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.
It was Friday. It was half past eight. The department heads had just been told that Quality was closing.
The meeting had been called in conference room three, the nicest one, the one without rolling chairs. A brilliant move on Tracy's part; it was an old fashioned, wood paneled, straight backed chair sort of place, a relic from the previous century. Where better to announce the death of the magazine than in this mausoleum of a room. Crowley, however, desperately wished he could at least tip his chair back a little, do something to alleviate his nervous energy. He glanced around the long table. The news had hit hard, but it had not been entirely unexpected. Tracy had simply confirmed everyone's fears. The prevailing mood was more to do with how to break the news to everyone else. Quality was like a family so the next few days would be like hell, unless Tracy liked his idea. Crowley glanced at Ann. She was her usual collected self, taking everything in stride. He thought - now that it was entirely too late - that he probably should have run his plan by her first.
"Crowley," Tracy called from the head of the table. "Have you come up with a brilliant idea for our last issue?"
Crowley ran a hand through his hair and flashed her a smile. "I may have a little something." He rose with purposeful care, heading to the far end of the table. He dimmed the lights and flicked a switch to lower a projection screen that had been installed sometime in the mid-eighties and never used. (It rolled down very slowly).
"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, clicking on the projector with a remote. He braced his hands on the edge of the table, framed in a square of light that was slightly off center. "I've been at this magazine longer than almost anyone. Fashion is a fickle industry. Trends come and go overnight. I should know, I've been responsible for most of them." He paused, expecting some polite laughter at least. When none came, he cleared his throat and plunged ahead. "But one thing I do know, Quality has been the one constant in an ever changing sea." Ann coughed lightly, twirling her finger to suggest he should just get on with it. Crowley sighed.
"Okay, look. The print magazine is out. There's no changing that. Still, we owe it to our readers to leave the Quality way: with dignity and style. So let's not think of this as a death, but as a gracious retirement. And what better way to do that than with some pizazz!" He clicked the remote and a slide appeared on the screen. The Quality logo rippled across the top, then the words 'A Retrospective' appeared pixel by pixel in fancy gold script beneath it. The whole thing was accompanied by tinny fanfare from the program's stock of sounds.
"Oh, lord," Ann muttered, covering her eyes with one hand.
"That's right! We produce one last issue showcasing the best of Quality's history. We dig deep in the archives" - images of old fashion plates appeared on the next slide - "go right back to where Quality began. We highlight the best covers, the classic styles, the models and designers who got their start right here with us." There were chuckles around the table as each successive slide appeared with more and more elaborate transitions. Cross fades, checkerboards, even spinning in like a headline from an old newsreel.
"And here's where it gets really interesting." Crowley grinned, getting into it now. "We don't just slap together a history book, we actually recreate some of our famous spreads, stage a whole collection of fashion through the ages. I'm sure Duval will love the challenge and an excuse to come out of retirement for a while."
"A who's who of Quality isn't going to be more than a flash in the pan at the newsstand," Tracy pointed out.
Crowley nodded. "My thought exactly. So, I propose we go out with a bang. Announce the retirement officially, publicly, at Fashion Week! Can I hear a wahoo!" He beamed around the table and was met with skeptical silence, with the exception of Ann, who did give him a quiet little fist pump.
"Crowley, that's in two weeks!"
"But the press would already be there," the publicity head admitted.
"And we could do a special lookbook for the Fashion Week guests before we print the final issue."
"Could you have models ready in time?" Tracy asked. Her eyes were sharp, wheels turning.
"I have one already. He's a new face, but I think we could build the whole collection around him."
Tracy raised an eyebrow, but gestured for him to continue. Crowley took a breath before clicking to the last slide. It was make or break now.
The image that came up on the screen was raw, right from the negative. He had been too eager to get it developed to bother with any tinkering. It was a little over exposed, but that could be fixed. What mattered was the expression, the pure radiant joy of someone unaware they are being observed, caught in the act of speaking passionately about something they care about. Unselfconscious, unbothered by conventions of fashion, Aziraphale looked almost beatific. The random beam of sunlight had chosen that precise moment to pierce the dusty air of the shop and caught him right on the back, looking almost like wings and lighting up his halo of unruly curls. Even after developing the print, and putting together the slideshow, Crowley was still struck by how beautiful he was. He was distracted enough, he almost didn't hear Tracy ask him to turn the lights back on.
"Well." She stood, letting the moment hang in the air. She smiled down at Crowley at the other end of the table. "I'll think about it," she said.
"They hated it, didn't they?" Crowley groaned, head buried in his arms on his desk.
"I wouldn't say hated." Ann sat on the edge of the desk and poked his arm gently until he looked up. She cocked her head. "A slideshow? Really?"
"Hey, they are cool and functional."
"Yeah and the nineties called and left a message on your answering machine."
"If it isn't broken, I'm not going to bother learning some new tech that'll just be obsolete in five years anyway. That's why I have you." Crowley smiled and patted Ann's arm in a lovingly patronizing way.
"And yet, for someone who refuses to learn editing software, you still managed to put three separate transitions on each slide." Her sarcasm was affectionate. "I'm actually kind of impressed."
Crowley smiled a little. "Be honest. Do you think it'll work?"
Ann sighed. "It's risky. I mean, you don't even know if he'll do it."
"He will. He has to," he muttered. "Look, Tracy needs to meet him. I want you to put in an order at that shop and get him down here. Insist that he deliver it personally."
Ann groaned. "Do you know how long that will take? It's not like I can just do a web search!"
"Work your magic, Ann. I know you can do it."
"Yeah, yeah," she grumbled. "But you owe me."
Down the hall, Crowley escaped into his sanctuary: his darkroom. He didn't need his glasses in here. He set them carefully on their special shelf, rolling up his sleeves before getting set up. He had always loved developing the print, watching with amazement as the image emerged from the blank sheet like magic. It was a complicated process that required focus, and accurate timing. Measure the solutions wrong, leave the print in too long or not long enough, and the whole thing was ruined. It took practice, and a little intuition to get the contrast and the colors right. It was the kind of task Crowley was suited for.
He didn't have to think about the magazine, the editorial, the sales. He didn't have to worry about whatever they were selling, or who would buy it; all he needed to know was that the shadows were dark enough, the colors bright enough, that he was creating the right composition that took the frame from just okay to beautiful. He also didn't have to listen to his own thoughts and doubts and regrets. Like almost kissing Aziraphale. The past two days, Crowley had thought of little else.
He'd tried lines before, but that empathy thing? That had come out of nowhere. Must have been the atmosphere, all antiquated and dark and Aziraphale in that ridiculous outfit. He chuckled, still not over the fact that he wore a bow tie unironically. He hoped that Aziraphale would agree to his idea. Crowley would consider it an accomplishment if he showed up to the office at all. He should have told Ann to get some pastries from that bakery, too. He looked down at the print in the tray.
"Shit," he muttered. Sighing, he set up another page.
Outside on the pavement, Aziraphale stood with his head tipped back, staring up at the Quality offices. The whole taxi ride over, he had wondered just what exactly he was thinking. He seldom ventured this far downtown. The crowds and noise were slightly overwhelming and he once more fought down the urge to go back to Soho. Still, he was here now, and he should at least complete his delivery. He had been quite reticent to part with such a large number of books until he had learned where they were going. (He had not, despite any appearances to the contrary, spent several minutes after hanging up the phone grinning widely at the prospect of seeing Crowley again. Nor had he spent the next several minutes after that fussing over which tie to wear). Someone jostled him rudely and he remembered he was just standing in everyone's way. Clutching his black leather satchel rightly to his chest, he hurried inside. After what felt like a very long ride in the lift, he was deposited in a very white, very clean reception area.
