Crowley thought he had stopped learning new things and being surprised sometime in the fourteenth century, but during the days leading up to the Apocalypse That Wasn't, he'd learned two completely new things and both had taken him by surprise.
Possibility even more disconcerting, neither of them were things he regretted learning, although he still didn't know what they meant for him. It was an unfamiliar feeling, not knowing what to do, and he wasn't sure he liked it yet.
(Actually, no, he was very sure he didn't like it. But he was also good at lying to himself. He always had been. You have to be good at lying to yourself before you can lie to others effectively.)
The first discovery, although maybe not the most important (Crowley was uncertain about this, too, and he resented all the confusion that had entered his life), was this:
Heaven wasn't the place he remembered.
Yes, he'd tormented Aziraphale with what it might be like if Heaven won the War, but most of that had been guesses. Well-formed guesses, based on rumour and his own knowledge of Aziraphale's weaknesses, but still pure conjecture however you looked at it.
Crowley had Fallen so long ago that his memories of Heaven were fuzzy. Lots of fluffy clouds, singing, joy and love to all were his main impressions of those years, and he'd always maintained that switching sides was more of an accident than a real decision. The relentless cheerfulness with nothing to actually do had sent him searching for something more interesting and everything else had just...followed.
The Heaven he'd seen while he'd been in Aziraphale's body had been cold. Clinical. Impersonal.
How had it produced someone like Aziraphale?
Aziraphale was a being filled with fierce love and gentle kindness. It radiated from every molecule of his being, shone around him like the halo he hadn't worn for millennia. He was as suited to a cold eternity of Heaven as he was to life in Hell.
That thought still shook Crowley to the core.
Had Heaven changed so much, or had Crowley been running away from that as much as from the boredom?
And how was Aziraphale so...Aziraphale?
"Has Heaven always been like that?"
They were in the backroom of Aziraphale's shop again, and Crowley blamed the slight squiffiness from sharing most of an excellent bottle of port for the question. He hadn't meant to ask it.
"Has Heaven always been like what, my dear?" Aziraphale frowned down at his empty glass and reached for the bottle.
Crowley waved a hand vaguely. "Like that. So...clean. Boring. White."
Aziraphale looked thoughtful. "Probably. I can't quite remember, actually. How odd. I suppose that's what happens when you avoid going home for a few centuries, you start forgetting it."
"But is Heaven really home for you?"
This time, it took a while for Aziraphale to answer, and his thoughtful look took on an edge of unhappiness. "Do you know, I don't think it is anymore. Not really. This is home."
Crowley nodded. "I suppose this is more you. It's not dusty enough up there."
A small smile wiped away the troubled look. "Not just the shop, although I will admit that losing it was a bit of a blow, even if it didn't stick. I must thank Adam, despite his literary tastes. Perhaps he'd appreciate a new book or two, just to help him along."
Aziraphale paused and Crowley could almost see the effort it took him to track back and find his original point.
"Home isn't a place," he said eventually. "It's a feeling. It's people, and memories, and so much more."
A tight sensation in Crowley's chest, somewhere near where his heart might have been if he weren't an occult being, chased away the clever retort he wanted to make. It stuck in his throat and he was quiet for a long time. Aziraphale stood up and began making tea with a kettle he always forgot to plug in and a jar of tea bags that he hadn't replenished since 1985.
Crowley picked up the port bottle, but it was empty and refilling it held far less appeal than the steaming cup Aziraphale set down in front of him.
"I don't think Heaven has changed," Aziraphale said when he was sitting with his own cup cradled in front of him. "It's still filled with Her love, after all. That can't change." It still hurt, but Aziraphale continued so quickly that Crowley couldn't linger on the pain. "I think we've changed. We don't look at it the same way we did before we came down here. Or up here, as the case may be."
"Humanity is rubbing off on us?"
Crowley thought about that for a while. "Or your colleagues have turned into merciless bastards and reshaped Heaven in their image."
