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A Certain Kind of Gentle Terror

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There’s a certain kind of calm you build up after thousands of years. Crowley was intimately familiar with it, knew its precise size and shape, knew every curve and line and detail of its form. It was him, but slightly shrunken, hunched in on itself, skin sagging off of it as its muscles and bones had contracted; it was the him that shriveled in from his skin, curling up in the white-hot center of him and leaving the rest a hollow shell. It was the fact of that retreat, and it was the place he retreated to. It was the numbness and it was the desperate desire to be numb. It was calm, calm as an algae-choked, oil-slick lake, and just as flammable.

Crowley knew this calm well. It was what came, eventually, the one comfort he’d managed to hold onto. Probably because it wasn’t so much a comfort as an absence, a nothingness.

___

At his trial after the First War, his torn, lashed, and bloody wings on full display, kneeling manacled to the hard bleach-white floor, surrounded by the heavenly host that had come to watch the revolutionaries face justice, he’d begged. When it had been his turn to be condemned, and Gabriel had read out his sins and his sentence, and asked if he’d had anything to say for himself - yes, shuddering and gasping there in his torn robes, the cold, unfeeling eyes of a million angels on him, he’d begged.

Not to be forgiven, though. He’d had no hope of that. Not that they would listen, that they would understand, that he’d only been trying to ask questions and he’d never meant for any of this. No, as they leered down at his broken form he’d only had one thought, only one thing he could think to say.

Water, he’d rasped, through sandpaper lips. Please…

And they’d laughed. First the judges, then the jury, and finally the whole multitude watching, they’d laughed - as his weak, brittle sobs spilled out of his desert-dry throat, the hall of judgement had filled with their derision.

Water, Gabriel had said. Water! He asks us for water!

He’d stared around at them, then stared back at his fellow condemned, his fellow demons, and he’d felt as though the pain and the fear and the emptiness within him were going to tear him apart. He’d been sure he couldn’t stand this, that it wasn’t possible.

But the laughter had dragged on. And just as it seemed there was no more he could take, he felt prickling over his skin a strange, tingling numbness. Not physical numbness - he had no human corporation, in those days, that would automatically try to defend him from the worst pain - but a sort of spiritual retreat. He’d felt for a moment that he was watching this gruesome trial happen to someone else, far away. Or as though he was simply a pilot in his own body. The agony didn’t seem to belong to him, but to simply be something he was aware of. His sobs had stuttered to a halt, and, as he was dragged away to make room for the next defendant, he’d felt a dizzy sort of peace.

That had been the first time. And it hadn’t lasted very long. When they’d flung him into the pool of boiling sulfur, he’d screamed again, and when tar-black feathers had forced their way up from the mutilated skin of his once-beautiful wings, he’d cried, and when he’d been named Crawly and told to squirm through the dust of Earth and see if he could drag some of God’s new creations down with him, he’d fallen back to his knees and called out to God, pleading to be forgiven, to be taken to Heaven again. I want to come back, I can’t stand this, please, I called you Mother once, I want to come home…

And yet as time had dragged on in his new reality, as no forgiveness had come and his broken wings had been smoothed out into something less repulsive, as the pain deep in his bones had calmed its cries and become normal, the numbness had returned. After a particularly unpleasant temptation, or after a visit to the foul-smelling halls of Hell, or after some punishment or other for not being properly enthusiastic about his work - those punishments meant to remind him he was Fallen, to remind him of what the angels had done to him - it came back again and again. Each time for a little longer than before.

It went like this. Crowley would do something kind. He couldn’t always help it - he still did things without thinking, idiot that he was, still couldn’t keep a firm grip on his self-preservation instinct. A snap of his fingers would keep a child from falling into a river. A conjured coin would be passed to a beggar-boy, to pay for him to eat at an inn. Things he couldn’t stop himself from doing, hard as he tried.

And invariably sometime the next night he’d be dragged from his bed and hauled back down to Hell, blinded and berated, and then his hands fastened behind his back and his wings forced to manifest and claws sunk into them, tearing at the flesh and ripping out the feathers once again, while he clenched his teeth to keep from making a sound, kept his jaw locked tight against signs of weakness. He didn’t cry or beg. For the most part, he remained silent. And he certainly didn’t ask for water, though the burning air of Hell made him desperately want it.

And every time, as his breaths grew labored and his eyes began to stream, as he thought for certain this one he wouldn’t be able to endure, the numbness came back.

