a lot of fic and discussion seems to center around this idea of crowley discovering how horrible the other angels are to aziraphale during the body swap and being so surprised and upset and taken aback by it. but i don’t think that’s really what’s going on here.
i think crowley knew all along what was going to happen to aziraphale in heaven.
that’s why crowley’s so patient with aziraphale. that’s why crowley’s so protective of aziraphale.
that’s why crowley’s so willing to pine from afar and to be aziraphale’s friend even though aziraphale won’t admit it. that’s why he’s so willing to do the song and dance of careful phrasing and rephrasing his requests until he hits on the one aziraphale can agree to. that’s why he’s there is 1793 and 1941 and 1800. oh, 1800 - textually, literally saving aziraphale from having to go back to heaven. that’s why crowley’s always circling him, literally watching his back.
crowley understands all of aziraphale’s reluctance and dodging because crowley knows what heaven’s like. he knows first-hand how arbitrary and capricious it can be, how vindictive and how dictatorial - whether you read that as coming from god herself or just from the archangels who say they act in her name. he understands what it’s like to be under the thumb of an abusive, uncaring family that wants you to conform, because crowley was part of that family. and although the show focuses on crowley’s angst at having been cast out, i don’t think it’s confusion over why he was cast out - it’s confusion over why god cast him out. he was cast out for asking questions, maybe hanging out with the wrong crowd on the wrong day, but his confusion is what happened to god and to heaven that it became the sort of place that would cast him out for such a thing.
crowley knows that aziraphale isn’t valued by heaven. crowley knows that aziraphale is mostly ignored by heaven. crowley knows that heaven doesn’t understand aziraphale, and that aziraphale aches to conform to heaven’s standards but can’t help that he just isn’t like them, and what aziraphale has to lose if he is caught failing to conform to heaven’s standards. crowley knows that heaven isn’t coming to save aziraphale, and he knows that aziraphale is afraid of heaven, of what heaven would do to crowley if they were caught, of what heaven would do to him. crowley knows all that in 537 and in 1601 and in 1941 and in 1793 and 1800 and 1861 and in 1967. he knows that.
so, no. i don’t think crowley was surprised by the treatment aziraphale receives in heaven. i don’t think crowley is at all taken aback by their glee at finally pruning aziraphale from their ranks. i don’t think he’s unprepared for them to give the demon permission to punch aziraphale, and i don’t think he’s surprised to hear gabriel tell him to just shut up and die already.
i think crowley knew all that was coming, and i think part of what he wanted, in body-swapping, was to protect aziraphale from it.
of course they also want to survive their respective punishments, but they know they’re going to be punished, and crowley knows that aziraphale expects hell to be horrible. that’s easy to deal with, when you know what to expect. of course you expect your sworn enemies to treat you terribly. of course aziraphale knows that hell is dangerous and brutal and sure to be merciless in punishing crowley. aziraphale expects that.
but aziraphale didn’t expect the angels to confront him on the street and punch him in the stomach and shove him around. he didn’t expect heaven to turn its back on humanity and choose to go to war over choosing to end it. he really thought that he’d be able to avert the war, and that heaven would want to avert the war. and crowley knew that.
crowley’s not surprised that heaven is vindictive and hateful when he goes up wearing aziraphale’s body. crowley’s ready for it. crowley knows its coming. and crowley’s protecting aziraphale from it, and at the same time, finally putting to rest his own demons about being cast out. it’s his confrontation of the family he was turned out from when he couldn’t understand why. he’s facing up to the fact that they don’t love him anymore, and that that’s not on him - it’s on them. he’s ready for them to be mean. he’s ready for them to be apathetic. they didn’t care what happened to crowley, and he knows they won’t care what’s happening to aziraphale.
but crowley cares what’s happening to aziraphale. crowley is fierce in his protection of aziraphale and always has been. crowley is glorious in his love of aziraphale and always has been. crowley is calm, and he is centered, and he is sure that this is the right thing.
crowley isn’t surprised. crowley’s in love, and he’s certain of it. he’s certain of the importance of it. he’s certain that aziraphale is everything heaven should be and isn’t and he’s willing to die to protect it, and it shows in every frame he wears aziraphale’s face.
I think if either of them are surprised, it’s not by the attitude - Crowley knew what Heaven was becoming when they threw him out; Aziraphale has seen the effects of Hell on Crowley - but by the specifics.
Crowley, I think, has always deliberately tried to hide what goes on in Hell to keep Aziraphale from worrying too much. But Aziraphale has his guesses, and his time in Hell, in Crowley’s body, helps him fill in a lot of blanks that are at least as bad as what he imagined.
Aziraphale, meanwhile, is so used to being gaslighted by Gabriel he doesn’t see a lot of the abuse he endures as worth mentioning, or even abusive. What’s he going to do, complain every time Gabriel is dismissive of his sushi or his books, when really it’s his own fault for not being a good angel and Gabriel is just trying to help?
Crowley can see the anxiety, knows what’s going on, but he never knows the words because Aziraphale doesn’t tell him what was actually said, just brushing it off with terms like “strongly worded letter” and “Michael’s a bit of a stickler.” So hearing Gabriel’s glee as he explains what they’re going to do isn’t shocking because it’s unexpected, but because Crowley finally has enough of a sample to start reconstructing 6,000 years worth of conversations.
I think there’s a bit of newfound protectiveness that comes not from suddenly realizing the other has scars, but from now knowing the shape of those scars, the specific pains associated with them from having carried them for a day. And, hopefully, one day a chance to share that pain, knowing the other has also experienced it, if only briefly, and will be able to understand.