|New CoT: Always the Bridesmaid, Part 1
||[Apr. 15th, 2013|12:01 am]
(lives between pages)
Title: Always the Bridesmaid (Part 1 / 3)
Pairings & Characters: Aziraphale/Crowley, Adam/Sophia, Mandy/Iván, Raphael/Uriel, Pippa & Robert (the cute grandson), Shadwell/Tracy (they will show up in this story), Anathema/Newt (Newt will get screen-time beyond mere mention), Janet & Natalie (the twins), Dagon/Tanith, Hastur & Ligur (they're still confused)
Rating: NC-17 (for this installment definitely, and probably the rest)
Word Count: 8,000 (for this part so far)
Notes: This full-length story is CoT 'Verse #28 (#31 by AO3 version chapter-reckoning). The wedding in this story is undoubtedly the most keenly awaited since Adam and Sophia tied the knot, so, as per Pippa's constant urging, let's get on with it.
Summary: Sometimes the best plans of all are plans left (mostly) unmade.
Sophia squinted at the dust-mote flecked sunlight streaming in through the bathroom window, yawning as she did her best to keep her robe from coming apart. The toilet seat was cold, as were the glazed tiles beneath her feet, and she could see through the frosted-glass shower door that the twins' collection of shampoo bottles had escaped the caddy again. Not picking up your bath shit anymore, Sophia thought.
Sophia flushed the toilet, washed her hands, and wandered into the living room. Not even marriage had broken her habit of spending one weekend a month at home. Her parents insisted that, where the twins were concerned, her influence was sorely needed. In Sophia's view, whether it helped or hindered was a different matter.
Anathema had been all too glad to keep Sophia's bedroom as it was, although Natalie tended to use it more than half the time because she insisted that Janet had a snoring problem. From the look of things, Sophia was the only one awake. The new job had turned her into something of an early riser, which for Adam was a source of endless amusement. Sighing, she lifted a pile of books off the sofa. She peered just inside the cover of the top one, completely unsurprised to find Aziraphale's bookplate.
The kitchen table, as it turned out, was a similar disaster: there were several piles of books, each one taller than the stack balanced perilously in her arms. Two notebooks and three coffee cups indicated that her parents had made a late night of it; she dumped the books in her arms next to her mother's notebook and carried the mugs over to the sink. Two had held coffee, one had contained green tea. She wasn't sure how her father could stand to drink both substances at once, but to each his own.
The kitchen light came on while she was rinsing the mugs under scalding water.
"My daughter the early bird," said a low, sleepy voice behind her, just a beat ahead of the lanky arm that pulled her into a shoulder-crushing hug. "Sleep well, Soph?"
"Yeah, Dad," Sophia sighed, unable to hide her grin. "Just fine. You?"
Newt yawned and ruffled her hair, flicking several gossamer strands straight into her eyes. Irritably, Sophia shrugged him off and brushed the fly-away nuisances back into place. She'd got her father's woefully fine hair, and although hers was thicker than his, she was paranoid that it would one day wear just as thin. She turned the mugs upside-down in the dish rack and turned around just in time to see her bath-robed mother, who was clearly displeased, shuffling and shifting the piles of books.
"Why did you bring these in here? I needed them in the living room."
"No, Mum, you didn't. Those four had been sitting there for six weeks. You've done exactly sod-all with them, the same with the ones at the far end of the table."
"Don't you know better than to cross her?" Newt whispered wryly in her ear, and then went to fetch two of the three mugs she'd just rinsed. "Dearest wife," he added, in louder, more assertive tones, "the cleverest of our clever girls does have a point."
"Oi! Dad, you suck," said Natalie, who stood mostly naked in the doorway and was fiercely rubbing her eyes. "Somebody open the drapes. It's still too dark in here."
"Where's Janet?" Sophia asked, putting the kettle on. "Did she come home last night?"
"No," Natalie yawned. "She was too drunk to leave Mandy's place. We put her on the sofa with a bin handy and left her some water and paracetamol on the coffee table."
"Why didn't you stay with her?" Anathema chided, still inscrutably sorting the books.
"Because I'm always the one who has to take care of her! Let Mandy do it for once. Maybe Iván knows some kind of miracle Spanish back-country mumbo jumbo cure."
"That's uncharitable of you, sweetheart," Newt said, eyes shifting between them.
"Nat, everybody, please shut up," Sophia sighed. "What do you want, tea or coffee?"
"Every woman for herself," Anathema said. "Every man, too. There's no agreement in this house. Just fetch the teapot and the French press. It's a veritable free-for-all."
It's all downhill since I left home, thought Sophia, wistfully fond of them all.
