‘Can I ask – did they hurt you?’ Aziraphale asks the question enroute to the Ritz after a few moments strolling in silence. The triumph on the park-bench seems to have faded over the last few minutes; the angel’s become preoccupied, hands swinging around from behind his back to, rather nervously it seems, collect together at his front, sturdy hands joining together over his suit.
Crowley stops mid-stroll, turns to face him with a twist of gravel. Aziraphale seems to twitch under his gaze, looking rather awkward; uncomfortable, as though experiencing some form of self-doubt, some sort of guilt that Crowley can’t see, can’t even fathom.
It’s a far cry from the expression he wore when he was in the angel’s shoes, Crowley considers; guilt’s never been too much of a particular problem for him, whereas Aziraphale could very well be his own personal Jiminy Cricket – might have been a partial inspiration for him, in hindsight. It’s hard to remember, after a while, but at least Walt Disney was always happy to share interesting facts about historic railroading.
Still, the point stands that try as he might, he just could not fully leave himself behind, although he suspects Aziraphale had a similar problem; where he made the angel appear sharper than usual and maybe just a little bit grumpy (the kind of grumpy that only comes around every few centuries or so: the French Revolution, say, or 2016. 2016 was a very bad year; they drank a lot and deliberately didn’t sober up afterwards, spent days hungover, half-wondering if perhaps the human-race deserved to be left to its fate after all), Aziraphale made Crowley himself – softer. As though his edge had been taken off; made polite, politely nervous.
All things considered, in hindsight they’re actually remarkably lucky they got away with it. Or that both sides didn’t care enough to look a little closer.
‘My - my people, I mean?’ Aziraphale asks quietly, ‘Gabriel and the others – did they hurt you?’
Crowley shakes his head, slowly. ‘No. No, angel. No-one hurt me, I was fine. Why?’ He tilts his head, suddenly doubtful; suddenly warning. ‘What happened? Did someone hurt you?’ The question makes his own fist clench, tightens something in his stomach, in his throat; irrational and stupid because of course Aziraphale is standing right there, in one piece before him after strolling out of Hell in a damp vest and a triumphant attitude that's suddenly thawed.
But that’s the thing with Aziraphale. Rather like an overloaded sieve of flour, or a cup poured full of too much milk, his upset can spill over a mask of forcefully determined cheer. Six-thousand years and Crowley’s learned – albeit slowly, sometimes – to distinguish the real smiles from the falseness of laughter, a side-effect of being someone who tries to make life on Earth better for others, whether it be bucking up one of Shakespeare’s actors or attempting to put some Nazi spies inside or performing truly horrendous magic tricks at a young boy’s birthday. Doesn’t always work, but by Heaven, he tries.
‘No,’ Aziraphale shakes his head, looking away, but it’s no closer to providing reassurance, for either of them. His throat works, eyes caught by something, his tongue darting out nervously to wet his own mouth; a far cry from the affable expression he so usually wears, and Crowley is no longer surprised by how much he truly dislikes seeing it.
‘I’m sorry,’ Aziraphale looks down at his shoes. ‘I’m spoiling the celebratory mood, aren’t I?’
It’s said in that quiet, defeated whisper, that almost soundless tide whenever he makes an admission; whenever he draws a line back under himself. He gives an empty chuff, his voice soft with something like self-deprecation.
‘No, no, you’re not,’ Crowley hastens to assure him because really, how in the Heaven is someone, anyone, supposed to come back from something like this? Even if it’s them. ‘Angel. You’re not.’
You never spoil anything, he wants to tell him, you can make things more complicated than they should be by trying to help too much, you may know exactly what to say to me to bring me to my knees, because that’s exactly the kind of soft bastard you are, but spoiling things? No. If anything, you’ve spoiled me with your benevolence.
What other angel, after all, would have smiled upon seeing him, befriended him? Shared wine with him in the shop; split a plate of oysters with him in Rome? Given him Holy Water freely because it was the lesser of two evils for him; stopped him from walking into a trap that would have most likely destroyed him? One wrong move, one drop of water on the wrong body during that planned heist, and…well. Crowley’s never quite got over it.
Aziraphale is fidgety, unconvinced, unconvincing, shuffling on the spot, playing with his hands and Crowley does the only thing he can do; he takes off his glasses, his golden eyes adjusting to late afternoon sunlight and looks at him, really looks.
