It all came out while Aziraphale was on his knees.
Crowley had just come, and was now nearly boneless above him, lolling against the wall held up by the hand Aziraphale had on his hip. Aziraphale was pressing kisses along the inside of his thigh, face and head nudging against Crowley’s spent cock, which he knew was delightfully oversensitive. His own come was beginning to leak down out from between Crowley’s buttocks. Some of it ended up on Aziraphale’s face.
Sex in the human fashion was so deliciously, wonderfully messy, and he rather thought he was beginning to get the hang of it.
Crowley’s hands were on his shoulder, nails scabbling uselessly for purchase as he made soft, breathy sounds. It was a pleasant feeling, right up until his nails got caught.
“Ow!” he yelped, batting Crowley’s hand away.
“Ssssorry, angel,” Crowley apologized, snatching his other hand back as well.
“No matter,” Aziraphale told him, nuzzling between his legs. “That’s a tender spot, though. Might want to avoid it in future.”
“Ngk,” Crowley replied, which probably had to do with the way he’d started sucking a little love bite on to his thigh than anything Aziraphale had said. His hands resumed their position on his shoulders, fingertips trailing carefully over his skin, returning with feather-light gentleness to the place his nails had dug in to.
“Oh,” he said, in a tone of delighted discovery. “You have a scar.”
Aziraphale made a noncommittal noise, still a bit preoccupied.
“Aziraphale, why do you have a scar?” Crowley asked. He still sounded delighted. Probably, he was hoping to hear of some deed of daring-do Aziraphale had done without him. Unfortunately, the truth was really rather boring.
“It just healed a bit funny, that’s all,” Aziraphale said, nipping pointedly at Crowley’s skin.
Crowley poked him in the shoulder, though not the one that had scarred. “Yeah, but healed from what?”
Aziraphale sighed. It was obvious that the demon wasn’t going to be moving on from this any time soon. “If you must know, dear, it’s from that severe reprimand I got back in 48 BC. Nothing terribly exciting, I’m afraid.”
He would really rather dive back in between Crowley’s legs again, but Crowley had gone all tense. “That… what?”
“What?” Aziraphale asked.
“You have a scar from a reprimand?” Crowley demanded.
“Yes?” Aziraphale replied. “I got quite a few of those back in the day, as you might recall.”
Crowley stared down at him.
“I’d say it’s a miracle I don’t have more scars, but, you know,” he let out a little nervous titter. Something was clearly going wrong, he had no idea what it was, much less how to stop it. “Angels. Miraculous healing. They do sort of go together, don’t they?”
Crowley continued to stare.
“It was just- you know. Everyone was getting ready for the immaculate conception, they sort of forgot I was still strung up until after the wounds had started to heal on their own. That one was pretty much healed, and it’d scarred, and I didn’t feel like it was worth the effort to have it removed so. I have a scar now.”
“Angel,” Crowley said slowly. “You told me that you’d gotten a sharp rebuke from Michael for trying to save the Library of Alexandria.”
“I did,” Aziraphale replied, now completely lost.
“Right,” Crowley said decisively. “Up you get you, come on, clothes, up, we’ve got to talk.” He was moving away as he said it, off to the side and then past Aziraphale, heading towards the kitchen even as his clothing rematerialized around him.
“Well that’s one way to ruin the afterglow,” Aziraphale grumbled as he stood.
“Aziraphale!” Crowley hissed. “This isn’t a bloody joke!”
Aziraphale blinked at him in surprise, and then, contrary to normal, miracled his clothing back on instead of dressing manually. “Would you like me to make tea?”
“Sure,” Crowley said, now sounding very annoyed. “Why not?”
Aziraphale followed him into the kitchen, feeling very much like he’d missed something important.
“So,” Crowley said, looking down at his tea. “So.”
A needle pulling thread, Aziraphale’s mind supplied uselessly.
“So,” Crowley said, a third time. “Here’s the thing. You say a sharp rebuke, and I’m picturing Michael telling you that you’re a disgrace to Heaven with your intellectual curiosity and attachment to material objects.”