He expected a protest, but all he got was a small shrug. A concession he hadn't expected.
Crowley tried to imagine what might have happened if Aziraphale had stayed up there and turned into something like Gabriel. He found that he couldn't. It was an idea too awful to contemplate and he had to suppress a shudder of horror. No, Aziraphale was exactly who he should be and Crowley wouldn't want him to be any different.
Aziraphale had always liked learning new things. Well, he liked the good discoveries. Chocolate, sushi, delightful new bakeries, beautiful artwork.
The unexpected kindnesses that humans were capable of.
It was why he loved his old books, and why he often viewed new books with trepidation. They could contain such wonderful marvels and new thoughts, but they could also show him cruelties he hadn't wanted to contemplate. Sometimes familiar friendly books were the safest choices.
The discovery that he and Crowley were on the same side, even if that side wasn't the same as either of their original sides, was firmly in the "good" column of the discovery sheet in Aziraphale's mind. The end of the world was nothing compared to the thought of having to fight his best friend.
To be forced to smite the man...creature...being he loved more than anything else.
Aziraphale had known for a long time that there was a difference between the generalised Love he had for the world and (almost) everything in it, and the more specialised, specific love he felt for Crowley. That hadn't even been new back in the Blitz, although when Crowley handed him the bag of books it had felt like the answer to a puzzle Aziraphale had been trying to work out for centuries.
He'd always hoped that Crowley wasn't entirely indifferent to him. It was difficult to tell with demons. They weren't known for their ability to feel the more positive emotions and Crowley...well, he could be confusing. One moment he was rescuing Aziraphale from the guillotine, the next they weren't speaking for half a century.
Aziraphale had never been sure how much of their friendship had been genuine and how much had been six thousand years of not having anyone else to talk to.
He knew now, though.
And he had hopes.
"You can just miracle mud away, you know," Aziraphale said. "You always used to."
Crowley gave him a Look over his sunglasses. There were soap suds caught in Crowley's red hair and he looked odd dressed in a loose boiler suit instead of his usual fashionable clothes. Not terrible, because Crowley was constitutionally incapable of looking bad, but odd in a way that disturbed something Aziraphale didn't want to think about too deeply yet.
"Humans do it," Crowley said, slapping the big yellow sponge on the Bentley's bonnet and sending splashes of water and soap everywhere.
"We're not human, as you regularly remind us."
"It's my car," Crowley said, as if that explained everything. More soap suds flew into the air as he swept the sodden sponge across the car. "If I want to wash my car, I will."
"I just don't understand why," Aziraphale said, and hopped back as Crowley threw a bucket of water across the windscreen.
Crowley put the bucket on the ground, miraculously full of water again. His stance on miracles was not consistent. "Why did you spend a week re-inventorying your shop, even though Adam updated your catalogue when he reset everything?"
Aziraphale tugged his jacket straight. "Well, I...ah..."
"Exactly." Crowley ran a loving hand over his car. "That's why I'm washing my car."
The warmth filling Aziraphale's body was from the late August sun, he was sure. And the odd fluttery feeling in his chest as he watched Crowley work was probably a sign that he'd indulged too heavily in the cheeseboard at lunch.
Or perhaps not.
Crowley's second and most unsettling discovery was this: he loved Aziraphale. A world without Aziraphale wasn't worth existing in.
He'd been vaguely aware for centuries that Aziraphale was important, that the days they met to either thwart or treat each other to lunch were better than other days. He hadn't been prepared for how empty existence would feel without Aziraphale in it. An eternity without Aziraphale was beyond thinking about.
That hadn't even been something he'd been aware of when he realised he didn't want the live in a post-Apocalypse world. Not as a specific thing. There had been so many nightmarish elements to the prospect of that world, whichever side won, that Aziraphale's absence hadn't stood out. It had taken losing Aziraphale to really ram the message home.
