The bookshop was open.
This was a first in the weeks that Crowley had been haunting the neighborhood. He’d started with the street views, of course, but by now he’d been inside most of the stores on the block. But the bookstore—the most important one, of course, being next to his site—had been stubbornly closed every time he’d been by. The hours sign in the window was no help—not only was it entirely obscure, but he’d deliberately come by at hours that it strongly suggested would be fine, and found the sign on the door still reading “Closed.” He’d tried calling a couple of times to check on the hours personally, but with no more luck. The first time the phone had just rung and rung, without even an answering machine clicking on. The second time someone had actually picked up, but only to inform him curtly that they were definitely closed, hanging up before he could get a word in edgewise.
He knew the outside of the building well by now. Georgian, with pale bricks on the upper floors, the ground level painted a dark, rather old-fashioned red. The façade had to be original, he thought, particularly the columns on either side of the door. Rather more faithfully maintained than most of the shops on the street, although not precisely in better condition. It looked more like benign neglect that somehow miraculously hadn’t led to disaster, rather than real restoration work. The signs were painted in gold, the style suggesting that the owner both understood the original period of the building and was deliberately fostering it. Purveyor of books to the gentry, indeed.
When he’d first set eyes on the building, he’d been rather unusually inclined to like the proprietor. It wasn’t Crowley’s style at all, but at least it was a style, which was more than could be said for so many buildings. The longer this game had gone on, though, the less kindly he felt. His bosses were already starting to hint that a few preliminary designs for the client should be forthcoming soon, but he really couldn’t move forward properly without at least some idea of what the bookshop was like.
He hadn’t had particularly high hopes this time, but when he turned the corner there was an Open sign, clearly visible through the dusty window. He hurried towards the door, determined to get inside before the apparently apathetic proprietor managed to close again. The glass was dusty, the shades half pulled-down, but the door opened smoothly enough. A bell dinged as he stepped in, but there was no other sign of life.
He was surprised by the space as he stepped into it. A circular archway led into a tall, surprisingly light-filled foyer, two stories tall. The center was open, ringed by a balcony that was supported with pale columns that echoed the front façade. It had to be virtually unchanged from the original build, Crowley thought—no renovations to modernize to any more recent standards. His fingers itched to start sketching a few ideas; it was nice, sure, but it also had so much potential.
The light coming in through the oculus slanted through the dust that hung in the air. Crowley paused just shy of the arch and pulled his smaller sketchbook out of his black messenger bag, along with a pencil and a bit of kneadable eraser. He started sketching in rapid lines; the arc of the arch, the pillars and balcony beyond.
“Hello?” A voice sounded, finally, from somewhere in the depths of the bookshelves that stretched off in cramped rows in all directions. “I’ll be with you in just a minute.”
Crowley grunted back some kind of acknowledgement, currently focused on the proportions of the columns. They were rather elegant, actually; simple in a way that most modern ornament tended to blow right past. The room quickly took shape under his fingers, rough circles indicating the tables stacked with books and vague shading suggesting the shelves beyond.
It was rather more than a minute later when someone emerged. Crowley barely looked over as the man stepped out from between the shelves; he’d finished his first view and moved right into the circular foyer, sketching a view upwards toward the balcony.
“Oh,” the man said, sounding rather taken aback. “Can I help you?”
Crowley finished the lines of the brass S that was tacked onto the front of the balcony before turning. “Ah, sorry,” he said, not sounding the least apologetic. “I was just doing a bit of sketching.”
“I could see that,” the other man said. He was maybe a few years older than himself, Crowley thought. The primary effect, looking at him, was beige; that was largely his coat, Crowley realized, although the shirt and vest, of all things, that he was wearing did little to dispel the effect. Pale curls topped an uncertain smile.
“And are you A.Z. Fell?” Crowley asked, trying one of his more charming smiles.
“Yes,” the man said, eyes still on Crowley’s notebook. “I’m the owner, Mr., ah. . .”
“Crowley,” Crowley answered, holding out his hand. Fell took a few steps towards him and shook it. His hand was soft, and a little bit damp.
“A pleasure, Mr. Crowley,” Fell said, sounding uncertain about whether he actually believed that.
