“That’s the thing though, innit? You let a kid be raised by humans and they’re going to do weird human packbond things like bring back cars and... bookssshopsss,” Crowley drawled behind Aziraphale as he followed him into the store.
Aziraphale hadn’t gotten to see the store yet-- he’d been a bit consumed with the late-night planning session in Crowley’s flat and the dreadful trip to Hell that ensued. He picked up a Hardy Boys #1 first edition from the top of a miraculously new display table and turned to show Crowley when he realized the demon wasn’t actually behind him as he’d supposed. In fact, Crowley just inside the door, staring at the rug.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale hazarded, setting the book back down. Crowley was deathly pale, and he wasn’t moving, wasn’t even breathing, and while Aziraphale knew perfectly well that Crowley didn’t have to breathe, he also knew that the demon preferred to breathe. “Dear boy, whatever is the matter?”
As Aziraphale stepped closer to Crowley, the demon crumbled, falling to his knees in an assemblage of lean limbs that seemed to have forgotten how they were meant to interact with the world. Aziraphale caught Crowley by the shoulders, releasing him only long enough to take off the damnable sunglasses and get a view of his eyes. Golden yellow had overtaken their entirety, leaving only snake.
Crowley was breathing again, but in quick, heaving gasps through his mouth which Aziraphale realized wasn’t breathing so much as scenting; Crowley was smelling for danger. Aziraphale was actually surprised that Crowley had maintained human form this long. He remembered the feeling of the body, the practice it had taken that night to stay human-shaped when the whole corporation would prefer to collapse into a hissing pile of coiled muscles and scales. With Crowley as panicked as he was, a bit of snake was to be expected, though Aziraphale had no idea what was causing the distress.
“You’re not in danger, Crowley, you’re in the shop.” Aziraphale tried to catch his gaze, but Crowley seemed incapable of looking at him.
Aziraphale thought hard-- what does one do for a panicking person? He recalled the Blitz, shortly after the church had blown up, after Crowley had saved him and his books, after he’d taken Aziraphale back to this bookshop and Aziraphale’d dropped his tea all over the rug because his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. What had Crowley done?
Aziraphale called his wings into being, wishing that he had the dark lustrous feathers of the Powers, black like the void where the stars were hung, not these blinding white feathers that were designed to make humans believe in angelic purity. Purity-- he meant to have a long conversation with Crowley about what prats the angels had been, but that would have to wait.
He bracketed Crowley with his too-bright wings, drawing a curtain around them, blocking the bookshelves and walls and distractions so that Crowley could focus.
“Crowley, my dear, you must tell me what’s wrong.”
"I'm going to lie down now," Crowley announced, the words forced through numb lips. He lightly hooked a finger over Aziraphale's wing and pulled it down with him as he went, settling on his side. He pulled the white wing over his head while Aziraphale lay on his belly next to him, shielding him from the light and the space.
“Crowley…” Aziraphale began again, then stopped with a small sigh. There wasn’t anything to do but wait with Crowley tucked safely under his wing. When Crowley’s breathing had settled into a regular pattern, Aziraphale tentatively raised the wing a little to look at Crowley’s face. He was surprised to find Crowley looking at him when he did. He wasn’t sure if he had expected Crowley to be avoiding his gaze or if he’d expected those expressive golden eyes to be closed, but he was relieved to see him looking back.
“Your grace was sssshattered. I could sssmell it in the fire,” Crowley hissed, closing his eyes and pulling Aziraphale’s wing back down so that he could hide his face against it.
“My grace is fine. I stepped wrong into the open portal because of Shadwell--”
“It wassss demon-fire and dissscorporation and Heaven and you were gone,” Crowley cut him off. “I couldn’t find you anywhere, and the sssshop reeked of your deathhh.” A sort of reverse lisp turned death into a hiss, and Aziraphale couldn’t find it in himself to be amused.
“Crowley, I’m so sorry! I’m right here, I made it back, it was just a discorporation, I didn’t really-- I mean, you can see I’m right here,” Aziraphale spoke calmly, reaching out again to rest his hand against Crowley’s shoulder. He knew that the demon didn’t like to be crowded, hardly liked to be touched, but he was unsure of what to do otherwise. Crowley kept his face pressed into Aziraphale’s wing, but he didn’t shrug off the hand.