Eventually he began looking forward to it. He’d shut his eyes at the beginning and picture exactly what they’d do to him, and try to induce it early. It didn’t ease the pain, not really - he still felt it, he still ached with it when he returned to Earth, still couldn’t stand to look at his wings until they’d grown back - but it was a relief, still, mentally speaking. The brief loss of interest in how broken he was. And so he reveled in it, and as decades turned to centuries it grew and grew, like a cancer spreading its fingers outward and outward, from hours into days, days into weeks, until more of his life was consumed by it than not.

Once when he’d done something particularly heinous - saved a group of refugees hiding out in a church, of all the stupid things - they’d kept him in Hell for a week. They’d come close to tearing off his wings entirely, and only stopped themselves from doing so because they weren’t at all convinced he wouldn’t need another reminder like this sometime in the future. They’d kept him kneeling, head forced to stay bowed by a chain around his throat shackling him to the floor, and somehow they’d consecrated the ground so he could feel the burning pangs of holiness on his abused knees. You saved people in a church? Is that where you’d like to live, Crowley, in a church? Is that where you think you belong?

He’d said nothing. It was hard to tell whether this mollified them or made them angrier. It was hard to tell anything except that they enjoyed this, enjoyed wringing suffering out of him for his failures - enjoyed everything that reminded them how much power they held over lowly demons like him.

Eventually they’d let what was left of his corporation go back up to Earth, and he’d taken a long time to heal himself back into something presentable. That was far along in his relation to Aziraphale, so Aziraphale asked him where he’d been, what had been keeping him busy so long. He’d found it easy, in that moment, to lie. To say ah, just a meeting with my lot. You know we invented interminable board meetings? They talked about what I’m meant to be doing on Earth, I didn’t talk much. Nothing too unusual.

No inclination to admit the reality. He’d already mostly forgotten about it. The numbness had taken hold early and had yet to let go, and his major concern was saving face in front of the angel; he couldn’t bear to admit, here as he was strutting around in the latest fashion, his hair long and styled and lustrous, that he’d spent a weak heaving bloodstained breaths through his teeth as his hair was yanked out and his shoulders dislocated and his eyes filled with burning tears. It was over now - no point bringing it up.

And Aziraphale had looked entirely satisfied with his answer. Oh, I see. Well, I hope it won’t happen again for a while. I missed you.

_____

Aziraphale. Oh, Aziraphale. There was a certain kind of calm he’d built up around the angel, too. Because that day on the garden wall, when he’d heard I gave it away, his freshly bruised heart had been ready to crack in two. A rush of already-hopeless hope had swept through him, and the remaining pieces of his cracked soul had immediately, against his will, aligned to bend around this being for the rest of time.

Of course Aziraphale didn’t know this. Crowley could only imagine the horror on his face if he ever learned that a demon dared even think of loving an angel. That a serpent had the disgusting gall to care for a Principality. Of course he kept it to himself.

But, fool that he was, he was just as self-sabotaging here as everywhere else. He couldn’t simply stop seeing the angel, couldn’t resist every opportunity to seek him out, especially as centuries passed and he began to see that light in Aziraphale’s eyes every time he appeared, that sign that somehow, inexplicably, he was glad to see Crowley. When they met to see plays, when they went out for lunch, he enjoyed it.

Crowley couldn’t tear himself away from that. It was one of the only things that ever brought him any sort of pleasure, these days.

So what was he supposed to do when Aziraphale shot him a glare, when he asked him a question about God’s holy plan? When Aziraphale said, his voice suddenly sharp and chilled, you just don’t understand, and you don’t have the right to judge, you’re a demon? As if he’d forgotten the means by which the demons were cast out of Heaven in the first place?

What was he supposed to do? After all, if he was in Aziraphale’s position - still connected to the host, still filled with divine energy, still holy - wouldn’t he be desperate to hold on to what he had? Wouldn’t he flinch away from anything that might threaten his position? If he’d seen the Fall, wouldn’t he be willing to do anything to keep himself away from that edge? Of course he wasn’t willing to listen to Crowley’s questions. Of course he’d pull away, when Crowley tried to ask him.

And of course, when Crowley tried to reach for his hand, he’d release it. When Crowley got too close to him, he’d step away. When Crowley tried, insanely, masochistically, to crawl toward this angelic light, of course Aziraphale would cringe from his infernal darkness.

The heart-wrenching loneliness of it had almost killed him, in the beginning. But when he went to sleep on his own one night after an argument with Aziraphale, and cried for the first time since the days after his Fall, earth-shaking, salt-stained sobs that felt as though they had overwhelmed all his motor functions, he eventually felt a cold sort of numbness rising up from within him. Nothing that really made his misery less, but that made it manageable, anyway.