“If you don’t mind. . .” Crowley trailed off, looking down at his page and then back up at the railing of the balcony. “I won’t be in your hair for long.”
“Mind? I, er. . .” Out of the corner of his eye, Crowley could see that Fell was now watching his hand as he refined a line. He started counting in his head. Three, two, one. . .“If I may ask, what exactly are you doing?”
“Just a bit of sketching,” Crowley said again, still watching Fell’s reactions out of the corner of his eye.
“Yes, but. . . why?”
“Oh, didn’t I say?” A narrowing of Fell’s eyes suggested that he wasn’t entirely convinced by the surprise in Crowley’s voice. “I’m with LCR Design. I’m just getting myself acquainted with the area.”
“LCR Design?” Fell said, trying to place it. “Oh, I saw that name—” He stopped dead, staring at Crowley with horror. “In the window next door,” he said.
Right, someone probably had gone and started putting their logo up all over the site already. “Yeah, probably,” Crowley agreed. “They bought up a couple of the buildings.”
“You’re—you’re—” Fell’s horror only seemed to be growing. “You’re a developer,” he accused.
“Not personally,” Crowley protested. “I don’t own the site. I just go where I’m told.”
“What exactly are you, then?” Fell asked, voice edged.
“I’m the architect,” Crowley said, waving his notebook in a vaguely explanatory way.
Fell’s eyes narrowed. “Ah, so you’re the one who will be designing whatever bland monstrosity they put up? Let me guess. A beige box with a pop of color? No,” he amended, looking Crowley up and down, eyebrows pinched and expression unimpressed. “Perhaps not. A big glass box, is that it?”
“That’s not exactly—” Crowley tried.
Fell glared. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. It’s not like I have anything to say about it, is it? Anyway, you may leave, now.”
“Leave?” Crowley said, disbelieving. “You’re kicking me out?”
“I’m very sorry,” Fell said, completely insincerely. “But we’re closed.”
Crowley let himself be ushered outside, still not entirely sure what was happening. Common enough for the neighbors to be a bit miffed about the disruptions of construction, but nobody else in the neighborhood had seemed to have any objections to losing two utterly unremarkable buildings in the middle of the block. What was Fell’s problem, anyway?
Well, it didn’t really matter. He had his sketches now, and enough of a glimpse inside the bookstore to have some sense of it. He’d have liked to get to know it better before he tried to design a complementary building for next door, but he supposed he could take what he could get. It didn’t seem like he had any choice in the matter anyway.
It was about a week later when Crowley was back in the neighborhood. Delays over permissions and other things that he found boring, and so hadn’t paid any attention to, had postponed the project anyway, and his boss had, fortunately, dropped the pressure for a quick design. Still, the project had wormed its way into Crowley’s head, and he was having a hard time putting it down. So here he was, back on Greek street, taking another look at the elevation across from the site and considering rooflines.
It was a chilly and damp day, and when he found his fingers growing stiff with the cold he decided a break was in order. He ducked into the nearby bakery, intending to get a cup of coffee. He was abstracted—the roofline question really was an interesting one, and he hadn’t yet come to a satisfying conclusion—but when the man in front of him in line stepped up and spoke to the woman behind the counter, he recognized the voice, and it caught his attention. From the back all he could see was a head of blond curls and another beige coat, but it was unquestionable the unfriendly Mr. Fell.
Crowley gave his own order and stepped aside to wait at the other end of the counter, still standing behind Fell. “What I don’t understand,” he said in a low voice, as Fell’s head snapped around to look at him, eyes widening, “Is what’s so bad about a little bit of re-development.”
“You again,” Fell said stiffly. “Still hanging about, are you?”
“You’re going to have to get used to me,” Crowley said drily. “We haven’t even come close to breaking ground yet, and I’m going to be making site visits through the entire build. You’re right next door, you’ll be seeing me around.”
Fell twitched, and Crowley didn’t even try to hide his smile. “You can’t tell me you’re terribly attached to two completely mediocre shop buildings that were butchered by a post-war reno,” Crowley said dubiously. Surely a man who worked in such a painstakingly preserved building had to have better taste than that.
“That’s not the point,” Fell snapped.