“It’s not like she didn’t do that,” Aziraphale said.
“But that’s not what you mean by a sharp rebuke.” Every time Crowley said it, he sounded more disgusted.
“Not primarily, no,” Aziraphale admitted cautiously.
“You mean it like enhanced interrogation techniques, or extraordinary rendition, right? It’s a euphemism for something they’d like to pretend they have moral high ground over,” Crowley said.
“Oh, goodness,” Aziraphale said, genuinely surprised. “I’d never made that connection before.”
“But I’m right, aren’t I?” Crowley asked.
“Yes. Yes, I suppose you are,” Aziraphale replied.
Crowley nodded, and dipped a finger into his mug. The liquid changed color slightly- Aziraphale strongly suspected that he’d turned it into rum.
“And what- what is it a euphemism for, exactly?” he asked. “A sharp rebuke?”
“A sharp rebuke is a scourge,” Aziraphale told him. “You know, cat o’nine with little metal tips. They’re generally heated. There’s less blood that way.”
Crowley stared at him, grown very pale in the face. He knocked back his now undoubtedly alcoholic drink before asking another question. “And were all your reprimands so… euphemistic?”
The foundation of this entire conversation- and, indeed, no small number of the conversations they’d had over the millennia- tilted wildly. “You didn’t know,” Aziraphale said blankly.
“I swear to you, I didn’t know,” Crowley said urgently.
Aziraphale barely heard him. “Oh my God.”
“Yeah! Where was She while-”
“I sent you into Heaven and you didn’t know,” Aziraphale realized, horrified. “They could have- and you wouldn’t have even-”
“Aziraphale!” Crowley grabbed him by the hand. “Hey, Aziraphale, look at me. I’m fine, okay? I’m just fine, I just- nothing happened. I told you, right? I took a few punches on the ride up, and then it was a whole lot of nothing until the execution.”
“Yes, but-” Aziraphale gestured wildly, though to what, he really couldn’t say. “But I thought you knew!”
“I didn’t,” Crowley said, giving his hand a squeeze. “I didn’t know. I-” He bit down on his lower lip and looked away for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said.
“Don’t,” Crowley told him. “Don’t. You didn’t do anything that needs apologizing for, here. I- Someone, Aziraphale. You’ve gotten loads of reprimands over the years. Loads and loads.”
Well, there wasn’t much he could say to that, was there? “Yes. I have.”
“During the Regency period you said that you’d gotten censured for improper use of miracles,” Crowley recalled.
“Yes, I did,” Aziraphale replied.
“Well? What does that really mean?” Crowley demanded.
“A knout. Generally without any metal involved, unless you’re being severely censured.”
“Yeah, okay, right, I remember what those are,” Crowley said, nodding rapidly. “And in Spain, with the Inquisition. You said that you knew to come because Heaven had admonished you for letting me pervert the faith.”
“None of that was your fault, my dear,” Aziraphale said.
“Angel,” Crowley said helplessly.
“A solid birching, it’s generally across the back of the hands unless it’s a stern one. That’s the shoulders.”
“In the Bastille. You said that you’d gotten a strongly-worded note.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said. “A note is a cane. Gabriel’s quite partial to them. He likes the sound, I think, hence the euphemism.”
Crowley nodded again. “And strongly-worded?”
“We started saying that after 'note' became a kind of letter. It’s pretty much synonymous with severe or harsh. It means that they broke out the chains.”
“So- what? They would chain you down so you couldn’t run away?” Crowley demanded.
“Generally they would chain me up,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley looked a little wild around the eyes.
“You don’t run from Heavenly punishment, Crowley,” Aziraphale explained. “You don’t argue, you don’t talk back, you don’t assume the wrong position, you don’t try to stall for time by moving slowly, you don’t flinch away. Anything- any kind of resistance only makes it worse. They break out the chains when they don’t expect you to be able to hold yourself up when they’re through with you.”
