Spring had finally come to London. The window displays along New Bond Street were filled with enticing new styles in nice bright colors, drawing the eye of shoppers sick of wintry drab. Uptown, the offices of Quality Magazine were humming with activity; Fashion Week was right around the corner and the public needed to be told what to wear.
But far below the glitz and glamor of the high rise, St. James' Park was humming with an altogether different springtime buzz. The plants were blooming, the ducks proudly showing off their new ducklings, and it seemed as though the whole world had put on a bit of pink to celebrate. Aziraphale Z. Fell hummed to himself as he walked to the park from Sotheby's, catalogue tucked under his arm, oblivious to the bustle of high fashion consumerism going on around him. He had just spent a very thrilling morning bidding on several old bibles he'd been eyeing for his collection and he fancied telling the ducks all about it ... but first he was going to stop into that lovely new bakery.
He had just stepped inside when Anthony J. Crowley exited the newsagent's one shop down, a brand new edition of Quality slipping into his briefcase. He bought a copy every month, without fail. It was a personal point of pride that he had the most complete collection of back issues outside the Quality Archives. To look at him, Crowley did not dress like he needed the advice of a fashion publication. He was the kind of person who knew clothes, and knew how to wear them well. Whether the fitted layers of a bespoke suit or the fluid fall of a skirt; whether layers of billowy silk paired with a killer heel or a supple leather jacket paired with jeans so tight they gave him a perpetual catwalk strut, Crowley was a master of manipulating fabric to make him look impressive. He didn't need to read Quality, did not lap up it's careful instruction like gospel, and never rushed off to buy the latest designer styles. (He'd never be caught dead in something off-the-rack). Crowley didn't even buy it for the pictures. He had seen them all already.
He had taken them.
Anthony J. Crowley was the best editorial fashion photographer in the business. It was his masterful touch with a camera that sent Quality flying off the shelves. His work could make the career of any designer or model fortunate enough to grace Quality's pages. His spreads did not simply create an advertisement, they told a story that captivated readers and drew them in like moths to flame. Readers were transported to a world of glamor and prestige where anyone and everyone could look beautiful. The temptation of the lifestyle, in all its flashy high-gloss resolution, was impossible to resist.
Quality was a best seller for a reason. Crowley was very, very good at his job.
He enjoyed just enough celebrity to be a bit of a bastard about it. He curated a specific public image that included his now trademark sunglasses and made him as much of a fashion icon as the magazine he worked for. Crowley had worked hard to become such a good photographer, could have his pick of jobs, and was therefore afforded a certain amount of creative freedom to keep him around. He remained staunchly loyal to film despite the fact that the rest of the world had gone digital. There was just something about creating the right setting, the right light and exposure, being patient with the development process, that fascinated him. He used a flashy new camera when the print needed a quick turnaround, but when a collection called for the Crowley touch, he used film. A reporter had asked him once why he used (i.e. wasted) his talent on a fashion magazine. It was not as though he was hard up for work. His response had been redacted from the interview, but the truth was simply that he liked clothes, he liked the lifestyle, and he had a certain amount of family loyalty to the Quality name.
The magazine was a tremendous success. Quality was always ahead of every trend, and the first to proclaim last season's styles officially dead. Everyone read Quality. Or, at least, they had. Sales were declining, and had been for some time. Crowley could remember a time when shops were fighting to keep issues in stock. Today, there had still been copies of last month's issue in the rack to fill it out. Crowley frowned as he wandered into the park. The end had been coming for a while. Public sensibility was changing. Just as digital had phased out film, the online age was overtaking print and the publishers couldn't keep up. He had known it, his boss had known it, but now that it was staring him in the face, Crowley realized he didn't want it to end. Which was why he was trying to avoid going into the office for as long as possible.
He sprawled out on a bench with a sigh, letting his long arms and legs take up all the space to deter anyone who may have approached him and, apart from a little old man feeding the ducks a few yards away, he was left alone. He tipped his head back to the slightly overcast sky, trying to ignore the headache building behind his shaded eyes. (The glasses, though designer, were not entirely an affectation). His phone buzzed, but he ignored it. It would only be his assistant, demanding to know why he had yet to grace the office with his presence. Crowley sighed again, a low frustrated sound, as he realized he would have to tell her to start looking for another job. He hated talking to people about things like that - that was why he had an assistant in the first place. His mood darkened further and for a moment he thought the day had followed suit.
"Are you all right?" a voice asked from above him.
