If you had told Aziraphale eleven years ago that he ought to look forward to Armageddon, he'd have agreed with you. He would have nodded earnestly, wearing a perfectly pleasant smile that suggested a hundred things going on underneath, most of them guilty. Then he'd wait until you ('management,' he'd assume) retreated, so he could put certain eventualities back into their proper mental compartment - the one with half a dozen locks and an iron door.
You ought to look forward to Armageddon, you'd insist, staying put. Because once you open those locks and get on with it you'll be able to start the rest of your life.
And he would insist he didn't know what you're talking about, because this is his life - eternal, inflexible, ineffable, and he was certainly not imagining a Pandora's Box metaphor since that's the wrong mythology entirely. He was drifting to thoughts of crepes and fast cars even less.
Tell your friends, you'd insist, except it'd sound like 'friend' and he'd be sure he misheard you. It's not the end of everything. It's the beginning. It's a bit of an anti-climax, honestly, but where you're concerned it's what it's all for. That's when you'd mercifully retreat, into the ether, leaving him staring after you for a long time.
Crowley is sprawled out on an armchair across from him, opting for bourbon this time. It feels good to drink socially again, not draining their way through whole bottles to chase away fear and frustration - or, on one memorable occasion, mourning. It's a handful of days in their entire lives, that they drank that way, in opposition to thousands of years of the normal sort. It's been months since The End happened and The Beginning followed. Time for them somehow blurs together and inches along all at once, and for now they are still quietly thankful in every moment.
The demon raises an eyebrow in an unnaturally perfect arch. "Not really my purview, is it, confession?"
"You'll think it's funny. Well, you might." The corners of his mouth turn up, nervously, though there's that look in his eyes - a combination of warmth and weight that tugged at Crowley even before he knew what it meant. He's still not sure what to do with it, even after all this time.
"Angel," he begins, "you don't have to-"
"For the longest time, you see, I worried it was a - I think it's called a long game. Not just temptations, because of course those, you never hid it. But I was concerned that the goal was to make me..." Aziraphale still has to wrestle the word into his mouth, and by the time he's forming it, Crowley is saying 'Fall' along with him.
It's not the confession Crowley was expecting, and he's - he will not say 'saved' - from finding a reaction as Aziraphale continues, persistent, like something long-aged has been uncorked and is eager to breathe. "I know it's not your style, one soul, even an angel's soul. And not that I thought I was an extraordinary 'get' for the Adversary, it's just. It's what you do, my dear. Or what you're supposed to do. And I know enough to know I'm trusting, terribly so, and it just made too much sense. Much more than you actually liking me."
It did, though, didn't it. And it would have been artistry enough, even just one angel over all those millennia, a slow-moving poison in all the things he touched and every little white lie he told to himself and all of Heaven. It would have made all the sense in the world and Elsewhere. Crowley knows because every now and again he had watched for it.
He'd looked for stray black feathers, or a yellow cast to those kind eyes, and for a convenient place to slip away from the angel Aziraphale's history until the danger had passed. He'd mistaken a pimple for an Old Testament boil once and nearly made himself scarce for a century.
"And I was just, ah, that good?" Crowley plays it off with a smirk, more playful than anything seductive. What he really wants to say is 'it's the second worst thing I've ever felt, once I'd graduated from the sauntering bit. I don't regret it, not a second, but I still remember. And who in the Heaven wants you Fallen, anyway, what's fun in that? Who would you even be?'
"You stop that," Aziraphale says, with no bite in it. The worry is leaving his smile, though there are still bits of it at the edges. "No, of course not - that'd be a choice, wouldn't it? I put it away and let you happen for a while, Crowley, what do you think? Besides." He straightens his lapel, an echo of moral fastidiousness. It doesn't hide the wryness in his voice. "If some wily serpent was skulking about corrupting angels, of all things, someone ought to keep an eye out."
Crowley laughs, one of those pleased-sounding ones with a hint of a cackle, and something rough underneath that he hopes the cackle is hiding. "Oh, you brave soldier, you."
"And of course the second bit, that was..." Aziraphale hesitates. "Part of it, but not very long, my dear, I promise. It occurred to me, of course, one can't help thinking about it, but-"
Somewhere in the beat from one stammer to the next, Crowley realizes they're both lost. "Slow down. Start it again, angel. What second bit?"