Aziraphale had nearly buried his bitterness, until he remembered that he was free to let himself feel it: the venomous I was trying to do good, the poisonous You don’t even care about humanity, even the sickening Why didn’t She stop it? could all be safely thought, now that he was no longer quite an angel.
He took a sip of tea, and left the cup pressed to his lips longer than necessary. He didn’t have the sort of face that was built to sneer.
Crowley’s was. “And this is normal? They don’t Fall for that?”
“Not that I’ve ever heard about,” Aziraphale replied, though Raphael has been missing in action since the Second Temple period. He’d always wondered about that.
“And She doesn’t have anything to say about it?” Crowley demanded.
For all that Aziraphale has, in his darkest moments, wondered and even speculated about the implications of Her silence on the matter of reprimands, he knew in his heart of hearts that there was only one possible answer. “Why should She?”
“Why should She?” Crowley parroted back, angry and incredulous.
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, as calmly as he could. “Why should She, when I went through nothing in Heaven that millions upon millions of people haven’t suffered through here on Earth?”
That took Crowley aback, so he pressed his case. “Nothing happened that would have looked out of place in the mines of Rome, or the plantations of the Americas. Very little happened that would have looked strange at an auto da fe, or a Magdalene laundry. Most of the time, it was nothing that wouldn’t have been inflicted by an overzealous boarding school prefect. She didn’t intervene for them. There was no reason that She should have intervened when it was me.”
“It’s different, though,” Crowley said. “You know it’s different.”
“Yes. Humanity doesn’t get the benefits of functional immortality,” Aziraphale replied. Crowley made a noise of outrage, but didn’t speak. “I’m not about to get an infection, you know. The rate at which I heal depends on whether or not I’ve had my miraculous abilities bound, not whether I've had enough food, or water, or sleep. I don’t think I can even exsanguinate- not while I’m Upstairs, at least. I certainly don’t pass out.”
“It’s different,” Crowley insisted, after a moment of wrestling his obvious rage back from the brink of incoherence. “And not like that.”
“How so, then?” Aziraphale asked. “Because I’m an angel?”
“Because they’re angels!” Crowley said. “They’re supposed to at least pretend to be good guys and leave the torture to us demons!”
“Many of the worst sorts of people we’ve seen here on Earth pretended to be good guys, if only to themselves,” Aziraphale pointed out.
“You’re not exactly making a good case for the mercy of the Almighty here,” Crowley said.
“I’m not trying to,” Aziraphale replied. “It’s all a free will thing, I suspect.”
“Excuse me?” Crowley reared back in shock.
“I don’t mean humanity’s free will,” Aziraphale said. “We both know how that happened, just like we both know how they ended up with fire and weaponry. I don’t think we need to say anything more on the matter.” He thought about it for a moment, and then for a moment more, if only because his first thought was that it was very strange to be on this end of the argument. “Actually, no, let’s say it plainly: you choose to give them that apple and I choose to give them that sword, and those weren’t the first choices we made either. At some point, I heard those Questions the same as you did, and where you had more questions to ask, I just snapped off a salute and stayed in formation. And there you have it, a demon and an angel.”
“What’s your fucking point?” Crowley snarled.
“My fucking point,” Aziraphale said, mainly to see Crowley jump at the swear “As you put it is that we clearly have free will. Inborn, no apple required. Just as humanity often uses it create these massive injustices, so can we. And so our people have done so, in Heaven and Hell. The Almighty doesn’t meddle with it down here, because at some point allowing people to find grace in fixing their own mess became preferable in Her eyes to flooding entire regions. Or instigating mass Falls when it comes to Heaven, I suppose.”
“So, what. God is just missing from the moral fabric of the universe, is that what you’re saying?” Crowley asked. "Not even judging people anymore, is She?"
