They don’t quite make it back to Mayfair.
“Oh, Crowley,” Aziraphale murmurs. “Are you really so tired?”
The demon regards him with weary yellow eyes, little more than a pile of boneless coils draped in the next seat. Aziraphale strokes a hand from Crowley’s head down his neck, fingers gentle against the smooth groove of scales. Crowley is familiar to Aziraphale in all his forms, but there is a very special place in the angel’s heart for the serpent.
There is still a conversation to be had. Heaven and Hell certainly aren’t pleased with their meddling, and Agnes’ last warning of choose your faces wisely hasn’t been far from the front of Aziraphale’s mind since he read it. They’re not out of the woods just yet.
But for now-- for a little while, at least-- there is time to rest. Crowley can press into the warmth of Aziraphale’s hands and know he is safe.
Aziraphale can hold him and know the same.
“Never you mind, my dear,” Aziraphale says, his heart full. “I’ll carry you the rest of the way.”
It’s his turn, he thinks, to bear some of the weight.
There is a cross little voice somewhere in the back of Aziraphale’s mind that tells him how foolish it is, to place so much trust in a demon. It’s a familiar voice; it sounds a lot like Michael, chiding him every time he lingers too long in Crowley’s shadow, nudging him away every time he wants to stay a little longer, talk a little more. There are ways angels must behave, after all. There are things one can and cannot do.
He wonders what Michael would say if she could see him now, giving Crowley his form to wear like armor. He wonders what his punishment would be, for granting a Fallen One this unlimited access to the holy grounds. But more than that, he wonders if this will be enough.
“If they take you,” Aziraphale says fitfully, clutching Crowley’s hands-- his own hands, piloted by Crowley’s reluctant affection as they hold each other. “If they take you to Heaven-- “
“Don’t you waste time worrying about me, angel,” Crowley mutters, shifting uneasily. He doesn’t have sunglasses to hide behind, not now that he’s wearing Aziraphale’s face, and their eye contact is a very fragile creature indeed. “I’ve been Upstairs before, for all that it’s been awhile. You just worry about Hell, about getting out safe.”
“And if it goes wrong-- “
“We’ll think of something.”
It’s strange to look down at himself and know it’s Crowley staring back at him from those misty blue eyes, but it’s only strange in a fleeting sense, the way bedclothes are cold at first until they warm with body heat. If anyone could be trusted to parade about in Aziraphale’s form-- if anyone could know Aziraphale well enough to get it right, to pass without suspicion-- it would be Crowley.
And isn’t that a funny thought, he muses as the sun warms to the idea of a new dawn. The morning light peers through the wide windows of Crowley’s airy flat, glancing down on the two of them where they sit cross-legged and facing each other on the bed.
Funny that the idea of Gabriel or Uriel coming this close, taking this much, is enough to make Aziraphale’s breath hitch with fear.
Funny that a sweep of Crowley’s thumb across his knuckles is enough to soothe him entirely.
They’ve been this close before; stowed away in the cavernous hull of the great ark with a hundred smuggled Mesopotamian children, while drowning men outside begged for entry; stranded on the shores of Pompeii as a city they were both fond of and its twenty-thousand souls succumbed to ash; Europe when it was ravaged by the plague, millions of people dying faster than two desperate angels could heal them; that awful cantina where Crowley went half out of his mind in 1481, a burned letter of commendation lost somewhere among empty jugs of wine.
They’ve held one another up through countless tragedies. They held one another up through the end of the world. It comes naturally by now.
“Whatever happens, you’re not alone,” Crowley tells him, misreading the sudden tension. “You know that.”
“Of course I do,” Aziraphale says. Truly, he does.
It’s lovely to see the bookshop intact. Aziraphale had been fully prepared to find a smoking ruin, or so he told himself, but everything was exactly where it should have been (with the exception of a few childish additions, courtesy of the Antichrist).
Crowley follows him home from their celebratory lunch at the Ritz, picking his way gingerly up the steps with perhaps a fifth of Aziraphale’s enthusiasm.
Aziraphale, to his shame, doesn’t even notice until he’s gone on and puttered about for a good twenty minutes. It’s not until the fourth time Crowley grants him no more than a two-syllable response that Aziraphale is drawn up short. He pauses with a well-loved first edition of The Tempest in his hands, looking over at where his friend is lingering uncomfortably by the door.
