The pub’s in full swing when they arrive, the nighttime crowd having filed in an hour or two ago. The lighting’s warm, most of the tables are full, and there’s a loud – but not too loud – background buzz in the of conversation. It’s the epitome of a pleasant Friday night pub. It always is, even on nights that aren’t Friday, which is exactly why Adrian’s a regular.
They walk in, and some bloke Adrian hasn’t seen here before is leaning on the bar, talking far too loudly to his friend. As well as a volume control, the man may well need to discover the uses of AutoTune – he launches into a rendition of… something; it’s so far off-key that Adrian isn’t sure the bloke can even see the tune anymore.
He feels her tense beside him. “He’s…” she begins, clearing her throat. “This is drunkenness, then?”
Adrian grins at her, nodding at the man by the bar. “In the flesh.”
Something flickers behind her eyes, her coolness disturbed; her step falters. “I see.”
“Adrian!” Nick cries when he catches sight of him. He’s leaning on the bar; next to his elbow, a small chalkboard that’s been stood on the bar announces the prices of cocktails, lemonade and Coke.
Adrian can tell when Nick registers the angel’s presence, because he wordlessly raises an eyebrow and then proceeds to start his spiel early. “What’ll you have?” For God’s sake, Adrian isn’t even at the bar yet. “And for the lady?” Nick says, turning to her without waiting for an answer.
Adrian opens his mouth to order his pint.
“Lemonade,” she says. “Please.”
Nick, to his credit, covers his surprise well. “Certainly,” he says. “Adrian?”
“The usual, please.” While Nick nods and sets to it, Adrian looks to her, ready to shoot her a glare – but much to his surprise, she’s already looking distinctly apologetic.
“Sorry.” It’s bitten out, blunt the way she so often says things, but it’s genuine; he can tell the moment she turns her eyes towards him. She looks back to the bar. She has an instinctive grace, always holding herself firmly to her centre of gravity – she isn’t a fidgeter. Still, he sees her minutely roll her shoulders, as if preparing for a fight.
He wonders for a moment whether to pursue it, but for once he takes the high road. He shrugs. “These things happen.”
Nick slides a lemonade across the counter, nods to her. “You here from work?”
Her eyes flicker down to her suit as she belatedly seems to realise the fact of her own attire. The uncertainty is momentary, barely there; anyone else would most likely not spot it, but Adrian’s been around her long enough that – just now and again – he can read her emotions on her face. She recovers quickly, within the space of a blink, giving Nick a small smile. Adrian struggles not to stare, and so, he senses, does Nick. That smile is small but utterly charming, not an ounce of insincerity in it, and all at once her eyelashes seem twice as long. “Yeah. I’ve been here on business.”
“Ah, right.” Nick still seems a little dazed.
Adrian clears his throat.
“Right,” Nick says again. “Pint of Stella for you.”
He passes it to Adrian, who digs around in his pockets. He spots her doing the same. “I’ll get this round,” he says, “if you get the next one?”
She lifts her chin.”That implies there’ll be a next one.”
“Do you have somewhere to be?” Adrian asks with a raise of his eyebrow. Sardonic as it sounds, the question is more than half-genuine; he wonders if she’s the heavenly equivalent of on call.
The angel takes her lemonade, sipping it through the straw Nick’s helpfully provided. She blinks a couple of times, pausing. “Not bad.”
Adrian catches sight of a free table, counting on her to follow him. Sure enough, she does. “Why lemonade?”
“Hm?” She still has her mouth around the straw, barely concentrating on him at all.
“Why, exactly, did you decide on lemonade?”
“I had a recommendation,” she replies, carrying the drink with careful, steady hands, her eyes on the table ahead.
“One of my colleagues. He came here quite often.”
What she’s saying finally sinks in. “Here as in Earth?” A realisation is slowly beginning to creep up on him. At her nod, he asks, “Have you been here before?” He slides into a booth, and she takes the seat opposite.
She returns to the lemonade straw, taking another sip, then says, “No. This is the first time I’ve been assigned here.” Assigned. An odd choice of word; almost military, as if this is some kind of mission. That said, to her it seems to be.
“Also, I didn’t know you could do… that.”
