Maria liked to go to St. James’ Park on her lunch break. Each day she’d collect her sandwich and piece of fruit from the middle left drawer of her desk, lock her computer, and walk the three flights of stairs and two blocks to the park. Something about the fresh air and trees and water helped rejuvenate her brain for the second half of the workday. Even on rainy days she would come here, preferring getting wet to spending all day in a fluorescent-lit, climate-controlled building.
Today it was sunny and almost warm, an impressively lovely day for March. The sandwich in her bag was tuna salad, and she had an apple to go with it. It was, in other words, the best kind of day. She stepped briskly into the park, down the well-known paths to her favorite patch of wall to sit on. It was empty, as it always was. If she had been the type of person who liked to sit on benches she would have had trouble finding one, but she was quite happy with her low wall, and she never had to worry about it being occupied.
She was halfway through her sandwich when a loud exclamation from somewhere down the path made her look up. A moment later, a woman came running up to her.
“Can I borrow your phone? I need to call animal control!” The woman sounded breathless.
Maria paused mid-bite and furrowed her eyebrows at the woman. “Why?”
“There is an enormous snake just down the path,” the woman said.
“A snake?” Maria quite liked snakes. “It’s a park, I’m not surprised there are snakes.”
“Not usually, but this one is about fifteen feet long and does not look friendly. Please can I borrow your phone?”
Maria was about to object, but then a huge head came into view a little way down the path. It was very reptilian, and very close to the ground, and definitely not normal-sized. “Oh heck. Yeah. Sure. That is not supposed to be here.”
The woman took the offered phone and called, explaining briefly the size, abnormality, and location of the giant creature. Maria put the end of her sandwich away, wanting to make sure she could leave in a hurry if necessary. She didn’t leave just yet, though. Healthy fear was warring with her fascination with snakes, and she found she wanted to see what happened. The head appeared a few more times, and once a tail flicked out from behind a bush. It really was big, easily as wide around as Maria’s thigh. She was impressed.
Crowley was having a grand time. He and Aziraphale had been at the park, feeding the ducks as usual, when Aziraphale developed a hankering for ice cream. Since the nearest stand was most of the way across the park, Crowley had elected to remain in place and wait for him to get back. However, Aziraphale’s excursion had taken longer than he expected, and Crowley had grown bored. So now he was a sixteen-foot-long black snake, slithering around the general area and causing chaos and mayhem. Eight people had already taken one look at him and run away. Several of them had been shrieking.
Now he was sneaking up on an unsuspecting gentleman sitting on a bench. It was tempting to slide up over the back and surprise the man from behind, but the balance and precision that would require changed his mind. Instead he began to move under the bench, to come out near his target’s feet.
There was shouting behind him. How exciting.
Something touched his tail.
Crowley hissed and whipped around as fast as he could, which was much more slowly than he would have liked. Right. Larger snake, slower turnaround time. He’d have to remember that next time he chose his size.
There was a large crowd of people behind him. At the front were several determined-looking people in matching uniforms. One of them was holding what seemed to be an enormous set of tongs, which were currently settling themselves around his tail. Well, damn.
Crowley tried to coil the far end of himself closer, but all that happened was the tongs slid a little way closer to the end of his tail, which hurt, and a number of the humans yelled unintelligibly. Looking around, he saw that now there were people in front and to the sides of him as well. Surrounded. This was quickly shaping up to be a Bad Situation™.
Crowley tried to think. He could get away, obviously. Changing size or form would make it easy to slip away from the tongs. The problem with that was that the crowd would notice, and that would not be a fun situation to deal with.
The humans pulled on their weird snake-catching implement, and Crowley exerted his numerous snake muscles to keep from sliding anywhere. Not yet. He had to figure out what he was going to do first. What if he changed size just a tiny bit? Enough to loosen the grip of the tongs? It was worth a try.
Crowley concentrated on keeping his size nearly the same, then let it slip a tiny bit smaller, pulling his tail closer to him at the same time. The tongs slipped farther, but re-gripped before they slipped off. It did hurt slightly less, at least. The humans, predictably, yelled again.
As he pondered whether to try again, and what he would do if he did get free, he noticed a presence that was so familiar he usually didn’t even pay attention to it. He did now, rearing up and looking around for that presence. The humans made more noise, but he tuned it out. Instead, he listened for a specific voice.
“Excuse me, sir, but I really must get past- thank you! Excuse me, ma’am, I- thank you, ma’am- excuse me-”
Oh good. Aziraphale was back.
Maria had considered going back to work after calling the appropriate authorities. It was nearly time anyway, and staying in a park with an uncontained, probably venomous snake was the kind of thing that certain, logical parts of her brain suggested was a bad idea. She was, however, a snake-lover, not to mention a human, and so curiosity had gotten the better of her. She was far from the only one, judging by the crowd of onlookers that gathered while the animal control officers tried to literally wrestle the enormous creature into submission. It was not pleased, if the hissing and jerking was anything to go by. Well, and why should it be? Maria would be upset if someone grabbed her unexpectedly when she was out at the park.
Still, she recoiled with the others when it made an impressively sharp motion away from its captors and nearly pulled free. Maybe she should leave after all. The snake was so fascinating, though…
“Excuse me, ma’am, I just need to get by here.” Someone pushed her elbow. Maria jumped and looked at the person. It was a man with curly white-blond hair and what looked like an ancient — if well taken care of — tan suit. She couldn’t quite parse the look on his face, which at first glance seemed determined, then amused, then exasperated.
Surprise made her move out the way before she thoroughly thought about it, and the man moved smoothly past her, then the person in front of her, and before she knew it, he was in the empty area that, by unspoken agreement of the bystanders, was Too Close™ to the snake.
