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Three weeks ago, the world failed to end. Aziraphale and Crowley had worn each other's bodies through their intended punishments and told their former Head Offices in no uncertain terms to sod off, and then they'd gone for lunch at the Ritz, and walked home through impossibly star-strewn streets, and kissed outside of the bookshop, and done a fair bit more inside of the bookshop, and life had moved on.

And Aziraphale was fine.

There was literally no reason for him not to be! He had no more orders. No more impossible rules. Crowley was by his side, they were finally together in the way that Aziraphale had longed for in ways great and small for longer than he'd even known what true longing was, and everything was completely and totally fine.

They were in the back room of Aziraphale's shop at the moment, Crowley lying with his head in Aziraphale's lap as Aziraphale stroked his hair with one hand and held a book with the other, only half-reading. They'd been there for several hours now, and Crowley had fallen asleep quite a while ago. Aziraphale didn't mind. He loved being able to look at Crowley openly, without having to worry about being seen in return. Loved to listen to the faint hiss in his breath as he slept. Loved to stroke his fingers through the demon's flame-red hair. It was softer than Aziraphale had ever expected it to be, softer than he'd imagined in all his… hundreds? Thousands? of years of imagining.

Oh, dear. It really had been at least a thousand years, hadn't it? More than that. They'd begun the Arrangement a thousand years ago, and Aziraphale knew he'd fallen in love well before that, even if he'd been reluctant to admit it to himself.

And he remembered what Crowley had said, when Aziraphale had first dared to breathe the words into being, whispered them against Crowley's lips.

"Always, angel. Since the beginning. Since the bloody Garden.”

He'd made Crowley wait for so very long, hadn't he? And, of course, Crowley had done it. He was kind, and good, and a far better creature than he had any right to be.

Far better than Aziraphale had ever been.

There was a quiet sort of grumbling from Aziraphale's lap, and he started slightly, looking down from his book to see that Crowley was gazing blearily up at him.

"You stopped," Crowley murmured. "The… petting… thing."

Aziraphale smiled, softly, gently. "I'm terribly sorry. Would you like me to start again?"

Crowley leaned back into Aziraphale's hand for a moment, then shook his head, sitting up with a stretch. "Nah. Thinking I'm gonna go check in on the plants today. Can't let them get lazy just ‘cause I'm not around."

"Oh," Aziraphale said. "Of course. We certainly wouldn't want your ferns getting any ideas, now, would we? Can't let the poor things think they're owed a shred of pity."

Crowley harrumphed, barely managing to hide a tiny smile in the motion. "You're not allowed to give me gardening advice, angel. Don't think I didn't see how you cocked up the Embassy gardens. Last time I let you anywhere near that much greenery."

Aziraphale laughed at that. "Well, I won't try to stop you, then."

"You'll be alright?" Crowley asked, standing up finally and snapping his fingers to put his jacket and sunglasses back on.

"Of course," Aziraphale said. "Take as long as you need, dearest."

"Love you," Crowley said, grinning and bending down to press a kiss to Aziraphale's lips.

Aziraphale kissed him back, drinking in the feel of him, the taste, before pulling back and smiling once more. "I love you, too, darling."

Crowley sauntered off, and Aziraphale kept the smile on his face until he'd heard the bookshop door close and the Bentley's engine start and roar away.

Then he sank back into the sofa, running a hand over his face and taking a deep breath.

Just the plants. Crowley just wanted to see to his plants. Of course. He quite loved them, despite whatever he might say to the contrary, and it made sense that he'd want to go back and look them over again more after three weeks of neglect. There was no reason to read any further into it. Absolutely no cause for concern.

And yet, that tiny, whispering voice in the back of Aziraphale's mind said, this is certainly the longest we've ever spent together at a time. It's the most physical contact we've had… well, ever, really. It's not impossible that he's just getting tired of seeing you. It's happened before.

Aziraphale quite firmly told that voice to hush, and turned his attention back to his book, rather missing the comfortable weight of Crowley's head in his lap, the feel of his hand in the demon's hair.

All of Heaven, it seemed, had tired of Aziraphale's company very shortly after he'd been created. Time hadn't been invented yet, not properly, at least, and so there was no real way to tell exactly how long it had taken. All Aziraphale knew was that, sooner rather than later, he began to feel rather… well, odd, to be honest. He felt like a bit of an outsider. And he noticed how the other angels, who had once welcomed him beatifically into their conversations, now shied away from him, turning their backs and casting only short, incomprehensible glances his way.

He hadn't particularly minded it, back then. After all, he'd been a Cherub. If he wanted so desperately to converse with someone, well, God was omniscient and omnipotent, quite capable of carrying on a conversation or thirty million while creating the universe from scratch. And She'd never looked away from him, never tittered behind Her hands, never regarded him as though he were… lesser, somehow. As though he were wrong.