‘You’re not,’ he assures again as kindly as he can manage because anyone who’s just walked out of Hell the way Aziraphale has? Well, that’s frankly highly praiseworthy. Tucking his glasses into his pocket, gestures to another, random bench that may or may not have just appeared out of nowhere. ‘Sit down?’
‘Oh…’ Aziraphale swallows, glancing over his shoulder. ‘Yes, maybe… Thankyou.’
He coughs, drops down onto the seat, putting Crowley in mind of a damp feather falling heavily onto water. He’s trembling, Crowley notes with concern, his hand shaking against his neck – tamps down the temptation to reach out and still it with his own palm.
‘What is it?’ he settles down beside him. ‘What can I do to help?’
The angel glances his way as though surprised – when he does speak, his voice is heavy with resignation.
‘I don’t – I don’t know,’ he admits, hands gathering loosely together in his lap. ‘I really don’t know. I’m sorry,’ he raises his chin and Crowley wants to shout at him to just stop apologising. ‘I wanted to – I want to celebrate, but I – I just a need a minute. I want to,’ he stares upwards, something determinedly earnest beneath his tiredness, ‘I really do, but I – I don’t think I can. Not yet.’
‘It’s fine,’ Crowley shrugs, because it is. ‘We’ve got time. The rest of our lives, as a matter of fact.’ That gets a twitch of a smile out of Aziraphale, so different from his usual grin. They sit in silence for a moment or two, taking in the movement of a world still turning around them; fresh air and grass, children – not laughing, precisely, but rather screaming at the pavement, at their parents, at each other, but at least alive to learn better. Aziraphale takes a deep breath, breathes it all in; air he doesn’t even need. This planet has been the closest thing they’ve had to a home for centuries.
‘What happened, down there?’ Crowley asks because this – this is something specific. Something that’s stopping Aziraphale from grabbing his hand and running with him to the Ritz; where he could be eating eclairs and drinking tea, he’s instead begging off, needing to steady himself. To slow down. Something that even saving the world hasn’t been enough to distract him from.
The angel’s mouth moves soundly, face twisting in distress and oh, oh no. Crowley can’t have that. He can’t have somebody who’s not him upsetting his angel.
‘They killed a demon,’ Aziraphale says in a low voice, ‘right in front of me and – we’ve seen people die before, Crowley, I know that, but – it was so quick. So careless and that creature was scared,’ he purses his lips, shuts his eyes, his pain obvious. ‘Maybe I should’ve – should’ve done something, said something –’
Crowley shuffles a little closer, hand to his back. ‘It would have given the game away if you had, angel. Trust me. No-one shows any sort of mercy down there; it’s dog-eat-dog, literally. Demon-eat-demon, if you like. Nothing you could have done; absolutely no way you could have controlled any of it.’
Aziraphale hums, thoughtfully, shows that he’s chewing his words over, at the very least; drops his head, perhaps in something like concession.
‘You might have thought of something,’ he says finally, as if in shame. ‘You’re always…you’re so clever, Crowley and so – suave,’ he says it tentatively, though it comes with a flourish that the demon can’t help but find rather pleasing, ‘I could only pretend. Give my own best impression. Of course, it worked, but still…’ He hums, bites his lip again. ‘I could never be as clever as you.’
‘I could never be as good as you,’ Crowley argues; Aziraphale turns to him with a startled sort of blink. ‘Being you, it was like – I did my best, but all I could do was – be you, on a bad day. On a really, really bad day. Like a version of you that’s spent ssssix-thousand years in customer-ssservice and has had it up to here,’ he holds his hand in midair, letting slide his natural, slipping hiss; this is more important. ‘With everything.’
A twitch of a smile teases the corner of Aziraphale’s lips. He is always very courteous to people who work in customer-service (if not always to customers who come to his shop with the sheer audacity to buy particular, precious books). Crowley doesn’t think he’s ever met a group of people who are less correct than customers.
‘But you’re not like that,’ he carries on, ‘the version I made of you. You’re nothing like that. And you came running after me when they took me away.’ He keeps his eyes on Aziraphale, half-accusing, only half because no-one else has ever done that for him before, watches the angel squirming under the praise. ‘Lucky they’d already found out how close we were, or that would’ve looked ssssuspicious.’