“What is it, then?” Crowley asked, frowning. If he’d had the chance in the first place, he would have tried to ask the bookseller about his opinions on the neighborhood; not that he was going to be bound by them, but neighbors had a perspective that he couldn’t get just from some visits and sketching, and sometimes it was valuable.
“It’s the. . .” Fell trailed off. “All the fuss. Noise, and machinery, and first you’ll be tearing them down, and while they may not be particularly nice buildings, they have been there for a while and they work just fine. But by the time you’re done they’ll be too expensive for businesses like old Mr. Sebastian’s, which means it’ll be another fancy boutique or electronics store or whatever, and then in twenty years it’ll all be to do again. It’s just such a nuisance and a waste,” he finished, a trifle petulantly. “And all for the chance for a developer to make a few pounds.”
“More than a few,” said Crowley, who wasn’t up on the specifics of the deal but had a pretty decent idea of how much property in Soho was worth, both before and after.
“Fine,” Fell said. “I guess it’s going to be a major disturbance and they’ll make a great many pounds. I don’t see how that makes it any better.”
Crowley shrugged. It wasn’t his job to win the neighbors around, not really, and especially not when they were as prickly as Fell was. “Can’t stop progress,” he said with a shrug, stepping forward to grab his coffee as it appeared on the counter.
“You never can, can you,” he heard Fell say, mostly to himself, as he turned and left.
Crowley glared down at the tracing paper spread across his desk. He was supposed to be sketching in options for the window styles on the upper level, but instead there was a niggling question at the back of his brain that just wouldn’t be silenced.
The bookstore. It had a balcony level, which meant that there had to be a way to get up there. But what was it? It wasn’t in any of his brief sketches. He closed his eyes, trying to remember, but he wasn’t sure he’d actually seen it, in his curtailed visit to the store. There wasn’t much space; a narrow stair in the back? A spiral staircase tucked behind some of the shelves?
He didn’t need to know, he told himself firmly. It was entirely possible to design a building without knowing what kind of stairs the neighbors had. He frowned down at his paper, sketching an arched fanlight over the hypothetical door. No, definitely not. What was he even thinking?
He hadn’t had a chance to look much at the furnishings of the shop, either, being too distracted by the bones of the building. It was packed full, that much he remembered from his first impression; little round tables filling the front, shelves jammed in around the edges, all stacked high with books. And little knick-knacks, statues and such, he thought, but he couldn’t remember any of the details.
Oh, what the hell. He wasn’t going to get any work done if he couldn’t focus, and he wouldn’t be able to focus while he obsessing over stairs, of all things. Nor had he sketched the oculus in nearly as much detail as he could have wished. It was a notable feature of the place, he couldn’t be expected to work in ignorance of it.
Even if the bookstore were closed, he thought as he grabbed his bag and let the office assistant know he was going to be out, he might be able to see some of it through the windows. Enough to answer at least a couple of his questions.
To his surprise, when he arrived on Greek street the sign on the bookstore’s door read Open again. Who know how long that would last, he thought wryly, once the owner realized who had dropped in. Fell didn’t seem that dedicated to rapid customer service, though, so maybe he’d get at least a few minutes to look around.
When he pushed open the door, however, he found that he wasn’t alone. Two other people were browsing among the shelves, studying the rows of books. That would make it a bit harder for Fell to just close, he supposed. The man himself was nowhere in sight.
Crowley absently noted some of the details of the furnishings. Round tables everywhere, the round arch, the balcony; conscious or not, the man had a motif. Statues perched in the oddest places. The dominant accent tone was definitely brass, he thought, from the sign painted outside to the cherub statue in the middle of the foyer and the inexplicable candlesticks everywhere. Surely open flames were the last things one would want in here.
The stairs were what he really wanted to see, though. And then, hopefully, the view down from the balcony, if he managed to get that far undetected. He thought it was likely to be nearer the back, maybe towards the center of the building. He skulked through the narrow aisles between the shelves, ignoring the books. He hit one dead end, but re-traced his steps and had better luck the next time. The shop went surprisingly far back. It had to occupy almost all of the building, he thought.