Then, of course, Lucifer rebelled.

A third of the angels were cast out. Another third were killed. And the third that remained pulled back from one another, becoming cold and aloof, fear turning them to stone, hard as the celestial steel that they'd wielded.

Aziraphale had fought, of course. In the War. He'd had to. He had been given a flaming sword by the Almighty Herself. He'd led a platoon. He'd been good at fighting.

He'd hated every second of it, though. The screams of pain, the thick stench of spilled ichor– it smelt more like lavender than blood, and it flowed gold rather than red, but enough of anything can turn the stomach, and back then Aziraphale hadn't even known what blood was (and he still detested the scent of lavender to this day, not that he'd ever let anyone know that). He had hated the violence.

The killing.

Angels– renegade angels, but angels all the same, and it wasn't like it would have been better at all were they demons, Aziraphale knew that now– had fallen on Aziraphale's blade. Had burned and screamed and pleaded for mercy.

Aziraphale had granted it, wherever possible. Disarming instead of disabling, disabling instead of dismembering. But he'd had a platoon to lead, and platoon leaders could not be weak. Could not be squeamish. Could not be… well, could not be like Aziraphale. And so… and so…

He'd taken a rather severe blow to the leg, about halfway through the battle, and kept fighting through it. It had been a mistake, of course, just the first of many, and with Raphael dead, it had never healed quite right in his celestial form. With it, he'd gotten to be rather… out-of-shape, as it were, a bit too soft around the middle, and he supposed that all of the sweets likely didn't help matters, either.

(And, um, lose the gut. What are ya?)

Aziraphale shook his head fiercely, banishing the image of Gabriel from his mind's eye, though he didn't quite manage to get rid of the sick, twisting feeling in his stomach. That was alright, though. He’d been dealing with such a feeling, in one manner or another, since the start of the War. He could handle it. He was fine. Completely and utterly fine. After all, it hardly mattered anymore what anyone in Heaven thought of him, and besides, with what Heaven had wanted for the War, with some of the things they condoned on Earth, Aziraphale was fairly sure that he no longer wanted their approval.

But you did, that damnable voice whispered again. For six thousand years, you tried to please them. Made excuses for them. Helped them with whatever they wanted. You helped to kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden, for the simple mistake of wanting to understand. In Egypt, you were there. Sodom and Gomorrah. The Flood. The Crucifixion. War after war after "righteous" war, death after death after death. Billions of them. You just sat back and watched, shrugged your shoulders and pushed off the burden of blame. You could have helped.

Crowley always helped.

Aziraphale shuddered, giving up on the book and setting it down beside him, where Crowley had been laying not so long ago. The space was cold again already, all of Crowley's body heat having leeched out of it back into the air.

Oh, poor Crowley. He'd always been the better of them, ever since Eden, when Aziraphale had been too busy fretting over his own worries to do much else. Useless, even back then, and he’d only gotten worse with time.

With each of Heaven's atrocities, Crowley had protested. He'd fought back. He'd encouraged Aziraphale to do the same.

You can't kill kids.

Come to smirk at the poor bugger, have you?

You can't tell me that Lot of all people was the only one worth saving.

Bit of an overreaction, if you ask me. First offense and all.

There are no right people.

Aziraphale knew, better than he knew just about anything else, that Crowley was kind. And yet, he'd been forced to hide it, to shove it down, to throw up a sharp, prickly exterior to protect himself from a world, from a God, who seemed hell-bent (quite literally) on breaking him down.

And Aziraphale had helped with that, too. All the constant reminders. I am an angel, you are a demon. You are Fallen. Foul fiend. You're a demon, that's what you do. We're on opposite sides. He'd become one of the ones who made Crowley need his barriers. He'd been afraid, so afraid, of what might happen should they be discovered, and had resorted to trying to protect the one he loved using any means necessary–

No. Excuses were no use. He'd been a terrible friend, and there was no excusing that.

Aziraphale ran a shaky hand over his face, sucking in a deep breath. The guilt that had been sitting in the pit of his stomach for literally as long as he could remember was rising up, threatening to overwhelm him. He needed to get himself back under control. He needed to calm down. He was no use to Crowley as a blubbering, sobbing, self-pitying mess. No, the only way he could even possibly begin to make up for his mistakes would be to keep himself under control, and… be better.

He'd spent more than six thousand years doing his very best to be Good. He'd never done particularly well at it, of course. He was far too weak, and soft, and stupid, and self-indulgent. Gabriel would always offer his "suggestions" for improvement at every performance review, and Aziraphale could rather see his point about a good many of them. He enjoyed his bookshop, and he adored Crowley more than anything, and he wouldn’t even dream of trying to change that, but the rest of it…

He did eat far too much food, and he did rather employ too many frivolous miracles, and he was quite soft, and dusty, always lagging behind, a good hundred and fifty years out of date at all times. Slow and stupid and useless.

