In the wake of Olivia’s absence, the shop’s returned to its usual quiet, and Adrian’s returned to his usual post – inside, where it’s warm and he has as many books around him as possible. He’s manning the counter, and it’s one of the quietest days in weeks. With two hours left until closing and no sign of any customers, he sighs and tries to find a way to while away the time.
He has two options: Jude the Obscure, one of the few Thomas Hardy books he hasn’t quite got round to yet, or Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas. He picks Dinosaur Ninjas and settles in for a truly excellent reading session.
He’s only been reading for about an hour and a half when the air changes, and he just knows that She’s entered the shop. He doesn’t even need to look. It’s the evenly-paced, careful footsteps; it’s the silence and the inexplicable air of haughtiness she seems to carry with her, following her into every room like a strong odour. Her posture is still the same, and once again, she’s wearing a suit – a different one, black this time, but equally sleek and expensive.
“There was a slight delay,” she tells him. It’s an explanation that doesn’t quite tip over into an apology; it’s too blunt, too confident, for that, as though she feels she has nothing to apologise for.
“Four days,” he says, and his voice is a little more sing-song sardonic than he’d like it to be. “A slight delay.”
“Yes,” she reiterates. “A very slight delay.” He detects more than a little impatience in her tone. She acts like this is all pointless to her; but then, maybe it is. Now he thinks about it, he wonders how old she really is, not just how old she looks – maybe to her kind, four days is the blink of an eye. Four days, or a human lifetime.
The thought scares him a little. More than a little, in fact.
“We need to talk,” she tells him.
He sighs, running a hand through his hair. It was looking insane already – it’d gone all curly round the front and was falling into his face; even his hair gets tired and starts drooping after a long day – but now it’s probably sticking up in a thousand directions. He takes one last-ditch look at the door, but he doesn’t think there’ll be any further customers, if the last few hours have been any indication. “Do you mind if we head to the pub?”
“Why?” she asks, in apparently genuine confusion.
“Because I have had a very, very long day, and personally, I’d really like a drink.”
She remains stone-faced. “Hardly a healthy coping strategy.”
Gesturing to her, he admits, “True. That’s why it’s not a regular one. Besides, I don’t intend to get drunk.” When she still doesn’t move, he tells her, injecting considerable impatience into his tone, “What does it gain you to allow me this? Nothing. But what does it lose you to allow me this? Also nothing. Surely discussions such as these go better when one party’s relaxed and cooperative?”
“Perhaps,” she concedes. “Though your relaxation is ultimately irrelevant, and in this case, obedient would probably be more useful than cooperative.” He glares at her, but she’s unbowed, just saying, “I’ll take the book.”
He doesn’t want her to give him another cosmic bollocking and force him to obey, so he he opens his desk drawer and grabs it. As soon as he’s picked it up one-handed, he knows it’s a mistake – he wonders how he doesn’t sprain his wrist as he lifts it. He catches her gaze lingering on his hand; she’s obviously noticed. He shoves the embarrassment aside, knowing how he must seem – yes, he knows he’s bony, but he’s far from weak. He brings his other hand into play, too, and hesitates. The book is just as hefty – and just as impressively ugly – as the last time he saw it, if not more so. “Must we?” he asks, grimacing.
“Yes.” She bends slightly to pick up the book. She makes the motion look effortless, and irritation prickles up his spine seeing it. “Have you opened it?” With a glance at him, she answers herself: “No.”
“I can always tell. You’ve kept to your word.” She nods as if he’s passed some test, and then says, “Yes. We can go to the pub.” It’s said as if it’s his reward – in return for his honesty.
“Good,” he mutters. Frankly, he feels that it’s the least he deserves. He jumps to his feet, shrugging on the blue blazer that’s been his faithful companion for years. This feels like an autumn night, rather than a winter one; there’s a distinct difference, and that difference is mainly whether the temperature necessitates the wearing of a coat. He nods to the door. “You ready?”
She nods. She’s looking around the shop, as if she’s truly seeing it for the first time. Perhaps she is – she was so focused on her mission last time she came here that she acted as if everything, including this place and including him, was of little interest or consequence. It’s not wide-eyed and curious: it’s a slow turning of the head, her gaze almost a reassessment – but her eyes are interested.
When she catches his eye, she seems to realise he saw that, and her eyes shut down. Her poker face is very good. There is very little difference. There is a difference, however, and it’s a little too late for her to hide that fact. She holds the book close to her chest. It looks even worse contrasted against a good suit. He almost winces on reflex.
“Are you sure about taking the book?”
“Of course I am.” There ‘s a heavily implied, irritable tsk in there somewhere.
He shows his palms in surrender. “Fine. Whatever you want to do.”
“Do you have a bag of some kind? I can probably create one, but that may take some time. The book’s far from inconspicuous.”
“Really?” He raises an eyebrow. “I hadn’t noticed.”
