It is the Friday after Armageddon, and Aziraphale is about to start work.
He’s been putting it off. Of course, that statement could be applied to any one of the days he’s owned the shop over the past couple of centuries, but over the last week… over the past few glorious, unexpected days, allowing people into his shop has not entered into Aziraphale’s thoughts.
He has been telling himself that these last few days have been something like a bank holiday, just on a slightly higher scale. A day off in August to mark the summer passing, two days each for Easter and Christmas… surely four days off to commemorate the almost-end-of-everything is the least he deserves.
Still, even with a self-declared bank holiday, Aziraphale spends most of his time in the shop.
It has been a balm on his soul since the moment he stepped into it all those years ago. Aziraphale spent millennia roaming the earth, dutifully uprooting himself at a moment’s notice and going wherever the whims of his superiors sent him, regardless of the danger or discomfort involved for himself. After thousands of years of travel and blessings and miracles with no say in the matter, being able to claim a place which is entirely his own gives him such peace.
He seeks that peace out again, after everything. When the final glass of champagne lies drained at The Ritz, and Crowley lightly asks what he would like to do next, his first thought is of the bookshop.
“Of course,” Crowley says immediately, and Aziraphale can see from the corner of his eye that Crowley is staring at him with his hand propped on his chin and an indulgent smile on his face. Something within him protests.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Crowley,” he pleads. “Listen, I know you said it’s fine, but it really does mean an awful lot to me, you know, and I’d like -”
“– angel, I understand. ”
Aziraphale sees no irritation in his face when he lifts his eyes to meet his gaze. On the contrary, Crowley has already risen to his feet, and stands spinning the Bentley’s keys around his finger in an obnoxious gesture which nevertheless sets Aziraphale at ease.
Crowley had fished the keys out of his pocket repeatedly over the course of their meal, idly fiddling with them without him seeming aware of it. Aziraphale abruptly pictures Crowley’s beloved Bentley as it had been yesterday; a flaming mess of tortured metal, reduced to nothing more than scrap by its journey towards Armageddon, with Crowley left kneeling disconsolately before it, more miserable than Aziraphale has ever seen.
Light dawns over Aziraphale. “Why yes, I believe you do,” he says mildly, and allows Crowley to lead him out of the restaurant.
Now the thought of seeing his shop is in his head, Aziraphale does not seem to have the mental space for anything else, and he stares fixedly from the window as Crowley chauffeurs him home.
Crowley, bless his heart, does not try to force any conversation. He focuses on making his way through the London traffic as quickly as possible, merely sparing Aziraphale an occasional sidelong look as he drives. Aziraphale, perhaps for the first time ever, appreciates the truly terrifying speeds at which Crowley prefers to drive, and only lets loose the occasional yelp of alarm.
When they approach the bookshop, Aziraphale, overcome with his need to look it over, swings his way from the car before Crowley has time to stop. “Oi, careful!” Crowley calls as Aziraphale hurries towards the shop.
Aziraphale barely hears him. His attention is focused completely on his shop, a smile shining on his face as he takes it in through a flood of relief. Everything seems absolutely as it should be; the twin columns stand proudly in place, the windows remain intact, and the gold paint of his assumed name still shines, or would do were it not for the layer of grime and dust he allows to accumulate in an effort to drive customers away.
Aziraphale sighs deeply as his anxieties dissipate, and clasps his hands together as he stares at his shop. “Well, it certainly seems fine,” he says, and turns his head towards Crowley, intending to gush about the generosity of the young antichrist.
The expression on Crowley’s face stops him.
The Bentley is still running, and Crowley stands before it with the door hanging open, staring at the shop with a grim set to his lips. Those expressive eyes of his are opened wide behind his glasses, darting feverishly over the building as though he is seeing another scene entirely.
“You should have seen it,” he murmurs with a shake to his voice, approaching the shop as if walking towards an unexploded bomb. He shakes his head after a moment, swallowing hard as he rethinks his words. “Well, no, I’m glad you didn’t have to. It would have broken your heart, angel. Everything was burning, everything – the walls, the furniture, all of your books, and nothing - nothing was helping, and I really thought…” He trails off even as the dark thought completes itself in Aziraphale’s mind, and presses a trembling hand to a column, his long fingers curling over the stone as if seeking to reassure himself it really is there.
“But I was fine, my dear,” Aziraphale says softly, and his words seem to break the spell. Crowley whirls away from the shop, withdrawing his hand as though… well, as though the stone beneath it was wreathed in flame. He shoves his hands into his pockets and plasters on a cool smirk which does nothing to reassure Aziraphale.
“You were fine, look at that, you’re absolutely right. And anyway, it didn’t really happen, did it? So there’s no need for me to go boring you by telling you all about it.” Aziraphale’s brows draw into a frown as Crowley turns his back on the shop and heads for the Bentley. “Anyway, I’ll leave you to get reacquainted with it,” he calls back towards Aziraphale.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale breathes, and hurries after him in a quick trot. He reaches out a hand towards him, pushing through the residual fog of terror which, despite it all being over, still looms large after six thousand years of having to deny himself the chance to touch – if they are seen to be affectionate, they will be figured out, and Crowley will be destroyed – and takes Crowley by the shoulder with shaking fingers.
The effect is immediate. Crowley freezes in place before he can get into the car, and a startled gasp escapes his lips. The sound of it sends a thrill of excitement through Aziraphale, and he instinctively tightens his fingers on Crowley’s narrow shoulder in the hope of teasing out the same reaction.
Then Crowley casts his eyes back to meet Aziraphale’s, and the excited swirl in his stomach fades into something more subdued as he sees the hunted look in Crowley’s eyes.
“I thought you were… All those years I spent making sure you’re safe, and then I go and turn my back on you, and I thought you’d… gone,” Crowley forces out, his eyes darting over Aziraphale’s body just as fervently as they had examined the shop.
