The Bentley made record time through the city toward what was described on Gabriel's website as an "illustrious den of philosophical inquiry". Illustrious, perhaps, but that was where whatever similarity Paradise had to anything remotely philosophical ended. After surrendering his keys to the valet (and threatening curses on the man's family three generations out if anything happened to his car) Crowley and Tracy were faced with the challenge of getting inside. If the line outside the velvet rope was anything to judge by, the place was very popular. Not to be deterred, Tracy fixed her beret more firmly on her head and proceeded to name drop their way past the burly, bald bouncer. His hard stare looked like it might have been enough to reduce lesser line-jumpers to salt, but Tracy was a force to be reckoned with all on her own (she wasn't chief editor for nothing, after all) and after a tense moment, they were both waved inside.
The first thing Crowley noticed was that he and Tracy looked ridiculous. The place was packed, and no one else was wearing cardigans. The second thing he noticed was that Paradise was a bit misleading. He would have called it The Pit. The place was outfitted with more chrome than a modern office block which had the effect of making it seem impersonal and sterile despite being jammed with people. The dance floor was deceptively small, forcing everyone close together in the dark. In contrast, on a high balcony that encircled the main floor, the soft white couches of the spacious VIP lounges seemed almost unobtainable. He squinted through the neon-tinted gloom, looking for any sign of Aziraphale but he wasn't on the dance floor.
Tracy grabbed his arm. "Up there!" Crowley followed her gaze and spotted Gabriel, Aziraphale at his side, the two of them looking very cozy.
"That must be where the real party is. Wonder how we get up there?"
Tracy nodded across the floor to a big golden staircase, another bouncer waiting at the bottom. "Stairway to Heaven?"
Crowley rolled his eyes. "Let's just hope we can make it past St. Peter."
"Are you on the list?" the woman asked, narrowing her gold-painted eyes.
Crowley cleared his throat and put on his best American accent. "You bet we're on the list." He flashed his most charming smile. "Mr. and Mrs. Dowling, all the way from St. Loo-ie in the good ol' U.S. of A."
There was a sharp laugh from behind them. "Like hell you are." A woman in a sharp black pantsuit and with an even sharper bob detached herself from the crowd. "I know zese people," she drawled, her accent thick. "Zey are a photographer and editor of a fashion magazine. Not empathicalists at all."
Tracy gasped, offended. "Fashion! Well, I never! Sugar, we could give y'all a rendition of Stars and Stripes that'd knock your socks off."
The bouncer glared. "Nice try. Take your vaudeville act somewhere else."
Crowley sized up their betrayer. "Fashion huh? That's the pot calling the kettle black, isn't it Bea?"
Bea smirked. "Unlike you, I was invited. Gabriel is interested in a collaboration. I suggested your little angel as a model."
"You? How did you even - " Crowley shook his head. "Hastur and Ligur. I should have known." He looked up at the VIP lounge again. Aziraphale was looking down at him. His eyes widened for a moment, then Gabriel said something in his ear and he frowned, turning away. Crowley turned to Tracy. "You'd better go get ready for the show."
"What about you?"
"I'm going home."
"So I'm supposed to do this whole announcement all by myself? You know, if you were in my place, I wouldn't leave you hanging."
Crowley raised his eyebrows, then burst out laughing. "Tracy, I hate to break it to you, but that's empathy."
Tracy rolled her eyes. "Is that what all this has been about? Crowley, you'd better figure out something because if you let him go over a little thing like that, you're not the man I thought you were." She snatched off the beret and tossed it aside. Crowley watched the crowd part for her as she stormed back across the floor, but he didn't think there was any amount of empathy that was going to fix this.
"Come, let me buy you a drink." Bea crooked a finger at him and, having nothing better to do, Crowley followed.
"To old times, Bea," he said before taking a healthy swallow. "What's all this about a collab with Mr. High and Mighty?"
Bea waved a hand. "He wishes to be well dressed for his upcoming tour."
"And the fact that I've got a new model had nothing to do with it, right? I knew you'd try to tempt him away from me." He toasted her again. "Congratulations. I've got no job, no model, and you've got your revenge."