“What you said in the pub-- you’re my best friend as well, and I’ve been pretty genuinely horrible to you recently, so I really think you should give yourself some credit,” Aziraphale offered, feeling rather wretched about the whole last… well, most of the last 6,000 years, really.
“You would have fallen if you’d turned on Heaven with me, and the world would have ended if we’d gone to Alpha Cssentauri.” Crowley’s breathing had calmed a little, but he still wouldn’t look at Aziraphale.
“But I knew where Adam was. I could have told you, and we could have, I don’t know, figured out how to end it all sooner, could have avoided discorporation or-- why were you in the pub, anyhow? You told me you were leaving when--”
“Am I really?” Crowley cut him off, finally releasing his hold on the protective wing so that he could look at Aziraphale. He was still too pale, but he was breathing, and his eyes seemed to be focused again, the yellow giving way to some white sclera around the edges.
“Are you really what?” Aziraphale asked, lost.
“You said I’m your best friend,” Crowley prodded, rolling onto his back on the ground. Aziraphale was pleased to hear that the panicked hiss had left most of his words.
“I lied, in the bandstand. You’ve been my friend longer than humans have had farming. Even before I knew for sure that I could trust you to not stab me after too many drinks, I knew that I wanted to be with you,” Aziraphale admitted, shame burning through him that he’d risked death without letting Crowley know the depth of his regard first. Well, the safe depth.
“I’ve always loved your wings.” Crowley ran a hand down the white feathers, almost reverently, and pulled the wing down closer against him again.
“Why didn’t you leave? After you found the shop, you could have been safely away.”
“The last thing I said to you, I sssaid I wouldn’t think about you. You forgave me, and I told you off again. I was just ssso angry... and there are more things that smell like subverted grace and fire than discorporation or death… so I was going to go find you.” The last eight words were barely spoken aloud, barely loud enough to count as audible, a secret whispered into Aziraphale’s feathers, meant possibly to not have been heard.
“Where would I have gone if I wasn’t dead or...” Aziraphale hushed as he realized the implication.
“Well, it’s not an issue anyhow, we defied God and you didn’t-- and we’re all fine.” Crowley was starting to get his old bravado back, the mask falling into place. Aziraphale found he was less relieved than he’d originally anticipated now that Crowley was gathering himself.
“You were getting drunk to head to Hell?” He was reaching for a tone that wasn’t reproachful, that wasn’t his own panic derailing Crowley’s.
“If you were down there, it’s not like anyone would have told me. I had just killed Ligur. Hastur was trapped on a tape and ready to kill me when he got out. Hell was probably on high alert to find me out here, so they’d never expect me down there. I’d bust you out, then figure out the rest of the plan from there.” Crowley shrugged, the movement ruffling against the feathers of Aziraphale’s wing.
Aziraphale pulled back his wing a bit to look at Crowley, removing the handy feathers he’d had his face shoved into. Crowley sighed, then looked back at Aziraphale, his eyes back to their normal balance of gold, black, and white. The color had come back to his cheeks, and he looked more embarrassed than panicky now.
“You are absolutely impossible! If I was in Hell, the last thing I’d want you to do is go down with me,” Aziraphale chided, too touched to put any real reproof in his tone.
“You know,” Crowley sighed, “it’s not every day that you live through someone else’s execution and then go back to the site of their recent death.”
He wiggled closer to Aziraphale, surprising him almost enough to cause the angel to scoot back.
“Oh, my dear boy. It’s been a terribly difficult day for you, hasn’t it?” Aziraphale tutted, straightening the lapels of the demon’s jacket for want of a better excuse to be touching Crowley.
Soon, he knew, Crowley would stand back up and resume the two feet of separation that he preferred (and honestly, having been to Hell and feeling the press and sway of the sheer mass of bodies, Aziraphale understood entirely the desire for space). For just a moment, though, Aziraphale wanted to touch him, to have an excuse better than the flimsy half-reasons he’d managed to think up over the years.
“I didn’t expect the memory to hit me so hard. You can’t even smell the fire anymore, but I might’ve possibly avoided entering the shop while I was you-- though I made sure to kind of skirt the windows so I could let you know how it was doing.”
