicked. “I never said–”
“Hmmmm.” Crowley mimicked.
Aziraphale actually tutted! Tutted like some kind of Victorian schoolmarm. “My dear fellow,” he said, shaking his fluffy white head, “you were the one who suggested you…” He flapped a hand. “Flitted about. Pardon me if I find that kind of lifestyle rather… uncomfortable.”
“Says the man who chooses to live in America.”
“Ah. Yes. Aha.”
Again, he had the impression of a deflated soufflé as Aziraphale paled and looked away, wrestling the second bottle open. Not so much choosing as having it chosen for him. Seemed like Smug Bastard was literal Smug Bastard rather than Hypothetical.
“Your fiancé American, then?” he inquired.
“Gabriel?” The man nodded, then downed the miniature of – oof. Red wine on top of vodka was probably a bad idea. Still, too late now. “We live in New York. Manhattan, in fact.”
“Fancy.” Crowley couldn’t help wondering what kind of money they had to be rolling in.
Aziraphale’s brow furrowed. “It’s only a three bedroom flat.” Only, Crowley thought wryly. In Manhattan. “I mean, it’s nothing compared to his friends.” His friends, Crowley noted. And, as if someone turned on a light inside him, he added, “Though we do have Broadway and I adore spending an afternoon at the Met.”
Of course he bloody did.
“And there’s a lovely restaurant I like just off 47th. They serve the most marvellous oysters.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “I’ve never eaten an oyster.”
From Aziraphale’s expression, he might as well have said he drop-kicked puppies into the sun. “Oh, my dear, you must,” he insisted, reaching over and clutching Crowley’s wrist, then starting as if he hadn’t planned to do that. “Ha. Oh dear. Possibly shouldn’t have had a tipple on an empty stomach.”
Mixing vodka, wine and champagne as well, Crowley thought ruefully.
“They’ll bring nibbles around in a bit,” he said. “Nothing like your fancy first class stuff, mind.”
“We don’t even get proper cutlery back here,” Crowley continued, enjoying the horrified look that spread on the man’s face. “We have to eat with our fingers like savages.”
“You must be joking!” One side of Crowley’s mouth betrayed him and Aziraphale laughed. “Oh, you beast.”
Much to his surprise, they spent most of the flight like that, Crowley gleefully winding up the first-class refugee with tales of things poor plebs in economy had to suffer and said refugee huffing and rolling his eyes and apparently completely distracted from the fact he was indeed a) flying and b) unchaperoned.
The look on the man’s face when he was presented with his meal tray made Crowley crack up completely, especially the cautious way he peeled up the foil cover. “I’m expected to eat this?”
“It is food, angel,” Crowley retorted, grinning. “I mean, maybe you don’t remember what it is to eat like a peasant, but–”
Aziraphale swatted his arm. “Oh do shut up.”
A bottle of wine miraculously appeared too, delivered by a stewardess. Gratitude for Aziraphale’s act of kindness, she said – nay, insisted – as she left it with them. Fancy stuff too, proper grown-up fizzy plonk. Probably never drunk out of cheap plastic tumblers before, but there was a first time for everything.
“It’s for you,” Crowley said, when Aziraphale leaned over to pour him a cup.
“Oh pish-posh,” Aziraphale insisted. “Consider it a payment for providing me with a chaperone for my journey.”
So they ate the crappy food and drank the entire bottle of fancy wine between them and, four hours into the flight, Aziraphale listed gently sideways, his head bonking softly against the wall of the cabin, and he started to snore.
Crowley eyed him, all prim and fussy and proper and perfectly innocent, and felt like a complete bastard for what he was about to do.
By the time the plane came into land, Aziraphale was only just stirring. Groggy and disorientated, he squinted at Crowley in confusion, then his surroundings. Crowley could tell the moment he went from drowsy to wide-awake.
“Oh dear!” He sat up, patting himself down as if he half-expected to have been robbed in his sleep.
“Don’t worry,” Crowley said with a wry chuckle. “I managed to keep my hands to myself.”
Aziraphale gave him one of those pointed looks and apparently found what he – oh Jesus Christ, the man had a pocketwatch. “Oh my,” he mumbled. “I must’ve… did I actually fall asleep?”
“Down like a baby,” Crowley confirmed. “We’re just circling in to land now.” He nudged Aziraphale. “If you’re heading into the city, we could share a taxi. Save a bit of money and dodge the evening rush-hour crowds on the trains.”
“Oh. Yes.” Aziraphale peered out the window, blinking muzzily. “Yes, thank you. The Thistle hotel in Piccadilly, if it’s not too much trouble.” He clutched his head. “Ooh. Probably shouldn’t have had all that wine, though.”
“Get you a Greggs and some water when we land, and you’ll be right as rain,” Crowley assured him, eternally grateful that he’d managed to nab some more water off the hostess and beaten his own hangover into submission before it could come to anything.
The man gave him a grateful look. “You’re being very kind.”
“Don’t say that,” Crowley grumbled, fidgeting uncomfortably. He kept his attention on the screen and not the man beside him, watching their descent through the camera on the bottom of the plane. He wasn’t surprised when Aziraphale muttered a weak “thank God!” when they touched down, but he just smiled tightly, hand rattling on the arm of the chair.
“Are you all right, dear?” Aziraphale inquired as the plane taxied in to the terminal.
“Yeah. Fine. Great.”
And definitely not thinking of the very valuable little book he had wedged into Aziraphale’s hand luggage while he was sleeping. Definitely not thinking about the seeds that were definitely not meant to be coming into the country. Definitely not thinking about customs officials with those terrifying sniffer dogs with the great big teeth.
When he got up and lifted Aziraphale’s bag down to him, the grateful smile the man shot him made him want to bolt up the aisle and run for it. But in for a penny, in for a pound. It was done. The book was in the bag already.
Like sleep-deprived sheep, they were herded out of the plane, Aziraphale shuffling a few steps behind Crowley.
“Is it always this cluttered?” he mumbled.
“No early escape,” Crowley confirmed, shoving his hands in his pockets and trying his best to look nonchalant as they headed towards border security. Easy job. Go up, passport and whatnot, through we go.
And then luggage carousels and then…
“Excuse me, sir.”
Crowley rolled his eyes ceilingwards. Every bloody time.
“What do they want?” Aziraphale asked anxiously.
“First impressions are a bastard,” Crowley informed him, gesturing eloquently to his black-and-leather clad self. The sunglasses and his snake tattoo probably didn’t help. “I’ll meet you on the other side. Five minutes, give or take.”
Aziraphale – clutching his hold-all in both hands – nodded and hurried on.
“Spot check,” the customs warden said. “If you’d lift your case up.”
Thank Christ for innocent looking cherubic men who could wander through customs without a care in the world.
The customs officer was just wrangling the zip of Crowley’s case when someone cleared their throat nearby.
“That won’t be necessary.”
Crowley winced. Oh shit. He turned, forcing a smile. “Harriet.”
Harriet Dowling, wife of the American Ambassador, gave him a brief smile. Years ago, their paths had crossed in the most unexpected ways. He was in the biggest rut of his life and she was having a no-good, very bad day and against all expectations, they’d ended up…
Well, if not quite friends, then he knew she was watching his back. Keeping him on the straight and narrow. Determinedly and ruthlessly using – and maybe abusing – the power at her disposal to make sure he didn’t backslide. Despite all his insistence that they were fine, she still insisted she owed him one.
As usual, she was flanked by one of those men-in-black looking bastards with a suit and shades. She glanced at the official. “He’s my driver. Diplomatic staff.”
The Customs officer gave him a curt nod and gestured for him to take his case.
“How was your flight?” Harriet said, still smiling as she motioned for him to walk beside her.
Crowley fell into step at her side. “You know. Tin-foiled food. No leg room.” He glanced back to make sure they were out of earshot of the customs team. “Lovely seeing you again. I’ll just–”
“You’ll just accompany me,” Harriet said evenly. “A little bird told me you were in America for work.”
Crowley’s heart sank. “Nah. Just a holiday.”
She gave him a look that screamed bullshit. “You know I’m only looking out for you, Anthony.” She led him towards an exit he’d never have noticed before. Special embassy privileges, he guessed.
“I’m meant to–”He hesitated. If he said he was meant to be meeting anyone, she and her stupid former FBI instincts would come down on said person like a ton of bricks. Let her sniff about, poke at his things, reassure herself he wasn’t getting into trouble and he could find Aziraphale after. “Actually, a lift would be nice.”
It was depressing how relieved she looked to hear it. “Great!” She looped her arm through his. “And you can tell me what you got up to Stateside.”
Not, he thought, a chance in hell.
The whole fic is now finished, so I plan on updating twice weekly now :) Saturdays and Tuesdays.
Aziraphale got out of the taxi, staring up at the hotel in the fading afternoon sunlight.
He almost wished he’d stayed at the airport and waited for Mr. Crowley, but after twenty minutes, it became clear that the man had been waylaid, so he’d made his way to the taxi rank and paid the exorbitant fees to get all the way into the city centre.
Under any other circumstances, he would’ve been delighted to be back in London, but now, a rock had settled in his belly and his hands tightened on the handles of his bag, the tartan and leather straps cutting into his palms.
It was ridiculous!
He was simply coming to see his fiancé. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that.
He straightened his back and strode through the doors into the lobby, which was bustling with a large group of people and their luggage. A tour group, he assumed, judging by the matching hats and outfits. He picked his way around them and headed towards the desk, giving one of the receptionists a hopeful smile.
“Can I help you, sir?” She smiled in greeting.
“Ah. Yes.” He glanced around, then leaned closer. “I’m here to see my fiancé. Something of a surprise for him.” He hoped he didn’t sound as shaky as he felt. “Mr. Gabriel Archer. Would you be able to direct me to his room?”
The girl nodded, turning to the computer. “Gabriel Archer. And is he expecting you?”
Aziraphale could feel the heat flooding his face. “Well no,” he admitted, “but that would rather defeat the purpose of surprising him, wouldn’t it?”
Something in her expression changed. “Unfortunately, for our guests’ discretion, we are unable to provide personal information to third parties.” Her smile turned considerably more cautious. “Even if they are personally connected.”
“If?” he echoed in disbelief. “If.” He groped in his pocket for his phone, opening up the photographs – selfies, Gabriel called them – of the two of them. “That man is my fiancé and I demand to see him at once!”
The girl’s tanned face reddened. “Um.” Her eyes flicked over to an older and more harried-looking woman who was dealing with the tour group. “I-I would need to speak to my manager first.” She pointed over to a waiting lounge. “If you don’t mind waiting?”
Given how much his head felt like it might pop open, sitting down in the quietest part of the lobby seemed like a good idea. He plodded over, sinking down onto a plush couch and setting his bag down on the floor beside it.
Lord, he ought not to have come. He should’ve stayed at home in New York.
And yet, a little treacherous part of him whispered that he only need to walk half a mile and he would back in his old neck of the woods, surrounded by theatres and restaurants that he knew and loved, and near that lovely little Chinese bakery that did those delicious cakes filled with custard and, if it wasn’t too early, he might even find some old friends at home.
He pinched the bridge of his nose.
No. America was home now. America was home.
Once he got back, all the paperwork would be sorted out and he would be able to get things back in order. This would just be a temporary blip on the perfectly comfortable life he and Gabriel had. He might even be able to persuade Gabriel to let him put some more shelving up and get some more of his books sent over, leveraging his little… misdeed against him.
“Scuse me, sir?” He glanced up find a young man standing beside the arm of the couch. Smartly dressed in a navy suit and tie, he proffered a bottle of water and smiled, showing very polished white teeth. “While you wait, sir.”
Gratefully, Aziraphale accepted the bottle. It was icy cool, and the young man’s slim brown hand had left a handprint in the condensation. “Oh, that’s wonderful, thank you.”
The young man smiled. “No problem, sir. Happy to help.”
Aziraphale glanced over at the desk. “I don’t suppose you know how long this might take?”
The young man leaned down. “I’m not meant to badmouth the guests, sir, but this has been going on for half an hour already. Mis-match on the credit bookings or something.” He winked a dark eye. “Don’t you worry. It shouldn’t be long now.”
Aziraphale subsided gratefully into the couch. “Much obliged,” he murmured, opening the bottle and taking a hearty mouthful. The young man straightened up and trotted briskly away and Aziraphale had almost finished downing the bottle when someone swung over the back of the couch and dropped down beside him.
“Thought I’d find you here,” Mr. Crowley said with a winning smile.
Aziraphale stared at him. “How on earth…” Oh. Yes. He’d mentioned on the plane, hadn’t he? But that didn’t explain… “What are you doing here?”
The other man shrugged eloquently. “Wanted to see that you got in okay,” he replied. “Customs were a pain in my arse, but here you are and…” He paused, frowning. “Wait. Where’s your stuff? If you haven’t checked in yet–”
“Oh, it’s down–” Aziraphale nodded over the arm of the couch, then froze. “My bag. Where’s my bag?”
“What do you mean ‘where’s my bag’?” Crowley demanded sharply. “What’ve you done with it?”
“It was here!” Aziraphale exclaimed, scrambling to his feet. “I left it here!”
Aziraphale flashed a dirty look at him. “I think I ought to know where I left it. I’m hungover, I’m not an idiot, Crowley!”
Crowley backed up, hands raised. “Right. Okay. Fine. Did anyone come near? Staff or someone? Maybe they took it to your room?”
“A young man brought me a bottle of water,” Aziraphale said, turning fretfully on the spot. “He was the only person who–”
“Black hair? Navy suit? Looked like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth?”
Aziraphale blinked at him. “Well, yes. How did–”
“Nghhh!” Crowley grabbed him by the arm. “Come with me.”
“But shouldn’t we call the pol–”
“It’s London on a weekday evening, angel!” Crowley snarled back over his shoulder as he bulldozed them towards the door. “They’re not going to show up for a bag-snatching for at least an hour. I think I know where we’ll find him.”
“I don’t understand!” Aziraphale trotted after him. “Do you know–”
“Ran into the little bastard coming out of the hotel.”
“And you know him how exactly?”
Crowley made an evasive sound, flagging down a taxi. “Just consider yourself lucky that I do.” He yanked open the taxi door, gesturing for Aziraphale to get in.
Aziraphale stared at him. “You think I’m going to get in a taxi with you now? When I find out you know a common hoodlum!”
“We can stand and debate all you want, but it’s not going to get your bag back!” Crowley snapped. “You can have a go at me in the car. Just get in, angel.”
Huffing, Aziraphale hopped into the taxi as Crowley barked out an address to the driver. The man folded down into the other side of the back seat, not even bothering to put on his seatbelt while Aziraphale hastily fastened his.
“You’re going to a lot of trouble,” he said tartly. “Tracking me down at my hotel and getting so upset about my luggage.”
“Yeah, well you seem like an all right person,” Crowley retorted, shoulders hunched like a bird against rain. “No harm in checking up and making sure you got where you needed to go, is there?”
Aziraphale eyed him. “Well,” he admitted, fiddling with his signet ring, “I suppose I should take comfort I the fact you’re so nice and–”
Abruptly, Crowley was all but on top of him, pushing him back against the window, teeth flashing. “I’m not nice. ‘Nice’ is a four-letter word and I will not–”
“Sit down, gents!” the taxi driver interrupted. She glanced back at them in the rearview mirror. “I’m not having a crash because you’re feeling a bit handsy.”
Crowley flushed puce and recoiled back onto the other side of the cab.
Aziraphale huffed, smoothing down his rumpled coat. “Well, I don’t know what else to call it, when you’ve dashed in to my rescue.”
Crowley made a peculiar groaning sound, propping his pointed elbow on the window ledge and curling his hand over his forehead. “We’ll get your bag back, then we can go our separate ways, all right? No trouble.”
Aziraphale watched the familiar streets of the city fly by, streets lights tinting everything with a buttery golden glow. “If I may ask,” he said, slanting a look at his fellow passenger. “How do you know this young man?”
“Know the family,” Crowley muttered, his fingertips pressing white against his temple. “He’s harmless. Must’ve upgraded since the last time I saw him. Used to pick pockets over in Covent Garden.”
There didn’t seem much else to say, until the taxi pulled up in a side street off Holborn, where Crowley threw an excessive amount of money at the driver and bolted out of the cab. Aziraphale scrambled out and hurried after him into a labyrinth of smaller side streets.
He caught up with Crowley pounding on a door at the top of a flight of stairs.
The young man opened it. Aziraphale stared at him. No. Not the young man. Someone almost identical to him, with shorter hair and a tracksuit.
“Mr. C!” The young man beamed at him. “Didn’t know you’d be about.”
“Shut it,” Crowley snapped, shoving the boy back into the stairwell, Aziraphale trotting in after them. “Where’s Eric?”
“On his way back,” the boy said. “He’s done a neat lift in a hotel. Got some swank bugger’s luggage.”
“Oh!” Aziraphale said indignantly.
“You shut it too.” Crowley shot a look over his shoulder. “Which room, Lee?”
Lee, if that was his name, nodded to the left, leading them into the flat. It was a bleak little place, with spots of mould on the wall, and a narrow hallway flanked by three identical doors. One of them led into a cramped front room, lined with mismatched furniture, a couple of duvets rolled up and shoved down the side.
“You live here?” Aziraphale couldn’t help asking, peering around.
“Live, work, sleep.” Lee shrugged with a grin. “Who’s your friend, Mr. C?”
“None of your business,” Crowley snapped. He swung around when the front door opened.
Crowley yanked the door wide. “Hello, Eric.”
The young man from the hotel stopped dead in the doorway, his face falling when he saw Aziraphale. “Ah, shit.” His eyes darted back towards the front door.
“Don’t even think about it.” Crowley stepped forward and caught his arm. “Hand it over.”
The young man huffed, but held out Aziraphale’s hold all. “Could’ve saved me the trip back,” he grumbled as Aziraphale snatched it and propped it on the nearest least-grubby surface to make sure everything was still there.
“What on earth…” He pulled out a small bundle. It seemed to be a leather-bound book wrapped snugly in a scrap of cloth. “This isn’t mine.”
“Ah.” Crowley said.
Aziraphale’s mouth dropped open in shock as all the pieces clicked into place. “Oh!” He shoved passed both men in the doorway and stormed out of the flat, rattling down the stairs.
“Aziraphale!” Crowley clattered down after him.
“You hid this in my bag!” he exclaimed, spinning around to face him, waving the bundle. “That’s why you came after me, isn’t it? Not because you’re nice or anything like that! You had–” He smacked Crowley hard on the arm with it. “You had me smuggle your… your contraband through customs!”
Crowley snatched the bundle. “S’just a book, angel!”
