Crowley’s phone was ringing. Ringing and ringing. It seemed to have developed that tendency. Or Crowley had developed a tendency to ignore it. Presently the answer phone clicked on, This is AJ Crowley. You know what to do; do it with style.
Aziraphale rather resented being instructed to address an empty room with style, “Crowley dear? Are you listening to these? Are you there? Just checking in. Not much to check in on these days, I suppose. No, I don’t mean that. Checking in on you. It’s been a while. Drop in, when you like. We could have lunch? Oh, this is Aziraphale.”
Aziraphale had left five similar messages over the last two weeks. He hovered near the phone for a minute or two after disconnecting, fantasising rather than hoping that it would ring, and Crowley would be on the other end, full of apologies for having missed him and plans for a nice lunch. The phone did no such thing.
Presently Aziraphale re-decided, as he had already decided five times before that he would just pop round and see for himself that all was ticketty boo. The difference this time being that he rushed out of the bookshop and locked it behind him, setting off for Crowley’s at a brisk, determined pace. He was brisk and determined enough that he forgot he would encounter a locked door between the street and Crowley’s flat, and he rather flattened himself against it when he did.
“Oh dear. I know Crowley’s got a trick for this,” Aziraphale murmured, looking up at Crowley’s window, which was dark behind drawn shades. Aziraphale stroked the door, “I’m here to see my friend Crowley on the third floor, if you wouldn’t mind letting me up. I’m quite concerned about him. Please.”
After a contemplative pause, the lock clicked, and the door swung open.
“Thank you,” said Aziraphale, pulling it carefully shut behind him. Crowley’s flat door was even more cooperative, and the lock clicked audibly as soon as Aziraphale touched it. He pushed the door open a crack and poked his head in, “Crowley dear? Are you in?”
There was no answer.
Aziraphale stepped in and shut the door, “Crowley?” He was not sure what made him do it, except a deep-seated certainty that if Crowley heard Aziraphale calling for him, he’d answer. Aziraphale wasn’t specifically against snooping in general, but boundaries are terribly important if one wishes to maintain a best friend over the millennia, and Aziraphale was determined to.
He tried not to look about him too much once inside the flat, partly in respect for Crowley’s privacy and partly from reluctant distaste for the decor. Aziraphale did so love things to be cosy, and Crowley’s flat was rather dreary and modern, though Aziraphale liked the look of the astronomy books on the coffee table. Under different circumstances, he’d have sat down to admire them more thoroughly. But he pressed on through the empty kitchen that bore no signs of having ever been cooked or even eaten in.
Aziraphale opened a door and found a low bed, piled with extremely plush white bedding and as it was clearly empty of Crowley, he shut the door quickly, feeling rather warm about the ears. He walked through a sort of office area--though what Crowley might need such a thing for, Aziraphale couldn’t fathom--and noted by the blinking red light on the answerphone that his messages were unheard. Or at least unlistened to, which is not always the same thing. At the back of the flat, there was another door, and when Aziraphale opened it, he got rather a surprise.
Lit by a wash of golden sunlight streaming in from the wall of windows, the room was a jungle of houseplants. Arranged in pots all around the room and hanging from handsome planters hooked in the ceiling and set on shelves mounted in the walls for that specific purpose. Beautiful plants, verdant and lustrous, fragrant with the sort of green smell that comes off well-tended houseplants. It gave the otherwise bare room a sense of opulence and meticulous care.
“Ohh, how lovely!” Aziraphale did not know where to look. He raised a hand to stroke the lush leaves that seemed to press in around him like hungry, reaching fingers.
“Aziraphale?” said a familiar voice from nearby.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale turned on the spot, looking for the source of the voice.
“Angel!” said Crowley weakly, but with joy and relief evident in his voice. “I knew you’d come! Pick me up, quick! I’m freezing!”
That was puzzling, “I’d be happy to, dearest,” said Aziraphale, still turning. “But I seem to be having trouble finding you.”
“Down here,” there came a little tug at Aziraphale’s trouser leg, and Crowley continued as if muffled by a mouthful of gabardine, “and mind where you’re treading!”
Aziraphale looked down and started. Crowley was in his serpent form and already twining himself about Aziraphale’s ankle.
“Ohhh, you’re lovely and warm; I can feel it right through your troussersss.”
