"indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart" – The Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night, as translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton
Consider: Aziraphale is immortal, yes, but he's not an angel. He's simply a collector of books.
He must have been something else, once, before the advent of the written word. Must have, but he doesn't remember it. He remembers clay tablets, papyrus, vellum. He remembers pictograms, cuneiform, the first Arabic letters. And, few at first, but growing ever more in number, he remembers books.
Ah, the sheer, astonishing variety of them. Tomes of knowledge, the collected wisdom of the human race, yes, but humanity is truly at its best when it's allowed to let its creativity run wild. Pillow books and poetry, religious tracts and love stories, social satire and fairy tales. Thrillers and spy novels and pornography and self-help books, science-fiction and family epics. He can't say he loves every book on its own merits, but the idea of them all is captivating.
However, one book in particular has always held a special place in his heart. He found it in the late fifteenth century, already old by then. Dark, well-worn pages that are bound in black snakeskin leather. Extraordinary. Beautiful.
And as magical as Aziraphale himself.
A pair of golden, snake-like eyes adorns the cover. Sometimes, at the very edge of his vision, Aziraphale could swear he sees them move. The title, in bright-red letters, proclaims to be 'The Fall of R.' More often, it's 'The Fall of C.' On some days, the last letter is no letter at all, but a curling snake, a pair of horns, a human with a pair of wings, two pairs, a multitude of them.
And the stories, oh! As ever-changing as the sky. Always beginning with C's – or R's, or snake's – descent from a high-up otherrealm. Sometimes of his – or her, or their – own volition, sometimes screaming and in flames. He – or she, or they – will end up in a garden, a desert, below the ground. What follows will be tales of temptation, or redemption, or an amusing mix of both. The plot will involve the Earth after the First Flood, or decadence in Ancient Rome, or a Phoenician slaver's downfall. A Chinese Emperor led into sloth, the next dynasty rising from his ruin. A merchant's young daughter guided into triumph through her every struggle. A truly good and selfless man, living a quiet life while jealous neighbours meet increasingly horrific ends. Mankind's discovery of remedies, of witchcraft, wine. So many stories, told, it seems, solely for Aziraphale's delight and entertainment.
Oh, but he loves that book. His mercurial companion through the centuries. His one, undying confidant.
How many evenings has he spent by the fireplace, entranced? How many afternoons did pass him by as he sat with a glass of wine and a new tale to read? How many times has he caught himself chatting away, relating his life's little happenings to a quiet, dusty book store and one tome above all?
Far too many to count, surely.
His life is a tranquil one, for an immortal being. He so likes his familiar routines, and who would disagree with him?
But then, the London Blitz.
He'll always remember it in snapshot images, like oversaturated photographs: the bombs falling all around, and him with only enough power for a single interference.
The children, miraculously escaping from the worst of fates.
His book shop, up in flames.
Hands reaching for him, holding fast as he strives forward, towards his burning books, his books, his book!
Shouting something in a language long-forgotten. Pleading.
Ashes. Warm and flaky as he sifts through them. Numbness where his thoughts should be.
A soft sound, sliding, somewhat muted. A dark head poking from a pile of ash, tongue flicking out to taste the smoky air. Black scales on top, red at the sides and underneath. Golden eyes regarding him, pupils slitted.
"Oh," Aziraphale breathes, quite graceless as he takes a stumbling step towards it, "oh, my dear, is it you?"
The snake, unblinking, tilts its head. If it could roll its eyes, the gesture seems to say, it would be doing so. What would it be, if not itself?
It bumps its head against his outstretched hand, smooth and surprisingly warm against his trembling fingers. Its muscles wrap around him as it climbs, up and up, until it's curled around his shoulders, tail still wrapped around his upper arm. Its tongue flicks against the shell of his ear, and then it hisses, briefly, softly.
The promise of a thousand stories sings inside that hiss.
"Dearest," Aziraphale sighs, and if his smile wavers as much as his voice, he figures he may be forgiven.
They find a routine, the two of them. Aziraphale spends his days puttering around the rebuilt book shop, organising the slowly-growing stacks of his new collection. The snake dozes, amuses itself with the odd mouse – how fast it can move – or disappears for hours at a time, only to return with a distinctly self-satisfied air. In the evenings, the snake watches Aziraphale eat; London always has new dishes to discover, new tastes for him to delight in. Old favourites, indulged anew. And then, oh, then!
