Things were strained.
It had all seemed so promising after their little switcheroo. Heaven and Hell were appropriately terrified of them and they'd been left alone. There had been a lovely meal at the Ritz, a walk in the park, and Crowley had felt a shared sense of relief with Aziraphale that was so strong he almost felt he could reach out and hold it in his grasping fingers.
Crowley was more free than he had ever been before, and not just because he’d shaken off the spectre of Hell always looking over his shoulder. He'd been able to show up a few days in a row at Aziraphale's shop, much more contact with the angel than he'd ever felt comfortable initiating before without having a Very Important Issue (real or otherwise) in his back pocket as an excuse.
Aziraphale had welcomed him each time with a smile that lit up his entire expression and a warm, "My dear, what a lovely surprise." And before Crowley could stammer out a paper-thin pretense for his sudden appearance, Aziraphale would begin to fill him in on the events of his morning and inquire about what Crowley had been up to. Tea was made; chairs were settled into. When afternoon turned to evening, they exchanged the tea for wine and talked about utter nonsense, laughing easily together.
It had all been quite exquisitely domestic.
They'd even begun to touch hands sometimes, to catch each other's attention, or to make sure a brilliant remark was being given the consideration it warranted. Each time he felt Aziraphale's velvety soft skin brushing against his, Crowley had to fight against the odd sensation of being too large for his body, as though he was in danger of imploding or melting away into nothingness. For a being who could shapeshift at will, feeling a reckless lack of control over his physical form should have been terrifying.
Instead, it made him feel like he was flying, swooping over the streets of London, dive bombing the trees and coming so heart-stoppingly close to them that he could feel the leaves brush against his wings as he pulled up just before crashing. He could taste the danger of it on his tongue, the iron tang of adrenaline biting into his taste buds. It felt dangerous. Addictive.
There was only so long Crowley could float along like that before the second-guessing started in.
On the fifth day after the apocalypse, Crowley climbed into the Bentley and froze, hands tightening on the wheel. He’d been about to smash the accelerator and tear off at top speed to the bookshop, just as he had each of the previous four days. Five days in a row was a lot—and it was more than five days, really, if you factored in the time they spent together during their frantic efforts to stop the end of the world.
Better not to push it. He could spend a day or two away, give Aziraphale some time and space to himself before dropping in again. Crowley decided to spend the day finding mischief to get up to instead, scattering minor inconveniences behind him like a trail of breadcrumbs that would lead him back home, but his heart wasn't really in any of it. He wanted to be somewhere else.
He slept that night and through the next day, mostly for want of anything interesting enough to distract him. When he finally got up, he walked around aimlessly for as long as possible to avoid glancing at his answering machine, where no messages from Aziraphale awaited him.
That was when Crowley got drunk, which led inevitably to him stalking about, then to him threatening his phone.
"Listen, I'm trying to give you a chance, here," Crowley reasoned with the device, which quite rudely sat there, unaffected and silent. "Either you ring—and you'd better be sure it's Aziraphale on the other end—or I'm not sure what might happen to you. Your purpose is to ring. You're meant to help with communication." He leaned against the desk, menacingly. "So," he began, then took a deep breath and yelled, "help me communicate!"
When the phone continued to be obstinate, Crowley stalked around it in a wide circle. It’s entirely possible he may have hissed at it a few times. With a snap, the phone suddenly found itself torn apart, its composite pieces scattered over the surface of the desk.
“It’s no good complaining now,” Crowley intoned, his voice buttery and low. Dangerous. “I did warn you.”
Crowley’s mobile shuddered a bit in his pocket, clearly gripped by terror at what had happened to its distant relation on the desk. The demon merely patted it through the tight denim. “You’re on thin ice yourself, but I’ll give you a bit more leeway.” He didn’t want to say it out loud and give the mobile a false sense of security, but he was rather attached to his progress on several mobile games.
Glaring at the wreckage of electronic parts, Crowley resolved to get drunk again. It was certainly easier than calling Aziraphale himself, which Crowley couldn't imagine going well. He had no idea how to ask if he was welcome to visit without sounding pathetic, and he knew Aziraphale wouldn't turn him down, even if he'd really like to. It made him feel like he was the lowest, most wretched creature in existence, but what he really needed was to know that Aziraphale wanted him there. He couldn't exactly be straightforward about that, could he?