Two more turns and he got lucky; there, right in front of him, was a narrow spiral staircase. It was made of wrought iron, and looked like the concept of a safety hazard made solid. It had to be an original; Crowley couldn’t imagine that any recent renovation would have been allowed to keep such a piece.
He whipped out his notebook and started sketching rapidly, not sure when his luck would run out. He managed to get an impression of the entire stair uninterrupted, and edged closer to get some details of the ironwork. It would be good enough to prompt his memory, at least, he thought, ready to try his luck upstairs.
When he looked up, though, it was to see a figure in a pale suit standing halfway down the stairs, holding a stack of books and staring at him.
“You again,” Fell said. He sounded more resigned than truly angry, which Crowley thought was at least the better part of the bargain.
“Hi there,” Crowley said, trying a patently insincere smile.
Fell balanced the books rather precariously against one hip to take off his glasses, tucking them into his pocket, and sighed. “What are you doing here?”
Crowley waved the notebook in an explanatory kind of way. “A few architectural elements I missed the first time,” he said. “On account of your early closing.”
Fell gave him a repressive look. “If I let you stay, will that keep you from tearing up my street?"
“Nope,” Crowley said, popping the p. “On the other hand, kicking me out again might hurt my feelings. I get to decide what goes up next door; you might want to keep that in mind.”
Fell sighed again. “What do you want, Mr. Crowley?”
“The view from the balcony, a study of the oculus, and a peek at your back room,” said Crowley promptly.
Fell frowned at him. “Sketch the main areas all you like,” he said, which was honestly rather more of a concession than Crowley had hoped for. “But stay out of my office.”
This time, Crowley was effective at hiding his smile. “Thanks ever so,” he said, only a bit sarcastically.
Fell didn’t seem to notice the tone. He did twist his way down the rest of the stairs, set his books on an already-overburdened side table, pick up another, only slightly smaller stack, and hold up his free hand to gesture Crowley up the stairs. Crowley flashed him another insincere grin and made his way up. His first impulse, to take them two at a time, was stymied by the tight curve. He nearly stumbled anyway when he heard footsteps behind him, following him up.
“You don’t trust me unattended?” he asked as he reached the top and turned to see Fell a couple of steps behind him.
“The best view,” Fell said, ignoring the provocation, “Would be from over here.” He wound his way through the shelves, and Crowley followed. It was mildly less labyrinthine than downstairs, mainly because there wasn’t nearly as much room to make blind alleys, but something about it still defied all logic.
“With this kind of customer service, I can see why you’re so swarmed,” Crowley muttered as he followed. He stopped complaining, though, when they reached the balcony. Fell had, somehow, unerringly chosen the perfect spot for him; he had an excellent view down, just catching the arch by the door and two of the pillars. He glanced up, and had a pretty good view of the oculus, too; diamonds of clear glass fitted together into a shallow dome, while across it panes tinted two shades of gold picked out a star. Crowley, glancing down from the points of the star to the brass letters on the balcony, realized that it was a compass rose.
He set his notebook on the railing and started to sketch the floor below. He was aware that Fell hadn’t moved far; a glance showed him studying the books on a nearby shelf. It wasn’t terribly convincing, especially since he was still carrying the armful of books he’d clearly been headed somewhere with.
“I’ll be a little while,” Crowley said, glancing between the lower level and his notebook. “There are a few views I want, and as long as you’re not anticipating such an early closing today, I’d like to take a little more time. I promise, I’m not here to steal your books.”
Fell frowned. “I said you could sketch the main areas,” he said, sounding mildly offended. “I’ll be open for another hour or two, I suppose.”
“Well, aren’t you just an angel,” Crowley drawled. Fell startled, fumbling the book he was holding, which fell on his foot. He crouched to retrieve it, darting quick glances back up. Crowley, who honestly hadn’t meant that much by the remark, frowned at him, now thoroughly distracted from his work.
There was always the chance of someone taking the remark too seriously, or in the wrong way, and getting righteously offended, but something—well, everything—about Fell suggested that that wouldn’t be the case. Of course, it was also possible that he’d taken it that way, and was something other than offended. Crowley, watching Fell dart what he apparently thought were covert glances at him, couldn’t decide himself exactly how it should have been meant. He wanted to try it again, though. He was pushing his luck, perhaps, but he’d never been that good at backing down from anything as interesting as this bookseller.