“I’m saying I don’t know where God is, and I don’t know that anyone does know where She is,” Aziraphale said. “No angel save for the Metatron has claimed to hear Her for thousands of years, and when last I spoke to him he claimed that the War was imminent and imminently to be won by Heaven. I actually think he might have been lying to us about having a direct line, possibly for the entire time he’s been the Metatron.” He paused for a moment. The silence that followed seemed shocked, though that might have been because Aziraphale was so shocked. He hadn’t ever been quite able to articulate that little niggling doubt of his before. “I don’t know where God is,” he repeated. “But I don’t think She’s in Heaven anymore than She is on Earth.”
But Aziraphale didn’t want to hear it. “For Earth’s sake, Crowley,” he snapped. “Do you not remember Brazil in the 17th century? What was the mortality rate there, one in five? Of the people who made it to Brazil- the people who survived being kidnapped and taken to the coast and put on those ghastly ships, one in five died, every year, year after year after year. If God was going to intervene, wouldn’t She have done it for that?”
Crowley stared at him, slack-jawed. “We went to Brazil,” he said dumbly.
“Yes, we went to Brazil!” Aziraphale cried, throwing his hands in the air. “You cannot possibly have forgotten that.”
He didn’t normally sleep himself, and he’d been very grateful for it, in Porto Calvo. Crowley had slept in the bedroom he’d kept every so often, and he’d always had the most awful nightmares. He was still having them, every now and again.
“We went to Brazil,” Crowley said again. “It was my idea. You didn’t want to go, not at first. You said that if you left without getting permission, you’d get another note from Gabriel.”
“My dear,” Aziraphale said helplessly. “You’ve never, in six thousand years, ever persuaded me into doing anything I didn’t already wish to do.”
“And then you got recalled,” Crowley said. “You said you had to report in, first to Recife, and then you disappeared entirely, I didn’t see you again for decades-”
“And then, when we did meet up again, you had this whole litany of- of reprimands. That you’d been subjected to. It was- what was it.” Crowley frowned, thinking. They had very good memories, the two of them, but it sometimes took time and effort to retrieve them with any amount of clarity.
Aziraphale knew he should say something. He really should. He just had no idea what to say.
“A strongly-worded note from Gabriel, a sharp rebuke from Michael, a harsh upbraiding from Uriel, and a severe censuring from Sandalphon. Did I get that right?”
Part of the problem was that a part of him still wanted to provide the party line, as it were. Oh, it was my fault. I shouldn’t even have been on the continent.
“How did that even work, Aziraphale?”
I, the undersigned, understand my failings and accept their consequences. It was right there on every reprimand acknowledgement form he’d ever had to fill out.
“Did they draw lots to see who got a go at you first? Call in a seraph to heal you in between bouts?”
“I’m not sure I should answer that,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure you should!”
“If I tell you, will you promise to drop it?” Aziraphale asked.
“I can promise you that I’m not dropping it until you do!”
“When a reprimand is compounded like that, there’s an order it goes in. Bruising implements first, and then those which leave welts, and finally those that are meant to cut through the skin. Healing is done afterwards. It’s- it’s part of the Wing Code of the Heavenly Host.”
“Quite the slap on the wrist, you called that!” Crowley spluttered. His face was very nearly the same shade as his hair.
“As you may recall, I also said that it was worth it,” Aziraphale said. “And that was not a euphemism. It was true. It was true for all of it, especially Brazil.” Like so much of what they did, he couldn't be sure they'd actually accomplished anything, but he'd like to think their influences had done something. A few less people dying in pain and humiliation, a few more people dying in freedom, a few more years for Palmares, even- though that had been more on Crowley's end of things. Aziraphale had stayed in Porto Calvo as a priest, helping out with the victims of the smallpox epidemic and trying to prevent violence whenever possible; Crowley had disguised himself as one of the white settlers in the hinterlands who found the quilombos to be more agreeable trading partners than the Portuguese towns, and encouraged others to join in their number, particularly soldiers sent against Palmares who were on the fence about deserting.
“Was the slap on the wrist a euphemism too?” Crowley demanded. He narrowed his eyes, and amended his question. “What was that a euphemism for?”