“Just a book, my foot!” Aziraphale retorted. “What kind of book needs to be secreted through customs?” He hefted his bag onto his shoulder. “If you don’t mind, you have made a dreadful day even worse and I would rather not be seen… fraternising with the likes of you.”
“Fraternising?” Crowley echoed, gaping at him.
Aziraphale turned around, storming back towards the main road. It was time to get back to the hotel and Gabriel and the sooner he could get away from the beastly man, the better.
With the book safely back in hand, Crowley headed away from the Johnsons’ flat. Being back in that neighbourhood, remembering when he’d been the one living in a squat like that, definitely didn’t do anything for his mood.
First stop was in the nearest pub.
After such a manic evening, he very much needed a strong drink and a sit down. Christ, he thought he’d lost the book. He thought he’d lost the whole lot and now, it was safe and everything was back on track.
Okay, yeah, it had been the king of dick moves, taking advantage of Aziraphale like that, but sometimes, needs must.
Whisky in hand, he collapsed into one of the corner tables and took out the bundle.
The cloth had shaken loose, probably when Eric legged it with the bag, but the book didn’t seem to have been knocked about too much. He spread the cloth flat and opened the book carefully, sliding his fingertip into the gap between the spine and the cover.
For the third time in as many sodding hours, his heart dropped like a rock and he lifted it, squinting into the narrow opening.
“Oh for fu–”
The seeds were gone! Not just one or two! The whole sodding cache of them in their nice, snug little roll of cotton! He shook out the cloth, on the off-chance, but no. Nothing was there. All the bloody things were gone and after everything he’d done to get a hold of them in the first place they were probably still…
“Ngggggh!” He groaned and scrambled to his feet.
His drink didn’t even get a look in as he bundled up the book, shoving it back in his pocket, and ran for the door.
Holborn tube station wasn’t far up the road but he was still huffing and wheezing by the time he staggered onto the over-crowded train, leaning against the pole and watching the stops tick by to Piccadilly. And, of course, when he got there one of the sodding escalators weren’t working.
Mercifully, Aziraphale was still in the lobby of the hotel when he got there.
Not just in the lobby. He was at the desk, vehemently arguing with the receptionist, both of the flush-faced and clearly getting angrier by the second.
“What’s going on?” he panted, as he staggered up to Aziraphale’s side.
Aziraphale shot him a venomous look. “Oh do piss off.”
Crowley blinked in surprise. “Blimey, angel…”
The man flushed and flapped a hand. “Go on! Go away! I don’t want any more to do with you!” He tapped sharply on the desk with his other hand. “And you – if you don’t give me the information I need, I’ll be putting in a strongly-worded letter to your manager.”
The receptionist wore the expression of an irresistible force meeting an unmovable object. “And as I have told you repeatedly, sir, we cannot divulge the confidential information of our guests, regardless of your alleged relation–”
“Alleged?!?” Aziraphale puffed up like an indignant pigeon.
Crowley caught him by the arm. “You’ve been away a bit, haven’t you?” he said urgently. “GDPR. It’s European law now. Privacy and all that.”
Aziraphale shook him off. “And why should I believe a word you say? You’ve done nothing but take advantage of me!”
“And I want to make that up to you!” He pulled Aziraphale away from the counter to the relief of the receptionist. “Look, they can’t tell you whether he’s here or not, but maybe I can. Does he have any social media? I mean, he’s an author, isn’t it?”
With a huff, Aziraphale yanked his arm free. “Well, yes. He has the tweeter and something called ig?”
Wincing at such blatant tech ignorance, Crowley nodded. “Twitter and Instagram. Okay. Do you have his handles?”
Crowley flapped a hand. “The name he uses on them? Like a… a nom de plume?”
“Oh!” Aziraphale pulled his phone out of his pocket, opening up a screen. “Yes. He set up accounts for me on my telephone in case I wanted to…” His stormy hazel eyes brightened. “In case I wanted to see what he was up to.”
Crowley glanced at the phone then back at the man. “Why don’t you just phone him?”
And there it went again, face collapsing like an empire. “Ah. Well. I rather wanted to surprise him.”
Maybe he did, but there definitely was a lot more to it.
“Here,” Crowley said, taking pity on the man. “Let me have a look.”
From the look of things, Gabriel Archer must’ve set up the accounts for him and Aziraphale had never looked at them again. There were the usual trolls, collections of unpleasant DMs, and…
“He’s not here,” he said.
Aziraphale fluttered anxiously. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous! This is where he said he was sta… oh.” The man’s lip trembled. “Do… um… do you know where he is, then?”
Somewhere he wasn’t meant to be, Crowley thought sympathetically. Poor sod. Flying all this way to find out his significant other was lying to him. Or… or maybe that’s why he was flying alone at all. He knew something and didn’t want to admit it.
Crowley tilted the screen, showing him his fiancé’s Instagram post from that morning. The pretentiously over-filtered photo showed the sun rising on the sea and a coffee cup held up in front of an ornate metal balcony. The towel with the hotel’s monogram visible was a bit much in Crowley’s opinion. Felt like showing off a bit.
Aziraphale stared at it, snatching the phone back “But that’s Brighton. That’s where we–” His eyebrows pulled down, his lips twisting in something that might have been anger or grief. It was hard to tell. “Thank you,” he said tersely, locking his phone and shoving it back in his pocket. “That was very helpful of you.”
And without further ado, he pushed by Crowley and headed for the doors.
Crowley stared after him, then shook himself and ran to keep up. “So you’re heading to Brighton then?”
“I don’t see how it’s any business of yours,” Aziraphale snapped, marching out into the evening light.
The bundle of seeds in the bag made it so.
“Look, consider it my apology,” Crowley said, swinging around in front of him, backing his way along the pavement. “How about I drive you down? I can go and grab my car. We’ll have you down there by”– he glanced at his watch– “well, traffic permitting, it’d probably be about eleven.”
The other man stopped, clutching his hold all handles with both hands. “What’s in it for you?”
“Nothing!” Crowley lied, beaming at him. “I’ve been a bit of a knob and I want to make amends. Is that so hard to believe? Look, I can run and get my car now. We can head off right away. Get you there in no time.”
Aziraphale shifted his hands on the tartan-patterned handle of his bag and pursed his lips. “What about tomorrow?”
“It’s already getting late,” the man said flatly. “I’m tired, I have an absolutely dreadful headache and the last thing I want right now is to spend hours stuck in a car.”
Shit. Crowley pulled out his phone, checking his calendar. Right. Yeah. Couple of appointments. Could move them up. Be back in time for the book auction in a couple of days. So he’d have to miss out on getting the tidying up and appraisal done, but–
“Yeah, all right.”
Aziraphale seemed surprised. “All right?”
Crowley slid his phone away and hooked his thumbs into his pockets. “Yeah. I’ve got nothing on tomorrow. D’you have somewhere to stay?”
Crowley fumbled for his phone again. “Maybe give me your number. We can coordinate.”
Aziraphale’s expression turned as if he’d bitten a lemon. “That’s hardly necessary. Nine o’clock on Dean Street, off Shaftesbury Avenue. Outside St Anne’s. I’ll be waiting there. If you don’t appear, I’ll make my way by train.”
“Fine,” Crowley agreed. “Nine. Dean Street.”
Christ, the seeds better be worth it.
I've been having a crummy few days, so decided you know what? I'll post my fic and make myself feel better :)
The streets of Soho were rapidly filling with the evening crowd as Aziraphale hurried onwards, trying to contain himself. If Crowley was right, then Gabriel had been lying about being in London for days.
How long had this… fling been going on? And why on earth had he considered it even remotely appropriate to not only take his strumpet to the hotel where they had first really gotten to know one another? And posting the pictures on his ig account as if he had something to be proud of?
His chest felt tight and painful and he had to pause, bracing his hand against a lamppost.
Lord, he hoped that Marjorie wasn’t busy or out or anything else.
It took him a good fifteen minutes to meander his way to the discreet little back door in a side street in Soho, pressing the buzzer and taking slow, deep breaths to hold it all together.
“Hello,” a sultry voice purred.
“Marjorie?” His voice cracked like someone throwing a stone through a window. “May I come in?”
A light went on in a window above him and a red-wigged head poked out. “Aziraphale?” The window slammed down and beyond the door, he heard the patter of feet and the clatter of jewellery, then Marjorie opened the door, a gloriously familiar burst of colours and floaty satin. “Aziraphale!” She launched herself at him, hugging him. “You should’ve said you were coming!”
He made a small and pathetic sound and the stupid, stupid tears were trying so hard to escape.
She took one look at him, then caught him by the hand. “Come on, love,” she said gently. “Let’s get you a nice cup of tea.”
Tea was supplemented by a couple of ham sandwiches and half a packet of Jaffa cakes, and little by little, she teased all the gory details out of him.
When he was onto his second cup of tea, Marjorie fluttered around the snug little living room, dusting surfaces down and gathering up the empty dishes that were cluttering up the table. “I always said you can’t trust a man with a big cock,” she sighed, shaking her head. “Never satisfied, them lot.”
“Marjorie,” Aziraphale murmured, only a little reproachfully.
“I know, I know, duck,” she said gently, returning to perch on the arm of his chair. She wrapped an arm around his shoulder and tugged him closer. He rested his head against her ribs and she stroked his rumpled hair. “What an absolute bastard thing to do! And after him twisting your arm to move over there and all!”
“I suppose I’m not the most excit–”
She swatted him across the back of his head.
Marjorie smoothed his hair again. “Don’t you dare say that,” she said sternly. “This is nothing to do with you and everything to do with him.”
“But if I–”
Another swat dinged him across the ear. “What did I just say?” She squeezed his shoulder. “It’s always been about him, duck. Which of you had to uproot their whole life? Which of you left behind all their friends? Which–”
He waved a hand in surrender. “Yes, yes, I know,” he said softly, unhappily. He turned the cup between his hands. “And it probably says everything about me that I still want to get him back.”
Marjorie sighed. “No, duck,” she said gently. “It just means you love him, great soft beggar that you are.” She plopped herself down in his lap and leaned into him, dragging his head down to rest on her shoulder. “If that’s what you want, I won’t stop you.”
“Even if you disagree.”
“’Specially if I disagree,” she murmured, her fingers curling back into his hair. Funny how they could fall into the same old habits after years apart, as if nothing had changed. What was a handful of years compared to almost three decades of friendship? “It’s your life after all and you know I’m biased.”
She had never liked Gabriel, though Gabriel had never given her a reason. He could charm the socks off anyone except, apparently, Marjorie. Sixth sense, she called it. Instinct. Oh, she was nice enough to him, but she had never kept her feelings from Aziraphale.
He balanced his empty cup on the arm of the chair and wrapped his arms around her middle. “Is it stupid of me? To chase him?”
“Not for me to say,” she murmured, wrapped her arms around him, flooding his senses with the tart floral perfume she liked and the undercurrent of gin and incense. “You know where he is?”
“Mm. Brighton. The Grand.”
“That cheeky bastard!”
Aziraphale pinched her waist reproachfully. “Marjorie!”
She rolled her eyes expressively. “And you’re heading down tomorrow?” She sat up and looked at him. “Shall I come? I can give you a lift! I still have Fabio!”
Despite his low mood, he chuckled. “On principle, I refuse to ride anything called Fabio. I have standards.”
“I’ll have you know Fabio’s a classic,” she grumbled fondly, snuggling back down against him. “Is that a no, then?”
He hesitated. “Um. I may already have procured a lift.”
That made her sit up. Like a bloodhound on the scent, she always seemed to catch a hint of things he wasn’t saying. “Is that so?”
He flapped his hand. “It’s just the man from the plane. He offered it in recompense for all the trouble he put me to.”
“Uh huh.” She grinned at him. “Your white knight, dashing in to your rescue?”
He snorted. “Black knight, more like. He’s a scoundrel and sarcastic and he– did I mention he planted his contraband on me? Like I was some kind of… of… drug mule or something!”
“Aziraphale Fell, coke mule.” She wrinkled her nose and chuckled. “Don’t think it’ll take, duck.”
He made a face at her, as always astonished at the way she could loosen the bands of stress and misery that had tightened around his ribs. “If he wants to play taxi for me, I intend to make it worth my while.”
“And you won’t be in any danger with him? I mean, scoundrel?”
To his own surprise, Aziraphale shook his head. “You know, I never even considered it. He…” He laughed uncertainly. “You know what I’m like when I fly–”
“I remember Benidorm in 1994 and how many shandys it took to get you on the sodding plane.”
“Well… well, I didn’t do that. He…” He shook his head at the thought. “He got me so angry, I didn’t even think about it. He kept on teasing and poking at me until I hardly even remembered we were in the air at all.”
“Ah!” Marjorie beamed. “Then I won’t put a tracking thingie on your collar in case he’s a serial killer, stealing you off to chop you up in his cabin in the woods.”
“He’s probably not.”
“You’re not helping!”
“I’m just saying, love,” she retorted, grinning impishly. “Can’t be too careful, but anyone who’ll willingly piss you off in an enclosed place to help you to avoid a panic attack is probably safe.”
She certainly wasn’t wrong. As much as Crowley had proved to be a little on the shady side, he had still been entertaining and shockingly kind on the flight.
He propped his cheek against her wig. “Do you think I’m dreadfully silly?” he asked quietly. “To come all this way?”
She tugged one of his buttons. “You know I’m not going to force your hand, love. You know what I think of him and you know I think you could do a hundred times better. This isn’t about what I want. It’s up to you. Your choice. Right or wrong, you have to make your own mind up.”
And there, Aziraphale thought unhappily, was the rub. It was so much easier to go where he was led, follow what he was told to do. And he tried to keep it that way. Oil any troubled waters, keep things calm and smooth and pristine on the surface.
Lord, he hated to think he would rock the boat.
“Marjorie,” he murmured.
“Do you mind if I stay here tonight? I can get a hotel if–”
She flicked him around the earhole. “Don’t be daft. Course you’re staying here.” She tilted her head and kissed him warmly on the cheek. “And you’re in luck. I’ve changed my sheets and had a pedicure the other day, so my beds clean and my toes are all lovely and neat.”
“Thank Christ for that,” he teased. “No talons this time around.”
“Next time, poppet.” She gave him a fond squeeze. “I’ll give you such a kicking.”
For a moment, he couldn’t say anything, pressing his lips against her awful ginger wig. “I missed you,” he confessed in a whisper.
“I know,” she replied just as softly. “I know.”
Crowley drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and checked his watch.
Wasn’t really paranoid to be at the meeting spot fifteen minutes early, just in case the posh bugger was early and decided not to wait. Plus he’d had to drive up from the south bank and getting through all the traffic restrictions and one-way systems always took time, so it was better to be early than risk being late.
He swung out of the car to stand on the footboard, taking a moment to bask in the appreciative looks it was getting from people passing by on the pavement. He propped his arm on the roof, peering around, and there, coming down the road towards the rendezvous, was the man.
From the look of him, a good night’s rest had done wonders. His hair that had been travel-crushed and mussed the day before was a thatch of perfect white-blond curls, though he was wearing and almost identical suit with a slightly different pattern on his tartan bowtie.
He also had a woman on his arm who had the most colourful dress and the biggest fake eyelashes Crowley had seen outside of a drag show.
Aziraphale slowed down as he approached, openly gaping at the car Crowley was draped over. “Good Lord. This is your car?”
“Yes, it’s my car!” Crowley retorted dryly, hopping down from the footboard and circling around the front of the Bentley. “I thought we’d already discussed appearances and stereotypes, angel.”
“Well, after all the fuss yesterday…” A pursed look crossed Aziraphale’s face.
“What? You think I’m a drug kingpin now?” Crowley spread his arms with a crooked grin. “Mafia boss, maybe? Travelling in economy to stay on the downlow?”
The woman on Aziraphale’s arm gave an unladylike hoot of laughter. “Oh, he’s a cheeky one, isn’t he?”
Aziraphale shot a fondly exasperated look at the woman. “Don’t encourage him.” He turned his attention back to Crowley. “And she’s here so I have a witness if anything should happen to me en route. I’m sure she’ll be able to give an adequate description.”
The woman sniggered, undercutting Aziraphale’s tone. “Yes, officer, a tall ginger drink of water in a vintage Bentley absconded with him.”
“Marjorie!” Aziraphale huffed, flapping a hand. “Go on. Curiosity has been sated. Bugger off.”
The women flashed a toothy grin at Crowley and winked before tottering off down the road on heels too spiky for someone of her age. Crowley watched her go, then turned a baffled stare on Aziraphale. “How on earth d’you know someone like that?”
“Probably the same way you own a vintage Bentley,” Aziraphale said tartly. “Shall we get on?”
Crowley waved to the passenger door, making a face at the man’s back as he opened it. “Just shove your bag in the back seat.” He circled back around the front of the Bentley, sliding back into the driver’s seat. “Also, hate to say it, but you picked a shit time for us to try and get out of the city.”
Aziraphale huffed. “Just… drive the car.”
That, it turned out, was wishful thinking.
Rush hour traffic bottlenecked along the A4 heading west out of the city, not helped by the roadworks that had sprung up on both sides of the road. They’d’ve been quicker walking, Crowley thought as they inched through another set of temporary traffic lights.
“Is it always this busy?” Aziraphale finally asked, frowning out through the wind screen.
Crowley gave him a look. “Bet you don’t drive, let alone in London,” he said. “This is normal. Rush hour? Ringing any bells?”
Aziraphale’s cheeks reddened. “Oh. Yes. Of course.”
“Since we’re heading out, it should ease off in a bit,” Crowley said. “F’you want, there are some cassettes in the glove box. Bit of music to keep things moving.”
The other man nodded, leaning forward and poking cautiously through them. “Do you have anything but Queen?” he inquired doubtfully, taking one tape after another out of the different boxes. “Every box in here seems to have a Queen tape in it.”
“Again?” Crowley groaned. “Always happens.” He reached forward and twiddled the dial. “Radio’ll have to do, then.”
“Ooh, can you get classic FM?”
Of course he’d want that, Crowley thought ruefully, but he obliged. Anything to keep the man on side and his guard down. Took a few attempts but then the sound of an orchestra filled the car and at once, it was as if Aziraphale had lit up from the inside.
“Oh wonderful! I do love Vivaldi!”
Crowley glanced sidelong at him. “That’s the four seasons bloke, isn’t it?”
It was worth it for the look of utter astonishment that cross Aziraphale’s face. “You know classical music?”
Crowley flashed a grin at him. “I know plenty of stuff, angel. I have unplumbed depths.”
The man’s lips twitched, as if he was trying to hide his smile. “So I’m beginning to see.” He fiddled with his ring, then – after a couple of abortive starts – said, “I should thank you for offering a lift. Especially since it’s taking so much longer than I expected.”
