|GO Fic: Some Assembly Required (Pt. 2)
||[Aug. 2nd, 2012|06:59 pm]
(she lives between pages)
Title: Some Assembly Required (Part 2 / 2; Part 1 is here.)
Pairing/Characters: Aziraphale/Crowley, Ensemble Cast (i.e. just about everybody)
Notes: This is the next substantial piece fitting into Crown of Thorns 'Verse. Once I'd established that Adam and Sophia were aiming to marry in Spring 2013, katarzi raised the issue of Pippa finding out Aziraphale and Crowley aren't married, as such, and all of the interesting havoc that might result, because, well, she fancies herself Aziraphale's BFF these days. This story really did start out with an eye toward humor, and it does and will contain plenty, but there are emotional threads and themes still trailing from The Beach Botanist's Survival Guide (and even as far back as What to Do When the Clock Just Stops) that have become relevant and resolve here.
Summary: Even the best-laid wedding plans come at a price for those invited.
Raphael shifted in his seat, staring off into the distance, Uriel's head heavy on his shoulder. The train ride out of London had been tiresome enough, but twenty minutes by cab on top of it was ludicrous. How sleep came so easily to her, he had no clue.
He'd never admit it to Aziraphale's face, the smug bastard, but the English countryside was sickeningly pretty. They'd paid a visit to the cottage three years ago—a belated housewarming, of course Uriel had insisted—and his impressions had been much the same. They'd passed a very quiet week between London and the new homestead, during which time Uriel had pestered Aziraphale persistently about their human friends and neighbors. She'd been rewarded with little more than a brief walk-about and a survey of Pippa's garden while the good lady herself and the husband had been out (rather stalkerish on Aziraphale's part, Raphael had thought, although he'd enjoyed watching Crowley quietly blow a gasket while he waited in the car).
Things were different now, though; Raphael could sense it.
Was one word with that stupid boy really all it took?
"The one called Home, you said?" asked the driver. "Not too far off. Always thought that was clever, meself. The Morrisons, now, they call theirs The Shambles."
"It's twee, is what it is," Raphael replied. "Isn't that your turn of phrase? Twee?"
The driver grinned at Raphael's reflection in the rearview mirror.
"That's right, lad. You'll do well enough out here."
"Sweetheart," Raphael murmured, shaking Uriel awake. "Almost showtime."
Uriel groaned and kicked his shin. "No shows, okay?" she yawned.
"Nonsense. If I don't make a scene, I'll never live it down."
"Make a scene and I'll go stay with Pippa, just see if I won't."
"You don't actually know her yet," Raphael chided.
"Well, I feel like I do," Uriel insisted, rubbing her eyes.
"Everybody knows Pippa," the driver reassured them, already slowing.
Twenty pounds sterling, plus tip. Raphael stuffed his wallet into his back pocket and let Uriel bully their luggage through the front gate, idly surveying his surroundings.
The faint salt-taste of the air clung to his lips and bit the back of his throat, and it was at times like this that he had to admit breathing was one of his guilty pleasures. He dashed to catch up with Uriel, wrestling one of the heavy suitcases away from her. The front walk was neatly kept cobblestone; the flower beds running along each side boasted a riot of tasteful, muted shades. Crowley's patience knew no bounds, he realized, upon counting no fewer than five varieties of hellebore all in full bloom.
Christmas rose indeed, he thought. So fond of Lenten trappings, this dour island.
Between the blossoms' fragrance and the effect of mingled dark purple, luminescent white, deep burgundy, pale green, and ethereal pink, his thesis was, perhaps, not the strongest argument he'd ever constructed. Uriel was at the door, already knocking.
To Raphael's surprise, Crowley answered, peering owlishly out at them.
"You're early," he remarked, opening the door a fraction wider.
"Not really," Uriel said, tiredly smiling. "We're only just on time."
"Aziraphale's not here," Crowley said, accepting Uriel's embrace with much more ease than he had on previous occasions. "He's gone up the road to have a chat with Pippa about decorations. I don't know about you," he said in a low voice, holding the door while both of them filed through, "but I can't imagine how your lot get anything done. Committees and sub-committees and endless lists, and who knows what else..."
"You have my deepest, sincerest sympathies," Raphael offered, if only because, to his memory, working on even a minor project headed by Aziraphale had, back in the day, been nothing short of career suicide. "How are you holding up, darling?"
Crowley busied himself with clearing breakfast off the coffee table.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he said. "Tea, anyone? Cappuccino?"
Uriel collapsed on the white leather sofa, sighing blissfully at the ceiling.
"Anything with caffeine in it, seriously," she said. "I'm game."
"Whatever you're having," said Raphael, absently, abandoning his suitcase next to the sofa. His eyes had already lit on the mantelpiece, which, although it had been a hot mess of ephemera even three years ago, was just mesmerizing in the scope of its beach-plucked contents. Was that a fountain-pen nib next to the piece of eight?
"Don't touch that," said Crowley, turning in the kitchen doorway. "It's platinum."
Raphael withdrew his hand, sighing, and went to join Uriel on the sofa.
