Aaron was an unimposing man. Dressed in the robes of the desert nomads, skin roughened by years in the sun, greying at the temples, one hand raised to shield his eyes from the late morning light.
The wings were impressive. If a person had the eyes to see them.
Aziraphale had sort of heard something was happening. That God had chosen to speak to someone, have a mortal do divine work. He had shown up in the shallows of the Nile, letting the gentle waves carry his boat among the fishermen and ferriers. It seemed prudent to see this new prophet and decide if the rumours were true or if it was just another bag of hot air. He might have expected an angel in disguise.
But those wings… Not the wings of an ordinary angel. Not even an archangel. Not something that should be able to be stuffed into a corporeal body easily and besides he knew all the real higher ups by face. He blinked, trying to get a better view across the way. Burnished gold and red feathers spread wide, then another pair unfurled, and another. The right hand seemed to hold both staff and kopesh at the same time.
A stray undercurrent urged his boat closer for a better look. He squinted against the light. Surely it was no one he knew. Those wings almost looked like…
On the docks that spread out like spiderwebs along the bank Aaron stepped forward, awaiting Pharaoh's passing and from behind him the angel stepped forward.
Aziraphale’s body worked against him in movements, his eyes slowly showing him what he was really seeing, his heartbeat manifesting itself in his ears, his limbs involuntarily hauling him backwards. Fear took him like a smothering flood, choking him.
She could have been any wealthy Egyptian woman, if she folded up her blood-soaked wings and set down her glistening kopesh. Hair curled and styled tightly, tunic so fine and sheer it might have been spider silk, she set one hand on the prophet’s shoulder and reached up on tiptoes to whisper in his ear.
Aziraphale couldn’t think, couldn’t move, two truths settling in him so bone-deep that they didn’t need words to express themselves.
First, he Knew, drifting past a seraph in the act of her duties, that he shouldn’t have come to Egypt.
And second, he Knew that he had to get out of the water.
A miracle, any miracle – a stray tidal wave, a larger boat knocking him to the shore, something, anything to get him moving fast and yet he didn’t dare. Didn’t dare attract attention. A human might think nothing of the miracle but if the seraph noticed him it didn’t bear thinking about.
So Aaron raised his staff and beside him Samael, the Scourge, the Sword, the Executioner, raised her kopesh.
Both weapons came down as one.
And Aziraphale could only sit paralysed as the river around him turned to blood.
Crowley was smarter than himself, he was sure of it.
He had to be nowadays, no choice left. Reporting to hell had never really needed a work ethic, per se, but it’d been something to do. Something to keep the snake inside him entertained, a bit of an outlet for the demonic energy that came with the set of crispy wings and the hole through the chest. What else was he going to do with his Thursdays if he wasn’t bringing down the mobile phone network? He was going to bother an angel, that’s what. It was good to have a project. Kept the mind sharp in retirement. But if it was a project he wanted to come out alright then he was going to have to be so, so much smarter than himself.
That’s what he told himself as he stood in front of the plastic pop-up flower stand just down the street from the bookshop. He hadn’t meant to go there, he’d just parked down the street and was walking past and now his feet were not moving anymore and his eyes were full of pale pink peonies wrapped in garish paper, three pounds a bunch.
Aziraphale would smile. He’d smile like sunshine. That would be their interaction, their exchange – one bunch of flowers for one blinding smile. A smile for that bunch and a brighter smile for the next bunch, the bookshop eventually overflowing with powdery pink peonies kept alive like they had roots, cherished gifts not allowed to die. And in the centre of it his angel demurring prettily.
Go on, the snake inside goaded him. It’s just flowers. He’ll be so lovely for you.
His fingers twitched toward the flowers and he was overcome with the urge to slap his own hand down for misbehaving.
He walked past the flower stand.
You go too fast for me.
Wasn’t the Bentley he’d been talking about. Wasn’t even the… whatever. The smiles and the pet names and books in ruined churches. It was him. Anthony J. Crowley: Too Fast. Of course he was too much, too fast, too everything.
This snake that had always lived in his head, in his gut, that had sent him plummeting in the first place, it was always going to be too much for Aziraphale. The only way he could win this one was to strangle that snake and not let it ruin things for him. He was happy with how things were, he could be that guy that was just levelheaded and happy and not Too Much. He could walk at Aziraphale's speed, it was worth doing.
So he squeezed through the bookshop door empty handed – half jammed shut with books as it was – and slumped down onto a couch in the sun. Nothing to embarrass his angel, to put him on guard. Just a snake in the sun in his bookshop. He reached out for the cup of tea that always spontaneously occurred in this place and took a sip. Chamomile. Not bad.