“Ngh.” Crowley flapped a hand. “Didn’t have anything on. Don’t mind the odd trip to the seaside now and then.” He glanced at Aziraphale. “And once we get to the A3, we should be able to get a move on. Not a problem.”
Funny how much the universe seemed to enjoy spitting in his coffee.
They’d just crossed the Thames heading towards Putney when everything seemed to grind to a halt ahead of them. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and, after five minutes, stuck his head out the window. Wasn’t the only one from the look of things.
“What is it?” Aziraphale inquired.
“Nothing I can see.” Crowley tugged his phone out of his pocket, flicking to travel warnings online and groaned. “Ah, shit. There’s been a crash up ahead. Roads are closed.” He tapped in their location, trying to work out a detour. “If we go up around Richmond Park at junction just up ahead, we might be able to get around it and hop back onto the A3 on the far side, if you don’t mind the scenic route.”
“If it means we’re not sitting in traffic,” Aziraphale agreed at once. Several minutes of inching close to the junction later, he cleared his throat. “You did say Richmond Park?”
“Yeah.” Crowley glanced at him. “Why?”
“Nothing.” Aziraphale shook his head. “It’s– no, it’s silly. I should be getting on.”
Well, that sounded interesting – after all the fuss he’d made the day before about getting to his fiancé and now, something else was tempting him away.
“Out with it, angel.” Crowley nudged him.
“I do wish you wouldn’t call me that,” Aziraphale mumbled. “It’s quite the misnomer.”
“I dunno.” Crowley took in the halo of white-blond curls and the prayerful hands. “Suits you from where I’m sitting.” He nudged him again. “Go on. You were saying something about Richmond Park? What about it?”
Aziraphale chewed his lip. “I don’t suppose you would mind a brief stop at Kew Gardens?”
Crowley gaped at him. Yup. Jaw dropping and everything. He was choosing gardens over running after his fiancé? A slow grin spread across his face. “You happen to be in luck,” he said. “I’ve got membership and we’ll be early enough to get a parking space.”
Surprise and pleasure illuminated Aziraphale’s face. “Oh, really? You wouldn’t mind?”
“Didn’t I mention the membership?” Crowley laughed. “I could probably give you a guided tour.”
“I know it seems such nonsense, especially when I should–” He waved a manicured hand, as if dismissing more unpleasant thoughts. “I’m in England so rarely these days and Kew always looks so lovely at this time of year. It would be a shame to miss it.”
“I’m not about to complain,” Crowley said, giving a whoop when they reached the junction and he swung the car into a more open stretch of road and hit the accelerator.
Aziraphale squeaked in alarm, clutching at the door and his seat. “Not so fast, my dear! We’re in a residential area!”
Reluctantly, Crowley eased up on the accelerator. Unfortunately necessary. “Fair enough.”
It didn’t take long to curve around north of Richmond Park and take the turn off for the gardens. He didn’t even need to pause and check for directions, which wasn’t surprising since he’d treated himself to a members pass years earlier and spent far too many weekends there when he could afford to.
To his amusement, Aziraphale turned giddy as a schoolboy, clasping his hands together in delight as they neared.
“This really is very generous of you,” he said, reaching over to squeeze Crowley’s arm, his eyes wide and delighted as they drew into the car park. “Perhaps I can buy you lunch?”
Crowley smiled crookedly. Wasn’t even 10:30 and the man was already planning lunch? Definitely not in that much of a rush to his dearly beloved – and probably cheating bastard – fiancé.
“Not going to say no to a free lunch.” He paused, glancing into the back seat and the bag, sitting there like an unexploded bomb. He just needed to get his hands on it for a couple of minutes and everything would be fine. “D’you want me to chuck that in the boot?”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine there,” Aziraphale said dismissively. “There’s nothing of value, really. Only some clothes. I have my wallet and passport on me now.”
“Right.” Crowley forced a grin. “Off we go, then.”
As much as he wanted to dive into the back of the car and root through it, as soon as they got through the entrance of the gardens, Crowley briefly forgot all about the seeds. The Kew gardeners knew how to make the place look amazing all year around and now, the fragrance of thousands of plants washed over him.
Aziraphale unfolded his map. “What would you recommend?” he inquired, glancing at Crowley.
“Rose garden,” Crowley said at once. “They’ll be blooming just now and it always gets busier when the tourists show up.” He didn’t even bother glancing at the map. “This way.”
From Aziraphale’s little gasp of delight when they reached the rose gardens – the palm house looming behind them – Crowley had made the right choice. The man hurried closer, winding his way among the beds, exclaiming in delight over the colours and hues of the different roses.
When he asked for their next destination, Crowley didn’t hesitate. If he wanted to see the best bits of the gardens, then Crowley would show him every one of them.
Aziraphale beamed with every new part they reached, even cooing in delight when he spotted a fat bumblebee winding between the flowerbeds. It was daft, but his excitement was contagious and Crowley found himself pointing out different things, just to get the echo of the glee from the other man.
“I’m guessing you don’t have a garden back in New York?” Crowley finally said, when Aziraphale sat down on a bench to admire the view at the lakeside.
Aziraphale shook his head as he gazed out over the water. “I can go to Central Park, if I need a bit of greenery and it’s lovely, but it’s…” He laughed self-deprecatingly. “Call me sentimental, but I always thought I would like a proper English country garden.”
Crowley chuckled. “I could see that,” he said, shaping a curve with his hands. “Bower over the front gate. Little path up to the front door.”
“It’s all a bit cliché, I’m afraid.”
Crowley glanced sidelong at him. “And yet you’re living in a flat in Manhattan.”
“Yes. Well…” Aziraphale picked at a piece of lint on his trousers. “Sometimes, you have to make compromises.”
Crowley nodded thoughtfully. “So what were his?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Crowley didn’t need to turn to know the man was staring at him. “Your fiancé. What did he compromise on? I mean, you moved to New York. To a flat in the middle of a city. And from the looks of it, left your friends behind.”
Abruptly, Aziraphale got back to his feet. “Where next?” he asked.
Not surprising, really. Probably didn’t want a total stranger poking into his business.
“We could head across the bridge in the direction of the Japanese garden and the pagoda,” Crowley suggested, unfolding from the bench. “There’s some nice walkways on the way over there and the view point overlooking the lake.”
“Yes. That sounds charming.” Aziraphale said tersely, heading in the direction of the bridge at a brisk trot. He slowed down by the time he reached the bridge, enough for Crowley to catch up with him. “I’m sorry. I’m being dreadfully rude.”
Crowley sauntered along beside him. “No skin off my nose, angel,” he said. “You could just tell me not to be a nosy bastard and I’ll stop.”
“It was hardly nosy.” Aziraphale sighed. “I’m just a little…” He paused, resting his hand on the rail. “I – he’s having an affair, you see.”
“I guessed as much,” Crowley admitted.
“Well…” The man’s face fell. “Not an affair. He…” Oh. Shit. He looked like he was going to start crying. “He thinks we should part ways.”
“Well bugger him, then,” Crowley blurted out, which startled the man’s grief to a halt.
“You heard me! Bugger him. We’ll enjoy ourselves here. Have a nice lunch.” He paused in thought. “D’you happen to have a joint bank account? Card connected to it? Some kind of flashy credit account?”
“Well, it’s mostly his…” The beaming smile that spread across Aziraphale’s face was wickedly beautiful. “Oh I see.”
Crowley had never felt more relieved to be hiding behind his sunglasses. Oh, he thought weakly, shit.
Azirahale caught him by the arm and hauled him onwards, the light of battle gleaming in his eyes. “Come along, dear. I have a hankering for the most expensive high tea we can get.”
The view from the Botanical was quite splendid, with wide windows opening out over the grounds, and Aziraphale observed as much between nibbles from a rather lovely – and exorbitantly expensive – afternoon tea.
Crowley chuckled, picking at his own sandwich. He still hadn’t taken his sunglasses off, but the angle of the light on his face gave a glimpse of his eyes behind the smoky lenses. “You really like enjoying yourself, don’t you?”
Aziraphale licked some chutney from his fingers, before claiming a small pastry from the well-stacked tiered platter. “And why shouldn’t I?” He beamed across the table at Crowley. “I haven’t had such a nice morning in quite some time.”
He took a bite of the pastry and chewed thoughtfully. Some kind of seafood filling. It tasted a little peculiar, but then they were quite adventurous with their sauces and herbs, sourced from the gardens themselves.
“You sure you still want to head to Brighton after this?”
Aziraphale paused mid-chew, staring across the table. He swallowed the fishy mouthful. “I beg your pardon?”
Crowley shrugged his skinny shoulders. The man did seem to be made entirely of angles. “He’s a cheating bastard. He’s dumped you by phone. Why bother with him? Go back to your friend. Have some fun. Spend all his money to see every show in the West End.”
He made a good point.
When Aziraphale had left New York, it had been with the intention of finding Gabriel and begging him to change his mind, imploring him to come home, to give them a second chance, instead of running off with some floozie.
But the more he thought about it, the more he wondered why he wanted to do that.
He loved him. Of course, he loved him. But did loving someone mean begging them to come back? Did loving someone mean you had to plead with the person you loved not to leave you? Wasn’t love meant to be a mutual arrangement? Not… not doing whatever Gabriel had decided to do with no warning whatsoever.
“It’s very kind of you to be concerned,” he said, aware of how stiff his voice sounded, “but really, I need to go and… have it out with him, as it were. Work out where we’re going from here.”
Crowley muttered something into his cup that sounded suspiciously like “in the sea.”
“What was that?” he asked, giving the man a pointed look.
Crowley screwed up his face. “Didn’t say a blessed thing, angel.” He leaned over to refill his coffee cup from the pot. “More tea?”
Aziraphale demurred with a wave of his hand. “May I ask you something?” he inquired. “I hope it’s not too personal.”
“No, I’m not a high-end rent boy,” Crowley replied, straight-faced.
Aziraphale coughed over his croissant and hastily dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “I never thought that.”
Crowley flashed him that wickedly charming devilish grin. “You will now, though.” He slouched obtusely in the chair. Had he the room, Aziraphale suspected he would have draped his leg over the arm. “So… what’s the question?”
“We’re out of the sun,” Aziraphale said, fiddling with a piece of cake. “If you want to take your glasses off, you can.”
Crowley’s eyebrow arched over his glasses frames. “If I wanted to take them off, I would have. But I don’t. So I haven’t. And that wasn’t a question.” He slouched a little further. “But let me guess, you want to know why I’m wearing them?”
Aziraphale flushed. “I’m only curious,” he mumbled into his plate. “I beg your pardon.”
Crowley grinned. “Because they’re cool.” He waved expansively with his free hand. “Bet there’s not one person here who hasn’t wondered if I’m not some mystery movie star trying to keep a low profile.”
Aziraphale snorted. “Oh really.”
The other man smirked at him. “I like to entertain myself, angel.” He reached over and nudged the platter towards Aziraphale. “Go on. Enjoy.”
“You’ve barely eaten a thing,” Aziraphale observed, taking another of the odd fishy pastries.
“Get by on spite and caffeine, me.” Still, he reached over and stole one of the macarons, popping the whole thing in his mouth. “So d’you fancy having a wander in the woodlands, before we head off? Gentle stroll after a nice lunch?”
Aziraphale nodded. “Lord, yes. I miss trees.” He waved a hand. “I mean, Central Park has some of course, but this…”
“Your English countryside thing, eh?” Crowley grinned at him. “Don’t blame you.”
Aziraphale considered the other sandwiches, then took a generously filled chicken one. “What about you? If you have a membership, I assume you’re a keen gardener?”
The other man’s face twisted briefly. “Maybe one day,” he said. “Stuck in the city for now, which isn’t exactly helpful when you want to save up to get a place in the country. Recession did a number on my plans. Had to take out some emergency loans and you know what those are like. Knocked my timeframe on the head. Once I get a decent deposit, I’ll be sorted.”
“But…” Aziraphale frowned in thought. “You have that car. It must be worth a small fortune.”
Crowley jolted so hard in his seat, his glasses slid askew, his mouth dropping open. “Sell my car?”
And at once, Aziraphale understood what a terrible misstep he had made. When Gabriel had suggested that he just sell off his collection of first editions, he had reacted almost exactly the same way. “Never mind,” he said at once with a weak little laugh. “A silly suggestion.”
“Too right it is,” Crowley said, shaking his head. “D’rather sell a kidney.”
“Oh, my dear, don’t do that!”
That made Crowley grin at him, that strange little slant of his mouth. “Wasn’t about to.” He tapped his spoon on the edge of his cup. “Anyway, got things in motion. Just a few more days and I’ll be on my way out of sodding Brixton and somewhere where you can see steak when it’s walking around on four legs.”
Aziraphale chuckled. “You could just say cows, dear boy.”
“Could,” Crowley agreed cheerfully. “Not gonna.” He leaned forward and took a narrow sliver of cake. “Still wouldn’t mind knowing how you knew someone like that old dolly bird you had with you this morning.”
“Marjorie?” Aziraphale refilled his tea cup. “Would you believe we met in a bar when I came to study in the city?”
“No.” Crowley replied with astonishing frankness. “Her, yes. You? Not so much.”
“It’s all rather embarrassing, but I tried to be… oh… what was the word? Groovy?” Crowley’s snort suggested otherwise. “Hip, then? Well, whatever it was, I was trying to be that in Soho in the 80s, showing off the earring I thought was compulsory, wearing” – he shuddered dramatically – “denim to fit in.”
Crowley’s mouth slid into a gape again and Aziraphale had a feeling he was blinking behind his glasses. “You? Denim?”
Aziraphale wrinkled his nose. “It was certainly a… look.”
And it had been. Going from one state of trying to fit in to another. It had all been a bit of a disaster until Marjorie came along, free-wheeling and entirely herself, and made him feel it might be all right to simply dress and act the way he wanted to. Or at least try.
“She laughed herself silly the day we first met. Pointed out the clothes were wearing me, rather than the other way around. I told her… well… some rather rude things, and then she laughed even more. Three weeks later, we got a flat together.”
Crowley laughed outright. “Best kind of friendship, those.”
“Quite so.” Aziraphale smiled fondly. “We were practically living in a shoebox, but it was in Soho, which was all that mattered. When the opportunity arose, she bought a flat in the same building. Has been there ever since.”
“Lucky for you she was in the area,” Crowley observed. “Last night, I mean.”
That made Aziraphale’s smile slip a little. “Yes,” he murmured. The way she’d curled up against his back and held him when the tears had finally escaped and soaked into his pillow. The way she squeezed his hand, but never once told him what he ought to do. She never had. Advised, yes, told, no.
Just once, he really wished she would.
It was always so much easier to act when there was someone directing him.
He picked up his napkin and dabbed at his mouth. “We should get on. There’s a lot more to see.”
“You’re leaving the chocolate cake?” Crowley inquired, crooking an eyebrow.
Aziraphale glanced at it. He had been eyeing it all through the savoury nibbles, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he could the echoes of Gabriel’s voice. Telling him he was getting too soft. Telling him he needed to take more care of his diet. Telling him… telling him all kinds of things.
“Go on,” Crowley said, nudging the plate towards him. “You’re on holiday. Live a little.”
Aziraphale tried his best to glare at the man. “You’re being a dreadful influence, tempting me like this.”
“Could be worse,” Crowley retorted with a laugh. “Could’ve been an apple Danish.”
Aziraphale couldn’t help snorting. “Well, you are a bit of a snake,” he said, waving his fork at Crowley’s tattoo. “Tempting humanity to naughtiness.”
“Ah, no!” Crowley held up a finger. “To the knowledge of Good and Evil. Didn’t make them do anything naughty.”
With his fork halfway into the cake, Aziraphale paused, staring across at the man. With his esoteric knowledge of plants and composers and now theology, there was certainly a lot more to him than met the eye. “Semantics.”
“Whole point, isn’t it? Choice and free will. Everything is semantics.”
Aziraphale wagged the cake-filled fork at him. “You are far too smart for your own good.”
The man lounged back in his chair, wearing the expression of the cat who got the cream. “I know.”
It struck Aziraphale, to his surprise, that it wasn’t even a little bit irritating. It was charming. Ridiculous, even. He ducked over his cake, filing away that knowledge for later perusal.
CW - remember those fishy pastries? Yeah. No. Bad. Got some food poisoning and the yuck that comes with it.
The junction for the M25 was coming up, but Crowley had more pressing concerns.
“You really don’t sound good.”
Aziraphale gave a small groan, listing sideways against the door. “Just a little indigestion.”
That was a load of bollocks. The man was whey-faced, sweat dotting his forehead. He’d already clutched his mouth a couple of times and as a man who has seen far too many people puking their guts up, Crowley knew the signs.
He did the other drivers the courtesy of flashing his indicators and veered over to the hard shoulder, pulling in as close to the edge of the road as he could. The engine fell silent, but he kept his hazard lights flashing.
“You didn’t need to–” Aziraphale lunged for the door, flinging it open and being noisily sick in the grassy verge. He hung out the car, only held in place by his seatbelt. “Ohhhh.”
Sympathetically, Crowley gave him an awkward pat on the shoulder. “We can stop at the next services. Get you some water.”
“Thank you,” Aziraphale mumbled weakly. He sat up a little, then immediately folded over again, shoulders heaving.
Crowley winced. “Definitely not indigestion.”
“I knew there was something odd about the fish vol au vents,” Aziraphale croaked.
Which hadn’t stopped him eating four of them, Crowley very deliberately didn’t say.
“Think you can manage to the next services?” he inquired instead.
Aziraphale nodded, pulling back into the car and shutting the door.
It took three more pit-stops along the way to reach the services, and Crowley bolted in, leaving the man sitting sideways out of the car, pale and shaky. He returned five minutes later, burdened down with water and some other supplies.
Aziraphale gratefully accepted the bottle of water, taking small sips. “I’m awfully sorry. I’ve made a bit of a mess.”
Crowley waved his words away. “As long as you’re feeling better.” He propped his arm on the roof of the car, wondering if he was about to make a spectacular tit of himself. “Look, you’re in no state to travel, especially not another hour and a half on the motorway, so I’ve got a suggestion.”
“There’s a village called Tadfield just up the road, on the way to Oxford.” Aziraphale peered up at him, clearly baffled, so Crowley ploughed on. “I found an AirBNB we could stop at for the evening. Let you recover in peace.”
The man’s wan face creased into a small, tired smile. “That’s very kind of you, but I’ve already taken up so much of your time.”
“F’it was a problem, would I be suggesting it?” Crowley hunkered down beside the car, searching Aziraphale’s face. He looked like death warmed up. “If you want to keep going, we can try, but you look shit and I don’t think you’re done yet. Getting you off the road’ll help. Somewhere you can rest and be comfortable and not worry about puking all over the upholstery.”
Aziraphale stared at him, clinging to his bottle. “You’re being very kind.”
