The door of the bookshop jingled, just loudly enough to draw Aziraphale out of the story he’d been reading. His brow scrunched when he heard no further greeting, which was out of the ordinary, as the door had been locked and the only one capable of getting through it was Crowley, and Crowley never entered quietly. Not, Aziraphale thought, unless he was up to something that he did not want Aziraphale to see.
“Crowley?” he called, closing the book and setting it on the edge of his desk. He tipped his chair back a little, but Crowley was not in his line of sight between the entrance and his seat, so he clambered up and went looking. “Are you alright?”
“Just fine, angel!”
Aziraphale scowled. Crowley was heading for the back room. Or close to the back room, which was notable enough. Aziraphale crossed the shop, weaving around shelves and piles of books – he’d been cleaning, when he accidentally opened a book and sat down with it, which was how it normally went any time he tried to organize the shop – and caught sight of Crowley’s form disappearing into the back room, sure enough. He followed after, a little annoyed at being ignored and sneaked past, and stopped in the doorway, eyes widening.
“What on Earth…?” he asked, staring at the glass aquarium Crowley was clearing space for on one of the small tables. “Crowley, what’ve you done?”
“They’re babies,” Crowley said. “Or, well, they’re not babies yet. They’re… pre-babies. Eggs,” he said, finally catching the word by the tail. “Can you watch them?”
“Watch them?” Aziraphale said incredulously, not any less confused about what exactly was going on than he’d been when he walked in. “Why are they in an aquarium? Crowley, where did you-”
“They’re mine,” Crowley told him, as if that cleared up anything.
“Yours?” Aziraphale squawked. “Like-”
“Well not- I didn’t lay them, I just-” he said quickly, although his tone left Aziraphale with more than a few doubts about that. “Look, I have to go, I’ll be back in a few days, just-”
“Crowley, you can’t-!”
“You’re gonna do great,” Crowley assured him, hands on his shoulders just so he could rotate them in a circle and be the one closest to the door. “I’ll be back in a few days. Babies,” he added, and then he was heading for the exit before Aziraphale could get in another word about it.
With a sigh, Aziraphale turned around to see the five little white spheres sitting innocuously in the bottom of the little aquarium. There was a bit of sand to cushion them, and perhaps to keep them from rolling, but nothing else- not even a lid. Well, that wouldn’t do, Aziraphale thought. Crowley had obviously been unprepared for… whatever was going on. He supposed he would find out in a few days.
In the meantime, he had pre-babies to take care of, and he was going to do a better job of it than it appeared Crowley was capable of doing. And he just wouldn’t give them back until he had an explanation.
The first thing Aziraphale did was call the local pet shop to ask what they knew about taking care of snake eggs. Aziraphale was reasonably certain that they were snake eggs, given that they looked nothing like chicken eggs, which was his first suspicion. He had not wanted to even touch them until he knew if that was okay, so he waited patiently for someone on the other end to pick up and, when they did, said:
“I’m very sorry to trouble you, but a friend of mine has asked me to watch over his pet snake’s eggs. Is there… anything in particular I should know? He had to leave in quite a hurry and did not have time to explain anything to me.”
The woman on the other end made the sort of noise that said this was the last question she’d expected to answer today, and said: “Well, they should be fine in the incubator, but do you know if they’re going to hatch soon?”
“Hatch?” Aziraphale said, baffled. Obviously he had known they were eggs, and that they needed caring for, and that Crowley would expect them to be intact upon his return, but he had not had time to consider that the main function of eggs was to stop being eggs and start being something a bit more wiggly. “How would I tell?”
“I can’t help you there,” she said, and she sounded sorry enough about it that Aziraphale took no offense. “But maybe you can search online?”
“Rather,” he said, a bit disappointed and so flustered by the idea of the eggs hatching that he hung up without even saying goodbye.
He wrung his hands for a moment, and then straightened up and marched back to the aquarium to peer inside. Incubator. This was definitely not an incubator, but when he steeled himself and reached inside to run a gentle finger over one of the eggs, he found it warm. He jerked back like he’d been burned, even though the shell had only been mildly warm.
“Maybe you don’t need an incubator,” he told the eggs, peering down at them over the rim of the aquarium. “Crowley’s never followed any other rule, I don’t see why he should start now. I wonder if… well, I suppose we’ll see, shan’t we?”
He stayed for a little longer, watching, and then pulled himself together. The library was still open for a few hours yet, and if he was lucky, they would have a book on how to care for baby snakes, should the eggs actually hatch. If they didn’t, then Aziraphale would know a little more about the world, but if they did, he would be prepared.