That numbness looked like staring at himself in the mirror, unfolding his ruined wings and staring at his unnatural eyes, and laughing at himself. Laughing bitterly and telling himself you’re an idiot, to even still have that hope knocking around inside you.

And slowly, over long, dragging years, he’d let it consume him. Let it fill his lungs, let it swim in his throat. He’d kept Aziraphale around, still squeezing every drop of joy he could from watching Aziraphale smile, watching him eat, protecting him from all the harm he was capable of protecting him from - but when Aziraphale spurned him, over and over again, eventually he no longer felt it. His heart froze over. It didn’t matter.

He’d do something kind for Aziraphale. He’d let himself taste that beauty for a moment. Then, the following night, he’d be dragged back down to Hell and punished for his audacity. He’d limp back to the surface, pull himself shivering back together, and go on. Aziraphale never knew. Eventually he stopped feeling any of it.

Only once did he ask Aziraphale for water. On a bridge, while they were feeding ducks, when Crowley had just spent a sleepless night consumed by fear of what would happen if the Arrangement was discovered. But that had been a very different type of wanting water, a very different, much darker desire. Born of the realization, when he was down in Hell’s depths, when the pain had driven him out of himself, that he didn’t much care whether he lived or died.

Aziraphale had refused at first. Eventually he’d given in, but seeing the anguish in Aziraphale’s eyes when he’d handed it over had convinced Crowley, at least, that he wouldn’t use it on himself unless he could see no other option.

And then he smothered that pain, along with all other pain. Didn’t matter.

Eventually the world turned grayscale. Crowley floated a few inches above it, watching himself suffer but no longer making any move to protect himself. No, it didn’t lessen the pain. But it was so, so welcome anyway.

_____

It wasn’t pretty, when it all came crashing down.

It started on the bus. When they got on together, and Aziraphale sat beside him rather than in front of him - a little concession to the decision he’d made, to the side he’d chosen. Crowley leaned his head against the window, staring out into the night, thinking about tomorrow.

They’d come for him again. Heaven would come for Aziraphale. He didn’t know how he’d be able to save his angel again - didn’t think it was possible. And he’d never had any illusions about his own chances with Hell.

Then Aziraphale took his hand. Soft fingers closing over his bony ones, the most intimate gesture they’d ever shared.

Crowley looked down at it with mild interest.

“We’ll have to talk, when we get back to your flat,” Aziraphale murmured. “About our plans.”

“Mmmm.” Crowley had no bright ideas. Heaven and Hell might have been induced to stand down in the face of an unwilling Antichrist and three discorporated Horsepeople, but that wouldn’t stop them from killing the angel and demon who had helped it happen. That wouldn’t stop them from getting revenge, and calling it justice, and calling it “written.”

Aziraphale gave Crowley’s hand a squeeze. “Crowley.”

He looked up at Aziraphale, somewhat lazily, unable to motivate himself in his exhaustion to look properly interested.

“Whatever happens,” he said, earnest, “I’ll be by your side. You understand that, don’t you? I’ll never leave you again.”

Crowley nodded, an automatic gesture. Kind thing for the angel to say. It didn’t matter that it was a promise he couldn’t keep, even if he really, truly meant it. Crowley could appreciate the words without letting them pierce him.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” said Aziraphale, a moment later.

Crowley shrugged and turned his face back to look out the window. “Thinking it’s going to be a long ride to my flat.”

Aziraphale was silent.

“When we get there,” said Crowley, “we’ll probably just sleep, yeah? Leave any celebrations for the morning.” If they got a morning. If Crowley got a morning before the demons took him back down for his final, unending punishment.

“Yes,” said Aziraphale’s voice. It sounded far away. “Rather.”

And then they didn’t speak again until they reached Crowley’s flat, where their hands unclasped again - it was a relief for Crowley, if he was honest. The gentle pressure of Aziraphale’s palm had been beginning to gnaw at his heart, needling him with thoughts, stupid fantasies of Aziraphale putting his arms around him, kissing him, cradling him to his chest. And, at the same time, the other image of Aziraphale pulling away again. The pain that would still come when this brief moment of contact ended, though he’d grown indifferent to it long ago.

He didn’t look at Aziraphale as he made his way to his bedroom. “There’s a sofa, if you want to sleep. If not, there’s a stocked fridge. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Aziraphale didn’t respond. Crowley’s thoughts all turned toward his bed. It had been a long day, exhausting. The willpower it had taken to keep his flaming car together, to make it to Tadfield, to face down Satan while encouraging Adam, all after he’d believed Aziraphale was dead - it was the most he’d had to shoulder in a long time.

