Aziraphale’s held many a man in his arms and even kissed quite a few. Throughout human history, there have been numerous times and places in which the accepted greeting between man-shaped beings was an embrace. The details varied. In some times and places it was understood that the real purpose of this mode of greeting was to feel the other guy up for weapons. In others, a hug was just a hug – unless it was a hug accompanied by kisses, often bestowed in a specified number on a specified part of the body, such as the cheek or hand. (But not, however, the arse. Aziraphale therefore found the expression, “Kiss my arse,” rather baffling.)
Aziraphale had also had ample opportunities over the millennia to observe something about Crowley: the demon did not enjoy being hugged. The signs were subtle but definite. There was, for example, a certain stiffness to the usually sinuous spine. A movement of the shoulders that suggested wings being quickly drawn back to avoid contact with something distasteful. No lingering. Crowley always detached as soon as was socially acceptable, if not just a bit sooner.
Being a kind and compassionate being – not something that can be said of all angels, but reasonably true in Aziraphale’s case – Aziraphale had thus refrained from hugging Crowley. Which isn’t to say that he hadn’t, from time to time, wondered as to what it might feel like. To be blunt, Crowley did not appear to have much meat on his bones. Would he be angular and bony to hold? But there was the sinuosity factor to consider, as well as Aziraphale’s own surplus of padding. If Crowley were to feel comfortable enough to relax against him, an embrace might feel… quite nice. If, as the ephors of Sparta said to Philip II of Macedon.
The body swap after the Apocalapse had been a revelation. Given that the only other thing to think about as the hours ticked by was the likelihood of imminent death, Aziraphale found himself thinking instead about the body he was currently wearing and the surprising amount of lean muscle it carried. It was the body of, so to speak, a “mean, lean fighting machine.” Gabriel would have been delighted.
“What are you chuckling about, angel?” Given that neither of them had died after all and that the Bentley had been restored without a scratch, Crowley’s proposal that they get out of London for a few days sounded like just the ticket. If Aziraphale suspected that Crowley had proposed this at least in part because he needed to reassure himself that he could get past the M25 without incinerating his car a second time, this did not detract from the overall charm of the idea. And given that the world had not ended, where better place to go than Land’s End? (Aziraphale had initially suggested Finistère and crêpres bretonnes but had quietly desisted when he realized that the possibility of getting caught in a transportation breakdown in the Chunnel had Crowley on the verge of what looked suspiciously like a panic attack.)
Getting out of London had been a bit tricky. Crowley, his shoulders tense (drawing his wings back again, thought Aziraphale), had driven even faster than usual. Aziraphale had prayed there would be no fatal collisions, prepared himself to heal the victims of any non-fatal collisions and generally hung on for dear life. Once past the M25 and settled safely onto the A303, they both relaxed. Crowley really wasn’t driving much faster than the other drivers, and certainly there were no pedestrians or cyclists. Relieved of the burden of imminent peril, Aziraphale’s thoughts had drifted to other topics.
Hence Crowley’s question: “What are you chuckling about, angel?”
“Oh, nothing, really. Something Gabriel said.”
“That tosser managed to say something funny?”
“I doubt he intended the remark as such. I certainly didn’t find it humourous at the time.”
“Out with it, then.” And when Aziraphale hesitated, “Go on.”
“He told me to ‘lose the gut’ and become a ‘mean, lean fighting machine.’”
Crowley’s head whipped around rather faster than a human neck could have withstood. “He what?”
“Eyes on the road!”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“You’re driving an automobile at a high rate of speed. Keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel is the subject.”
Crowley complied to the extent of both eyes and one hand. “Listen, angel, you know better than to believe anything Gabriel says. This is the guy who lost it and called the Antichrist a brat when he was supposed to be trying to persuade the kid to start a war. This is the guy who jumped like a scared rabbit when I spat hellfire at him. He’s no ‘fighting machine.’ He’s a tool and a loser.”
The Bentley, which had been playing Vivaldi’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” chose this moment to cut into “We Are the Champions” in mid-chorus: “No time for losers, 'cause we are the champions of the world.”
Crowley nodded. “See? Even my car agrees.”
As Aziraphale agreed as well, he did not argue the point but instead returned to his previous train of thought.
“You know, my dear, it really was too bad of you to sleep away almost the entire 19th century. And then, when you finally woke up, you asked me for holy water.”
“I’d had bad dreams,” muttered Crowley, for some reason now finally choosing to look straight ahead at the road.