After a moment, they settle on his face. Aziraphale smiles reassuringly, and squeezes Crowley’s shoulder again. “You hardly turned your back, Crowley. As I recall it,” he says, his smile becoming something more tremulous as he thinks back on his actions, “I turned mine on you."
“No you didn’t. Not really. What, am I supposed to hate you because you had hope? Don’t be so bloody stupid,” Crowley snaps fiercely.
Flames crackle in Aziraphale’s stomach. He smiles, buoyed yet again by a surge of faith in the demon, before he wrangles his face into something more encouraging. “Well, regardless of all that, I’m here,” he says, injecting a jolt of good cheer to his voice. “And I’m quite all right, dear boy. And the shop’s fine, look! It happened, and I’m sure it was really rather awful, but it was undone. Everything is fine.”
“Everything’s fine,” Crowley echoes, and nods sharply after a moment. He sighs, and reaches out to cling to Aziraphale’s shoulder in return. His fingers spread, and their eyes meet, and neither look away as his thumb strokes hesitantly over Aziraphale’s throat. “You’re sure?” he asks, his voice barely there.
“I’m sure,” Aziraphale says firmly. His hand moves from Crowley’s shoulder to clasp over his hand. His fingers slot naturally between Crowley’s own, and Crowley sags at his touch.
“Thanks, Aziraphale.” He takes a deep breath, and his thumb strokes once more over Aziraphale’s throat, leaving a warm trail that tingles beneath Aziraphale’s skin.
Aziraphale clears his throat, and Crowley’s hand stills. He looks away and tries to pull his hand free, but Aziraphale tightens his fingers with a squeeze. He offers Crowley a smile. “Are you feeling better?”
Crowley throws his head back to laugh. “Honestly, angel, how could I not feel better around you?”
Aziraphale ducks his gaze, flustered. He takes a moment to collect himself before returning his eyes to Crowley. “I mean it, Crowley. Will you be all right?” He glances back at the shop, before issuing a polite wave towards it. “Would you like to come in?”
He truly expects Crowley to say yes, but after a long moment, Crowley straightens himself up and withdraws his hand. The smile he offers Aziraphale is small, but genuine, and Aziraphale returns it even as Crowley shakes his head. “I think I need to get my head down for a while,” he says, dragging his hand through his hair.
His voice sounds hollow, exhaustion suddenly lying heavily on his words, and Aziraphale bites down on his usual refrain about Crowley not needing to sleep. Suddenly, he really believes it would do him good to rest.
“And you should spend some time in there on your own. I think some things have changed – nothing bad,” he stresses quickly, as Aziraphale looks back at the shop in alarm, “I promise, I’d have told you before now. Listen, I’ll see you later, yeah?” he adds as he slides back into the Bentley, looking up at Aziraphale from behind his glasses.
“Not too much later, I hope?” Aziraphale asks lightly in return, producing a smile which probably seems more worried than the casual cheer he had intended, but it teases a smile from Crowley.
“A few days at most. I won’t be a stranger,” he promises. “I’ll see you soon.”
“I do hope so,” Aziraphale murmurs as the Bentley roars away. He can still feel the phantom press of Crowley’s thumb tingling at his throat.
And yet, the effect that merely being within the shop has on him is nothing short of miraculous. From the moment he hears the jingle of the bell over the door, a weight begins to fall away from his shoulders.
Crowley was quite right. Although the shop is mostly as he left it, with his books arranged in an order only he can fathom and the various knickknacks he has collected over the years proudly on display in their usual places, things are also occasionally slightly different. Here lies a collection of first edition Just William novels. There sits a signed and gloriously illustrated copy of The Secret Garden. For some unfathomable reason, a pile of New Aquarian magazines rests on a coffee table.
Aziraphale drifts around his shop, his sharp eyes cataloguing differences as he slowly unwinds the tension of the last week from his body. He allows his fingertips to trail over the books as he walks, revelling in the soothing brush of the covers as he breathes in the comforting scents of the bookshop: leather, polished wood, and the sweet, musky smell of old books.
And if he finds himself fancying that he can smell a faint whiff of ash, beneath it all, then it is easy enough to take a deep breath and dismiss the thought. The fire, as bad as it had sounded from Crowley’s description, had not actually happened, after all. Or rather, he reminds himself conscientiously, it had, but then it hadn’t. No use crying over milk that wasn’t spilled at all.
Hours pass and stretch into another day as he wanders the floor, taking the opportunity to investigate every inch of his shop.
On one level his mind works to familiarize himself with the small changes gifted to him by Adam, feeling a warm rush of gratitude towards the boy with every new book he notices, whilst telling himself sternly that he is not to judge the tastes of the child who just averted Armageddon.
On a baser level than that, somewhere deeper within his mind, Aziraphale merely… exists. He drifts around the shop like a mote of dust on the wind; he leafs through books at random with their words unheeded, he shifts the furniture by millimetres, and picks up his various curios to turn them over in his hands without really seeing them. He allows the mere continued existence of his shop to soothe his mind.
He passes the rest of the week in much the same way. He entertains himself by picking his favourite books off the shelf to re-read passages from them, reminding himself of the wonders of humanity and revelling in the knowledge that now there will be more books, more theatre, more joy to experience. He treats himself to meals when he feels the urge between reading, drinking tea and eating biscuits as he turns pages. He watches the sun rise from above the shop, looking up from a collection of Oscar Wilde stories and sighing softly in quiet delight as golden light washes over him.
He hears nothing from Crowley, but he tries not to worry. Crowley, he knows, will be in touch when he feels ready, and Aziraphale will not hurry him. Crowley has shown him enormous patience over the years, after all. Repaying that is the least he can do.
Still, the bookshop is, nominally, a business, and he knows that he cannot postpone work forever. Without customers, without being seen to work as a book trader, he suspects his connection to various other traders will dry up, and Aziraphale did not work to save the Earth only to lose the ability to chase down the various rare books he still has his eye on.