("May you be forgiven."
"I won't be forgiven. Not ever! That's part of a demon's job description. Unforgivable, that's what I am.")
"Oh, it's vanity." Aziraphale waves a hand dismissively, taking a long swallow of wine. "Even I know that's vanity. And after it went through my head a minute, I decided I'd better not. Even if I could, even if I was sure I could, I -" He pauses.
("You were an angel once."
"That was a long time ago.")
There's that look in his eyes again like his light has gone liquid and is spilling everywhere. The one he wore when he said "to the world" and Crowley knew that he meant it, truly, but he meant something else even more.
("I forgive you.")
"Are you saying-" Crowley tries the laugh again, but it comes out in one breath, no cackle and all rough. "Are you tiptoeing 'round an apology that you were hoping to re-annoint me?"
"Only a little bit."
"Only a li-!" He swallows the rest of his own drink, feeling it burn down his throat and spread its heat everywhere like his body forgot to stay warm-blooded.
"Crowley, are you blushing?"
"Oh shut it!" He tugs a bit of the alcohol out of himself, annoyed when the warmth remains. Aziraphale's amusement fades to a hangdog expression, and Crowley flicks his hand. "Stop that. I don't mean it that way, I'm not cross, I'm - not sure, honestly. Flattered, a bit? I can't even picture it."
"I couldn't either." Aziraphale sounds surer than Crowley has heard from him in thousands of years. "Not even a little. I didn't want to, is the truth of it, it ought to have scared me more than it did. That I wanted things just as you were."
Crowley isn't sure if the angel hears himself, or if he'll just come around to it eventually.
Once you had caught his shoulder to turn him around again, and he'd snipped at you for it, you'd have quietly pressed the issue.
"Look," he'd say because you're too polite to be a demon, and he's too twitchy now that it's come up. "Everyone thinks, Hell wins, it'll be one big orgy for us or something. Lots of whips with pokey things and lady-demons with four breasts. Hell's not kink, it's misery. It's a -" He would wave his hand, hunting down a metaphor. "A fruit fly infestation, in a spot you can't find."
All your imagination, you would say, and all you can see in eternity is endless smog or dull light?
"What the Heaven else would it be?" He would peer at you over his sunglasses, squinting at you. "You can't tell me that the Universe is kind. Not if you've been paying any attention."
There's a school of thought, you'd say, that it's as kind as people make it.
"Well, they don't get a say in this one. And I'm not people, anyhow!"
And he would turn to go, not eager to hear a rebuttal to that one. Which you won't need to give, of course, because the important thing is to raise the right questions.
And Crowley could let it fade away like that, into an only mildly uncomfortable silence, which will be companionable again shortly enough. They've got the rest of eternity, or at least a few thousand years of it until Above and Below get itchy. They're safe, well-fed, mildly sotted. They're together. What's the point, retracing the past, when there's so much present left?
"So you 'let me happen'," he says instead. "Didn't want to drag me up, bit worried I'd made plans to drag you down, and then I turn up asking you to go rogue and stop Armageddon. Must've scared the shit out of you."
"Oh no, dear, no. Well, yes, but not because of that! I'd settled that years before."
The eyebrow again, perfect as ever. (Crowley was very proud of the perfectly arched eyebrow. It'd been early work, and not especially wicked, but it had made up for that in both stylish rakes and bad prose.) "You trusted me," he guesses.
"In something like the End Times, yes. But it wasn't just trust, Crowley, there was - oh, how to explain this..." Aziraphale goes for another sip of wine, then sets the glass down entirely. He licks his lips, in a nervous sort of way that Crowley has to admit is quite fetching. "There was a church, during the Blitz. I'd brought books."
"We hadn't spoken in decades. My fault, mostly. I was relieved; it'd be simpler. If chats and favors could get you into that sort of danger, I could dine alone a while - I'd done it before. If I'd felt you around since then, I made sure I was where you weren't. And then I got myself into trouble, and you found me."
Crowley shakes his head, because it wasn't meant to be special. It was just something they did for each other. It was fine to rescue your secret best friend, your fraternization in one way or the next. It was another if it meant something about Crowley, about who he was, and whatever Aziraphale was seeing when he looked at him that way. "I'd saved you before, angel."