The sarcasm is obviously noted. The thoroughly unimpressed angel turns to glance around the shop again, making no effort to hide her interest this time, and says, “Fine. I’ll start the search myself.”
Now that makes him step in front of her, throwing his arms out as if to shield the shop. “No you’ll bloody not. I have on old satchel somewhere that might do.” He heads towards the back room, and throws over his shoulder, “If it doesn’t fall apart under the weight of the bloody thing.”
The stairs are about three feet away from his desk. They’re darkwood, too, kept bare except for a simple, dark brown carpet running down the centre of each step – and because of this, absolute hell to navigate in the dark, particularly if you’re a bit pissed and you’ve decided that a 2 A.M. snack is an wonderful idea that needs your urgent attention. That doesn’t happen much these days. It didn’t even then, really, but he would occasionally have a few too much and have to somehow stumble to bed. It was a three times a year thing. Now it’s a “maybe if it’s New Year’s Eve” thing. He’s not a very good drunk, really. He enjoys it in moderation, but he knows well that he’s the sort that suddenly thinks he’s a comedian. Besides, he becomes slow and his words struggle to get out, and if there’s one thing he doesn’t like experiencing, it’s being shut up.
He grunts his way into his bedroom. It’s a tiny box with far too many dark corners. Its only redeeming feature is a large window that lets the light in and has a good view of the sky. When lit, the room’s almost pleasant – certainly, it’d be a nice place to draw, if Adrian drew. Which he doesn’t.
In the wardrobe, there’s… junk. So much junk. Honestly, he’s not certain he’ll be able to find the satchel. Two minutes of searching dig it up, however, and he chucks it over his shoulder, running back downstairs. He’s pleased with himself, for absolutely no reason. He hopes it’ll meet the angel’s approval, then wants to hit himself for hoping. Nothing does.
He arrives brandishing the satchel, walking towards her until it’s at her arm’s length. She takes it – politely, actually, he certainly couldn’t say she snatched it – and looks it over. “This is yours?”
“It’s good quality,” she says, lifting it across her shoulders. (Well, he should hope so. It’s real leather, the one he bought for university, and it cost him an arm and a leg. It’s the only investment of that kind he’s made, and it kind of feels like a con, seeing as he hasn’t used it in years.) She adjusts it carefully, making sure it’s comfortable. Seconds pass as she sorts out the straps, then she does… something; he has no idea what it is. She drags her fingers gently across the bag, and there’s a sound like a brief, interrupted half-whisper. It isn’t something she’s said: it’s external, in the air between them. He wonders if she’s sensed his confusion when she says, “I was reinforcing it, just in case. It’d be a shame to damage something like this.” She, by some kind of miracle – perhaps literally, Adrian thinks with a mental Ha! – carefully fits the book in. She looks back to him, meets his eye. “Thank you.” Though it’s matter-of-fact, as everything she says is, it doesn’t seem insincere.
He shrugs, unsure what to make of her. “Glad I could be useful.”
“You were,” she replies, as if that’s meant to be some kind of reassurance, then she heads out of the door.
He hurries after her and finds her waiting outside, as if hoping for some kind of guidance. He sets off, thinking she’ll probably follow him. Maybe he’s being presumptuous, but he can’t say he cares; the angel has arrogant presumption covered all on her own.
He’s right. He hears footsteps behind him and then she’s at his side, sometimes watching him out of the corner of her eye to see where he goes but saying nothing.
He thought he heard rain earlier, and the street that greets him confirms it: the air’s still damp, the smell of wet grass hovering, and the pavement’s shining, reflecting streetlights. Night crept in sometime when he was locked in his little book grotto, and the sky’s nearly black, even though it’s only about half five. There’s a low hum of conversation as they head into the main streets, crowds beginning to gather – out for dinner, or to meet friends, or just for a good night’s drinking.
It’s Friday, he remembers. He shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders to try and shake off the weight of that realisation. He tends to lose days when he’s been in the shop for too long – it’s very easy to get caught up in a very simple, very small world. He actually has a good social life most of the time, but when he’s at work and alone, his mindset is completely different. It can be strange and not a little disturbing switching it back to “social, peppy Adrian.”
Someone barges past him in a rather painful meeting of shoulders. He exhales. Ah, definitely a Friday night in London.
She turns her head, frowns in the direction of the bloke walking past them. “Is that normal here?”
“Perfectly,” he tells her with a wide, obnoxiously false grin. “To be honest, I’m not sure why you’re offended. You’re not the one who’ll have a bruise tomorrow.”
All he hears for a little while is her steps, still keeping pace with his, and then she says, “I’m not. I was confused.” It sounds sharper than she probably intended, a reproof disguised as a fact. Weirdly, he can’t work out whether the object of her disapproval is him or herself.
He can’t help thinking of earlier. If he were with Olivia, they’d probably be trading terrible jokes, conversation keeping them warm through the journey. As it is, he doesn’t make any attempt to break the strained silence, and it accompanies them for the rest of the way.