The machine in the kitchen made a horrible racket, but the espresso was, in fact, heavenly. Crowley sat across from them in the tartan armchair that he no doubt pretended to hate, but secretly loved for the fact that he could curl up in it just like he was doing now with his bare toes wiggling against the arm-rest. He was much more at ease in his own home, and, Raphael was shocked to discover, a charming host.
"You flew San Francisco to London direct? Whooo-eee," he remarked. "Brave."
"Convenient," Raphael countered, peering into the dregs of his tiny, fashionable white cup. It was really more of a Turkish coffee than an espresso, and the sediment had more than enough punch for Uriel's taste. At least they'd be up all night together.
"Look at us all," said Crowley. "So tame we can't be bothered to do anything the old-fashioned way. It's a good job they don't keep tabs on that sort of thing anymore."
"I don't know about you, but a flight that long fucks my wings right up," Uriel said.
"She's too lazy to keep after them," Raphael explained. "I have to do it for her. She hates ironing, too. When was the last time you met somebody who based their clothes-shopping decisions on whether or not stuff will wrinkle in the wash?"
"Everybody hates ironing," said Crowley, downing the rest of his coffee. "Biscuits?"
"Those chocolate ones?" asked Uriel, hopefully. "Please."
Between the three of them, they'd cleared two and a half packets by the time Aziraphale got home. Sometime since their arrival, it had begun to rain; Aziraphale shrugged out of his camel-hair coat and propped his umbrella against the door.
"Fairy lights," he lamented, turning as he hung his coat on one of the charmingly old-fashioned hooks affixed to the wall. "White, blue, and purple fairy lights all through the house and in the tent and good gracious, where are my manners? Hallo."
"That's assuming you ever had them?" asked Uriel, bouncing to her feet. "Hey!"
Crowley sank lower in the armchair, stuffing half a biscuit in his mouth.
"She'll regret it," he muttered. "Has she even met the bride?"
"Manners are overrated," Raphael said, leaning to embrace Aziraphale once he'd managed to peel Uriel's arms from around his neck. "You're a wedding planner now?"
"It's not what you think," said Aziraphale, huffily. "Surely Crowley explained—"
"It's okay," Uriel said, flopping on the sofa. "I'd have done the same. Possibly."
Raphael sat back down beside her and took away her espresso cup.
"See?" Aziraphale said, stepping close to the armchair. "Entertaining's not so bad."
Crowley glowered at him, but it was halfhearted at best, and the biscuit crumbs stuck to the corner of his mouth really did nothing to bolster his credibility. Aziraphale crouched next to him, resting one damp arm on Crowley's drawn-up knees.
"Anathema's coming tomorrow," said Crowley. "She rang after you left. Woke me up."
"To inspect the beach, I suppose," Aziraphale replied. "Is she bringing the girls?"
"What d'you think? Yes. All three of them. If you don't lock the bedroom, I'll—"
Raphael continued to watch, fascinated, as Aziraphale leaned and brushed away the crumbs. Crowley unfolded his limbs and tilted his head into the touch, closing his eyes as Aziraphale pressed a kiss there instead. The tableau lasted all of a quarter-second, and still Raphael was sure he'd never forget it. It came to them so easily, didn't it?
"Good morning, my dear," said Aziraphale, as if he'd forgotten they weren't alone.
Uriel nudged Raphael in the ribs, surreptitiously inclining her head at them.
"You could learn a thing or two," she said.
* * *
Crowley handed Uriel the spade, pointing beneath the bush's low-hanging branches.
"There's an exposed root. No matter what I do, it keeps poking back up. Maybe it'll listen to you. I've tried heaping on more soil, but clearly the air's preferable."
Uriel tapped the root with the flat of the spade, clucking her tongue.
"Listen, dude. Behave your spiky self, or I won't be responsible for the consequences."
"Sure, defer back to me," Crowley said. "Since that's been going so well."
Uriel stuck the spade point-first in the dirt, heaped a handful over the root, and brushed her hands off. "Oh, I wasn't," she reassured him. "The stupid thing'll die of blight if you don't get blooms in time for next Saturday. Geez. Only a week."
Crowley reached out and touched the tightly curled tips of one branch. More new leaves. He thought idly of the tea bushes they'd managed to cultivate at Tregothnan.
"Bit harsh, don't you think? Blight?"
"Whatever you say," Uriel replied, nudging him with a grin. "Come on," she said, tugging him up. "I want to hear what they're saying down there. Sounds lively."
"If shrieking teenagers are your thing," sighed Crowley, and followed.
It was cool and windy for mid-morning. Uriel took his arm as they strolled down the sandy stretch toward the three figures locked in heated debate on the tide-line.
Anathema glanced sidelong and spared them an isn't-he-hopeless kind of smile, and, having known Aziraphale all too well for far too long, both of them returned it.
"I assure you there isn't any problem," Aziraphale was saying. "Locals do stroll by on occasion, but I'm sure they wouldn't dream of interfering with the ceremony."
"They can stop and watch if they want," Sophia said, hugging herself against the chill. "I don't mind. I think it'd be sweet if some random passer-by caught the bouquet."
Crowley hunched closer to Uriel; it was making him cold, just looking at her.
"Do you want strangers recording you on their smart-phones?" Anathema countered.