"You saved the books."
"Oh honestly, Aziraphale, and that's why-"
"I hadn't remembered them, but you did. You don't even read. It's little things, Crowley, that's the point! Angels are wrapped up in this sort of soft glow that spreads everywhere, loving everything until it hardly matters. You can forget that kind of love, you can treat it like white noise. Plenty of them do."
Crowley shakes his head, firm. "You don't, though, you love everything. You love things so much it's ridiculous, really, don't know where you put it all."
"Because of the books. Because of things that matter. And that's why."
It's still a confession, type to be determined, and Crowley knows about the angel's guilt. He carries it as heavy as his love, clear as day, and until the Apocalypse, neither of them had known which one was stronger. Aziraphale is shrugging it off now, like an overcoat, and he looks pounds lighter. He looks like he could fly.
"I don't understand," Crowley admits, sincerely.
"What I realized I felt that day, about you. How I'd go without books or good food for you, but you made those things sing brighter. I thought if that was..." He clears his throat. "If that was it, the real thing, that 'does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.' If I loved you, Crowley, then it was the greater good to keep you close, temptation or not. It had to be." He shrugs, a vulnerable glimmer in his eyes. "Nothing else made any sense at all."
He hadn't known particulars, but he's known about the love. It would be impossible not to, with how Aziraphale carries it all over him. All that longing, that wounded hope. And this is the part Crowley hasn't figured out yet. He'd made a point of avoiding it for years, figuring that the angel would never raise the subject - and Crowley wasn't going to be the one to speed damnation along. Then it wasn't an issue anymore, and he'd been left with a slew of possibilities and nowhere to put them.
"Demons don't go in for love," he says carefully. "Strictly speaking. You'd think lust, but that's more like knowing all the tools in your kit. S'a human thing, love. Traditionally."
"I'm very aware," says Aziraphale, voice so gentle that it surprises them both. "I really didn't expect anything, Crowley."
"Big fan of little things, though. Tremendous fan. The way they can buzz right in your ear until it's all you can hear anymore." Crowley pauses, and suddenly - all at once - he knows what to say. "Did I ever tell you? What Falling's like?"
The angel shakes his head.
"You're going along, you're minding your own business. And that thing you're talking about, that glow, it's there with you. All humming in the background like a tuning fork, you know. Maybe it's the Almighty, maybe it's just you, being. You don't think about it." Crowley's eye line has drifted somewhere down and to his left. Talking about it, in any kind of proper way, is making him itchy. "And then it isn't. All at once. S'like they snuffed out a candle and then plunged you into an ice-cold bath. You never forget how it feels."
"Crowley," Aziraphale says, like he's just gone through it too and is still stinging from it.
"I felt you go out too," the demon says, raising his eyes again. "Like a candle. Didn't know what it was, I was busy at the time, but the loss crept in like a - chill or something. When I got there the shop was already up in flames. I couldn't find you there. Or anywhere. Reached out in my head and kept getting this dull thud. I thought they'd blown you apart. And nothing mattered anymore, not a single thing. So..." He takes in a lungful of air, biologically unnecessary, but that he suspects he'll need. "When you've not done love before, you don't get a moment to find out it's there. You've got the pot on a low boil, and it is, and it is, and then it isn't. And everything's cold, and you realize why."
Aziraphale's eyes are misted over, because of course they are, and his hands are open in the air like he's not sure what to do with them. "Are you really-" A laugh is spilling out of him. "You're saying..."
"It's not like I haven't thought of what it means, angel." The laugh is infectious; a smile spreads on Crowley's face, and he lets it. "That no one's watching. That we're free."
The hosts of Heaven are both asexual and agender, technically speaking, unless they make it a point not to be. This isn't challenging for the most Puritan views on sex, but it doesn't take into account that demons are the same. Some of them have viewed pornography, for reference material, but humans outdo them too often for it to be of any real use - though it did give them some interesting ideas about tentacles.
(Incubi and succubi are better-versed in the whole thing, but that's a job. And like all jobs, sometimes you've had a poor day's sleep and your mind keeps wandering, and you'd have called in sick but you've got ten thousand years before you've earned a full night off. And the human race is only meant to last for six of them.)