So on Friday morning, after treating himself to some delectable eggs benedict in a nearby café, he decides he may as well open for the day.
He is about to reluctantly leave the sanctuary of his desk and flip the sign on the door to open when the bell jingles. He turns in some surprise - he’s certain that he locked the door - but the expression on his face melts into a smile when he sees Crowley sauntering over the threshold.
There’s no lock fast enough to keep Crowley away when he wants to be near Aziraphale, it seems. The Bastille had taught him that, if nothing else.
“Angel!” he says, and despite it being less than a week since they dined together at The Ritz, his voice has the ebullient tone of somebody who has not seen a friend for decades and then unexpectedly runs into them whilst popping out for milk in their pyjamas. Aziraphale finds the same joy bubbling through him with Crowley’s cheerful greeting.
“Crowley,” he beams in return. “How lovely to see you! Or, at least - I hope it is?” he corrects, as a sudden anxiety lands in his stomach like a ball of ice. What if he has been resting on his laurels whilst calamity raged around him? He peers worriedly at Crowley. “Nothing has happened, has it?”
“What? Nah. Well, I mean, yes, lots of things have happened,” Crowley says with a grin. “That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Things have the opportunity to keep happening, all over the place.”
“You take my meaning,” Aziraphale huffs, even as he stifles a smile at Crowley’s good cheer. He’s not used to seeing the demon so open with his happiness, and he finds he rather likes it. There is much to be said for being able to exist outside of their previous affiliations, safe in the knowledge that nobody is watching them, and that they are free to behave as they will. For the first time, there is nothing holding them back, and Aziraphale finds the knowledge that anything can happen next both terrifying and thrilling in equal measure. He clears his throat, and turns his mind back to the matter at hand. “Nothing... worrisome?”
“Not a thing. Nothing at all. I have nothing to report,” Crowley says with a grand gesture, throwing his arms wide as his grin broadens. Aziraphale returns his smile with a rush of relief.
“How wonderful,” Aziraphale returns his smile with a rush of relief. “Yes, same here. Though truth be told, I’ve hardly left the shop since I saw you last,” he admits, and Crowley’s knowing look sends a flustered laugh through him.
“And is everything as you’d wish? Is it hunky-dory?” Crowley asks with a sardonic grin, and Aziraphale feels any remaining worries fade away with the slight jab, revelling in seeing the demon closer to his usual self. He watches as Crowley slides his hands into his pockets and begins to mooch around the shop, looking not a million miles away from the type of customer Aziraphale usually keeps a stern eye on, lest they try to walk away with a book hidden up their jumper.
“Everything is lovely, thank you for asking,” he says. Crowley’s gaze is gentler today, lacking its previous panic and anguish, and Aziraphale wonders how long he slept. It must have done him good.
“Very glad to hear it! So, are you busy?” Crowley asks casually, his eyes landing on a small globe as he looks over the shop.
“Well, I haven’t been. I haven’t opened the shop since you dropped me off here. Well, can you blame me?” he asks defensively as Crowley chuckles. “I could hardly face it, after everything. I feel as though the least we earned was some time to ourselves, don’t you?”
“Oh, the very least,” Crowley says agreeably. The globe spins beneath his long fingers.
“Well, quite. So I’ve taken a few days to myself,” Aziraphale says primly, though his shoulders drop as he glances towards the door. “But I suppose I should get back into it. I was just about to open the shop when you arrived,” he says with a rueful sigh.
Crowley’s grin sharpens. His eyes slide onto Aziraphale with an amused glint.
“And I can tell you’re raring to let the masses in,” he smirks. Aziraphale opens his mouth to protest half-heartedly when Crowley waves a hand at him. “Perhaps you’d let me talk you into changing your plans?”
Aziraphale brightens immediately. “What did you have in mind?”
“A day trip,” Crowley says, his gaze flickering away from Aziraphale to flit restlessly around the shop behind his sunglasses. “I fancy a drive.”
“Oh, really?” Aziraphale’s own gaze is fixed on Crowley, taking in his practiced nonchalance. “To anywhere in particular?”
“Just out and about,” Crowley shrugs. “Sort of. Maybe into the countryside. Just to...see. Things. Just to see how things are,” he adds, when his eyes briefly meet Aziraphale’s.
Ah. Aziraphale smiles to himself. “Do you mean to give the Bentley a longer test drive?”
Crowley gives a slow nod. “I suppose you could say that. I meant more along the lines of giving everything a test drive. The world. Or this little part of it,” he says with a loose shrug. Aziraphale’s eyebrows rise.
“Do you have reason to suspect all may not be as it was?” he asks worriedly.
Crowley shrugs again, and drags his fingertips delicately along a shelf as he wanders its length. Aziraphale finds his own gaze drawn to the gesture as Crowley moves. “Not precisely, but who knows? It’d be reassuring to see for myself that...oh, I dunno. That Berwick hasn’t vanished, or something.”
“Berwick?” Aziraphale laughs softly. “Is that where we’re going?”
“Nah. Well, if you want, sure,” Crowley says, turning his attention away from a pristine Austen to focus unblinking eyes on Aziraphale. “Do you want to? We can, if you want.”
Aziraphale stares in return, smiling fondly. “You rather sounded like you had somewhere in mind, even if you weren’t saying it.”
Another shrug. “S’pose I did. Nowhere special,” he admits, still clinging to his casual tone. “Just somewhere I think you’d find...nice,” he adds, with apparent difficulty, his face screwing up, before he growls and throws his hands up. “Look, angel, it’s a sunny day and the world didn’t end and I want to drive about! Will you keep me company, or what?”
Aziraphale’s smile broadens. “I suppose the shop will manage without customers for another day,” he says magnanimously.
Crowley’s laughter trails behind him as he heads for the door.