"Depends on how the dress looks," Raphael offered, strolling up behind Aziraphale with the twins eagerly trailing after him. The three of them were barefoot, shivering, and more than half soaked. Crowley wondered if they'd gone as far as the tide-pools.
"It would look great if we could get the zip up," said Natalie. "Gotta lose an inch, sis."
"Oi, shut up," Janet told her. "It was just the once. We'd all had a big lunch."
Sophia winked at Janet. "Guess who gets to carry my train?"
"We'll both do it," said Natalie, petulantly. "Jesus, sorry."
Crowley wriggled free of Uriel's arm, broke from the circle, and waded into the surf.
Human family politics were hellishly complicated, but being party to such exchanges never ceased to amaze him. How did they switch from love to enmity to annoyance back to love, often all in the same breath? Why didn't they take more care with each other, knowing that nothing is permanent? And why, in the end, did it not seem to matter terribly much, as if blood actually had some inherent advantage over water?
"Let them fight it out," said Sophia, softly, wading out to stand beside him.
Crowley turned to look at her. "Why? I thought this was what you wanted."
"It is," she said. "This. The sea, the sky, and your good company. I don't give a toss otherwise; fairy lights make no difference to anyone but Pippa and Aziraphale, and anyway, that bit's more about them than about me. They're so determined."
"Careful," Crowley said, taking her arm, steadying them both against a wave that crashed against their knees. Sophia shrieked and clung to him, losing her balance.
They fell in the water fully clothed; Sophia was laughing madly. They had an audience by now, but, strangely, neither one of them cared. High tide stopped for no one. They sat waist-deep, hand in hand, letting the next wave crash over their heads.
Crowley fished his sunglasses out of the water and laughed with her.
* * *
Aziraphale left the driest of the four Device-Pulsifer women in the kitchen with Raphael, Uriel, and Pippa (she'd noticed the commotion from a distance and had driven up just in time to catch them at the house). He escorted Sophia to the bathroom and told her she ought to find whatever she needed in the cupboard. Hopefully he'd got her size right. She looked much healthier now than the last time he'd seen her. Shame on Natalie's wicked tongue; she was fine just as she was.
He crossed the hall and rapped on the bedroom door.
"Crowley, how are you getting on? Pippa's asking after you."
He made a noncommittal noise that sounded like it was muffled in a pillow.
Aziraphale opened the door and slipped inside, found him curled up naked under the woven cotton throw that they kept folded at the foot of the bed. His wet clothes were in a pile on the floor. Aziraphale sat down on the edge of the bed, reaching to stroke Crowley's exposed shoulder. His skin prickled: dry now, but rough with residual salt.
"Too much exposure, I see," Aziraphale said, stretching out beside him. "Guests, weather, and otherwise." He untangled the blanket and reached underneath, pulling Crowley against him. Novel, almost, feeling every exposed contour of him through this many layers of clothing; Crowley's breath hitched a little as he pushed against the teasing fabric of Aziraphale's rucked-up shirt and badly wrinkled trousers.
Guiltily, Aziraphale encouraged him; for heaven's sake, they had company, and he could hear Sophia running hot water from the tap. Crowley whimpered as Aziraphale shoved his trousers down just far enough to let skin touch skin.
"Oh, oh God," Crowley moaned, coming no sooner than he'd got in half a dozen helpless thrusts against Aziraphale's hip. "Sssorry, oh, I really have no idea what I thought—why did you have to do that, somebody's lisssstening, angel, I just know—"
Aziraphale kissed him, biting down hard on Crowley's lower lip as they shook against each other. "Get dressed," he said after a moment, when breathing seemed easier.
"Speak for yourself," said Crowley, untangling himself from Aziraphale and the throw. "Just a quick zip-up for you, very convenient. Where the devil are my pants?"
Aziraphale got him presentable and out the door just as Sophia was emerging from the bathroom. She hung back against the wall and winked, letting them pass by first.
"Oh Lord," Crowley muttered under his breath. "They're all just wrong, these kids."
"Off you go, all dry," Aziraphale said, leaving him beside the sofa, which was already populated by Uriel, Raphael, and Pippa. Anathema sat reading in the armchair, and the twins lay sprawled on the floor, both absorbed in their elaborate mobile phones.
The kitchen was warm and quiet, and Aziraphale soaked it in gratefully.
They had enough mugs to go around, although the real conundrum was making something that would suit everybody. He wasn't in any mood to take individual orders; he readied the tea-tray on autopilot. One look at Crowley and he'd wanted them all gone, had wanted time and space and leisure enough to shut out the world beyond these four walls and what he could never seem to hold for long enough.
Something wasn't right, and Aziraphale hadn't caught wind of it till that morning.
Raphael and Uriel could be secretive, but the wordless argument he'd walked in on at dawn had left them frozen and staring at him for at least ten seconds before Raphael shot off his mouth in a cover-up attempt. He'd caught Gabriel and What do we do if...
What indeed. Instead of pushing it, Aziraphale had gone to make breakfast.
Pippa shuffled into the kitchen just as the water came to a boil, watching Aziraphale drop a bag of Yorkshire Gold into each one of the mugs. She carefully took hold of two mugs as soon as he filled them, but she didn't return to the living room.
"They make him uneasy, you know," she said.