Aziraphale leaned against the shop door, fumbling for the handle, and after a second of spectacular failure, just flicked a finger to send it swinging wide open for him. He shuffled sideways through it, mindful of the bulky cage in his hands, and managed to get inside without toppling or breaking anything. The shop door swung closed of its own accord behind him and locked shut to leave him to his business.
Carefully, he lowered the new aquarium to the surface of his desk, letting the last corner clunk down as he slid his fingers free. It was bigger than the one Crowley had bought, though not by much, but importantly it had a lid and doors on the side that opened and locked as needed. The pet store employee had been less than impressed with his knowledge of snakes, but upon finding out that he was attempting to aid a friend and money was no issue, she had loaded Aziraphle down with a lot of care items.
So it was that he found himself spending the rest of the night cobbling together his first attempt at a snake habitat. There were sticks and plants and substrate that smelled of rich, damp earth, even though Aziraphale thought the bag he’d miracled away had said something about coconuts. Half the bedding was softer, some kind of moss he had been instructed to keep humid, which accounted for the spray bottle he found in one of the bags.
Of course, he set the whole thing up and then remembered he had been explicitly instructed to apply the heat tape to the bottom of the enclosure first, and spent a while trying to figure out how to do that without tipping the whole thing on its side. Eventually he just miracled it on, after remembering he did not have to follow human conventions of chronological order for tasks, and decided it was time for a break.
He puttered around the shop for a few minutes, but after enough false starts, he decided he couldn’t avoid the back room forever, and he went to check on the eggs. They hadn’t changed, and he didn’t know what he expected them to do, exactly, but he felt a little better to see them still in egg form with no disturbances to the sand around them. Gently, he brushed a finger over one of them and felt its warmth. He left his finger there a second longer than he had before, barely a touch at all, and tried to imagine what was inside.
“He doesn’t seem like the sort to keep eggs he just found,” Aziraphale said softly to the eggs. “Especially since you don’t seem to need anything from him. You’re getting along just fine without me, after all.”
He sighed, throwing a glance out the door. Of course, no one was going to come investigating him anymore. Heaven had left them alone for a couple of years now, and although Hell still came around – which was, he assumed, what this business with Crowley taking off was about – it was never for him, and they never showed their faces at the bookshop. At least, not since Aziraphale had smited the first one of them on sight. He hadn’t meant to, but the demon had startled him at a rather inopportune time.
He turned back to the eggs, which unsurprisingly had not moved at all. “But if he didn’t find you, that doesn’t leave a lot of options. I admit, I’m a little afraid he’s stolen you from someone. I don’t know what I’ll say if they come here asking. I’m a terrible liar, you know. Your-”
Realizing what he’d been about to say, he hesitated. On the one hand, if Crowley had stolen them from someone, there was a chance that they could go away again, and it would be unfair of him to say your father. On the other hand, he didn’t want the eggs to feel as though they had no one, and Crowley was the closest thing to a parent they had at the moment, except perhaps for Aziraphale himself, despite that he was only supposed to be babysitting.
“Well, your father’s a much better liar,” he told them a bit secretively. “At least for a while, until he starts to feel bad about it. He has a good heart, you see. It’s… he doesn’t like to hear that, so we’ll keep it just our secret, shall we?”
There was, predictably, no response from any of the five little globes. Aziraphale sighed, and tried not to feel too silly for talking to eggs. They probably couldn’t hear him. Probably.
Somewhere, buried in the depths of the bookshop, Aziraphale found a printed photo of Crowley. Upon the advent of handheld cameras, Aziraphale had purchased one and spent three rolls of film learning how to use it. He’d developed them himself in a dark workshop after befriending the young man who ran it, and almost none of the pictures had been worthwhile, which was disappointing but not unexpected.
There had been, however, a couple photos that had turned out… well, rather perfect, actually. Three of them, to be precise, and Aziraphale had not taken a single one of them. One of them – and although it had gone missing, he suspected he knew where it went – was of himself, turning to smile when Crowley had called out his name. Another was of the bookshop, from 1888, a photo which Aziraphale had since had enlarged, framed, and placed on his wall in his bedroom.
The last was the one in his hands, of Crowley smiling almost gently, the camera held up in one hand to take a picture of himself. Aziraphale was given to understand this sort of photo was popular now. He had kept the original print tucked away inside of one of his favorite books, safe and sound, and it was the only photograph he had of Crowley, since he had promptly given up photography as a very human endeavor.