“It wasn’t something additional that was done to me,” Aziraphale said. “It just means that I managed to rub the skin off my wrists in those manacles.”
“You thought I knew,” Crowley accused. “This entire time, whenever you would say something like Oh, no, I can’t, I don’t want another reprimand and I brushed you off, you thought I knew that you were being tortured!”
“And it was worth it,” Aziraphale reminded him. “Being on Earth, being with you- it was all worth it!”
“It was worth thinking that I was totally fine with you being tortured?”
“I didn’t think we had another choice! I don’t think we had another choice. If we’d tried to strike out on our own prior to Armageddon, they’d have killed us, and you know it.”
“I could have stayed away!”
“I’d have come after you,” Aziraphale told him. “It might have taken me a while to admit it, but you were one of the few things in my life that was worth Heaven. If you’d started avoiding me, I’d have found you eventually.”
“How can you be so calm?” Crowley almost sounded like he was begging. “How can you- I spent six thousand years telling you that you should go out and earn those reprimands, and you thought I knew what that meant. How-”
“Well I didn’t exactly earn the bulk of them for things I did with you,” Aziraphale told him. “You had nothing to do with the Library of Alexandria, for example.” He hadn’t wanted to be anywhere near Egypt after the plagues. As far as Aziraphale knew, he’d managed to avoid that part of Africa entirely since leaving Pi-Ramesse.
“But you thought I knew! You thought I knew, and that I was fine with it, and somehow you were okay with that?”
“Yes. Of course. What other option was there?” Aziraphale asked. “Besides, you made it perfectly plain that whatever Hell was doing to you was worse.”
Crowley stared at him in mute horror, his face suddenly draining of color. In the silence that followed, Aziraphale felt dread creeping upon him long before realization did.
He’d thought Crowley had known. He really had, since the beginning. So every dismissal, every snide remark about the reprimands he’d earned, it all fit because of course it would seem like nothing compared to Hell. Of course Hell would be worse than Heaven in their discipline. It was their job, to come up with new and terrible ways to brutalize people. He’d spent a great deal of time, back in the 1860s, wondering in spite of himself what ‘rude’ stood for in relation to ‘note’, and what could be even worse than that- what it could be that so terrified Crowley that he’d decided to keep a suicide pill handy instead of facing it again.
But Crowley hadn’t known. He’d sincerely thought that Aziraphale was being verbally lectured for every infraction. And he’d sworn up, down, and sideways that he’d never once thought to use that holy water on himself, and Aziraphale hadn’t believed him. Not up until just now.
“Wasn’t it?” Aziraphale’s voice sounded off, high-pitched and wobbly.
Crowley opened his mouth. It moved, but no sound came out. He didn’t think that was solely due to the ringing in his ears.
“Do you know,” Aziraphale said, after a moment. “I think I’m rather angry right now. I’m not angry at you-” That was a lie. He was angry with Crowley, a little bit, for digging this all up, but he wasn’t so far gone as to not recognize the sentiment as being extremely unfair towards the demon. “-but I am angry, so I’m going to get my outdoor things and take a walk. I should be back in an hour or so-”
“It’s two in the morning, angel,” Crowley protested.
“And, as I said, I’ll be taking my outdoor things. I’ll be armed, and I’ll be careful, but I need to leave for a bit to clear my head,” Aziraphale said.
“Okay,” Crowley said. “Okay. I’ll be here, when you get back.”
“Thank you,” Aziraphale said stiffly, and left the kitchen without further ado.
His outdoor things meant a small vial of holy water, a lighter that didn’t contain any hellfire but had been hexed viciously enough to give any angel a moment of pause, and, on the recommendation of Miss Anathema, a very sharp bread knife. It meant the little charms hanging from the circlet on his wrist which, upon breaking, would teleport him back to the shop, or to Crowley’s flat, or even to Jasmine Cottage. It also meant his coat, seeing as it was October and rather chilly.