Crowley seems not to be in the chattiest of moods, which is hardly unusual. Instead, he appears to want to hear Aziraphale talk. He prompts him with questions about the shop; asks about the new books he’s received courtesy of the antichrist, asks if he plans on doing anything special with the last remaining fragment of Agnes Nutter’s work, and keeps prodding him to carry on speaking with encouraging murmurs.
Aziraphale is always pleased with the opportunity to talk books, and takes advantage whilst watching Crowley from the corner of his eye.
To someone who had not known him for six thousand years, he may seem no different to usual. He’s still draped in black clothes, form-fitting and carefully designed to draw the eye and show off his body, and he is somehow managing to slouch lazily in his seat while sending them along a narrow country line at seventy miles per hour. This is all par for Crowley’s course.
But Aziraphale sees the way his fingers tap restlessly at the steering wheel, and the way his shoulders tighten when he breaks off his tale to ask, “Are you feeling all right, my dear?”
“’Course! Why wouldn’t I be?” Crowley asks, his laugh a touch too loud. “We saved the bloody world last week, didn’t we?”
“Well, we certainly helped,” Aziraphale says with a pleased nod. He looks at the countryside rushing past and heaves a fond sigh at the green blur. “Are you still fretting about things being changed? I can’t claim to know every inch of the country, of course, but nothing is striking me as unusual about it so far. It all seems to be there, at least.”
“What?” Crowley asks, his brows drawing momentarily into a frown, before he clears his throat dismissively. “Oh. That. Yes, very good, everything seems to be in order.”
“Is something amiss with the Bentley, then?” Aziraphale hazards, looking around the car. Nothing seems odd, or out of place, and the ride seems as relatively smooth as ever, given the occasional jarring swerve to avoid other cars, pedestrians, and one very lucky rabbit.
Crowley hesitates for a moment, his eyes fixed on the road, before he shrugs loosely. “It’s too soon to tell,” he says, his voice smooth. “I mean, it’s a vintage car, nothing like it left on earth. What’s an eleven-year-old going to know about restoring it? Listen, would you put some music on?” he asks as Aziraphale opens his mouth to remind him of Adam’s extraordinary intelligence, and furthermore of his own not insubstantial ability to read Crowley’s moods.
Aziraphale remains silent for a moment, watching Crowley’s fingers tap at the wheel. They stop when Crowley glances to the side and follows his gaze. Crowley offers him a ridiculously large grin which leaves Aziraphale scoffing. It fades, and Crowley breathes out a sigh. “It’s nothing,” he says, his voice deliberately soft. “Nothing’s wrong, angel, I promise, don’t worry. I just want to get to where we’re going, and then we’ll just… see that everything is as it should be. Okay?”
“Well. All right,” Aziraphale says, relenting. “Though I do wish you’d tell me where we’re heading.”
“It’s a surprise,” Crowley says, and this time, his smile is barely a crook of his lips, but the fondness behind it sends a rush of warmth through Aziraphale. He smiles in return.
“Then I suppose I shall just wait and see, if you insist upon being mysterious. Now, some music, was it?” he asks, already fiddling with the glove box. “Do you have any preference?”
“Not at the moment,” Crowley says with a shrug. “Just the radio’ll do.”
“Oh. Yes. Now isn’t that a nice thought,” Aziraphale says, a smile lighting up his face as he turns to Crowley. “I imagine it won’t be getting interrupted any more.”
“Not for a very long while, after the way we played our cards,” Crowley grins.
Aziraphale hesitantly prods at the radio. It blares into life immediately, filling the car with a familiar voice.
“Too real is this feeling of make believe… Too real when I feel what my heart can’t conceal… Oh, yes, I’m the great pretender…”
“Turn it off,” sighs Crowley, disgruntled, and Aziraphale does so with a chuckle.
Crowley nods. “This is us,” he echoes softly. He spares Aziraphale a warm smile, then flings himself from the Bentley. With a wave of his hand, Aziraphale’s door opens itself.
“Oh, thank you, dear boy,” Aziraphale says as he levers himself from the car. He looks over at Crowley as he fiddles with something in the boot, then glances around at their surroundings.
There are no signs of any other cars along the track, and the only sounds he can hear are the distant laughter of children playing, mingled with birdsong and the occasional scurry of some hidden creature going about its business. The trees are lush and verdant, like those in Crowley’s apartment without the same undercurrent of fear, and have grown into a canopy which covers the road, lending the place a hidden, secretive feel. There is a slight breeze in the air, which sends the fresh scent of wild mint and damp soil winding around the two of them, and the occasional golden shaft of sunlight pierces the rustling leaves above them.
Aziraphale feels a smile spreading over his face. “What a lovely place you’ve found,” he remarks, and turns his attention back to Crowley just in time to see him click his fingers. When Aziraphale approaches, the boot is empty.
“You should see the rest,” Crowley grins, and closes the boot with a gentle click. He points a thumb over his shoulder and turns on his heel, heading for a stile in the wall.
Aziraphale follows in his wake, casting his eyes over the dirt track that leads into the woods. “There’s more?” he asks uncertainly.
Crowley clambers himself over the stile with his usual grace, then turns to watch him. “Of course there’s more! I didn’t bring you here to show you a bloody road,” he says impatiently, all but bouncing in place as he grins at Aziraphale. Aziraphale glances uncomfortably down at the dirt track, and when Crowley follows his gaze, he snorts in realisation. “Oh for the love of – I promise not even a speck of dirt will dare to stick to you,” he announces grandly, with a wave of his hand as though he is encompassing every millimetre of earth in the area. “I haven’t brought you here to dirty you up, angel, I promise.”
“Well,” Aziraphale stammers, as his thoughts run away with him.
Crowley gives him a puzzled look, before his mouth falls open. At first, he only makes a series of unintelligible noises, until he seems to grasp control of his tongue. “Come on,” he says, brushing hastily past the moment. He thrusts a hand out towards Aziraphale, and looks at him over the top of his sunglasses. “I promise, it’s worth it. Please?”