“My dear?” he says. “Won’t you come in?”
Crowley slouches the rest of the way to the backroom with a commendable amount of surliness, but Aziraphale isn’t fooled. He summons a bottle each of Chateau Palmer and d'Yquem and sets them on the table-- with the white nearest Crowley, who would never admit he preferred it over the red-- and settles in for a gentle interrogation.
“Don’t even start,” Crowley grumbles, cutting him off at the pass. He knocks back the first glass of wine, without a pause to appreciate the vintage or bouquet, and pours another. “Just looked different.”
Aziraphale can’t help glancing about the shop. It’s as dusty as it ever was, with its towering stacks and dimly-lit sconces. Even the piles of books on the tables and chairs are the same, down to the last crack in the last vellum spine.
“Before,” Crowley elaborates. “When it was burning. Looked different.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale says, surprised. “Yes, I rather think so.” He pours himself a glass, more for something to do with his hands than anything, and says slowly, “You were here, then? When it-- You saw it, I mean. From outside.”
“From inside, angel. Ran in for you, didn’t I?” Crowley abandons his glass and picks up the bottle, lifting it in a toast. The drinks over lunch have already softened his sharp edges, and what’s left of him isn’t quite up to guarding his secrets as stubbornly as usual. “Fat lot of good that did. You’d gone already.”
He’d come to the bookshop by himself earlier that morning, before their trials, at Aziraphale’s behest. The angel suddenly, fiercely regrets it.
“Oh,” Aziraphale says again.
There is something churning inside him that feels both like anguish and quite a bit like wonder. How a feeling can be painful and pleasant at the same time, he’s no idea, but he embraces it.
“You’re remarkable, Crowley.” It’s the first thing he can wrestle out of his aching chest, and it falls laughably short. “Demon or not. I’ve never known anyone else like you.”
Crowley laughs, a short, unhappy sound. “Oh, yeah. I’m one of a kind.”
Aziraphale pats the seat next to his on the worn sofa, suddenly quite unable to bear the distance between them. “Come here, dear.”
For a long moment, Crowley doesn’t move. His eyes are hidden behind those sunglasses, rendering his face all but unreadable. Then, as though coming to a decision, he unfolds himself from the sagging armchair and rounds the table, collapsing showily next to the angel in a splay of long limbs.
The nearness of him settles the ache in Aziraphale’s heart, whether or not that was his intention. Aziraphale can feel Crowley’s heart racing, the fragile human body wrapped around that celestial core thrumming with stubborn life. It’s a comfort, this nearness.
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Crowley says, more to the bottle in his hand than to anyone else. “Lucky me, I’m damned already.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Ngh. Don’t worry about it.” He shifts closer by an inch, head lolling along the back of the sofa until it comes to a daring rest against Aziraphale’s shoulder. “I’ve decided I’ll take what I can get.”
Aziraphale has a shop to run, and Crowley has plants to terrorize, so they part ways somewhere between midnight and morning. It’s surprisingly difficult to watch the demon leave, after having come so close to losing him; so Aziraphale stays safely behind his counter, where he’s far enough away that he can’t reach out and hold Crowley back.
They’ve spent whole years apart before, whole decades. What is a night or two, or even a week, even a month, now that they’ve got the rest of their lives ahead of them? A blink of an eye, really. A fraction of a second. It’s foolish to feel a pang at the parting.
Lingering by the door, Crowley turns around. There’s a peculiar look in his eyes, exposed and uncertain, when he says, “Hey. How about that picnic?”
One can always count on Crowley to remember even the smallest exchange, even if it was years ago and offered as little more than a hopeful afterthought. It’s one of the staggering multitude of ways the demon is actually very sweet, though it’s best not to say as much aloud.
“I’d love to, dear boy. Tomorrow?” He glances out the window at the gray light of early dawn. “Or this evening, rather?”
“Tomorrow,” Crowley corrects, a half-smile on his face he can’t seem to help. “You’ll be wrapped up in your books all day and I’m not going to the bloody shops without you. We can pick up what we need tonight. Maybe try that new Indian restaurant in Kensington for an early supper?”
Aziraphale has the overwhelming urge to sweep out from behind the counter and gather the dear creature up in his arms. He folds his hands instead and contents himself with a smile as warm and as wide as he can make it.