"Um, hello," he said to the woman at the desk. "I'm here to deliver some books for Mr. Crowley."
Barely glancing at him, she waved a hand at the hallway to his left. "Straight back, double doors on the right," she said in a bored voice.
"Thank you." He stepped briskly down the indicated hall. It was lined with large framed reproductions of various Quality covers. He could imagine why the magazine was so popular; the models and the beautiful clothes were thrillingly evocative. Though he was assuredly fashion backward, he did occasionally indulge in a new tie, or perhaps a silk cravat if he was feeling especially whimsical, but looking at these images he could understand the desire of a reader to want to capture something of that ineffable emotion for themselves.
And now that he had met the man who had taken these pictures, Aziraphale could sense something in them that went deeper than the desire to advertise the clothes. An appreciation for form and light that spoke of artistry, a painter's touch.
He paused before one cover in particular, his eyes drawn to the bright color. There was something about it, an emotion he couldn't quite name. The photo was of a woman in a sleek red dress, caught running down a flight of stairs. She was grinning, a wisp of silk billowing out behind her, arms raised in abandon. It was a moment of pure joy caught on film, and it was infectious. And it had taken skill to capture, of that he was sure. Skill he had glimpsed the other day in his shop.
More than a glimpse, he thought, remembering with a sudden blush the way Crowley had looked at him on the ladder. If only he wasn't quite ... and if Aziraphale wasn't so ... maybe they could have ...
Preoccupied with his thoughts, he wandered through the wrong set of doors and found himself in a maze of yet more hallway.
"Oh, dear," he muttered, looking around for anyone who might be able to point him in the right direction. The hall was empty, but there was the telltale thump of loud music coming from somewhere, so Aziraphale followed the sound, feeling a bit like Theseus heading into the Labyrinth and hoping that he would be able to find his way out again. The music got louder, something with a lot of bass guitar and piano that Aziraphale categorized (as he did all music produced after about Tchaikovsky) as bebop. He didn't have anything against bebop, per se, but he preferred something with a beat he could do a proper dance to.
He came to a door practically vibrating from the bass. Sensing it would be useless to knock, he simply tried the handle and pushed it open. He took about two steps into the small, dark room before the music cut off abruptly and someone was yelling at him to shut the door again.
"Didn't you see that light out there? How many times do I have to tell you - "
"I'm sorry! I was only looking for - "
Once more, Crowley and Aziraphale recognized each other at the same time. Crowley's scowl immediately brightened. "We really have to stop meeting like this, angel," he said, feeling that lopsided grin slide across his face again.
"I've ruined your print, haven't I? Oh, I'm terribly sorry."
"Nah, don't worry about it, angel. You're just the man I wanted to see. Here," Crowley pulled over a stool and motioned for Aziraphale to sit down.
He sat, gingerly, bag on his lap, careful not to let his elbows knock into any of the paraphernalia in the closet-like room. "I brought your books."
"Oh, great. Just drop 'em anywhere. I didn't really want them, anyway. I just wanted to see you."
"Why did I have to hunt through my stock for all these, then?" Aziraphale wiggled angrily. "These are very expensive and I had half a mind not to part with them, even if they were for you. I should have known. Your assistant was far too chipper. Luring me down here under false pretenses."
Crowley chuckled. "Angel, I did honestly want to see you. And I'll pay for the books, that's not important. I just wanted you here in person because I have a favor to ask."
"Don't tell me you want to come back to the shop! I've only just got the place to rights again."
"Angel, this isn't about your shop."
Aziraphale looked at him suspiciously. "Why do I have the feeling I'm not going to like whatever this favor is?"
"Just hear me out." Crowley leaned against the workbench, his expression serious. "The magazine is closing."
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."
"S'all right. We're putting together one last issue. A retrospective of Quality's history. We're going to recreate all these historic fashion trends, do a big shoot, it'll be great. The problem is, we need a model."
"I thought that young man was very capable."
"Newt's great, but we need someone fresh. Someone new. That's where you come in."
"I don't understand. I already told you, I don't want the shop involved... "
"Not the shop, angel," Crowley interrupted gently. "You. I want you to be my model."
Aziraphale stared at him for a long moment before bursting into a fit of giggles. "Don't be ridiculous! Look at me! I don't know the first thing about fashion."
"You don't have to," Crowley insisted. "The fact that you don't care about what you wear is what makes you perfect. You don't dress for anyone but yourself," he continued quickly before Aziraphale got the wrong idea. "You wear what makes you comfortable and that shows in how you carry yourself. That's all fashion really is, angel. That's what I saw when I took your picture the other day."
He moved around the darkroom and started preparing another print. "You get this look when you start talking about something you like. It's like your whole body lights up. And I don't just want you to do it because I think you're" - he cleared his throat - "because I think you'd be good. You've got a great face, angel."
"I think my face is perfectly funny."
"That's what makes it great."
Aziraphale frowned. "Crowley, that's very flattering, but I don't think - " Crowley flipped a switch and he was interrupted by a sudden light. He heard Crowley murmur an apology as he took him by the hands and turned him around. When his eyes cleared, Aziraphale gasped. There, projected on the wall, was his own face. It was the day in the bookshop all right, but Newt was no longer the focus. Instead, Aziraphale was - as Crowley had said - lit up with excitement. Crowley had managed to catch a rare sunbeam from the skylight, falling around him like a spotlight.
"See?" Crowley said, very close behind him. "You're beautiful, Aziraphale."
The way Crowley caressed his name shivered down Aziraphale's back, bringing back all sorts of memories of what had almost happened the last time they'd been this close together. He scooted away toward the wall, putting the workbench between them.
"I can't. It goes against all of my principles!"
"It's not like I'm asking you to do anything illegal. We're going to be recreating some of fashion's greatest works of art! There's nothing sinful about art, is there?"
"Well, a number of popes might disagree with you on that point but ... in the broad scheme of things, technically no." Aziraphale shook his head. "No, really, I don't think that - "
"You'll get to go to Paris," Crowley cajoled.
Aziraphale could not help a little gasp.
"Oh, yes, angel." Crowley smiled as he leaned on the workbench between them. "We're making the announcement at Fashion Week. Press conference and everything. It's all being set up as we speak. One week, angel, that's all I ask. Give me one week of undivided attention and then you can do whatever you like. The libraries, the museums, even your precious Gabriel. All of it in exchange for one week of modeling for me. You could even teach me more about this empathy thing while you're at it. It'll be our little arrangement."
"You don't want to learn anything about empathicalism! You're just trying to tempt me into doing this favor for you."
The smile faded slightly as Crowley turned back to his trays. "I know that I'm not a very good person. Hell, I know I'm a terrible person! You don't last long in this industry without letting a lot of things slide. Problem is, I don't know how to do anything else, so if I'm going to have any hope of a career after this - I'm going to need a little help in the being nice department." Crowley fixed Azirapahle with a serious stare. "Everything depends on you, now. If you won't model, it just wouldn't be the same. I need your help, angel. Please. I'll do whatever it takes."
Aziraphale's heart was beating very fast and his mouth had gone dry. Even through the low light, Crowley's eyes seemed to burn into him. "If I agree to model for you, I get to go to Paris?"
Crowley nodded slowly, a smile parting his lips.
"And I can go back to the bookshop once we're done? You won't turn me into some celebrity or" - Aziraphale brushed at his waistcoat self-consciously - "make me go on a diet?"
Crowley came around the workbench to where Aziraphale was still resolutely pressed against the wall. "No, angel. You don't have to change at all, not a single thing and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, you just tell them right off." Aziraphale smiled a little at that.
"I can't guarantee you won't become a celebrity," Crowley continued, "but that's more up to you. I suppose we could give you an alias. You'd be like Cinderella! The mystery model, plucked from obscurity and then whisked away into the night, never to model again!"