It had taken a toll on him that he’d forgotten things like that could take. He needed time, to make sure his numbness wasn’t going to slip. It wouldn’t do to give back in to vulnerability this close to the end. He needed darkness, and quiet, and peace for a moment.

He entered his bedroom without turning on a light. He sat down heavily on his bed, and bowed his head, resting it heavily in his hands. He rubbed his eyes hard with his knuckles.

How long did he have? It wouldn’t be tonight, he decided. Hell needed to get itself in order first. They needed to get the demons back under control. They needed to prepare his trial. He was sure he knew what the ending of it would be - whether they tortured him first or not, it would end with holy water. No demon who had strayed this far from the path could be allowed to live. And it was almost a nice thought, knowing he wouldn’t have to survive this another time, knowing that this would be the end. The end of everything at last.

No, he didn’t want the end - his stupid heart couldn’t really get him to want it, not when the world held so many beautiful things just out of his reach, little delights he could keep pursuing given time, not when Aziraphale existed and stood beside him against the universe. Of course he couldn’t really want to die. But when the powers of Hell took him back down to show him his place for the millionth time, it was still comforting - sick, twisted as it was to think - that the pain would not be infinite this time.

That was a thing his numbness could cause him to bear.

With a deep, dragging breath, he prepared to lie down and get the sleep he could.

“Crowley?”

Crowley blinked. He looked up; Aziraphale stood in the doorway, outlined against the light from the hall. His face was shrouded in shadow, but Crowley saw his soft hands twisting together over his stomach.

“What?” he asked.

“I…” Aziraphale looked a little lost. “Well, I - I don’t really fancy sleeping on the couch.”

Crowley frowned. “You want me to sleep on the couch?”

“No. That’s not - no.” Aziraphale exhaled. “That’s not what I mean.”

He took a step closer, and Crowley felt tension creep into his shoulders. He didn’t know what this was, but he wasn’t prepared for it. They were in a dark room, together, and Aziraphale was approaching, not drawing back, and in six thousand years that had never been the way things worked.

“I thought I was going to lose you, today,” said Aziraphale softly. “I thought… I thought I’d waited too long, to choose you, and that I’d run out of time.”

Crowley looked down again. His eyes fastened on his lap.

Aziraphale stepped forward again, and then he knelt. He came into view when he did, below Crowley, and the sight of him kneeling - of Aziraphale, his angel, this most beautiful and gentle of Heavenly souls, kneeling on the floor of his flat nearly wrenched his heart out of its stupor. He had to work to settle himself, to fit the numbness back over his soul.

“My dear,” Aziraphale whispered, “was I right? Is it too late?”

Crowley raised an eyebrow.

“Have I -” Aziraphale’s cheeks colored slightly. “Have I waited too long? To tell you what I feel about you?”

“What do you feel?”

Slowly, almost gingerly, Aziraphale reached out again toward Crowley’s hands. Crowley frowned, the wheels in his mind spinning slowly as Aziraphale took them tenderly in his, holding them to his chest.

“Crowley,” he said, “I love you.”

Of all the astonishing wonders in the universe, surely the strangest was that Crowley was not surprised. That the words, which he’d fantasized about hearing from Aziraphale’s lips for centuries, caused no spark of shock at all, no sudden flare of joy. Instead his eyes dropped heavy to their joined hands again, and all he could feel was an undefinable bleakness, coupled with a sinking in his heart.

“Oh,” he said. Just that.

Aziraphale sighed. “I am too late, then.”

Six thousand years. By now when he heard those words they landed like lashes on his shoulders, one after another, hot and precise. And he didn’t care. He couldn’t bring himself to care, though the declaration should have been all he ever wanted. Or at the very least it should have broken him.

“Yeah,” he said at last. “S’too late.”

He couldn’t believe he’d said it. But he knew it was true, still, knew there wasn’t anything Aziraphale could do for him. No way to help. He looked up again to see that Aziraphale’s eyes were glistening with tears.

“Oh, darling,” Aziraphale whispered. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been so cruel.”

“Not your fault, really,” said Crowley, and he was shocked at how steady and even his voice sounded, how words came out of him still so easily, without a trace of the emotions beneath them. “I wouldn’t wish Falling on my worst enemy. You were right to be scared of it.”

“I’m an angel,” said Aziraphale quietly, voice trembling. “I ought to have been brave. I ought to have been thinking of you, not of myself.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Crowley. It didn’t.