Crowley opened his eyes and looked up to find a face blocking the feeble sunlight. A round, kindly face with a little line of worry between pale brows above round glasses that framed eyes a light color Crowley couldn't make out through the sepia tint. He realized it was the duck feeder, but he wasn't old at all, just incredibly blonde. And he seemed genuinely concerned, something Crowley had not thought to exist in the city anymore. The man also didn't seem to know who Crowley was, another oddity.
"I didn't mean to disturb you," the man said, "but you looked so down, I just wanted to be sure everything was tickety-boo."
An involuntary snort of amusement escaped Crowley at the phrase. The man broke into a relieved smile that was nothing short of blinding. A perfect cover page smile, in Crowley's opinion. He pulled in his limbs and straightened up. "No, I'm fine," he said. "Rough morning."
Crowley expected some kind of sarcastic remark, but the man simply nodded understandingly, like he perfectly understood that sometimes you just need to sit and groan about the world for a bit before getting down to dealing with things. He smiled again, and it was so guileless, so genuinely kind that Crowley could not help but smile back.
"It sounds to me like you need to feed the ducks."
"Nothing better for a case of the blues, in my experience." The man tapped his nose like he was dispensing some very sage advice. He shook the little paper bag he held eagerly and stepped back to the edge of the lake where a group of ducks had followed him down to Crowley's bench. He greeted them like old friends, tossing handfuls of dried carrots and peas onto the water.
Crowley took a moment to try to make sense of this person who fed ducks and asked after people's health and wore the most unusual combination of clothes he had seen in a long while. Worn in brogues and high waisted trousers paired with a fluffy oatmeal colored cardigan over a waistcoat, all in contrasting fabrics in various shades of brown. At least he kept to a general color scheme, save for the tartan bow tie. The whole ensemble would not have looked out of place if this man were an eccentric professor at some posh university about two generations ago, but in the center of London, the look was downright odd. Little wonder Crowley had mistaken the fellows age by several decades. The man turned and beckoned Crowley over with another smile, and Crowley was suddenly very glad he was not some old professor. His phone buzzed again, and Crowley purposefully sent it to voicemail before joining his impromptu friend.
They made an odd pair by the water's edge, Crowley all in black, sleek and polished with a big gray scarf that had cost more than the other man's whole outfit, but the blonde man didn't seem to mind. He just cradled Crowley's hand in his own and dumped some of the veg into his palm. Crowley tipped his eyes up over his glasses and saw at last that the man's eyes were a soft grey blue, like the channel off the Dover coast, but warm and friendly and unbothered by the fact that he may have held Crowley's hand a bit longer than strictly necessary.
"Go on," he encouraged in his soft, low voice. "They won't bite."
Smiling at the odd simplicity of it, Crowley cast his arm wide and the ducks flapped all over themselves diving after the food. Both men laughed, and Crowley thought that it was such a wonderful sound, he immediately tried to think of something clever to say so he could hear it again. But all he could come up with was a simple thank you, which the man waved off with another grin.
"Like I said, nothing better than the ducks to lift your spirits." He crumpled the empty bag into his pocket. Then, clasping his hands behind his back, rocked forward up on his toes. "I try to stop by once a week, myself." It was a heavy handed hint, but Crowley thought it was incredibly endearing, which he had never thought about anybody before. But as soon as he opened his mouth to say so, the other man was saying goodbye, and he was glad Crowley was feeling better, and to mind how he went, and then he was gone into the crowds leaving Crowley on the path, hand half raised in farewell. The ducks had drifted away and at some point, unnoticed until now, the sun had come out in full. It sparkled on the water, making spots dance in Crowley's eyes, but he smiled and finally set off for the office, feeling like something important and wonderful had just happened.
"Where have you been?" his assistant demanded the moment he set foot in his office, not even giving him time to answer before she was pushing him back out again.
"Getting my issue."
Ann traded him the briefcase for a cup of coffee as they walked down the hall. "You know it's weird that you still buy those, right? You can have as many as you want from the printers for free."
"It's the principle of the thing."
"And this principle made you two hours late for your meeting with Tracy. You were supposed to show her the proofs for the Italian suit collection." She thrust a sheaf of files at him. "And you still have to prep for the quarterly on Friday."
Crowley groaned. "I hate meetings."
"And," Ann continued briskly, with a conspiratorial grin that brought out her dimple, "you still have not let me set you up with my friend."