Aziraphale does smile then; a heartfelt, wholesome thing, looking utterly moved despite the whispered, wavering stress in Crowley’s speech. ‘You would’ve done the same. You have,’ he amends, ‘done the same, I mean,’ and a glance between them takes them back through London by seven decades to a church, a briefcase of books, and a demon drumming his burning feet across the church-floor. Go back even further to France, to a click of the fingers and falling chains, and, well. Yes.
‘Looks like I got that part right about you,’ Aziraphale titters and Crowley chuckles with him, glad to feel the mood lifted, just a little. Aziraphale looks his way then and he doesn’t look so much better as…distracted, at the very least, although that won’t solve everything.
‘It’s not nice down there, is it?’ he asks finally, cutting straight to the heart of the argument and Aziraphale’s face twists. ‘It’s horrible. It’s rotten; everything you touch, it’s –’
‘Contaminated,’ Aziraphale finishes in a low voice. ‘I…I felt – contaminated,’ he says it caught like a man between webs, between disgust and apology and Crowley nods. Although he had the threat of Hellfire to contend with, and the anger of three frankly rather cliquey angels who probably spend their downtime drinking Shloer and taking part in exclusive Sound of Music cosplays and singalongs, well…at least the place was clean.
‘And you had to go down there,’ Aziraphale adds then. ‘All these years. I – I never realised, I,’ he huffs. ‘I never wanted to think about it, I suppose.’
‘Why would you?’ Crowley asks, genuinely surprised because of course, of course the angel doesn’t belong down there; does what he does for the benefit of others on the surface. Tries to enrich their lives with knowledge, goodness; the potential to do better. Even when it came to the Nazi agents, all he had intended to do was gloat and then lock them up, hopefully teach them the error of their ways, perhaps even make them nicer people less prone to murder and betrayal.
‘What can I do?’ he asks because Aziraphale – irritating, remarkable, wonderful Aziraphale – walked right into Hell for him and that deserves some self-care right there. ‘Angel. What can I do? What do you need?’
‘I,’ Aziraphale stammers and comes to a stop. ‘I – I don’t know, really, I – we need to go,’ his words tumble over each other, slam together like people skidding to a stop at the edge of a cliff. ‘We should – we should go.’ He puts his hands on his knees, makes to stand; is unbalanced both by himself, by his own weak conviction that Everything is Just Tickety-Boo and Crowley’s hand on his arm, pulling him back down to sit.
‘Angel,’ he says it again, makes him look at him. ‘What do you need? Come on,’ he prompts softly, ‘you saved the world, you saved me. Tell me,’ he commands with care. ‘Tell me what you need.’
For a long moment, Aziraphale hesitates, holds himself back and it’s more than enough time for Crowley’s head to fill in the blanks, to imagine the awful things that the angel might say:
For you not to be around me anymore, if that’s where you come from. To distance myself from all of this, from you. To go somewhere far away from all the memories of…down there, of the people, the creatures, you’ve had to work alongside. To go somewhere sunny, maybe just for a century or two, have a few cocktails, read a few-hundred books and forget. Without you.
‘A shower,’ Aziraphale stammers. ‘I – I’d like to have a shower. I’m sorry,’ he adds, quickly, ‘I – I wanted to – to wash when we came back up but it was your body, not mine and it felt like the most terrible violation of your privacy and I know I’m back in my own body now, but I just…I still feel…’
‘Okay.’ Crowley stands, to hide his relief, his irritation at himself for expecting so little of the angel; besides, denying him anything at this point, after the incredible bravery he’s demonstrated, is nigh on impossible (and would be rather insulting, all things considered). ‘Sure. We’ll have a shower. Come on,’ he holds out his hand, gestures with his fingers. ‘We’ll go to my place. The Ritz can wait,’ he adds, with an extra, reassuring click of his left hand that will keep their table reserved a little longer.
Aziraphale blinks, stares; then softens, his face forming the kind of expression that says a thousand things, that Crowley won’t forget for a long time to come.
‘My dear boy,’ he stammers, ‘You really…’ He sighs, gives up as quickly as he started, drops his head again. When he raises his gaze back up, his eyes are very wide, and very dark and very apologetic.
‘I’m sorry we argued,’ he murmurs softly, so softly, and it genuinely takes Crowley a minute to remember; the last conversation they had, before all the body-swapping and bookshop-burning, before all the metaphorical excrement really hit the fan. The last moments of calm in a world close to ending. ‘I’m sorry I said we weren’t friends. I do like you, Crowley and I’d like – I’d like to keep being friends with you, if I may. Is it too late?’ he asks, raising his eyebrows questioningly, as if there’s more than one option, as if he’s almost expecting Crowley to turn him away. After he worked alongside him to protect Adam; after he walked into Hell for him; after Crowley invited him to lunch.