“Do what?” She seems honestly befuddled.
“The whole… Be nice. I didn’t know you could be nice.”
She raises a shoulder, lowers it again. “It deflects suspicion,” is her short answer, and then she returns to drinking her lemonade.
A silence falls then, and Adrian spends at least five minutes wondering whether to break it. She’s sitting quietly, her eyes moving to take in everything around the room, but again, it doesn’t seem to be simple curiosity; her posture is ready and alert, as if waiting for something to kick off.
“So,” he says eventually, “are you calling yourself something, if you’re… well, undercover?”
“Angela,” she replies, unabashedly and without hesitation.
He laughs, choking a little on his pint. “Wow. Subtle.”
“The best lies have got at least a grain of truth in them.” She levels him with the disapproving glare that’s rapidly becoming her speciality. “That’s a concept a lot of humans are familiar with.”
“Mm.” He acknowledges that with a nod of his head. “I just… Sorry. It’s a little funny, isn’t it?”
She shrugs. “Not particularly. Haven’t you got any better jokes?”
“What would you like to hear, ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’”
“Why did it?” she asks, frowning.
Adrian sighs. He finds he’s doing that rather too much lately. Standoffish is one thing; humourless is quite another. Even if he can put up with the former, he’s not sure he can live with the latter. “I know a few knock-knock jokes, but I find they’re generally more likely to annoy than amuse.”
“There was one…” A crease is steadily growing between her brows as she seeks to recall it. “No. I’m no good at things like that.” She rubs a hand across her forehead, and then says after a pause, “I haven’t been entirely truthful with you.”
He lowers his pint, sits up straighter. “In what sense?”
“I told you that I needed the book. That’s true. I haven’t told you the rest of my assignment.”
“Which is?” He takes a drink of his pint, waiting, rather wishing she’d give him one straight answer, at least. That’d be nice.
“I was told to make you get the book, and then,” she hesitates minutely, but he does spot it, “ stay with you and await further instructions.”
There’s a loud clack as Adrian puts down his beer a little more forcefully than necessary. “Stay… with me. They said stay with me?”
“Yes.” Angela looks just as bothered as he does, her shoulders squared, but her eyes stay on his. Unblinkingly, she picks up the lemonade and brings the straw to her mouth. That distracts Adrian from the point – that she’s saying she will have to stay with him – but only for a moment.
“That, specifically? Didn’t they just tell you to, oh, I don’t know, stay somewhere… else on Earth and await further orders? Perhaps check in every so often if it’s an absolute necessity?”
“No.” A very small, almost inaudible slurp, but otherwise, her expression doesn’t budge.
“Angela – “
“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“Some variation of what you’ve already said, I assume.”
“I…” He sighs. “Bollocks.”
“I can stay somewhere else, if you think that boarding with you would be a problem, but it would be more convenient if I didn’t.”
“How long were they thinking?” Please, let it be short. Let him not have to house a laconic, maybe borderline psychotic angel for the long term.
“Probably less than a month,” she replies, and Adrian tries very hard not to sigh in relief. He’s not entirely sure he manages it. “I’m quite sure I’ll be able to track down the source of the threat in that time.”
“The source of the – Wait, how much do you actually know about the threat to the Scholars?”
She says with the hint of a sigh, her gaze drifting to the bar, “I know it exists.”
“But what about… How would the Scholars die? Who made the threat?”
“I don’t know. But I was told that the book is the first point of call. It will hold the answer.”
That’s not good enough. That’s nowhere near good enough as an assurance. It rings too much of blind faith, something he’s never had much truck with, which is part of the reason finding out that angels exist shocked him so much. “And if it doesn’t?” he demands, finding that he’s leaning over the table.
Angela makes no kind of reply; whether intentionally or not, her eyes drift to the watch chain on his waistcoat, and then they stay there. Oh.
“I’d rather die kicking,” he mutters, moving further back and miserably drinking a mouthful of beer.
To his surprise, she replies, “So would I.” When he just waits, she says, “It’s what I was made for.”
That piques his interest, even if he isn’t willing to get into a theological debate during pub time. “Made?”