Aziraphale dropped one corner of his newspaper, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards. Not a favourite smile but he’d take it. “Afternoon, dear.”
Crowley made a general sort of noise in response.
That won him a slightly more endearing smile. “Not up to any mischief then, I take it?”
“Mmph,” Crowley shrugged. “No fun without someone around to thwart me.”
It was hard enough to make any indent on humans sending themselves straight to hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, but with no one even wanting a made-up report about it there was hardly a point.
“Well, let me know your schedule and I’ll make time.”
A grin sprung to Crowley’s face of its own accord, his cheeks hurting from the smile he just couldn’t help. Sod the bunches of peonies. If he could only be as unintentionally, off-handedly funny as his angel he’d never go hungry for his smiles. “I’ll share my google calendar.”
“No need to be smarmy.” The words lacked any bite and Aziraphale was avoiding his eyes. Not in the bad way, in a way that made an egg timer in Crowley’s brain go bing!
Heads up, look alive. The angel wanted something.
“Anything interesting in the paper?” he asked casually.
“As a matter of fact...” Aziraphale paused and Crowley knew this would be good. Something he could really sink his teeth into, put on a big show of reluctance, make the angel all but beg. Make it something he had to ask for all out in the open and then be so pleased and cherished when Crowley indulged him.
“Spit it out,” Crowley said.
“The Sandford village fete. It’s on this weekend.”
“A village fete?” Crowley arched an eyebrow in disdain. “What sort of newspapers are you reading? Aren’t there… wars going on or something?”
“It’s not just a village fete. The gardeners at Sandford village have won national awards four years running in every category. Their peonies are particularly delightful. I should like to see the flower show.”
I knew it . Vindicated, Crowley shrugged. He just had to draw it out a little more. “You should go then.”
The puppy-dog eyes made their appearance and he knew he’d won. “It wouldn’t be as fun alone.”
They could drive up in the Bentley, he’d get them a room for the weekend, they could spend the day shopping for little jams and cakes and second hand books, whatever took the angel’s fancy. And what could be more natural, then, than getting him a souvenir? He’d drive him back to London with arms stuffed full of peonies, beaming and radiant and happy. No snake involved. A pace he’d set all on his own.
“Myeh, church fetes aren’t really my scene, angel.”
Aziraphale pouted so delicately, so pointedly, so sweetly. Heaven had not made angels to be easy to deny. “But I’d like you there with me. I’ll let you choose the movie next week.”
With his most long-suffering sigh Crowley leaned forward. This had to be the angel’s idea, all his idea, he had to insist on it or this was going to spin out of control. “I get to choose the movie and you’re bringing the snacks.”
And there it was. Aziraphale’s whole body relaxed, his beautiful face lighting up, newspaper forgotten in his lap. “Really? You’ll come?”
“Beats another Saturday on the couch. Barely.”
Kiss him , the snake whispered. Don’t you see how he adores you?
He could, he could, in that moment he could. He could stride over there, yank his angel into his arms and kiss him. Tell him that finding him the most perfect peonies in England had been the plan before he’d ever mentioned it and he could have weekends away anywhere he liked and just kiss him senseless.
Instead he took a long, disinterested swig of his chamomile.
One day, if he just played his cards right, Crowley was certain the angel would be comfortable asking for what he wanted, knowing the answer would be yes long before the pouting came into play. One day he’d be alright with the answer being yes.
His imagination presented him with the scene. He’d just show him the article in the paper with a smile and a flourish. Think of the flowers, Crowley. And Crowley would take his hand and kiss his knuckles. I’ll make the arrangements, angel.
“I’ll make the arrangements then, shall I?” He already had his phone in his hand, looking up B&Bs. (He preferred Samsung because they occasionally exploded, which added a little variety to life. Although no phone of Crowley’s would dare to explode.)
“Thank you,” Aziraphale sighed. Still radiant and happy, lips and cheeks pink as flowers.
He did make the arrangements, some half-decent motel outside the village which miraculously had one room left open the day before the now nation-famous floral event. And he did drive Aziraphale there in the Bentley, spring sunshine bathing him in all his corduroy glory. He had briefly considered if it would be funny to dress for the occasion in his own village-wear, but decided it would sail over the angel’s head so probably wasn’t worth the trouble. So he was just in his jeans and a coat and a scarf and Aziraphale was happy. He was relaxed and he was happy.
They pulled up by the church yard and he was relaxed. The grounds had been used for so little religion and so much titting about that the grass provided more of a slight tingle than a consecrated burn. Now the place swarmed with out-of-style pensioners and too-in-style hipsters, a veritable horde of them milling around under the oak trees, weaving through trestle tables and marquees. His angel looked at his feet but he rested a hand at the small of his back and guided him forward. Even if had burned like the heat of the sun he wouldn’t have said anything.