They’d sacrificed themselves to save the world. Maybe that was a nice enough ending, for Crowley. Maybe that was the best ending he could hope for. And Aziraphale saying he loved him - what a sweet gesture, here at the end of things, when it no longer made any difference. This was the most Crowley could ever have asked for. He should be grateful, as his own doom spiraled toward him.

This was how his story reached its tragic conclusion. Oh, he couldn’t really be grateful. But he almost was. He was almost detached enough for that.

Looking as though he were crumbling, Aziraphale released Crowley’s hands, sagging to the floor. Crowley wanted to weep to see his angel in that position. He wanted to scream at Aziraphale to get up, to turn and leave him, to be happy and free and leave the grieving to one who could bear it. But Aziraphale didn’t move.

“Well,” he said at last, “I won’t - I won’t force myself on you. But I’d still like to know we have a plan, before I go to sleep.”

“Plan for what, angel?” His voice was weary. “You don’t really think we’re going to get away with this?”

Aziraphale still looked on the verge of tears. “I’d like to believe we can.”

“That’s nice. Wanting to believe things.”

The words hung in the air as silence followed them. There had been no malice in their tone, no bitterness - only a flat nothingness where emotion had been left behind. Crowley found he couldn’t even feel guilty for the pain that crossed Aziraphale’s face in their aftermath. It was all just more pain to add to the pile.

“Look, we can make a plan,” said Crowley dully. “We can do some sort of defensive magic. It probably won’t stop the forces of the universe, but I guess there’s no harm in trying.”

Aziraphale drew in a shaking breath and sat back. “Yes. Well. I don’t really think defensive magic is going to cut it.”

Crowley frowned. “What are you suggesting?”

“I think we need to consider how we can outsmart them.”

Interest was too strong a word for what Crowley felt. But he’d spent too long watching the angel, observing him, and he knew now from his expression that the beginning of an idea was formulating in his mind.

“It’s holy water, isn’t it?” said Aziraphale. “That’s going to be your punishment?”

“Most likely.”

“Well,” he said, slowly, “given what Agnes Nutter’s prophecy said - ‘playing with fyre’ - I’m guessing mine will be hellfire.”

Aziraphale’s calm when he said this - his utter lack of horror at the idea that his fellow angels were planning to murder him - made Crowley’s heart skip in a way it hadn’t yet. He blinked and shook his head slightly. “You - hellfire, really?”

“Well, it is the only method I know to kill an angel.”

“You really think they’ll…” A stupid question. A stupid thing to be surprised by. Didn’t he know full well what angels were like? Wasn’t he well acquainted by the bloodthirstiness that ran beneath their claims of righteousness? Of course they were going to kill Aziraphale, just as Hell was going to kill him. He worked to calm himself back down.

“Yes,” said Aziraphale simply. “Yes, and, as you know, I expect they’ll enjoy it.”

Enjoy it. Crowley’s breath turned shallow.

“We know each other quite well, don’t we, Crowley?” Aziraphale looked up at him, hesitancy in his eyes now. “I daresay I could… well, I don’t know what the side effects would be, there’s no precedent for such a thing as far as I’m aware, but…”

“Spit it out,” said Crowley, a little more sharply than he’d intended. “Whatever you’re plotting, just say it.”

Aziraphale looked down. “I thought we might try swapping corporations.”

It took a few seconds for the horror of that sentence to sink in. At first Crowley couldn’t picture it, couldn’t even imagine what Aziraphale was talking about - but the steady resolve in Aziraphale’s face, the way he seemed to hang back to gauge Crowley’s reaction, soon caught Crowley on to the words behind the words - and then the image, bright and terrifying against the backs of his eyes, of Aziraphale descending into Hell, looking like him, his white wings enfolded in artificial black and then -

“No,” he said, and his voice had risen, and there was something besides indifference in it for the first time. There was fear. There was anger. “No - no, absolutely not.”

“Holy water won’t have any effect on me. Hellfire won’t harm you. If we manage to convince them that we’ve grown immune, spent enough time on Earth that we’re no longer holy or infernal, then they might be afraid enough of us to leave us alone.”

“No.” Crowley shook his head violently. “I’m not letting you go down into Hell. Come up with something else.”

Aziraphale let the silence between them drag again. Crowley’s heart had started to pound, painful against his chest. What was wrong with him?

“You’re worried what they would do to me, aside from killing me,” Aziraphale said.