Fell, recovering from his fluster, re-settled his stack of books. “One does try to be neighborly,” he said, drily and in total defiance of all his previous behavior.
“One does?” Crowley asked. Fell didn’t rise to the bait, but finally drifted away, settling into a rustling a few shelves away. Crowley let his attention drift back to his work, making some more leisurely sketches of several angles of the lower floor before moving on to the oculus.
Fell didn’t stay away for long, though. He drifted back through a few minutes later, shuffling through a stack of books a few feet behind Crowley, who twitched but didn’t turn around. “So,” he said, rather abruptly. “What is it going to be over there when you’re done, anyway?”
“Oh, you know,” Crowley said vaguely. “Shops, flats up top. All in a building that’s interesting enough to catch the eye, but not enough to break the budget.”
“I still don’t see what the point of it all is,” Fell said.
“Revitalizing urban spaces,” Crowley said automatically, still mostly focused on the oculus. “Maintaining the vibrant culture and economy of the city.”
“It’s Soho,” Fell said, disapprovingly. “It’s already perfectly vibrant.”
Crowley shrugged, still not paying a lot of attention. “Well, then, it’s probably about the money.”
“Of course. It must be profitable, or your lot wouldn’t be doing it,” Fell said stiffly.
“It isn’t all me,” Crowley protested. “Besides, you run a business. Surely you’re not entirely opposed to turning a profit.”
Fell sniffed in response, not deigning to reply.
“I’m surprised your landlord didn’t sell,” Crowley mused. “I’m sure they offered for the building. There would be a lot of possibilities with the whole corner lot included.
“I don’t have a landlord,” Fell said. “I own the building.”
“You do?” Crowley asked, looking at him in astonishment. “The whole thing?”
“Yes. The shop’s been in the family for, well, several generations. Bought the building outright when it opened, and it’s been ours ever since.”
“Really,” Crowley said, intrigued. There weren’t that many multi-generation family-owned businesses around the area anymore. He was surprised that it wasn’t more widely known; most people would be actively advertising that kind of thing. People liked history, and romance, and all that rot. There wasn’t even an “Est. 18—” or whenever sign on the door, which was the minimum he would have expected. A number of things about the building began to make more sense, though.
“How much did they offer?” Crowley asked, already running estimates in his mind. The building was, in all honesty, probably worth a moderately-sized fortune. He’d never imagined that Fell owned the building himself.
“I don’t know,” Fell mumbled, looking away. “I returned the offer unopened.”
“You what?” Crowley asked, turning to stare at him in disbelief and nearly dropping his notebook over the balcony railing.
“I never opened it,” Fell said again, looking at him almost defiantly. “So I don’t know how much they would have given.”
Crowley kept staring. It was almost unbelievable. With what that shop was doubtlessly worth, Fell could be quite a rich man. And it would have been worth more as a package with the others; he probably wouldn’t get such a good offer again. “Why on earth not?” he asked, finally.
Fell looked away. “Like I said, it’s been in the family for generations.” His voice was becoming defensive. “I like my shop. There aren’t enough bookshops left, I don’t want to do away with another one. Besides, it’s a fine old building and I won’t have it torn down.”
It was ludicrous, was what it was. And yet Crowley couldn’t help the smile spreading across his face—and he wasn’t laughing at the bookseller, that was for sure. “Do you want to get lunch?” he asked, words coming out without conscious thought. “I mean,” he backpedaled, “Some day this week, maybe?”
“Why?” Fell asked, a look of genuine confusion on his face. Crowley pretended, very hard, that it wasn’t a little bit charming.
“It’ll be my treat, I can put it on the company card,” Crowley improvised hastily. “A chance for me to learn more about the locals, and you to get some comments on record.”
“I see,” Fell said. His face had lost some of its habitual expressiveness; Crowley couldn’t tell what he was thinking now. “A working lunch. I can tell you all about my opinions on the neighborhood.”
“Exactly,” Crowley said, trying to carry his earlier enthusiasm even in the face of this rather odd neutrality. “You’ve worked here for years—you have to have some thoughts.”