A warm smile and kind grey eyes flashed in his mind. He shook his head. "Ann, as much as I appreciate your concern for my social life, I prefer to do things the old fashioned way."
She snorted. "Yeah. Let me know how that works out for you. You've got to get online, boss, I keep telling you. People don't just bump into each other on park benches anymore. This isn't the eighteen hundreds."
"So you keep reminding me, thank you Ann." He left her in the hall as the secretary buzzed him into Tracy's office.
Quality's chief editor was half-hidden behind the stacks of fabric samples, galley proofs, and sales reports on her desk. She waved Crowley in, indicating with a motion of her hand that the person on the other end of the phone was going on about something. He put the folder in front of her and stretched out on her chaise to wait.
"And how is our fearless leader today?" He asked when she hung up.
Tracy gave him an impatient look. "Absolutely fantastic."
"That bad, huh?"
"The publisher's cutting back two thousand units. There may not even be a reprint order this month," she told him frankly, her expression sober.
Crowley let up at that, pushing his glasses into his hair. "What about overseas?"
Tracy shook her head. She sighed, rubbing at one temple. "The party's over, Crowley. We'll be lucky to get out one more issue."
They were quiet for a while. Tracy flipped through the folder, but Crowley was sure she had not really looked at any of the pictures. "So," he finally asked, "What are you going to do about it?"
"This is your magazine." Crowley lounged back, spreading his arms to indicate the strikingly white, modern office suite, complete with skyline view. "You built it up into the best-selling fashion advice publication in the country. You're not going to let it go just like that."
Tracy smirked, sitting back in her chair. "I'm not?"
"'Course not!" Crowley propelled himself to his feet and came around to lean on the edge of the desk. "If we're going out, we're going to go out with a bang. One last issue to make people remember Quality in its prime."
"And what brilliant idea is that going to be?"
Crowley paused. "I'll think of something."
"Good. You can tell me all about it at the meeting on Friday." Ever the business woman, Tracy returned to the folder. She gave it a final skim. "In the meantime, you can do something about these."
"What's wrong with the suits?"
"It's not the suits, it's the model." She tapped a manicured nail on the pictures. "Dreary with a capital D. He hasn't got any pizazz! So find some pizazz. Please," she added as an afterthought.
Crowley took the folder back and flicked his glasses back down to his nose. "Fine. Pizazz and a big, showstopper idea for the death of the magazine we helped to build, all by the end of the week. No pressure at all."
Tracy snorted and waved him away. "Go on, get off my desk. I have work to do."
Pizazz, as Crowley found the next day, was easier said than done.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose and tried to explain, again, what he wanted the shot to look like. "You're in a museum, right? Looking at all this modern art, and you are also art, because you're wearing the suit."
"So I'm supposed to be a statue?"
"No, Newt, you are looking at the statue, but you are statuesque. Embody the statue while you look at it, understand?"
Crowley waved him away. "Fine, we'll leave it for now. Take five." Crowley rubbed at his neck and handed the camera to Ann. "How long have we been at this?"
"About two hours."
"Aren't there any other models available?" He glanced over at Newton, who had his nose buried in a book. The kid was even more a Luddite than Crowley. If he so much as glanced at a monitor wrong, the whole system went down. Crowley was the only photographer still willing to work with him.
Ann shook her head. "All booked. Don't give up on Newt yet, he's just not into all this artsy stuff like you are." She sighed in that way people do when they've got a crush on someone completely oblivious. "He's more mechanically minded. He's better with words and books than art."
Crowley snapped his fingers. "That's what we need! Books! Someplace grim and dusty and intellectual."
"So not the local Waterstones, then." Ann scrolled through her phone. "We could try Soho, there's bound to be one there that'll be grim and dusty enough for you."
Crowley nodded. "Newt! Pack up. We're going on location!"
Aziraphale was just about to enjoy a nice forkful of pear galette from his favorite cafe when a huge black car screeched along the road, going the wrong direction up the one way street. "Really the nerve of these reckless drivers!" he muttered, brushing errant flakes of crumb crust from his waistcoat. Peaceful afternoon disturbed, he ordered another cup of tea to soothe his nerves and asked the waitress to please pack the galette up for him.
"Expecting a shipment today, Mr. Fell?" she asked when she returned.
She pointed out the window, sounding confused. "That's your shop those people are going into, isn't it?"
He followed her gaze out the window to his shop on the corner. To his horror, the black car was now parked (illegally!) halfway up on the pavement before his door and three very well dressed people were unloading what looked to be several large black boxes. They were the sturdy kind, with metal edges and handles, but these people were definitely not from Sotheby's.