“Ngh!” Crowley straightened up a bit too fast and almost pitched over into the side of the Bentley. “Shouldn’t have encouraged you to eat all those pastries, should I?” He knocked his fist awkwardly on the roof of the car. “So?”
For a few moments, Aziraphale said nothing, then he nodded. “I think I need to lie down.”
“Right! Good!” Crowley dug through the bag of supplies. Not that he’d bought them with the plan of abducting Aziraphale somewhere to rest and recover if the man had refused. Definitely not. He pulled out a packet of mints, handing it down. “Suck on a polo. It’ll help. I’ll contact the AirBNB and let them know we’re coming.”
Ten minutes later, they were back on their way, and for the first time in his life, Crowley stayed in the slow lane, just in case they needed to hit the hard shoulder again. Thankfully, it wasn’t too far to Tadfield, the sun painting the hedges in gold as they rolled up outside the quaint little cottage.
Aziraphale got unsteadily out of the car, staring at the building in the fading afternoon sunlight. “That’s an AirBNB?”
“They get fancy when you get rural,” Crowley replied, hauling Aziraphale’s bag out of the back of the car. Should have felt like a relief to get his hands on it at last, but he couldn’t help watching Aziraphale, worried. “You okay to get to the front door.”
Aziraphale nodded, though he braced his hand on the gate post and took a shaky breath.
Nope. Sod that.
Crowley stepped forward and slipped his arm through Aziraphale’s. “I’m not letting you fall, angel.”
The man wobbled into him, leaning on his arm, as they picked their way up the path to the front door. He was so warmly solid that Crowley almost staggered too, but Aziraphale didn’t notice and they managed to reach the door without either of them pitching into a flowerbed. There was a lockbox tucked discreetly behind the ivy-trailed trellis and Crowley propped Aziraphale against the door so he could retrieve the key.
Inside, the cottage was as snug as he remembered, bedroom and bathroom to the left, open-plan kitchen and living room to the right. No stairs, so Aziraphale was able to shamble into the bathroom, claiming his bag back from Crowley at the door.
“I’ll go and make some tea and dry toast. You take your time,” Crowley said, pushing the door open for him. “And don’t lock it, in case you take a turn, all right?”
Aziraphale nodded slowly and carefully closed the door.
In the hall, Crowley pulled off his glasses and ran a hand over his face. “Right,” he muttered. “Right.”
First things first.
He fetched the bag of overpriced service station food and drinks, then stripped off shoes and jacket and set to work in the kitchen. Thankfully, their host had done everything he’d asked and he checked the boxes of tablets they’d left until he found one that would help with food poisoning. That done, he put the kettle on and had a root around in the cupboards for anything useful. By the time Aziraphale shuffled into the room, tea and toast were waiting for him.
“Feeling bett…”Crowley turned and blinked owlishly.
Aziraphale had decided it was a good time to change into his pyjamas. Or – much to Crowley’s blatant shock – what appeared to be his underwear. A thin white t-shirt and tartan boxer shorts made him look practically naked compared to the multiple layers he’d been wearing for the past two days.
“I’m very tired,” he said, as if he hadn’t just stopped Crowley’s brain in its tracks.
“Ngh. Yeah. Tired.” Jesus. The three-piece suit was a lying bastard. Made him look all neat and compact and instead, he had broad shoulders, solid arms and all the parts that were sharp edges on Crowley were rounded and padded and soft. Christ, even the hair on his arms and peeking out the v in his t-shirt was as platinum as his head. “Should…” He waved to the table. “Food. Eat.”
“Mm.” Aziraphale sat, making a small sound of relief at the sight of the tablets.
“Water!” Crowley blurted out, remembering how to move. He launched himself to the sink, clattering a glass against the tap as he filled it, and brought it back. “Here!”
Aziraphale nodded gratefully, taking the tablets. He listlessly picked at the toast, nibbling part of the way through a slice, then abandoning it to curl his hands around the mug of probably too strong and too sweet tea.
“We can get back on the way tomorrow, if you’re feeling better,” Crowley said, leaning as casually as he could against the counter.
“Yes. Very good.” Aziraphale looked up at him, the only colour left in his face the sunflare of green in his eyes. “I’m very grateful. I’m being such a bother.”
Crowley waved a hand in demurral. “S’fine. Honestly. I’ve had worse.”
“All the same.” Aziraphale turned his attention back to his tea, drinking it slowly, oblivious to the watchful eye Crowley kept on him. When he was done, he nodded his good nights and shuffled back in the direction of the bedroom.
In the kitchen, Crowley sank down into one of the seats at the table. Easy job. Get in, get his seeds. Not a job anyone could muck up. That was all he was meant to do. Not get an eyeful of the man in his underwear and get all hot under the collar. Strictly business. S’all it was. Just… make sure he wasn’t sick a…
“Ah, shit!” He scrambled to his feet, grabbing the bucket he’d dug out from under the sink.
The floorboards in the hall creaked underfoot as he padded along to the bedroom. The door was open a crack, a warm line of light running down the edge.
Crowley nudged it open a little wider. “Angel?” he murmured. “You awake?”
Not so much.
From the look of things, Aziraphale hadn’t even got into the bed, so much as fallen back onto it, one leg trailing off onto the floor. He hadn’t even switched the bedside lamp off, the pale glow softening the lines of his pale face, his hair glowing like a halo.
“Bloody angel,” Crowley murmured with a crooked smile as he slunk closer. He set the bucket down beside the bed, in case of emergencies, then – as gently as he could – lifted Aziraphale’s trailing leg up onto the mattress.
And that, of course, was when he noticed the open bag on the far side of the bed.
Crowley straightened up, glancing at Aziraphale, then leaned across him. Just get it out of his way. Nothing to worry about. Would be awful if he rolled over and knocked it flying in the middle of the night. Yep. Definitely the only reason.
Cautiously, he braced a knee on the edge of the mattress, stretching out, fingers skimming the edge of the handle.
And an arm as solid as an iron bar wrapped around his waist and gravity, momentum and that arm yanked him arse over tit off the floor, bringing him down onto the mattress with a bounce. His heart jumped to his throat and he stared in panic into Aziraphale’s face, half-expecting accusation and anger.
Aziraphale gave a small, snore and with no visible effort at all, rolled them over, pinning Crowley on his back on the bed, a broad, soft thigh draping across him as snugly as the solid arm. Aziraphale exhaled a warm gusting sigh that made every hair on Crowley’s body stand on end, and burrowed his face into Crowley’s neck with a happy murmur.
Crowley squinted down at him.
“Angel?” he croaked, trying very hard not to pay too much attention to the warm thigh shifting over his. He nudged his hands against Aziraphale’s arms, but that only made Aziraphale curl in closer. Oh Christ. He was snuggling. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!
The tip of Aziraphale’s nose nudged his earlobe and he bit down a very loud and very rude word.
“Aziraphale.” He shook the man’s arm, trying to prise it off his middle. “Aziraphale.”
The only reply he got was a snore.
Crowley stared up at the ceiling. Idiot, he reproached himself. And he couldn’t even reach the bag now. Aziraphale’s impromptu little wrestling match had knocked the thing on the floor on the…
“Ngh!” he moaned, mortified. The other side of the bed.
He tried pushing against Aziraphale’s arm again, but it was like trying to move a bag of wet cement. Well… that was just great. Pinned down and cuddled by a man who looked about as soft as candy floss, but was apparently made of platinum and had no right to be as attractive as he was. Ugh. He was never going to get a wink of sleep.
Waking up warm and snug was always a pleasure, though it took Aziraphale’s drowsy mind several minutes to notice something particularly wrong. Tangled limbs and the press of a body under his arm and leg. That…
That didn’t quite…
Gabriel was always so precious about his space.
Aziraphale opened his eyes, squinting against the early morning light that had flooded the room, and all at once, everything came rushing back to him: the gardens, the food poisoning, a random cottage in the middle of nowhere. Crowley!
Oh sweet Jesus!
He stared blankly at the other man who was apparently in bed with him.
When had they– what had they– oh Christ, this wasn’t good!
All right. First things first – damage control.
He was in… no, more accurately on bed with Crowley. He couldn’t remember getting onto the bed at all and now, he was all but draped over Crowley like a particularly clingy teddy bear. Both dressed, thankfully, although one of his legs had slipped to rest between Crowley’s, and the man appeared to be fast asleep, his own arms wrapped around one of Aziraphale’s, as if he’d tucked himself up using Aziraphale as his comforter.
With winces and careful, gentle tugs, he managed to draw himself free of Crowley’s grip, then inched backwards until he could climb off the edge of the bed, his foot knocking against an empty bucket on the floor. Crowley didn’t wake, though he grumbled in his sleep, spilling over like liquid into the warm hollow Aziraphale had left in the covers.
He was fully dressed, belt still buckled, fancy watch still on, glasses…
A very clear picture was beginning to creep up on Aziraphale. He tended to get clingy when he wasn’t feeling well. If Crowley had brought the bucket and…
As carefully as he could, he gently drew off Crowley’s glasses and folded them, setting them on the bedside table. Better that than letting them get crushed in his sleep. A blush spread up the back of his neck, as he stared down at Crowley’s bare face. Somehow, it felt far more intimate than if he had woken and found the man naked beside him.
Flustered, he retrieved his bag from the floor on the far side of the bed and hurried out of the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Perhaps it was cowardice to hide in the bathroom for twenty minutes, standing under the thundering shower, but he needed to gather his scattered wits.
He would have to apologise, of course, though he couldn’t help observing that Crowley had ended up as an active participant too. The faint dents from Crowley’s watch on his forearm had taken some time to fade.
He poked his head out of the bathroom before exiting, but the bedroom door was still closed and Crowley – he assumed – was still asleep, so he made his way through the house. It really was quite charming, though very snug and compact.
The kitchen itself was tiny and it didn’t take much guessing to locate the mugs and teabags. A small greeting card from the host indicated that they were welcome to use the milk, butter and home-made jam, and mercifully, Crowley had brought some supplies, including a couple of bagels in a brown paper bag.
The smell of toasted bagel made his hollowed-out stomach rumble and he chuckled ruefully, giving it a pat. “So you’re feeling better, I see.”
And he did too.
Despite the mortifying ordeal of emptying his stomach multiple times along the M3, the only lingering effects were a slightly tender throat and the feeling that he hadn’t eaten for a week. A bagel thick with butter and strawberry jam was hardly enough to fill the void, so he sliced up the other one and popped it into the toaster.
He was spreading butter on it when he heard the shuffling footsteps in the hall and all at once, heat bloomed up the back of his neck again.
“M’r’n’n,” Crowley mumbled, somehow managing to completely ignore the existence of any vowels as he shambled to the kettle.
“Um. Yes. Good morning.” Aziraphale peeked sideways at him. His glasses were back in place, but his hair was standing in all directions and one cheek was pink and scored by the folds of the bed linens. “Er… about last night.”
“Ngh.” Crowley flapped a hand and put an unnecessary amount of concentration into spooning coffee from a jar into his cup.
Aziraphale looked down at his golden-brown bagel, then back.
“I think you need this more than I do,” he said, scooting the plate along the counter. Crowley raised his eyebrows, but tugged the plate closer, grunting in gratitude, and retreated to collapse down at the small table.
Aziraphale hesitated, then joined him, cradling his half-full mug of tea. He waited until Crowley went from a caveman posture to something slightly more upright.
“About last night,” he began again. “I… if I…” He made a helpless flailing gesture with one arm.
“Y’did.” One side of Crowley’s mouth curled up. “Got quite a grip.”
“Ah.” He flushed. “I’m awfully sorry.”
Crowley laughed. “No harm done,” he said, waving his hand. “I was out like a light in about five minutes.” He crunched another bite of his bagel. “And,” he continued, cheek puffed out with half-chewed food, “you’re looking better this morning.”
“Feeling it too,” Aziraphale agreed, though his stomach made an alarming sound. “I’m afraid we may need to find somewhere to get a little more to eat, though.”
Crowley snickered. “Didn’t learn its lesson, eh?”
Aziraphale fought down a smile. “It’s a bit of a glutton for punishment.” The smile escaped in full when Crowley groaned at the dreadful pun, throwing himself back in the chair as if it had physically wounded him. “Oh really, dear boy, it wasn’t that bad.”
“I don’t have the stomach for it,” Crowley countered, then grinned triumphantly at Aziraphale’s surprised hoot of laughter. He licked butter and crumbs off his fingers. “There’s a little café just off the main road. Should be open already. We can pop in there and tame the savage beast.” He pointed his still damp finger at Aziraphale’s nose. “No fish.”
“No fish,” Aziraphale agreed at once with a shudder. He reached over, claiming Crowley’s plate. “I’ll clean up in here.”
Ten minutes later, they stepped out into the bright morning sunlight, the day fresh with dew and the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine sweet on the air. Aziraphale paused on the path, breathing it in, then laughed. “Oh! It practically has a bower!”
Crowley grinned at him. “And an English country garden. Welcome to Cliché-ville.” He paused with the key in the lock. “You’re sure you’ve got everything?”
Aziraphale nodded, holding up his bag. “All packed.”
They stowed the bag back in the car – with Crowley’s vehement assurances it would be safe – and walked down the road into the main street of the village. It was a charming little place, picturesque and sleepy, with a little church at the heart of the town and thatched cottages and small stone bungalows lining a road blessedly free of cars.
The café itself was in one of those cottages and the smell of fresh-baked bread and bacon was enough to make Aziraphale’s stomach growl in delight.
“Full English?” Crowley suggested.
The man nodded towards a sun-drenched table by the window. “Go and park yourself and I’ll order.”
Obediently, Aziraphale wove his way between the tables to the sunny one, sitting down and looking out into the street with interest. A group of children went belting by on bicycles, chased by a small black and white dog and he smiled. Of course. The summer holidays. When children could run wild, should their surroundings allow it.
A clatter of a tray on the table made him turn from the window.
“Got a pot of tea,” Crowley said, upturning a couple of cups into saucers and setting them on the table. “They’ll bring the rest over when it’s ready.”
Aziraphale helped unload the cutlery and napkins off the tray. “This really is a lovely place,” he said. “How on earth did you find it?”
Crowley frowned at his cup as he poured some milk into it. “I grew up here. Sort of.”
Now, that wasn’t the response Aziraphale had expected. He stared at the skin-and-bone black-clad man who seemed a city man born and raised. But then, he was a city man who had a members pass to the biggest gardens in London. “You? Here?”
“Sort of,” Crowley said again, peering into the teapot and giving the bags a swirl with his knife. He must have felt Aziraphale’s stare because he lifted his face. “What?”
“You… this place seems so slow and quiet for someone like you.”
That made Crowley chuckle. “S’pose, yeah.” He waggled his knife towards the window. “There used to be a home outside of town. One of those… religious places. Care home kind of thing.” He made a face. “Lovely kind nuns taking care of the troubled youth.”
The brittleness in his voice was enough to bring Aziraphale up short.
“You?” he said, instead of probing further, “Trouble? I can scarcely imagine.”
Crowley snorted, his grin returning. “S’how I found this place. Turns out if you tell a kid not to climb a fence and nick fruit right off a tree, he’s going to do it. Especially a kid who’s never seen an actual fruit tree before.” He peered out the window. “I wonder if the grumpy old bastard is still about.”
“Oh, you didn’t!”
“I did!” Crowley’s grin widened. “I scrumped. Ate so many apples, I made myself sick. He caught me and marched me back through town in disgrace, howling about how I’d picked his trees clean.” He laughed. “Must’ve seemed like a God to the local kids.”
Aziraphale could picture it all too clearly, a skinny red-haired boy in too-big clothes, surrounded by apple cores and grinning that toothy grin. “And did this God end up with a following?”
“Only a little one. Only for a little bit. One of them owns our AirBNB.” Crowley glanced towards the counter as the server wove out and headed towards them, a tray stacked with a toast rack and condiments in her hands.
Aziraphale’s attention drifted to the window again. The frantically pedalling children were coming back on their bikes and they clattered to a halt outside the café, the dog barking wildly at their heels, a split second before they crashed in through the door.
Crowley froze. “Run!” he yelped before the four children piled around the table, the blonde boy at the head of the charge grappling Crowley around the neck with enough force to make the tea set rattle on the table.
The boy laughed, propping his head on Crowley’s hair. “All right?” he said, beaming at Aziraphale. “I’m Adam. Are you uncle Crowley’s friend?”
Aziraphale watched Crowley’s mugging and gurning with amusement. “Apparently so. It’s very nice to meet you, Adam.”
Crowley shrugged and jiggled his shoulders. “Bugger off, you little monster,” he grumbled, but he was clearly trying hard not to grin. “Did your mum tell you I was in town?”
“Yep!” Adam dragged a chair over and sat down beside them, stealing a bit of toast. “Said you were staying at Jasmine cottage. We came to see you.” He waved around at his friends. “They like your car.”
“Actually, it’s a Bentley,” the smallest of the four – a small bespectacled boy – said.
“And it’s old,” the other boy said. He was scruffier than the first two, with a shock of dark hair.
“Is that the one you did it in?” The single girl of the group demanded.
For the first time since their arrival, Crowley fidgeted awkwardly. He was blushing, Aziraphale noticed with astonishment. Cool and casual and suave as you like, and blushing at an interrogation by a group of children.
“Yeah,” Crowley said with a sigh. “It was that car.” He gave them a look. “Look, we’re just in for breakfast, not This Is Your Life.”
The girl nodded thoughtfully. “So that’s what mum meant when she said ‘doing it in style’.”
What on earth…?
“Dad says you’re to come for dinner,” Adam said, knocking his shoulder against Crowley’s. “If you’re staying longer.”
“My friend’s got somewhere to get to,” Crowley demurred, but when Adam’s face fell, he added, “but I’ll arrange things. Pop by for your birthday, all right? Next weekend, isn’t it?”
“Mum said you’d forget,” Adam said, shoving his chair back. “I’ll tell her we need an extra big cake.”
“Of course he wouldn’t forget,” the girl snorted. “It’s the same day as he–”
“Scuse me!” The server cleared her throat. “Paying customers only, Adam.”
The boy flashed a winning grin at her. “Uncle Crowley wants us all to have an ice cream.”
“Adam!” Crowley protested, laughing. “It’s ten in the morning.”
The boy gave him an angelic look. “We could go and get some apples.”
That made Crowley chuckle. “Fine. Fine. I’m not being blamed for that again. Give the little sods some ice cream.”
All four whooped and raced for the counter, leaving Aziraphale staring, bemused, after them. The server set down their plates and Aziraphale picked up his knife and fork, contemplating the dish, before raising his eyes to Crowley.
“What did they mean ‘doing it in style’?”