"Yes," said Aziraphale, thinly, filling the remaining cups. "I had noticed."
"That Uriel, she's a lovely girl, but I can't quite..." Pippa trailed off, setting the two mugs back down on the tray. She leaned against the work-top and folded her arms, fixing Aziraphale with a reproachful look. "Rafe's always mocking Crowley somehow, I just know it, and that's about the worst hypocrisy I can imagine, come to think—"
"Philippa, enough," said Aziraphale, returning the kettle to its coil. "What is it?"
"Marry him, you sodding idiot," Pippa snapped.
With that, she took one cup off the tray, sloshed it down next to Aziraphale, picked up the rest with difficulty, and wobbled back into the living room. The sound of eight voices dipping in and out of animated conversation was warm, familiar, and inviting.
Aziraphale wandered over to the sink, peering out the window at the gathering fog.
Neither the mouse, nor Crowley turned up, so he drank his tea alone.
* * *
Adam shifted uncomfortably on his milk crate. It was well past dusk, and he'd been waiting for the better part of half an hour for the others to show. As many things as had changed in the past twenty-two years, this, at least, hadn't. He hated waiting.
Also, they didn't make milk crates as big as they used to. Shame, really.
"What a tosser," Pepper said, striding over the rise and into plain view. She wore black trousers, sensible boots, and a charcoal pea-coat that blended almost perfectly with the descending dusk. "Sitting there all alone in the dark, brooding on your last week of freedom," she added, thunking two six-packs of Bulmers Red Apple down at his feet. "Do you know how hard it is to find this stuff? It was a limited edition two or three years ago. Well? What have you got to say for yourself?" She kicked the toe of his trainer and pulled up one of the three remaining milk crates. It creaked under her.
"You're late," he told her, grinning. "That's what."
Pepper removed her beret and hit him with it, and then pulled a bottle opener out of her pocket. "Might as well get started," she said. "You can't count on Brian to be punctual for shite these days, and Wen's working late again. I got out of the city just in time, missed the traffic. Cheers," she added, handing him an open bottle.
"I resent that statement," Brian said, strolling up behind Pepper. He mussed her hair, which didn't make much difference, because it was short and feathery and artfully mussed to begin with. "Annie still doesn't like you lot. Thinks you're a bad influence."
"Oh, right," Pepper said. "Me—the responsible university lecturer—a bad influence!"
"Adam's a bad influence," Brian said, teetering on his milk crate, which was split along one seam. "Here we are, mate, you and me: thirty-three and still working odd jobs for sod-all. Lucky thing we found us some bright, ambitious ladies, innit?"
Pepper didn't look the least bit amused. Her beret hit him next.
"Is that hello from Katerina?" Brian asked, plucking the hat off his shoulder.
"No. Hello from Katerina has a lot more syllables and, in your case, some Russian swears thrown in. And maybe a bucket of paint chucked along with 'em."
Adam cleared his throat. "How're you two holding up, Pep?"
"Couldn't say," Pepper sighed, resting her chin in her hands. "I'm working long hours at the uni, she's putting in long hours at the studio, and, between one thing and the next, we're only ever home at the same time for three hours out of any given day."
"That's nonsense," Wensleydale said from a short distance off, his brown-bagged armful a comforting rattle. "It's all down to scheduling," he said, producing a six-pack of London Pride Porter and two bottles of Jack Daniel's from the bag. "That's what Liz and I do, anyway. Coordinate. Sure, go on and laugh, but it really works."
Brian wiped his eyes and reached for a bottle of London Pride.
"Still got that bottle opener, Pep?"
"Not if that's how you're asking."
"For fuck's sake. Please."
Pepper handed it over, and Wensleydale politely waited his turn.
Adam thought it was time they got things started, even though there hadn't ever been a plan beyond this: the first of them to get married would have a bachelor's party here, at the Airbase, for old times' sake. Though they'd all been with their respective partners for a few years at least, Adam reached the altar ahead of them.
"Well, thanks for coming," he said, and the rest of them fell silent.
After a few moments of awkward silence and deep drinks all around, Pepper said, "Of course we came. We always were good at keeping promises, so here we are."
"I can only stay for two hours," said Wensleydale. "I've got to go in early tomorrow."
"Oh, bollocks," said Brian. "We'll stay all night if that's what you want."
"I don't know about all night," Pepper said, "but as late as I can, sure."
Inexplicably—or maybe it was the cider going to his head by way of his empty stomach; he couldn't be sure—Adam started to laugh. By the time he'd been laughing for about thirty seconds straight and ended up wheezing on the ground, his bottle unceremoniously up-ended, Pepper was kneeling beside him and Wensleydale was leaning over her shoulder wearing a look of pinched concern. Brian stayed where he was, quietly alternating sips of porter with sips of Jack Daniel's.
"Are you sleeping well?" Pepper asked, tilting his chin up so she could peer into his eyes with the mini-torch on her keychain. "Stressed? Not having second thoughts about marrying Sophia, are you? If you are, you've got another thing coming. She's absolutely lovely, and I'll kick your sorry arse if it's anything like that, so help me."
Wensleydale helped Pepper settle him back on his milk crate. Adam didn't protest.