Aziraphale snorted in amusement. Crowley laughed, too, leaning close enough that Aziraphale could smell his cologne. It was earthy and floral, putting him in mind of a dark, tropical forest.
"Oh, but what about the shop?" he stammered.
"It's one week, angel. I'm sure your customers won't mind. It'll still be there when you get back."
Aziraphale smirked. "Haven't said I'm going, yet."
"What's stopping you?" Crowley whispered.
Aziraphale couldn't concentrate. There were so many things to consider, plans to make, but all he could feel was Crowley. His hair blending into the red wash of the darkroom, his cologne mixing with the faint tang of chemicals, his body inches away. And those damned eyes, eyes of an artist that looked at him with an unabashed directness and told him he was beautiful, desirable. There were a lot of reasons to refuse - this man and his life represented the antithesis of Aziraphale's philosophy - but how could he call himself a true empathicalist if he did not experience new things? Crowley had been the one to point out that fact, after all. And he wasn't bad company, either. He was intelligent, interesting, and interested in him. He was even willing to learn about empathicalism (his feelings about Gabriel as a person aside).
Aziraphale thought back to that day in the park. Something had seemed perfectly natural about asking this well-dressed stranger to feed the ducks. Aziraphale had not entirely expected Crowley to agree, much less enjoy it, but there they had stood at the edge of the lake, laughing and sharing that simple activity, as if they had been doing it for years. Now, Crowley was doing the same. Crowley was trusting him with the last photo shoot of his career, and they barely knew each other.
"So what do you say, angel, do we have a deal?"
It was tempting. It was so terribly tempting. This could be his only chance to meet Gabriel. And it was only a few pictures. How hard could it be? He met Crowley's eyes and caught his breath.
Slowly, Aziraphale nodded.
"You'll do it?" Crowley almost couldn't believe it.
"I'll do it," Aziraphale agreed, "as a means to an end."
"Oh, angel, I could kiss you!" Crowley grabbed his hand and pulled him from the room into the sudden brightness of the hall. "Let's tell everyone the good news!"
After Crowley had triumphantly introduced him as the newest Quality model, and glared down any skepticism, the rest of the afternoon had passed for Aziraphale in a blur of meetings and measurements and filling out lots of forms he didn't understand. Eventually, it was over and Aziraphale found himself back in the lobby with a plane ticket in hand instead of the bag of books.
"Oh!" He let out a little despairing moan. "I forgot the books!"
"These books?" Aziraphale turned and found Crowley waiting by the lifts, satchel in hand. "Didn't feel right to keep them, what with the false pretenses and all," he teased. "Besides, now I'll have another excuse to see you once you go back to being a bookseller."
Aziraphale accepted the bag back in stunned silence. Crowley's fingers brushed against his on the handle, and it sparked a shiver all the way up his arm.
"Lift home?" Crowley asked, bringing him out of the reverie.
"Oh, well, if you wouldn't mind." Aziraphale joined Crowley in the lift and they rode down to the garage. Once there, however, he hesitated when Crowley held the door of the Bentley open for him.
"Just get in, angel."
The trip to Soho was very short, which was either because Crowley was going far too fast, or because Aziraphale had squeezed his eyes shut the moment they had rocketed out of the garage and it took him a moment to realize they had pulled up before his shop. Crowley cleared his throat quietly and Aziraphale sheepishly pried his fingers off the door handle.
"Um, thank you, Crowley. I hope you won't be offended if I decline any rides from you in the future."
Crowley laughed. "Tough luck, angel. I'm taking her to Paris with me."
"You're not coming on the plane?" Aziraphale wondered why he tried to hide a sudden note of disappointment in his voice. The trip was hardly going to be long, why should he be disappointed that he won't get to watch the plane descend over Paris with Crowley by his side?
"Not a chance. Not a fan of heights, myself but Ann will be with you. I've instructed her to keep you in line." Crowley winked. "I'll see you once Duval has you all decked out. I'm sure he's already elbow deep in lace trim."
"Yes. Right. Until we meet in Paris, then." Aziraphale got out quickly before he could say anything else that would probably be inappropriate now that Crowley was for all intents and purposes his boss, but leaned down before closing the door. "Goodnight, Crowley."
"Do mind how you go!" Aziraphale called as Crowley pulled away with a squeal of tires. He turned to look up at his shop and realized that he would have to make a new sign for the door.
He was going on vacation.
All dialogue is written in English, but Italicized dialogue indicates a character speaking French.
Crowley was in a foul mood. He had wanted to meet the plane when it landed. He had wanted to take Aziraphale on a tour before they had to start working. He had wanted to at least call and explain why he was late, but nothing was working in his favor. There had been a last minute problem he'd had to sort at the office, putting him behind schedule. Then, after attempting a very unsatisfactory nap in the Chunnel, he attempted a shortcut into Paris, which landed him in the middle of traffic so bad he thought he was back on the M25. So when he arrived at Duval's salon late that afternoon, the only thing keeping him going was the thought of at least seeing Aziraphale all decked out in something amazing for the collection that would be the last he would ever shoot.
What he walked into was a lot of shouting, most of it Tracy's. She was commanding a phone, Duval's assistants were trying to placate the irate designer, and Ann was sitting in the middle of it all looking close to tears.
"Crowley!" Ann cried when he walked in, looking immensely relieved to see him. She looked over his shoulder. "Where's Aziraphale?"
"He's not here?"
"If he is here, he's invisible. I thought he was with you?"
"I just got here. Why isn't he with you?"
Ann bit her lip. "I dropped him at the hotel, he wanted to freshen up after the flight."
"I've been calling all day, but it just goes to voicemail. Tracy's been after the hotel manager but apparently he hasn't been in for hours."
Tracy finally hung up, noticed Crowley was there, and the smile she gave him was terrifyingly sweet. "Anthony, where is our model?"
Crowley gulped. She only called him that when he was really in the soup. "Maybe he just got lost on the way here, or went sightseeing and lost track of time."
She poked him in the chest with a pointy nail. "How many times do I have to tell you to leave that ridiculous car at home? We are on the brink of disaster. Duval cannot finish his designs and is threatening to walk on the whole project. I thought you said he would be reliable!" Tracy stepped in close and glared down at Crowley, which was a feat because he was taller than she was. "I don't care if he's at the top of the Eiffel Tower or the bottom of the Seine, I want you to get out there and find him. Turn the city upside down if you have to."
Crowley held up his hands to prevent further puncture of his favorite jacket. "I will! I think I know where to find him. I'll have him here first thing tomorrow, I promise."
"See that you do. Otherwise, you'll both be walking home!"
Crowley hurried out before Tracy got any angrier. He rubbed at his temples in a vain attempt to stop the pounding in his skull. He figured he may as well check in at the hotel and work out from there. He inquired at the desk, confirming that Aziraphale had been in earlier in the day, but left again soon after and hadn't returned. So he asked about all the most philosophical cafes nearby, and learned that there was one cafe in particular just around the corner that was very popular with the Gabriel groupies.
Descending into the basement cafe, he knew it was the right place. Dim and smoky, full of staccato jazz and darkened corners perfect for what Crowley assumed was not purely philosophical conversation, the place was straight out of a sixties film. It was just Aziraphale's style. Crowley edged around what could generously be called a dance floor, looking for any hint of blonde hair. He spotted Aziraphale at one of the tiny tables in the back, engaged in an animated, albeit one sided, conversation with two fellow philosophers.
"And ... and so, I'm just left wondering, is there really any point to all this quibble about good and evil? I mean, every day -- every day! We have to make all these choices and it's just so complicated! Why can't there just be one way to do everything that's good for everyone, one set of clearly defined rules that we can all follow? Wouldn't that be better than having to choose all the time, because how can we really be sure we're choosing to do the right thing?"