“Ah.” Crowley shuffled on his seat. “Hoped you’d miss that.”
“It’s not anything… lewd?”
Crowley’s mouth dropped open. “No!” Get your mind out the gutter! I just…” He huffed, stabbing into his scrambled eggs with his fork. “A few years back, when Adam was born, I was coming to visit. A lady had broken down by the road on the way to the hospital. In labour. I offered her a lift, but we didn’t get there in time.” He made a face. “Had to get the entire back seat deep cleaned after that, let me tell you.”
Aziraphale stared at him. “You delivered the baby?”
“Mm.” Crowley shovelled eggs into his mouth, red in the face. “S’not a big deal.”
“I suspect it was for the lady in question,” Aziraphale murmured.
“Ngh!” Crowley didn’t so much roll his eyes as roll his whole head. “Like I was going to leave a woman in distress by the side of the road. Doesn’t mean anything.”
“You say the day after you find emergency accommodation for your sick travelling companion and nurse him back to health. And just now, you bought a flock of children some ice cream,” Aziraphale observed with a small smile. “I’m starting to think you are, deep down, a very nice man.
Crowley stuck his egg-crumbed tongue out at him. “Bollocks,” he grumbled.
“Hardly a counter-argument, my dear,” Aziraphale replied serenely, loading his fork with bacon, egg, sausage and beans. And though he couldn’t see Crowley’s half-hearted glare through the glasses, he could tell it was there, and it made him smile all the more.
Tadfield fell away behind them, as Crowley floored the accelerator, taking them back in the direction of the M25. They stopped off at a supermarket in the next big town they passed through to get some more petrol and a change of clothes to replace his somewhat ripe outfit, then continued on their way, Queen throbbing through the speakers.
“You’re being suspiciously quiet,” he said to his passenger.
Aziraphale unfolded and refolded his hands on his lap. “I…” He gave a noisy sigh. “I’m trying to think what I should say when we get there. When I see him.”
Crowley snorted. “Easy. You’re chucked and I’m taking half of everything.”
The man gave him a brief, pained look. “It’s not that simple.” He shifted in his seat, staring down at his hands, turning the heavy gold ring on his pinkie. “It’s silly really. I’ve come all this way and thought I knew what I wanted to say and now…” He smiled unsteadily. “You probably think I’m soft, but some part of me just wants to make everything go back to normal, precisely as it was.”
With Aziraphale giving up everything he cared about to live in a box in a tower block in a city on the other side of the world with some American bugger who would probably – no, definitely – cheat on him again.
“Can I ask you something?”
Aziraphale glanced at him. “Am I going to be able to stop you?”
“Nah.” Crowley flashed a grin at him. “Big on questions, me.”
Those stormy eyes stared at him, then Aziraphale sighed. “Oh, very well.”
“Are you happy?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Crowley shrugged. “Not a difficult question. Are you happy? You’ve got your swanky flat. You’ve got parks and museums and Broadway and everything. Cheating bastard aside, are you happy?”
“I– of course– I– that is to say– I mean, we were– it–” Aziraphale flapped his hands in agitation. “I don’t see what that’s got to do with anything! We were comfortable. We were settled. We were stable. It was more than enough.”
Crowley grimaced, eyebrows rising. “’Parently not.”
Aziraphale turned on him, anger in his voice. “And what do you mean by that?”
Crowley shot him a sympathetic look. “Remind me why you’re here again. Why exactly.” The man’s face crumpled, shoulders hunching. “You shouldn’t just settle. That’s not what a relationship should be, especially not with someone who’ll go paddling in someone else’s pond.”
“And I suppose you know better?” He was trying so hard to sound venomous, but Crowley could hear the tremor in his voice. “Mr. I’ll paddle in any pool I fancy?”
“Fair point.” Crowley spread his hands on the wheel. “I’m just saying if you can’t answer ‘yes’ to ‘are you happy?’, it might be worth considering whether you really want to go back to it. Being in a rut doesn’t mean it’s any less of a rut because it’s ‘comfortable’.”
Aziraphale didn’t reply, though a sidelong glance made Crowley wonder if he’d been too harsh. Not like they were even friends or anything and now, the man was hunched and still as stone, hands locked together in his lap.
“Are you?” he suddenly said, several miles later.
“What’s that?” Crowley inquired.
“Happy. Are you happy?”
Crowley wrinkled his nose, lifting his shoulders. “Getting there.”
“Ah yes.” Aziraphale nodded solemnly. “Your escape to the country plan.” His smile returned, though more brittle now. “I have to say it makes a lot more sense now that I’ve seen where you came from and know what you’re really like.”
“You tell anyone,” Crowley wagged a finger at the man, “and I’ll throttle you with your own bow tie.”
And the cheek of the bastard, he actually laughed.
“Of course you will, my dear.” His smile looked so butter-won’t-melt, but his eyes glinted with mischief. “I would hate for anyone to labour under the misapprehension that you’re… nice.”
At once, Aziraphale’s laughter filled the car and Crowley had to grudgingly hide his own smile. “No need to tell the whole world,” he groused, rolling his eyes.
They rumbled on a bit further and Aziraphale inquired, “So do you have anywhere in mind? For this elusive place in the country?”
It felt strange to be talking about it to anyone, his own little secret that he’d been gently building up, scraping together what money he could, however he could.
Yeah, all right, some of it might not have been 100% legit, but sometimes, you had to do what you had to do. And it wasn’t as if he’d gone after the people with nothing. If someone was stupid enough for fall for his temptations, that was on them.
He drummed his fingers on the wheel. “Do you mind if we take a detour before we get to Brighton? It won’t take too long.”
Aziraphale blinked at him. “Er. No. By all means.” He was silent for a moment, then prompted, “About your place in the country?”
“You’ll see it when we get there, angel,” Crowley replied.
“Oh!” The man sounded both pleased and surprised. “I didn’t realise it was on the way.”
Crowley shrugged. “I like Brighton. Fancied somewhere close, but still with my own space around it. I’ve had my eye on it for a while now and all being well…” No. No counting chickens before they hatched. No more anticipating. He’d had a plan years ago, and then – according to the financial arseholes – the world had ended. “Let’s just say I’ve got some ideas.”
His passenger gave a strange little wiggle, something Crowley was starting to recognise as excitement. “Oh, I can’t wait to see it. Does it have a garden?”
How could he not grin at that? “Yeah. It’s an English country one too.”
Aziraphale gave an exaggerated gasp. “Does it have… a bower?”
Crowley stared at the road ahead. Shit. It probably did. And everything Aziraphale had been so enthusiastic about in Kew and again in Tadfield. “Er. Sort of.” He shot a frantic sidelong look at the man. “And no, this isn’t a come on. Don’t worry.”
Aziraphale chuckled warmly. “I’d never want to presume.”
But now that the image was there, Crowley could picture Aziraphale there, puttering about in the smaller front garden, cooing over bees in the roses. Could imagine him making tea and toast in the morning. Shuffling around sleepily in his boxers and t-shirt.
“Ngh.” He clutched tighter at the wheel.
Bloody stupid and inconvenient time to get all doe-eyed about a man who had cuddled him to sleep last night. And he had slept well too! It was like the press and warmth of Aziraphale had squeezed all the stress and tension out of Crowley’s body and he’d slept like the dead.
They headed onwards down the A23, passing by a turn-off towards Crawley, which made Aziraphale titter.
“Different spelling, angel,” Crowley said with a chuckle.
“As near as makes o difference.”
If he hadn’t been driving, Crowley knew he would have dramatically faceplanted into the steering wheel, but had to settle for a drawn-out groan of horror, which made Aziraphale suppress a gleeful grin, wiggling in the passenger seat.
Aziraphale chuckled. “No?”
“No. Bad.” Crowley flashed a sidelong glare at him. “No puns in the car.”
“You’re no fun.”
Crowley pulled a face at him.
“Imagine,” Aziraphale continued, sounding far too delighted, “Crowley from Crawley. You sound like a contestant on one of those television game shows.”
“Yeah and there’s another reason I won’t be moving to Crawley.”
Twenty minutes later, Aziraphale started chuckling again as they drove through a village with a very unfortunate name. “Oh, please tell me this is where you’re planning on settling down.”
Crowley bit down on his own smile. “Almost.” He swung away from the small village and into the side roads until they drew up outside the gates of the former farm cottage Crowley had his eye on. As soon as Aziraphale clambered out the car, he stopped dead, staring at the gate.
“That– does that say what I think it says?”
The wrought iron gate would’ve been entirely run of the mill, if not for the curly letters proclaiming ‘Nether Fulking Cottage’ which wove across the grid-work.
Crowley rounded the front of the car, grinning. “The cursive makes it look worse than it is.”
Aziraphale looked torn between delighted amusement and complete dismay. “But surely the owner must’ve noticed? I mean…” He traced the outline of the letters in the air. “Look at it, for Heaven’s sake!”
“Maybe it was deliberate?” Crowley suggested, watching the blush bloom on Aziraphale’s cheeks.
“Do you think so? I mean, with Fulking just down the road, it does make sense as a name, but…” The man’s shoulders shook with laughter. “Are you planning on keeping it?”
Crowley licked his incisor. “Guess.”
Aziraphale looked him up and down and that pursed, suppressed smile creased his cheeks. “Of course you are.”
Of course he sodding was. Big metal gates were expensive. Big metal gates that looked like they advertised a farmhouse bordello were probably even more so.
“What can I say? Keeping up appearances.” He unlatched the gate, pushing it open. “I called the estate agent. We can’t get into the building at such short notice, but we can have a wander in the grounds.”
The cottage itself did have a smaller front gate directly in front of the cottage, but Crowley had a feeling that avoiding the untrimmed bower was probably wise. Instead, they crunched across the gravelled drive towards the gable-end of the house.
“It’s bigger than it looks from the road,” Aziraphale said, peering down the length of the building.
Technically, it was only a one-storey cottage, but it was a long building with the old stable connected on to the house, all old stonework and small windows along the front. The last owner had started on a loft conversion, although only the basic work had been done, but it wasn’t as if he needed that finished in a hurry.
“They’ve already got planning permission approved for extension work at the back,” Crowley said, leading him around to the sprawling back garden. “They’d mentioned putting in a conservatory, but I think some decking or a patio would be enough. Somewhere to have a table and drinks on a nice night. Watch the stars.” He sketched it out with his hands. “A nice little raised terrace there. Maybe a hammock.” He grinned. “Get in touch with my inner ten year old.”
Aziraphale peered around the garden. “And all this would be yours? How far does it go?”
Crowley bounded down the garden towards the fence that divided lawn from rows of trees growing beyond it and pointed to a pole poking up between the trees. “See that pylon?”
Aziraphale approached, nodding.
“From here to there isn’t even half the land. All these trees would be mine.”
The man made a startled sound. “You’d be a farmer?”
“Ngh. No… yes… sort of.” Crowley rubbed the back of his neck. “I did have some plans. This is all a functioning orchard already. A bit neglected and overgrown, but still producing. I can manage that and put up a couple of greenhouses.”
“Why greenhouses?” Aziraphale inquired, frowning. “They’re trees.”
Crowley rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s daft, but I want to see if I could cultivate some of the rarer species of apples that aren’t so common anymore. They’re a bastard to grow from seed and it’ll take years before I know if I’m getting anywhere, but if it works, it’ll be worth it.” He laughed wryly. “Who knew scrumping would have such a profound influence, eh?”
“Apple trees…” Aziraphale gave him a thoughtful look. “You really are a very surprising person, Crowley.”
“Not sure if that’s a compliment or not,” Crowley said, turning to look back at the house. “That’s what the book was for. I’m selling it at a specialist auction tomorrow. Getting the last chunk of my costs for this place. Clearing my debts. Getting out of my shithole in London.”
“I see.” There was something in Aziraphale’s voice that made Crowley glance at him, something wistful. The man was gazing at – no, beyond – the house. “It must be lovely to have something you’ve wanted for so long within your reach at last.”
Crowley leaned against the fence, watching him. “What do you want, angel?” he asked quietly.
Aziraphale’s face crumpled, but his brow furrowed in thought. “I want…” He exhaled. “I want to know where I stand. I want to be able to stand my ground and say ‘enough’. I wanted to be shown more than a crumb of respect.”
The tremor in his voice said that it wouldn’t be as simple as it sounded.
“How can I help?” Crowley asked.
“You’ve listened to me babble about my wacky apple farming plans and hell, you even smuggled my deposit through customs.” He gave Aziraphale a lopsided smile. “Consider this my compensation for all the buggering around I’ve done.” He pushed off from the fence post. “D’you want me to loom? I can loom well. Or maybe shame him? I mean, I’ve got none and tearing strips out of a cheating bastard sounds like fun.”
“No, no!” Aziraphale eld up a hand. “Just… just… I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve. When I see him. That I’ll…” He shook his head. “You don’t know what he’s like, Crowley. He’s… he’s a force of nature, so much charm and charisma, and I’m afraid I’ll… I’ll let him trample all over me.”
Crowley grinned. “What I’m hearing is that you need a lesson in how to channel your inner Crowley.” He clapped Aziraphale on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, angel. I’ll give you some coaching and you’re going to yank the rug out from under him and he’s not going to have a sodding clue what hit him.”
Aziraphale gave him a look both grateful and wondering. “Really?”
“Absolutely.” He nudged Aziraphale back up the garden. “Bit more confidence and you’ll show him exactly what a mistake he’s made. And if you’re lucky, even get him grovelling at your feet for forgiveness.”
“Do you think I could?” There was a fierce, proud gleam in Aziraphale’s hazel eyes that really, really suited him.
What had his bastard fiancé done to make him think he couldn’t have anything he wanted in life? What had made him so afraid to expect even a little respect?
“I definitely think you could,” Crowley confirmed as they headed back towards the car. “And he’d deserve it too.” He opened the passenger door for the man. “We’ll get to Brighton, get a room sorted and make plans, all right?”
Aziraphale hesitated. “Well,” he said, “in the spirit of this new… arrangement, there’s something I think you may want first.”
Several images popped into Crowley’s head, not helped by the great metal words ‘nether fulking’ on the edge of his line of sight. “Ngk?”
Aziraphale dipped two fingers into the breast pocket of his jacket and Crowley’s heart bloody well nearly exploded when he drew out the little rolled up bundle of seeds. The bugger hadn’t just found them but had been carrying them around in his sodding pocket.
“You really ought to be more careful with your things, my dear,” the bloody wonderful silly ridiculous man said, eyes dancing. “You never know who may lay their hands on your seed.”
Aziraphale was still laughing as he ducked down and slid into the car.
The guest house Crowley had found was small but charming, with a snug, colourful room and only a stone’s throw from the beach.
Aziraphale sat on one of the twin beds, hands folded in his lap, trying to remember how to breathe. It helped that they were staying here, so cosy and welcoming. He had considered suggesting they take a room at the Grand, but the thought of bumping into Gabriel unprepared had buttoned his lip.
It didn’t help that the place held too many memories from a conference they had both attended years ago. It was the first time, Aziraphale had let himself be swept off his feet. Who wouldn’t be when a handsome, successful, respected author decided you were the person he wanted to talk to out of all the other delegates at the conference?
He had been wooed. There was no other word for it. No chance to think or hesitate when Gabriel made a decision, just swept along like a tidal wave. And next thing he knew, he was upping sticks, crossing an ocean, and living in a city that wasn’t home.
The bathroom door opened and he glanced up as Crowley prowled out, hair still wet from the shower, his black t-shirt replaced with… another black t-shirt.
“Give me your phone.”
Aziraphale blinked in confusion. “Pardon?”
“Your phone.” Crowley held out his hand. “Got an idea.”
Aziraphale unlocked it and handed it over. “What are you going to do?”
“Your bloke is an author, right? Spends a lot of his time social networking?”
If you could call thumbing his phone screen through dinner ‘social networking’.
“I suppose he does, rather.”
Crowley grinned, all white teeth. “Good.” He studied Aziraphale’s phone, then pointed at the bowl of fruit sitting on the dresser. It had been waiting for them when they arrived: fresh, bright strawberries, plump and sweet. “Take a picture of that.”
Bemused, Aziraphale did so. “Why?”
“He made you an Instagram account,” Crowley replied, snatching the phone back and tapping the screen a few time.
Aziraphale peered at the screen. Crowley had put the picture onto the Instagram website with a caption below it. “Lovely treat at guest house,” he read, then frowned. “I don’t follow.”
“But he does.” Crowley’s grin widened, then he huffed at Aziraphale’s even more bewildered expression. “It’s like an online newsletter and he’s on the mailing list for it. The minute he sees a post from you, especially the location, it’s going to keep him on edge.”
“So he’ll know I’m here?” Aziraphale blanched. “Oh. I… I was rather thinking I would surprise him.”
“What do you think we’re doing?” Crowley retorted. “This is just evening the playing field a bit.”
“Yes.” Aziraphale took two unsteady steps and sat back down. “Yes, I suppose.”
At once, Crowley dragged the chair from the dresser and sat down in front of him. “You said he’s always calm and charismatic and everything,” he said, laying his hand on Aziraphale’s sleeve, squeezing his arm gently. “He’s confident, you said.”
Crowley lifted his hand, hesitated, then took off his sunglasses. He folded them and set them aside and – for the first time – met Aziraphale’s eyes.
“I need you to trust me, angel,” he said gently, his gaze steady and calm, his eyes a mesmerising shade of honey-amber.
Aziraphale darted his tongue out, wetting his lips. It was like being let in on a secret, seeing those eyes. “But if he knows I’m here–”
“If he didn’t and you just showed up, do you think it would faze him?”
Aziraphale lowered his gaze. “No. I… I don’t think it would.”
Crowley gave his arm another squeeze. “I know the type. Even if you surprised him, his confidence would win out. This way, we put him off-balance and keep him that way. He knows you’re here. He doesn’t know where or why or if you’re planning to confront him. We need him to think you’re enjoying yourself, all right? That he’s an incidental.”
“I came all the way from America,” he pointed out unhappily. “That doesn’t suggest incidental.”
“You came all the way from America and you aren’t chasing after him.” Crowley countered. “You’re enjoying the seaside. You’re paddling in the sea. You’re having ice cream and chips and aren’t in any hurry to find him at all.” He ducked his head down to catch Aziraphale’s eyes again. “Trust me. I know people, especially people like that. He’ll want to know what’s going on. He’ll be on guard and expecting you to come to him.”
“And I don’t?”
Crowley gave him a delightfully devilish smile. “Not until the right moment.” He gave Aziraphale’s arm a last squeeze. “Come on. We need to get out there and take some annoying holiday photos and post them all over the gram.”
It all seemed like an awfully silly idea, but as Crowley led him on a wild lollop along the sea front, treating him to ice creams and a bucket and spade and all the things he hadn’t done since he was a boy, the plan hardly seemed to matter anymore.