Aziraphale feels himself melting, just a little. “Oh, if you insist,” he says primly, and reaches out to take Crowley’s hand.
Crowley smirks in return. “I always do,” he grins, and hauls Aziraphale awkwardly over the stile.
The walk is not too arduous, though a slightly panting Aziraphale suspects that Crowley has deliberately slowed his pace to remain alongside him. They walk for five minutes or so, moving through the quiet hush of the trees in comfortable silence, and eventually begin to slope up a hill. Crowley, who has thus far led the way, suddenly steps to the side as the path heads out of the clustered woods and towards the crest of the hill.
“I don’t want to ruin the view,” Crowley says lightly.
Aziraphale smiles. “I hardly think the sight of you could ruin anything,” he says softly, because he believes it and because he can, and he relishes the way the demon huffs a short, fond laugh.
“You old charmer,” he snorts, and gestures pointedly to the path. “I mean it. Go on ahead, I’ll be right behind you.”
Aziraphale gives him a quizzical look, but Crowley merely returns it with an enigmatic smile of his own, so Aziraphale gives up on questioning him and starts walking. True to his word, he hears Crowley’s boots crunching on the path a few steps behind him.
The path takes him out of the treeline, and Aziraphale breathes deeply as he heads into a green field, dotted enthusiastically with wildflowers. The sound of playing children is louder here, just far enough away for it to be a pleasant undertone rather than intrusive, and he sees butterflies and bumblebees bobbing lazily through the scattered flowers as he follows the trail up the hill. There is, he realises, a large tree at the top of it, its branches spreading into the sky as though throwing themselves up in exultation. It must be nearing noon as the sun hangs high in the sky, covering the land with a golden wash of light which glints off the dappled leaves of the tree.
The land falls away as Aziraphale crests the hill, and his breath catches in his lungs. The hill flattens out a little at the top before tumbling down, and Aziraphale’s eyes widen in delight as he takes in the view.
Fields stretch out as far as he can see, dotted with sheep and yet more bright spots of wildflowers waving in the breeze. A stream trickles gently through the midst of them, seemingly in no hurry to make its way along as it splashes playfully over scattered rocks. The woods sweep off to the east, looming over the meadows and leaving their cool shade to meet the tender warmth of the sun. Just where his vision begins to waver, over to the west, stands a small village watching over the fields, its clock tower just beginning to strike noon on the edge of his hearing. Aziraphale’s mouth falls open as Crowley arrives beside him, his eyes gazing out over everything as they stand in the shade of the enormous tree above them.
He looks up, and is entirely unsurprised to see apples hanging from the branches. Of course.
“Crowley,” he murmurs in astonishment, and Crowley nods beside him.
“I know,” he says, and the warmth in his voice makes Aziraphale turn to face him.
Crowley keeps looking out over the land with a small smile tugging at his lips, turning his face into the sunlight like a man emerging from the depths of winter. “’s good, right?”
“Good? Crowley, it’s – it’s beautiful,” Aziraphale breathes as he looks out over the countryside.
“It certainly is,” Crowley says softly, and Aziraphale realises with a flush that the demon has turned his eyes to him. He opens his mouth to protest, when his own gaze falls beyond the edge of the tree’s branches, midway between the light and the shade.
A large blanket in Aziraphale’s favourite tartan pattern lies spread out over the grass. Beside it is a gently bulging wicker basket and a champagne bucket housing several bottles.
“Ready for lunch?” Crowley drops to his knees to start unbuckling the straps on the basket as though this is something they do all the time; as though he hasn’t just effortlessly catapulted Aziraphale back in time almost fifty years.
“You remembered,” Aziraphale breathes as wonder courses through him. He mentioned something once during an awkward moment, half a century ago, and now here kneels a demon atop a picnic blanket.
“Hmm?” Crowley barely shoots him a sidelong glance as he concentrates on opening the basket.
Aziraphale’s eyes do not move from him. “You remembered,” he repeats, no less stunned. “Crowley, you really didn’t have to.”
Crowley’s hands still. Eventually, his eyes still on the basket, he murmurs, “Well, we did The Ritz, didn’t we?”
Aziraphale swallows. His stomach is fluttering as though filled with butterflies, and he feels as though he could soar through this beautiful azure sky even without his wings. “Yes, I suppose we did.”
“And you only asked for two things.” He turns at last, looking steadily up at Aziraphale. “The Ritz, and a picnic. Well, I suppose you asked for three things, really. The Ritz, a picnic, and time.” A smile flits hesitantly across his face, as though he isn’t absolutely certain of his response, and Aziraphale’s heart stutters in his chest. “We did the Ritz, and I’m trying to give you time, angel, I really am.”
“You have given me all the time in the world,” Aziraphale whispers, his mind boggling at the enormity of this, because who else could really claim such a thing?
Crowley laughs in delight, and shrugs his slim shoulders. “So far I’ve given you an extra week than we were due, at least,” he grins. “Anyway, after all that... what’s a picnic, really? A picnic’s nothing, in the cosmic scale of things. And I couldn’t just leave it dangling. Not after you asked,” he says, his voice softening as he gazes unblinking at Aziraphale.
“It’s not nothing,” Aziraphale says, swallowing hard. “Oh, dear boy, it’s really not nothing at all. You’ve given me so much.”
“Hey, you haven’t even seen the food, yet,” Crowley says easily, but his eyes are shining, and his lips are parted in a broad smile.
Aziraphale can feel the weight of six thousand years of possibilities and denials rising up around him, tugging at his soul and pushing him forward, and with a deep breath he simply...lets it all go.
It takes no effort at all to drop to his knees in front of Crowley, who levels a surprised look at him. He shuffles forward until they are face to face, and for the first time in their long friendship, he wraps his arms around the demon.