He replaced the photo in the book, and walked a few streets down to the print shop, where he paid for two copies of the photo. The young man at the counter gave him a bit of a strange look, but he handled the photo with care and the copies were, if not the most amazing copies ever, functional enough for Aziraphale’s needs. He paid for both, and a roll of clear tape, and proceeded home in good spirits.
At the library, Aziraphale had been reading on a computer about baby animals for the past two days and had learned a great deal about them. For example, many humans were convinced that baby humans could hear things while in the womb, most notably the heartbeat of the parent carrying them. Birds, upon hatching, imprinted upon whatever moving creature happened to be caring for them (a tangent which had led Aziraphale off course for nearly an hour as he waded through hundreds of adorable photos of baby birds following after animals that were Most Definitely Not Birds). Reptiles, it seemed, were fairly self-sufficient after hatching, but given that these particular ones were likely not… not entirely reptilian in nature, Aziraphale did not want to take any chances.
So it was that he found himself taping one of the photos of Crowley into the inside of the new aquarium, and the other into the inside of the incubating aquarium, just in case.
“You should know who your father is,” he told them kindly as he smoothed the last bit of tape into place. “He’ll be back in a couple more days, I’m sure, but I worry that you’ll arrive before then. After all, if you weren’t going to, he might as well have just left you at his place, don’t you agree?”
They could not, he knew, agree, but he also knew that he was right. Crowley would never have brought them here if they were just supposed to stay eggs. They could stay eggs anywhere. He could have hidden them anywhere he liked, and it seemed as though they’d have been just as fine. So, Aziraphale reasoned, they must be near to hatching.
Gently and a bit fretfully, he reached into the aquarium and brushed a fingertip over one of the eggs. It was still warm to the touch, and gave back just the tiniest, faintest glow of energy, sensed only by his own essence. It lit up red and blue, and Aziraphale smiled.
“Well,” he said quietly, leaving his finger there and hoping that the tiny life against it could feel him in return. “Perhaps you’re not so regular at all.”
After that, Aziraphale made a point of touching the eggs more often. They were warm and responded in colors and sensations scraped across his essence more than a little clumsily, like feeling the thoughts of a colt as it shuddered through its first steps. He spoke to them softly, telling them that they would hatch into light and love, telling them that they had a place in the world when they were ready, telling them that they were safe.
And, almost as a matter of course, he found himself telling them about Crowley.
“Your father saved the world once, you know,” he said softly one evening, when the book he’d been reading them was finished.
The book was a bright, gaudy thing, made for very small human children, but it had had a picture of a snake on the front, and the insides contained praise for snakes rather than fear, and so Aziraphale had brought it home. He could not tell if they had enjoyed it or not, but it made him feel a little better to be doing something for them rather than letting them just sit here alone in his back room.
“He wasn’t supposed to, you see,” Aziraphale continued, thinking back a few years with a small smile. “We’d been here for quite some time, and I think he expected to be here quite some time yet when they brought him the antichrist. That’s Adam, you know, although he’s much less of an antichrist and much more of a teenager these days. More dramatic, but less world-ending.”
“Crowley came right to me, after he’d delivered Adam – well, not Delivered delivered, you see, just handed him over to the nuns – to try to come up with a plan to save the world. Even back then he’d wanted to, and it was me that had needed convincing. Quite silly of me, looking back. I’d thought the angels were… well, I was mistaken, at any rate.”
“He wasn’t, though, your father,” Aziraphale continued. “He tried to save the world right up until he thought he couldn’t, and then-”
Aziraphale swallowed the next words, not sure how to say and then he tried to save me when his throat wouldn’t open. Crowley had saved him, though not because Crowley had fought anyone or begged him to stay or go or even because he did what he was supposed to do. He had saved Aziraphale because he had spent six thousand years making sure Aziraphale knew that they weren’t so different, in the end.
“When he didn’t know what else to do and was out of cards anyway, he helped everyone else,” Aziraphale finally admitted. “He got us into the airbase and he stood at Adam’s side to the end, and he stood at my side after that. He stopped time, you know. That’s very clever of him. Powerful, too. I don’t know anyone else that can do that.”
He quieted then, tracing over the feelings that arose when he spoke of Crowley kindly. He wasn’t allowed to, most of the time. Crowley would cut him off if he started, shoving the words away like he didn’t want them, couldn’t stand them, and Aziraphale could hardly blame him. He suspected those sorts of things were salt in a long-open wound kept raw by Crowley’s own hand.