Then they retire to the sofa by the fireplace: Aziraphale with a bottle of red – or white, or rosé if he's in a playful mood – and the snake draped across the sofa's back. Both of them lazy and content.
And Aziraphale smiles and wriggles back into the upholstery until he's as comfortable as he can be, and says, "Do go on then, please."
And the snake shifts its coils, tastes the air with its tongue, and starts a soft, drawn-out hiss.
And in that soft, sibilant sound, stories swirl and slither. Pictures of a desert night, of sand and stars and shining fires, of scurrying shapes and silent watchers. Images of sunken cities, hubris-ruined, scratched from history. Of small lives and mythic heroes, lifted, broken, witnessed and forgotten. Unseen but for the serpent, small and insignificant in looks, devious in its influence. Mercssssiful, sometimes, but rarely.
All these tales, unknown to anyone but them. What a marvel. What a wonder, to be regaled like this.
How lucky, to have such a singular friend.
Every now and then, a burly man in a cheap suit will stride into the book shop with the confidence of the physically strong. He'll come right up to the register and loom over Aziraphale, proclaiming loudly how flammable old paper is, how much safer those books would be in a different, less premium location.
"I'm not selling," Aziraphale will tell him primly.
"Oh yeah?" the brute will ask, and he'll straighten his shoulders and lean even further into Aziraphale's space.
And then something black and red and heavy will drop onto those self-same shoulders from a ceiling beam and hiss menacingly in his ear, and the brute will scream and flail and run from the shop as if a demon from hell itself were out to get him.
Aziraphale will be left giggling as the snake rights itself, radiating serpentine dignity.
"Well done, my dear," he'll tell it, smiling. "Very well done."
And it will curl up with a proud air, and that night's story of retribution will be particularly vicious.
They spend years like that. Decades, even.
But slowly, restlessness sets in. Aziraphale, above all other things, is a collector. And his collection, he is sad to say, remains severely lacking. Some volumes come through Sotheby's, of course, and others require only a short trip to the Continent, but, well... He would so very much like to fill those empty shelves, you see, and there's a book fair in Jakarta. Another one in Gothenburg and a third one in Sharjah, and... Oh, bother. Aziraphale will have to leave for a few months and the snake will have to stay, and that's his final word on the matter.
The snake, of course, is unimpressed.
At first, it withdraws from the nightly ritual of relaxation. It takes to following Aziraphale around the shop, its golden gaze a silent accusation. Recoiling from his touch, but not letting him out of its sight. Finally, refusing to budge from the door.
"Oh, do stop fussing," Aziraphale says, thoroughly exasperated. "I'll be back in a jiffy. Really, you will hardly know I'm gone."
After all, what are a few months to creatures like them?
The snake hisses at him. For once, the sound doesn't carry a tale. In fact, it carries nothing but the strong impression that Aziraphale is an idiot and a bit of a tosser, and that no one will miss him when he's gone. No one might even be here when he gets back.
"Well," Aziraphale sniffs, unaccountably stung. It's only a business trip, only a few months away. There is no need for all this... this reproach. "If that is how you feel about it, I'm quite sure that I have nothing more to say to you."
He takes the back door out. The snake doesn't stop him.
His indignation carries him all the way onto the plane to Doha, and it's not until he sits down in his first-class seat that doubt starts trickling in.
What if he does return to an empty book shop? What will he do?
But no, no, the snake won't leave. Where would it go? Who else would appreciate its mere existence the way Aziraphale does?
But who's to say it doesn't turn back into a book? Find some other collector, one who doesn't leave it alone for months on end without even trying to take it along? Someone else who'll run their fingers lovingly along its spine; someone not Aziraphale who'll take pleasure in its many stories?
But it has stayed with him these many years. Surely it appreciates him too, in its own way.
But what if-
His thoughts are interrupted rather rudely by someone taking the seat next to him and immediately trying to strike up a conversation.
"Ah, planes. Marvellous invention, aren't they? Gotta hand it to humanity, the creativity is boundless." The man – thin, red-haired, dressed all in black, pretentious sunglasses snug on his nose and, good lord, how does he get into those trousers – holds out a hand. "Anthony J. Crowley."