A full day later, he was lying under that same desk, surrounded by mostly empty bottles. He’d put on some music and was snapping to the beat, torturing his phone further by reassembling it and then destroying it again with each twitch of his fingers.
“How does it feel to be disappointed, hmm? Perhaps you’re beginning to understand. Your lack of compliance is what’s brought us here. All you have to do is—”
Crowley bolted upright, banging his forehead on the underside of the desk so hard that his vision actually blurred. He hadn’t even known his body was capable of producing such a reaction. Surely he was hallucinating. That couldn’t be…
“Aziraphale?” he answered, hoping he was talking to an apparition of Aziraphale and not the actual angel in the flesh. Crowley was a mess; his tortured phone’s parts were dancing around the desk in utter confusion, the room was in complete disarray, and he was drunker than he’d been in quite awhile.
Considering how he and Aziraphale could probably represent Great Britain in the Olympics if competitive drinking were ever adopted as a sport, this was saying something.
“Oh, thank goodness!” The angel’s voice echoed in the sparse environment of the flat and Crowley began to panic in earnest. “I hadn’t heard from you in a few days,” Aziraphale continued, his footsteps slow but growing closer.
Hurriedly, Crowley sobered up, bearing down as he forced the rum, vodka, and tequila out of his system and back into their respective bottles. (Or, in his haste, he may have gotten them all a bit mixed up, but he really couldn’t be blamed, given the circumstances.)
“Given we’re in a bit of unprecedented territory, you’ll forgive me, I hope, for bypassing the lock on your flat’s door,” the angel went on, and from the sound of his voice, he seemed to be hovering just on the other side of the office door.
“Unprecedented territory?” Crowley asked, stalling for time.
“Well,” Aziraphale began, sounding thoughtful, and Crowley put his arms in the air to celebrate. That pensive sound in his voice meant the angel could go on for minutes, thinking aloud. He’d be too distracted to remember they were speaking through a door and decide to come in. “It’s been merely a few days since our sides…oh.” Aziraphale paused, and Crowley could almost hear the wounded little expression on his face. “As you’ve said before, they aren’t our sides, are they? Not anymore.”
“Heaven never deserved you, angel,” he said, while he was distracted with taming his hair and finding where his sunglasses had gotten to.
Crowley’s eyes widened. Where had that little burst of earnestness come from? Well, all right. He knew where it had come from, but who had given those words permission to claw their way out of his mouth?
“Ah. I…well,” Aziraphale stammered. “That’s very kind of—no, I shan’t say that. I appreciate that perspective, Crowley. I must confess, while I don’t miss the difficulties and disagreements I had with…with Above, I have been struggling with a sense of loss.”
Crowley paused in his frantic attempts to restore his office to something Aziraphale would classify as normalcy, thinking about how painful the break with Heaven must be for him. Crowley had no regrets about slamming the door on Hell and everyone in it, but he did know a thing or two about being cast out of Heaven.
“Oh, my,” Aziraphale cried, his dismay evident. “Imagine me, explaining to you what this feels like. I’m so sorry, Crowley. I know my feelings on this must pale next to what you went through, and I never intended to give you the impression I saw some sort of parity there.” Aziraphale continued to stammer out apologies, stopping and starting and almost talking over himself.
Crowley couldn’t let him suffer any longer. Though he was nowhere near ready, it was time to face the music.
Aziraphale gave a little jump when Crowley abruptly opened the door separating them, his hand fluttering over his heart, but he recomposed himself relatively quickly.
“Honestly, Crowley, you must know I would never compare my situation with Heaven to yours. I would never—”
Crowley waved a hand, almost the same gesture he used to manifest a miracle. “Don’t worry about it, angel. ‘M not offended.”
“Goodness, thank you. I felt so terrible…well, no more of that, then.” Aziraphale shook his head as though to reset himself, his bright white curls shining in the light as he did. “I truly am sorry for breaking in, as well, but I was so worried, Crowley. I feared someone from Below had caught on to our little trick with the body switching and they’d come for you. I tried calling this morning, but,” he paused, his eyes drifting over to the wreckage on Crowley’s desk. “Ah. You appear to have a small issue with your telephone.”