"If I had to guess," Crowley said as he sidled up the table, "it's because that's the definition of authoritarianism, and it's the exact opposite of having any free will."
"Crowley!" Aziraphale turned to him and just glowed with happiness. "Oh, how lovely! Do join us."
"Yes, Crawley," a gravelly voice drawled from the other side of the table, his French skewing the vowel unpleasantly. "Do please join us."
Crowley bit back a groan. Of all the cafes in all of Pairs... He put on his haughtiest smirk. "I'd have thought you and could afford your own drinks by now, Hastur."
"Well, well! Look what the cat coughed up!" The other occupant of the table set down his glass with a thunk and wobbled forward with a leer. "Playing nanny again, Crawley?"
Aziraphale looked positively delighted at the exchange, even though he didn't understand a word of it. "You know each other! Oh, how wonderful. Crowley, come sit down."
"I haven't got time to chat, I'm afraid. Come on, angel, we're going."
"So soon?" Hastur stretched an arm around the booth behind Aziraphale in a causal move that was blatantly possessive. "We were just getting to know each other. Right, Ligur?"
"Can't we stay a little longer? We were having such an interesting discussion on empathicalism."
"Angel, they haven't understood a word you've said."
"That's not true! We empathicalists aren't hindered by language. They understand me through how I feel and the tone of my voice."
"They're only indulging you because you're paying for the drinks. Allow me to demonstrate." Crowley took up one of the many bottles on the table and offered a top up. "Gentlemen, I must say it is an absolute displeasure to see your faces again." His tone was enthusiastic, but his eyes were flint sharp as he glared over his glasses. "If either of you miserable piles of worms comes near my model again, I will personally feed you to the dogs!"
Hastur laughed as Crowley tugged an indignant Aziraphale to his feet, pulling him toward the door. "You've offended your angel. Keep your eyes on him. Wouldn't want him to fall, too," he called after them.
Aziraphale shrugged out of Crowley's grip when they got outside. "That was uncalled for! Dragging me away from a nice conversation."
"I'm so glad you're making friends, angel. Have you gotten all chummy with Gabriel, too?"
"I haven't met him yet," Aziraphale begrudgingly admitted.
"You haven't!" Crowley mimed immense surprise. "I would have thought you'd had that sorted by now, considering you've been here all day drinking and 'philosophising' instead of doing your job."
"I haven't been drinking. Well, one glass, to be polite, but then we got onto the topic of empathicalism and I - "
"One week, angel, that's all I asked for and you can't even be bothered to show up for the first day! How do you think that makes me look? I'm responsible for you, here."
Aziraphale blinked. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Duval's! The fitting! Ann's been calling you all day, she was worried sick about you."
A spike of panic fluttered in Azirapahle's chest, like he'd just remembered there was a cake in the oven and knew it was already burnt. Ann had given him a new phone on the plane, and spent the whole flight showing him how to use it. So she could keep in touch with him. Slowly, Aziraphale reached into his pocket and pulled out the slim device. Crowley was watching him with a scowl and it made him very nervous as he fumbled for the right buttons.
"Oh," his voice was small. "That is a lot of missed calls, isn't it?" Aziraphale hung his head, his voice wobbling. "I'm terribly sorry. I didn't think ... the reception isn't ... That's no excuse, I know, but I just got to talking and your friends said they could get me an invitation to one of Gabriel's parties and -- "
"They aren't my friends," Crowley snapped. "You stay away from them. And I don't want to hear any more talk about Gabriel until I've got this shoot done, all right?"
Aziraphale took a step back. He tugged at his sleeves, brushed down his lapels. "Very well," he said stiffly. "Shall we begin now?"
Crowley rubbed at his eyes behind his glasses. "I told Tracy you'd be there first thing tomorrow."
"Fine. Then I will say goodnight." Aziraphale turned on his heel, feeling more than a little hurt. He had tried to apologize, but somehow managed to make it worse. He had been so excited to see Crowley again, and had thought Crowley might be glad to see him, too, but apparently only to a professional extent. Perhaps he really only was interested in the arrangement, only using flattery and those damnable eyes to get his way. Aziraphale berated himself for having other expectations for this trip, as well as making such a simple mistake and disappointing Ann. He liked Ann. He hoped they wouldn't send him home. At the same time, he almost hoped they would if this was what working with Crowley was going to be like.
Crowley watched Aziraphale walk into the hotel and considered simply telling Tracy that the project was off after all. Then he thought about it some more and knew he would rather grovel for mercy from Aziraphale than face Tracy's wrath. He bent back with an exasperated groan before going after him. "Angel, I apologize for shouting. I'm sorry about the way I behaved back there. It's just been a very long day and everyone was worried about you." He paused to take off his glasses. "I was worried about you."
"You have an odd way of showing it."
"Hey, I told you. I'm not nice. But I'm working on it, okay? Empathy lessons, remember?" Aziraphale only pursed his lips and called the lift. "Let's not go to bed angry, angel. We do have to work together. Can't we be friendly again?"
"We do not have to be friendly to work together. Acquainted will suffice."
Crowley sighed, reminding himself to be professional. "All right. Acquainted then. I'll see you in the morning, Mr. Fell." The doors closed on Aziraphale and he was left staring at his own reflection. He frowned at himself, hiding his too obvious disappointment by shoving his glasses back on. To his surprise, a moment later the lift opened again. Aziraphale held the door open, looking impatiently up at the ceiling, waiting for him to get on, which he did quickly before Aziraphale changed his mind.
"I suppose it will be terribly difficult for you to take pictures of me if we aren't speaking to each other," Aziraphale admitted softly once the doors had closed again. "And we did have an arrangement. Shall we say that we've both behaved badly, and try again?" He held out a hand, and decided to ignore the thump of his heart when Crowley smiled and took his hand in both of his own.
"I was planning on taking you to dinner, to celebrate your first day." Crowley took note of the way Azirapahle’s eyes lit up at that. "So, angel, can I tempt you to a bit of room service instead? I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
Aziraphale grinned. "I am a bit peckish, now that you mention it."
"At least she didn't put us in the same room," Crowley pointed out to Aziraphale, who was still sulking into his glass of wine.
While Tracy had been on the phone to the hotel that morning, she had thoughtfully arranged to have Aziraphale’s reservation moved to the room beside Crowley. She had, however, neglected to mention this change to Aziraphale. It was bad enough that he was compromising his philosophical standards to be a model at all, to work with someone like Crowley, but to have him in the next room? That would never do. He had sent her several frantic texts demanding an explanation. Tracy had replied (using several emojis he had to ask Ann to decipher in a separate text) that she was not going to risk him wandering away again, so she wanted Crowley to keep a close eye on him until the week was out. As it was, changing the rooms again would be too much hassle, so Aziraphale decided he would just have to make the best of it. Dinner had helped. A little.
"I don't require chaperoning," he said a bit petulantly. "And I'm sure you don't want to spend all your time keeping an eye on me when you could be out with your fashionable friends."
Crowley snorted. "Contrary to popular belief, going out isn't really my style. Never has been, really, but I'm older and wiser now, angel."
Aziraphale smirked. "I take it there was a time when you were younger and less knowledgeable."
"Yes, I certainly was. If you think I'm a bastard now, you should have seen me twenty years ago." He refilled his glass and wandered over to the balcony that overlooked the courtyard, falling silent.
Aziraphale came out to join Crowley, leaning his elbows on the rail and admiring the quiet city below. "You don't have to tell me. I didn't mean to pry."