Bea pouted her darkly painted lips. "Crowley, I did not want him. I want you. Now that you are free, you come back to work for me, non? Enough of ziz silly pret-a-porter nonsense. You are made for haute couture, Crowley. My haute couture, and my clients - "
"I don't want to take pictures of them," Crowley muttered sourly. "What have they got?" He waved a hand at the gyrating crowd. "Money? Money that buys influence? That's not art! That's not fashion! There's no" - he snorted - "there's no pizazz!"
"Zat is ze point! You 'ave been living with zis fantasy too long, playing it safe. Out here, there is only money and power and those things buy ze image. My clients do not care how a design looks, only zat it is mine. And that, cherie, is fashion."
"I wouldn't be happy, Bea."
"Pah! What is happy? You think I am not happy?"
"No, I think you're heartless and lonely and you're willing to start a war if it means people will wear your designs into battle."
Bea cocked an expertly tweezed eyebrow. "Oh, so philosophical now. You really 'ave gone soft. Did you think denying your past would make him like you? Did you think you could change the way things are done if you just made nice with the right people?" Bea leaned in close, her hand snaking around Crowley's neck, sharp nails digging into the base of his skull. "All we 'ave in zis world is image. We all want to be noticed to get what we want. You, with your black clothes and your stupid camera, you want to be seen as important, as worth something, but inside you're just as scared and pathetic as everyone else. Think your friend doesn't know that, can't see right through this facade? That's why he left you, Crowley. He has his own ambitions; he doesn't need you anymore."
Bea let go with a little shove that nearly sent Crowley off his bar stool. "When you are ready to stop pretending you are worth something, you know where to find me."
Crowley slapped his hands on the bar and stood. "You're wrong, Bea. I'm already worth something, and it took losing everything for me to see that. I'm better than you will ever be because I learned from my mistakes and I at least tried to be a better person. I left you, I'm stronger for it, and there's nothing you can say that will make me come back." He sneered down at his former boss. "I know which side I'm on. If that means I'm soft, that's fine with me."
After Crowley left him in front of the cafe, Aziraphale had walked back to the hotel and changed back into his own clothes. If he was going to Gabriel's party, among fellow philosophers, he was going as himself. What Aziraphale had not been expecting was to find a nightclub. He also was not expecting VIP treatment but he had apparently been put on all the lists and was whisked up a gold staircase as soon as he arrived. Gabriel greeted him enthusiastically at the top.
"Welcome to Paradise, Aziraphale. My latest venture."
"Branching out into entrepreneurship?"
Gabriel laughed. "It's the new empathicalism, my friend. And I wanted to pick your brain a little." He leaned on the railing, looking down on the dance floor like a king surveying his subjects. "You mentioned you have a place in Soho."
"Yes. A bookshop. I deal mainly in antiques; philosophy, of course, as well as science and a bit of theology. I have a fascinating collection of - "
"What would you say to a buyout?"
Aziraphale frowned. "You want to buy my shop? Whatever for?"
"Supply and demand!" Gabriel spread his arms wide. "Look at them down there, dancing their money away, paying for the privilege of being seen. Vanity, Aziraphale, it all comes down to vanity, greed and vice. These lost lambs have come to my fold because they think it will make them special but what they really need is guidance. When the lights come up and they realize how ugly they really are, how selfish and sinful, they turn to me for help. Supply and demand."
"And you want to open a nightclub in Soho in order to -- what? Convert people to empathicalism by tricking them into vice?"
Gabriel laughed. "It is a little complicated, but it's all part of the plan. Sometimes in order to do good, you have to sow a little discord first." He put an arm around Aziraphale's shoulders and led him on a little tour of the VIP area, introducing him around to his investors. Other club owners, publishers, celebrities, a politician and his wife, even a few other models had all joined up with Gabriel and none of them seemed much like philosophers.
"Gabriel, I don't understand. All of this talk about clubs, and tours, and plans ... " He trailed off, looking out at the well-dressed people indulging in the club below. "In your books you write about forming connections with people, doing good by being good. All this seems backwards to me." He turned back to Gabriel, who had fixed him with a curious stare. "It almost sounds like you don't believe in empathicalism at all."