They were both splashing about, ankle-deep, in the waves with their trousers rolled up when his phone started ringing.
Aziraphale fumbled it out of his pocket and very nearly dropped it.
Crowley snatched the phone, answering it. “Hello? Who’s this?”
Aziraphale stared at him in shock. “Crowley!” he hissed, grabbing for the phone. Crowley laughed, dancing back out of reach. “For Heaven’s sake!”
“No, he can’t come to the phone just now. D’you want to leave a message?” Crowley held him back at arm’s length with his other ridiculous long arm. “No, sorry. Can’t do that. You’ll ruin our little weekend. Bye!”
“What did you just do?!” Aziraphale wailed.
Crowley beamed at him. “Added a new mystery.” The phone pinged. Again and again and again. “Looks like you have messages.”
Aziraphale splashed over to his side, taking back the phone and peering at the screen.
“What’s ‘oh no’?” Crowley inquired, peeking over his shoulder.
“Should I call him?”
Crowley shook his head at once. “Nope. This is what you do.” He took the phone and typed three full stops, sending that as the entirety of the message.
“What does that mean?” Aziraphale asked.
“It means he’ll think you’re typing,” Crowley said, slipping the phone back into the breast pocket of Aziraphale’s shirt. “And it means it’s time for us to have another ice cream and a sit somewhere so my trouser legs can dry out.”
They splashed back onto the beach to their coats and shoes piled in a heap on the sand. The kind lady with the four renegade children who had watched over their things nodded with a smile when they returned. Up on the promenade, Crowley spotted a vacant bench and tossed his jacket down on it.
“You stay put,” he said. “You don’t need to brave the queue.”
Aziraphale nodded, unfolding his coat and sitting down on it, wiggling his toes to shake off the last of the sand. Still, as soon as Crowley was out of earshot, he pulled out his phone and stared at the messages. It would be so simple to telephone him and just… say something. Do something.
But Crowley was right. Gabriel always had a way of making him feel like he was in the wrong.
He very nearly jumped out of his skin when the telephone buzzed in his hand.
An incoming call, but…
He stared at it. Not a known number, but it had a London area code. If Gabriel was in Brighton, then perhaps it was Marjorie?
He picked up the call. “Hello?”
“Is this Mr. Aziraphale Fell?” The voice on the other end of the line wasn’t Marjorie. She wasn’t even English. American, definitely. Possibly Boston?
“My name is Harriet Dowling. I’m the wife of the American Ambassador,” she replied, as if calling a stranger out of the blue was in her remit. “This is Mr. Aziraphale Fell, correct? You arrived in London two days ago on flight BA 746 from JFK airport.”
Aziraphale’s stomach plummeted to his shoes. “Y-yes. That’s me.” He swallowed hard. “May I ask how you got my number?”
“You’re presently in the process of applying for citizenship, Mr. Fell. I’m the Ambassador’s wife. I’m sure I don’t have to paint you a picture.”
That couldn’t be lawful, could it? Accessing someone’s personal records like that? But they were Americans, he supposed.
He rubbed his free hand against his trousers, his palm damp. “And why are you calling me on my holiday?”
She made a quiet, thoughtful sound. “It’s nothing for you to be concerned about,” she said, “but it is in respect to a mutual friend, the gentleman you were seated beside on the plane.”
Oh. Oh no.
“We’re not friends,” he blurted out before he could stop himself. “I don’t even know him.”
“And yet you were staying with him in Tadfield last night.”
Aziraphale’s world seemed to narrow and darken. “How do–”
“Mr. Crowley isn’t the only person with friends in Tadfield, Mr. Fell.” Harriet Dowling’s voice was clipped. “Friend or not, I believe he may be about to put himself into a situation that could ruin the rest of his life. I’m asking you if you would be willing to help me stop it.”
“I don’t see how–”
“There’s a book, Mr. Fell. A very valuable book. The FBI are involved in the investigation into its disappearance.”
The book Crowley planned to sell. The book he’d had Aziraphale smuggle. The book that was apparently the key to him getting out of his miserable life in the city and being happy in a quiet life in the country.
“You know about it.” It wasn’t a question. “You know he plans to sell it at an auction tomorrow.”
“Yes,” he said quietly.
She sighed with something that sounded like relief. “Good. It must be returned.”
A cottage came to mind, a smile on the man’s face, decades of toil and scrimping and saving and this, the last push.
“He won’t,” Aziraphale said, mouth bone dry.
“Persuade him, Mr. Fell,” she said. “He won’t listen to me. Christ knows he’s denied everything.”
Aziraphale glanced along the promenade, spotting the black clad figure coming out of the ice cream shop. “Why do you want to help him?” he demanded in a whisper. “If the FBI is involved, why are you trying to stop him being caught?”
“Because,” Harriet Dowling replied, “eleven years ago, he saved my baby’s life.”
Pieces slotted into place. “He delivered your baby…”
“And resuscitated him. We almost lost him, but Anthony–” Her voice shook. “Please. If you can persuade him, call me. Let me know. We can arrange something.”
The line went dead and he stared down at the telephone, heart in his throat.
“Please tell me you didn’t just call him!” Crowley called as he approached.
Aziraphale forced a quick smile. Oh Lord. How was he meant to convince Crowley to give up the key to his years-long struggle. He twisted his hands together anxiously. “Just a friend looking for a little help.”
Crowley folded down onto the bench, holding out a 99 to Aziraphale. “Yeah? With what?”
As he took the ice cream, Aziraphale shook his head. “Nothing important.”
With preventing a criminal from being caught in the act.
Or with saving a good man who had been buggered by life at every turn from ending up in the kind of trouble he couldn’t get out of. A man who helped sick strangers, delivered and saved babies, bought children and silly old men ice creams.
The minute Crowley walked into the auction house, that would be the end for him. Cuffs would be on and he’d be hauled before the courts.
If he walked into the auction house.
Aziraphale stared out at the sea, so lost in thought that he didn’t notice the ice cream was melting until it dripped over his fingers. “Oh!” He pulled out his hanky, mopping drops from his trousers.
“You all right, angel?” Crowley inquired, sounding concerned.
“Just thinking,” he said, between urgent licks to salvage the trails of vanilla down the sides of the cone. Once it was safely all enclosed in cone again, he licked his lips and inquired, “My dear, did I ever tell you what I do for a living?”
Crowley frowned. “Don’t think you ever mentioned it,” he said. “I assumed you were a doting house husband.”
The thought almost made Aziraphale laugh. As if he had any idea how to do more than boil an egg or butter some toast.
“No,” he said. “I work with rare books.” He forced another quick smile. “I was thinking that perhaps I should act as your broker at this auction tomorrow.” Crowley’s eyebrows rose so he plunged on before the man could speak, “I mean, we both know the value of appearances and I have something of a reputation in the trade in London. No one would give me a second look if I was there.”
A grin spread across Crowley’s face. “Yeah… yeah. You with your little bowtie and your manners and everything…” He nudged Aziraphale. “You might even be able to get me a higher price, eh?”
Or, Aziraphale thought with a weak smile, save you from one.
Am going to be offline most of Saturday, so you get your chapter a day early :)
Crowley sauntered back into the guest house, whistling as he jogged up the stairs.
He’d left Aziraphale to get himself ready for their big night out and to do some reconnaissance as well. Didn’t take much to swing by the restaurant in the Grand and get a peek at the table bookings under the guise of making a booking of his own.
Outside the door, he rapped once before opening it a crack. “You decent, angel?”
“Crowley?” Aziraphale’s voice was muffled. Probably still in the bathroom. “Yes. Come in.”
He stepped back into the room, shutting the door behind him. “Got us a table booked for seven,” he said, tossing a plastic bag onto his bed. “Think you’ll be ready?”
The bathroom door opened and his words all dropped out of his head as Aziraphale stepped out. He – it shouldn’t have been alluring. For God’s sake, he was just wearing his shirt and trousers, but the top buttons of the shirt were undone, baring his throat and a few pale wisps of his chest hair. And somehow, he’d tamed his curls into an artfully tousled look that made him look softer and more angelic than ever.
“I-I couldn’t decide if I should wear a tie or not,” he said, fingering his open collar. “I… you said I was meant to be having a good time. Relaxing.” His face creased in worry. “I don’t look too silly, do I?”
Crowley opened and shut his mouth a couple of times, then shook his head. “No. No silly.” And somehow, part of his brain was functioning and stepped forward, taking one of Aziraphale’s hands. “But you should roll these up. More casual.”
His thumbs grazed up Aziraphale’s arms as he rolled the sleeve one turn at a time, and suddenly his heart crashed in his ears like waves on the shore.
Aziraphale didn’t resist as he took the other arm to do the same, though his broad hand curled around Crowley’s wrist before he could pull away.
“You’re very good at that,” he said quietly.
Crowley dragged his eyes up from Aziraphale’s hand, but he couldn’t ignore the warm pressure against his skin, or the knowledge that Aziraphale could probably feel the snare drum of his pulse against his fingertips. “At rolling sleeves? What can I say? Man of many talents.”
Aziraphale stared at him through his sunglasses. “At managing peoples’ perceptions. Of you. Of me.”
Funny that Aziraphale, once he bothered to look, seemed to see right through him.
“All of life is perception, angel,” he demurred. “You just need to know which buttons to push and right now, we have a man who abandoned you suddenly wondering what he’s missing. He’s the one chasing you now. You’ve got the upper hand. You just need to use it.”
He pulled his wrist free to pick a piece of fluff off Aziraphale’s shirt, then smoothed it down.
“Why are you helping me?” Aziraphale asked quietly. “You don’t need to. You have your seeds back. You’re under no obligation.”
He shrugged, tongue-tied. “Might as well see it through with you,” he finally managed. “And I’m a nosy bastard. I want to see how it ends.” Felt safer to step back then, retreat to his bed and snatch at the plastic bag. He sat down, rooting through it. “Think you’ll be okay?”
The other man nodded, padding back across the room and sitting down on the other bed. “Of course.” He didn’t sound convincing and the way he twisted his hands together wasn’t exactly encouraging, but he didn’t roll down his sleeves or button up his collar and that was something. He leaned down to put his shoes on, then paused, glancing up. “Crowley, what if I make a mess of things? What if I panic or… or let him do what he always does?”
Crowley gazed at him, so uncertain, and without a thought took off his glasses, tossing them beside him on the bed. “You listen to me, Aziraphale Fell,” he said, waiting until Aziraphale met his eyes, “whatever he made you think you are, you are so much more.”
“No,” Crowley cut over him. “You are. I’ve known you for what? Three days? Four? And I can tell you’re a bloody brilliant man. You took on your biggest fear head-on without hesitating. You faced down criminals. You answered me back, which – frankly – is hilarious. You were brave enough to leave your home and friends for this man. You can make him see exactly what a mistake it was to behave the way he did.”
Aziraphale blinked owlishly at him, his eyes wide and dark. “I– you–” His cheeks flushed. “That’s– it’s very kind of you to say so.”
“Bollocks on kind,” Crowley retorted. “It’s the truth.” He leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his thighs. “Now, we’re going to go along there. We’re going to have a fancy dinner and if he comes near you, you’re going to give him exactly what he deserves.”
“What he deserves…” Aziraphale echoed, then frowned. “Which is?”
“A strong independent bookseller who don’t need no man!” Crowley grinned at him, heart giving a stutter when Aziraphale burst out laughing, his face lighting up. He scrambled up, offering his hands to Aziraphale. “Come on. If we leave now, we can take our time walking along the prom.”
Aziraphale grabbed his hands, hauling himself up so sharply that they almost collided and both started laughing again. And God, it was tempting to just drink him in, gazing at him, so close, his eyes flecked with gold in the hazel and blue and–
And shit! His glasses were still on the bed and here he was, staring dopily into the man’s eyes.
He recoiled back, groping across the cover for them and heard Aziraphale clear his throat. He risked a glance over his shoulder and thank Christ, the man was fetching his jacket from the hook behind the door, though the back of his neck was about as red as Crowley’s face.
“I think we’re good to go,” Crowley blurted out. “Got everything, angel?”
Thankfully, the cool breeze off the sea put paid to his mortifying blushes, and any awkwardness he might’ve felt evaporated as they walked the mile along the promenade towards the Grand. The sun hadn’t set yet, but the clouds scudding the horizon were already painted gold.
“It really is quite lovely here,” Aziraphale murmured, gazing out at the rolling waves, the seafoam almost as frothy and pale as his curls. He hadn’t put his jacket on, instead carrying it draped over his arm, and Crowley had the stupidest thought that he looked like a lead from a softly-lit romance film that usually showed at lunchtimes for the stay-at-home mums.
Which made it all the more ridiculous that Crowley had the daftest urge to take his hand or… or… Christ, skip through the surf with him or something soft and soppy and enough to make them both laugh like morons.
“It is a bit,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets and behaving his bloody self, because the last thing he needed was to scare the crap out of the man.
“I used to come here with Marjorie,” Aziraphale said, turning to him with a rueful smile. “You wouldn’t believe the trouble that woman got us into.”
Crowley grinned back at him. “Oh, I think I can, but I’m pretty sure you did well on your own.”
Aziraphale made an innocent face, eyes wide and virtuous. “I’m an angel, I’ll have you know. I’ve been reliably informed by a local gentleman.”
“Ngh.” Crowley rolled his eyes. “Don’t trust everything you hear, a–” He cut himself off, but too late, and Aziraphale’s laughter carried over the sound of the surf. “Oh, shut up.”
As they neared the Grand, Aziraphale’s smile faded and he looked more like a soldier psyching himself up for battle than a man about to enjoy a nice dinner.
Crowley stopped, his hand on the door, gazing at him. “If you want to leave it, we can,” he said, “but I heard they do a fantastic local selection. Cheese platters and everything. You going to let him get between you and that?”
The man gave him a look that said he knew exactly what Crowley was doing.
“Well, I suppose it would be remiss of us to cancel right at the door,” he said and nodded.
Crowley held the door open for him and together, they went in, shoes tapping on the tiled floor, and headed towards the restaurant. It wasn’t too busy yet and they were showed to the table right away, but as soon as the drinks orders were taken, Aziraphale fidgeted and glanced around.
“Deep breath,” Crowley murmured, sliding one of the menus across the table to him. “And have a look at the taste of Cyan.”
Aziraphale blinked at him. “The what?”
“On the menu.”
Aziraphale glanced down and his face lit up. “Oh, my dear, they have oysters!”
“After what happened last time you had fish?”
“Oh really.” Aziraphale wrinkled his nose, something that shouldn’t have been anywhere near as attractive as it was. “One can’t allow one bad experience with one meal to ruin one’s appetite for anything related to it.” He flashed that dazzling smile across the table. “You can try one, if you like.”
Yep. Fine. Totally innocent to share a nice aphrodisiac with a man he was developing something embarrassingly like a crush on.
Aziraphale wiggled happily in his seat. “Well, that’s settled then! Shall we have the artichoke nibbles to tide us over until the seafood platter arrives?”
Apparently he agreed, somewhere in the pleasant daze of watching Aziraphale practically glowing with pleasure. The man’s smile had enough wattage to power the illuminations, and he found he couldn’t stop drinking him in and all at once, wine and bread and some kind of spread stuff was set in front of them.
“So what is this?” Crowley inquired, peering at the substance.
“Artichoke puree,” Aziraphale said, happily spreading some on the bread. The sound he made when he took a bite bordered on obscene and Crowley’s ears burned hot. “Oh, that really is scrumptious!”
He held out his wedge of bread, the mark of his teeth entirely visible. Where his mouth had been. On the bread. By the time Crowley’s brain caught up with the rattle of his heart, Aziraphale had pulled the bread back, looking flustered.
“Of course,” he was babbling, “you’ll want your own. Sorry. I get a little carried away.”
“S’all right,” Crowley croaked. “I’m not– don’t have people sharing often.” He snagged a piece of bread, slathering it with the artichoke – was pureed artichoke just artichoke butter? Like peanut butter with artichokes instead of peanuts? – and taking a bite. “S’good!”
Aziraphale’s mortified expression faded a bit, a smile returning. Christ, someone had clearly done a number on him, making him ashamed of all his generous little quirks, and Crowley had a funny feeling he knew exactly who that was.
By the time their fishy platter arrived, Aziraphale’s nerves had vanished and he shifted excitedly in his seat as the waiter approached.
“You’re going to have to show me how to do this,” Crowley warned him. “Never done oysters before.”
“Oh, it’s easy,” Aziraphale replied, beaming at him. “Wiggle it loose with a fork and pop it in. Hardly rocket science.” He snatched up a tiny fork and tilted one of the shellfish. “Just like this!”
And suddenly the aphrodisiac connection made sense to Crowley, watching the way Aziraphale tilted his head, the way the tip of his tongue caught the slippery meat of the oyster, the brine clinging to his lips and the absolutely filthy little sound he made.
Aziraphale dabbed his lips with his napkin and did that glowy smiling thing. “See?” He nudged the platter towards Crowley. “Go on, dear.”
So he picked up the fiddly little fork and ten seconds later, Aziraphale was around the table and slapping him on the back. Coughing, he managed to swallow the slimy little lump down, taking a sip of his wine to wash it the rest of the way.
“Not to your liking?” Aziraphale suggested sympathetically.
“Mm.” Crowley made a face. “I’ll stick with the prawns, thanks.”
“Well, at least you tried,” Aziraphale said warmly, turning the plate, so the prawns were on Crowley’s side and the oysters were well out of harm’s way. “How about the crab? And the mussels?”
Crowley grinned across at him. “Is this you seeing how much you get to hoard?” he teased, admiring the rosy flush that bloomed across Aziraphale’s cheeks.
“I was trying to give you an even share,” the man said, a mournful look tripping across his face.
Another little bit of his generosity and he’d taken it to mean he was being greedy.
Crowley leaned forwards, studying the platter. “Right. I’ll take half the mussels and the crab. You get…” He picked up his fork and flicked a couple of prawns onto Aziraphale’s side of the plate. “I think that’s an even distribution.”
And like that, Aziraphale’s expression brightened as they both set to work on the seafood platter, which was – apart from the lemon-squirted snot balls in shells – fantastic. Everything was so fresh and the wine provided complimented the flavours perfectly.
“Y’know, I’m not usually a crab fan,” Crowley said, as he scraped out the shell, “but that was actually really good.”
Aziraphale – mopping at the plate with the last of the bread – looked up with a smile, which melted off his face. His eyes weren’t on Crowley. They were on something – or someone – at the entrance to the dining room.
“Angel.” Crowley leaned forward, propping his arm on the table. “Angel.” Nothing. “Aziraphale!”