“That sounds divine.”
Crowley’s half-smile graduates into the full thing, a crooked, helplessly charming number. It seems to linger in the shop long after he’s gone, and Aziraphale feels changed by it somehow, as though there’s a weight in his chest that wasn’t there before. A weight like a hand pressing harmlessly, without urgency, without agenda, against the fluttering mess of his very human heart, and when Crowley looks at him like that, smiles at him like that, it presses just a little bit harder.
Aziraphale tends to fuss over details, but really, he wants the picnic to be perfect. He’ll need some crisps, cold cuts, and fruits to finish out the platter he has in mind, but the cheese is an excellent start.
Crowley has more virtue than the other angels of Hell combined, but even his patience is waning by the time they stop at the cheese counter.
There’s a new truffle gouda that the helpful associate recommends, offering Aziraphale a sample wedge with a generous dollop of honey and a sourdough cracker, and he’s rather taken by it.
“Really, Crowley, try a bite,” he coaxes. “It can’t be worse than the oysters.”
“We’ll miss our reservation if you keep dithering, angel. Just get that moldy lot you usually do and be done with it.”
“I should think that for a special occasion you might be willing to try something new,” Aziraphale says primly. “And I wish you wouldn’t call it moldy, Camembert is delightful.”
“I’m going to be put off my appetite at this rate,” the demon grouses. When he stalks off, it’s not quite as dramatic as he might like it to be, considering the laden grocery basket hanging from his elbow. “I’m picking the wine.”
“Oh, get a Pinot Noir, would you?” Aziraphale calls after him. “It should compliment this gouda wonderfully.”
The associate is smothering a smile as she wraps up the gouda, along with his favorite Camembert and a large wedge of alpine.
“I hope he isn’t too upset with you,” she says when she’s handed it all over. “The two of you make a good pair.”
She doesn’t know them as any more than passing strangers, but Aziraphale can’t help feeling touched. It’s perhaps the first time anyone has said as much about the company he keeps, that they’re good together.
Aziraphale certainly thinks so, and damn anyone else’s opinion, but it’s still a nice thing to hear.
When he catches up with Crowley, the demon is making a big show of studying the white wines, but there’s clearly a Pinot Noir already bundled into his basket. Smiling, Aziraphale steps up beside him and slips a hand into the crook of his free arm.
Crowley is pleasant to the touch for a cold-blooded creature. He radiates warmth and good intentions like no angels of Heaven have ever done, a tireless spring of imagination and optimism and endless, fearless curiosity. No matter how high he builds his defenses of sarcasm and indifference, the truth is there. It’s always been there, from as early as the garden wall.
He belongs in Hell about as much as Aziraphale belongs in Heaven; which is to say, he doesn’t really belong there at all.
“You don’t have to try the cheese,” Aziraphale says, offering the token olive branch.
Crowley seems thrown for a moment, tense with surprise beneath Aziraphale’s hand, but he relaxes a heartbeat later.
“This is what we do now?” he asks of the rows of wine, hidden eyes trained straight ahead.
“I don’t see why not,” Aziraphale tells him. They’ve newly run out of reasons not to do as they wish, and lately-- often-- Aziraphale wishes for nothing more than this: Crowley, and himself, and as little space between them as can be managed. “You know what that young lady back there told me? She said we made a good pair.”
“Shows what she knows,” Crowley says, scathing. Incongruently, the hand he rests over Aziraphale’s is so gentle that the angel has to look more than once to make sure it’s really there.
While Crowley was crawling about in the garden on his belly, Aziraphale was guarding it with a god-given sword. One of them has always been much softer than the other, even if they’re both usually content to lose track most of the time.
Most of the time.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale says, not feeling very sorry at all, “but what is it that you think you’re doing here?”
The angel in the bookshop is unfamiliar to him at a glance. It could be that their corporeal form is new, or that they’ve never met before, but he sees the way they look at Crowley. He sees the disdain dripping off them like a disease. A being of love, created for a higher purpose, and they can stand here and hate as if they have any right to.
“Michael may have told the rest of us to leave you alone, but it doesn’t seem right,” they say by-way of greeting. “Leaving you down here with nothing but a demon for company. He’ll ruin you.”
Behind him, Crowley twitches. It’s impossible to say what his expression looks like, but Aziraphale has known him for over six thousand years. He can guess.