They all had English Breakfast except for Anathema, who'd opted for some Ethiopia Sidamo. Janet's job at Starbucks meant a free bag of coffee per week, and the backlog, in Sophia's estimation, was getting ugly. There was no room in the tea cupboard; it seemed wrong that so many sacks of roasted beans were to blame.
"Let me take some of that stuff over to the cottage," Sophia suggested, pointing to her mother's mug. "Aziraphale makes himself coffee all the time with that hilariously out-of-date contraption in the kitchen. I think he'd really appreciate it."
"Janet's the one you should be asking," said Natalie, peevishly, which indicated that she was more hung-over than she was willing to let on. So much for saving face.
"Janet doesn't drink it," said Newt, flipping the page of his newspaper. "It's fine with me if it's fine by your mother. Take some of those books back while you're at it."
"I'm not finished with them!" Anathema protested. "But, yes, take the coffee."
"You're finished with some of them, dear," Newt said dryly. "Those six-weekers, for instance. Like company, books often long outstay their welcome."
Something in his tone made Sophia dead certain she knew what he meant.
"Fine," Anathema said. "Next time you're headed over there, take those four books, but only those four, and get at least three quarters of that coffee out of my sight."
Natalie was giving Sophia her best you-sodding-goody-two-shoes look.
"I have no plans for today, and I've got Adam's car here. I think I will."
"Can I go, too?" Natalie asked sweetly. "I want to feed those ducks."
"Dental appointments," Anathema reminded her. "You and me, two o'clock."
"Balls," Natalie sulked. "Feed them for me, and take pictures. They're getting big!"
Sophia rose and took her mug over to the sink, hastily drinking the rest of her tea on the way. She'd shower and grab a wholegrain bagel for the road. She'd had more than enough of her family for one day, and it was only seven o'clock in the morning.
If she missed the traffic and got creative with the speed limit, she could make it to the cottage in two hours. Crowley could drive it in under two, the flash bastard.
"Drive safe," Newt told her, leaning to place his own mug in the sink.
It took Sophia two hours and fifteen minutes to reach her destination, so she was somewhat tetchy by the time she pulled up and parked behind the Bentley in the cottage drive. Three raps on the door produced no result, so she leaned hard on the doorbell. Finally, at the end of her tether, she fished her key-ring out of her handbag and let herself in. As far as she knew, Pippa held the only other spare key.
"Aziraphale?" she called, drifting awkwardly through the kitchen with her armful of books and a plastic Tesco bag full of coffee. She was pretty certain Crowley must be somewhere, probably out in the garden with the ducks, as his transport was very much in evidence. She set Aziraphale's books down on the table and left the coffee beside Crowley's espresso machine, which in truth she'd never seen Crowley use and was sure he left it to Aziraphale on account of not liking anything that gave off so much steam. "Anybody there? Crowley? Don't tell me I made the drive for nothing."
A pair of beady eyes peered at her from the hallway and quickly scampered off.
"You guys have mice," she said wearily, following the tiny, dark four-footed streak to no avail. She passed the bedroom door, peered into the bathroom, glanced out the window, and then backtracked. The bedroom door was closed; she glanced at her watch. Eleven thirty-four. If Crowley was home and wasn't in the garden, he'd be...
She turned the doorknob with tense, exacting care. It made hardly any sound.
The bed was empty, covers rucked every which way, except for the pillow on the side nearest the door—nearest to her—where a rather unremarkable medium-sized grass snake lay coiled and basking in a sunbeam that filtered in lazily between the curtains.
Sophia stared at this curious scene for all of three seconds before she realized what she was looking at. To know a thing was different from seeing it, she'd always found: usually the wiser path, and infinitely safer. That didn't prevent her from approaching the bed, for her sense of wonder had always outweighed her tendency toward fear.
"The devil hath power," she quoted, almost in a whisper, "to assume a pleasing shape." The patterned back-scales were smooth beneath her fingertips, shining. "I just never dreamed that shape was a garden-variety Natrix natrix helvetica," she added, by then on the verge of delighted laughter, "and I bet Prince Hamlet didn't, either."
Sophia backpedaled with a gasp, hit the wall full-force as the creature beneath her palm transformed, displacing everything in its immediate vicinity, herself included.
Crowley scrabbled at the bed-sheets, bewildered, not quite covering himself in time.
What a skinny thing you are, Sophia wanted to say, but she held her tongue. She only just managed to cover her mouth and think instead: But also very, very pretty.
"I thought you'd heard of that thing called knocking," Crowley said, sitting on the edge of the mattress with his arms folded and the sheet draped over everything from mid-thigh to bellybutton (and wrapped around behind). Unblinking, he glared at her.
"In my defense, I tried knocking," Sophia said. "You didn't answer the door."