Love was supposed to be an angelic trait. It should have been burned out of Crowley when he Fell. That's what everyone Down Below claimed, anyway.
Then again, he'd been an angel in the beginning. Maybe the burning hadn't been as effective as everyone said, even though it had hurt enough at the time to feel like everything he'd been was searing away.
Crowley wasn't sure what it all meant or what he was supposed to do with the knowledge. He was vaguely aware that he should probably say or do something about it. That was what he'd observed about humans: they felt the need to share their love, even when it didn't make any sense for their long-term goals. Did Aziraphale even know that he was the best friend Crowley thought he'd lost?
(Of course he did, Crowley reasoned. He'd been bloody obvious about that part, crying in public where any human could have seen it. At least Aziraphale had been discreet enough not to call him out on it.)
But now that everything was settling down, now that things were back to normal-ish and it was probably going to be a long time before either of their old head offices went anywhere near them, was he supposed to do something...more?
Talk to Aziraphale? Do the human thing and share?
That thought was terrifying but there was another, even more disconcerting feeling underneath the fear.
Whatever it was, it made something restless and unsettled stir deep inside him, and he didn't like that sensation. It promised complications and further confusion.
It was much easier, and much more familiar, to push the tangled mess of feelings to one side and settle in for some solid ignoring-of-the-obvious. That was as human as sharing, wasn't it?
Crowley admired many things about Aziraphale, but it was the bravery hiding under the fussy, quiet exterior that had first intrigued him all those millennia ago.
It was a Thursday morning when everything finally changed, so there wasn't even drunkenness as an excuse when Aziraphale said, "I'm sorry for saying I don't like you. I do like you. In fact, I love you, Crowley, rather more than I should."
"I..." Crowley said intelligently. And then, "You do?"
They were in St James' Park, of all places, sitting on a bench where Aziraphale could throw lettuce at the ducks. He'd read that bread was bad for them, but apparently the ducks didn't know that. They were giving the green stuff the evil eye and rushing for the malted brown roll fragments two young men with Russian accents were throwing.
"Of course I do," Aziraphale said, as if that was a perfectly normal thing to say and he wasn't turning Crowley's universe upside down.
Crowley intended to say something perfect. Something smooth. Charming. The exact right words.
Instead, he said, "But. You. I'm not. You're. What?"
The smile Aziraphale sent him was warm and sad at once, with a hint of laughter twinkling in his eyes. "That's alright, my dear, I don't expect you to say anything. But I thought you needed to know."
"Angel." Crowley tried to add something, anything, but the words flew away. Such irony. The serpent who had talked humans into so many sins was tongue-tied.
Aziraphale threw the last of his lettuce towards the disinterested ducks and shuffled a precise one and a half feet along the bench. He rested his hand on the wooden seat beside him.
Crowley hesitated for a minute, feeling strangely as though he was standing on the edge of a cliff, before sliding a few inches along the bench and mirroring Aziraphale's pose.
Hands flexed. Pinky fingers stretched, met, twined.
The tight feeling that had been growing in Crowley's chest, suffocating him and devouring his words, eased away at the touch. A different kind of warmth filled him, centered on the tiny point of contact between them, and he couldn't help smiling.
"Gosh," Aziraphale said after a while. "That was nerve-wracking."
Crowley's chuckle sounded watery in his ears and he was grateful for his dark glasses. The knowing look Aziraphale sent him should have been irritating, but the annoyance dissipated because Aziraphale's finger tightened around his at the same moment.
Later, after the Russians had wandered off and the ducks returned to pick suspiciously at the lettuce, Crowley took a deep breath and said, "Thank you."
Aziraphale's smile held no sadness this time. "You're quite welcome, my dear."
And because he was the brave one, Aziraphale was the first to lean over and carefully brush his mouth against Crowley's. In the twilit park it was barely a kiss and so much more, and Crowley smiled against Aziraphale's lips as the future opened up in front of him.