“What I mean is, the 19th century was the last time male friends in Britain could walk arm in arm as a generally accepted sort of thing. But we quarreled, so I never had a chance to ask you if you’d like to try it.”
Crowley frowned. “Why?”
Aziraphale was more than a little taken aback. “Well, we are friends.” (The Bentley agreeably switched from “Champions” to “You’re My Best Friend.”) “Friends can quarrel from time to time and remain friends. And linking arms isn’t quite as intrusive as hugging. I only thought, well, that it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
“That’s where your line is, then?”
“Can’t hug a demon, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask about ‘linking arms’ with one?” Both hands came off the wheel for the air quote, but Aziraphale hardly noticed.
“Crowley, what are you talking about?”
“How many times and places have we met where it was not only acceptable but expected that men would exchange hugs and kisses as a greeting? I’ve seen you, Aziraphale, I’ve seen you hugging other men without hesitation or any sign of discomfort. And yet never, ever have you offered to hug me. Which, I figured, fine. Everyone draws the line somewhere. Hugging a demon was obviously going too far for you.”
“Sorry about missing the linked arms. I’ll keep that in mind the next time it comes into vogue. Should be any century, now that the world’s not ending.”
“Crowley, you don’t like being hugged.”
Crowley shrugged. “I don’t like being hugged by people who haven’t bathed for a week, let alone a month or a year. Or people who have fleas or lice. Or whose hands somehow migrate from my shoulders to my arse – which, okay, sometimes that’s what I’m aiming for, but individual temptations aren’t my style. Usually it’s the other guy’s idea.”
“Do you think you might have liked…” Aziraphale began in a small voice.
Crowley waved a hand (only one). “Not your thing. I get that.”
“Crowley, you never tried to hug me.”
“Not your thing,” Crowley repeated. “Aziraphale, it’s fine, I understand.”
It was obviously not fine. Furthermore, Aziraphale did not want it to be fine.
“Pull over,” he said quite firmly.
“We don’t have to… Look, let’s just drop it and enjoy our trip.”
“Or if you’re determined to cancel, I’ll drive you back to London. I’m not abandoning you here in the middle of nowhere to...”
“Wiltshire. We passed Stonehenge just a bit back.”
“…in the middle of bloody Wiltshire to, what? Hitchhike back to London? Walk? Fly?”
Aziraphale set one manicured hand on the handle of the door. “Crowley, pull over this minute!”
Crowley pulled over and brought the car to a stop.
Aziraphale slid over a bit on the seat towards Crowley and embraced him. Or attempted to. The reality was more as if he were hanging onto Crowley’s left shoulder with his own right hand for balance while he reached across Crowley’s chest with his left arm, aiming for Crowley’s right shoulder but somehow managing to knock Crowley’s dark glasses askew instead.
It was so horribly awkward that Aziraphale was about to give up when Crowley turned towards him. Suddenly not only were both shoulders in easy reach but it was actually possible for Aziraphale to put his arms around the demon. After a moment, Crowley’s arms wrapped around Aziraphale, albeit rather stiffly. Aziraphale squeezed gently, to let Crowley know he appreciated the gesture, and prepared to let go. But Crowley relaxed and squeezed back and oh!
Hugging Crowley was delicious in a way that Aziraphale had previously associated only with oven-warm scones topped with clotted cream and fresh raspberries. Being hugged by Crowley was even better. It was not at all like being encircled by a boa constrictor, a possibility Aziraphale had considered after examining the musculature in Crowley’s torso. Crowley was simply there, solid and strong and pressed all down Aziraphale’s front as they held each other close.
Aziraphale never wanted it to end, but neither did he want to overstay his welcome. Loosening his arms, he started to settle back into his seat. And Crowley followed him. Never letting go, the demon eeled gracefully around, barely managing to miss the steering wheel. His teetering glasses were knocked off completely in the process.
Crowley settled in, his arms still around Aziraphale and Aziraphale’s eagerly resuming their place around him. Aziraphale could feel Crowley’s knees – not too bony after all – pressing in on either side of Aziraphale’s thighs. The increased height difference meant that Aziraphale’s face was pressed against Crowley’s neck. His skin smelled like desert winds and the spices the caravans had carried and strong coffee drunk in tiny cups to seal negotiations over ancient manuscripts. Without Aziraphale’s conscience volition, the tip of his tongue slipped out to taste.