"You've got a mobile," Crowley said, rubbing the left side of his neck, which drew Sophia's attention to several obvious marks there. "You could have called ahead."
"Get off my case," she snapped. "You gave me a fucking spare key, so I used it."
Crowley sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Well, there's one more feat of occult transformation out of the way. No need to worry about pulling that one in front of you should the need arise. Wings, check; scales, check. Let's see, am I missing anything?"
"Mum says you made your shoes appear out of nowhere one time," Sophia blurted.
"Oh, right," said Crowley, sarcastically, "clothes." And, just like that, he sat fully dressed on the edge of the bed, wearing a plain grey button-down twill collared shirt and that ridiculously expensive pair of jeans he'd got in Japan, which were breaking in beautifully. He was barefoot, which she'd seen before, but she'd never looked closely enough to notice that his toenails were composed of fine snake-scales that were now as translucent as human fingernails. She stared at his folded hands, transfixed.
"Do you somehow keep people from noticing that most of the time? Why don't you do it with your eyes? It would've been a lot less awkward than sunglasses. Hey, how in the world did you do it before sunglasses were invented? That's impressive."
"Ways and means," Crowley sighed, absently running his fingers through his hair, which was still badly mussed, and not just from sleep. "Masks and such. Hats with low brims. Counting on most humans being relatively unobservant, which they are."
"People notice your eyes all the time," said Sophia, taking a seat beside him. "I mean when you're not wearing the glasses, and some people are even startled or scared. You told me about that airline stewardess. Are modern humans more observant?"
"There's no such thing as a modern human," Crowley said, "and it's really just that I don't bother to count on it anymore. It was so much blessed effort all the time. Besides, I'm in retirement now, so why should I bother? Get back to me when you're this old and tell me if you feel like faffing with something as trivial as cosmetics."
"I only wear make-up on formal occasions," Sophia said. "But okay, fair point."
"Good morning," said Crowley, belatedly, offering her a sheepishly tired smile.
"Bed-head is a good look on you," Sophia told him, winking. "I'm just saying."
"Eggs!" said Crowley, blushing, and rose abruptly. "I've got duck-eggs coming out my ears. Do your parents want any? Pippa's threatening to pay me for them."
"We'll take some," Sophia said, joining him at the window. She squinted as he drew the curtains back, flooding the room with light. "Free-range. Mum will be happy."
"You're going to give me a bad name," Crowley sighed. "Come on," he said, grabbing her hand, and Sophia let herself be led briskly out of the bedroom.
"Oh, by the way, you've got mice," she told him. "I saw one in the hall."
"We've only got the one, and he's better behaved than the plants," Crowley replied.
"Ah," said Sophia, smirking as she let go of Crowley's hand. "So you let him stay?"
"Yes," Crowley said, sliding the patio door open to usher her out. "Besides, he was here before we were. Survived the previous resident's seven cats and Aziraphale."
"Look at my babies!" Sophia exclaimed, dropping down to her knees as six excitedly flapping ducks, all grown now, made straight for them. "Eve and Jude and hello sweetie-pie!" She scratched Lilith's chin and hustled all three ducks into her lap.
"Where'd you hide them today, then?" Crowley was asking Jemima, Tamar, and Ruth, who all hovered about his feet and fussed at him expectantly. Hands on hips, he shook his head gravely and strode into the shed with the other three ducks hot on his heels.
"Hide what?" Sophia called after him, tugging a bit of her hair out of Jude's bill.
"The eggs," Crowley shouted back. "Each one lays two or three eggs per day, and although I'm finding most of them, I've found evidence that some of the ones they leave outside the shed make a nice breakfast for foxes and the like. Hey, here's another one! Five so far, and, I'm telling you, you'll leave with at least a dozen."
"Always hungry," Sophia said to the ducks, and finally shooed them so she could assist Crowley in his search. They found a total of thirteen perfect, pale-greenish eggs.
"Funny things," Crowley said once they were back in the kitchen, carefully transferring their findings from his tin pail into an empty egg carton. "Mallard egg-shells, I mean. You don't get that color anywhere else. They're sort of a dull olive shade, really."
"They're lovely," Sophia agreed, and then paused. "Where's Aziraphale?"
"Down at the theater," Crowley said, shutting the carton. "Last night was opening."
"Did you go see it? You're not stepping in as Ariel till next weekend, right?"
"Right, and yes, I went," said Crowley, his tone somewhat grim. "So did the others."
"Still rough going, huh? And how are Uriel and Rafe finding that holiday cottage up the road? You must be fucking thrilled to have them out of your hair."
Crowley turned and gave her the most desperate look she could possibly imagine.