“Sir, please move back!” one of the animal control people called. “As you can see-”
“Crowley!” the man said, apparently not hearing. His tone was...chiding? Definitely not afraid. Maria craned her neck to see better.
The snake reared up again and hissed at the man, tongue flicking out.
“Sir-” the officer tried again, but the man still didn’t seem to hear him.
“Really, Crowley,” he said, apparently talking to the snake. “I leave for fifteen minutes and come back to this?”
The snake hissed again.
The man put his hands on his hips. “And what do you want me to do about it? It would appear that this is a mess of your own making.”
The snake settled back onto the ground, looking unfairly miserable for such a terrifying animal.
The strange man seemed to think so too, because he sighed. “Oh, all right.” He walked forward, and this time the entire crowd was silent, mesmerized by the bizarre sight in front of them. The snake raised its head and flicked its tongue out, then slithered closer.
The snake-catching equipment crashed to the ground, the animal control officer holding it having forgotten to continue doing so. The snake quickly curled its tail closer, then began to slither up the man’s leg.
This seemed to shake something in the animal control people, and one of them said, “Sir, that is really not safe, I must ask you-”
“Oh, he would never hurt me,” the man said with an almost terrifying casualness. The snake butted its head against his, then draped itself around his neck like a frightening, heavy scarf. He huffed and smacked it lightly on the nose. “Gently, Crowley!”
The snake raised its head, somehow managing to look disgruntled, then curled its tail twice around the man’s middle. It somehow looked smaller curled around a perfectly average-sized human than it had stretched out on the ground. Maria would have thought he would collapse under its weight, but he stood strong, as though the frankly huge snake weighed nothing more than a summer scarf.
“I do apologize for the disruption to your days,” the man said, looking around at the stunned crowd. “It won’t happen again.”
“Sir, I must ask you to come-” one of the animal control people began again, but the man continued as though he didn’t even hear.
“You all have a wonderful day, now. I really must be going.”
Then he walked through the gathered people, who moved aside automatically, and off down the path toward the entrance to the park. No one tried to stop him.
“How, pray tell,” Aziraphale said quietly as he walked away from the staring humans, “do you expect me to get us back to the bookshop with you like this?”
Crowley shifted, draping himself a little more firmly around Aziraphale’s neck. It was a valid question, but right now he was very distracted by how very comfortable it was to wrap himself around Aziraphale in snake form, and also how relieved he was to be out of that circle of terrifyingly determined humans.
“I would rather not have to keep up the deflection bubble all the way,” Aziraphale continued. “It will undoubtedly get us noticed.”
Putting aside the irony of a deflection bubble getting them noticed — though of course Aziraphale was right — Crowley sighed, or he would have if he hadn’t been a snake, and stretched, letting his tail coil down Aziraphale’s leg to make him stop walking. Then he reluctantly unwound the rest of the way and poured onto the ground, shifting back to human form as he did.
Aziraphale was looking at him with a very complicated expression that Crowley recognized as him trying to be severe and ending up at fondly exasperated, with a side of relief.
“You smacked me on the nose,” Crowley said.
“You were being difficult,” Aziraphale said, unperturbed.
Crowley rolled his eyes. “I’m a demon, get used to it.”
“Oh, I am,” Aziraphale said. “How many angels would rescue a demon from a predicament of his own making?”
Crowley didn’t really have anything to say to that, because the only reasonable answer was “one”, and that would have required more sincerity than he was up to at the moment. He tipped his head in acknowledgement.
“You really get yourself into the most ridiculous scrapes,” Aziraphale said after a moment, still with that look on his face. “Shall we go? I expect if we stick around someone will want to ask me questions.”
Crowley responded by heading for the street.
They were quiet on the walk back, but as soon as the bookshop door closed behind them Aziraphale said, “Care to explain why I came back from getting ice cream — which I never got to eat, by the way — to find you a snake besieged by humans?”
Crowley sighed. “I got bored.”
“I guessed as much,” Aziraphale said, and he definitely sounded amused now. “And the situation got out of control?”
“You could say that,” Crowley said, flopping on the sofa and tossing his glasses on the side table. “They’re terrifyingly stubborn, humans. You’d think an unknown snake of that size would make them cut and run, but- you saw what happened!”
“I did. Impressive tool they had you caught with.”
Crowley shuddered. “It was so undignified,” he complained.
“It didn’t look entirely comfortable either,” Aziraphale said lightly, sitting down in his usual chair.
“Nope,” Crowley said shortly. He really didn’t want to talk about that part.
Aziraphale heard the edge in his voice, because of course he did, and reacted accordingly. That is to say, he changed the subject entirely. “Would you like something to drink?”
“That,” said Crowley, “is an excellent idea.”
“‘S a good thing you were there,” Crowley said several hours later. He was on his way out the door, but apparently his mouth had decided to say something honest and open first.
“I’m sure you could have handled it if I hadn’t been.”
Crowley made a noncommittal noise. Aziraphale was probably right, but there was a level of panic that Crowley had been headed for that was prone to making it hard to escape situations like the one today. He didn’t think it would have come to that, but the possibility had crossed his mind. It was nice to hear Aziraphale’s straightforward assurance.
“I’ll see you later, then?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley paused where he had been inching out the door practically without noticing. His brain was still slow for some reason. He could manage to be reassuring for Aziraphale, though. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, of course.”
Aziraphale beamed. Crowley gave him his usual half-smile back, then ducked out the door.
Someone had brought donuts to the office over lunch, and there was one of her favorite kind — chocolate iced with sprinkles — left. Munching thoughtfully, she unlocked her computer and checked her email, which held an amazingly low number of unread messages. One of the few new ones turned out upon opening to be confirmation of the next phase of a project she’d been working on for months, several of those spent on trying to get this very confirmation.
Maria took another bite of donut. It was a good day.