Crowley groaned. Aziraphale froze. Had he been too forward? But then Crowley buried his face in Aziraphale’s hair and began to rub it back and forth, like a cat. Emboldened, Aziraphale licked a long stripe up his neck. Mmmm, salt and spice and just enough brimstone to lend piquancy. And then one of them knocked on the window and…
Wait, what? Aziraphale quickly counted hands. All four, Crowley’s pair and his own, were accounted for by the embrace. Crowley must have reached the same conclusion, because it was as one that they both turned to face the matronly Highways England Traffic Officer standing outside the Bentley.
Crowley rolled down the window.
“Good day, gentlemen.” The officer hadn’t grown up in Wiltshire; she had an accent like Shadwell’s. “Anything wrong with your vehicle?”
“My boyfriend just proposed marriage,” Crowley replied with a glare. “If you don’t mind, we’re having a moment.”
She was unfazed. “Congratulations, but you can’t have it here. There’s a service area 15 miles on. And sir, if those cosmetic contacts interfere with your vision in any way, you can’t wear them while driving.”
Crowley’s expression suggested that his response was likely to involve a truly excessive number of maggots, so Aziraphale intervened. “An excellent point, officer. That’s precisely why I insisted that he see our oculist to get them checked. We were assured that they don’t create any risk at all.”
“That’s fine, then.” The officer smiled agreeably. “Service area, 15 miles.” With a firm nod, she returned to her own vehicle, where she appeared to settle in to fill out forms.
Crowley pulled back onto the roadway as Aziraphale sputtered. “It’s hardly fair that she can park by the side of the road to do paperwork while we’re not allowed to park by the side of the road and…”
“Make out, angel?” Crowley grinned. “And no one says ‘oculist’ anymore.”
“If we’re going to quibble about words, boyfriend, Crowley? Really?”
Crowley’s grin vanished. “Sorry,” he bit off, glaring at the roadway ahead of them. “Won’t happen again. I needed something to put the officer off and…”
“We’re 6,000 years old. Whatever we are to each other, it hardly deserves so juvenile a term as ‘boyfriends.’” Aziraphale paused for thought. “Innamorati, perhaps.”
“Innam… Angel, you can’t use a word like innamorati to a highway officer. They’ll think you’re trying to bribe them with pasta. Er…” The grin came back, with a strong dose of slyness. “Paramours.”
“I wasn’t aware that either of us is married to anyone else.”
“Yes, but we are illicit.”
“Are we? Haven’t the rules changed?”
“Don’t spoil my fun, angel. I’m determined to remain illicit.”
Aziraphale smiled fondly and suggested, “Beaux?”
The Bentley launched into “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy.”
Aziraphale sniffed in the direction of the Blaupunkt. “I hardly think…” But he didn’t get any further before it switched to, “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
“Oi!” Crowley yelled. He smacked the dashboard. “Being rude to my angel is not on!”
The Bentley resumed “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy.” Aziraphale sighed and gave it up as a lost cause.
They reached the service area, turned in and found a parking spot. Crowley turned off the engine, after which they sat in silence. There’s nothing quite so awkward as attempting to reignite a spontaneous moment of shared passion that was interrupted by a highway officer 15 miles further back on the road. Aziraphale in particular was trying to figure out his role. Did the fact that he’d initiated the first round mean that it was his responsibility to do so again? Or was it now Crowley’s turn?
Aziraphale had just decided that the ball was, metaphorically speaking, in his own court when Crowley spoke up. “That’s why this. Now. Because the rules have changed.”
Aziraphale froze. There was no hint of a question in Crowley’s statement. Neither was there any anger. The very matter-of-factness of it made Aziraphale’s heart hurt.
“Oh, my dear, no. It’s simply that up until now, I had no idea you might want this. Please forgive my obtuseness.”
But Crowley’s face hardened. “Oh, no, you don’t. Go ahead and lie to me. Demons lie to each other all the time, I don’t see why angels shouldn’t do it as well. But don’t, don’t you dare, lie to me and ask my forgiveness in the same breath.”
There was anger aplenty now, but Aziraphale was baffled.
“I don’t und…”
“This isn’t about what I want. ‘We have nothing in common.’” Crowley’s imitation of Aziraphale’s voice was cruelly accurate. “’We are not friends. I don’t even like you.’ Sounds clear enough to me. Not obtuse at all.” The demon took a breath that sounded suspiciously close to a sob. But when he spoke again, his voice was as calm as the eye of a hurricane. “I always figured I’d take whatever you were willing to give, on your terms, and it would be enough. But we all draw the line somewhere. I guess this is it for me. Only took me 6,000 years to get here.” He snapped his fingers and the engine started up. “I’ll drive you back to London. I owe you that much.”