Crowley freezes in his embrace for a second...another...and then all but melts against him. His arms creep up hesitantly, as though he is not certain what to do, but eventually, they envelop Aziraphale in his hold. After a moment, Crowley heaves a long, wavering sigh, as though releasing a breath he has held for thousands of years.
The sun shines over them. Birdsong seems to flare, filling the air with triumphant chirps and trills, as Aziraphale hooks his chin over Crowley’s shoulder and breathes in the scent of him. Crowley groans softly, and turns his face into Aziraphale’s neck.
They kneel together for a few moments, silently enjoying the embrace. Aziraphale takes the opportunity to hesitantly card his fingers through the soft strands of Crowley’s hair, privately admiring the way the sun turns it into a halo of fire, whilst Crowley settles his arms around Aziraphale’s rather soft middle and squeezes with a contented sigh.
“Well,” Aziraphale says after a moment, and grins in surprised delight when the feel of his breath against Crowley’s neck makes the demon shiver. “This is all rather nice, don’t you think?”
“Mmm,” Crowley mumbles, and Aziraphale feels the way his face screws into a moue of distaste against his throat at his choice of words. Still, he doesn’t snap back as he so often has; instead, he says lightly, “Worth waiting for, I’d say. But I didn’t bring you here for us to end up cuddling.”
“Didn’t you?” Aziraphale says knowingly, casting his eyes over the breathtaking scene Crowley has offered up to him.
Crowley grumbles indignantly in his grasp, squirming in a half-hearted attempt to break the embrace. “Shut up, angel,” he huffs, and Aziraphale pulls back far enough to see a tell-tale flush to Crowley’s cheeks. He beams at him, endlessly charmed, and earns an impatient growl from the demon. “Now, come on, I brought you here to give you a picnic, and I put a lot of effort into it, so I don’t want it getting stale!”
“Do you really expect me to believe that you’d allow that to happen?” Aziraphale retorts, enjoying himself immensely. He takes the opportunity to straighten Crowley’s collar fussily with one hand as the other holds him in place, not bothering to hide his grin as Crowley glowers at him. He knows the demon too well to believe his act for a moment.
“I’m not all-powerful, Aziraphale,” Crowley reminds him. “Don’t come crying to me when your sandwiches are soggy! I can’t control entropy!”
“You stopped time for me, once,” Aziraphale murmurs, and Crowley’s mouth snaps shut. Aziraphale’s fingers tug once more at the collar of his shirt, then smooth over the sharp line of his collarbone, because he can. Because finally, nobody is watching. “Just because I asked.”
“Yeah, well,” Crowley grumbles moodily after a long second. He sniffs, then places a hand over Aziraphale’s to squeeze it gently, the action a soft counterpoint to his affected nonchalance. “That was the end of the world. This is just cake.”
“Oh, is there cake?” Aziraphale asks, his interest suddenly piqued. He pulls back to try and peer into the opened basket, and sighs when he finds the demon smirking at him. “You stop that this instant,” he protests, pouting petulantly. “Just because I happen to think humanity is rather clever when it comes to cake, and, and -”
“ - brioche?” Crowley finishes, and as he speaks, a loaf rises from the depths of the basket and waggles itself enticingly in front of Aziraphale. He briefly tries to summon up some semblance of indignance, before he catches sight of the label on its bag.
“Crowley!” he gasps, unhanding him to reach out for it. It floats into his grasp as the demon chuckles at his side. “You didn’t go all the way to Paris, surely!”
“Well, why not? I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if’, and it turns out that bakery you liked so much is still there,” Crowley grins. “Still run by the original family, can you believe it?” Aziraphale, however, has distracted himself by casting his eye over the rest of the picnic as it begins to unpack itself.
Plates of sandwiches rise from the basket, arranged neatly with their crusts removed. A gently quivering quiche follows them, still steaming as though not long removed from the oven. A few pies trail along behind it, then sausage rolls, and then – “Oh, dear boy, are they scotch eggs?” Aziraphale asks in delight.
“Mmhmm,” Crowley murmurs, watching indulgently as Aziraphale gives up on resisting temptation and snatches one out of the air. A noise approaching rapture escapes him as the demon watches him chew, wrinkling his nose for just a moment. “I just don’t know what you see in them.”
Aziraphale swallows. “What’s not to like?” he asks in astonishment. “Egg, and sausage, and that coating!”
“Precisely,” Crowley sniffs.
“Well, I don’t understand you. They’re wonderful. You’ve no taste, Crowley,” Aziraphale sighs. He tries to hide his smile as Crowley rolls his eyes behind his glasses.
“Look who’s talking. You know, I give, but I could very easily taketh away,” Crowley claims irritably, but the parade of food continues to take place behind him. Aziraphale watches as desserts emerge from the basket, bobbing merrily along through the air before settling on the blanket, which seems to be growing larger by the second to accommodate everything. His eyes track over a procession of merrily bobbing fairy cakes, a bowl of trifle, another pie with a sugar-coated crust, what seems to be an Eton mess, a scarlet jelly studded with raspberries…
“Well, now, this is too much,” Aziraphale protests as an entire black forest gateaux swans its way dramatically from the basket.
Crowley merely shrugs. He gets to his feet to remove his jacket and throws it carelessly over a low-hanging branch of the tree. His scarf follows, and then his waistcoat, leaving him in an exquisitely tailored shirt which shows off the trim lines of his body perfectly. He stretches his bare arms towards the sky and arches his back, luxuriating in the heat from the sun, before groaning softly, “I wasn’t sure what you’d want, so I thought… best to just bring it all.”
It takes Aziraphale a moment to wrestle his tongue back under his control as he stares at Crowley, his eyes tracing slowly over him, drinking him in like a person stumbling across a glass of water in the Sahara. Eventually, he manages, “We can’t eat all this!”
Crowley drops down on the blanket to sprawl out on his back, propping himself up on his elbows. He arches an amused smile up at Aziraphale as he crosses his feet at the ankle and basks in the sun. “Nobody’s saying you have to. Just enjoy whatever you want.”
