un_fallen: (color - fire)
[personal profile] un_fallen
Raguel steels himself when he arrives outside the abbey grounds. It's for the headache he'll have by the time he leaves, he says (out loud to a fleeing bumblebee), but that's not really it at all. And there are difficulties in seeking consolation from a grieving friend, but that's not it, either.

He wanders onto the grounds, shoes crunching on an early frost. The gatehouse might have a gate nearby, but only the smallest stretch of the boundaries is marked out by stone walls, and those for form only. Excepting a few fences to the west, built to contain the abbey's modest population of livestock, the rest of the green and sprawling domain is bordered only by hedges, history, and banks of tall trees. Raguel finds the angel in one of the small hothouses that cluster near the main buildings, pouring well water onto some scraggly tomatoes. He doesn't need to announce himself, and for a little while, the only acknowledgment of his presence is a slight tension in the set of Aziraphael's jaw, a faint stiffness in his shoulders.

Eventually Raguel clears his throat, shuffling from one foot to another.

"You know, I could just--" He gestures, and one of the tomatoes swells to the size of a small cantaloupe. Aziraphael gasps.

"No, you will not," he says sharply, and Raguel's expression goes instantly from frowning at the vines to one of comical surprise. He drops his hand. The tomato shrinks back to its original size and the angel continues down the rows, carefully watering each plant and, for the most part, ignoring him.

"You're earlier than I expected," Aziraphael says at last. He's clearly making an effort to be sociable, but a tired one, and not very successful.

"'Couple days' turn differently on different planetsides," Raguel points out. "I was in a hurry."

"I'm afraid there was no need for haste; things are much the same as the other times you've visited." Neatly sidestepping Raguel's meaning, Aziraphael considers a small patch of delicate purple and yellow flowers blooming next to a sign labeled 'potatoes' and gives them a somewhat smaller amount of water. For the first time, his eyes flick sideways to Raguel's face. "And I should like it to stay that way. We have many here that came looking for a haven, or a place to repent of their past. And ours is not to condemn. As my guest, that is a rule I shall expect you to abide by." His voice is calm: not unkind, but implacable as stone. "No incidents, Raguel. No spectacles."

"Okay," Raguel says. Guiltily, he wonders whether a building or two burning down might qualify as a 'spectacle.' That was miles away, though, and several months ago, now that he thinks about it.

"There." Aziraphael straightens up, sweeping a stray wisp of hair from his face. "That should do, I believe, for the time being."

The plants look exactly the same as they did before. Maybe a little wetter. Raguel eyes them before he follows the angel through the winding paths around abbey buildings, down the long, open avenue toward the familiar gatehouse at the edge of the property.

"You know where everything is, of course," Aziraphael says, all business as they step over the threshold. He bustles from room to room, opening windows, checking cupboards, shaking out blankets. Raguel stares around uneasily, trying not to get in the way while following the angel much too closely from one task to the next. Aziraphael begins to strip the sheets from the bed, and Raguel has to say his name twice to get his attention.

"'M used to sleeping on the couch. I can sleep on the couch. If I sleep."

"Nonsense," Aziraphael insists, fingers tightening on the corner of a sheet he's apparently forgotten he's holding. "There's no reason whatsoever for you to sleep on the couch when there's no one-- when the bed isn't-- when the bed is much more comfortable." He turns back to the bed, gives the sheet a tug. It's weak, though, and he doesn't budge the fabric.

He stops, lips pressing together, and lets go of the sheet. Looks at it for a moment, expression closed and unreadable. Then he turns around and walks out, gesturing behind himself as he goes. The bed is abruptly made, all crisp sheets and fluffy blankets. Raguel fingers the edge of a pillowcase, tugging gently at a loose thread, then trails after Aziraphael.

Raguel is not as comfortable as might have been imagined in the gatehouse bed. It's both unfamiliar and all too familiar, and neither the distant abbey sounds (he can name every one) nor the long-ago smells of the gatehouse, earthy and comfortable, make the experience any better. He tosses around a little, gets up and paces the room, lies back down and tries not to think, this bed. He wonders if Aziraphael is doing any better in his room a half mile distant. At some point he does drift off into a mercifully dreamless unconsciousness, because he blinks awake with most of the blankets on the floor and the sun just starting to show over the horizon. He sits up, rubbing at his eyes, and drops his hand abruptly. There's another, familiar presence in the gatehouse. Raguel stands, moves silently to the door, and freezes halfway into the main room.

Aziraphael is curled on his side on the battered couch, chest rising and falling in the slow rhythm of sleep. One arm pillows his head; the other hangs down, knuckles brushing the cold flagstones of the floor. The starched white semi-circle that normally sits beneath Aziraphael's collar rests now on the table, and -- a tide of red rises in Raguel's face -- the first few buttons over the angel's throat hang open. The heavy black cloth makes his skin seem paler in the weak light of dawn; the only splash of color is where his hair has come loose from its tidy queue, curling softly across his cheek and catching the feeble ray of sunlight that peeks through the small window. Suddenly, the cadence of Aziraphael's breathing changes, a faint furrow appearing between his eyebrows. Raguel nearly bolts. But after a moment, the angel merely shifts, lips parting slightly and forehead smoothing once again as the disturbance passes.