Gabriel laughed. "Of course I don't believe in it! It's all a scam to sell books, sweetheart!" He sat down and stretched out on a couch. "Look, I'm not saying go out and kill people. It's just -- it's not like there's any points or anything. There's nobody watching and keeping score. We are the only ones who do that. People. We keep ourselves trapped in this rat race because we delude ourselves by thinking there might be some reason for any of this. So we pretend to like each other and do good deeds because it makes us feel better about all the other shit that's going on. All the other shit that people do to get to the top and you can't get there if you waste time on anyone but yourself."
"That doesn't even make sense! Being kind isn't futile! It's all we have in our power to make the world better for everyone."
"Oh, so we can all hold hands and sing songs under a big rainbow?" Gabriel simpered sarcastically. "Please. Not one of those people out there wouldn't take the chance to toss someone else under the bus if it meant they could get ahead."
"But - " Aziraphale swallowed. He could hardly get the words out past the betrayal crushing his chest. "Shouldn't we at least try?"
Gabriel scoffed. "Like your boyfriend in the glasses? You think he's really been trying to 'improve' himself?" He shook his head and came to join Aziraphale by the rail. He pointed down to where Crowley and Tracy were talking to Bea. Aziraphale sucked in a breath as he caught Crowley's eye. "He's been using you, Aziraphale, just like everyone else in his industry. Once he got what he wanted, he let you go to get snapped up by someone else. See her? That's Bea. She's going to design a collection for me, and Crowley suggested you could model it for me."
Aziraphale couldn't believe it. "He's not like that. He wouldn't - not without telling me."
"Face it, there is no such thing as nice. Nice is a little lie we tell ourselves in order to get what we want." He leaned closer. "I can be nice, angel."
Hearing Crowley's endearment from Gabriel's mouth made Aziraphale shudder. He pushed Gabriel away. "Don't call me that! I don't want to model for you!" He straightened his waistcoat firmly. "I'm going back to where I belong."
Gabriel sighed. "Too bad, we could have had a good partnership. I guess you're just too soft."
Aziraphale lifted his chin proudly. "I am soft. But you know something, Gabriel?" He tilted his head slightly, his grey eyes going dangerously steely. "Softness does not equal lack of strength!"
And he drew back and punched Gabriel square in the jaw.
Gabriel shouted and toppled backward over the end of the couch, but Aziraphale didn't stick around to see how he was. He raced down the steps, hoping Crowley was still at the club, but he couldn't see any sign of him. Outside, he tried Crowley's cell, but only got his voicemail message. Praying he wasn't too late, Aziraphale flagged down a taxi and hurried to the fashion show.
Backstage, after changing frantically into the tux that was still waiting for him (Just in case, Ann had said with a wink) Aziraphale still couldn't get Crowley to pick up.
"He just doesn't want to talk to me," he sighed miserably.
"He's probably just in a tunnel or something. We'll find him, don't worry," Tracy assured him.
Ann didn't look sure. She had called the hotel, all the bars around the hotel, the train station, and the airport, but no one had seen Crowley. It was too late now. The show was almost over and Tracy was going to have to make the announcement without him. At least Aziraphale had come back. She gave his cream tux a final brush and pecked him on the cheek.
"You'll be fine. He'll probably show up at the last minute. Go make him proud."
Aziraphale tried his best to smile, but it came out a bit wobbly. "Thank you, my dear. You are extraordinary. If you or Newton ever need a place, my shop will always be open to you."
Ann nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and shooed him onto the runway before she started crying. Aziraphale and Tracy were greeted by tremendous applause and the announcement of Quality's retirement was the talk of the evening. It was perfect, save for the fact that Crowley wasn't there.
At about the time that Aziraphale stepped onto the runway, Crowley was stepping out of his car at the airport. After sobering up, he'd driven all the way there before thinking about how he was going to get the Bentley home. He was still trying to decide if he should actually bother with buying a ticket when he overheard some gratingly familiar American style yelling. Peering around bag check, he spotted Gabriel laying in to the nonplussed ticket agent about the weight of his carry on. Something about medical supplies because somebody had apparently punched him hard enough to break his nose. And Crowley had a pretty good idea who.
He got to the venue just as the show was closing. He rushed backstage, but Aziraphale was already gone.
"Oh, Crowley! He was wonderful!" Ann gushed. "But why weren't you here?"