Startled, Aziraphale looked at him, the bread dropping from his hand. He snatched up his napkin, hastily wiping at his fingers, as if he might be scolded for making a mess. “I-I really don’t know if this is all such a good–”
Crowley reached across the table and touched his arm. “You can do this.” With his other hand, he tugged his glasses down, winking over them. “Strong independent bookseller who don’t need no man, remember?”
Aziraphale met his eyes and a smaller smile crossed his face. “I remember.” He straightened up in the seat, pulling his hand back, as footsteps approached. “Ah, Gabriel. Hello.”
The man who Crowley had decided to hate on principle stepped alongside their table, looming like he owned the place. And he was every inch as tall, dark and handsome as the photos Aziraphale had on his phone, his teeth perfectly white and straight in a perfectly perfect smile under a perfectly straight nose and perfectly tweezed eyebrows.
“Aziraphale. This is a surprise.”
To Crowley’s delight, Aziraphale looked up at him and replied evenly, “A little rich, coming from you, wouldn’t you say?”
Gabriel Archer looked both surprised and offended. He leaned down closer to Aziraphale, murmuring, “No need to air our dirty laundry in public, honey.”
Aziraphale dropped his gaze, his hands twisting the napkin into knots, which wasn’t a good look. Under the table, Crowley slid his foot closer and nudged Aziraphale’s ankle in wordless reassurance. Aziraphale glanced at him, smile shakily returning.
Mr. Archer noticed it too. “How rude of me. I never introduced myself to your new friend.” He turned his full attention to Crowley and held out a sleek, manicured hand. “Gabriel Archer. You must be the gentleman I spoke to on the phone.”
Crowley looked at his hand, then back at his face. “Yeah.”
“And how do you know Aziraphale?”
And another box was ticked on the arsehole bingo card.
“Don’t see how that’s any business of yours,” he replied, sprawling insolently back in his chair. Gabriel Archer wasn’t a difficult man to read. He liked to be in charge. He liked to know who and what he was dealing with. And when he didn’t… well, Crowley liked to press big red buttons to see what would happen.
Gabriel squared his shoulders, eyes going hard as he glared down at Crowley. “Aziraphale,” he said, without even bothering to look at the man, “we need to talk. Privately.”
“Later,” Aziraphale said, despite the tremor in his voice. “You’re interrupting my dinner.”
Gabriel’s lip curled and he turned away from Crowley to cast a critical look over Aziraphale. “Well, we can’t have that now.”
“Oi!” Crowley unfolded from the chair.
To his surprise – and Gabriel’s, from the look on the man’s face – Aziraphale held up a hand.
“No,” he said quietly. “It’s all right, Crowley.” He wiped his hands on his napkin. “Stay here, dear. Order me something nice for dessert. I’ll be back in a moment.” He rose from the table, chin up and nose-to-nose with Gabriel. “I’ll give you five minutes.”
Crowley took a moment to appreciate Gabriel staring in blank astonishment as Aziraphale stalked forwards the bar. “You might wanna go after him,” Crowley said helpfully. “He really won’t want to miss his pudding.”
Gabriel bolted and Crowley grinned after him, before flagging down the waiter. He was still mulling over the menu when the chair opposite him creaked and he lowered the menu to find a small, dark, be-suited woman sitting opposite him.
He raised his eyebrows inquiringly. “And you are…?”
“You pissed him right off,” the woman said, voice the rasp of someone who smoked twenty a day.
“Ohhhh.” Crowley shut the menu and looked over at her. “You’re the bit on the side.”
She gazed back at him, unimpressed. “How did you do it?”
“Piss him off.” She bared small, white teeth. “He turns into such a pissy little bitch. Much more fun to make him shut up.”
Crowley frowned. “Wait, I’m not following.”
She leaned back in her chair, raising her eyebrows. “You mean you prefer them polite and well-behaved like Mr. Vanilla over there?”
“D’you normally walk up to a stranger and tell them about your sex life?” he inquired weakly.
“When they’ve pushed his buttons? Don’t see why not.” She rattled dark nails – chipped varnish, he noticed – on the table.
“And the fact he’s talking to his fiancé?”
“Ex.” Pale grey eyes watched him. “Does that bother you?”
“Does it bother you? S’your fault they broke up.”
She snorted. “I didn’t make Armani do anything he didn’t want to do.”
Crowley glanced over at the bar, where Gabriel and Aziraphale were apparently talking like civilised human beings, while some tiny savage sadist was making him blush like a trooper. “He’s a cheating bastard.”
She shrugged. “With a big cock and unlimited credit.”
“Jesus Christ!” They were so far into the realm of TMI, he wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
“So?” he echoed, bewildered.
“Tips on keeping him on his toes?”
Crowley stared at her, then thought back on Gabriel’s attitude on the phone, in the Instagram messages and in person. “Oh, I’ve got a few suggestions of things you can do that’ll get right up his nose.”
Gabriel’s new flame smirked. “Good.”
Technically, it's 55 minutes until Tuesday and my scheduled posting day, but since I'm likely to be hecking busy tomorrow, voila!
How strangely the world turned.
Aziraphale’s hands were shaking as he sat down on a vacant stool by the bar and waited for Gabriel to catch up.
If he had arrived three days ago, he knew he would probably have grovelled and stammered and blurted out some pitiful pleas that Gabriel ought to come home and set everything right, but now, the thought of even letting Gabriel back into their home, into their bedroom, made his stomach twist.
“You should’ve told me you were coming,” Gabriel said as he slipped onto the stool beside him.
Aziraphale stared down at his hands, spread on the bar. “Why?”
“Why? So I’d know you were gonna be here!”
So I’d know.
Strange, looking back, how much I there was in their relationship. I don’t think we need so many books in the apartment. I think it’d be better if you cut back on the snacks. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I’d prefer it if you wore the better suits for my events. I’d – I want – I think.
And he’d let it happen. He’d let Gabriel take control, pressing and wedging him into the life that Gabriel liked, the clothes he liked, the foods he liked. For God’s sake, he even insisted on picking his damned pyjamas. Oh, but they were given as a gift. Can’t refuse a gift, Aziraphale, and they’ll look great on you.
No wonder sleeping in his vest and boxers for the last few nights had felt so… simple and yet so rebellious at the same time.
How was it possible he had been so very unhappy and so utterly unaware of it all along? Yes, he’d been comfortable, but when had they both stopped really giving a damn and settled into their rut because it was easy and simple and there?
“No,” he said, slowly turning to the man he really was so sure he had loved. A man who never even once asked him if he was happy. “Why should I tell you? You made it abundantly clear to me that I was irrelevant to you. Why should my presence be any of your business anymore, when you dropped me like a hot potato?”
“Az,” Gabriel did the voice, that voice that had been used to push, coerce, and passive aggressively pick him apart at the seams for years. “Honey…”
Aziraphale held up his hand. “Don’t. No excuses. No… no more of your… flim-flam.” He met Gabriel’s eyes and lord, how beautiful his eyes still were. “I came over to find you to try and fix things. To… get things back to normal, but I really don’t want that anymore.” And the thought bubbled up, bright and clear and shocking in its clarity. “I don’t want you anymore. You’re not good enough for me.”
Gabriel recoiled as if Aziraphale had slapped him. “Honey, I was the best thing–”
“No. You weren’t.”
“No,” Aziraphale repeated as the reality of his words solidified. “You were… handsome and rich and you gave me all kinds of fancy things, but… but everything we did, that was what you wanted. You never ever asked what I wanted.”
“Sure I did!”
Do you want to cut back on the pasta. Do you want to maybe try wearing a different style. Do you want to get rid of some of your books. Do you want to… all things he didn’t want and all things he had just agreed to, to keep the peace, to make Gabriel happy, to be… good enough.
He stared at the man. “No. Enough,” he said quietly. “We’re done. I’ll make arrangements, but I don’t want to see you again.”
Gabriel looked as if the rug had been yanked out from under him. “You don’t make decisions like this,” he said, frowning. “Just drop everything. If you go back to New York, I’ll come back and we can talk about it all–”
“Is it him?” Gabriel demanded, glancing back towards the table, where Crowley was apparently laughing with some tiny dark-haired person in a suit. “Your two-bit whore putting ideas in your head?”
Aziraphale reached out, as if to smooth his lapel, and yanked him forward, bringing their faces close enough that their noses nearly touched. “My friend has taken better care of me in three days than you did in all the years we were together.” He bared his teeth, a feeling like a growl rumbling in his chest. “Call him that name again and you’ll regret it. Am I making myself understood?”
And to his utter astonishment, Gabriel blushed like a schoolboy and nodded. “Yessir.” The man shifted on his stool, fidgeting and pulling his jacket closed.
Aziraphale darted a glance down. Some things were too prominent to be hidden. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Gabriel!”
“I didn’t know you could get like this!” Gabriel protested, flushed and squirming. “Honey, if I’d known–”
“I didn’t get like this for you,” Aziraphale snapped, shoving Gabriel back. “I’m going back for my dessert. Don’t bother me again.” He slid off the stool. “I’ll be in touch about my things at the flat.” Two steps away, he turned. “And if anything is damaged or treated with anything but the best of care, I swear I’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks. Do I make myself clear?”
Gabriel nodded, visibly swallowing.
Aziraphale hurried back in the direction of his table, a blush crawling up the back of his neck. Oh Lord, Gabriel’s comment about his… bit on the side having ‘spunk’ made so much more sense if he liked– if that was– good Heavens, he had never even thought Gabriel could be that way inclined. He’d always been so domineering and controlling after all.
The person in his seat glanced up as he approached, raising thin eyebrows.
Crowley waved towards her. “Aziraphale, this is Bea.”
Aziraphale blinked, staring down at her. A skinny and dark as he was plump and fair, they were polar opposites in every way. “Oh. I see. I left him at the bar.”
“All sorted out?” she inquired, rolling out of the seat and onto her feet.
“Quite. Do what you like with him.” His blush accelerated as she studied him with pale, thoughtful eyes. “He may be in a bit of a mood.”
She didn’t quite smile, but there was something in her expression that she’d got the result she wanted. With a curt nod, she stamped off and Aziraphale dropped back down into the vacated seat, grabbing his unfinished wine to gulp it down.
Crowley watched him across the table, then cleared his throat. “So about Gabriel being a submissive little bitch.”
Aziraphale choked on his wine. “What?! You saw–”
Crowley’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh-ho?” He leaned forward, grinning. “Did you give him a telling? Did he like it?”
“What?” The wretched man laughed in delight. “He did, didn’t he? And here I was bringing you all the gossip from Bea.”
Aziraphale buried his face in his hand, propping his elbow on the table. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake.” He peeked through his fingers when someone approached the table, and lowered his hand at the sight of the waiter. “Oh! Dessert!”
“Mm.” Crowley grinned across at him. “Reward for saying what needed to be said and standing your ground.”
The scent that rolled off the plate made Aziraphale’s mouth water. “Oh my word…” A beautifully presented slice of treacle tart glistened on the plate, a whorl of cream spiralled by a coil of vivid orange sauce. He glanced across the table. “Aren’t you having anything?”
“Nah.” Crowley propped his chin on his hand, his elbow on the table. “Seafood and bread was more than enough for me. You enjoy it, though.”
Aziraphale tucked in at once and it tasted quite as delicious as it looked, a groan of satisfaction slipping from his lips. He dabbed a fleck of cream from his lips with a napkin, enjoying the eruption of flavours on his tongue. It was far, far too lovely not to share it. “My dear, you must try some.”
He scooped up a forkful, thick with cream and the deliciously tangy orange sauce and offered it across the table, his other hand cupped under the fork, and his heart pattered when Crowley steadied the fork, his fingers curling around Aziraphale’s. And when he wrapped his lips around the tines of the fork, Lord, Aziraphale had never envied a fork quite so much.
“Not bad,” Crowley agreed, licking cream from his lips. “Prefer things with a bit more kick.”
Aziraphale lowered his gaze, cutting back into his tart. “Such as?”
“Fruity things,” Crowley said at once.
“Perhaps…” Aziraphale glanced up with a twitch of his lips, “Apple?”
Crowley grinned at him, wide and utterly delightful. “No idea where you’d get an idea like that.”
It was astonishing how easy it was to laugh with him, to tease back and forth, as he finished up the tart and they both had another glass of wine. Talking to people had always seemed so worrisome before, but with Crowley, it felt as simple as breathing.
By the time they left, the sun was long gone and Aziraphale shivered, slipping his jacket on.
“There’s some cocoa back at the guest house,” Crowley said. “If you’re too cold.”
Aziraphale shook his head with a small smile. “I think I’ve indulged enough for tonight,” he murmured as they walked side by side back along the promenade.
“No such thing.” Crowley poked his hands into his pockets.
They meandered along, the night air pleasantly cool, waves curling on the shore in soft rushes of white foam. Aziraphale glanced sidelong at the man, who had done so much for him and who needed him to do one thing in return.
“About this auction tomorrow,” he murmured. “I suppose it has to be done that way?”
“Mm.” Crowley nodded. “Best place for it. Good reputation. More likely to get respectable bids.”
“But hardly the safest method.”
Crowley paused. “How so?”
“If this book is as valuable as you believe…” Aziraphale chewed his lip. “Crowley, if there’s any question over its provenance…”
“Ahhh.” Crowley nodded, resuming walking. “Nothing to worry about. Got it from a friend in America.”
Aziraphale couldn’t help remembering the young… friends he had met in Holborn days earlier. If they were the amateurs, stealing from travellers in hotels, what kind of friends did he have who could get hold of ridiculously expensive books?
“Wouldn’t an online auction have a wider audience?” he suggested hopefully.
“If you’ve changed your mind about going to the auction for me, you can,” Crowley said and he sounded like he was smiling. “I’m not going to be offended.”
“No! No, it’s not that–” Aziraphale fidgeted with his ring. “It’s silly. I just… I don’t want you to be disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you expect.”
Crowley knocked their elbows together. “It’s an auction, angel. Can’t foresee how it’ll go.” He smiled when Aziraphale risked a glance at him. “I trust you. You know what you’re doing.”
Aziraphale looked back down at his ring, heart sinking as he twisted the band of gold round and round. “I hope so,” he said softly.
Crowley hated being nervous.
It was a bloody nightmare waiting outside anywhere vaguely respectable, especially with his aesthetic and fidgeting as much as he did when he was worked up. More than once in the past, a pair of police officers had meandered by and asked if there was a problem.
Trouble was the look.
Playing cool and mysterious was all well and good when you were sitting in a flashy restaurant and someone else was forking out a king’s ransom for a meal you didn’t even find that impressive. Standing on a street corner, watching a building and vibrating like a rabbit on meth looked a good bit more suspicious.
He huffed and retreated back into the nearest coffee shop. Definitely not a good idea to add more caffeine to the mix, but what the hell. Fifteen years of waiting and scraping and finally, finally, he might be able to get the hell out.
By the time Aziraphale appeared on the step, Crowley had turned several napkins into a small pile of confetti and one foot was tapping so rapidly it was outpacing his pulse. As soon as he spotted the familiar halo of blond hair, he bolted out of the café and almost managed to get himself plastered flat by a double-decker bus.
“Oi! Angel!” he yelled, retreating safely onto the pavement and waving wildly. “Over here!”
Aziraphale spotted him and – between the fleeting traffic – waved back, then pointed to the crossing a little further up the road, because of course he would cross the road like a well-behaved schoolboy. Crowley bobbed on his toes, waiting for him, dusting flecks of confettied napkin off his trousers and shirt. Last thing he needed was to look like he’d lost a battle with a loo roll.
“How’d’it go?” he demanded, as soon as Aziraphale set foot on the pavement. “Did it sell?”
“Perhaps we can sit down?” Aziraphale asked, twisting his hands. “Auctions are such fraught things.”
“Oh! Right! Yeah! Course!”
There were plenty of cafés nearby, though Crowley steered him away from the one he’d left in a state and instead, hustled him into a hipster-looking place where not a single piece of furniture matched. He hurtled up the counter, ordering drinks for them both, then crashed back into one of the seats at the table so hard the chair nearly fell over.
“So?” he demanded.
Aziraphale withdrew and envelope from his pocket and slid it across the table. “I know it’s not as much as you probably expected, but–”
“It’s okay.” Crowley tore open the envelope, pulling out the cheque. It felt like he was going through a tunnel, the air rushing in his ears, his head spinning. Five figures. Sixty-five thousand. His elbows knocked against the table and he stared at it. This. This was it. It was enough. It was more than enough. It’d clear the money he owed to Ligur and the rest of his initial costs. And Christ, it was a damn good thing he had his glasses on. He blinked hard, dipping a finger behind one lens then the other to scrub at them. “Angel… this…” His voice cracked. “Thank you.”
When Aziraphale didn’t speak, Crowley glanced across at him, the soft, pleased look on Aziraphale’s face knocking the breath from him as neatly as an uppercut.
“It was my pleasure,” Aziraphale said gently. “Truly, it was.” He glanced up as the waitress approached, setting their cups down on the table. “Thank you, dear.”
Crowley looked back at the cheque, rubbing his thumb along the numbers as if they might smudge away. He’d be able to get in before the end of the summer. Set it all up. Maybe look into getting the decking put up as soon as he got the keys. Have somewhere to sit on an evening, watching the stars show up against the dark. No more light pollution. And have a glass of wine and…
“You need to come and visit,” he blurted out before he could stop himself. “At the cottage. I mean, if you’re in the area again. Come and see what our little smuggling ring brought in. The seedlings. The house. Everything.”
A strange expression crossed Aziraphale’s face, somewhere between happiness and confusion.
“I still have so much to deal with in New York,” he said, turning his cup of tea between his hands. “But if I’m in the area. If you aren’t too busy. That might be nice.” He smiled crookedly. “I might even be able to see inside the building next time instead of skulking around like a rogue.”
Crowley laughed, though not without a twinge of… something. It couldn’t just end like this, could it? Job done, all the shared laughter and nonsense of the past few days swept aside? Polite maybes but no thank yous didn’t feel right. “Yeah, no hurry. If you’re back in London, we can catch up.”
Aziraphale sipped at his tea, a frown furrowing his brow. He patted himself down, then tugged out his phone. “You can set up an IG,” he said. “Put up pictures!”
“I can do one better.” Crowley snatched Aziraphale’s telephone and in a matter of minutes, added his own phone number, installed whatsapp and set up an account for the man. “Don’t need to share them with the world.”
Aziraphale leaned across the table, peering at the screen. “Oh, that’s much more sensible.” He raised his eyes to Crowley’s with a different and sweetly shy smile. “I would be delighted to see how you’re getting on with it all.”
Colour rose in Aziraphale’s cheeks. “Very much.”
That… that was good, wasn’t it?