Raguel backs slowly into the bedroom without announcing his presence or moving his eyes from the figure on the couch. He disappears behind the door but is back almost immediately, holding a thin blanket from the teetering pile stacked in one corner of the bedroom. He hesitates again in the doorway, still and quiet as a statue. Several minutes pass before he moves a few nervous steps forward, letting the folds of the blanket fall out as he goes. It's old, worn enough that the light shines through in a few threadbare patches, but it's better than nothing.

He advances slowly, restless hands twisting the ancient coverlet into a rope, longer with every step, then releasing it so that it spins between his fingers. Stopping next to the sleeping angel, Raguel blinks down at him, now twisting the blanket so hard it almost tears before he realizes what he's doing and relaxes his hands. He shakes it out with a strangely embarrassed expression and drapes it over Aziraphael feet-first, moving slowly so as not to disturb the angel. Softly: knees, hips, torso. The blanket doesn't quite reach Aziraphael's shoulders (or maybe Raguel just doesn't pull it up that far) and he takes a silent step back.

He remains there for a long time; how long is less important, but the angle of the sun on the angel's hair has obviously changed by the time Aziraphael moves, coming awake bit by bit. There's a moment of horrified gaping and then Raguel bolts, faster than a human could detect, into the kitchen -- then into the bedroom -- and finally into a chair in the same tiny room where the angel is stretching himself awake. There's a book in Raguel's hands, modern, something by Maura Wood.

Judging by the amount of blinking and staring around that Aziraphael does, it's taking him a moment to remember where he is. His wandering eyes land on Raguel, who to all appearances is absorbed in his book. Confused, the angel pulls the blanket around himself as though warding off a chill. Raguel pretends, with all the self-deception that's left in him, that he doesn't notice.

"I do apologize," Aziraphael says stiffly, over a slice of toast. "I should have warned you. Sleeping is a difficult habit to break, and I sometimes-- there are nights since-- I don't always pass the night soundly. This isn't a something I have any particular desire to advertise, not to anybody here. If I suspect that I might," a wave of his hand takes in the shapeless couch, "I take the precaution of sleeping here, instead."

The evenings, which they spend together, are not easy -- but slowly, in aching increments, they become more so. With every ancient reference and unthinking familiarity, the conversation thaws; under the weight of the past and of a common sorrow, the ice begins to crack, the silences become a little more companionable. It's the days that turn out to be more difficult, when Aziraphael is occupied by his duties as Prior and the memories that fill up the gatehouse and the lingering presence of another press down upon Raguel. Not another, he remembers. Crowley. Restless by nature and more than usually unable to sit still, Raguel is left with the options of making himself either useful or scarce. Finally, hearing Aziraphael mutter one evening that he 'really must take care of it', he sets himself to weeding around the base of the gatehouse, which is absurdly overgrown. It makes him wonder whether anyone else ever comes down here to tend to it, whether any of the novices or shepherds or visitors to the abbey have ever noticed the shapes where the grass grows greener to the north and east -- where the gatehouse used to be bigger, once upon a time. When he clears away a thistle patch where the building meets the abbey wall, and finds a date scratched in the stone, he thinks: no.

"Okay," Raguel says that evening, stopping just inside the door with dirt coating his arms up to the elbows. There were scratches and cuts from weeding without gloves, but those are, of course, long gone. "There're some things I need to know. Pretty sure you won't want to say."

"Please get cleaned up before you touch anything," Aziraphael says, fiddling with cups. Raguel knows that the angel could go through the motions of making tea or cooking a potato or whipping up some sort of amazing vegetable stew in his sleep. He only fiddles with cups when he wants something to do with his hands.

"Yeah," he says, but doesn't move toward the sink. "It's about how you know he got shot. First."

Aziraphael stops fiddling. In fact, all of him goes very still.

"I asked you to clean yourself up."

"Before touching anything, only I'm not gonna touch anything, I need to know what you know."

"There's really nothing that needs telling," Aziraphael says, clipped and brisk. "It was the feathers, naturally. He was shot, and then he was-- was killed."

"Where was he shot?" Raguel presses. For a moment, there's no response. Aziraphael stares at the mug in his hands so long that Raguel begins to doubt he'll do anything but stare at it for the rest of the night. Then one hand releases the handle, hovers aimlessly, then comes slowly up to touch against Aziraphael's forehead, a little right of center.

"Okay," Raguel says, a little more gently. "How long between, after the gun went off?"