He went off to St. James’ first, purely out of habit. It was closed, but that wasn’t why he ended up turning back at the gates. It was, rather, that they’d worn one another’s bodies at St. James’, and there he had watched Crowley being dragged off and thought Crowley had been prepared for it, for the wrath of Heaven.
He’d thought Hell would have worse in store for him. He’d thought he’d dodged quite the bullet, when he’d come to with nothing worse than a crack on the head and been taken to trial straight away. When Crowley had told him that he’d taken a few punches and then been left to stew before his execution, he’d thought Oh, they must have both been rather preoccupied with the arrangements. How fortunate for us.
He turned back around, though he didn’t go to the shop. He went up to the Regent’s instead. It was also closed, which also did not pose a problem.
It was nearly three by the time he reached the park entrance. He stopped, taking out the mobile phone Crowley had finally harangued him into getting, and laboriously typed I’m still out. I’m probably going to be out for a while longer, though I should still be home before sunrise.
Okay, was Crowley’s infuriatingly quick reply. I’m going to make us breakfast. I love you.
There was a very large lump in Aziraphale’s throat. It took him the better part of a minute to tap out his response. I love you too.
The gates opened for him, and he strode into the park, shoulders tight, teeth grinding together, hands clenched so tightly into fists that there would be little crescent-moon mark left by his nails when he finally opened them again. He didn’t jog- fuck you very much, Gabriel- but he did stride at a furious pace.
They didn’t come to the Regent’s very often. St James’ was closer, and since the reign of Charles II they’d grown comfortable in it. They’d met there quite often over the years. They had a usual bench. They had usual orders at the ice cream cart. They knew the ducks. They’d known the ducks’ ancestors, for that matter.
Crowley had asked him for holy water, in that park, and Aziraphale had thought he knew.
He didn’t just mean that he’d thought Crowley had known about what a reprimands meant. He meant that Aziraphale had thought he had known too, what it was that his friend was so frightened of when he'd made his request.
Heaven had been bad. It still felt strange to think it and not immediately have to bury the thought, but there it was. It had been a bad place to live, and on some level he’d always known that. And he’d always known, until this morning, that Hell was even worse.
Everyone knew that: the humans, Aziraphale, Crowley. Hell was supposed to be worse. It had to be worse.
And if Heaven could, at its worst, drive Aziraphale to have moments of such bleak despair that he wished for oblivion no matter what form that should take, then of course Hell had to have done the same to Crowley, and more often too.
It wasn’t that he’d ever wanted to die, precisely. And it wasn’t like it had happened very often either- three or four times, in six thousand years, he had wanted more than anything for the pain to stop. He would have taken the ability to pass out. He’d have taken being knocked unconscious. He just probably would have also taken hellfire, had it been on offer.
So, when Crowley had asked for holy water, he’d thought he knew why. He thought he’d understood, and he couldn’t stomach the thought of an existence without Crowley any more than he could stomach the thought of Crowley being put through so much pain that all that despair had followed him back up to Earth, and he’d panicked and they’d fought and not spoken for nearly eighty years.
So, he strode furiously around the park, until his shoulders unbunched and his jaw unclenched and he could force his fingers to uncurl from fists. He left the park just before it would open, and swung by that Turkish coffee place that burned the beans the way Crowley liked and ordered a large to-go cup, unsweetened and flavored with cardamom.
“I brought you coffee,” Aziraphale said, once he’d arrived back home.
“I might have gone a bit overboard with the waffles,” Crowley replied, gesturing back at the mess he’d made of the kitchen.
Waffle irons were, oddly enough, something Crowley had once tried to claim as a demonic influence upon the world. They were heavy, and most people who bought them would use them, at most, a handful of times a year. So, waffle irons would spend most of their time just taking up space and being a pain to drag out when they were needed- it was a mass frustration, if not quite as constant or widespread as was generally Crowley’s aim. Perhaps because of this, when Crowley had decided to learn to cook, he’d also decided to use the waffle iron as often as possible.