“It was cowardice,” whispered Aziraphale.
“Proposing that we run away was a pragmatic response to the fact that the world as we know it was coming to an end and neither of us had the least clue as to how to stop it!” Crowley yelled, plunged back into the storm of anger.
“I don’t mean you, I mean me. Being a coward.”
Aziraphale went on, his voice gaining strength. “But we did stop it, we stopped it. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“You couldn’t have done it without Agnes’ book, you mean,” replied Crowley drily.
“Which I only had because Anathema left it in your car, which she only did because her bicycle collided with your car. It was all part of…”
“So help me Satan, if you use the word ‘ineffable,’ I’m dropping you in the car park at Stonehenge.”
“But it was, and it wasn’t just the book. I would never have questioned orders if it weren’t for you. You’ve taught me that, to ask questions. Finding the courage to question myself just took… longer. Perhaps almost too long, I think. Is it too late? I don’t know that I could have stood alone on the airbase at Tadfield, without you by my side. I know I wouldn’t have wanted to. I know – I know now – that I don’t want to go through the rest of eternity without you by my side, and, well, very closely by my side at that. More closely, if you’ll have me. Is it too late, my dear?”
The engine quietly turned itself off, unnoticed by either demon or angel.
Aziraphale waited. His question had been answered. The next move was Crowley’s to make – or not.
“It wasn’t just pragmatism,” the demon said quietly. “There was a large helping of cowardice in there too. It says something that the only idea I could come up with was to run away.”
“The only idea I could come up with was to kill an 11-year-old boy. What does that say about me?”
Crowley smiled, just a little. “What I’ve always known, angel – that you’re a bit of a bastard.”
“We do far better, my dear, when we stand together than either of us does on his own.”
“But do we have to stand?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you… Oh!” Aziraphale squeaked a bit as Crowley reached out and pulled them together. They ended up more or less in the middle of the seat, with Aziraphale halfway in Crowley’s lap.
“This position okay with you, angel?” The last word came out in a bit of a growl.
Aziraphale shivered for all the best reasons.
And someone giggled.
More than one someone.
At some point, another car pulled in next to the Bentley. There were now five children ranging in age from four to 13 plastered against its windows, watching the show. The 13-year-old appeared to be providing commentary for her younger siblings.
With a snap of Crowley’s fingers, the Bentley’s windows became opaque.
The giggles were still audible.
“Crowley,” said Aziraphale, “Is there a room waiting for us in Cornwall?”
“Yeah,” said the demon, glaring in the direction of the giggles.
“Does it have a bed?”
That got Crowley’s attention. “It might have two, actually. But that could change.”
“Or we could… Just not use one of them.”
“Or we could use both. Sequentially.”
Aziraphale frowned. “That would create more work for the cleaning staff.”
“They get paid by the hour, angel. More work, more money.”
“Oh, well. In that case.”
The Bentley took the turn out of the service parking lot on two wheels and headed down the highway like a racehorse released from the starting gate. The Blaupunkt blared, “Don’t Stop Me Now.” And no one dared. Although five miles down the road Aziraphale did remind Crowley to unopaque the windows.
Much, much later that night, as they curled up together in a nest constructed on one bed using the duvets and all the pillows from both beds, Crowley sleepily mumbled something against Aziraphale’s hair.
“Did you just say ‘nothing like,’ dearest? Nothing like what?”
Crowley lifted his head, looking sheepish. “Eh, forget I said that. It’s rather… pathetic.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” said Aziraphale firmly.
“It’s just… the night after the Apocalapse. It was a long night. And you’d never hugged me. So I… This is the pathetic part.”
“I wrapped my, well, your arms around yourself and tried to pretend.”
“Oh, my dear. Not pathetic at all, perfectly understandable under the circumstances. Er… did it help?”
“A bit. It was… a bit squooshy. Comforting. But nothing like.” Crowley snuggled down, curling himself even more closely around Aziraphale. “You’re comfier. Warmer. You feel like…” The last word was almost lost in a yawn as Crowley tucked his face against Aziraphale’s neck and fell asleep.
Almost. Not quite. Aziraphale heard it. It sounded a bit like “whom” or maybe “hum.” But he knew it was neither of those, and all through the night he held his demon close.