Considerate bastard, Crowley thinks, deeply affectionate.
‘I’m sorry, too,’ he tells him seriously, all the same. ‘For…trying to get you to run away with me. You wanted to stay and fight, and protect all this,’ he gestures around him, to the people hurrying, or dragging their feet and bags, glaring at Crowley for standing right in the middle of his path, not knowing how close they all came to dying. Not knowing how much they owe to the angel in the Oxford shoes, for persuading Crowley to carry on fighting.
He recalls that night, in 1941, when Aziraphale abruptly fell apart in his car on the way home from the destroyed church and a narrow escape; once he had sufficiently recovered from the shock of it all, which seemed to take a while in itself, he spent the rest of the journey lamenting his own inabilities to weaken Hitler’s tyranny.
‘I’m such an idiot,’ he’d wailed into the Bentley's dashboard; Crowley, startled, had been caught between comforting him and watching the road, working his way through blacked-out streets. Comforting Aziraphale won out, really and he tells him the same thing now that he told him then. Or something like it, at least.
‘Wanting to save people,’ he says, honest. ‘It’s never stupid. I shouldn’t have said that to you, I shouldn’t have…stormed off like that.’ A pause and then, because this has been rattling around his brain, a rare flare of guilt tickling meanly at his stomach, ‘Left you there.’
‘You came back for me,’ Aziraphale’s lips curl, sweetly. ‘Twice.’
True. Crowley concedes it with a twist of the head.
‘Old habits, I guess,’ he twinkles and then he offers the angel a hand, pulling him to his feet.
They both shower, at Crowley’s flat. There’s probably something really rather obsessive-compulsive about it all, the need to feel clean, mentally and physically, but they’ve saved the world and saved each other and put up with some really rather annoying angels and demons along the way, so it should be allowed. Ought to be.
(It’s rather random, but Crowley remembers the amount of times Aziraphale has helped those struggling with OCD, and other such mental afflictions; has spent time hanging around random churches over the years, trying to help heal the over-scrupulous among the followers; the ones who lamented every single remotely 'bad' thought they had and simply couldn’t help and went crying to their vicars for reassurance; who washed their hands repeatedly at the first glimpse of a ‘dirty’ mind; who spent church-services crying in corners. Aziraphale could always sense them out, perhaps as a misfit among his own kind, was always on hand with helpful leaflets and books and website addresses.
‘God doesn’t want you to suffer like this,’ he would tell them, wiping their eyes and giving them chocolate. ‘That’s not what it’s about.’)
But anyway, two bathrooms have miraculously made themselves known in his flat – he throws in a few bottles of Aziraphale’s favourite shampoo in to lend the angel some cheer – so there’s no clash of hot water verses cold and he’s the first out, lounging in front of the telly in a black bathrobe, hair slicked back.
It’s relaxing, actually. As though they are in fact, washing off the stress, the sweat, the dirt, the sheer willpower of the last twenty-four hours; the last few days, in fact. Stopping time was no mean feat and it makes him feel…right again, somehow, as though he’s finally clicked back onto place in his own body. No fault of the angel’s, of course, it’s just…that kind of thing is a lot to take in, quite literally.
He’s watching an episode of Frasier when Aziraphale pads out in a long, white dressing-gown that’s the equivalent of his own, the Angel of the Spa with slippers to match. Crowley grins to look at him and makes space for him; Aziraphale lounges down across the cosy sofa (which Crowley didn’t actually own until about fifteen minutes ago, but neither of them comment) and rests his head in Crowley’s lap, like a rather affectionate cat. He’s sweet-smelling and smiling again, closing his eyes and exhaling with a contented exhale of, ‘Aaaaah…’ as he laces his fingers together over his chest.
‘Better?’ Crowley asks, lightly, gazing down at him, at the gentle rapture on his face.
‘Much,’ Aziraphale props open an eye that looks significantly less haunted than it did an hour ago. His white hair is a lovely shock against the black of Crowley’s bathrobe, his head a comforting weight on his thigh; grounding him. ‘Thankyou, my dear.’