“But it’s such a waste,” Aziraphale protests wretchedly. He manages to tear his attention away from the demon and glances at the village in the distance. Hunger and helplessness, he knows, do not limit themselves to big cities. He shoots Crowley a pleading look, drawing on six thousand years of restraint to ignore the pleasant fizzing sensation that swirls in his stomach with the sight of the demon laid out before him. “I’m sure there are people nearby who’d appreciate whatever’s left, afterwards.”
The demon stares back at him, impassively, until Aziraphale’s pleading expression droops into something more downcast, when he growls beneath his breath. “All right,” he all but hisses. “I’ll take you there, and you can find somebody to foist your bloody leftovers off on. For God’s – ugh. You’ll ruin my street cred, you know that? You’re bloody terrible for me, angel.”
“Thank you, Crowley,” Aziraphale beams, trying to hide the slight smug air to his smile and, judging from the way Crowley scowls at him, not quite succeeding. He pats Crowley carefully on the shin, and tells him sincerely, “You’ll rest all the easier tonight knowing that you’ve helped somebody.”
“Will you stop slandering me and start eating?” Crowley huffs, and Aziraphale can’t help but grin at him.
“Well. If you insist,” he says primly.
He has a brief moment of indecision, surrounded as he is by so much tempting food, before he follows his instincts and reaches for a sandwich. It is delicious – turkey with brie and redcurrant jelly, a particular favourite of his – and the instinctive groan that spills unselfconsciously from his lips is echoed by a throaty chuckle from Crowley. Aziraphale swallows past the lump in his throat and shoots Crowley a peevish look. “You are going to join me, surely?” he asks.
Crowley shrugs liquidly. “I might have a sausage roll in a bit. They’re doing them vegan now, you know,” he offers, and Aziraphale arches an impressed eyebrow.
“Are they really? How commendable!”
“Mm. It didn’t half cause a fuss, though,” he grins, with a hint of teeth. “I enjoyed watching all that go down.”
“Honestly, Crowley,” Aziraphale says through another bite. “Haven’t you anything better to do?”
Crowley waggles his eyebrows. “Not a sausage,” he smirks.
Aziraphale barely hides his smile. He seats himself cross-legged in the shade of the tree, and begins eating in earnest. Everything that passes his lips is glorious. Crowley, he knows, does not bake, but Aziraphale suspects that great care has gone into gathering these foodstuffs. Every morsel is cooked to perfection, and sits in the absolute best state in which to be eaten, whether chilled or piping hot; Aziraphale suspects the occasional creak coming from the basket is due to the tortured laws of physics reasserting themselves within it.
As he eats, Crowley abandons his sprawl to pop the cork on a bottle of champagne from the bucket. He pours two glasses, and leans over to offer one to Aziraphale. Filling his mouth with pork pie – the jelly is divine, and Aziraphale would know – Aziraphale takes it from him. Their fingers brush.
A moment stretches between them.
Crowley smiles at him, an expression more delicate than Aziraphale has ever seen from the demon, and gently clinks their glasses together. “Go on,” he murmurs, and takes a sip from his glass.
Aziraphale’s eyes drop to helplessly watch the bob of his throat as he swallows.
“You keep on enjoying yourself. Take your time, we’ve got as long as you want,” Crowley encourages, waving his glass over the spread. Crowley then settles himself back in the sun, lying out with his head pillowed on one hand as the other holds the glass, his face turned up towards the sky and his eyes closed as he basks in the heat, practically radiating serenity.
Aziraphale swallows his pork pie.
His mouth is suddenly dry, but the champagne takes care of that after a moment, and the bubbles fizz on his tongue like so many words unsaid. His stomach, already beginning to protest after Aziraphale made sure to have a helping of every savoury item on offer, swirls dizzily as he watches Crowley wriggle to make himself even more comfortable with a satisfied sigh. The demon looks more relaxed than Aziraphale has seen him in a very long while, and as Aziraphale casts his eyes fondly along the line of his long, lean body, he abruptly feels a giddy rush of warmth. “Summer is certainly on the way, isn’t it?” he chatters as he analyses the feeling, quietly certain that the heat has nothing to do with it.
Crowley merely hums in response as he suns himself, tilting his head back towards the sky. It bares the elegant line of his neck perfectly.
Aziraphale fiddles with the cuff of his jacket. “Perhaps I’ll just,” he mutters to himself, and stands up decisively.
He shrugs off his jacket and drapes it neatly over the tree branch alongside Crowley’s coat. He hesitates for a moment, feeling the heat of the sun on the back of his neck, before unbuttoning his waistcoat and placing it alongside his coat. It is the work of just a moment to loosen his bow tie and leave it atop the waistcoat, and he sighs in relief when the slightest hint of a breeze flows over his forearms as he rolls his shirtsleeves up. Finally, he unties his shoes, tucks his socks into them, and leaves both neatly on the grass beneath the tree. He flexes his toes in the grass, and something about the feeling suddenly transports him back thousands of years.
Another tree. Another sunny day.
The same serpent.
Aziraphale trails his fingers over the gnarled bark of the tree and sighs softly to himself. The weight of centuries gone by hangs over him, but not unpleasantly; it drapes over him comfortingly, like a warm blanket on a winter night, keeping away the cold.
Six thousand years. They have done so much together. Travelled the length of the Earth. Vied and bickered and laughed together in the midst of wonders and depravities. Got in each other’s way and then deliberately stepped aside, in a dance that ebbed and flowed through the centuries. They have tried things for the first time together, just to see what new excitement humanity had come up with, and they have done things together for the thousandth time, simply because they were fun, and nobody else could appreciate how marvellous these creatures truly were.
And now they have the chance to continue to be marvellous. And Crowley and Aziraphale have the chance to… what? What is left to do, after doing so much together? Aziraphale feels the weight of time swelling behind him like water flooding into a dam, barriers creaking in protest as leaks begin to trickle through.