Crowley eyed the ruined electronics, then turned back to Aziraphale. “It needed servicing.”
“Couldn’t you just…” Aziraphale mimed his own miracle gesture, a downward pull of his arm that looked more like he was turning on an antique lamp than performing a task beyond the bounds of human understanding. Crowley found it adorable, and upon allowing himself to acknowledge that, had to fight down a lurid string of cursing that would make the roughest of his former colleagues blush.
“Trying to keep those to a minimum,” he answered, congratulating himself internally on his quick thinking. As a bonus, it was a particularly delicious lie, given the literal thousands of times he’d used his powers to disintegrate and re-integrate the phone that morning, alone.
“Oh!” Aziraphale paled. “That does seem rather a good idea. I’m afraid I’ve been going about business as usual, myself. I’ll be so cross if I've done something to attract unwanted attention to the two of us.” He worried his hands together, the knuckles turning white under the sheer weight of angelic guilt.
“No worries,” Crowley said, breezily. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“And you’re fine, as well. As I said, I was a bit worried. It had been a few days, you see.”
“So you said before,” Crowley answered, feigning nonchalance to cover the unpleasant mix of anxiety and excitement flowing through him. If he didn’t know better, he’d say his face had gone a bit numb with the effort.
He’d never considered Aziraphale would miss him after only a few days, even if it was only out of concern for his safety.
“I suppose, well, now that I know you’re safe, I should…go?” Aziraphale said, the wringing of his hands not slowing a bit. “You’re fine, so I’ll just leave you to it, shall I?”
Crowley opened his mouth to answer, and nothing came out. He’d never been angrier at his vocal cords in his long, long life.
“Not that I’m suggesting you’re up to anything! I didn’t come here to accuse you, or thwart you, as it were. I merely…” Aziraphale trailed off, visibly frustrated.
As Crowley had observed earlier, things were strained.
“Lunch?” Crowley proposed, allowing his hip to pop out of joint so he could affect an appropriately casual lean against his desk.
Aziraphale looked a bit like someone had thrown something at him unexpectedly, and he’d caught it without knowing what he was doing. “I’m sorry?”
“Must be about that time, lunchtime?” Desperately hoping the wild guess was correct, Crowley glanced around, as though a clock would suddenly appear where there hadn’t been one before. He wrestled his mobile from his pocket, brandishing it like a prize once he got a glimpse of the time. “Just gone eleven, see? There’s that kebab place that just opened. I’ll buy, come on.”
“What? There’s what?” Aziraphale was puzzled, but then seemed to register what Crowley was proposing. He smiled, looking surprised but pleased. “Oh, some lamb does sound scrumptious. And do you think they offer that lovely yogurt sauce to accompany?”
“Only one way to find out, angel.” Crowley swept one arm toward the door, the other coming lightly around Aziraphale’s shoulders just long enough to urge him forward before Crowley pulled away. Aziraphale straightened a bit at the contact, and Crowley could swear the angel was blushing a little.
He forced himself to ignore the way Aziraphale's delight painted itself over his face. Aziraphale was fairly glowing in the darkness of Crowley's flat, his mouth just a bit open and his eyes softening. Crowley knew he wasn't in the best state of mind after the last few days, and it was all too easy to willfully misinterpret Aziraphale's general aura of acceptance and love as something more personally directed toward Crowley. Aziraphale always did get quite excited when he was about to indulge in some delightful food, and it was surely no more or less than that.
Their meal went…fine. Most of the conversation was a rehash of recent events, though they both studiously seemed to be avoiding the more sensitive bits. Not that Crowley minded if they never again mentioned his somewhat humiliating pleas for Aziraphale to run away to Alpha Centauri with him, or the way he’d been near crying and devastated in the bar when he’d thought Aziraphale was gone forever. Mostly, they talked about the surprising bravery of Adam and his young friends, and gossiped about whatever was going on between the witch finders and their respective witches. (Aziraphale thought both pairs had found true love, but Crowley had his doubts. He was fairly certain both witches could do better.)