Aziraphale bent and held out one hand, and Crowley twined about his wrist instead, then slithered up his sleeve to lie across his shoulders under his jacket.
“Ahhhh that’s better,” said Crowley, muffled by the inside of the jacket but already sounding stronger than before. “Glad I had the foresight to invent sleeves; this hits the spot. I’ve gotta say, Angel, this flat is not the best place to be coldblooded. Thank goodness for sunbeams or I don’t know what’d I’d’ve done.”
Aziraphale stood awkwardly on the spot, his arms held out at either side. Crowley’s tail was flickering against his palm ticklishly, and it made it rather hard to think, “Everything ah. All right, my dear?”
“Improving now you’re here,” said Crowley, squirming a little inside Aziraphale’s jacket. “This new cologne is really working for you, Angel. I’m starting to see the point of the barber. Mind your hair hasn’t actually changed in 87 years.”
“Thank you,” said Aziraphale. “Erm, not to be indelicate, dearest, but. Why are you a serpent?”
“That’s a question I asssk myself quite often,” said Crowley in the falsely cheerful sort of tone he used when he hoped to change the subject with non-sequitur. “Why am I a ssserpent? Why are you an angel? Mine is not to question why; mine is just to,” he trailed off. “How does that end?”
“Do or die,” supplied Aziraphale.
“Oh. I don’t like that much.”
“No. Pardon me for pressing you, dear. Are you perhaps. Up to something? Or has something happened to you? Is this. Hell at work?”
There was a bit of squirming inside Aziraphale’s jacket, and Crowley’s flat little head popped out of his collar. Crowley shrugged a snakey sort of shrug, “Couldn’t tell you, Angel. As the poet sang, I woke up like this.”
Aziraphale considered that, “When did you wake up like this, Crowley? I’ve been trying to reach you for two weeks. Surely you haven’t been...”
“Yeah,” said Crowley apologetically. “As you can see, I really can’t answer the phone at the moment.”
“Oh Crowley,” said Aziraphale sadly.
Crowley’s head withdrew back into the jacket, “‘S’not so bad. I’d been meaning to have a nap anyway.”
“Have you been sleeping all this time?”
Crowley snake-shrugged again from within the jacket. It was a tricky manoeuvre, conveyed mostly in tone, “Well first I spent about a day and a half trying to change back and then.” There was a head scratching sort of pause, “You might call it panicked flailing. And since then, it’s been just sort of. Slithering about from patch of sunlight to patch of sunlight all day and then shivering my internally housed bollocks off at night.”
“Oh Crowley , my dear I am so sorry! I ought to have come soo--could you come out where I can see you?”
Crowley obligingly slid down Aziraphale’s sleeve and sort of pooled himself in the crook of Aziraphale’s elbow, “If you’re only going to go weepy, tell me now, because I really think we can do that with me back in the warm.”
“You really can’t change back?”
“Angel,” said Crowley rather tightly. “Do you think that’s a productive question?”
“I suppose not,” said Aziraphale a little sheepishly. Then on a sudden whim, he raised his arm to bring Crowley to his face and kissed the tip of Crowley’s nose.
Aziraphale wasn’t sure how Crowley managed to show confusion and astonishment on his snakey features, but he did manage it, “ What wassss that?! ”
“A kiss?” said Aziraphale meekly. “I’m sorry; I ought to have asked first.”
“But why? ”
“I. I thought it might help.”
“I’m not a frog , Angel! I’m not Hassstur!”
“I wouldn’t kiss Hastur!” said Aizraphale indignantly.
Crowley’s bark of a guffaw coming out of his sharp serpent mouth was startling and rather marvellous, “Well I appreciate the sssentiment, Angel.”
“Too bad it didn’t work.”
“Too bad,” agreed Crowley. “Thanksss for the warm, anyway,” and he went back up into Aziraphale’s sleeve.
Aziraphale brushed away a vine that was dangling onto his cheek, “Perhaps I could try and change you back? Worth a try, no?”
Crowley’s voice was ticklishly near Aziraphale's ear when he answered, “Best not try and miracle my form, Angel. We don’t know what might happen.”
“Yes, I suppose we’re not in a position to risk it at the moment. Still. You’re going to have to come back to the shop with me,” Aziraphale decided. “And we’ll get you sorted out. Is there anything you need here, before we go?”