"Oh, good lord," he gasped and was out the door so fast, he forgot all about his gallette.
Newt, Ann, and Crowley had all crammed into his vintage Bentley with the suits and boxes of equipment and set off on their search but after an hour of driving in circles around Soho, still had yet to find an appropriate bookshop.
"There must still be bookshops, right?"
"Despite steady book sales, the recent economic downturn coupled with increasing dependence on online retailers has actually contributed to a decrease in viability for brick and mortar stores, particularly independent ones," Newt piped up from the back.
"Should have just done Waterstones after all," Ann grumbled from the passenger seat.
Crowley was about to hang the whole idea and head back when a flash of storefront caught his eye. "There's one!" He yanked the wheel, trundled up a side street, and pulled the car to a halt in front of an unusual little building. It was a relic from a bygone age, white stone and mullioned windows looking like something out of a period drama. The faded gold lettering in the window claimed it was, in fact, a bookshop, established a couple centuries prior. Modern London's steel and glass had encroached upon the corner shop from all sides but by some miracle it had survived. A place frozen in time.
"It's hideous," Ann observed as she got out.
"It is historic," Crowley corrected.
Newt pressed his face to the dingy window in the door. "It's closed."
"See. It says right here." He pointed to a little hand-written card which outlined nearly indecipherable hours of operation.
"No website, no listed number," Ann tapped at her phone. "There's not even an online review, well, not one that's positive anyway. It's like this place doesn't exist."
"Perfect. Then no one will mind if we borrow it."
Ann crossed her arms. "I'm not helping you break into another building."
Crowley tested the door and grinned. "It's not technically breaking in if it's open."
"I'll leave you to do all the sweet talking when the police show up, then." Ann shook her head and started to bring the equipment inside.
"It's a bit dark," Newt observed, stepping in behind her.
The shop was dark. Dark enough that Crowley briefly wondered if it was even wired for electricity. He had to push his glasses into his hair just to see. "Let's set up under this window here," he said. "At least we'll get a little natural light. We can use that ladder." He directed Ann to the spot he wanted, hoping they had brought enough light stands.
He frowned as he dragged the tip of a shoe across the floor, leaving a clean mark behind in the dust. It was as if they were the first people here in years. This truly was a place out of time, existing in some weird plane where a first edition of Dorian Gray was shelved next to a gardening manual from the seventies and a Bakelite phone stood on a table that would not have been out of place in Versailles. Crowley cautiously edged deeper into the shop, having the distinct feeling that if he didn't leave a trail of breadcrumbs, he'd be lost among the tall forest of shelves. Still, as he was not keen to have another B&E charge filed against him, he forged ahead to look for any signs of the owner.
He got as far as what he assumed was the office, catching a glimpse of a Victorian chaise lounge and a roll-top desk covered with yet more books and papers, when the front door of the shop banged open and a voice boomed out:
"What the hell are you doing!"
Ann dropped the light stand she had been assembling with a clatter and Newt knocked over a stack of books in his fright. They both looked over to Crowley, who was staring at the man silhouetted in the door.
It was difficult to tell who was more surprised. Aziraphale could not quite make sense of Crowley, his expensive outfit conspicuously out of place amid the dusty books, yet Crowley was thinking that Aziraphale's tweeds and elbow patches made a lot more sense amid the antiques of Soho than the crowds of St. James'. They stared at each other for a long moment before moving to meet in the center of the floor at the same time, both exclaiming with excited laughter about the coincidence.
"I didn't think I would see you again so soon, though I am glad to see you in better spirits."
"What are the chances, right? I'd have thought you'd be having lunch with the ducks. What are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here? This is my bookshop! What are you doing here?" The man's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You don't want to buy anything, do you?"
"No, no just browsing. This your shop? You're A. Z. Fell?"
"I am." Aziraphale twisted the ring on his pinky absently. "It's a, um, family business."
Crowley grinned and held out a hand. "I know a little something about those. Anthony J. Crowley, Quality Magazine. We were actually hoping to take some pictures, if that would be all right."
"You broke into my shop to take pictures?"
Crowley raised one eyebrow. "The door was open."
"The door was not locked," Aziraphale specified. "Do you often go about the city trying doors, just on the off chance?"
"Only the interesting ones," Crowley said with a wink. "Now, we were thinking of setting up over here, maybe use that ladder." He shrugged out of his coat and handed it to Ann. He sketched out ideas with his hands. "We'll line you up against the shelf, Newt, give you a nice tick book to look through. It'll all be perfectly intellectual."