"You really have no idea. I thought I'd never have use of the living room again, much less my sofa. They left scratches in the leather. Scratches. You might as well stop smirking at me and take your smug teasing up the road to that property they've let, because I can tell you it's probably all sex, all the time, which is more than you'll find here. Don't look at me like that; you know it's true. A few marks on my neck and you're snickering like you're twelve, but have you seen Uriel's wrists and arms?"
"Shush," Sophia said, setting a hand on Crowley's shoulder. "I only meant to tease."
"Well, good for you," Crowley said, dumping the parcels of coffee out on the counter so he could place the carton of eggs inside the Tesco bag. He held it out to her.
"I only just got here," Sophia protested. "I'm not leaving this soon. You're going to tell me about how awful opening night was. Did Aziraphale manage to tone it down?"
Crowley sighed and took the empty kettle over to the sink. He filled it.
"And you're also going to tell me how the wedding plans are coming along."
Crowley stiffened, his hand lingering on the tap well after he'd turned it off.
"I'll tell you all you want to hear about the play, but don't ask about that."
"About the wedding? Why not? It's the middle of March now, so clock's ticking. I thought you guys were shooting for late April, just like Adam and I did last year."
Crowley put the kettle in its cradle and punched the button rather too hard.
"Something like that. We haven't fixed a date. As for the play, the local paper says this morning that Aziraphale's a competent and charming Prospero, if a bit stiff, and that the bloke playing Ariel steals the show. The lovers are fine. The rest of the retinue, not so much. The actor playing Sebastian thinks he's funny, but for a role that should be funny, that never works. It didn't work the first time this play was staged, take it from me. We've got a strong Caliban and an even better pair of fools following him about, so that's all right. The tech crew have got to get their act together."
Sophia stared at the steaming cup he set in front of her. The kettle hadn't boiled.
"I'll stay for tea and then be going," she said hesitantly, "unless you want me to come to the show with you tonight. I assume you're going again? Or not. Totally fine if not."
"If you wouldn't mind terribly," Crowley said, sounding relieved. "Leaving, I mean. Aziraphale will be home for a little while before he's got to go back for curtain-up."
Why on earth is something always wrong? thought Sophia, and sipped her tea.
"Crowley," she ventured softly, "I'm not like what you call most humans, am I?"
He bent down, eyes fierce with sudden tenderness, and kissed her forehead.
"Never," he said. "And you know bloody well that I'd have told you if you were."
* * *
Wrong, Aziraphale thought, painting over the patchy spot in the backdrop a second time. We had it all wrong. The pacing was off, entrances and exits weren't tight enough, and Ariel had acted circles around everyone (Crowley wouldn't take the stage for another week yet). He touched up a bare spot about the size of a pin-head. There.
He'd had a pleasant enough morning at home, of course. He hadn't gone for drinks after curtain-down the night before on account of Rani having left right away in order to keep a long-distance telephone rendezvous with a relative in Karachi. On the drive home, Crowley had been pleasant, if somewhat reserved in his commentary. They'd retired early and slept till eight, which was early rising for Crowley of a Saturday, but left Aziraphale a good two hours in which to make it up to him before returning to the theater to help with the touch-ups he was now finding miserably slow work.
Aziraphale's grip on the paintbrush faltered at the thought of Crowley flushed and responsive beneath him, inside him, not three hours before. He'd have drawn it out longer, he reflected, would have ridden Crowley more slowly if he'd been at leisure.
He sucked in his breath and licked a spot of paint off his thumbnail. The acrid taste brought back a memory equally as vivid and intimate: Crowley bent over him in the blue dusk outside Tadfield Manor, sunglasses having slid far enough down the bridge of his nose to reveal eyes far more concerned than he'd have ever let on.
Someone's hand fell on Aziraphale's shoulder. He cleared his throat, embarrassed.
“So that's what it's like when you're thinking with what's below the belt,” Rani said dryly. “Good to know. Might come in handy next time I catch you distracted.”
Aziraphale released the breath he'd been holding. “Your discretion leaves something to be desired, dear girl,” he said, somewhat huffily in spite of his best efforts to the contrary. “I admire your self-sufficiency and pride in being single, but please do try to understand what it's like for those of us with loved ones who want looking after.”
“With your idea of looking after,” Rani remarked, “he must want for nothing.” She studied Aziraphale's handiwork and shot him a dubious glance. “You must be preoccupied, poor lads, what with the wedding. You've waited an awfully long time.”
“We haven't set a date,” said Aziraphale, brushing the matter aside, “but it'll be soon, I don't doubt. You'll be among the first to know.” He sighed, studied the patch he'd been painting, and had to agree that repeating the same few strokes over and over hadn't done much good. “I wouldn't dream of leaving this unfinished. Let me fix it.”