Aziraphale had never found the words to tell Crowley that he didn’t have to be good enough for Heaven to be a good person. At least, not in a way Crowley would hear. So Aziraphale bottled it up until it became too much to contain, which was certainly too much for Crowley to handle, and they went round and round through the centuries.
Gently, he laid a cheek on the rim of the aquarium, staring down at the five little spheres of white. Even without touching them, he could feel the pulse of life beneath their shells now. They must be close to hatching.
“I would tell him, if I could, but he doesn’t like when I tell him such things,” Aziraphale said, barely a whisper, almost a conspiracy. “So perhaps it can be our little secret.”
He smiled at that. It felt good to tell someone, while still feeling safe that Crowley, himself, would not catch wind of it. He didn’t expect Crowley would like to hear anything so soft. He could barely tolerate being called kind- Aziraphale had no idea what it would do to him if he were to find out he was loved.
With a sigh, Aziraphale reached in to brush a finger gently over each egg in turn. “I do love him,” he said, not a little wistfully. “More than is probably appropriate, and certainly more than he’d tolerate, I know. But I do. As long as we’re sharing secrets. And now I think it’s your bedtime.”
He was not sure if eggs had a bedtime, or if baby snakes did, but he had decided that a firm set of rules was a good place to try to start, just in case, so he stood up and pushed his chair against the table and turned off the lights on his way out the door.
On the fifth day, everything happened at once.
Aziraphale came to check on the eggs in the morning after breakfast, and found three of them with small openings in their soft shells. With a gasp, he’d gone to turn on the heat in their new cage and then settled in beside them to watch them struggle their way into the world. It took much longer than he expected, with each baby spilling into the sand amid goo.
All five of them made it out, and Aziraphale let them rest for a few minutes each before he reached in to scoop them up, pat them dry, and place them into the freshly-misted moss. Almost as soon as they were in, they burrowed around until just the tips of their snouts showed, and they looked up at him with familiar yellow eyes.
Well, three of them did. He had counted four babies that could have been Crowley in miniature – which raised more questions than Aziraphale really wanted to ask – except that one of them had sky-blue eyes instead of Crowley’s yellow. And then there was the fifth child, who looked as though it didn’t belong in the family, all white instead of black, with blue eyes and only the red belly to give it away as a sibling, and that certainly didn’t help Aziraphale find any answers.
He supposed it didn’t matter. He would be able to ask Crowley every single question he had when Crowley returned, and until then, regardless of how they looked, all the babies would need his care and love.
“Welcome to the world, little ones,” he greeted to all five little noses as soon as the fifth had resurfaced. “I suppose you’re going to need names. I do hope Crowley comes home soon. He really should be the one to name all of you.”
One of them cocked its head, frighteningly reminiscent of the way Crowley did when considering an explanation Aziraphale was giving, and then slithered up out of the moss. Aziraphale quickly held up one hand to prevent it from flopping out over the open door of the enclosure, and it shot up to coil around his thumb, hardly bigger than it, and fell still, yellow eyes on his.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said softly. “Well, hello there.”
He realized, with a little start, that he must be warm, which must feel good to the chill scales of the little one, still a bit cool from hatching. He curled his other hand around his thumb, but no matter which way he rotated his thumb, the little one held his head so that he could see Aziraphale, and Aziraphale realized that the little one was a he at the same time he felt the tiny spark of adoration zinging along his thumb.
“Oh, I see,” he murmured, affection blooming in his own chest in response. “Yes, that’s alright. I didn’t lie when I told you that you would be born into love. You’ve gotten here, now, and a very good job it was. You ought to have a rest now though. I expect you’re tired. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
The hatchling stared up at him for a moment longer, and then his coils loosened and he slithered down into Aziraphale’s cupped palm and fell so still that Aziraphale worried for a moment that he’d stopped breathing. But sure enough, the red of his belly moved minutely as he breathed in, and Aziraphale relaxed. With his newly-vacated hand, he closed the door to the enclosure on the rest of the sleeping babies, and crossed the bookshop to sit down at his desk.
He won’t get much done like this, he thought, but perhaps some things were worth putting off for a little bit of love. He hummed quietly to himself in thought, and then smiled as something occurred to him.
“Well, if he wanted to name all of you, perhaps he ought to have been here,” he said softly. “I think I shall call you Anthony Junior. At least you’ll know what the J. stands for.”
And with that, he settled in to wait for Anthony to wake again.