A spark crept back into Fell’s eyes. “I suppose I do, at that,” he murmured. “But, forgive me, why do you care? You know I don’t want your building going in, and you didn’t seem to care much about that; why ask my opinions at all? For that matter, why are you here sketching in the first place?”
“Buildings exist in context,” Crowley explained. “You can’t just think about them in isolation. Whatever I design is going to exist here, on this street. Which means it has to work with the buildings around it.”
“Oh,” Fell said, looking mildly surprised. Crowley considered taking offense, but decided to take pity. Mostly.
“I could just put in a, what was it, big glass box, but what’s the fun in that?” he asked. He was delighted to see a faint blush spread over Fell’s cheekbones. “Before I start designing, I need to know what else is around so that I can take it into consideration.”
“Such as?” Fell asked, looking interested despite himself.
Crowley grinned. “Well, for example, take your store. You have those columns out front, and more inside. Now, I could pick up that motif, elaborate on it in my own design. Columns along the front, or next to the main door. It could help it integrate into the neighborhood. But I’d need to be careful with that; these here are so simple, if I put in something with an elaborate design it will look vulgar in comparison. If I put in too many it’ll cheapen the element, and make yours stand out less, which would be rather rude to do to a neighbor, especially a beautiful old building like this. If I make them larger, it’ll make your building look smaller in comparison; that could be useful or not, depending on the effect that I want to go for.”
Fell was staring at him now, clearly surprised. “Oh,” he said again. “Dear me. I had no idea so much thought went into this.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Crowley said with a shrug. “Plenty of firms do just put up something that matches current trends, with maybe a nod to the neighborhood. But that’s why they hired me; I like to work with a fairly strong sense of place.”
“And you’re modest about it, too,” Fell murmured. Crowley debated mentioning the shelf of awards in his office in his own justification, but decided not to. Not yet, anyway. “So,” he asked, smirking at Fell. “Lunch?”
Fell—Aziraphale, as he’d requested instead, although he hadn’t blinked when Crowley said that he preferred his last name to Anthony—turned out to be an absolute font of information about the block. “As I said, the family’s been here for a while,” he said casually when Crowley mentioned it, and went back to his meticulous recounting of the various shops, restaurants and clubs that have filled the area over the years. He might not have had the architectural vocabulary to describe everything, but his memories were so precise that his answers to Crowley’s questions were almost as informative as he could wish.
More than the buildings, though, he knew the stories about the people. As he was talking, he seemed to gradually forget his dislike of Crowley, growing absorbed in the history of people who’d lived there before he could even have been born. Crowley didn’t usually care that much about most people, given how boring they were, but he found that he was happy to pick at the remains of his food and listen to Aziraphale talk. He eventually worked his way to more recent history, where he seemed to remember his grudge sufficiently to spend rather a long time emphasizing how lovely old Mr. Sebastian had been, how he’d worked so hard at his pharmacy until he finally retired, how he’d hoped to leave the shop to one of his children, and how much the neighborhood would miss having a useful kind of shop there. He spent rather less time eulogizing the hair salon that had been in the next shop over; from what Crowley had heard already from other residents, even the best intentioned of neighbors might find themselves hard put to find much good to say about the woman who had run it.
Crowley tuned out some of Aziraphale’s praises of the pharmacy (he had to restrain himself from asking exactly how useful an old bookshop was to the neighborhood) to idly consider elements of the old pharmacy that could complement a new design. A bit of green on the signs, perhaps, or maybe a subtle cross design in the panels over the ground floor windows.
Somehow even in the midst of his storytelling Aziraphale had found time to eat his food, apparently with great enjoyment. Crowley, distracted as he was with listening to Aziraphale, jotting down the relevant pieces of information for later, mentally revising his design, and watching Aziraphale’s hands and expressive face, did dimly recognize that his lunch was excellent. The bookseller had good taste.
“Oh, but forgive me, I’ve just been talking away,” Aziraphale said, breaking into Crowley’s train of thought.
“Not at all,” Crowley said, automatically. “I told you that I wanted to hear about the area, after all. I haven’t done much work in Soho before, so the background is great.”
“And what have you worked on before?” Aziraphale asked politely. “Any buildings I would know?”