“Oh look, angel,” he teased, indicating the aged crowd. “You’re finally dressed for the occasion.” And oh, he was so happy.
“So are you,” Aziraphale said with a nod toward the twenty-somethings in skinny jeans sporting potted succulents and ironic t-shirts.
Crowley made some mocking noises but if he was being fair that was a good burn. He shoved his hands in his pockets and trailed behind. He wasn’t leading this expedition.
It was all so quaint. Proper, weapons-grade quaint. Wind chimes, home-made jams, old tea sets, vinyl records that Crowley paused to flip through, all under the watchful eye of middle-aged women. You know the sort, the ones that can’t help but make comments on what a turnout they’re having and how they must not be used to this sort of thing in the city and they’re all just dying to clean off their tables so they can go home and have a brandy and a valium. And Aziraphale seemed determined to meet and greet every last one of them.
It might have been the most tedious thing in the world, except for how the angel kept touching him. When he was done with each stall the angel would turn and grasp Crowley by the elbow and give him a little squeeze. It was nothing, just a quick check in, still got you, ready to move on, and then his hand would vanish. He’d pause somewhere and without even looking wrap one manicured hand around Crowley’s wrist. The crowd around them would be too thick and he’d pull him close to one side to not lose him.
It was heaven.
See, you stupid snake? Your way gets us excommunicated for decades. My way gets us thiiiiis close to holding hands.
The snake in his mind smirked and repeated back: Thiiiiis close.
Crowley frowned. Alright, this was a little pathetic, floating along after Aziraphale on the promise of getting another touch on the elbow. Maybe in his future there might even be some explicit hand-holding. Hot. Didn’t stop him from doing it for another half hour.
Aziraphale stopped at a stall of the most ghastly knitted goods and for the first time actually picked something up rather than just teasing the stall owner. He ran one soft hand over the ugliest scarf Crowley had ever seen. It was a hideous yellow-orange and looked like it had been made by a kindergartener, misshapen and too short.
“You wouldn’t,” Crowley scoffed. “Not even you.”
Aziraphale dug into his pocket and fished out a note, handing it to the woman behind the table. She took it with a delighted smile – probably amazed anyone had bought any of her rubbish – and asked, “Would you like a bag?”
“No, thank you.” Aziraphale nodded in her direction, not quite looking at her.
Crowley was about to object very loudly to the idea of the angel wearing that monstrosity around in public but was cut off when it was looped abruptly around his neck and his angel tied it neatly in place.
“It’s the same colour as your eyes,” Aziraphale said, as some kind of explanation.
Crowley’s voice died in his throat.
Kiss him. The angel’s hands rested in the crooks of both his elbows, their bodies close, so proud of himself. Radiant. He was warmth on a cool spring day, an unshapely orange-yellow scarf now twisted between them. He looked so pleased with himself. With them. With this moment in all of time. Kiss him, kiss him, kiss him.
Crowley couldn’t. Wouldn’t. But what he should have done, which was to make some sarcastic comment and pretend he would only wear this to humour his friend, was also out of reach. He was in that short circuit place where what he wanted and what he needed just collided so completely that all he could do was stammer and look away.
Aziraphale didn’t push him. Just took him by the elbow and kept going, stopping at every single stall no matter what it contained. They looked at awful driftwood clocks and even worse knitted beanies and maybe a few potted plants that Crowley didn’t mind so much.
“Mm,” Aziraphale sighed in satisfaction, almost pressed into his shoulder. “I do so love these little towns and all their surprises.”
He’d wanted this. Exactly this. No use denying it now, pretending that he wanted anything but spending 48 whole hours being blinded by Aziraphale’s happiness. But now it was happening. His angel wasn’t pulling away from him and it hurt and it burned and he had wanted it all so badly for so long.
They were coming up on the central marquee where the crowds were thickest. The flower show wasn’t until tomorrow but a lot of the gardeners had their displays up anyway. They all preened for the visiting flower enthusiasts and photographers, a few journalists for sure. They’d be fluffing the judges before the big event, doling out condescending advice, that sort of thing.
Crowley’s little shell-shocked bubble was impenetrable to it all, every thought and feeling he had wrapped up in the hand in the crook of his elbow. Aziraphale was walking arm-in-arm with him. Close to it. They were touching. The little snake in his brain was suggesting to him what it would feel like to slide a hand around the back of his angel’s neck the moment before he kissed him, how soft the skin and how fluffy the curls.
So it came as a surprise to him when a pamphlet was forcibly shoved into his hands and out of nowhere a very grim young woman was in his face.