Thus far, Aziraphale had had no cause to argue with the results, particularly as he could now clean the kitchen with a wave of his hand without fear of the consequences for frivolous miracles. “I’m sure they’ll be wonderful, dear.”
They were, actually. They were pumpkin waffles, primarily. Crowley had also clearly minced some of those carrots Aziraphale had picked up on impulse- they’d been purple, he’d almost forgotten about how carrots used to be purple- and added them to the mix, along with raisins and a generous helping of cinnamon, brown sugar, and nutmeg. Aziraphale slathered his stack with clotted cream and blueberry maple syrup, and found the whole meal so agreeable that he nearly forgot that they still had a very difficult conversation ahead of them.
“These are delicious,” Aziraphale said. “You’ve really outdone yourself.”
“Thanks,” Crowley said. He was watching him avidly, and in a very different way than was his usual.
Eventually, Aziraphale finished eating and put down his fork, and Crowley put down his coffee cup.
“Shall we move this into the sitting room?” he asked.
“Yeah. Okay,” Crowley said, already standing.
They sat side-by-side on the couch, bodies angled towards one another and not quite touching.
“Before we get started,” Aziraphale said after a moment. “I’d like to remind you that I’m not with Heaven any longer. They don’t have any power over me, and this is all in the past.”
“Right. Yes. That’s true,” Crowley said. He’d put his sunglasses back on at some point, while Aziraphale had been out, but he took them back off again now. “And… Hell. It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t- it isn’t codified, like it is Heaven, apparently. Not for demons. There are plenty of torture chambers in Hell, but those are for human souls, not for us. For us… sometimes you mouth off to your boss and they smack you around a little. Sometimes someone with a personal grudge tries to jump you. But you’re allowed to fight back. It’s almost expected that you will. That’s how Dagon got her position, actually. One day she went into a meeting with Belial and she snapped- she snapped him pretty much in half, actually- and the next thing you know it’s Hail Dagon, Lord of the Flies. It wasn’t- it wasn’t nothing, but it’s nothing like what they were doing to you in Heaven.”
Aziraphale nodded. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“I just- I don’t know why you thought I would know,” Crowley said plaintively.
“It wasn’t a new development. It started right after Lucifer had been exiled, but before the Rebellion really kicked off,” Aziraphale told him. “Though, the euphemisms weren’t all in place, and I- I suppose that might have just been on the military end of things.” Which Crowley had not been, obviously. He’d been out in the firmament before he Fell, putting the finishing touches on the stars- an artist, not a soldier.
“I, uh- I Fell pretty early on,” Crowley told him. “Basically right after Lucifer. I might have been the second one, actually. I didn’t hear about anyone else Falling before I did, at least.”
“What?” Aziraphale asked, a bit taken aback. The second of the angels to Fall had Fallen in a group, and they'd all been rather strident about the rebel cause. The one who was now Beelzebub had been their leader. The idea that Crowley would take up a cause- an ideological cause, that was- just didn’t fit.
“We were friends,” Crowley said. “I just- we used to be friends, Lucifer and I. We used to bitch about the ambrosia and try and figure out why Earth and humanity were going to be so special when there was so much else in the universe. So, when he was exiled, I went up to Michael and wanted to know what it was that he’d done that was so bad, and why he was being left to suffer alone and she just sort of went Well, maybe he shouldn’t be alone then. Next thing I knew I was taking a swan dive into a pool of sulfur.” He shrugged. “By the time I’d managed to claw my way out, the Rebellion was over, and everyone had changed.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said. “I- I didn’t know that.” He’d always presumed that Crowley had fought in the Rebellion, for starters.
“Yeah, I think we’ve both made some assumptions here,” Crowley replied. They’d started holding hands, at some point, and he gave Aziraphale’s a squeeze. “I kept going over it, after you left. The last six thousand years. Do you know, I think you mentioned getting a note from Gabriel a good forty times, just since 1941?”