Another extended silence, dragging out enough to let understanding form in Raguel's gut: too long.
            if they take the ship
"A few minutes, perhaps," Aziraphael says eventually. "Until the Reavers found him. After that, I can't-- I can't be certain." (Lie. It doesn't make Raguel feel any better.) "Raguel, why on earth-- why would you need to know this?"
            they'll rape us to death
"Less likely it was a stray shot meant as defense against Reavers," he says, as though he's reading off a grocery list. "Would be a pretty bad shot. Trying to be sure. It's impatient. Eager."
            eat our flesh
"I'd rather you didn't," Aziraphael says, now clutching the mug tightly. He still hasn't turned around. "I prefer not to dwell on it."
            and sew our skins into their clothing
He flinches away from a hand on his shoulder, then relaxes. There's no dirt on it now at all.
            and if we're very, very lucky
"I know," Raguel says. "Now, tell me. Clues can hide anywhere. I need everything."
            they'll do it in that order

After, in the reeling silence, Aziraphael turns back to the counter and starts to make tea. It seems to take an eternity, but finally the kettle announces with a high-pitched whistle that the water inside has boiled. After a pause (again, too long), Aziraphael reaches out to pick it up and promptly clatters the kettle against the stove-top so loudly that Raguel jumps. Looking, he sees the angel's hands: one showing white knuckles around the kettle's handle, and one holding the mug, trembling, in midair. Raguel reaches out and guides it gently down to the counter-top, then swallows his nerves enough to say (in a tone he learned from Aziraphael himself, the one that brooks neither argument nor nonsense), "You go sit down."

Raguel knows where the tea is; it's a different kitchen now, of course, but Raguel can't remember a one where the angel didn't store it up and to the left of the kettle if he could. He roots amongst the canisters until he finds some tea-bags -- he never did have the knack for loose-leaf -- and sets them to stew while he searches for some honey. After, when the tea is done and his fingers are only a little sticky, he ferries it over one mug at a time, clutched carefully between his hands so as not to spill any on the cold stone floor. The first goes on the low table in front of Aziraphael, who doesn't seem to notice, bowed on the couch and resting his forehead in one tired hand. Returning with his own, Raguel settles in the sagging armchair opposite, taking a long sip and keeping his eyes fixed anxiously on the floor. Not bad. He taps his feet, and drinks some more, and presses his fingers together to watch the way the gluey residue makes the skin separate more slowly when he spreads them again.

It's not that there's a noise.

It's that there's no noise whatsoever, and Raguel is too much himself not to hear it. It's instinct: he looks up.

Aziraphael's tea is untouched, and there are wet tracks down his cheeks, running from beneath his hand.

"Oh, shit," he says quietly, and the angel's lack of response somehow makes the situation that much worse. He sits frozen for long moments, debating what to do, and each suggestion that makes itself known does so in a louder voice than the last.

Finally he stands, and crosses with a stiff gait to the couch. He gets close, hesitates, and turns back for his tea. But then he sets his mug down by Aziraphael's, and sits next to him on the couch as gently as he can. One careful hand goes on the angel's back. Aziraphael remains where he is for just a moment, then his free hand finds a corner of Raguel's untucked shirt and grips it tightly. Raguel looks down at it and seems to come to a decision; his hand slides further around the angel's back, the other hand comes up to his shoulder, and -- with excruciating slowness -- Aziraphael leans sideways into his embrace.

Raguel's senses inch up several degrees as he holds on. He is painfully aware of Aziraphael's heartbeat, the tension in his body, the strength of will it takes to hold back a sob. He is especially aware, however, of the shadow sitting just on the other side of the angel. In Raguel's mind, it wears dark glasses.

Aziraphael pulls away, breathing deeply, and Raguel is not surprised to find his own face damp. He goes back to staring at the floor until he remembers the tea and picks it up, sneaking a glance at the angel.

"I'm terribly sorry," Aziraphael says, his voice a little rough. He isn't looking at Raguel, either. "That was unintentional."

"Yeah," Raguel says heavily. "Asked a lot of questions. It'll help, though."

There's a long pause before Aziraphael's next words, and Raguel can see the thoughts clicking into place as clear as day: he's not sure if he should ask, because he's not sure that he could tell Raguel not to follow through.
            and if we're very, very lucky
"Help," he repeats. "What is it that you intend to do, Raguel?"
            they'll do it
"If I can, find out what happened. Find out who's responsible. And if I can do that, uh. Depends," he says, glancing away. "We'll see."
            in that order
"Yes," says the angel, only a little reassured. "We'll see."

The next evening when he slips in through the door, Aziraphael wordlessly sets a bottle of red wine on the table. Only one bottle (the Southdown vineyards have a small but prized yield) but then, that hardly matters. Neither-- no, none of them have ever let the size of a bottle stand in the way of how much wine they pour from it.

When Raguel is ready to leave, Aziraphael finds him at the gate and presses upon him a small bag of what the abbey can offer: fresh bread (still warm), cheese and milk, cured ham and a little smoked salmon. Some fruit, from the miraculous hothouses. He thought about adding some eggs, the angel explains, but decided that they were more than likely to come to grief en route. When their hands meet, in passing the bag from one to the other, it's almost a handclasp. Raguel shifts nervously, pinned by Aziraphael's gaze: blue, thoughtful, and penetrating.

"Contact me," Aziraphael says, "if there's anything you need."


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August 2009

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