Crowley didn’t speak. His throat had frozen shut unexpectedly. They couldn’t talk about this. Aziraphale couldn’t go to Hell. Crowley could get used to anything - had gotten used to everything, over all these millennia - but he couldn’t allow that. That was one thing he absolutely couldn’t be numb to.

Aziraphale made an aborted move with his hands, as though wanting to take Crowley’s again. Crowley was immensely relieved when he didn’t. He didn’t think he could take another gesture of affection right now. “Crowley, I’m not afraid of Hell.”

Crowley almost laughed. It was almost genuinely funny. “You’re an idiot, then.”

“I feared Heaven so long,” said Aziraphale, insistent, “because I thought they were right, and I was wrong. And I didn’t understand how to make myself more like them. But I know what Hell’s done to you. I’m not afraid of them. I won’t hesitate to stand up to them.”

Knew what they’d done to him? “You have no idea what they’ve done.”

Aziraphale hesitated. His eyes were fixed on Crowley’s face.

“You have no idea,” Crowley said, more forcefully. “You wouldn’t dare think of going to Hell if you knew.”

This new silence hung like lead balls, like iron chains between them. It was the coldest one yet, and also the most fraught, because Crowley could practically hear the thoughts tumbling through Aziraphale’s mind, he could feel the next questions coming, and he didn’t want to answer them, but he needed Aziraphale to understand, needed to make him see that he was better off leaving Crowley behind even now than trying to save him from that.

“What do they do to you, Crowley?” Aziraphale asked quietly.

“They torture me.” He looked away. “It’s Hell, angel. Shouldn’t need saying. I step out of line and they torture me.”

A beat. A breath. Crowley couldn’t bear to look back.

“What,” said Aziraphale, voice like a dry leaf battered by wind, “what, specifically -”

“Why do you need to know?”

Aziraphale’s hand touched the back of his. The contact surprised him enough that he looked back. Aziraphale’s gaze had solidified, his eyes gaining a steely quality that made Crowley’s stomach clench.

“I want to be prepared,” said Aziraphale.

Crowley yanked his hands away and stood up. He had to put distance between himself and Aziraphale. This was unacceptable. “No. Aren’t you listening? No. You’re not doing that. Why would you even - what would possibly make you want to -“

“If it will save your life, Crowley, I’m willing.”

Crowley turned to glare at Aziraphale, and this time, yes, there was malice in the glare. This time there was fire and fury. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” Aziraphale didn’t raise his voice. His expression was still gentle, as he gazed up at Crowley.

“Haven’t I told you it’s too late, Aziraphale? Don’t start loving me now. Don’t start saying you’d do anything for me. This thing between us isn’t going to work. And it’s not because - for Satan’s sake.” He ran his hands through his hair. “It’s not because I think you’re not earnest, or something. It’s not something you’re going to fix with some grand romantic gesture.”

“What is it, then?”

Crowley groaned in frustration and turned his back on Aziraphale. “It doesn’t matter.” How could he explain the numbness, how could he possibly make Aziraphale see that he was too broken to be loved? How could he make an angel understand that he couldn’t be repaired, and he didn’t care anymore about being repaired?

“You’ll get out of your punishment,” said Crowley, back still turned. “You’re strong. You’re a fighter, even if you don’t like admitting it. You’ll probably start some grand revolution up there.”

“Crowley, I can’t possibly fight against all of Heaven. And no angelic strength is going to get me out of Hellfire.”

“Then you’ll figure something out. You always do.”

“I have figured something out.” Crowley heard the shift, the creak of floorboards, that told him Aziraphale was getting to his feet. He heard the footsteps as Aziraphale approached him. He still wouldn’t look.

“Rubbish.” Crowley’s voice was thin. “Your plan is stupid.”

“It’s actually quite a smart plan, if you’d just give it a chance.”

Crowley didn’t speak. Aziraphale’s hand landed on his shoulder; somehow it was a gesture of almost as much intimacy as holding hands. The soft, calming touch of it. Crowley squeezed his eyes shut.

“Tell me,” Aziraphale said, “please, just tell me what they did to you.”

Maybe if he said it, the words alone would cause Aziraphale to understand. Maybe the horror of them would finally turn Aziraphale away from his stupidity. Already the explanation felt like bile in his throat, but maybe if he purged it - yes, maybe they could set this whole matter to rest.

Or maybe he didn’t have to use words. Crowley shut his eyes, and his mind traveled back over six thousand years of punishments - plus six thousand years of shoddy demonic healings, mostly just concealing his wounds, painful regrowths of feathers on abused skin. He let all of that unspool, just for a moment. He remembered everything.

And then he released his wings.