One day, Crowley decided, when the man had time to deal with all the shit his ex had put him through and get himself back on his feet, then maybe, he could gently and carefully wave a little flag of interest. Until then, he could spam him with pictures of seedlings and decorating and building work and if that didn’t scare him off, nothing would.
Over their drinks, they discussed the plans for the house, the work that needed done and when Crowley hoped to get in. The building was already empty, so as long as the paperwork went through pretty quickly, a few weeks. Maybe less.
Eventually, Aziraphale pulled out his pocketwatch. “I really do need to get off now, I’m afraid,” he said, getting up. “I told Marjorie I would be back in the city and she’s demanded my company and a detailed summary of the past few days.”
Crowley snorted. “I bet.” He unfolded from the chair, then hesitated. Couldn’t hug the man. Wouldn’t be normal. Aziraphale didn’t seem a hugging type. Handshake? Yeah. Handshake seemed like a good bet.
And the bugger didn’t just take his hand to shake it, but wrapped his other hand around them both, soft and strong.
“I can’t say it’s all been lovely, what with… well… the cause and all the unpleasantness that came up,” he said with a rueful smile, “but I’m very glad I had the chance to meet you, Crowley.”
His hands were so warm and firm and Crowley had to blink a few times before remembering how to brain. “Yeah. You too.”
When the stepped apart, Aziraphale smoothed and straightened his waistcoat. He opened his mouth as if he might say something, then changed his mind, snatched up his phone, and bustled towards the door, vanishing out into the busy streets.
Crowley sank back down into his seat.
It’d be too much to run after him, wouldn’t it? Ask him if he might, maybe, when the dust settled, consider going for another drink. Officially instead of in an arrangement capacity. Yeah. Definitely too much. Especially when the man had never even said if he was definitely moving back. For all Crowley knew, he might head somewhere else in America.
He took out the cheque, staring at it again. No.
No, they both had a lot to deal with right now. It was fine. He’d let everything calm down. Get his house in order.
Approaching footsteps made him look up, suddenly hopeful.
Harriet Dowling sat down in Aziraphale’s vacant seat. “Afternoon, Anthony.”
He rolled his eyes, slouching back in his seat, slipping the cheque away as deftly as he could. “I thought we’d discussed the stalking thing? How it’s considered a crime in this country?”
Harriet gave him a placid look. “It’s hardly stalking when you’re flapping your arms around like an ass to get your buddy’s attention.”
His stomach dropped. She’d seen him outside. Which meant she’d been near the auction house and that was exactly the kind of coincidence he didn’t like. He glanced around, only spotting one of her men-in-black squad, but that didn’t mean there weren’t more around.
She raised her eyebrows. “Don’t play dumb, Anthony. We both know you’re better than that.”
He pushed his glasses up to rub his eyes, then looked at her. “Okay. Fine. I’ll bite. What’s this about?”
“It’s about a book.”
His expression was neutral, didn’t give a thing away. “You’re going to have to be a bit more specific than that.”
“A book of prophecies. Agnes Nutter.” Her expression was equally opaque. God, he hated going face to face with a trained Fed. “Last known to be in America. Stolen in a home invasion several weeks ago. Rumoured to have been passed on by La Vista. Mysteriously listed in an auction just across the road today.”
Shit shit shit shit shit.
She folded her hands on the table. “Can I tell you a story?”
“What kind?” So what if he sounded snippy? Cryptic bullshit always put him on edge. “The kind where the misunderstood rogue learns the error of his ways?”
“More like the misunderstood rogue has a guardian angel,” Harriet replied, a small smile softening her expression. “Who, in exchange for the rogue’s safety, undid a crime and made arrangements for a piece of paper with some nice round numbers for the rogue.”
Crowley stared at her. “You what?”
She leaned forward, bracing her arm on the table. “The Nutter book was returned anonymously. It was never sold and has already been dispatched back to its rightful owner. Two privately owned first editions from the collection of a Mr. Fell were sold in its place.”
Oh Christ, Aziraphale. His books…
Her smile widened. “He did. His friend delivered them before he arrived this morning. Got very emphatic about it and he insisted the cheque was made out to you.”
Crowley looked from her to the door and back again.
The smile turned into a grin. “Well, go on then, you idiot! Run!”
Crowley laughed raggedly and bolted for the door.
Epilogue/final chapter coming tomorrow :)
“I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Aziraphale made a face at her. “Are you going to tell me you picked up on his energy?”
They were sprawled out comfortably on Marjorie’s couch, her legs draped across his lap, both of indulging in stupidly large glasses of wine. They did have plans to toddle down to Chinatown and get a ludicrous amount of food in for tea with steamed buns and custard cakes on the menu, but getting sloshed had taken priority.
Marjorie gave him a considerate look, then lifted one leg and jabbed a firm kick to his thigh.
“Don’t you cheek my business,” she chastised, wriggling down a bit and setting her foot flat on his thigh. “It’s a people thing. More often than not, you’ll find people who have such strict control in so many parts of their lives like to have it taken off them.” She giggled into her glass. “Should’ve sent you an instruction manual and one of my floggers.”
Aziraphale stared at her, trying to imagine taking charge of Gabriel. Trying to imagine Gabriel doing what he was told. Actually doing what he was told. “Oh dear Lord…”
“He might be a giant knob with legs,” Marjorie observed, clearly more than a sheet ahead of him in the drinking stakes, “but he would be a beautiful submissive.” She waved a hand in front of her throat. “Nice collar. Leash. Not much else.”
“Marjorie!” Aziraphale sputtered. “We’re not meant to be… speculating about my ex-fiancé!”
“Fair!” she agreed, waving a hand. “So… let’s talk about your little firecracker.”
“My– no!” He hated that his blush flooded his face. “It’s – he was a very kind man who was very helpful. That’s all.” One of her perfectly drawn eyebrows arched and damn it, she had a way of knowing when to wait and let him fidget and finally bubble over with, “Yes, he was quite handsome and very lovely, but he’s not my type at all!”
She propped her elbow – a little unsteadily – on the back of the couch, resting her chin against her knuckles. “And what is your type? Definitely not stuck-up American authors who need a spanking.”
She always knew how to get him and always timed it perfectly and he snorted so hard, wine sprayed out the glass.
“Oh for Heaven’s sake!”
She burst out laughing, swinging her legs down and rolling to her feet to totter over and fetch a cloth from the kitchen. She lobbed it towards him, swaying her way back, and collapsing down onto the couch again.
“I’ll tell you what I think you like,” she said as he mopped at his sodden shirt. “I think you like someone who is nice to you. Someone who treats you well. Someone who lets you be yourself.”
Someone, he couldn’t help noticing, that behaved very much like Crowley had.
“Doesn’t everyone?” he demanded, a little more sharply than he intended.
“Yes, poppet.” The gentleness in her voice made him ache, the carefulness, as if… as if she knew what that realisation had cost him. “Sometimes, it just takes them a while to realise they’re allowed to have it too.”
He turned over the cloth in his hands. “You knew I was miserable,” he said quietly, “didn’t you?”
She shuffled closer, draping an arm around his shoulders and squeezing. “Might not look it,” she murmured, “but sometimes, I’m quite bright.”
Aziraphale tried to steady his breathing, but his eyes were burning and a familiar, aching tightness was blooming across his chest. Mutely, he swayed into her, pressing his eyes shut as she crooned and stroked his hair as tears of mourning and understanding welled up.
“I’m such a daft old goose,” he whispered, when his eyes had run dry. “I shouldn’t be working it out like this. I knew. I knew. And I stayed because…”
Because it was all he knew. Because it felt safe and familiar. Because he had someone and what if there was no one else who ever wanted him?
“You’re not the first,” she murmured. “Won’t be the last either.” She kissed his ear. “But you’ve taken the first big step. Got yourself out of it.” She gave him another playful squeeze. “And now you’re coming home, we’ll be able to go out on the tiles and find you a nice bit of crumpet, eh?”
He couldn’t help smiling. “You’re very optimistic to think that anyone would be interested.”
She swatted his chest. “None of that!”
The old dial telephone on the other side of the room shrilled and she peeled herself off him to trot back over to it.
“Hello,” she purred in her business voice. “What can Madame Tracy do for… oh hello, duck!” She plopped herself down on the edge of the phone shelf. “Is that right? Uh huh. Yes.” She covered the receiver. “Do you mind if I have a friend pop around, pet?”
He did a little, but Marjorie’s friends were inevitably fun and they had a lot of wine and if he was moving back to the city, he would need to widen his social circle again. “By all means.” He reclaimed his wine glass, curling further back into the couch.
“That’ll be fine. You know where I am? That’s lovely!” She beamed, setting the receiver back in the cradle. “They’ll be over in a jiff.” She got up and meandered through to the kitchen, fetching another glass, which she set down on the table by the bottles. “You sure you don’t mind?”
“We have plenty of time to pour forth my woes–”
“And find you some nice totty.”
He made a face at her. “A flat first.”
“Ugh.” She screwed up her face. “Look at you, being all sensible and practical.”
“Well, one of us has to be.”
They exchanged the crooked grins of the utterly familiar and both jumped when the buzzer went on the door.
“Back in a tick!”
She flounced off down the stairs and Aziraphale reached for the bottle of wine to top up his glass. All things considered, he was feeling remarkably calm. Tired, yes. Drained, very much. But not as devastated as he had expected.
“Up you go, pet. Top of the stairs and on the left.”
Aziraphale looked up from the wine and the glass to greet the new arrival and, instead, spilled wine all over his hand, his trousers and the carpet. “Crowley!” And he was soaked again and wine was everywhere. “Oh bugger!”
“Sorry!” Crowley exclaimed, reddening. “I thought–” He turned on Marjorie with a panicked look. “You didn’t tell him I was coming?”
“Course I didn’t,” she said cheerfully, ignoring the daggers Aziraphale was casting her way. “Otherwise, he’d have run off to hide.” She beamed at Aziraphale. “He’s come all this way, love. Might as well let him share some of the plonk.”
Aziraphale glowered at her as he mopped himself for the second time in half an hour, but he couldn’t really be angry, not when Crowley accepted a glass of wine from her with a bashful smile.
“I’m just going to go and fetch our carry out,” she declared, as if they had even pre-ordered anything. “You make yourself at home.”
And like that, she was jingling off down the stairs, leaving them staring at each other across the chintz-covered warmth of the tiny living room. Crowley glanced around, then folded down to awkwardly perch on the pouffe on the opposite side of the coffee table.
“I didn’t know you were coming.”
Crowley turned his wine glass clockwise then back. “I tried ringing.” He laughed self-consciously. “You’ll have a collection of very embarrassing voicemails waiting for you. Ended up running around every pub in Soho, asking where to find your Marjorie. Lads over at the Admiral buzzed her for me.”
Warmth bubbled up in Aziraphale’s chest. “Oh, my dear. You didn’t need to do that.”
“And you didn’t need to sell your stuff to pay me off.”
Heat scorched the back of his neck. “I… you… you realised?”
Crowley shook his head. He put down the wine glass and took off his glasses, folding them with a quiet click-click. “Harriet Dowling,” he said simply.
Those mesmerising golden honey eyes searched his face. “Why do it? You could have told me. Warned me. I could’ve left it. Walked away.”
Aziraphale’s world seemed too tight and too small. “No. No, I couldn’t.”
He met those lovely eyes. “No, my dear, I couldn’t. I saw how you looked at that house. Your dream. Your future. Your happiness. How could I let it slip through your fingers when you were so close?”
“But–” Crowley sounded so lost. “But you don’t even know me, angel.”
“I know enough,” Aziraphale replied quietly, his voice rather shakier than he would care to admit, “And you seemed to know me. Rather better than I knew myself for a long while.” He set down his wine glass too, gazing across at Crowley. “You saw me.”
Crowley turned his glasses over and over in his hands. “It’s– I shouldn’t accept it. It’s so much.”
Of course he would say that.
Aziraphale leaned out across the table and covered Crowley’s hands with his. “Consider it an investment,” he murmured.
Crowley tilted his hand, curling his fingers under Aziraphale’s and ran his thumb along Aziraphale’s knuckles, his fingertips warm and callused against Aziraphale’s skin. “An investment? In what?”
Golden brown eyes met his and Crowley tugged his hand closer, pressing a kiss to his knuckles. Butterflies fluttered to life in Aziraphale’s stomach, and he couldn’t stifle a small sound of pleased surprise.
They stared at each other for what felt like an eternity, then both surged up, Crowley scrambling across the coffee table, and crashed into one another’s arms. Aziraphale wrapped his arms around the other man’s waist, dragging him closer, and kissing him. It was messy and clumsy and overflowing with laughter as they pitched back onto the couch together.
When they broke apart, Aziraphale gazed up at the man sprawled over him. Lord, he really was lovely, those warm eyes and that copper hair and his very flushed and thoroughly kissed lips. The look of wondering awe was new. Aziraphale curled a finger, stroking his cheek softly.
“I was going to say you go too fast for me,” he murmured.
“’Was’?” Crowley echoed, nuzzling into his palm.
“Mm.” He drew Crowley’s lips back to ghost against his, sipping in the warmth of him, teasing with the very tip of his tongue, until Crowley groaned and pressed them together, his fingers bunching in Aziraphale’s hair.
Some time later, they drew apart again, panting softly, brows pressed together.
“So not too fast?” Crowley murmured, rubbing the tip of his nose against Aziraphale’s.
Aziraphale gazed up at him. How strange that he had thought he could ever settle with Gabriel, when simply looking at Crowley – bare-faced and pink-cheeked and vulnerable – made his heart skip a beat. “This is technically our fourth date. If anything, you’ve been playing hard to get.”
Crowley laughed and Aziraphale’s heart sang.
Oh dear, he thought happily. How very unfortunate to fall utterly and hopelessly head over heels for someone who was kind and thoughtful and who would come and find him because he was wanted.
He slid his hand down Crowley’s spine, stroking the base of his back. “There is one small problem, I fear.”
“Oh?” Worry creased those copper brows.
“Mm.” Aziraphale made a face. “Marjorie is going to be insufferable about this. She was adamant I needed to get a bit of crumpet.”
Crowley gave a hoot of laughter. “Good!” he declared and started planting wet and noisy kisses all over Aziraphale’s face. “You deserve every bit of it. Buttered, even!”
“You beast!” Aziraphale laughed, squirming and swatting at him. “Foul fiend!”
“Ooh, saucy pet names, angel?” Crowley grinned down at him. “I like it.” He flopped down on Aziraphale’s chest, rubbing their chins together. “M’glad you gave your seat away.”
With the gentle weight of Crowley’s body warm against his, and that lovely smile directed at him, Aziraphale could not recall feeling happier any time in the past ten years. “Me too,” he agreed, stroking his fingers through the glossy temptation of Crowley’s hair, though he couldn’t help adding, “though if we travel again, I have one condition.”
“No smuggling contraband through customs?” Crowley inquired, wide-eyed and innocent.
“Oh.” Aziraphale blinked. “Yes. That too. Of course. But I was going to say we never travel in economy again. The food is awful.”
And once more, Crowley burst out laughing and his smile lit Aziraphale’s world, turning it so much brighter.
Six months later
With a feat of great dexterity, Crowley managed to slide the latch on the patio door, pushing it open with one elbow without spilling a drop of either of the mugs on the tray. The chilly evening air washed in, making him shiver, but he stepped outside anyway.
Gravel crunched underfoot as he approached the sprawling curve of the wicker couch and its occupant.
In the end, he hadn’t gone for a terrace. Instead, they had a flag-stoned patio with a round firepit, where flames danced and snapped, fragrant smoke spiralling up towards the sky. The couch curled around it with enough light and warmth for the man seated there with a book.
“Book down!” Crowley instructed, as he rounded the end of the couch. “It’s sampling time!”
Aziraphale glanced up with a smile and marked his place – of course he sodding did – with a thin leather bookmark. “You should’ve said. I would have come and opened the door for you.”
“I can manage things on my own,” Crowley teased, sitting down beside him.
The expression Aziraphale made might’ve been called a doubtful out on anyone else. “Hm.”
“Oh, shut it,” Crowley snorted, grinning.
Six months since they’d met, five since he’d taken ownership of the house and three since he’d asked Aziraphale to move in with him and he was still waiting for the shoe to drop. They were… good. Everything was good. He’d never been in a relationship where it stayed good, where they laughed and teased and joked just as much as they had in the first days.
That wasn’t to say they hadn’t argued.
Setting up house with someone always was a risky business, especially when one half the couple had a collection of books to make the library of Alexandria blush. Especially when it turned out said person also tended to read wherever he was, shedding half-finished books on any available surface like autumn leaves.
Part of it, Crowley could guess, was still push back against his old life. From the pictures Aziraphale had shown him of the flat he’d lived in in New York, everything was pristine and shiny and white and about as personal as a brand new show home. If he wanted to leave books lying around and be a messy sod, then he could, but to a degree. Especially a degree that didn’t mean tripping over a stack and breaking your neck.
Ground rules helped, specifically no sodding books in the kitchen, or else yes, they’re going to get stuff spilled on them, all right? Likewise, only books on the specifically designated shelf in the bathroom for exactly the same reason. Otherwise, the bedroom, living room and Aziraphale’s sprawling study in the loft conversion were all fair game.
All the same, Crowley had ended up with a stupid fat grin all over his face the day he found a forgotten paperback on one of the ledges in his new greenhouse from an afternoon when Aziraphale had sat and watched him working on his seedlings and cuttings.
And it had been such a blessing to have Aziraphale around when it felt like everything was going to shit and they had to rip out a cluster of diseased trees.
Turned out that while he got flustered over his own problems, as soon as Aziraphale saw someone he cared about in distress, he turned into a stone-cold professional. He calmed, he reassured, he made all the necessary calls and arrangements, and they only lost maybe a dozen trees out of a couple of hundred.
Which was why they were able to sit out on their terrace and celebrate with a steaming mug of cider brewed from their very first apple crop.
“I’m still not sure about the cinnamon ratio,” Crowley warned, handing one of the mugs over.
“No such thing as too much,” Aziraphale said happily, lifting the broad, thick blanket to allow Crowley to slip in beside him.
“Beg to differ,” Crowley said. “I remember that god-awful pie.”
Aziraphale huffed. “In my defence, I’d never made one before and the recipe did say cover generously with cinnamon.” He chuckled. “Though I will agree the whole jar was definitely excessive. And your face. I wish I had taken a picture.”
Crowley nestled comfortably against him, toeing his shoes off and pulling his legs up onto the couch. “To an appropriate amount of cinnamon,” he said, tapping his mug against Aziraphale’s.
Aziraphale gave him such a fond, doting look that his toes curled. “To an appropriate amount of cinnamon.”
And under the blanket of night, the only sound the crackle of the fire, they shared the cider and watched the stars brighten the sky.