“Vaccines save lives,” she said with an intensity that made him lean back. “Learn the facts.”
Crowley stared at her. He had no reply for that. She was already off, her and – now he looked around – a pack of friends trying to pamphlet everyone headed for the flowers. He glanced at Aziraphale. “What’s all that about, do you think?”
Aziraphale shrugged. “Humans. Who ever knows?”
He dropped the glossy pamphlet and let it slip his mind. The little barricade of pamphleteers had been their last obstacle before the main marquee and they were now surrounded by flowers and Aziraphale hadn’t let go of his arm.
And in all of this Crowley could be forgiven for noticing that the flowers around them didn’t perk up as an angel walked by them. Nor did they shrink away from a demon. Tables and racks of brightly coloured blooms, the pride of Sandford, and none of them even seemed to notice creator or destroyer in their midst.
All the flowers noticed were the men in hats that pruned them or the women with gardening gloves and plant misters that tried to arrange them just so. For there were no flowers better loved than the ones here today, and none more nervous with expectations. They had been national champions four years in a row after all. It wouldn’t go to be ruining it now.
It's hard to notice that something isn’t there unless a person is already looking for it. If the hand in the crook of his elbow dropped the loss would be devastating. But the lack of the vague environmental sympathy just wasn’t that high on his list at that moment.
It was going to be a little while longer before Crowley and Aziraphale realised something was wrong.
It was something to watch Aziraphale’s eyes dart over each display in turn, breathing little sighs for particularly beautiful blooms. Aziraphale watched the flowers and Crowley watched Aziraphale. It took some plucking up his courage, maybe one or two more displays than it should have, but Crowley took a steadying breath and lay one hand on Aziraphale’s. It was almost like holding hands.
It gave off the right impression, at least. That the little grapple was reciprocal, that they were here together. Deliberately. This is my friend. I’m here with him. I don’t have to hide him away in a bookshop and dust him off when no one else is looking.
Aziraphale glanced up at the gesture, soft eyes and sunlit face. Happy. For fuck’s sake how could this feel so good and so bad? It was like a colony of moths had taken up residence in his ribcage. Particularly anxious moths that had to burst into activity every time the angel looked at him or tightened his hold on his arm.
He’d waited six thousand years, kept it all in check. But this was the slipperiest slope he’d ever set foot on and as soon as he’d indulged in a few discretionary acts of kindness he was falling face first into pining, tumbling into flirting, about to dislocate is knees on the sharp rocks of intimacy.
Was this really it? What he had waited six thousand years for? A stupid flower show? Aziraphale wasn’t pulling away from him. Maybe… maybe this time he wouldn’t? Maybe they’d hold hands again. Maybe tonight with a bottle of merlot in them he’d finally work up the courage and just kiss him and he wouldn’t pull away.
The very moment he’d thought it he spotted the problem at the flower show.
On the stage, among the real prize village gardeners, a woman fussed with her snapdragons and chatted to a gaggle of young professional types with phones held out to catch her words.
Crowley jerked away from Aziraphale on reflex, jumping to put at least a few feet between them.
She had a bright knitted beanie pulled down over her hair, a hand-rolled cigarette in one hand, a flannel shirt that was a size too small for her. Hair the colour of a house-spider. Hands that moved like… well, spiders. A spider. A very human-shaped spider but a spider nonetheless.
He caught his breath, his body rebelling for just that surprised second before he caught himself. It was fine. It was all fine. He looked over to see the hurt flicker across Aziraphale’s face but he didn’t have time for that right now.
Crowley reached out and gave Aziraphale’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze then let it go. He would fix this. This wouldn’t ruin their day. “Be back.”
A lot of demons would want his head mounted on their wall but that was where demons differed from angels, they didn’t all toe the party line. Some were sadists and some were bumbling idiots and some were spiders who occasionally did some field work and were just native enough to be worth knowing. She wasn’t really that much of a demon anyway, more a bookkeeper. A ferryman, that was the term she liked.
He swaggered up to her table, to her pretty snapdragons and she looked up, gossamer black eyes meeting his own before turning back to the young journalists. She offered them a disarming smile. “I give my garden the same care as I give my children. All natural, safe and healthy. No chemical can replace good old fashioned sunshine. That’s why I grow little winners.”
After a few more trite quotes she dispersed the group and turned her attention back to Crowley.
A little moment hung between them. A moment that would mean the difference between flaming swords and tire irons or catching up for a beer later on.
“You definitely don’t have any children,” he said with an overconfident smirk.
She smiled a terrible, fantastically familiar smile. “Crawly.”
“It’s been a while, Mephistopheles.”