"Just a moment! I haven't agreed to any of this yet! You have no right to just sail in here and turn my shop into some manner of - of film set with - with all ... " Aziraphale broke off mid-thought, finally taking in all the lights, and cables, and cameras, and Newt who was starting to undress over in the corner. He gulped. Pulling Crowley aside he told him, in a strangled whisper, "I do believe you may have the wrong shop. The doors are a little confusing, but I think next door is more the kind of place you're looking for for these, um ... pictures."
Crowley bit back the urge to laugh. "No, not - ngk - not that kind of pictures. Quality is a fashion magazine."
"A fashion magazine!" Aziraphale exclaimed, taking a step back and clutching at his heart. He sounded as if he would have preferred the pornography. "Oh no, this will not do at all! Really, I must insist that you leave this shop at once!" He waved them all away from his shelves like a ruffled hen protecting her eggs.
"Why? This is just the place we need. And we could give the shop a mention. You'd get more customers in here."
This assurance had the opposite effect on Aziraphale. Instead of being pleased, as Crowley had expected, he looked a bit nauseous. "But I don't want more customers!" he whined. "What I mean is," he stammered, "I have a loyal customer base already. They would not be pleased to learn I was associating with a fashion publication. I will not have my shop associated with a frivolous, shallow, trite publication that promotes unrealistic standards of economy and appearance. And frankly, I don't think your readers would find anything of interest here."
"That's a bit of a generalization. We're not all that bad. Newt here reads more than anyone I know. And I happen to take a lot of inspiration for my shoots from classical art and poetry." Crowley stepped a little closer to where Aziraphale was still standing guard at the bookshelves.. "You don't have to look so surprised. I may be a right flash bastard, but I do read."
Aziraphale flushed. "I'm sorry. It was rude of me to assume. But please understand, I have a bit of a reputation here. This shop is a place of respectable learning and philosophy."
Crowley nodded, scanning the titles above Aziraphale's head. "Yeah, I see. You've got the lot here, haven't you. But I must say, for someone who rails to vehemently against the failings of the fashion world, you certainly have a lot of self-help books." He moved closer, stretching a long arm out to pull down a book that was very unlike its antique, leather bound neighbors. "Empowerment through Empathic Thinking," he read mockingly. "Don't tell me you read this drivel?"
Aziraphale snatched the book back. "It is not drivel! Gabriel Goodman is the founder of modern empathicalism."
Crowley snorted. "Founder of a load of tosh more like. What kind of name is that, anyway? Bet he makes a killing, though." He held up the author photo for Ann. "This guy’s had work done, and it doesn’t come cheap."
"Empathicalism is a perfectly valid philosophy and is well worth the study."
"What's empathicalism?" Newt wondered.
"It is the study and practice of empathy. Understanding others by feeling as they feel and being charitable, kind, and forgiving in the process. It is a philosophy that dates to - well, to the beginning you could say. 'Do unto others'," Aziraphale quoted.
"Wearing other people's shoes, isn't that the phrase?" Crowley said, sitting on a stack of equipment boxes like he was expecting a lesson on the subject.
Aziraphale tugged at his waistcoat. "Walking in other people's shoes is a metaphor for the theory, yes," he said with a glance down at Crowley's snakeskin boots.
"Well, we're all getting a nice lesson in that, aren't we? The three of us have gained some knowledge about becoming better people, and you have discovered that not all us fashion types are as bad as you thought." Crowley grinned, and in spite of himself, Aziraphale felt himself starting to smile back.
"You're just trying to convince me to let you stay. That's not really empathy, you know."
Crowley acknowledged the point, rubbing his neck with a sheepish smile. "Look, I'll be honest with you, Mr. Fell, you'd really be doing us a favor if we could stay. We've got about three hours to get these shots to my boss or she'll hand me my cards. Besides," Crowley gestured to all the equipment, "everything is already set up. It'll take just as long to get the shoot over and done with as it would to pack it all away again."
"We'll be very careful of the books, Mr. Fell," Ann put in eagerly.