A silence settles between them. Adrian notices that the drunk bloke’s stopped singing and is now talking to someone. Angela finds the straw again, finishes off the lemonade. “Another?” she offers. When he doesn’t say anything, she prompts him with, “You mentioned ‘a round’. What do you want?”
He lifts his pint; there’s only about an inch left of it. “Half of Stella, please.”
“That’s a beer?” She looks at the glass he’s holding as if to check.
He stifles a laugh, not quite ready for another of her death-glares, and nods. “It is, in fact, a beer.”
She heads to the bar and leans against it, waiting for service. Nick notices her after he’s finished giving a slender, short-skirted woman a Cosmopolitan. Nick, the poor bastard, all but lights up, grinning at her and overly attentive. Adrian’s always had good service, but never service that good.
Adrian hears her very carefully order a lemonade and “half a pint of beer, please – Stella.” He frowns. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard her say please to him when she’s ordering him around.
While he finishes off the last of his pint, he glances round the pub. He sees a bunch of university students sitting in the corner. You can always tell them from everyone else; it’s the scruffy jeans, the hard drinking and the deep philosophical conversations they have about things like whether surviving entirely on caffeine pre-exams is altogether healthy. That used to be him, he realises suddenly, and he turns his attention elsewhere so he doesn’t have to think too much about the sinking feeling in his chest.
Angela’s leaning with an elbow on the bar, looking casual as can be, but he sees where her eyes are, and how often they stay there. As Nick bustles around sorting out the lemonade, she’s watching the drunk bloke at the other side of the bar. He, in turn, is watching a short, skinny, red-haired guy, the only one who’s occupying a small table near the front door. There’s in a look in his eye that Adrian doesn’t like much, and apparently, neither does Angela; her shoulders, beneath that expensive suit, are tense.
He returns his gaze to the table, hoping nothing kicks off. This place isn’t exactly a dive. Usually things are pretty quiet, but if you’re honestly, utterly determined to generate trouble, there are ways of doing it.
He hears two glasses being placed upon the table, and when he raises his head, Angela is watching him, that level, unblinking look back in her eyes. He feels like a laboratory animal being dissected and analysed until the right results are found. “What?” she says.
“You seem uncomfortable. Why?”
He shakes his head. “Nothing,” he lies, once again hoping that things don’t go bad. He doesn’t need it tonight; he doesn’t need it any night, actually, but especially not when he’s trying to deal with Angela. He reaches out and takes his glass. “Thanks, by the way.”
She nods in acknowledgement and starts on her second lemonade.
Only three minutes, maximum, can have passed when Adrian hears it. Maybe it’s because he’s already primed for it, already tense and keeping an ear out. All the same, it’s loud and clear, and not just because the drunk bloke, as usual, can’t keep his voice down. “If I’d known you served bloody warlocks here…”
The way Nick cringes is almost audible. “Look, mate, I’d thank you not to use that kind of language in here.”
“I’ll use whatever language I damn well like, I lost my job to one of those – “
Jesus, it’s like all the worst parts of Adrian’s past have chosen tonight to visit him. He’d like to say that bygones are bygones, that hearing this kind of shit isn’t all too familiar, but he finds his knuckles whitening on his glass. He wants Nick to step in; he wants, with all his heart, the bloke to be quietly escorted from the building. He wants someone to step in, at least.
The drunk is standing in front of the skinny ginger bloke Adrian spotted earlier, pointing at him, a finger all but poking his chest, and his friend is doing nothing to stop it. The concept of personal space seems to have become alien to him.
The Scholar – because at last Adrian knows, not just from the insults but from the fact that now the man’s standing up, a watch chain is visible, winding from his jeans pocket, glinting in the light – is shrinking where he stands. He looks like he’s rather be anywhere else, his eyes darting round the room. Adrian recognises his expression; it’s the look of sod what the law says, I should’ve hidden the watch. He knows it all too well.
He feels tension coil in his legs like a compressed spring, and then he’s standing. Everything in him is screaming at him to sit back down, but he ignores it; he’s used to ignoring it by this point. He walks to the bar – slowly, casually, no hurry; nothing to see here, folks – and comes to stand behind the unfortunate Scholar. “There a problem here?” he asks.