He turns to look at Crowley, entirely unsurprised to find the demon’s eyes fixed on him, and he simply lets the weight push him forward like flotsam as the dam bursts.
Aziraphale walks out from the shade of the tree and seats himself by Crowley’s side, closer than he would have done a mere week ago. The sun bathes him in its light as he stretches his legs out and props himself up on one hand, looking down at Crowley as he stares back up at him. “Crowley, my dear,” he says lightly, and studies his face with the same fervent anticipation he would devote to a copy of Love’s Labours Won. “You know you didn’t have to do this for me.”
“I know,” Crowley says easily. “But I wanted to.”
“You do so much for me,” Aziraphale adds, his words tumbling from his mouth rather more quickly than he meant. He stops, takes a breath, and releases it slowly to calm the hammering of his heart. “And I appreciate that, I really do.”
“I know,” Crowley repeats. A smile tugs at the corners of his mouth as he watches Aziraphale.
“I really shouldn’t ask any more of you. Not when you’ve given me so much,” Aziraphale says. He smiles shyly at Crowley. “But I do have a request, if you’d be willing to indulge me?”
“Anything,” breathes Crowley. He arches an eyebrow at Aziraphale. “Anything you want. Just name it.”
Aziraphale leans closer to hover hesitantly over Crowley. “Would you let me kiss you?” he asks softly. He cannot help the gentle laugh which escapes him as Crowley’s eyes widen, and his mouth drops open in astonishment.
“Kiss me?” Crowley echoes, the words stuttering in his throat as he gapes up at Aziraphale.
“I never have,” Aziraphale admits easily. “Kissed, that is. I’d say there’s never been anyone I wanted to kiss, but I suspect you know that isn’t quite true.”
“I… yes,” Crowley manages to grind out.
Aziraphale nods. “I don’t know that I could have, before… well. Everything. And I can’t promise to be good at it, obviously, what with – but humanity seems to muddle their way through it, don’t they, and they rather seem to enjoy it, so perhaps -”
“ – angel,” Crowley interrupts, suddenly finding his voice. He stares up at Aziraphale, his eyes crinkling fondly despite his impatience. “I mean yes, I want you to kiss me, I want – yes, please, kiss me!”
“Oh!” Aziraphale says, his own eyebrows rising, before he smiles happily down at the demon. “Well then!”
He leans in, curling onto his side to hover over Crowley on one arm. His free hand rises to settle on Crowley’s face, hesitantly at first, before he gently cups his chin and raises it slightly, his thumb brushing over the sharp line of his jaw. Crowley allows himself to be moved without protest as Aziraphale leans closer and, with a final intake of breath, presses their lips together.
It should, perhaps, feel like an anti-climax. It is a kiss six thousand years in the making, after all, and for a moment, Aziraphale suspects neither of them knows quite what to do. And then… and then their lips part, and Crowley tangles a shaking hand in Aziraphale’s hair with a groan, and something seems to click into place as Aziraphale moans softly in return and eagerly presses even closer.
A long, fevered moment passes. When they part, leaving mere inches between the two of them, both are panting. Smiles spread slowly over their faces. “Well,” Aziraphale says lightly, and leans down to nuzzle his nose against Crowley’s, because every fibre of his being is crying out to have more contact with him, “I can see why humans like it so much.”
“Definitely worth saving the world for,” Crowley claims, and the sheer force of his grin could blind anybody else, Aziraphale is sure of it. His fingers stroke through Aziraphale’s hair and the angel stutters a sigh as the sensation flashes through him like wildfire. “You know you don’t have to do this, right, angel?” Crowley’s mouth curls uncertainly.
Aziraphale wants to be rid of the expression, so he leans close again, and kisses Crowley’s lips until they part in a moan of happiness, when he draws back in satisfaction. “Crowley,” he sighs, and beams down at the demon. “You wonderful, brilliant, daft old sod. I really don’t think I’ll be happy until we’ve done this as much as possible, my dear.”
“Oh. Well. Yeah,” Crowley drawls, suddenly all practiced nonchalance, even as his hand slides down from Aziraphale’s hair to cup his cheek. “That’s all right, then. ‘s a good job we’ve got the rest of time then, ey?”
“I suppose it is,” Aziraphale grins, and does not resist the temptation to kiss him again. And again. And a few more times after that, just because he can.
Crowley basks in the attention for awhile, until eventually he pulls away from Aziraphale to indicate the picnic with a jerk of his head. “What about that?” he asks petulantly, his kiss-swollen lips twitching as he hides a smirk.
Aziraphale laughs in surprise. “Oh. Yes. I suppose I forgot.” He withdraws to pat his stomach self-consciously. “It would be greedy of me to have any more. I did rather fill myself up.”
“But I got all those desserts for you,” Crowley protests in something close to a whine. He levels a knowing look at Aziraphale. “You don’t have room for one little dessert?”
“Well,” Aziraphale says, drawing out the word as his eyes are drawn to the spread. He shoots Crowley a sheepish look. “Perhaps just one?”
He ends up eating a slice of apple pie with Crowley’s head in his lap. His fingers slide through soft, copper strands as they lie in companionable silence, the future stretching out ahead of them just as tangibly as the beautiful countryside. “It really is wonderful here, Crowley,” Aziraphale says as Crowley dozes beneath the combined force of the sun and the angel’s delicate touches.
“Mmm,” he agrees, not bothering to open his eyes. Instead he tilts his head and leans closer to Aziraphale’s hand. “We can stay, if you want.”
“Stay?” Aziraphale gazes out at the fields, the woods, the village in the distance. “Hmm. For how long, were you thinking?”
Crowley yawns. “Oh, I dunno. Today. Forever. Whatever you want, angel.”
Aziraphale smiles. “Then perhaps,” he says lightly, “I can put off opening the bookshop for a little while longer.”