"I had to find out which side I was really on. Where did he go?"
Tracy shook her head. "He just ran out after the announcement, right down the end of the runway. You know, he probably did that empathy thing and put himself in your place. If you put yourself in his place, one of you is bound to run into the other in somebody's place."
Crowley grinned and swept her up into a hug, even though he knew it would crush her taffeta dress. "Tracy, you ought to be president of something." He grabbed his own tux, one of the arrangements from a cocktail table, and hoped he was right.
The church was empty, but the darkness of it felt peaceful. Aziraphale waited at the end of the nave, his head tipped back as he stared up at the stained glass window behind the altar, lost in thought. Crowley stopped short just inside the doors. His angel was caught in a beam of moonlight that filtered through the multicolored motes of dust, just like that first day in the bookshop. The first time Crowley had fallen in love. He must have made some kind of sigh because Aziraphale turned. Surprise, cautious hope, and immeasurable love broke across his features and Crowley thought he was about the most beautiful person he'd ever seen.
Crowley slipped his glasses into his pocket. He walked up the aisle, slow and unhurried even though most of him wanted to rush into Aziraphale's arms. They met and for a moment just looked at each other in the light.
"I thought I might find you here, angel."
"You came back," Aziraphale whispered, hardly daring to believe it.
"Never left. These are uh, for you but I think I kind of squished them." Crowley held out the slightly wilted arrangement of flowers. Aziraphale took them anyway.
"Oh, Crowley, I'm so terribly sorry."
"No, I'm sorry. Ange - Aziraphale," Crowley corrected himself, taking Aziraphale's free hand. "I love you. I love you and I've been a bloody fool about it. Forgive me?"
Aziraphale dropped the flowers so he could cup Crowley's cheek. "Oh, my dear. As long as you forgive me, as well, of course you are forgiven."
"Deal." Crowley grinned, but he looked faintly unsure. "May I kiss you, Aziraphale?" He asks so, so quietly, and Aziraphale knew it was not just a question.
"Yes. Yes!" He beamed. "Anthony J. Crowley, I want you to kiss me every day for the rest of my life, if you would be amenable?"
"Well, Aziraphale Z. Fell, I think that can be arranged," Crowley said before placing a finger under Aziraphale's chin, tipping his face up just so.
He does, and he does, and they do.
"What happens now?" Aziraphale asked on their way out of the church, arm in arm.
"Well, we go back to London, print everything, and hopefully lay Quality to rest with a little dignity."
"I suppose now that I'm not a model anymore, I go back to my shop. Oh," he groaned softly. "I don't want to think how much paperwork I've fallen behind on." Crowley snorted. "And I suppose," Aziraphale continued, "you go back to, um, whatever it is you do when you're not taking pictures."
"Yeah, I suppose, only ... " Crowley slumped against the side of the Bentley, realization catching up with him. "Only, I don't do anything else. The magazine's been my whole life. Without that ... " He trailed off, suddenly looking incredibly lost.
"You're a very intelligent man, I'm sure you'll find something. Chartered accountancy perhaps," Aziraphale suggested brightly. When Crowley didn't smile, he nudged him gently on the shoulder with his own. "That was a joke, you know."
Crowley finally huffed in amusement. "Yeah, that'd be for me. Stuck in an office all day, four blank walls to stare at."
"Oh, you're not really cut out for that. You could open a gallery! Oh you could," he insisted. "You have a real talent, Crowley."
Crowley tried to hide his pleased smile. "Without the office, I won't have a darkroom anymore."
"Ah." Aziraphale studied the sky for a while. Eventually he said: "You know, there is a bit of space at the bookshop, in the back. Used to be a kitchenette, there's a sink and everything. I was thinking of putting up more shelves but" - he glanced at Crowley, then down at his hands - "I believe there might be enough room for a workbench."
"Do you think?" Crowley felt a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth and something very light in his chest.
Aziraphale nodded, smiling, feeling the same way. "Of course, you'd have to earn your keep. You can help me with inventory on weekends."
They looked at each other, then started laughing, their easy glee echoing through the night. Their hands found each other.
"I think that sounds like a pretty wonderful arrangement angel, if you'll have me."
"Of course I will, my dear. I think it will be just marvelous."