Aziraphale shakes the hand, but pulls his own back as soon as it's polite to do so.
"Pleasure, I'm sure," he mutters, and turns his gaze pointedly toward the window.
The man Crowley keeps making little noises as he gets comfortable in his seat, as he flips through the in-flight magazine, as he snorts and chuckles at the safety video. It's infuriating. Aziraphale tries to keep his patience, but he's seconds away from magicking the man to sleep when a small voice asks, "Are you an angel?"
He turns his head to find a tiny child peeking over the seat in front of him, staring at him in something like awe. He looks behind himself, but no, the child means him! Mouth dropped open, speechless, he turns to the man beside him in a desperate search for explanation.
The man Crowley, still wearing his sunglasses, smirks.
"Your hair." He gestures at the sunshine streaming through the window. "Looks a bit like a halo."
"Ah," Aziraphale manages. He gives the child his best smile. "No, dear, I'm not an angel."
‘Merely an immortal collector of books,’ he doesn't say.
"Don't listen to him," that exasperating man tells the child in a conspiratorial tone, "you got it absolutely right. Hey, you want to hear a story?"
The child beams and, after a shy glance at Aziraphale, says, "Yes, please."
And to Aziraphale's astonishment, the man launches into a shockingly bloodthirsty story about angels and unicorns and Noah's Ark that soon has him surrounded by children hanging on to his every word as the adults around them smile indulgently and pretend they aren't listening as well.
The flight seems to take no time at all.
"Well, Angel," Crowley says as their plane taxis to a stop, "see you around."
"I'm not an-" Aziraphale says to his back, then huffs and gives it up as a lost cause.
He never did give Crowley his name, after all, and what are the odds they'll run into each other again?
He doesn't see Crowley on the flight from Doha to Jakarta, and so resolves to forget about him as quickly as possible. Should be no hardship, truly; most mortals are forgettable, no matter how much they annoy him in the moment.
The Indonesia International Book Fair is a crowded affair. Aziraphale is content to amble at his own speed, taking in the sounds and smells and above all, the books. Some are in English, most in Malay, but none of them are of particular interest until a display catches his attention.
'The Serpent's Fall,' the sign proclaims in blood-red letters. On the table below it, only a single book is left.
As if pulled towards it, Aziraphale steps forward, touching the plain black cover with his fingertips. He opens the book, hardly daring to breathe, and reads the first few pages.
They tell the story of a high-up otherrealm, of a rift between its occupants, and of one creature who escaped the ensuing war by choosing to leave. It made its way down to the Earth, where it picked a shape and a name, and the shape was a serpent and the name was-
Transfixed, Aziraphale turns the page.
Only for someone to bump into him so violently that he's pushed into the table, the book slipping from his hand.
It's a pair of young women who were jostled themselves, which doesn't stop them from apologising earnestly. Indeed, they beg his pardon so profusely that more than a minute passes by before he can turn back to the table.
Where, just that moment, someone is paying for that last book.
"Oh, but I was-" And then he realises who, exactly, bought the book, and his words trail off.
Crowley pulls an exaggerated pout.
"Aww," he says, "so sorry, Angel." But he makes no move to relinquish the volume.
"I'm not an angel," Aziraphale says, in what he hopes is a decisive manner. He has the vague suspicion he just sounds prim, instead.
"Uh-huh, sure," Crowley says in the tone of someone who isn't listening. "Hey, let me make it up to you with dinner? I know a place that does amazing kerak telor." He waggles his eyebrows over those ridiculous sunglasses. "We can go for some old-fashioned jajan pasar after, if you like deserts."
And Aziraphale is going to say no, he truly is. He's going to demand the book since he, after all, had seen it first. But, well, he is beginning to feel a little peckish, and it's been long enough since he last visited this part of the world that all his favourite eateries, if they remain at all, are being run by different chefs. So many of the tastes he was looking foward to have been a disappointment. And he does have something of a sweet tooth.
If all else fails, perhaps he can whack Crowley over the head and simply take the book from him.
"Oh, alright," he says, and adds, "But you're paying."
Lest Crowley forget which one of them is the guilty party.
"Sure," Crowley says, "'course, yeah."
And that is that.