"No, it's all right, angel. It's just not a very glamorous story." Crowley contemplated the dark wine in his glass, as though wondering just how much to divulge. Azirapahle did not press; the evening was mild and the city was new, everything was new, so he could wait.
"I always loved taking pictures," Crowley began. "Always playing around with my father's old cameras, taking pictures of everything. But the fashion world was not my first choice of career. I just kind of ... fell into it. I started out doing headshots, family portraits, that kind of thing." Aziraphale grimaced in sympathy, imaging the litany of sticky-faced and crying children forced to sit still.
"Then I landed a gig with a local paper, covering small time events. Then, I got the chance to come to Pairs. I was just like you, fell in love with it. But I was still just a two-bit kid with a camera and a good eye." Crowley took a deep breath. "That's when I met Bea."
Something in Crowley's tone told Aziraphale that Bea was a part of Crowley's past he would rather forget. A designer, he explained, who liked the avant-garde and generating shock value in the press. "She spotted me at a show where I was freelancing, liked my work, and offered me a contract. Exclusive, you understand. I really didn't have anything to lose, and I needed the money, so I signed my name away. And it was good for a while. There was steady work, steady parties, and I was starting to get noticed. Of course, once Bea has you in her web, it's hard to get out." Crowley's hand tightened around the railing. Aziraphale moved a little closer, not touching, just being near. Crowley sighed softly.
"She's very demanding, is Bea. Likes things to be precise. Very high standards for her models. You met two of them tonight, Hastur and Ligur. They're her top boys," he said with mocking scorn. "But those high standards come at a price. If a model can't keep up, they get the sack. I saw more models get burnt out trying to please Bea than I care to count. And even the ones that did make the cut got wrapped up in the lifestyle too much. And I didn't exactly resist, either. That's why I want you to stay away from those two. I'm sure they've already told Bea that I'm here. She'll probably try to tempt you over to her side, just to get back at me."
"Well, I don't intend to be photographed by anyone but you, so you needn't worry there." Crowley shot him an amused glance so he quickly changed the subject. "Why would she have it out for you?"
"Oh, that." Crowley turned and leaned back against the railing, letting his head fall back to gaze up at the stars. "Well, I really didn't care for how Bea was handling things. The way she treated everyone, handing out meager praise like scraps, planning shoots with - let's say suggestive poses - that I wasn't exactly comfortable with but shot anyway because I had to toe the line, even if it was torture. Eventually I'd had enough, so I quit. Caused a big falling out. She burned me pretty badly in the press, blacklisted me, and sent me back to England with nothing."
Crowley took a deep breath. He hadn't planned on telling Aziraphale this much, but something about being around him compelled honesty. And, he reasoned, if he was going to have any chance at all -- best get all the nasty stuff out in the open, to save on rejection when he found it out later.
"So, there I was, wings clipped as it were. The sensible thing to do would have been to keep my nose clean and start over. Instead, the first thing I did was pen an expose on Bea and her whole empire and send it to every publication that would take it. Fought fire with fire. It was selfish, and petty, and spiteful, but it felt pretty damn good. She managed to scrape by with the help of her private celebrity clients. Of course, no one would hire a snake like me, until Tracy. She took me in, dusted me off, slapped some sense into me, and I haven't looked back." Crowley glanced over at Aziraphale. He was gripping the rail tightly, that tiny frown between his brows. "Angel?"
"You have too much talent to be treated like that. How could she not see it?"
Crowley pushed his glasses into his hair. "Angel, it's all ancient history."
"I know, but it's still unfair. Though, I am glad you found Quality." He smiled a little. "Bea sounds simply awful, and that Hastur and Ligur weren't very good company, either."
"Oh, now what happened to your empathy?" Crowley teased, nudging Azirapahle with his shoulder.
"Certain exceptions may be made," he chuckled.
Softly, Crowley said, "You know, you really do have a beautiful smile, angel. You could make a career of this, if you wanted."
Aziraphale looked down bashfully. "That's the last thing I want to do. I'm already missing my shop. When this week is over, I shall be perfectly happy to retire from modeling forever."
When this week is over, Crowley thought, I may never see you again. He straightened with the little sigh of someone preparing to make an exit. "Speaking of work, you should get your beauty rest. The camera picks up everything, you know. I don't want to spend all my time retouching your pictures."
"Yes," Aziraphale agreed a bit too quickly. He trailed Crowley to the door, though he had no reason to do so. "Rest, yes; I am tired. You must be too, after driving all that way."
Crowley hesitated at the door to his own room. "I'll meet you in the lobby, yeah? Nine o'clock. Don't be late."
They both lingered awkwardly in the hall a moment. Aziraphale opened his mouth, changed his mind, and just gave him a little smile. "Goodnight, Crowley," he said, before shutting himself away.
"Night, angel," Crowley echoed softly.
Thanks everyone for being patient. This was a big chapter full of Stuff and I wanted to be sure I got it right. (I hope it's worth the wait!)
Before this week was over, Crowley was going to run up a lot of restaurant charges on his credit card.
Aziraphale was a natural model; he had a wonderfully expressive face and light just loved him, he could never catch a bad angle. He was, however, not the most patient person. He tried his best to be polite through all the fitting and styling, but Crowley could tell when he was getting a bit shirty and stepped in to remind him that if he behaved then they would be able to try out that nice little bistro they had passed that morning. It worked for his temperament, but Crowley couldn't do anything to stop him overthinking a motivation.
Crowley had thought starting off with the Mod collection, going to a club that leaned into the whole retro discotheque vibe, would be a good way to ease Aziraphale into the process. He had even requested the tartan slacks but Aziraphale was still stiff as a board.
"This isn't working," Crowley said, trying not to sound too frustrated. "I want you to look happy, angel. You are all dressed up, in the best discotheque in the city, the music's going but you still look like a barrister. Loosen up, be groovy."
Aziraphale threw up his hands with an exasperated sigh. "Well, maybe if you were a bit clearer about what you want me to do," he snapped, not bothering to conceal his irritation. "You have these ideas in your head, but I'm not a mind reader, Crowley! I have no idea what you mean when you tell me to act 'reluctantly' nonchalant."
Crowley took a deep breath, rubbing at his eyes behind his glasses. "Here, let me try something." He held out a hand. "May I?"
Even more confused, Azirapahle put his hand in Crowley's and suddenly found himself pulled into his arms. Crowley chuckled and started to sway to the chorus, guiding Aziraphale into something close to a box step. "It's not too fast for you? The music."
Aziraphale could see himself reflected in Crowley's glasses, wide-eyed and spellbound. "N-no, it's fine but I don't know that anyone danced like this in the sixties," he replied with a laugh.
"Have personal experience, do you?" Crowley teased quietly as he led Aziraphale away in a spin, then pulled him back to rotate underneath his arm.
"I resent that implication! I'm not any older than you are! And don't tell me the camera's picking up on my laugh lines, I know you just miracle them all out anyway with that editing software."
Crowley spun him around one last time, then wiggled away, hips swaying. "Not the issue here, angel. Don't overthink it. Don't think about making a nice picture, don't think about the camera, just think about the dancing. Concentrate on how this feels, and let it come through your pose so I feel what you feel on the other side of the camera."
Aziraphale's steps faltered a little as Crowley disappeared into the dimness behind the lights, but he tried to retain that feeling from when Crowley had first grasped his hand, that dizzy blur of the lights as they spun. He also knew that the sooner he gave Crowley the kind of look he wanted, the sooner he could get out of this outfit, so he closed his eyes for a moment, swaying to an imaginary beat. He thought back to the day before, waiting for Crowley to arrive, seeing him that first time at the club. Maybe that was the kind of thing he meant; that anticipation of wanting to be pulled onto the tiny dance floor under the muted lights and weaving around to music that seemed to play just for them, but remaining aloof, not to seem too eager. The pose made more sense, his frame fell more naturally into it, and when Azirapahle opened his eyes again, he looked out to where Crowely would be and hit it dead on.