He didn’t look. Not at them, not at Aziraphale. He didn’t want to look; he never wanted to look at his wings again, and he avoided it whenever possible, keeping them hidden away. But nothing could block out Aziraphale’s gasp, the utter horror of it, the distress that bordered on disgust. Nothing could keep him, on hearing it, from seeing the twisted, scarred, mutilated mess he knew they were from Aziraphale’s eyes.

“This is what they do,” Crowley said. Still, oh, still he was so calm. “To remind you of Falling. They chain you to the floor and then they strip them, flog them, see how many bones they can break.”

“Oh, Crowley.

Aziraphale’s anguish was so palpable in his voice - the tears, Crowley could hear, were back in his eyes and clogging his throat - that Crowley found himself wanting to collapse. Aziraphale’s pain was so much worse than his own. Hearing Aziraphale break was something he’d have given the rest of his limited days up to torture to avoid.

“I’m used to it,” he said. “I don’t care about it anymore. I - I’m a demon, this is just what it’s like.”

And he waited, heart stuttering in his chest, for Aziraphale to leave, or to say he’d think of something else, or perhaps to start truly crying, crying in a way that Crowley was entirely unequipped to comfort him with. Crying in a way that would make Crowley have to flee, because it would tear him apart until there was nothing left.

Aziraphale’s footsteps circled around him. He came into view, eyes fixed on Crowley’s face.

The tears were gone. In their stead, etched over every line of Aziraphale’s expression, set into his mouth and his cheeks and his brow and blazing as though his flaming sword had manifested back in his hands, was a fury and a determination unmatched by anything Crowley had seen before.

“Crowley,” he said, “you’re never going back there. Do you understand me?”

“Aziraphale,” he said desperately.

“They are never hurting you like that again. They are never going to touch you. No one is going to touch you.” Aziraphale’s hands were balled into fists, but this was no burst of temper, no frightened ire; Crowley felt the rage coming off of Aziraphale in waves. A rage as deep as an ocean, a wrath to suggest divinity itself.

“There’s nothing you can do,” he tried, but his voice was weak in comparison to Aziraphale’s.

“You know exactly what I’m going to do.”

“Aziraphale, please.

“No.” Aziraphale came forward and took Crowley’s hands again, and this time the grip was not gentle. It was tight, and firm, and it felt as though Aziraphale’s curled fingers were sending blistering heat through his veins. “No, you listen to me, Crowley. You didn’t deserve this. The universe has been so, so cruel to you. You’re the most wonderful being I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and you’ve been being tortured for your kindness for six thousand years, and still you’re thinking of protecting me. I’ve never deserved you. No one could ever deserve you.” And Aziraphale’s hands moved up to hold Crowley’s face in them, and the contact was like fire, a loving, but a consuming fire. “I’ll take a million years in Hell myself before I let them take you again.”

Crowley gaped down at him. He couldn’t think of anything to say. Aziraphale’s hands, the heat in his eyes, the power behind his voice, they were sending cracks and fissures over the stones in his insides, and something was bursting to come through them, and he couldn’t let it, he knew he couldn’t let it, and yet he couldn’t figure out what would make it back down -

“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, “please. Let me protect you.”

He shuddered. His lungs were caught in an earthquake. “I can’t - I can’t be protected. They’ll come for me…”

“We’re cleverer than they are.”

“They won’t give up.”

“We won’t, either.”

He tried to push Aziraphale away, but found he didn’t have the strength, could do nothing but shut his eyes tight and clench his teeth and fight to stay under control. “Just don’t, Aziraphale!”

Tender fingers ran through his hair, and a tear slipped down Crowley’s cheek. Aziraphale leaned closer. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t -” oh, and there went his voice, breaking at last. “Don’t get my hopes up. I’m used to this. Don’t you understand? You’re going to destroy me if you let me hope.”

And with that, Aziraphale’s hands slipped from his face, and in the next moment warm arms were wrapped tight around him. Crowley gasped, fear cascading through him now like a waterfall, the instinct to run away so powerful that nothing but this embrace could have kept him still. He didn’t move. He didn’t reciprocate the hug. But Aziraphale manifested his own wings - white, pristine, gloriously soft - and wrapped them around him, and it was warm, so warm, and Aziraphale was so strong, and behind the fear and the pain there was something else struggling to break through.

“Please,” said Crowley, and he didn’t even know what he was begging for anymore.

Aziraphale released him slowly. His wings stayed out, still covering him, sheltering him in this tiny space with Aziraphale. With gentle hands Aziraphale guided Crowley back to the bed. Crowley felt powerless to resist. Whatever happened now, maybe he could regain his numbness if he accepted it.