“That sounds about right,” Aziraphale said. He could probably go back over the memories himself, and get an accurate count, but he really didn’t want to. Gabriel had always been his most frequent concern- though, very rarely had the notes been any worse than the sort of beating a student at a mid-century boarding school might expect.
Crowley gave his hand another squeeze. “They were hurting you,” he said. “For six thousand years, they were hurting you. How did I not notice?”
“Oh my dear,” Aziraphale said, tugging at their joined hands. Crowley got the hint, and pulled his legs up on the couch so he could better lean his head against Aziraphale’s chest. Aziraphale wrapped his free arm around him, and buried his face in his hair. “We didn’t see one another very often during those first thousand years, you know. By the time of the Flood, I’d rather gotten used to it. It wasn’t- it wasn’t as terrifying, or upsetting as it had been in the beginning. It was just… business as usual. There was no reason you should have known.”
“But you thought I did,” Crowley said, his voice muffled against Aziraphale’s shirtfront. “You thought I knew, every time I told you to risk another note from Gabriel like it was nothing- why? Why did you let me do that? Why did you let me talk you into getting yourself tortured?”
“I didn’t think of it like that,” Aziraphale told him. “I just- I thought you were asking me to be a little braver, that’s all.”
“No one is that brave,” Crowley scoffed, before correcting himself. “No one should have to be that brave, much less be asked.”
“I thought you were facing worse,” Aziraphale reminded him. “We both did, and we both know that I did nothing to stop you.”
Crowley said nothing for a time. Neither did Aziraphale. He just held him close, and pressed the occasional kiss into his hair.
“You did try to stop me, though,” Crowley said at last.
“I never did manage it for very long, though, did I?” he asked.
“For a hundred and five years, you did,” Crowley said. “Over the holy water.”
Pressed as close as they were, there was no way to disguise how Aziraphale had tensed at the mention of it. For all that he’d been thinking about it earlier this morning, he wasn’t sure he was quite ready to discuss it.
“What would they have done to you, if they’d found out you’d given it to me?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale didn’t respond, not right away. After a moment, Crowley lifted himself upright so that they were facing one another again.
“You must understand,” Aziraphale told him finally. “There would have been no way to convince them that you wanted holy water for- for personal use.”
“Okay,” Crowley said.
“They would have presumed that you were procuring it for your side,” Aziraphale said. “So they could research it, and come up with some kind of counter-agent. It would have been treason.”
“So they’d have killed you,” Crowley surmised. “Like they tried to do after Armageddon.”
“And you got some for me anyway,” Crowley said. “Why?”
“Because I couldn’t stand- I couldn’t stand it if-”
He couldn’t stand it, if the humans Crowley had hired had slipped up and killed him- and one errant drop or one damp hand was all it would have taken. He would have been reduced to a smudge on the floor, and the thought was intolerable. That was what he was trying to say. And it was true. That had been the deciding factor.
But in 1967 he had cried, because he’d been certain he’d just given Crowley the means to end his own life. And in 1862 he’d cried, because he thought he knew, and he kept trying to imagine it, what terrible torments Crowley must have been subjected to in order to drive him to that. And in 1687 he had cried, because he was only halfway through his reprimand and already he could feel it, that terrible bleakness that narrowed the world down to nothing but pain he could see no end to. And in 48 BC he had cried, because as the agony of the rebuke had begun to fade he’d been left alone with only the feathers dislodged from his wings and the itching of dried blood for company and he would have given anything, anything, for it all to stop.
And now he was crying and Crowley was in his lap, arms wrapped around him saying “It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m here, I’ve got you, it’s okay.”
“I’m sorry,” he choked out.
“Don’t,” Crowley said. “Don’t. Don’t apologize.”
“I thought I was done,” Aziraphale gasped. “I thought I was done crying.” He buried his face in the crook of Crowley’s neck with a whimper.
“It’s okay,” Crowley said again, sounding close to tears himself. “Let it out, now. I’ve got you, you just- you can let it out now, okay? I’ve got you, you just let it out.”
So Aziraphale clung back tightly, and let himself be comforted.