“Well, we made it as far as the Persian rug. I think that’s probably enough progress for the day,” Aziraphale decided. He left one hand resting on Crowley’s lapel, greedily soaking in his ability to touch the demon before they all came to their senses again.
“You still haven’t looked around, though.” Crowley looked at him with such a hopeful face that Aziraphale felt his heart might break.
“I’ll look around the shop later. For now, let’s go for a walk, hm? St. James’s?” Aziraphale mentally prepared himself to let go of Crowley any moment now, to just stand up and go back to normal, pretending that they didn’t just change everything about their situations, didn’t spend a night making mad schemes. Pretending that they hadn’t held hands for hours on a bus without a single complaint from the demon who always seemed to be reaching out but never meeting halfway, always initiating and ending every touch they’d shared.
It was fine-- Aziraphale tried to convince himself that it was fair. He’d been the one who had been so hesitant to make any kind of emotional connection, had put off the Arrangement for decades, held back for so long to avoid falling headfirst into something impossible to conceal from his Heavenly handlers. Aziraphale controlled the emotional, Crowley controlled the physical; it was fair, but it still chafed.
“St James’s sounds good. I think the weather’s meant to be nice today,” Crowley agreed, resting his hand over Aziraphale’s. “But maybe in a bit.”
Aziraphale’s reply died in his throat, and he settled instead for soaking it in, Crowley under his wing, holding his hand. Crowley alive after the Apocalypse. Crowley with him, having gone to the shop at great emotional risk simply because Aziraphale had asked.
“You know, we really don’t have anyone to answer to any longer,” Aziraphale began, haltingly. “And we needn’t fear either holy or infernal agents showing up and meddling in our affairs, or finding anything untowards, or--”
“I love you, you know. And even though I can feel you trying desperately to pretend otherwise, to couch it in fancy words, I know you love me too. I’ll be here when you decide you’re ready for that.” Crowley’s face was so open, so guileless that Aziraphale ached at the words.
“Loving you has always been easy-- keeping you safe has been the tricky part,” Aziraphale huffed. “And I have loved you nearly as long as I’ve known you, you ridiculous, patient, kind, serpent.”
“I’m not kind,” Crowley growled out of habit.
“You reassured me on the wall that I hadn’t done the wrong thing,” Aziraphale pointed out.
“You hadn’t-- you just hadn’t done what the Almighty would want you to do. That’s hardly the same thing,” Crowley grumbled.
“You’re right,” Aziraphale agreed. Crowley looked at him sharply, eyes narrowing as he tried to figure out if Aziraphale was mocking him.
“It took me a long time to realize, but you were absolutely--” Crowley cut him off by rolling onto his side and into the diminished space between them, sliding even closer to Aziraphale so that they were practically flank to flank.
Then Crowley kissed him. Aziraphale held him close in with his wing, unwilling to let him go now that he had him, incapable of stepping back from the newest level of intimacy allowed. You go too fast for me his mind reminded him, shame burning when he remembered pushing Crowley back again and again. Trying to keep him safe, but at what cost?
Crowley pushed back from him, and Aziraphale realized he’d gotten a hand into the demon’s hair, his knee between Crowley’s, and his wing pressing Crowley against him. As though scalded, Aziraphale relaxed his wing and began to scoot away, giving Crowley space.
“Stop worrying so much.” Crowley caught him by the bow tie and pulled him back in. “I was just checking if you’re okay.”
Aziraphale felt himself melt under the demon’s gaze. “Do you want to leave, or are you okay here?”
“Let’s give this Persian rug some better memories, eh?” Crowley winked, pulling Aziraphale back in by the bow tie.
“Wait!” Aziraphale blurted, pulling back infinitesimally so that he could see Crowley, but not so much that he was pulling away from Crowley. “I love you,” Aziraphale whispered.
“I know, you ridiculous angel, and I love you too.”
Aziraphale closed the gap, pulling Crowley back in again, tangling his hand in the ridiculously soft red hair, revelling in the sensation of Crowley responding, kissing back, accepting his touch without pausing to discuss whose side would or wouldn't approve. It was freezing and terrifying, but Aziraphale couldn't think of anyone he'd rather have on his side in a free-fall than Crowley.