"That's it," Crowley said happily. "Perfect."
"Does that mean we can have lunch, now?" Aziraphale asked desperately.
"If you can give me that look again, but in the blue suit, we can call it a day, angel."
The rest of the shoot went much more smoothly and they discovered the charming little bistro did excellent things to oysters.
Later, Aziraphale let out a tired sigh as he loosened his tie and sat heavily on the little couch in his hotel room. "You know, you could have warned me this was such hard work. You didn't yell at Newt nearly so much."
"Newt is a trained professional who's learned how to put up with me," Crowley replied, pouring each of them a nightcap and flopping into the chair opposite. "I must say, though, you are learning a lot quicker than he did."
"Well, I haven't had much choice. We've hardly had a moment apart."
"You don't have to spend so much time with me. I should call the desk, get your room changed."
Aziraphale sat up hastily. "No, no - I mean, I don't mind. I just don't want you to have to spend so much time with me."
"I've told you, angel. I don't go out. Actually, you're doing me a favor. If I spend with you, it prevents Ann from setting me up on some awful blind date."
"Yes, she may have mentioned." Aziraphale cleared his throat, suppressing a teasing smile. "Bit old fashioned of you."
"There's nothing wrong with being old fashioned," Crowley said haughtily.
"Practically from the stone age, you are."
Crowley scoffed. "You're one to talk, Mr. Tartan Bow Tie. Dressed like you tumbled through a charity shop." He collected his legs and leaned over to Aziraphale to tug at the fabric. It was softer than he had expected, telling him that this particular tie was a favorite.
"Tartan is stylish! And what about you, Mr. Fashionable. What is this anyway?" Aziraphale pulled gently at the silvery mesh tie-scarf-thing that Crowley liked to accessorize with. It was cool under his fingers, but his face was growing increasingly hot. Whether from the wine, or Crowley being so close, he couldn't tell, and didn't really care. He tugged a little harder, bringing Crowley's face closer.
"Angel," Crowley growled warningly. "We shouldn't."
"Why not?" Aziraphale had gone a bit breathless. "Don't you want to?"
"That's not the point. The point is - we still have to work together. I've been down that road before and it's never pretty." He leaned back, slipping out of reach with a regretful sigh. "Let's just stick to dinner, angel."
They didn't talk about changing the rooms again, but they did keep going to dinner.
"Don't look so happy," Crowley called from the top of the steps. Aziraphale was standing below on the walkway beside the Seine looking very dandy in a frock coat and breeches. Crowley had convinced the makeup artist not to give him sideburns, but it had been a near thing.
"You wanted me to be happy yesterday."
"That was yesterday. Now I want you to be serious."
Aziraphale sighed. "I feel like I'm in a BBC drama. Should I throw myself into the river in a fit of pique?"
"We'll see," Crowley said. Aziraphale glared up at him and Crowley snapped a picture. "That's great, angel, but a little less scowly and more stoically resigned."
"Now you're just putting words together! Stoically resigned," he grumbled mockingly. "What does that even mean?"
"It means you arranged to meet someone here at the park but you've been waiting all day and they haven't shown. You're upset, but maybe it's for the best. Maybe you're better off apart, even if it hurts so you've determined to be strong in the face of your heartbreak and return to your life, resigned to loneliness, but stoically, because it's eighteen seventy something and you're the best dressed man in the city."
Crowley watched that little furrow appear as Aziraphale drew his brows together, a sure sign he was overthinking the scenario and wished he hadn't given him such a bleak motivation. Crowley didn't know what was going through his head but when Aziraphale had set his jaw and looked out over the water and the light had hit him in just the right way, Crowley was so impressed he almost forgot to take the picture.
"You know, if you ever want to give up books, you'd make one hell of an actor. You actually looked really gutted for a moment there."
Aziraphale blinked, so deep in thought he had forgotten about Crowley for a moment. "Oh! Did I do all right?"
Crowley nodded. "You're getting better, angel. We might even get two outfits in tomorrow. That should make Tracy happy. Now, can I tempt you to some crepes?"
Aziraphale wiggled out of the coat happily. "Temptation accomplished," he said, grinning. The way Aziraphale's eyes lit up eagerly made something warm bloom in Crowley's chest.
They had resolved, as friends, that talking about work was not allowed on their dinner dates. (Not that they were dates they would insist, privately). Crowley learned, quite by accident, that Aziraphale had a wicked sense of humor and was not above a bawdy joke so he devoted a considerable amount of time trying to out-bawd him and make him laugh. He liked Aziraphale's laugh and liked that it was so easy to laugh with him. Crowley hadn't really laughed in a long time. Crowley realized that he wanted Aziraphale to like him, really like him and not just his money or connections. Following in the heels of that thought was the fear that he had forgotten how to be himself away from all the glitz and glamor, the person he was in the darkroom. Still, he was determined to try.
Aziraphale learned more about classic rock and classic cars than he ever expected. He also wasn't expecting Crowley to want to know more about him or his book collections, but he listened and asked questions, genuinely interested. He learned Crowley liked fine wine and actually knew quite a lot about vineyards and gardening. Aziraphale suspected that, if he had to give up photography, Crowley would take up horticulture. He also had beautiful hands, that Aziraphale spent entirely too much time thinking about in the early hours of the morning.
They were taking longer and longer to say goodnight. And it was getting more difficult to pretend that they were simply friends.
"The Bastille?" Aziraphale raised his eyebrows incredulously. "Isn't that a little gauche?"
"Take it up with Duval. He designed this one especially for the send-off."
Aziraphale glanced down at the bespoke creation of silk and lace he wore. He looked terribly out of place in the dirty little cell that had been fabricated for the shoot, complete with manacles. "Still, I don't know if the Revolution is the kind of thing that should be in a fashion magazine. Isn't that sort of what the whole thing was about in the first place?"
"You're thinking too much, angel. Just give me a look that says - "
"Let me guess. I'm an aristocrat arrested for the crime of being fashionable and am awaiting execution hoping that I can escape when the revolutionaries break the door in?" He situated himself primly on the little stool, clasping his manacled hands together and sighing wistfully. "Oh, woe is me! If only some dashing young revolutionary would free me from my horrible fate!" He pressed a hand dramatically to his forehead. Crowley laughed.
"You've outgrown me. Okay, maybe the romance is being laid on a little thick, but that pose was good. Do that again."
Aziraphale tried, but the manacle had gotten stuck in the lace ruffles. "Oh, damn! Help me, Crowley."
Telling Aziraphale to keep still, he carefully eased the delicate lace out of the catch. "I know I haven't been saying it, but you look great in these clothes, angel. Even the polyester. Not many people can pull that look off."
Crowley was kneeling very close. Aziraphale knew he could see him blushing. "Thank you for saying so. I hope I haven't been a disappointment."
"You've been perfect, Aziraphale. I mean it." Crowley squeezed his hand briefly but all too quickly pulled away. He was always the one pulling away.
"Crowley?" Aziraphale's gentle voice broke into his thoughts. Belatedly, he realized Aziraphale had been trying to get his attention.
"Sorry, miles away."
"Would you care for dessert, dear?"
"Oh. Um, no, thanks, not really a fan of sweets." The dear he had heard finally caught up with his brain and he flushed. When had Aziraphale started calling him dear? Since when did anyone call him dear?
"Then I shan't either."
"You can if you want. This place is Michelin rated. Be a shame to miss out on that." If he didn't, that meant the evening was over.