"Nothing like that," he said, gesturing to Brian, who handed him the Jack Daniel's. He took a long swig, savored the burn of it going down. "I never imagined this, to tell you the truth. I'm nothing special, and she's everything special. How does that happen?"
Pepper leaned over and ruffled his hair, taking the bottle away from him.
"Love's a fucking sneaky bastard," she said, and took a drink. "That's how."
"Did you ever notice," said Brian, "how we kind of turned out to be matchmakers?"
Wensleydale frowned at him and said, "Explain?"
"When we were kids," Brian continued. "D'you remember all those people we met when there was a spot of bother down here, all that cops and robbers business that probably had something to do with national security or America's trigger-happy president, or MI6 and the FBI or whatever? Not them, I mean. The nice people. That cranky Mr. Shadwell married Madame Whatserface, and those odd gents with the vintage car who you neglected to mention were your godfathers shacked up, and..."
"Anathema and Newt," said Pepper to Adam, fondly. "Look at where that's got you."
Adam closed his eyes and pretended to be processing all of this, but the truth was, he'd processed it long ago. Let them think they'd been involved in some big, romantic star-crossing, sure—it was better that way. Let them never know that he was the one who'd messed people about without realizing what the consequences would be.
Let them never know the exquisite agony of a love that was a direct consequence of his meddling. He'd got what he deserved for his hand in it all, that was for sure.
Sophia was everything: his Woman Clothed With the Sun, everything and all.
And as for the others—oh, the others. Had he done right by them, he wondered?
"Adam," said Pepper, quietly, touching his shoulder.
"You okay, mate?" Brian asked, his bleary smile uncertain.
Wensleydale put his hand on Adam's other shoulder, squeezing tightly.
"You were the only ones I couldn't touch," said Adam. "The only ones safe."
"Cor, is he that drunk already?" Brian asked, finishing off the Jack Daniel's.
Pepper yanked the bottle away from him and tossed it over her shoulder.
It smashed on the unforgiving chalk scree, making them all jump.
"If you think you somehow bollocksed things up for all those other people just by getting in the middle of things," Wensleydale offered, still reasonably sober, "I doubt that's anywhere near the truth. It's all one big happy accident. That's life."
"Happy," Adam said. "There's the rub. I hope they are. I hope we'll be."
"Pffft!" Pepper said. "Look at you two," she said. "It's like...I don't know. Cupid and Psyche. No, wait, worse—Zeus and Hera. Maybe? I don't know. Don't attempt mythology whilst drunk is the moral of this story, but my point is—"
The point is the dolphins, Adam thought, and then shook himself. No. That was somebody else's intoxicated thought, somebody else's mind, somebody else's fairytale that he'd glimpsed in the making and had perhaps even helped wish into being.
"Your point is rubbish," Brian said, starting on a bottle of cider.
Red Apple, Adam thought. Yes. It always started with one of those.
"Hey," Wensleydale said, shifting from his milk crate onto the ground next to Adam's. "Penny for your thoughts? You're getting married seven days from now. We'll all pile into Pep's car and turn up on your godfathers' doorstep, and it'll be ace."
How did that song go? The wolf is getting married, and he'll never cry again—
"I'm not sorry, though, is the strange part," Adam said, grinning at each one in turn.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Pepper insisted. "C'mon. Let's drink."
Never sorry, he thought, accepting another bottle of cider. Not in the least.
* * *
"Shadwell at twelve o'clock," Crowley hissed to Mandy in passing. "Look sharp!"
In retrospect, Crowley's prediction that it wouldn't be as elaborate an affair as it had sounded had been proved an outright lie. Between Adam's childhood friends and one of their significant others, the bride's parents and the groom's parents and all of their siblings, plus Shadwell and Tracy and the Archangels and Pippa and Harold...
It was all they could do to bloody well keep up.
"Aye, aye," Mandy said, putting on a come-hither smile.
Shadwell muttered something about painted Jezebels; Madame Tracy beamed at her.
Takes one to know one, Crowley thought, offering his tray to the man beside him.
"How very kind," said Mr. Young, faintly puzzled. "What's this?"
"Gougères," replied Crowley, distractedly. "Er. Puff pastry filled with Mornay sauce."
"Terribly exotic, Dierdre," he told his wife, handing her one first. "That girl."
"Sophia, you mean?" Crowley asked, stepping away. "Perfectly nice, if you ask me."
He dodged his way out the back door and into the garden, somewhat relieved to see that Pippa had cornered Raphael and Uriel into what sounded like a lengthy explanation of how they had got together. They were having an awfully hard time putting together a human-friendly story from the sound of things.
"There won't be any more of these coming out of the oven, so stuff your face while you can," Crowley told them, thrusting the tray into their midst. "I'm going to have to evacuate the kitchen. The bride, her sisters, the groom, and the erstwhile Tadfield brats have got it in their heads that it's some kind of VIP lounge."
"You could go into catering," Pippa raved, licking her fingers. "You really could."
"No more for me," Raphael said, waving Crowley off. "I've had at least a dozen."
"Don't forget the prawns Mandy's taking around," Uriel said, stuffing another gougère in her mouth. "Mmmh. Crowley, you could make a killing in Los Angeles."
"I'm looking for Aziraphale," Crowley said, scanning the yard. "Have you seen him?"