“Back with you?” Crowley poked his head out of Aziraphale’s collar again, sounding rather surprised.
Aziraphale clasped his hands in front of him to more effectively fight the urge to hold Crowley in his hands, “Well, I can’t leave you here as you are! You’ll go mad. I should’ve come before, dear, I am so sorry. And maybe I’ve got something back at the shop that can help us figure-”
Crowley scoffed, “You think you’ve got a book called What To Do If Your Snake Demon is a Bit Too Snakey ?”
Aziraphale was rather hurt, “I can’t just give up on you, Crowley! Do you want to be a snake forever?”
Crowley withdrew his head and lay in a sulky coil near Aziraphale’s collarbone, “No.”
Aziraphale patted the glimpse of tail showing at his cuff, “And I can at least make you comfortable in the meantime. No more chasing after sunbeams like an old cat. Now was there anything you needed?”
“Yeah,” Crowley was muffled from within Aziraphale’s jacket. “Just pop to the bathroom will you, and get my toothbrush.”
“Right,” Aziraphale looked toward the door. “Little help, dearest? Which way is the bathr-”
“Then I suppose you’re ready to go?” said Aziraphale loftily.
Crowley huffed and wrapped his tail round Aziraphale’s upper arm. It was quite nice. Aziraphale suppressed the urge to stroke the top of Crowley’s head and tried to shake off a little prickle of guilt at how surprisingly pleasant it was to have Crowley inside his jacket, “I’m not going to force you, if you don’t want to, Crowley. I only want to help.”
“I know,” Crowley curled himself tighter about Aziraphale’s arm. “Let’s go. I’m ready.”
When they were safely inside the bookshop again, Crowley seemed to have fallen asleep, and Aziraphale was happy and relieved to let him rest. Aziraphale put a piano concerto on the gramophone and drifted about the shop, tidying up. After so long without Crowley’s company, the long lump he made under Aziraphale’s jacket was quite a comforting presence. Aziraphale was rearranging the Whitman shelf and pointedly ignoring a would-be customer who was tapping fruitlessly at the locked front door and gazing at the ‘Open’ sign, when Crowley woke up. Aziraphale could feel a little shudder run through Crowley as he yawned and stretched before Crowley’s head popped out of Aziraphale’s collar.
“This music’s kind of dreary, don’t you think, Angel?”
Aziraphale artfully fanned the pages of a volume, “This music is among the pinnacle of human artistic achievement.”
“Right, but doesn’t it sort of make you want to have a good cry and a sleep?” Crowley swirled himself down Aziraphale’s arm onto the shelf and tipped one of the Whitmans off the shelf as he situated himself. “Whoops! I’d pick that up, but I haven’t got any hands at the moment. Sorry.”
“You don’t look sorry,” said Aziraphale, grumpily replacing the book.
“Well, I haven’t got any eyebrows or lips either, so facial expressions are a bit tricky just at present, Angel. By the way, who’s a snake gotta squeeze to get a stiff drink around here?”
“That would be me, I suppose. I’m sorry dearest, I haven’t seen to your wants especially well beyond erm. A sleeve.” Aziraphale paused, “Is it safe for you to drink in that form? Can sn-”
“Wouldn’t know,” Crowley interrupted briskly. “Never really got chatting with a snake before; they lack the faculties. Let’s find out, shall we? If it’s not safe, maybe I can pop back to my last save screen.”
Aziraphale frowned, “Your. What?”
“It was a joke!” Crowley twined restlessly up the post of the bookshelf, “I’m not actually a snake; I only look like one. We’ve been over this. Snakes can’t speak or feel contempt for Beethoven either.”
“It’s Bach!” said Aziraphale, rather scandalised.
Crowley dangled sarcastically, “You’re not going to try and put me in a terrarium with a dish of water and a heat lamp, are you?”
“I don’t even know what a terrarium is, dear boy. Though the heat lamp does sound cosy.”
“It does, actually,” agreed Crowley, swaying away from the bookshelf post, having evidently decided to enjoy himself.
“What would you like to drink, my dear? I say Crowley, would you mind keeping still a moment? All that. Waving about. It’s making me giddy.”
Crowley curled from side to side in the air in a sort of wavering S shape, “I’m trying to see if I can hypnotise you. Aaaangeeeellll, briiiing me a glasss of the Talissssker 25 and dooooon’t be stingyyyyy.”