“Are you kidding?” Rani asked, prying the paintbrush out of his hand. “Go home and spoil your Anthony. Don't you blush at me. Curtain-call's six o'clock, so look sharp!”
“Bless you,” Aziraphale said. He returned her warm, dry kiss to the cheek and fled.
Much though he normally enjoyed the walk, he called a cab and made it home in eight minutes instead of fifteen. He checked the garden first, but all he got for his trouble was a thorough tripping-up by six eager ducks. He gave each one of them a shred of hastily miracled croissant (still a guilty favorite they shared) and got enough of a lead to make it through the patio door without any of them following him inside.
Crowley was in the kitchen stirring something doughy and unpleasant-looking.
“I found this recipe online,” he explained, licking a bit of the stuff off his knuckle. “Too savory, damn! It's that thing you liked from the sweet-shop just a few streets away from our hotel in Kyoto, and I don't think the recipe's working the way it should—”
Aziraphale kissed him quiet and got one elegantly arched eyebrow for his trouble.
“Leave it for now. I'll have Pippa fetch us some mochi next time she's in Bristol.”
“Bad day on the set, I gather. Too many divas, not enough paintbrushes?”
“Crowley, by now I'd have expected much better. Don't be cruel; they're volunteers.”
“So are you, but somehow you get a free pass home for a few hours. How is that?”
“Rani understands that my obligations to you are, quite frankly, more important.”
“Meaning she caught you with your head in the—hmmmngh. Enough said.”
Copping a feel en route to the sofa wasn't the wisest move Aziraphale had ever made, as it resulted in Crowley going dead-weight and dragging him to the floor on the wrong side of the coffee table. The plush carpeting was finally set to prove its worth.
“Sophia stopped by,” Crowley panted, “with a load of your books and an ungodly amount of coffee.” He sighed and wished his shirt-buttons undone while Aziraphale was busy unfastening his trousers. “I don't know how you can stand the bent pages, angel. I spent forty-five minutes undoing some damage to that—gah, what—”
“I find both your reserve and your cookery devastatingly attractive,” Aziraphale told him, leaving the nipple he'd bent to tease with his teeth in favor of pinching the other between thumb and forefinger. “But I'd prefer to hear about your social call later.”
“Wh—why's that?” Crowley managed, his back arching involuntarily at the contact. “I like the fact that you've got a real mouth on you. You know. Um. Talkative.”
“I can think of a better use for it,” Aziraphale told him, and abandoned his efforts across Crowley's chest in favor of slipping one hand down the front of his shorts.
Crowley hissed, clutching at Aziraphale. Their remaining clothes vanished, leaving the progress of Aziraphale's hand no mystery to the observer (if they'd but had any).
“Except those are called fingers,” Crowley pointed out. “You're doing it wrong.”
Aziraphale gave Crowley's cock a firm, teasing twist and set his lips to the task.
“I don't know, dear boy,” he murmured against the tip. “We'll see about that.”
Although neither one of them said much for the next few minutes, the room was far from quiet. Aziraphale had come to ruthlessly enjoy Crowley's complete inability to stifle (in the crook of his arm or in the palm of Aziraphale's free hand, which he often dragged into place expressly for the purpose) the sounds he made, however hard he tried. Holding him still for more than a few minutes was similarly impossible.
With a groan, Aziraphale relented when Crowley pushed him off and up and shimmied his way down until their bodies fit together comfortably and their foreheads touched.
“Impossible to please,” Aziraphale gasped, kissing him hard. “What do you want?”
Crowley rolled them side by side and pressed against Aziraphale's sweat-slick hip.
“Just this,” he said tersely. “That and your hands pretty much everywhere.”
Breathlessly, Aziraphale obliged him. Easy enough, even in the thick of it, to stroke Crowley from neck to sides to buttocks to thighs and back again. He shuddered uncontrollably, whatever he was trying to say lost in the curve of Aziraphale's neck, his release spattering Aziraphale's belly, thighs, and the luxurious carpet besides.
There was nothing left to do but follow suit, and Aziraphale did.
"Excitable," he sighed, thoroughly sated, and kissed Crowley's cheek.
"Wound up," Crowley countered, leaning into it, "no small thanks to you."
Aziraphale let his hands rest at the small of Crowley's back, following his breath.
“Rani's after us for a date,” he said eventually. “Not just Pippa now, I'm afraid.”
“Add Sophia to the list,” Crowley muttered. “Look, all it'll take is ringing up the registrar two weeks in advance. Nagging harpies, the whole lot. We have time.”
Aziraphale pursed his lips, but he couldn't quite bring himself to respond.