Instead of the tedious hour he expects, Aziraphale finds himself reluctantly charmed. Crowley has a biting humour, a cynical way of looking at the world around him, and yet he seems to love what he sees. The brothers who run the tiny kerak telor stand greet him fondly, as does the old woman making the jajan pasar. They eat with sticky fingers, caramelised sugar and rice and cassava so sinfully delicious, Aziraphale has to swallow down a moan along with his mouthful.
He will find the book online. Who knows what other delicacies Crowley can show him?
Plenty, it turns out. After the fair ends, Crowley talks him into a trip across the Indonesian islands. They visit towns and villages, Crowley apparently known wherever he goes. They have cassava noodles and gudeg, more varieties of jajan pasar, a spread so colourful it's almost a shame to eat them. Fish and bakso and gado gado, home-made dishes that have no name. Aziraphale revels in it: the spiciness, the freshness of it all!
Well, he says ‘they’ try all these things, but in truth it’s mostly him who eats the food. Crowley may nibble on an omelette, but by and large he watches Aziraphale and sticks to the drinks. It’s slightly odd, but Aziraphale chalks it up to the fickle human digestive tract.
And then it's time to go to Gothenburg, and what do you know, that's Crowley's destination as well.
"Are you a collector, too?" Aziraphale asks him.
"Errrrhmmmurrr," Crowley says with a vague gesture that could mean anything, "not really, no."
And he refuses to elaborate.
The Gothenburg Book Fair is a bustling thing, full of seminars and discussions and presentations. Aziraphale finds a few volumes he likes, buys almost all of them before Crowley can get his hands on them. Almost; a copy – the only copy – of 'The First Garden' is snatched up before Aziraphale can make sure that really is a snake on the cover among all the greenery.
They spend their days at the fair and their evenings around the town. Incredibly, Crowley admits to never having tried an oyster, so they have some at the Feskekôrka. The gentle hum of humanity winds around them as they eat and sip at the suggested wine, but it's not as crowded as it might be in more populous cities. Every café and supermarket offers kanelbullar, so Aziraphale tries as many as he can, cinnamon sticking to his fingers. Crowley even drags him to the Opera House, where they watch a Dickens musical that Aziraphale enjoys very much. Crowley, eyes hidden behind those perpetual sunglasses, is harder to read. His mouth quirks up every now and again, though, so he can't be having too bad a time.
And then the fair is over, the next one weeks away, and Aziraphale... He should be going home. Shouldn't he? Make sure his darling snake is alright, that it's still with him, that it knows he loves it, always will.
He should go home. He wants to go home.
But oh, Crowley talks so temptingly about taking the long way 'round to Germany. Crowley, with his wit and his endless knowledge of wines and other spirits, and the way his mouth curves when he smiles – or smirks, or outright laughs – at Aziraphale. Aziraphale can't remember anyone smiling at him like that for... well, for a very long time, and while he does so miss his snake, it is immortal, just like him. If he returns to his shop and the snake has left... well. He found it once, admittedly by accident. However long it takes, he’ll find it again and beg for its forgiveness.
Crowley, on the other hand, will be gone before Aziraphale ever has a chance to get used to him.
Forgive me, dearest, he thinks, and out loud agrees that stopping in Poland for a bit to have pierogi and some napoleonka would be just the thing to do.
Crowley’s ‘for a bit’ turns into a two-day stay, with kremówka papieska in Wadowice and the promised pierogi in Kraków. But the highlight of the trip is Wieliczka, where Crowley somehow manages to insert them into a business group having dinner deep inside a historical salt mine. It has to be against the rules, surely.
It's certainly against the rules when Crowley, for some inexplicable reason, flicks his tongue out to taste the wall.
"Crowley!" Aziraphale whispers, scandalised, and quickly looks around to make sure nobody has noticed.
Crowley smirks, the wicked thing, but obediently sits back down and returns to his drink.
Crowley may not eat much, but when they finally arrive in Frankfurt – just in time for the book fair – Aziraphale discovers that his new acquaintance is more than ready to get spectacularly drunk. They find a place that offers more than three hundred different sorts of beer and gamely attempt to try every single one over the course of just five days.
They fail. Not only that, but they have to book their hotel rooms for another two days to recover from the persistent hangover. Well, Crowley does. Aziraphale disposes of his headache after twenty minutes on the first day, but that's hardly something he can share.