Aziraphale bit his lip, but Crowley knew he had already decided. They lingered for a while in the silence between the end of the meal and the decision to go home. Aziraphale seemed content, replete even, and it made Crowley glad to see. He wanted the moment to last a little longer, but the candles were being blown out and the chairs turned up on the tables, so he got to his feet and held out a hand. Next thing he knew, they were walking arm in arm back to the hotel.
"Crowley, I've been meaning to ask you something. What happens after this?"
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm going to sleep," Crowley said lightly, only half joking.
Aziraphale chuckled. "No, I mean after the announcement. After we're -- once the arrangement is over."
"Oh." Crowley let his arm slide from Azirapahle's and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Well, once the press conference is done, your contract is done and you can do what you like. You can stay here and hang around with your philosopher friends."
"What about you?" Aziraphale asked, meaning us.
Crowley let out a noncommittal breath. "I suppose i go back to London and pack up my darkroom. Write Ann a nice letter of recommendation. Slide quietly into retirement?"
"Will - " Aziraphale paused, biting his lip.
Crowley stopped walking to look at him. "What is it, angel?"
"Will we see each other again?"
Under the streetlamp, Aziraphale's expression was clear, vulnerable, hopeful, a little afraid. Crowley removed his glasses so Aziraphale could see his eyes when he answered.
"Would you want to? See me?"
"Oh, yes." Aziraphale put one hand to Crowley's chest, a mirror of the other that clutched over his own heart. "If you'd like to."
Crowley covered Azirapahle's hand with both of his, pressing it firmly to his erratic heartbeat. "Angel, there is nothing I would like more. But only -- and please don't be offended when I say this -- only if you never, ever model again."
Aziraphale's eyes widened a little, then crinkled at the corners as he started to laugh. "That I can definitely promise, my dear."
Crowley took his hand, holding like he had no intention of letting go. "Well then, in that case I don't think you'll be able to get rid of me."
Aziraphale let his head fall lightly onto Crowley's shoulder as they walked and though their pace had slowed nearly to a crawl, they still came to the hotel much too soon.
It was the end of the last day of shooting. Everyone else had been sent over to help with setup for the fashion show the next day which was just as well because nothing seemed to be going right.
"Head up a little more. Look wistful, it's your wedding day."
Aziraphale dutifully tipped his chin up, but it was wobbling. Crowley lowered the camera. "Wistful, not sad, angel."
"I just feel so false, pretending like this."
"You didn't have any trouble pretending you were in the Bastille the other day."
"That's different. It's our last day together and -- it's just different." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, forgetting that he shouldn't muss it.
Crowley tipped his head thoughtfully. "It is the last day, so we should make it count, right? You're dressed to the nines in a great tux, surrounded by flowers, nice sunset, waiting for the love of your life to walk down that path. It's the happiest day of your life so can you at least try to smize a little?"
"Smize?!" Aziraphale cried.
"Yeah. Smile, but just with your eyes."
Aziraphale stared at him, mouth working as he tried to formulate an understanding of whatever Crowley was talking about. "What does that mean?!" he exclaimed desperately. "You keep telling me to look this way or look that way and I have idea what you're talking about!" He kicked out at one of the decorative pots, sending silk flowers everywhere. It felt good, so he did it again with the other one. Crowley sat back on his heels and watched.
"Finished?" he asked mildly.
"NO!" Aziraphale started pacing around, waving his hands in agitation. "You are brilliant at what you do, but you are absolutely horrible at explaining what you want. I don't know anyone puts up with you."
"Angel," Crowley said patiently, but Aziraphale ignored him.
"You sweep into my shop, whisk me away to Pairs, where I have been poked and prodded all week, parading around in these ridiculous clothes like some -- some kind of -- performing monkey!"
"Angel ... "
"And I have put up with all of it because I like being here in this city and modeling for you, and having you look at me the way you do, and I don't want to go back to being a boring old bookseller because I love you, even if you don't love me back and -- "
"What?" he said sharply. He had just been getting into a good tirade and hadn't noticed Crowley put down his camera.
Crowley took his face firmly but gently in his hands. "For somebody so smart, you really can be dense sometimes. Of course I love you."
"You do?" Aziraphale gasped.
"Yes, angel, I do." Crowley chuckled, and started laughing, which made Aziraphale start laughing, leaning into Crowley's chest to catch his breath.
"May I kiss you, angel?" Crowley murmured into his curls.
Aziraphale looked up, gently removing Crowley's glasses so he could see him properly. The setting sun caught in his honeyed eyes and copper hair like a halo, and Aziraphale thought he understood what Crowley had seen that afternoon at the bookshop. "I rather wish you would, my dear."
So he did.
For the first time that week, there had been no need for the conversation to end or for lingering goodbyes at the door. After hours of imaging what they could do together now that Crowley was finished with Quality, when he had said goodnight, it was whispered in the shell of Aziraphale's ear as he drifted off to sleep in Crowley's arms. When he woke, he found Crowley quietly thanking room service.
"Sorry, angel, I wanted to surprise you. Got you breakfast, all your favorites." Crowley placed the tray across Aziraphale's lap and snuck in a quick kiss. "I've got to go over to the printers and pick up the books."
Aziraphale's little yawn turned into a pout. "I am ready for all this to be over."
Crowley smiled as he pulled on his jacket. "It's one more day. Now, I'll be back to pick you up about eleven for the press conference. Don't forget to change." He pointed to the garment bag hanging on the bathroom door. Aziraphale rolled his eyes.
"I won't. I still think I should be able to wear my own clothes," he muttered to his toast. Tracy had been sure to impress upon him the importance of dressing well for the show that evening. He was still a Quality employee, so he needed to make a good impression, especially on the press. Crowley pressed another kiss on his forehead.
"It's not that bad. And I'm rather eager to see you in it." He winked on his way out the door, leaving Aziraphale to contemplate just what sort of outfit Crowley had picked out for him.
He expected some kind of suit but found a pair of closely tailored trousers with a deep red shirt and a sport coat that looked embossed with a pattern that shimmered a bit in the light. Upon closer inspection, he found it was meant to resemble snakeskin. It was very chic, very expensive, and very unlike anything Aziraphale would have chosen for himself. Still, it was hardly the most ridiculous thing he had worn that week.
Trying it all on, Aziraphale struck a few poses in the mirror, hearing Crowley's voice at the back of his mind telling him to purse his lips, find the light with his cheekbones. He turned up the collar of the jacket and to his surprise found it lined in a contrasting fabric. Tartan. Crowley did find a way to let him wear a bit of his old self, but with the clothes on and hair styled, Aziraphale thought he didn't look like himself at all. He looked like someone who belonged at a fashion show, not a bookshop.
He looked like Crowley.
A week ago he had said that fashion was frivolous but he had gained an appreciation for the well made clothes he had worn throughout the week. Now, he was wearing the very clothes he would have scoffed at for being too expensive. He had modeled even though he had once thought it demeaning, and hated every minute, but thrived on Crowley's attention. Attention which he surely would not have if he'd stayed at the shop. He had dined at fine restaurants, at the best tables because Crowley had snapped his fingers and made it happen. He had enjoyed all the benefits of fame by association, participating the the very lifestyle Gabriel derided in all his books. Aziraphale had barely given a thought to Gabriel all week despite being here expressly to meet him. Was he becoming selfish, vain? Had he given up on empathicalism all together? Was he really going to spend the whole press conference pretending to be someone he wasn't? And after that, how long was he going to keep pretending?
With a little sigh, Aziraphale headed down to the lobby to wait for Crowley, joining two women in the lift.
"Did you remember the book?" one asked the other.
"Of course I did!" Her friend was gripping one of Gabriel's best sellers so tightly, Aziraphale feared she may crush the spine.
"Excuse me, are you by chance empathicalists?"
They women exchanged a glace. "You could say that," the first said with a little giggle.