“Oh shush. There’s hardly a need to hypnotise anyone; I’ve just offered . And anyway, if you say it aloud, it won’t come true.”
“That’s birthday wishes,” said Crowley, craning toward Aziraphale and launching himself back onto Aziraphale’s shoulder with a sudden spring.
Azirphale reached up to steady Crowley with one hand, but found he didn’t really need to, “I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Neither did I. Thought I’d find out. Are you about done moving these books about, Angel? Maybe it’d go quicker if I helped,” Crowley stretched out his tail and knocked the same Whitman volume off the shelf again. “I like it down there, actually. What do you think, Angel?”
“I think I know a temptation when I see one,” said Aziraphale, backing serenely from the shelf without bothering to pick up the book.
“People always think every little thing I say is a temptation,” said Crowley moodily, stretching out as if to knock another book from the shelf, then deciding against it.
“Have I offended you, my dear?” asked Aziraphale after an awkward pause.
“Not offended, exactly. Sore subject,” Crowley propelled himself back onto the shelf and curled into a rather cross looking pile of loops, “I just. I don’t want to be. Crawly. But I suppose I can’t. Change my nature. Not again, anyway.”
Aziraphale frowned, “You aren’t Crawly.”
“Aziraphale, look at me! I am! I shouldn’t’ve tried to forget I’ve been cast out! I can’t just. I can’t. Have. I tried to make a life for myself, but it was a fantasy. I have my place, and it’s this. On my belly, reviled, et cetera.”
“That isn’t true,” said Aziraphale simply. “I think we learned together, didn’t we, dearest? You aren’t given a place; you choose it. You make it. Sometimes you have to fight for it. And if you are being punished, by Heaven or Hell. It isn’t because you deserve it.”
Crowley looked round to catch eyes with Aziraphale, “I love you for trying, Angel, but you can’t fix me.”
Aziraphale leaned against the shelf imploringly, “I don’t want to fix you, dearest. Whatever shape you’re in, I love you as you are.”
Crowley turned back toward Aziraphale, “Angel?”
“Come a bit closer?”
Azirphale stepped forward, and Crowley craned toward him. Aziraphale helped Crowley back onto his shoulder, “Comfortable, dearest?”
Crowley shrugged a snakey shrug, “Near enough.” And he tucked himself into Aziraphale’s jacket, “You really are so lovely and warm, Angel.”
Something about the pressure of Crowley’s coil round Aziraphale’s wrist made him rather want to cry, “Happy to help, my dear.”
The inside of Aziraphale’s jacket seemed to make Crowley very sleepy, because he was still and quiet for a long time. When Aziraphale had tidied to his heart’s content--a process that did not involve making things tidier so much as it did organising the books to his obscure and deliberately bewildering specifications--he drew the shades and turned out the lights in the front of the shop to retire into the back.
He liked this time of day. When the world contracted to himself and his books, the murmurings of the gramophone and the ticking clock for company. And today there was Crowley. Crowley for the foreseeable future, Aziraphale tried not to think it. It was too horrible to imagine Crowley imprisoned in his form that way--and it was a prison, however cheerful he tried to be about it. Still Aziraphale wasn’t sure how to help Crowley except to enjoy his company and to try and be enjoyable in his turn.
Aziraphale carried a couple of books back with him to the little sitting room area in the back of his shop, where he sat down on the sofa and miracled himself a nice cup of cocoa. He miracled one for Crowley also, in a snake-sized mug and amused himself by adding teeny marshmallows.
Aziraphale opened his book and flipped through to a particular page, and presently, Crowley stirred and emerged, “What are you reading, Angel?”
Aziraphale smiled at Crowley’s idly toying with the ring on his little finger, “Poetry, my dear. Would you like to hear a bit of it?”
Aziraphale cleared his throat and recited rather than read, “ Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”
“‘ If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned ,’” Crowley finished. “That’s one of Sssolomon’s. I liked him.”
“I remember,” said Aziraphale. He wanted to enjoy the light tapping of the tip of Crowley’s tail against his chest, but in context of the conversation, it seemed more like a nervous tic than conscious affection. Pity.
“Clever, but. Rather a taste for the dramatic,” continued Crowley thoughtfully. “Struggle never seems beneath human dignity, does it? Well you need struggle in order to change, don’t you? Perhaps that’s what She found endearing about them. When She took an interest.”