“Sit down,” said Aziraphale.

Crowley sat. Aziraphale crawled up onto the bed behind him.

“Tell me if it hurts,” he said.

Crowley’s eyes widened. He couldn’t think of a reason to protest, could hardly think of anything between the moment he realized what Aziraphale was doing and the moment the first tender brush of angelic fingers sent a shock through the base of his right wing, at the junction where it met his back.

“Aaah -” he said.

Aziraphale stilled. “Does it hurt?”

No, it didn’t hurt. It was the first touch to his wings in sixty centuries that hadn’t hurt. And when he gestured, wordless, for Aziraphale to keep going, his hands were soothing, impossibly soothing over the rest.

Aziraphale had healed Crowley once before, in 1941, after he’d walked over consecrated ground to save him and his books. Back at the bookshop after Crowley had taken him there, Aziraphale had laid him out on his sofa and removed his shoes and washed his feet, slowly and gently, and healed the burned soles. It had felt incredible, then, the pain easing into relief and then glowing into a pleasant sensation that had made him feel light-footed for days afterward. Now as Aziraphale’s fingers traced over these millennia-old scars, pain he’d long, long ago stopped thinking about began to dissolve; old aches he’d grown numb to in the first years of his demonic existence were replaced with warmth and lightness. The raw, ravaged skin where no feathers had grown back eased into something firmer and stronger, and small, fluffy black feathers began to sprout over it, easily, in multitudes.

Aziraphale worked his way slowly through both of his wings, and the pleasure, the relief was enough to make his head spin. He couldn’t object to this. There was nothing in the universe that could make him object to this.

Aziraphale’s arms wrapped tenderly around his waist, and his chin rested on Crowley’s shoulder. “There, my dear. All done.”

Crowley sagged forward and began to sob.

“My darling.” Aziraphale didn’t let him go, didn’t release his hold. Crowley couldn’t bring himself to want him to. “My beloved. My beautiful, beautiful Crowley. I’m going to take care of you.”

Crowley’s shoulders shook; instinctively he wanted to bite down over his crying, to show a brave face, but Aziraphale wasn’t one of the demons who had tortured him. Aziraphale was holding him close and shielding him with his wings, and - he thought his heart would crack at the thought - he was safe here. Safe.

“I don’t want them to hurt you,” he whimpered.

“I don’t want them to either.” Aziraphale rocked him gently from side to side. “And perhaps they won’t. Perhaps they’ll try to execute me immediately, if they’re so angry at us both. That’s certainly what Heaven will do.” Aziraphale gave him a squeeze. “But if they hurt me, I’ll survive.”

He buried his face in his hands as his sobs overwhelmed his ability to speak. Aziraphale didn’t let go. Aziraphale was there as he collapsed into pieces at last, was there holding him together, was there murmuring sweet endearments into his ears as the stone in Crowley’s insides melted back into flesh. As his careful indifference floated up, up into wisps of smoke.

“I love you,” Aziraphale said, over and over and over again. “I love you. Crowley. I love you. I love you.”

“I love you,” Crowley said, and took Aziraphale’s hands, and kissed them with his salt-stained lips, kissed his soft palms, kissed his knuckles and his wrists and everything else he could reach, showering all the love he could on these angelic hands until he felt he’d emptied himself out.

This was too much. It was more than he’d ever dared to dream. How had this happened so quickly? Six thousand years building up his numbness - how had it all come crashing down in half an hour?

Aziraphale helped Crowley fold his wings back in, tuck them away. Then, as Crowley took deep, shaking breaths, Aziraphale drew him all the way up onto the bed, lying now curled up on Aziraphale’s lap, head propped up on his belly.

“What else do you need?” Aziraphale asked. “I’d like you to rest, soon, but I’ll get you anything at all.”

Crowley turned his face into the softness of Aziraphale’s belly. Still shaking. His head hurt from crying, and his mouth felt full of salt, and his throat felt raw.

“Water,” he whispered. “Please.”

In the next moment a cool glass was at his lips. Crowley shut his eyes and drank, taking it in slowly, not gulping at it but letting Aziraphale set the pace. Letting it enter him gently, and letting himself melt into Aziraphale’s comforting presence, and letting this simple solace smudge out, for a moment, the thousands of years that had come before it.

“We’re going to be okay, Crowley,” said Aziraphale, stroking Crowley’s hair. “I truly believe we are.”

And Crowley let himself believe Aziraphale. For tonight, for once, he let himself hope.