Still, the fun was in the attempt, so it's in the same spirit that a week later, they agree to try out as many of Sharjah's cafés and restaurants as they can find. Red double-decker sightseeing buses fill the city. Their sight punches the breath out of Aziraphale, filling him with a homesickness so strong he reaches out blindly, fumbling for support. And Crowley is there. Warm and steady, Crowley offers his arm for Aziraphale to grasp, seemingly content to simply stand there until Aziraphale can breathe again.
They don't take the bus.
That afternoon, they stroll along the waterfront in Sharja's Al Qasba quarter. The promenade is lined with shops and restaurants, darling little outside cafés that look irresistibly inviting. They sit. They watch the people. Aziraphale discovers luqeymat so perfect, it brings tears to his eyes.
"Rapturous, are we, Angel?" Crowley asks, his lips tilted into a crooked grin.
"I'm not an angel," Aziraphale mutters. "Honestly, would it kill you to use my name?"
Crowley's heard Aziraphale check into plenty of hotels by now; there's no reason to keep using that silly nickname.
"Dunno." Crowley shrugs, still grinning. "It might. Best not test it, yeah?"
"Oh, you," Aziraphale says, but right now, he doesn't care enough to put up more than a token protest. He doesn't even care if he sounds like someone's maiden aunt. His mouth still tastes like sunshine with syrup and a hint of cinnamon. It's simply divine.
They arrive a little early in Kuwait City, but that just gives them more time to explore. Crowley takes Aziraphale to the Grand Mosque but then refuses to step inside, so they admire the wonderful Islamic architecture from the street: the beautiful beige facade, the blue accents, the elegant central dome. The glimpses they catch of the spectacular interior. Then Crowley drags him off to a small courtyard filled with adorably tiny cafés. They have mint tea brewed over coals, and Aziraphale enjoys the most delicious little biscuits while Crowley sucks placidly on his shisha.
A nearby playground soon draws his attention, however. Before Aziraphale knows it, Crowley is surrounded by a host of children, entertaining them in fluent Kuwaiti Arabic. From what Aziraphale can grasp, the story Crowley weaves features a magic car that can drive through fire and across water, but if you leave your phone in it too long, all the music on it will turn into Nawal's greatest hits. Even the adults – some of whom greeted Crowley by name – laugh at that.
Aziraphale tries to hide his indulgent smile in his tea, but fears he's quite unsuccessful.
At the book fair, the censors have their own little table.
"Surely they are joking," Aziraphale says, appalled.
Crowley just laughs, his hand warm around Aziraphale's wrist as he pulls him along before they attract too much attention.
And then, Jeddah. Such a bright and modern city, with the newly-completed Jeddah Tower rising above everything else, a beautiful and lonely monument to human ingenuity. The whole place is suffused with sunshine, and yet Aziraphale can't shake a certain melancholy as they traipse through the narrow streets of the old town, as they explore the verdant coast.
Jeddah is his last stop.
Crowley, too, seems filled with some strange urgency as he takes Aziraphale on a tour of Jeddah's best seafood restaurants. They feature largely international cuisine, so the days are filled with dynamite shrimp and amazing sushi, grilled salmon and – oh, scrumptious – mustard shrimp tajine. Aziraphale tries a marvellous banana-and-caramel pudding while Crowley makes his way through the cocktail menu.
"'s not bad," he says at Aziraphale's questioning glance.
"But, my dear," Aziraphale says, and then flushes as Crowley chokes on the latest concoction. Hurriedly, he goes on, "They don't contain any alcohol."
Crowley clears his throat and shrugs.
"Still not bad," he says.
Aziraphale has no reply to that.
Two weeks go by, almost like a dream. The book fair is crowded, thousands of people striving to visit the hundreds of publishers. Aziraphale isn't helpless in a throng, far from it, but Crowley's presence at his side feels reassuring nonetheless.
But then... it's over. The fair, the trip, his time with... it's all done.
Aziraphale tries to smile as they stand in front of the airport, him going into one direction, Crowley in another. He tries to smile because he should be happy. Shouldn't he? He's going home, back to his shop, his books, his refuge. His snake, if it will have him. Back to untroubled nights by the fireplace; back to a place where he can be himself, centuries old and set in his ways and even more opinionated than Crowley could have noticed in the few months they have spent together.