Crowley hums, chuckles and they watch television together in silence; lets the very tips of his fingers tease Aziraphale’s hair, soft and damp but quick to dry. Within a moment, Aziraphale is laughing aloud at the antics of the Crane brothers on the screen and Crowley laughs too; it’s funny. It was made years ago, at least by human-standards; twenty years is like twenty seconds to himself and the angel – but it’s still funny, and clever, and it makes the angel smile.
Sometimes, he considers, human-beings can create remarkable things; wonderful, marvellous things that give people a reason to get through the day. That wakes them up with a cup of coffee in the morning before they go off to their boring jobs, or keeps them going in their car even when it’s burning, or welcomes them back at the end of the day, whether it be from a bad business meeting or saving the world.
This is what we fought for, he wants to tell Aziraphale. This is what makes what we did worth something. And yet, judging by the way the angel is clutching his hand, lying across the sofa-back, with no real inclination of letting go anytime soon, he thinks he probably already knows.
They watch until the end of the episode; barely ten minutes, but it feels like the ten minutes they needed, all close contact and loose limbs shaking with laughter. The metaphorical Cotes-du-Rhone at the end of a difficult work-day; the cup of tea to soothe the soul. He feels, deep down, a slight guilt at their relaxation, remembering how Adam and his friends were hauled off by Mr. Young at the airbase with threats of ‘tell your parents’ and ‘no television for a week’; wishes he’d given them some money for some chips or magazines or something, make up for the torment of watching the Devil break out of the ground and a reward for dealing with the Horsemen – still. At least they’re not dead.
They’ll go far, he thinks, with an odd twinge of something like…regret? Remorse, even? Whatever, just…nothing against Warlock, he’s a decent-enough kid; he’s suitably rebellious and will probably get a criminal record at some point for petty graffiti, but he was also found feeding some greens to Harry the rabbit once his food fight of a birthday party had wound down, so… Anyway. Would have been interesting, for both him and the angel, to see how Adam had grown up under their influence. Or maybe that would have made things too complicated.
He wonders about the question he asked at the bus-stop – did the Almighty plan this all along – and then decides he’s too tired to dwell on it. The world is saved; that’s enough.
‘Want to watch another episode?’ he asks easily, non-committal, staring down at Aziraphale who bites his lip and then sits up, rather abruptly; shifts carefully to face him.
‘I think… I could do with a chocolate éclair,’ he says, ‘and a cup of tea, maybe. At the Ritz.’
They do have eclairs, several eclairs in fact, after their champagne, make the meal last long into the evening and Aziraphale’s smile is sweet as the scent of his hair, everything about him far more relaxed than it was and although they don’t know exactly what the future holds – well, who does? – they have this. The next ten years for them might be the ten minutes Heaven and Hell deign to give the world before coming back for another go, but things rarely go to plan, it seems and they’ve come this far. They’ve survived.
And it might even be twenty, thirty, fifty years or more before anything else happens at all. Centuries, maybe.
Aziraphale bumps against him when they eventually depart, leaving generous tips for the staff and wandering out into good old London Town, full of evening stars and twinkly lights and whatever else you might find on the first night of the rest of the world’s salvation. Aziraphale reaches out, a little shy, and tucks his arm through Crowley’s.
‘Considering I used your shower this afternoon, why don’t we go back to mine for a nightcap?’ he suggests, and Crowley realises; Aziraphale hasn’t seen the shop. Hasn’t been in the shop himself since before the fire and he’s seized by gratitude that the angel never saw that, never saw the flames licking higher and higher over the place he calls home, never saw his beloved books crumple to ash.
‘You could even…stay over,’ Aziraphale adds, shyer still, but those five words the first, quiet indicator of how much he’s changed in the last twenty-four hours, ‘if you’d like to.’
I’d like your company, goes unsaid but Crowley hears it; senses it. Feels that shared need to simply not to be apart for a while; not to let Aziraphale out of his sight for the next few days, weeks, months, years and vice-versa. Feels that smallest flicker of warmth, somewhere in his stomach, his chest, that he means that much.
‘Okay,’ he agrees and Aziraphale immediately beams, his arm on his elbow, a reassurance all the way down Crowley’s left-hand side. (Crowley adores him. Someone help him, but he does).
‘Well, then,’ he says prudently, his arm squeezing Crowley’s again, fixing them together like the two pieces of the metaphorical puzzle they are. He needs better similes, but whatever. He’s nicely drunk. ‘Home.’
‘Home,’ Crowley agrees. It really is a lovely night.