“We’ve heard stories about you,” the angel goes on. They sound impossibly young. “All of us have. You’ve been on earth since the beginning. You’ve seen the garden. You faced the Morningstar. You can do whatever you want, I bet, so why are you here?”
“You’ve answered your own question, my dear,” Aziraphale says mildly. “Because I can do whatever I want.”
Crowley is tense at Aziraphale’s back, coiled like a snake ready to spring at any second. Aziraphale wishes he could reach back to soothe him.
He is, at first and at last, a Principality. He is at his strongest when he has something to guard, and this shop is his domain. With Crowley behind him, the most precious thing Aziraphale has ever put behind him, he would like to see this fledgling try anything.
Perhaps sensing how outclassed they are, the fledgling does not.
“Now,” he says briskly, “if you’d like to have a civilized conversation, you’re more than welcome to sit down for tea. I’ve even got a delicious Battenberg cake we can nip into for the occasion. But Crowley is my guest, my friend, and my dearest love; I hold him in much higher esteem than I do any of your lot, and I won’t tolerate rudeness. So what shall it be?”
For a moment, no one moves. Crowley is strung as tight as a wire, and the angel in the bookshop waffles visibly as they come to a decision they never thought they would have to make: pick a fight with a Principality or take tea with a Fallen One.
Finally, grudgingly, they ask, “What is cake?”
Only after they’re squared away in the back room, eating sweets with a look of wonder on their face, does Aziraphale turn to Crowley.
The demon is staring at him, sunglasses slipping down his nose.
“You said,” he begins, and stops there, as though he’s hit a dead end.
“I’ve been terribly unkind to you,” Aziraphale admits softly. “Denying you to everyone who asked, like you were something shameful. You must know that I love you, you clever old serpent, but I’m sure it would still have been nice to hear.”
“I thought it was an angel thing,” comes the lurching, uncertain confession. “Loving everyone. I knew you loved me, but I thought it was-- default.”
“An angel thing.” Aziraphale frowns at him. “As if Gabriel is even capable.”
Crowley laughs shortly, half-hysterical. “Okay. You’ve got a point.”
The picnic will have to wait, thanks to their visitor in the back room. The hamper receives a stern look and makes the decision to keep itself fresh for the next day, since Aziraphale refuses to be put off any longer than that.
Then he steps forward and takes Crowley’s hands.
“I was going to give up,” Crowley says helplessly. “I was jussst going to take whatever I could get and be happy with it. I go too fast and it's been so long I can't ssslow down, I don't know how."
"Don't worry about it anymore, my dear." Aziraphale uses their joined hands to pull him closer, until he can wrap his arms around Crowley and hold him as tenderly as he deserves. The demon shivers, as though chilled, and Aziraphale loses a kiss somewhere against his wayward hair. "I've finally caught up to you."
Nanael is still puttering about the shop a month later. Aziraphale has grown fond of them, not in the least because they take to the books like a fish to water. It took them about two days to decide Crowley was safe enough to pester, and watching them pelt a recalcitrant snake with question after question about the earth's history has quickly become one of Aziraphale's favorite ways to spend an afternoon.
"You were there when they built it?" Nanael demands, holding a book open to a glossy two-page photo spread of La Torre Di Pisa. "What was it for? Why does it lean?"
"Look, Feathers, why don't you ask Aziraphale? He's right here, not busy doing anything but laughing at me," Crowley mutters, making his slow and winding way up the side of the counter. "He'd be more than happy to tell you whatever you want to know."
"But I want to hear it from you," Nanael says stubbornly. "He knows more about things, but you know more about people. You like people, he said. You liked Eve, that's why you gave her the apple."
"I gave her a choice. She didn't have to eat the apple, did she? She chose to, because she wanted-- "
"Knowledge," Nanael says, hugging the book to their chest. There's hope for this one yet, Aziraphale thinks with a surge of pride. "Yes, exactly. Please tell me. I won't call you a demon anymore if you'll tell me."
Crowley looks up at the ceiling as though hoping for divine intervention, and then slides his yellow eyes Aziraphale's way.
"Isn't there supposed to be a honeymoon period before the kids come along?" he grouses. "I feel cheated."
"I'll make it all up to you," Aziraphale vows, stroking a familiar hand down his spine. "All of it, my love."