"Something about a faulty strand of lights out front, last time I checked," said Pippa.
Crowley passed the tray off to her and cut around the side of the cottage.
Aziraphale was sitting on the front steps, an incongruously casual pose for as finely as he was dressed (and Crowley had seen to that), smoking his pipe. The number of times Crowley had ever caught him in the act, counting now, amounted to twice.
"We could just agree to make an evening of it now and then," Crowley said, taking a seat beside him. Aziraphale blew a puff of smoke and handed Crowley the pipe.
"Just as long as you don't mean another one of these blessed affairs," he said.
Crowley took a few puffs and sighed, tasting apricot and clove.
"I don't know how you can claim not to like my cigarettes."
"I don't know how you can claim pipes aren't fashionable."
They passed the pipe back and forth until its embers burned low.
Aziraphale tilted his head so that it almost, but not quite, rested on Crowley's shoulder. Crowley tilted his head so that it rested against the top of Aziraphale's.
"The best man's getting anxious. She thinks the bride and groom need a run-through."
"She?" asked Aziraphale, with a frown in his voice.
"Yeah," Crowley said. "Pepper's Adam's best man. Where have you been?"
"Heaven knows," replied Aziraphale, shrugging. "What about the bridesmaids?"
"The twins make it all up as they go along. They'll be fine."
"That young man with dubious certification...?" Aziraphale asked.
"Wensleydale has been vetted by the Universal Life Church website," Crowley said.
"I thought that was only legally binding in America?"
"They don't give a damn," Crowley said. "If it's not binding, they'll sort it out later." He turned his head and breathed in the scent of Aziraphale's hair: pipe smoke and dew, plenty of fresh worry. Cream cake, maybe, if he closed his eyes tightly enough.
"My dear," said Aziraphale, almost inaudibly. "Have I done wrong by you?"
"Not unless you've got another dove up your sleeve," Crowley said. "Don't think so."
Aziraphale took hold of Crowley's left hand and pressed it between his palms.
"Pippa's got it in her head that I ought to marry you, and I think she may be right."
Crowley frowned into Aziraphale's hair. "But it would be superfluous," he said.
"I know, dear boy," Aziraphale said, and did something peculiar with his right index finger along the underside of Crowley's left ring finger. "But doubt's a funny thing.
At first, Crowley's skin tingled; after a few seconds, it burned. He pulled free.
"Ow! What are you playing a—oh," said Crowley, blinking at his hand. "Oh."
"Uriel has a better knack for finding lost objects than I do," Aziraphale explained, eyes lowered. "Comes of all that Dominion Over the Souls of Men business. If humans have loved something enough to pour a piece of their soul into the crafting..."
Crowley stared at the gold signet ring set with a piece of carnelian glass. The features moulded into the oval setting were much worse for wear now, less distinct than he remembered them. He'd bought the ring secondhand from a street vendor; he hadn't even known whose likeness the glass bore, only that it had fascinated him to know someone had been devoted enough to commemorate a loved one's face and wear it.
Gently waving hair and a calm, constant profile worn by centuries of care.
It could have been anyone, but now, there was no one else it could be.
They kissed for even longer than it had taken them to share the pipe.
Somebody finally sent Pippa after them, because the ceremony was about to start.
"We'd best get out there," she said, ignoring the fact that Crowley couldn't look her straight in the eye and that it was taking Aziraphale far too long to adjust his collar. "They'd never forgive you if you missed it, and all for a quick snog, at that!"
Crowley trailed after her, contrite but giddy, and Aziraphale wasn't far behind.
Ironically, the whole affair took roughly fifteen minutes. There wasn't any faffing about with lengthy vows, so standing on the wind-buffeted sand wasn't too taxing on the more elderly persons in attendance. Behind Crowley, the father of the bride was in silent, dignified tears; to his right, Pippa sniffled into her lace handkerchief and Harold kept nudging her arm. Up front, beside Adam, Pepper had on a brave face—perhaps too brave. Janet and Natalie stood on either side of her, tall and serene in matching green gowns; they held hellebore bouquets. Crowley had never seen them so still.
As Wensleydale proclaimed that Sophia could now kiss the groom, Crowley noticed a flash of bright pink petals behind her ear. He searched the small crowd for Uriel and found her standing behind Shadwell and Tracy. She met his eyes and nodded.
That was a relief, at least. He couldn't very well risk the spread of blight.
While everyone else applauded the kiss, Crowley stood motionless, Aziraphale's hand clasped in his. And while none of it made the complex politics of human family relations any clearer, it was an entrancing tableau nonetheless. And breathtaking.
Afterward, Mandy served cocktails in the living room for anyone who wanted them.
Pippa, Harold, Shadwell, Tracy, and the parents were eager to file in and get off their feet—except for Anathema, who lingered outside to serve as DJ on her laptop while everyone who was left over danced. Or stood on the sidelines and watched everyone else dance. Uriel tried to convince Raphael it'd be fun, but he preferred to smoke.
The twins badgered Adam and Sophia into choosing a slow number first.
"Oh, unbelievable," Uriel muttered into her glass of wine as, barefoot, the newlyweds took to the sand. "I swear, you get sick of this one in my line of work. Humans get funny about it, especially dead film-buffs. What's that movie called? Ghost."