Aziraphale swallowed, tugging at his waistcoat again indecisively. It really wouldn't be very charitable or empathetic for him to kick them all out just for trying to do their jobs. But a fashion magazine! The very idea of his shop having anything to do with that flash lifestyle. The Professor had quite a lot to say against it. Then again, Crowley seemed nice enough, and had given no indication that he was a bad person the other day in the park. He was staring, he realized, and Crowley was staring right back, his head tipped a little to the side, waiting with a little smile. A very infectious, charming smile. Something about the light made Crowley's eyes seem over-bright, honey-colored and pleading. This was a man used to getting his way and, heaven help him, Aziraphale was going to let him.
"All right! Since I really have no choice in the matter, you can stay. Just please try not to make too much of a mess."
Crowley grinned. "Fantastic! You're an angel." He clapped his hands and his team immediately sprang into action. Permission obtained, Aziraphale was apparently no longer required and found nothing to do but to stay out of the way.
Cursing himself for being so easily swayed, Aziraphale settled into a nearby chair, unwilling to leave them unsupervised. He soon found himself, however, less focused on making sure they were treating his books carefully and more interested in watching them work. He had been possessed of the vague idea that photo shoots were harried, loud, stressful affairs with lots of flashbulbs and dramatics. Crowley and his team worked easily together, a complicated dance they had obviously done many times before. Ann was efficient and anticipatory, handing Crowley whatever he needed almost before he asked. And the model, Newton, seemed to become a completely different person once he took off his thick glasses. He replaced the slightly vacant distressed look with a stoic focus as he draped himself over the rolling ladder in a pose.
And this Anthony J. Crowley; Aziraphale did not know much about photography, but he recognized an artist when he saw one. The pretentiousness, the affectation of nonchalance melted away and Crowley actually looked relaxed, comfortable, in his element. His direction was brisk, but calm, hardly more than a word or gesture, but Newt seemed to understand perfectly. The model moved from pose to pose with fluid practice. Crowley followed with the camera -- a film camera, Aziraphale was pleasantly surprised to find -- that almost seemed a part of him. He was not afraid to get his fine clothes dirty; in fact, he seemed to prefer unusual angles and crawled around on the floor to get them. Once, he even clambered up on one of the tables, flashing Aziraphale an apologetic grin when he sent several books tumbling to the floor. Aziraphale could hardly be bothered to mind; he was fascinated. He was surprised when, in what seemed like hardly any time at all, Crowley declared it was time for a break.
"Sorry about all this."
Aziraphale looked up and found Ann next to him. She nodded towards Crowley. "He's not usually so -- well, that's a lie. He's usually like that and it's easier to just do as he says. But he honestly didn't mean to put you out, barging in. You really are helping us out. He's been under a lot of strain with the magazine closing."
"I thought you were a best seller?"
"Were being the operative word. Don't tell him I told you." She fiddled absently with her necklace. "He buys a copy every month, you know," she continued quietly. "He doesn't look it, but he's a right old softie. I dunno what he's going to do without Quality."
Aziraphale followed her gaze over to Crowley. He was laughing with Newt about something as the model changed into a different suit. He looked up and caught Aziraphle's eye, waving him over.
"Have you finished?"
"Not quite, angel. I want you in the next shot."
"I beg your pardon?"
Crowley waved a hand impatiently. "Don't worry, it's easy."
"But - but I'm a bookseller! I can't be a model!"
"Just pretend Newt is a customer and you're helping him pick something out." Crowley took him by the shoulders and set him in place beside the ladder. "The whole eclectic vintage thing," he gestured to Aziraphale's outfit, "it'll be a nice contrast to the suit." Crowley straightened the lapels on his coat, handed him a stack of books, and took a step back, tilting his head to gauge the result.
"Muss your hair."
"Because it'll look better. Trust me. Now, tell him about the book. Tell him more about that empathy stuff."
Aziraphale fluffed his curls until Crowley nodded. He turned up to Newt, who nodded encouragingly. As he spoke, Aziraphale started to relax, becoming more animated the more he enthused about his favorite subject and was pleasantly surprised to find Newt an engaged listener.
Crowley was engaged, too, but he was more focused on the way Aziraphale's face lit up as he spoke. Or, it could have been the increasing sunlight in the shop as the sun shifted overhead. Crowley scrambled to readjust his lens before the light left. He lunged forward, sprawling on the floor, heedless of the dust, tilting his camera up to the light, shutter clicking.
Aziraphale, of course, immediately turned his head in surprise. "What on earth are you doing?"
"Don't move!" Crowley raised his head, meeting Aziraphale's eyes over the camera. "Stay just like that, angel," he said softly.