Not that stalling wasn't characteristic of Crowley—in fact, he did it all the time, even in matters small and mundane—but in this particular case, it was puzzling and even slighly worrying. He'd been the one to insist on adding a layer of ceremony to vows that were, as far as Aziraphale was concerned, set in proverbial stone ages ago.
“There's the reception to consider, although I won't hear of fairy lights this time.”
“Then we'll have it catered,” Crowley replied, drowsy against Aziraphale's chest. “I'm not cooking for my own bloody wedding, and Mandy's a guest this time, not staff.”
"Are you coming to see the show tonight?" Aziraphale asked, mussing Crowley's hair.
"I'm afraid not," Crowley said. "Uriel's popping by for a Tribe marathon. She liked the episodes I showed her last week, and I think she fancies Bruce Parry. Or wants to determine what that tattoo on his arse is, at least. Google doesn't even know."
"You and your documentaries," Aziraphale sighed. "Perhaps I'll ring Raphael—"
"Unfortunately, Uriel's coming here because he's going over to tend one of Anathema's brats who got so intoxicated at Mandy's last night that she's plastered to the sofa."
"Oh dear," Aziraphale murmured. "Well, then, it's off to the pub for drinks with the cast afterward. Shall I text the location when I know it so the two of you can join us?"
"We'll see," said Crowley, and folded in closer, wings rising for a hesitant stretch.
Aziraphale combed some feathers loose, brow furrowed while Crowley couldn't see.
"So much for Raphael's resignation," he said, but it didn't lighten the mood one bit.
* * *
"Three pints of Strongbow and a chaser consisting of Jack Daniel's, Bacardi, and Coke," Rafe observed cheerfully, removing both hands from Janet's abdomen in favor of shining Mandy's clunky utility torch directly in Janet's watery eyes. "Good one!"
"My insides feel funny," Janet muttered, covering her eyes once he'd set aside the torch. "And empty. I thought I was going to puke again, but I guess that accupressure thing you did kind of worked." She grimaced. "Can you teach Natalie how to do it?"
Mandy watched from the doorway, arms folded across her chest. Good job Iván's working late, she thought. Who'd want to deal with this circus? I don't even.
Meanwhile, Sophia was frog-marching Natalie back from the kitchen, where she'd presumably given her kid sister a lecture covering the basics of Thou Shalt Not Leave Thy Twin Drooling In a Puddle of Her Own Puke All Night On a Well Meaning Friend's Sofa. They stopped in the doorway next to Mandy, watching intently as Rafe gave Janet's arms a vigorous rub-down and then set one hand against the pulse-point of her neck and the other over her heart. There wasn't anything pervy about it, either.
"What's your day job?" Mandy asked. "Are you a nurse or a paramedic or something?"
Rafe turned to look at her, his hands firm and sure on Janet's body. "Doctor," he said with an unforced smile. "For years, darling, so you can be sure I won't kill her."
"You're still young," Mandy replied, feeling confrontational. Aziraphale and Crowley being cagey about what they'd done for a living was one thing, but these screwball friends of theirs being vague about it, too, was quite another. "Why did you quit?"
Sophia punched Mandy in the arm. "What's your problem? Let him work. I didn't haul him over here for nothing. He knows his stuff. Janet's feeling better already."
Ignoring a thoroughly bewildered (and incredibly butt-hurt) Natalie, Mandy took hold of Sophia's arm and hauled her into the kitchen, slamming the door behind them.
"Why is your whole fucking family friends with a bunch of fucking whack-jobs?"
"You were friends with a couple of said whack-jobs well before you met my family!"
"All right, fine," Mandy conceded. "If not for you, I wouldn't be friends with you and your sisters. But, seriously, don't you ever find it strange that none of them will go into much detail about where they've come from or what they used to do with their lives before they became insanely wealthy people of leisure? Don't interrupt me; you know they must be loaded if they can afford to travel as much as they do, all four of them. If I've got it right, Aziraphale and Crowley just up and decided one day about nine years ago that they wanted to leave London and move out here on a lark. How much do you think they paid for that place, huh? Beach-front property in this area isn't cheap. Mum raised me all by herself on a council estate outside of Bristol. I've hated these smug bastards all my life, and, look at me, I ended up waiting on them."
"And friends with two of them for how many years, even?" Sophia asked.
Mandy closed her eyes, frustrated, and rapped the work-top with her fist.
"Come November, it'll be nine years exactly. Did I ever tell you how dreary that winter was out here, how hard it rained? The sky was so grey the day they first came. They sat in that table by the window like they always do and stared out at the sea. They had a kind of halfhearted argument that was too quiet for me to hear, and by the end of it, they had each other by the hands across the table. I thought they were lovers already. Everybody did. Can you believe it took them till just before Christmas? How many years do you have to know somebody before you decide to move in with them first and then, only then, decide you might as well call a spade a spade?"