Crowley snatched the pipe away from Aziraphale and stuck it between his teeth.
"I don't know," he said. "I never minded it. There are worse songs."
"Righteous Brothers," Raphael agreed. "You can't go wrong."
"It's very pretty," said Aziraphale. "I'm not sure I've heard it."
Uriel set her glass on the sand, where it tipped over, and then spent five minutes wheedling Raphael. "Look, everyone else is out there," she told him. "Adam and Sophia! Pepper and the pretty Russian girl! Brian and Wensleydale have each got one of the twins, and I bet their girlfriends are going to be sorry they didn't come!"
Raphael shook his head and lit another cigarette. "Later," he promised.
"Fine," Uriel said, offering her hand to Crowley instead. "Dance with me."
Crowley smiled at her, but Aziraphale was watching him with the kind of quiet hunger that suggested making a fool of himself would, later on, pay off in spades.
"Shall we?" he asked the angel, setting the pipe beside Uriel's glass.
"I thought you'd never ask," said Aziraphale, rising, and pulled him to his feet.
* * *
Aziraphale woke just before dawn, finding that the window was obscured from his line of sight by Crowley's dark, tousled head. He tasted smoke and brine in the curve of Crowley's neck and could feel a few grains of sand, gritty beneath the sole of his foot, still stuck to Crowley's calf. They'd never danced before last night. Remarkable.
Crowley sighed in his sleep as Aziraphale slipped free of both him and the covers.
Aziraphale looked in on Uriel and Raphael on his way through the living room.
Crowley didn't like the sofa functioning as a pull-out, but he'd been considerably friendlier to the idea this time around. Raphael snored, wrapped tightly around Uriel's slight form. His unfurled wings very nearly obscured them both.
By the time he reached the front door, Aziraphale was fully dressed.
He walked the shore alone for much the same reason Crowley did, although he rarely found himself searching intently unless he knew there was something Crowley wanted.
This was for clearing his thoughts, for reflecting on what had transpired the day before. And there it was again, huddled in the corner of his mind: doubt.
But not about Crowley, never again about Crowley for as long as they had left.
He'd fight anyone to the death if it meant they would get to dance again.
The air just ahead of him shimmered and tore, red with warning.
"That's what you wanted to hear," Aziraphale said. "What you've been waiting for."
Michael stood directly in Aziraphale's path, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Gabriel said I wouldn't be disappointed. For once, the fuss-budget was right."
"Who put you up to this, I wonder?" Aziraphale mused. "Orders from Gabriel are not, as such, Orders. You've both experienced a great deal of frustration in the past twenty-odd years. What a disappointment, all of that time and effort—"
"You've grown clever," Michael said. "The Metatron made such outlandish claims about your verbal prowess that I thought there'd been some mistake. Aziraphale the ditherer? Aziraphale of the endless lists? You couldn't even keep order in the Garden, it was said, which was why you deserved to stay. Cast out for a time, as it were, doomed to wander. Put to the same test as mortals. Do you think you've passed?"
Aziraphale smiled at him sadly, taking in the dark hair and even darker eyes, the flawless burnished armor. He still looked every inch the consummate soldier-saint.
"I'm afraid that's not for you to decide," he told Michael. "It never was."
The Archangel's perfect demeanor twisted and cracked in a scowl.
"Surely you know this isn't business," he seethed. "It's personal."
And suddenly it all fell into place: France in the autumn, remembrance of things past.
"Ah, I see," Aziraphale said. "You convinced Gabriel to keep the trace running. To make spies of them. Wouldn't it have been easier to come yourself to begin with?"
"Crossing you is a risk, old man," said Michael, "and everyone knows it."
"What, Aziraphale the ditherer? Shall I slay you with lists?"
"It's what you've become. You are not what you once were."
"Then what am I now?" Aziraphale asked, carefully slipping his hands in his coat pockets. There was no miraculous dagger forthcoming, not even a poisoned dart to throw. He looked Michael up and down and weighed his odds. They weren't good.
"No better than the monster you lie with," replied Michael, and drew his sword.
What happened next was fuzzy, although Aziraphale realized the tide was up to their ankles only when it bubbled and seethed to boiling with the force Crowley must have used to manifest, directly from bedroom to garden shed to shore, poised exactly between Aziraphale and Michael with the previous resident's rusty scythe in hand.
"You never did play fair, did you?" said Crowley, breathing hard. "So they say."
"Although the gesture is largely meaningless now," said Michael, "I'll find it satisfying to know that this task, however long overdue, didn't go unaccomplished. Shall I give you a fair chance, wretched Adversary? Do you even know how to fight?"
Once his wits returned, Aziraphale couldn't feel anything but raw terror and the sense that if he didn't do something quickly, he wouldn't get the chance to do either killing or dancing. He raced forward and grabbed Crowley from behind, one arm tight across his chest and the other on his wrist, creeping up to get a grip on the scythe.
"Angel, what d'you think you're doing? This isn't—"
Aziraphale's fingers found purchase between Crowley's, wrapping around the handle.
The dull, decrepit curved blade erupted in an arc of blue flame.