Aziraphale shifted, rather restless himself, “I think we may be a little too old to start worrying about our dignity now, dearest.”
Crowley sighed and wrapped his tail about Aziraphale’s wrist, “Why’ve you got to say you love me, however I am?”
“I.” Aziraphale longed to stroke the smooth coils tightening against his pulse, but he folded his hands instead, too thoroughly wrongfooted to try for anything so bold. “I do. Or at least. May I?”
Snakes can’t weep, but Crowley was not a snake, he only looked like one, “I’m not asking for. It’s not what you think it is. I don’t want to be dutifully cared for.”
Something clicked into place in Aziraphale’s mind and he prickled with mingled understanding and hurt, “Do you think that’s the only way I could care for you, dearest? Have I not shown you better?” Crowley did not reply. Perhaps he couldn’t. “I love you the way that you love me. All the way that you love me.”
Crowley’s tongue flickered out quickly, as if tasting Aziraphale’s answers for truth, “You do?”
“Of course I do! How could I not?”
Crowley sputtered for a moment, “Not to be hypocritical, but why didn’t you say so?!”
“I. I don’t know.” Aziraphale considered and revised, “I thought that I had.”
Crowley bumped his head against Aziraphale’s jaw, “You really hadn’t.”
“Apparently not. I’m sorry. I meant to.” Aziraphale stroked Crowley’s flickering tail and the top of his head, “I love you. Shall I say more?”
“ Please .”
The current of joy in Crowley’s voice sent an echoing ripple through Aziraphale, he hugged himself and glanced down at the floor, to be sure he wasn’t levitating, “I’m sorry; it’s harder than I was expecting. Everything I can think of, I got out of a book!”
“‘If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more,’” Crowley teased.
“Shush!” Aziraphale let out a wild little giggle, “No, no don’t make me laugh, or I’ll get further away from it. I’m declaring my affections; I’ve got to be serious.”
“You haven’t, though,” Crowley bumped against Aziraphale’s cheek again.
Aziraphale cleared his throat, “Crowley. I want to be the person you’ve asked me to be. That’s the best self I know, and I want to keep on at building that with you. If you’d like.”
“Yes!” Crowley squirmed along his shoulders and set Aziraphale shivering also. “More!”
“Greedy,” Aziraphale hugged himself a little tighter, wondering if he might burst. “‘ Arise my love, my fair one and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land.’ A little more Solomon for you, if you can withstand it.”
“Aziraphale,” said Crowley abruptly, squirming wildly so that Aziraphale’s sleeves and shoulders bulged out in odd places.
Aziraphale raised a soothing hand to his shoulder, “Yes, dearest? What is it?”
“Take off your jacket!”
“Take off your jacket, Aziraphale, or I’m going to ruin it.”
“Ruin it?” said Aziraphale, one sleeve wriggled off already. “What do you-”
“Hurry!” said Crowley, and Aziraphale could feel him shaking against his back. Aziraphale tossed the jacket over the sofa arm just in time for Crowley to stretch into his human form and tumble over the back of the sofa onto the floor with a little scream of laughter.
“Oh!” Aziraphale turned and peered over the back of the sofa, “Are you all right, darling?”
Crowley sat up and raised both arms over his head, “Oh, that feels weird. Has that always felt weird? All these limbs! Funny how quick you get used to not having them. I do miss hanging about your neck already. Ah, well I suppose we’ll work something out!”
“Anything hurt?” Aziraphale offered his hand to pull Crowley up.
“No, nothing hurt!” Crowley took Aziraphale’s hand, bounced up onto his feet, and did a sort of pirouette, still clinging to Aziraphale’s hand. “Hello body! It’s not much, but I missed it.”
Aziraphale beamed at him, “Oh, I’ve missed it too, believe me.”
“Aziraphale,” Crowley crashed over onto the sofa and took a moment righting himself, “Do you think you might like to. Try that kissing thing again? I was a bit surprised the first time, and I think I botched it.”
Aziraphale, laughing with relief and excitement leaned in, “My dear you could never.”
Crowley cupped Aziraphale’s face in both hands and kissed him. The sweetest little tender question of a kiss. And Aziraphale tried to answer him, yes, yes, forever and always yes.