He should be happy.
Instead he stands there with his wavering smile, hands folded behind his back, luggage at his feet, looking desperately for something to say as people bustle past them.
How do you tell someone that spending time with them has been the highlight of your century so far?
"Well," he starts, "it's been-"
"We can keep going," Crowley interrupts him, brusque. His face is pale. "Travel the world together, you and I."
"Travel the world... together?" Aziraphale repeats and oh, his voice sounds small. Why does his voice sound so small?
"Yeah! See the sights, eat the foods. Meet the people, you like meeting people." Crowley gestures at the world around them, his words coming faster, wheedling, sounding almost... almost desperate. "Come on, Angel, what do you say? Hm?"
"I... I can't," Aziraphale says, the words a quiet agony. Crowley's face falls and it hurts, it hurts. "I'm sorry, but-"
But what? But Crowley will grow old and die while Aziraphale will stay as he has ever been? But they barely know each other? But someone else may yet be waiting for him?
Aziraphale wrings his hands, tries to explain, "I have this dear friend, you see, and, and I've been gone for far too long already."
Crowley’s face twitches at that.
“What’s it matter? You’ve been gone four months,” he says, still with that strange urgency. “What’s it matter if you stay away another one? One more month, Angel, that’s all I’m asking.”
Oh, but it does matter! Jeddah was always meant to be the last stop. Aziraphale has been away for long enough to appear quite faithless, surely. He has to go home, wants to, needs to see his friend again. His lovely, tranquil, mysterious friend, the only being even slightly like him who ever wanted to stay with him. And yet he wants to stay with Crowley, too. With this vibrant and irreverent and so painfully finite man, who seems to take joy from indulging him in ways that no one ever...
Aziraphale wants so much, too much. How can he choose?
"Please, Crowley," he begs, knowing he won't make much sense. "Don't make me choose."
Crowley's voice is soft as he says, "Ah, but you are choosing."
The words, 'you're just not choosing me,' hang in the air between them, unspoken and heavy.
"Crowley," Aziraphale says, helpless. His eyes are burning and he blinks, pretends he can't see Crowley's shoulders sag.
"Well." Crowley gives a little smile of his own. It doesn't look convincing. "Good-bye, then. Aziraphale."
The sound of his name hits like a physical blow. Aziraphale thought he wanted to hear it, was even looking forward to it, but now, as he watches Crowley turn and walk away, all he wants to say is, 'Stay. Please, stay with me. Call me Angel again. Don't walk away. Only don't make me watch you walk away.'
"Wait," he rasps, his voice a dry and cracking thing.
But Crowley is already gone.
The flight from Jeddah to London is so much shorter than that first journey away from home, yet it seems to take forever. Every second a small eternity. Aziraphale stares out of the window, blind to the world passing by below him. He feels... adrift. Indefinite.
Buck up, you silly thing, he tells himself, but the admonition seems half-hearted at best.
He's made rather a mess of things.
The book shop, when he returns to it, lies dark and silent. Dust has gathered on the shelves, undisturbed by any living thing. He sets down his suitcases and passes through the rooms one by one, already knowing he'll find nothing.
The shop is empty.
No one is there.
His lower lip trembles and he bites it, viciously, takes mean delight in the warm-metal sting. His breath comes out uneven, liquid blurring his sight. He inhales, shaky, no oxygen in the air.
It's been a long time since he's felt this utterly alone.
"Well," he says.
His cracking voice sounds alien in the silent shop. His mouth is unfairly dry, but he swallows the scant moisture anyway, once, twice.
"Well," again, and nothing to add this time, either.
What is there to say, without anyone to say it to?
He tries to fill the days with noise: lets customers into the shop, engages them in pointless prattle. Turns on the ancient wireless and listens to everything from the shipping forecast to The Archers.
He's almost relieved when the thug comes in.
"Nice old books you got there," he says loudly, his script no better than The blasted Archers'. "They insured?"
He crosses his arms, his suit jacket bulging with the muscles underneath.
"I'm not selling," Aziraphale says, but the words sound listless, unconvincing.
The book shop used to be his space alone, his proclamation to the world at large: I exist and this is mine. He's come to learn since then that occupation matters little without company.
Familiarity doesn't breed contempt. It breeds dependency.