This is to say that for Crowley and Aziraphale, sex was an Earthly invention. Like amusement parks, but much weightier. They were connoisseurs of Earthly invention; Crowley had even tried it out and come away with a shrug. He was pretty sure he'd done it right. It had been fun. Lots of things were fun, though, and a lot less trouble. And with immortal souls in play, and a set of rules that Heaven and Earth both kept changing around, the physical was too much risk and effort to spend on a novelty. To do that with each other was unthinkable.
Except Aziraphale would feel things he didn't understand when he watched Crowley move, or saw how his form fit the line of his clothes. He was familiar with longing, especially once he knew what it meant, but there was something else too - something low and hot, and frustrating. He saw Crowley try out an earring once, and his thoughts volunteered, We will make pendants of gold for you. He'd made up an errand and disappeared for a week. Aziraphale wondered about hands, about fingers entwining. He thought about mouths.
Except Crowley thought about Aziraphale, about the soft warm everywhere of him, and he thought of that thing the woman had done with her mouth in the third century. He wasn't sure why humans didn't combine the two more often. He'd seen movies, of course, it was harder than that. He was lucky not to need it. The place at the angel's waist where everything went soft and round. The worried twist in his mouth that Crowley wanted to smudge away. The way he'd exhaled after he said, "You go too fast for me." Crowley was lucky not to need any of it.
Aziraphale is sitting there in front of him, ready for the world, in all its new joy. Whoever said that thing about the merits of confession - well, the results speak for themselves, Crowley admits, but right now it's all hanging there, waiting for him to decide what to do with himself. It's not awkward, because after six thousand years how could it be? But it's like a spring about to uncoil and that's frustrating to no end. After all this time, he thinks, it ought to finally be something else.
"Do you think we're people?" Crowley asks, not knowing why.
"Just something that came up, once. Forget it."
But it's in his head now, and Aziraphale's face is still wearing that careful certainty. It's the look of someone who's thought about something a long time, even if he hadn't realized it while he did it.
"I think we're people if we want to be. Not human, there's too much we've seen and done for properly human, and I'd not want to be. But people..." Aziraphale pauses as the full thought comes to him, in all its power. "We can choose to be people."
Crowley waits for the clap of thunder, the signs of ink at the tip of the angel's wings. It doesn't come. It's a cloudless spring day. A bird is singing, somewhere.
"We can, can't we? We actually can."
Aziraphale leans forward, eyes bright like he's telling a secret he's discovering as he goes. "We get to choose, Crowley. We get to! If they do, so do we, for as long as we like. Longer."
A weight is coming off his chest, so heavy he didn't know he could lift it. Crowley has thought about 'free,' he's had thousands of years and the worst week of his life for that. He hasn't thought about what he is, soul-deep, if he had the choice to name it. He hasn't thought about -
The spring uncoils.
Heaven moves. Heaven practically pounces, in its own way. And this being Aziraphale, Heaven takes Crowley's hand - fingers laced this time - and presses it to his lips, warm and slow.
"Angel." Crowley fights the urge to just grab him and drag him down, though he does take Aziraphale's waist, a soft bit that squeezes beautifully under his fingers. The noise the angel makes is fantastic.
They lean in together, like all the compromises and agreements had led to this one. It's close-mouthed and clumsy like teenagers do, but it goes on and on without stopping. When all's said and done, they don't need breathing.
"I'd wondered if it would burn," Aziraphale says giddily when they finally pull apart. "Kissing a demon."
Crowley swallows and files that away for later reference. "Aziraphale. Listen, I'm - I don't have that much of an idea what I'm doing. I mean, some, but even comparing it..."
"Of course not, but they all had to figure it out once too, didn't they? They managed." Aziraphale squeezes his hand, and Crowley realizes the angel's in his lap, the weight just right against him. There's heat rising in places they haven't even recorporated yet. "You'll take care of me," Aziraphale says, with a perfect certainty they're allowed to feel at last. "You always have, haven't you."
"Always," he agrees, realizing it's true. Then he tugs Aziraphale close to kiss him again.
The world spins on, in all its infinite variety, waiting for them.