Aziraphale was suddenly very aware of all his limbs. Crowley did not drop his gaze. The shutter clicked, and then the moment was over. The sun shifted again, and once more the shop was dusty and dim. Aziraphale blinked and found that everyone was packing up.
"Will that be all?" He asked, smoothing down his hair.
"Yes. Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Fell. It's been a pleasure." Crowley held out a hand, and this time, when Aziraphale shook it he found himself reluctant to let go.
Clearing his throat, Aziraphale did let go and tugged once more at his waistcoat. "The experience has been - elucidating, however, and I mean this in the nicest possible terms, I hope to never see any of you again. I trust you can see yourselves out." He left them to it, retreating to the relative safety of his office and pulling the curtain closed.
Ann shook her head. "Smooth, boss. No wonder you never have any second dates."
Crowley glared at her. "What's that have to do with - you don't even - ngk! Just pack up. Here, take this." He dug in his pocket and shoved a few notes at her. "Take a cab back to the office. And tell Tracy I'll have the pints on her desk by morning."
"Sure thing." Ann flashed him a knowing smile. "Good luck."
He glanced at the curtain. "Yeah, I think I'm going to need it."
Behind the safety of the curtain, Aziraphale pressed a hand to his chest. All his fingers seemed to be buzzing from where they had wrapped around Crowely's cool hand. He could not shake the weight of his final gaze from his mind. When he had tipped up that camera, Crowley had looked at him like, like ...
"Oh, really now. Get a hold of yourself!" He muttered, tugging fiercely at his waistcoat and straightening his tie for good measure. He chanced a peek through the curtain. Crowley and Ann were packing, Newt carrying boxes outside. Crowley glanced toward the office and he hurriedly twitched the curtain closed again. Filled with the same sort of nervous energy that lingered after he had to direct a wayward customer out of the shop, Aziraphale puttered around the office under the pretext of cleaning. Really, he just made piles and moved those piles from one place to another, but it served to settle his nerves and pass the time until the shop once more fell quiet.
Cautiously, he ventured from the office. There were no more lights, no more cameras or photographers, and everything was as it had been that morning. Except for the piles of displaced books everywhere. Two whole shelves would have to be completely rearranged, to say nothing of the very obvious clear spot on the floor where Crowley had rolled about, which meant he would have to clean the floor as well. And if he was going to do that, he may as well dust the shelves, too, before he put the books back. The work only spiraled out from there.
"Fuck," he sighed loudly.
"Sorry about the mess."
Aziraphale jumped. "Mr. Crowley! I didn't realize you were still here."
Crowley stood from behind one of the tables, arms full of the books he had knocked over earlier. He raised one shoulder with a sheepish smile. "Thought I would stay and help you clean," he said.
"Oh." Aziraphale was momentarily surprised. "That's - that's very kind of you, Mr. Crowley, but you don't have to do that."
Crowley wrinkled his nose, like the idea of being called kind was unpleasant. "It's the least I can do. I'd like to apologize for the way I handled things. And it's just Crowley, angel."
Aziraphale clicked his tongue. "I do wish you'd stop calling me that." He took a tiny breath before he said, "My name is Aziraphale."
Crowley tested the name on his tongue, and found that he liked it. He grinned and closed the distance between them a little. "I can see why you didn't want to put all that on the sign. But if you don't mind me saying, I think angel suits you."
Aziraphale ducked his head to hide a blush. He chuckled. "If you'll forgive my saying, you don't look like an Anthony."
"What's wrong with Anthony? That's a family name, I'll have you know."
"What does the J. stand for?"
Crowley shrugged. "Just a J, really. Adds a little something, don't you think?" He shifted the stack of books he was holding. "Where do you want these?"
"Oh, just hand them to me," Aziraphale sighed as he looked around at the mess. "It will be easier that way." He rolled up his sleeves and moved the ladder back into place with a practiced kick.
"So," Crowley began casually, "I take it you are not a regular reader of our little publication." He handed Aziraphale the books.
"I am not a subscriber, no."
"Are you disappointed, now that you know I'm a sinful denizen of the fashion world?"
Aziraphale looked him up and down. Crowley's outfit simply screamed 'Look at me! I'm attractive and important!' ^ The expensive-looking coat and scarf now draped artfully on the coat stand had revealed a close-cut black suit that set off his rich, red hair and a grey silk blouse that could not possibly be warm enough for the weather. (All designer, of course, but since Aziraphale had last bought clothes at a church jumble sale fifteen years ago, none of the names would have meant anything to him). Aziraphale caught himself wondering how Crowley managed to walk about in those trousers, tailored so tight they were practically indecent. He shook his head slightly, returning quickly to the shelf.