He can tell when the idiot sees the chain, prominent as it runs across his waistcoat; he can tell when it registers. “Ganging up on me now, is that it? Sticking up for your own?”
He shakes his head. He’s on alert, looking round the pub, surprised that still, no-one else has come to join them. Statistically, about one in every thirty people is a Scholar. That makes it extremely likely that there’s more than one in here tonight. Surely this must anger them, too? “Not at all. I just can’t help feeling that things’d be easier if you didn’t do this here. It’s… you’re upsetting people. I was wondering if you knew that.”
Adrian hears a chair scrape, and then the woman who ordered the Cosmopolitan says from next to him, “He’s right, you know. Leave it. No-one wants to hear it.”
The drunk looks her over. “You’re not even one of them.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she says. “This doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just… not tonight, alright?”
“That’s what I said when I got fired. ‘S not like it made any difference.”
Adrian can’t help it; sometimes his mouth runs and drags the rest of him along for the ride. “Truthfully, I doubt you got fired because the other bloke was a Scholar. It was more likely because you’re an arsehole.”
Cosmopolitan Woman glares at him. “Well, that was really helpful. Thanks.”
“No problem.” Unfair as he knows he’s being, Adrian sends her a wide, shit-eating grin.
“Adrian,” someone says warningly behind him, and he realises that it’s Angela.
She’s probably right, but he can’t make himself back off. He just can’t. It’s buzzing under his skin, making him grit his teeth, and the magic is rising inside him, clawing its way up, because it wants so badly to come out of his hands…
He’s not worried. He almost enjoys the feeling, acknowledging it but not about to give in to it. He’s not about to start frying the guy, and neither does he want to. Magic isn’t meant to hurt people; that’s the entire point of measures like the watches. Still, something primal and too young in him – something lying bleeding on a tarmac playground and waiting for the next blow – wants to rise to it. He wants to give this git the magical equivalent of a sock in the jaw.
It appears that the slow clenching and unclenching of his fists, the fact his knuckles are turning steadily white, again and again, hasn’t gone unnoticed.“You wanna take this outside?” the drunk asks him. “Do you? Do you?” He grins. Adrian would like to say that the man looks like a storybook villain: that his teeth are yellow and crooked, that he has a harsh, outcropping brow. Nope. In actuality, he just looks like an average-sized, balding accountant, albeit a rather smug one. In fact, he looks like he’s had some outstanding dental work done recently. “Though you’ve got an advantage, right? You can kill me with your damn brain. G’won. Give ‘em a party piece. Show them what y’really are.”
Adrian tilts his head, putting on his best noncommittal face, then says, “I’d rather you took yourself outside, frankly. I mean, it would be more convenient for everyone.”
The drunk takes one step, two, until his chest is nearly touching Adrian’s, and makes a show of staring him down. Adrian doesn’t blink. “Whatever,” he says, after nearly a full minute. “Find some better customers,” he shout-slurs to Nick, and then he walks out of the pub. His friend, after a moment, follows him.
“You alright?” Adrian asks the Scholar.
The guy looks up from the floor, but the expression on his face isn’t exactly what Adrian expected; he looks seriously angry. “Fuck you,” he spits. When Adrian backs away, confused, he says, “I could’ve handled that. What did you achieve except pissing him off? And now the whole damn place’s watching us because you had to jump in and play hero.”
The room has gone very quiet, actually, now Adrian thinks about it. Nick pretends not to be watching them, and quite a few of the patrons are openly staring. Shit. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“Yeah, that’s the last thing I fucking need,” the guy snaps. “I get enough stares already.”
“Look, I really am…”
“Doesn’t matter,” the guy mutters. He turns on his heel and strides out of the door, his drink and half-finished bag of nuts still lying abandoned on his table.
Adrian slumps, then looks at Nick. “I’m sorry. That was… Sorry.”
Nick shakes his head. “You were trying to help.”
Adrian notices the trying to rather than helping. He almost wants to be insulted, and he certainly isn’t placated, but it’s true, so he just shrugs and says, “I suppose I was.” It’s directed more at the floor than Nick, and his shoulders are slumped.
He finds his way back to his table and shoves himself gracelessly back onto his chair, staring at his beer. He feels the sheer amount of eyes on him; it’s an itching, low-level discomfort that he can’t get rid of.