Crowley walked Aziraphale back to the bookshop afterwards, both of them quiet as they took in their surroundings along the way. He suspected his angel was marveling at everything around them, thinking about how it all could have been lost. It was in the way Aziraphale’s eyes followed the quiet movements of the leaves and the comings and goings of humanity as it went about its business as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (And to them, of course, nothing had.)
It pained Crowley to stop at the door to the shop, but he was afraid of what he would say—what he might do if he were to go inside. Better to keep a little distance until he had his head back on straight. He’d almost lost Aziraphale forever, and he’d not risk jeopardizing their friendship by making things irretrievably awkward.
“Crowley!” Aziraphale called him back, just as he was about to disappear around the corner. “The ducks must be getting very hungry, don’t you think? Perhaps we should visit them?”
Crowley stared at the pavement. As painful as this was, existing in this space where he knew he’d said too much, exposed too much of his internal world, and without the safety net of The Arrangement to reassure him that they’d simply have to keep in touch, if only for ‘work’ reasons—he realized he could take comfort in the fact that Aziraphale seemed to be trying just as hard as he was to keep their connection alive.
“Yeah, can’t let the ducks down,” he answered, still staring at a blemish on the sidewalk just beyond the tips of his shoes. “Tomorrow, two o’clock?”
“Our usual bench,” Aziraphale confirmed, and Crowley could hear the relief and warmth in his voice.
Aziraphale brought the food: cracked corn for the ducks and snacks for the occult and ethereal beings in attendance. They spread everything out on the bench between them, the sounds of them wrestling with the wrappings to toss bits to the ducks the only breaks in the silence. After what seemed like hours (but was only twelve minutes; Crowley was keeping tabs on the time and suspecting one of his old co-workers must be elongating the seconds to torture him) Aziraphale finally spoke.
“Do you have any plans? Any thoughts on what you’ll do with yourself now that you don’t have…Below…to answer to?”
Crowley tried to decide what to say. ‘Thought I’d hang around for a millennium or two seeing what you get up to’ didn’t seem like a particularly cool answer.
“Well,” he began, shrugging. “S’pose I could travel. See what’s become of some of the places I haven’t been back to for a while.”
“Ah.” Aziraphale looked down at his lap, where he appeared to be trying to reduce a small chunk of bread down into its component molecules. “I thought as much.” A smile forced its way onto his face, getting nowhere near his eyes. “Should you wish to keep your flat and return to London at some point, I’d be happy to look in on your plants. I hope you don’t mind, but I noticed how lovely they were when I stayed there while I was in your…well, before our trials.”
Crowley would have been angry at whichever idiot had given Aziraphale the impression Crowley was about to disappear for a few centuries, were he not the twat in question. Instead of being merely angry, he was furious enough to set himself on fire.
“Might not leave right away,” he hedged, wondering if he could walk this back without doing something unforgivable, like crying or begging Aziraphale to come with him. You know, again. For a third time, suggesting they run away together, just to get the inevitable refusal.
“Ah, well then,” Aziraphale said, brightening a bit. “For a trip like that, you’d probably want to take some time. Think back, you know, to decide where you’d like to go.”
“Right.” Crowley shrugged. “Might put it off for a decade or two.” Aziraphale’s cautious smile turned to outright beaming, and Crowley simply couldn’t be expected to exist under such conditions without buckling. He looked away. “What about you? Any first editions you’d like to traipse off in search of? Pop over to Japan to study under a sushi master?”
“Nothing as ambitious as that. I do believe I’d like to stay put, keep on with my bookshop. These last few years have been rather a lot. Wouldn’t mind catching my breath, as it were.”
Crowley would always wonder if he’d somehow acted as the harbinger to what happened next. He’d been so reassured to hear Aziraphale was staying in London and changing as little as possible about his routine that Crowley had allowed himself to get complacent. He’d looked up at the sky, thinking what an unseasonably lovely, cloudless day it was, when a lightning bolt split the heavens in two above them. Crowley reared back in shock, but Aziraphale sat impassively next to him, not even flinching. It was as though he’d somehow been anticipating this very thing, but judging by the look on his face, it was more like dread than anticipation.
And Gabriel came striding out from behind a nearby tree, a particularly ugly smirk stealing across his features when he took in the angel and the demon sitting together on the bench.