Sophia looked hurt and a little confused: finally, something Crowley hadn't told her.
Mandy shouldn't have felt so smug, but she took a kind of vicious pleasure in knowing that some information about him was still hers. Not hers alone, perhaps, but she didn't really count Pippa. You couldn't hate somebody who knew everything about everybody within a ten-mile radius. Local gossips had certain inalienable rights.
"I'm worried about them," Sophia blurted. "Something's still wrong!"
"Way to change the subject," Mandy sighed. "What do you mean?"
"Crowley's dragging his feet about setting a date. Hadn't you noticed?"
"Not really. He's fickle. There's no making him do anything till he's ready."
"He's the one who proposed! Well, sort of. Pippa guilted Aziraphale into getting him a ring in the lead-up to my wedding, and then I helped Crowley sort out one for Aziraphale, and then they took that trip to Kyoto that seemed like a honeymoon—"
"Even their names!" Mandy seethed. "Anthony Crowley is normal enough, I'll grant you, and I've known enough blokes to prefer going by their surname, but seriously, who has a name like Aziraphale Fell, or whatever the hell his paperwork says? Okay, you get some weird old family names, it's true; that's what he chalks it up to, and to a point, I believe it, because heaven knows your family is ample proof of the same phenomenon. Soph, I just..." She spread her hands helplessly. "I don't know. Something's not right. What if they're war criminals or something? Well, probably not Crowley, but Aziraphale just creeps me out sometimes, the misogynistic twat."
Sophia had gone still. Mandy touched her arm and found her skin strangely cold.
"You're shivering," she murmured. "Soph, you're prickling all over—"
"Janet," she said, turned on her heel, and yanked open the kitchen door.
"She's fine," Mandy said, peering over her shoulder into the living room.
Oddly enough, Sophia's eyes weren't fixed on her smiling younger sister, who now at least had normal human coloring in her cheeks and a fresh glass of water in her hand.
A fresh glass of water. Unless Rafe had filled the glass in the bathroom...
Sophia's eyes swept from Rafe's shoulders to the air six feet above his head.
"No matter how many times I see..." she murmured, and then fell silent again.
"We'll get it out of them," Mandy said, patting Sophia's shoulder. "Just you wait."
* * *
Ligur didn't like delivering the post, but he supposed somebody had to do it. He just wished that somebody had been an individual better suited to deciphering letters and sigils than his own impatient self. He squinted at the next envelope on the stack.
"Well, says here you're for Dagon," he told it. "Woss this made of?" he wondered aloud, running his grubby fingers across the smooth, pale surface. It rasped unpleasantly in a way that vellum did not. The ink steamed and bubbled a little, but the neat handwriting remained clear. Something about the slant of it bothered him. "S'not from a quill, is it," he muttered, licking his thumb, and smudged at the letters again. This time, the ink didn't react, although the envelope got a bit soggy. "Huh."
The walk to Dagon's office and apartments always seemed like a small eternity.
In all unfairness, it was. Hell's highways and byways weren't difficult for nothing.
Ligur knocked heavily on the outer entrance, dispirited and out of breath. It took a further indeterminate amount of time for somebody to answer, and when the heavy, ancient door finally opened, it definitely wasn't Dagon's face that greeted him.
Tanith—should he be this pleased to have remembered her name?—smiled.
"Hey," she said. "I remember you. Did that mission of yours turn out okay?"
"Dunno," Ligur admitted somewhat dubiously. "Me an' Hastur got the run-around."
"That's okay," Tanith said. "It happens to all of us. What have you got there?"
"Mail for Himself. Not Himself Himself, 'course, but you know what I mean."
Tanith extended one shapely white arm. She might still have looked somewhat like an angel, but she wasn't exactly skinny like Ligur remembered most of them being. She was only just a little taller than Ligur was, but shorter than Dagon by a head, and her shoulders and hips were both broader than her narrow waist. Some meat on her, Hastur would have said (a phrase for humans who might make good eating).
"Give it here," she said, reaching for the envelope. "I'll see that Dagon gets it."
Ligur started to hand the letter over, but drew it back at the last second.
"You don't live 'round here," he said. "Wot you doin' at work all the time?"
"Oh, I do live here," Tanith replied. "At least now I do. In sin, no less."
Ligur considered this, nodded approvingly, and then handed over the envelope.
"Wotcher. Just makin' double sure," he said, tipping his imaginary hat to her. He'd had a hat once. He'd got it ages ago for one of those excursions Topside, maybe even the time he and Hastur had first seen a horseless carriage. "Give the old man my worst."
"Where did this come from?" Tanith asked, staying him. She'd even gone so far as to step outside, her pale bare feet luminous in the haze. "Did you happen to see?"