He hears the scrape of chair legs, and then a low inhale. “You’re upset,” Angela says at last.
“I know. He was right, and I was… I was playing the hero and trying to – to…”
She’s sitting there, her arms crossed over her chest. She looks uncomfortable, and her eyes are fixed on a point somewhere above his left shoulder. Her brows are creased and her eyes are miserable, but he doubts it’s sympathy. She’s probably just uncertain what to do next.
“We should go,” he says.
“Maybe we should.” She looks down at her lemonade and downs it in one gulp, then stands. He joins her, and the two of them sidle towards the door. Well, Adrian sidles – Angela walks tall and proud, as if neither of them has anything to be ashamed of. It just makes him want to shrink in her shadow even more.
“Thanks, mate!” Nick calls. Too awkward, too hasty – but it’s better than nothing. It’s a clear invitation to come back once this has all blown over.
Adrian does his best to muster a smile. “Thanks.”
They duck out of the pub, and for once, Adrian is very, very glad. They start winding their way back to the shop, and without any input from his brain, his mouth says, “I admit, I’m struggling to understand your reasoning. Or – well, your superiors’ reasoning.”
She frowns at him. It seems she’s been doing that an awful lot lately. Also, she has a dark grey scarf round her neck, and he’s almost certain that wasn’t there earlier.
“Did you just put that on?”
“Made it,” she replies shortly. Her tone invites no further questions. “What reasoning?”
“Why are they so interested in me, in particular? Me. I mean, frankly, all things considered, that seems like a spectacularly awful decision.”
“I’m not one to question my superiors,” she says, though her voice holds a heavy undertone of agreement, and there’s far too much of a sigh in it. “Besides, the reason’ll become apparent. That might not happen instantly, but it’ll be soon enough.”
He shakes his head, backing away, stepping up onto the kerb. The drama of the moment is somewhat ruined by how careful he is doing that – the air’s damp, musty with recently fallen rain, and the half-trampled leaves on the pavement would be far too easy to slip on. “And if your ‘superiors’ are, what, just yanking my chain? If they somehow find all this a source of hilarity?”
“They don’t. ” She mutters something under her breath that sounded very much like, “Or they would probably have sent Nicholas.”
“Who?” he demands suspiciously. “Who’s Nicholas?”
She sighs. “I said Nikolai. And frankly, that’s none of your concern. This will be far easier if you stop fighting me. It must be exhausting, struggling against every order.”
“I’m not struggling. Surely you sometimes wonder why you have your orders?”
“Frequently,” she says, “but there is generally a good reason, and if there isn’t, then I ask.”
“And do they take that well?” he asks, his tone far too mocking. He sees Angela tense further; he knows he’s antagonising her and that this is utterly unhelpful, but, just like at the bar, he feels powerless to stop it.
“My superiors take very little well.” Her voice is quiet. He knows that he shouldn’t push, but he’s always been a contrary bastard.
“You saw what happened in there,” he snaps, flinging a hand out in a desperate gesture at the pub. “Do they think I’ll be of any use? To anyone?”
She shrugs. “I’m not entirely sure what you want me to say. Twice now, you’ve bemoaned your fate.” She glares at the street ahead – though he can tell she’s only resisting directing it at him by sheer force of will. “You might well be of some use, if you ever grow a spine.”
He grits his teeth. “Says the one of us who isn’t human. You don’t know anything about me.”
With a shake of her head, she tells him quietly, “I know everything. I’ve seen your soul.”
He turns, mouth open, wondering what the hell one’s meant to say to that, but she’s gone. He looks around, turns to see down the street. No-one. She’s gone. What – ?
I’ve seen your soul. That is very, very far from reassuring. The only sound he can hear is the regular tapping of his footsteps. He sighs, and it leaves his mouth in a fine mist. Shit. The cold’s truly setting in. The student in him wonders whether that’s a metaphor for something. He shoves the thought aside, unable to deal with it right now. He shivers, wishing that he’d decided to wear a coat tonight, and keeps walking. It’s not like he can make her reappear, and he needs to head to bed – all he wants is for tonight to end.