"Oh yeah?" The thug grins and leans forward. "Might change your mind if all that's left is smoking rubble."
Oh, that brings back painful memories. Aziraphale straightens and opens his mouth, but before he can speak, someone else does.
"He ssssaid he's not selling."
Aziraphale gasps, his heart tripping over itself in its rush to beat faster, faster. The relief is... oh, it's frightening. Pure and overwhelming and far too great to be caused by someone he still hardly knows. And yet, he can’t help his beaming smile as the thug spins around.
"Who the bloody hell are you?!" the thug demands.
Aziraphale can't see Crowley behind the man's broad back, but whatever he does has the thug scream and flail and give Crowley a wide berth as he runs from the shop like someone just told him his car was on fire.
Crowley lowers his hand from the bridge of his sunglasses and grins. A dark bag is slung across his shoulder. He looks-
And he may be mortal, but oh, Aziraphale will take whatever time with him he'll get. He'll tell Crowley all about himself, about the things he's done, the people he has known. He'll hold Crowley dear and keep him in his old age, and maybe they can go to find 'The Fall of C' – or R, or snake, or winged-being – together. He'll-
"Are you drunk?" Aziraphale demands. He's grateful beyond telling for Crowley's presence, but the idea that Crowley needed liquid courage to face him… well. It’s ever so slightly offensive.
"Am I-" Crowley splutters. "I'm not drunk! What sort of greeting is that?"
"You were lisping just now!" Aziraphale crosses his arms. "And I told you before, I'm not an angel."
What are you doing? some inner part of him is shouting. This isn't what you mean to say at all!
Crowley heaves a heavy sigh.
"You know, for such a clever bloke, you really are a bit of an idiot."
Now it's Aziraphale's turn to trip over his tongue, enraged. "Wh- I beg your par-"
The words die on his lips as Crowley reaches up and pulls off those infernal sunglasses. His eyes shine like treasure troves, golden and so precious. The pupils are slitted, like a cat's.
Like a serpent's.
Aziraphale knows those eyes. Has marvelled at them since the late fifteenth century.
"Yeah," Crowley says softly. He's smiling, perhaps a little insecure, more beautiful than ever.
Once again, Aziraphale's eyes fill with tears, but this time he doesn't care if they fall.
"My... dearest," he chokes out, stumbling forward like he's being pulled. And Crowley catches him, of course, does pull him in until they're standing close, no space between them. Until Aziraphale is pressed against him head to toe, his face hidden by Crowley's shoulder as he trembles from the joy of it.
One of Crowley's hands slips into his hair, the other stroking shaky comfort up and down his back.
"Aziraphale," he murmurs, "Angel," his voice no steadier than Aziraphale's grip on Crowley's jacket.
"I really rather thought you'd left." The words are muffled by fabric, but Crowley seems to understand them anyway.
"And miss your rants about overrated authors who should have been lost to obscurity?" he teases, his tone so fond it hurts. "Never."
"Those aren't rants," Aziraphale sniffs, "they're lectures."
"Sure," Crowley says, and buries his nose in Aziraphale’s hair, "'course, yeah."
Consider: Aziraphale is immortal, yes, but he's not an angel. He's simply a collector of books who lives with a being who's sometimes a snake and sometimes a man, sometimes a woman and sometimes none of the three. It – or he, or she, or something else entirely – is just as magical as he is, everlasting, full of life.
Sometimes, they stay in Aziraphale's book shop, trading stories back and forth. Sometimes, they explore Earth's curves and corners, delighting in humanity's ways. Sometimes, the snake – the man... you get the gist – disappears for a few hours and returns with a distinctly self-satisfied air, and Aziraphale tuts and fusses and smiles like the sun reappeared in his sky. Sometimes, there are arguments. Sometimes, there is silence.
Always, there is love.
And there's a book they like above the others. It's called 'The Serpent's Fall' and Aziraphale once received it as a gift. It tells the story of a high-up otherrealm, of a rift between its occupants, and of one creature who escaped the ensuing war by choosing to leave. It made its way down to the Earth, where it picked a shape and a name, and the shape was a serpent and the name was-
"What does the J stand for, anyway, my dear?"
It started with-
"Oh, 's just a J, really."
"Really? What did the R stand for, then? When you were... In your other form, that is."
Well, who can say? And does it really matter, in the end?