"We just saw on Gabriel's news feed that he's doing a pop up book signing at the cafe around the corner." Both women squealed excitedly.
"Gabriel's here? Now?"
"Better hurry if you want to get in line!" the one with the book said, running out of the lift almost before the doors had opened all the way. Aziraphale bit his lip. Crowley was on his way to take him to the press conference, but this could be his best chance to meet Gabriel at last. And the cafe was only up the street, a few minutes wouldn't make much difference. He texted Crowley, telling him to pick him up at the cafe instead.
Gabriel was much taller than Aziraphale had imagined, an effect perhaps accentuated in the small cafe where Gabriel's white turtleneck set off his sleek dark hair and drew the crowd like a beacon through the darkness. Aziraphale joined the long line twisting back to the small stage where Gabriel waited, flanked by two security people. It wasn't until he got to the front that he realized he had nothing for Gabriel to sign, but that didn't stop Gabriel from giving him a glowing, perfect smile and asking his name.
"I'm terribly sorry," Aziraphale stammered after introducing himself, feeling a little starstruck. "I thought you'd be older. Well, not older, I've seen your pictures obviously, just -- more professorial." He laughed nervously.
"I get that a lot," Gabriel said. His voice was deep and rich, unexpectedly American.
"I'm afraid I don't have anything for you to sign. I came all the way from Soho just to meet you and here I am wasting your time."
Gabriel looked him up and down carefully. He signaled to his guards and they moved to announce that the signing was over. Ignoring the collective groan from the crowd, Gabriel motioned for Aziraphale to join him at a table. "Let's have a chat then, Aziraphale. Since you've come all this way just to see me, I'd hate for you to be disappointed."
Delighted to have the chance to talk to his idol about his favorite subject, Aziraphale didn't even notice when a few minutes turned into ten, then fifteen. It was all going wonderfully until Crowley burst in, giving him a strange sense of deja vu.
"Crowley! You'll never guess who this is."
"I have a pretty good idea, thanks. Why are you here? Wait, don't tell me you were discussing empathicalism." Crowley glared at Gabriel. "I hate to throw a wet blanket on things, but we have somewhere to be. Come on, angel."
Aziraphale stayed where he was. "Gabriel would like to talk to me. You don't need me at the press conference. I'll just come for the show announcement."
"No, you're coming with me now. The arrangement still stands for a few more hours."
Gabriel interjected with another Hollywood smile. "It's all right, you're busy. I don't want to keep you but if you change your mind, Aziraphale" - he pointedly ignored Crowley - "I'm having a little party tonight. I'd love to continue our conversation."
Aziraphale thanked him, then shoved past Crowley without a second glance. "We were having a conversation!" he fumed once they were outside. "The only reason I went through all this nonsense was so I could meet him and now I'm not allowed to talk to him?"
"Not if he looks at you like that!"
"Crowley," Aziraphale said slowly. "Are you jealous?"
"Ngk - No!" Crowley crossed his arms. "Like I'd be jealous of that poncy, knockoff wearing playboy."
"He's nothing of the sort. He is a public speaker who values insight from his fellow philosophers. He's interested in intellect, not appearance."
Crowley scoffed. "He's about as interested in your intellect as I am. Do you think he'd look twice at you if you weren't dressed like that?" The moment he started to say it, he knew it was going to come out wrong.
Aziraphale's eyes narrowed. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"I didn't - Look, he may be the greatest philosopher since whoever, but he's still a man and believe me, a man like that only wants one thing."
"When you put it that way, he sounds an awful lot like you." Aziraphale straightened his spine and tried to tug at his waistcoat before remembering he wasn't wearing it. "Well, I am certainly glad we figured all this out now, before I made even more of a fool of myself!" He spun on his heels and started to walk away.
"Angel," Crowley called. "I'm sorry! Let me make it up to you! Forget the press conference, we can go to lunch instead. Just us."
"There is no 'us,' Crowley! There never was. We're too different. I never belonged in your world. " Aziraphale shook his head sadly. "You've always cared more about your magazine than my philosophy. You can dress me up all you like, but that won't change who I am."
"I didn't want to change you. I wanted you to change me." Crowley tried to reach for him, but Aziraphale backed away. "I thought you could help me be better than who I used to be, but maybe I was wrong. Your empathy has been a little one sided, lately. There are people depending on you, angel. Tracy, Ann, Duval - are you going to walk away from all of them now? For Gabriel?"
Aziraphale looked at Crowley feeling like he was being torn in two. He just couldn't find the words to explain that he couldn't compromise on his beliefs, even if he wanted to. "I am going back to where I belong, with people who understand me," he said quietly. "Please send everyone my apologies, but out arrangement is over."
Crowley wavered, his face crumpled in pain like Aziraphale had told him they were mortal enemies. Passerby were staring, and surely more than a few were documenting the breakup of one A.J.C. and his muse, but all Crowley wanted was to take back whatever he'd said, go back to that morning when they were happy and talking about the future. When Aziraphale stood his ground, Crowley realized there wasn't anything he could say to make this better, so he might as well make it worse. "Fine. Go, go and be with your professor and I'll go back to being a greedy, selfish, image-obsessed bastard. There are plenty of models out there, angel. I can get on just fine without you."
He got back in the car, even though he knew he was making a very big mistake, and drove off, leaving Aziraphale behind. He considered finding the nearest bar and drowning his sorrows, but he'd been down that road before and it hadn't been pretty or particularly helpful. He'd already thrown one good thing away, the least he could do was try to salvage the last good thing about his career.
He made it to the press conference with seconds to spare and, for better or worse, was saved from having to explain where Aziraphale was by the press. They had already seen the pictures circulating social media (even beating Ann to the punch, which was impressive because she seemed to know everything) and the news of Quality's retirement was now intrinsically tied to the news that -- not only had Crowley and Aziraphale been in a relationship -- but that relationship had ended spectacularly hours before the public announcement. He managed to field the questions somehow, and Tracy got the conversation back onto the topic of the magazine's illustrious history and how that history was coming to a gracious close. Not for the first time, Crowley was glad he had adopted the sunglasses inside look because that was all that saved him from looking like a brokenhearted fool in front of every major news publication.
It did not, however, prevent Tracy from seeing right through his performance.
"What was that about you and Aziraphale? We're from the fashion world, Crowley, cold and unfeeling! How could you possibly be in love?"
Crowley shrugged. "I guess I'm just a black sheep."
"Can't you kiss and make up? At least get him to come to the show."
"He won't want to talk to me."
Tracy considered that. "Well, maybe he'll talk to me. I'm not emotionally invested. Where is this party?"
Ann worked some kind of magic on her phone and found the address. "An evening of international philosophy, poetry, song, and meditation," she read. "Sounds fun."
"There's no point," Crowley muttered. "They'd never let in a pair of hostile vibrations like us."
"Then we'll just have to look like a pair of friendly vibrations!" Tracy made a couple of calls and in less than an hour, had pulled together the most philosophical outfits she could. Being that Aziraphale was the only philosopher she knew, they were both variations on baggy and beige. Crowley was beginning to get excited about the idea of crashing Gabriel's pretentious party and wooing Aziraphale back with some kind of grand gesture. He even swapped out his shades for a pair of clear lenses and completed the look with a mustache.
"You look like Freud," Tracy complained, adjusting her beret. "You must have problems with your mother."
Crowley insisted it wasn't that bad. Besides, he pointed out, if they couldn't lick 'em, they might as well join 'em.
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."
Thank you for reading, everyone! This was a very specific idea that has been rolling around in my head for a year and I'm so happy that I've been able to present it to you!
Thanks also to gingerhaole. Your lovely art was an inspiration! This is what they're wearing at the end, btw