“Well, my last job was in Clerkenwell. Mixed-use offices and flats, that one was.”
Aziraphale stared at him. “That enormous block of concrete that they just put up on the corner of ------ Street?”
Crowley nodded, pleased. “That’s the one.”
“That was your work?” Aziraphale’s voice was rising in indignation. “Replacing that rather lovely Victorian with that?”
“It wasn’t a ‘perfectly lovely Victorian,’” Crowley said, stung by the remark. “It was an overwrought disaster that was falling to pieces where it stood.”
“Fine, it needed some work, but they said that they were going put in something in keeping with the neighborhood,” Aziraphale complained.
“It is!” Crowley said. “Half the neighborhood is post-war Brutalism*, angel.” Aziraphale gave an odd little twitch at the pet name again, but he didn’t look like he objected. “If they wanted pseudo-Victorian, they should have said so.”
* A particularly common plague in London. Aziraphale had always grudgingly admitted that they had in fact needed to replace the buildings damaged in the Blitz with something, but did it have to be that? Crowley, on the other hand, had been taken with a school group to see a show at the Barbican at a particularly impressionable age, and had never looked back. He’d snuck off at intermission, and spent the second half of the show roaming around, looking at everything. Even at the time, he’d know that it was worth both the scolding and never knowing what happened to that rather annoyingly musical family and their governess.
Aziraphale took a last bite of his food, closing his eyes as he savored it. Crowley shamelessly took the opportunity to watch him, admiring the way the shadows from his eyelashes fell across his cheeks. He opened his eyes and Crowley immediately looked away, down at his own plate. “Are you telling me that they didn’t ask for that?”
“Well. . .” Crowley trailed off. “They weren’t very specific in the original call for proposals.”
“And what, nobody noticed?”
Crowley shrugged. “They gave us the contract. That was probably just someone running the numbers—concrete is cheap. They put up a bit of a squawk when one of the owners actually checked the designs, but by then we already had the contract, and nobody cared enough to pay for me to re-do it all.”
Aziraphale stared at him. “Hard to believe that that’s how things get done around here,” he murmured.
“Is it, really?” Crowley asked rhetorically. “What have you got against Brutalism, anyway?”
Aziraphale frowned. “All those bare walls and big, empty rooms. It’s so. . . big. Cold. Impersonal. Even the name! I don’t understand how anyone can stand it.”
Crowley thought back to what he’d seen of the bookstore. No, he could see how his building wouldn’t be Aziraphale’s style. “They’re busy offices,” he said. “Their work is complicated. I thought the architecture shouldn’t be.”
“I suppose,” Aziraphale sniffed. “You’re not the first I’ve heard say something similar.”
“And you didn’t agree with it before, either, did you?” Crowley asked shrewdly. “Bit much, though, to go criticizing someone’s work as cold and impersonal if you haven’t even been inside to see it, though, isn’t it?”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, looking away. Crowley thought he maybe even turned a little pink. “You’re quite right, I was very rude. Forgive me.”
Crowley smirked at him. “So you should let me take you on a tour, so that you can be informed about how to insult me.”
Aziraphale looked up at him, startled. “Oh! Really? I—I—no. I mean, thank you, but I really shouldn’t impose on your time like that.”
Crowley swallowed a stab of disappointment. “It’s not an imposition,” he said, lowering his glasses enough that he could look at Aziraphale over them, hoping that his sincerity would show even through his habitually sardonic tone. “I wouldn’t have offered if it was.”
Aziraphale’s glance was flickering between his face and his own hands. “Really? You’re sure? I mean, if you are, I’d be honor—happy. Happy to, if you’re sure want to spend your time showing me around.”
“It’s a date,” Crowley said, smirk deepening as Aziraphale definitely blushed that time. “Let me know when you’re free and we can make an afternoon of it. Or a morning. Or an evening, I guess, I really don’t know what kind of hours you keep at the bookstore.”
“They’re, ah, fairly flexible,” Aziraphale said, still faintly blushing.
“Great. Wednesday, my lunch break? I’ll pick you up.”
“Sure,” Aziraphale murmured. He looked nervous but not, Crowley thought with a sense of some triumph, unhappily so. “I’ll see you then.”