"You certainly are more fashionable than I am, but no - I'm not disappointed. And I don't think you're inherently sinful or anything. We're just from very different worlds."
"I happen to like the way you dress." Crowley handed up another book and let his fingers brush a bit deliberately against Aziraphale's. "Usually I'm not a fan of tartan, but the whole vintage eclectic thing kind of works on you."
"Thank you, I think." They worked in a companionable silence for a while, falling into a rhythm.
"Why do you work for them, anyway?" Aziraphale asked suddenly. "You have such talent, even I can tell that. You could take pictures of ducks and it would still be art."
"But taking pictures of beautiful people in beautiful clothes is so much more fun." Crowley winked and handed him another book. "Plus I get a trip to Paris every year." He pretended not to notice when the book almost returned to the floor as Aziraphale said "Really?" in the most innocent tone possible.
"Oh, yeah. Big parties, lots of champagne." He grabbed the shelf with one hand and the ladder with the other and hauled himself up next to Aziraphale. "Friendly, good looking company," he added with a wiggle of his eyebrows. "The life of a model can be pretty fun."
"Sounds perfectly awful to me."
"It's not that bad once you get used to it."
Aziraphale swallowed. Crowley was very close, and he was looking at him with that brandy-colored stare that made him feel like he was being seen for the first time. "Well, I think I'll stick to the park, thank you. Though I would love to go to and hear one of Gabriel's lectures," he said wistfully. He chuckled when Crowley rolled his eyes. "He's really quite a good speaker, so I'm told."
"I dunno if being nice to everyone is going to change the world. I've spent my whole life around people, angel and you know what I've learned? People are petty, jealous, greedy and selfish and will throw anyone under the bus to make things better for themselves." He turned away suddenly, aware of the angry, bitter note in his voice. "Where I'm from, nice is a four letter word that just means someone wants something from you."
"That's quite a pity," Aziraphale said quietly after a moment. "I meet nice people all the time. The other day in the park, for instance, I ran into a terribly nice fellow." Crowley looked at him sharply and he offered the redhead a little smile. "He looked a bit down, so I put myself in his shoes and thought - if I were feeling low on such a wonderful spring day, I could use a friend to feed the ducks with me."
"So that hint about coming by the park once a week or so, that was just to be friendly."
"Naturally," Aziraphale lied, badly.
Crowley grinned. "Naturally," he echoed.
"And empathicalism isn't just about being nice. It's deeper than that. A connection that transcends all other barriers. In an ideal situation, two people can understand each other so deeply, so completely, it's like sharing a soul. I've always thought it must be quite special to know someone like that. To be known like that," he finished quietly. He noticed Crowley staring and glanced away. He made to roll the ladder over to the next shelf, but Crowley grabbed the rail and rolled it back until they were nearly face to face.
"What are you doing?" Aziraphale gasped.
"May I kiss you angel?"
Aziraphale's heart was in his throat, his eyes wide. His hand clenched around the familiar wood of the ladder, Crowley's delicate fingers only a breath away from his. "What?"
"All this talk about empathy, I just thought I would put myself in your place and I felt like you wanted to be kissed." It took all of Crowley's self control to stay still, to wait, to not close the minuscule distance between his thumb and Aziraphale's pinky.
"I thought no such thing," Azirapahle whispered to Crowley's lips, sounding completely unconvincing even to his own ears.
"I must need more practice, then," Crowley whispered back. "Maybe you could recommend some reading."
Aziraphale felt himself sway forward, heard Crowley's little shuddery breath, felt his eyes drifting closed ... and stopped. He forced himself to straighten, to back away, to resist the temptation.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Crowley, we do not stock what you're looking for."
Crowley let out the breath he had been holding very slowly. "That's a shame," he said with a little smile. He leapt nimbly down from the shelf and retrieved his coat. At the door, he turned back. "It was a pleasure to work with you Mr. Fell. For what it's worth, I think you'd make an excellent model. If you should happen to update your collection someday, perhaps you'll be so kind as to give me a call." He slipped his glasses back on and gave Aziraphale a little wave. And then he was gone, the echo of the little bell sounding hollow in his wake.
Aziraphale stayed on the ladder a long time after he left. Eventually, he climbed down and attempted to continue tidying, but soon gave it up as a bad job. He locked up, pulling the shades for good measure, resolving not to think about the mess again until tomorrow.