Ligur shook his head. "All they do is hand 'em to me, and I get on with it."
"Do you know what this is?" Tanith asked him, the corners of her mouth slightly upturned again. She smiled more than anyone Ligur knew except for Hastur, and it wasn't the same kind of smile. She smiled like only one other person he knew.
"No," Ligur said glumly. "Haven't got the faintest bloody clue."
"It's paper," she said. "Plain, old-fashioned human office paper."
Ligur shrugged and turned to go. He didn't like thinking about Crowley.
* * *
Uriel set her glass of wine on the coffee table, flailing at the screen.
"Pause it!" she exclaimed. "There. Right there. As he's walking away."
Crowley sighed and waved at the screen; the image froze. She felt instantly stupid.
"Sorry, I know, could've done it myself. Okay, so what the fuck are we looking at?"
Uriel watched Crowley squint at the screen. She loved watching him make faces.
"Honest to God, I couldn't tell you," he said, flabbergasted. "I've Googled it at least a hundred times since this series first hit the airwaves, and I swear nobody bloody knows. I've scoured every fan forum you could possibly imagine."
"Next time we go to London, we should stalk him," Uriel said. She'd drunk just enough to think that was a good idea, and also just enough to forget she could have easily paused the DVD herself. Judging by his expression, Crowley wasn't impressed.
"I don't even know if he lives in London," he admitted. "Hmmm."
"You're giving it serious thought," Uriel said, jabbing a finger at his chest. They were on the sofa, and although there had been space between them at the outset, they'd managed to meet somewhere in the middle, companionably shoulder to shoulder. "You want to get a close look at that ink, not least because he's got a cute behind."
"How many times do I have to tell you that humans don't really do it for me?"
"Whoo, finally. Dish!" Uriel cried, slinging one arm around his neck. "Do you think Raphael's hot? He'd kill me for telling you as much, but he thinks you're pretty easy on the eyes. I think he'd do you if there weren't obvious consequences."
Crowley's rapid blinking was as almost as endearing as his pink cheeks.
"That's assuming I'd do him," he said humorlessly. "Which, um, no."
Uriel smirked at him. "Okay. Lacking repercussions, would you do me?"
"At what point did repercussions become shorthand for Aziraphale?"
"Shush, you're spoiling my fun. I asked you a question. Would you?"
Crowley shook his head in disbelief. "How did we get from Bruce Parry's arse to whether I'd shag anything that moves? What's in this wine? I didn't tamper with it."
"So you won't do Bruce Parry and you won't do Raphael. I get it. But that still—"
Crowley snatched the remote control off the coffee table and shut off the television.
"What part of I am getting married within a month's time don't you understand?"
"HA!" Uriel crowed. "You set a date, then? Oh my gosh. When is it? When?"
Crowley sank back against the sofa and drew his knees up under his chin.
"No, the date's not set. You would have known by now. Not set, but soon."
Uriel turned and regarded him critically, one forearm resting on his shoulder.
"Honey, you do know this is some kind of hot mess right now, right?"
Crowley shrugged and gave her a cautious glance. "Why do you say that?"
"You remember how much planning Adam's wedding took. Not inconsiderable."
"This is different," Crowley said. "It'll be a relatively simple affair."
"True, but you're having a reception or else," she told him. "And bachelor parties. You and Aziraphale can't see each other the night before. It's tradition."
"We should just leave the whole affair to you. Spare ourselves the trouble."
"Why are you holding out?" Uriel implored him. "Aziraphale doesn't even know, and although he doesn't seem too fussed, you know he won't stay like that indefinitely."
"Funny, but he stayed lots of other ways for millennia on end. He's got a knack."
Uriel grabbed Crowley's chin roughly and yanked his head around to look at her.
"Your neck's so bendy," she said, and that's when it hit her. "Oh. It's like last time, only you can't bring yourself to ask me to strike them down with blight even now."
Crowley twisted away from her and curled up in the far corner of the sofa.
"Nice try, but that's not it," he said. "I can make the roses bloom in time."
"Then what the hell's your problem, Crowley? Will you keep him waiting forever?"
"I'm waiting for a reply. A very specific reply, one that might not even come. I'll give it a fortnight. I know that's cutting things close, but you've got to trust me on this."
Uriel retreated to her own corner and flopped back against the overstuffed leather.
"You still haven't answered my question," she said, poking Crowley's shin with her toe.
"You still haven't sussed out what's on Bruce Parry's arse," he said, waving the television back on. "You keep your eyes peeled, and I'll go get my laptop."
No wonder they couldn't hold you, Uriel thought. Slippery doesn't begin to cover it.
—On to Part 2—