Stunned, Crowley let go; Aziraphale pushed him down in the surf and shielded him.
"Shouldn't have let them in," Crowley hissed, disbelieving. "I should never..."
In Aziraphale's peripheral vision, Uriel advanced from the right with her bow at the ready. Raphael flanked him to the left, his pollaxe trained—well, on Aziraphale.
Crowley's fingers twisted in Aziraphale's soaked trouser legs, tight with anguish.
"Stay where you are," said Uriel, her tone strangely neutral. "What a lovely reunion."
"Entirely charming," Raphael agreed, edging closer to Michael. "Do the honors?"
Michael shrugged, lowering his sword. "Wouldn't you rather have a bit of fun first?"
"Arrows aren't exactly sporting material," Uriel said. "Swift. No time for a tease."
Crowley, I'm sorry, thought Aziraphale, and stood his ground with the scythe extended at arms' length, waiting. Whatever comes of this, we'll share the same fate.
"Go on," Michael said, nodding to Raphael. "Do you even remember how to use that?"
Raphael grinned: companionable, but cold.
He took one step closer to Michael, as if to embrace him briefly, and then—
"Stay where you are," he gritted out, sinking the pollaxe into Michael's breastplate, using it to yank him off balance. Michael went down face-first in the surf, sputtering.
Uriel cleared the remaining distance in just a few strides, crouching so that her arrow was level with Michael's sopping, slightly raised head. If she fired, he was done for.
"Now I remember why you guys were no fun to hang out with," Crowley said, sagging against Aziraphale's shins. "No sense of humor whatsoever." He was soaked now, shivering with the swells that were threatening to cover Michael entirely.
Aziraphale dropped the scythe and sank down beside him, taking hold of whatever part of Crowley he could reach, which was, admittedly, just about all of him. Crowley stiffened—only briefly, thank goodness—and then clung to him, utterly exhausted.
"You're a fucking idiot," Uriel said, using her arrow to indicate that Michael should let go of his sword. Raphael hauled him to his feet and roughly dislodged the pollaxe.
"Are you going to get out of here?" Raphael asked. "Or shall we escort you back?"
"Just like the old days," Uriel chided, lowering her bow. She returned the arrow to her quiver with a flourish. "All bloodied up after a street brawl. You never could hold your liquor on the odd weekend down here, but seriously, dude, you're not even drunk."
Michael glared at her, scrubbing at his sand-burned cheek.
"If you think the manner in which you conduct yourselves is dignified—"
"Dignity's kind of uncool these days," Raphael said. "It's more about being yourself."
Aziraphale wanted to say something clever, but he knew he was outclassed.
"Can we go now?" asked Crowley, resting his chin on Aziraphale's shoulder.
Michael was studying the demon with something akin to confusion.
"When the scythe transformed," he said, "you were touching it. You should've been..."
Crowley's eyes went wide. "Vaporized on the spot? Quite possibly. Huh."
They regarded each other warily, and then both of them looked at Aziraphale.
"If you think I've got any idea, then you'll be sorely disappointed."
Raphael and Uriel each took one of Michael's arms.
"He got laid off," Uriel said. "Long story. Would you like to hear it on the way back?"
"Who keeps the keys to lock-up these days?" Raphael asked him.
"That won't be necessary," Michael insisted, struggling in their combined grasp.
"It looked an awful lot like disturbing the peace to me," Crowley remarked.
Uriel shaded her eyes and stared up at the clouds, which were luminous with sunrise.
"I'm so not looking forward to this," she said. "Unless I get to punch Gabriel."
"We'll see, darling," Raphael said, flexing his wings. "Are you all finished here?"
Michael gave a curt nod, but his eyes never once left Crowley.
"I'll call you when we get home," Uriel said. "You owe me a dance," she added, and winked at Crowley. "I can think of at least a dozen ways to make you pay up."
Before Crowley could respond, liquid-gold lightning cracked the sky and lit the horizon from end to end. His wings unfurled a fraction of a second behind Aziraphale's, attemping to shield them from the blowback. They ended up in a sprawl on the sand, and the next breaker wasn't far behind. Crowley's sodden wings flopped uselessly.
Aziraphale regained his footing first, helping Crowley to his feet.
"Indoors, my dear," he said, adjusting Crowley's ring, which had swiveled around on his finger. He drew Crowley's knuckles up to his lips, kissed them, and studied Crowley's drawn, apprehensive face. "Get some tea and decent hot breakfast in you."
"Did you see it coming, angel?" asked Crowley.
"No," admitted Aziraphale, sighing. "Not by a long shot."
"Do you think it'll happen again?" Crowley pressed, wincing as they made their way up the beach with arms slung about each other's shoulders. "If that was more than just a divine temper tantrum on time-delay, we're in trouble. Totally screwed, even."
"I doubt it," said Aziraphale, "but if he so much as tries, I'll run him through."
"With a scythe?" asked Crowley, with a wry sidelong smile. "Difficult."
"His head makes for a fine target," Aziraphale said, coaxing him through the garden gate and up to the back porch. "What a mess they've left," he said, glancing about.
"Humans tend to do that," said Crowley, holding the door open for him.
"With a little bit of help," Aziraphale replied, and followed him in.
—Extra: Beginners' Archaeology—