So very unlike Crowley. Crowley was sleek, and modern, and always on top of every new trend– as a matter of fact, he invented them, half the time. Crowley moved fast and lived loud, while Aziraphale plodded along behind him, dragging him down.

You go too fast for me, Crowley.

And the demon had waited. For six thousand years, he had waited, while Aziraphale struggled to get his act together, while Aziraphale brushed aside atrocities and hurt people and hurt Crowley, and still, after all of it, he loved Aziraphale all the same.

Aziraphale knew that Crowley wouldn't leave him behind. He never had, not even after so long, and he'd certainly had plenty of opportunities. Crowley wouldn't just abandon Aziraphale. About that, Aziraphale was absolutely certain.

Unfortunately, Aziraphale was just as certain that Crowley would, in fact, be better off if he did.

The certainty settled on him like a weight, pressing him down into the sofa, making his heart race and his lungs struggle for air that he didn't need. Crowley would be far, far better off without Aziraphale, without his incessant puttering about, without his aching slowness and his useless dithering and his complicity in so very many countless horrors, in wars and floods and executions and tortures and so, so, so many other things, images that swam before Aziraphale's eyes and made his heart race, made his throat close and his eyes sting. Oh, Lord, his corporation was malfunctioning, he’d never actually, properly cried before and had honestly thought himself incapable and he didn't know how to stop it and he was quite certain that if he lost this body now he'd never get another one and he couldn't go back to Heaven, couldn't face Gabriel again, couldn't bear to stand there under the stares of the angels who remained, couldn't bear to face their chatter yet again, to hear bitten-off recollections of all of his failures.

There was no humiliation quite like being the sole imperfection among ten million perfect beings.

It made sense, in its own way. Aziraphale had been the one to allow Crowley into the Garden in the first place, and while he tended to believe that free will had done the humans more good overall than ill– or, at least, the two were relatively in balance– the rest of Heaven hadn't quite seen it the same way.

He still had the scars, of course, small and barely-noticeable though they were in his human form. From the Demotion down two Spheres, from Cherub to Principality– after all, Principalities only needed one head and two wings, rather than four of each, and the extras had to be removed somehow. The marks had carried over to this new body that Adam had given him, which did make sense. The wounds had been caused to his celestial form. Much like the scar on his leg, they would follow Aziraphale for the rest of time.

Another permanent reminder of the consequences of failure.

And yet, it had happened again, and again, and again, and again. Over and over and over again, throughout the millennia, Aziraphale had failed. In Egypt, in Sodom, in Golgotha, in Athens and Rome and Paris and London and every part of the world, every task he'd been sent. He'd failed.

He'd failed Crowley, too, time and time again. Whenever the demon sought him out for reassurance, for comfort, and all Aziraphale had offered were vague platitudes about Ineffability and Plans and the righteousness of Heaven. Crowley had asked Aziraphale for protection, for holy water, and been denied. He'd asked for even the barest scrap of love, over and over, and each and every time Aziraphale had rebuffed him.

Oh, how stupid he'd been.

Crowley certainly deserved better. Better than Aziraphale. He deserved someone who could love him properly, someone strong and kind and caring, someone who could protect him in turn, like he'd protected Aziraphale for so very long. Crowley deserved someone who wouldn't fail him, someone who could keep up, someone clever, someone good.

And Aziraphale was none of those things.

He was soft, and weak, and complicit, and cruel, and stupid and pathetic and utterly, utterly useless. And–

The shop door opened with a bang and the jangling of the bell, and Crowley's voice sounded, bordering on desperate. “Angel! Aziraphale, are you alright?"

Aziraphale's breath hitched, and he fought to control himself, to right his hunched back and order his rebellious heart and lungs to calm. There were tears on his cheeks, and his hands had clenched so tightly into fist that his nails had drawn blood, and the healing miracle he directed at them just wouldn't take.

"Aziraphale!" Crowley yelled, sprinting toward the back room.

"I'm fine!" Aziraphale called back, wiping desperately at his face and praying that the blood wouldn't smear, that he could wrest himself back into some semblance of control. Crowley deserved better than to have to witness his pathetic little breakdown. "I'm fine, Crowley, I'm completely alright. Don't worry about me, please."

"You don't feel fine," Crowley said, and he'd stopped sprinting, at least, but he hadn't stopped approaching. "Don't sound fine, either. And– shit, it smells like blood, angel–"

"Crowley, don't–!" Aziraphale cried, but it was too late. Crowley burst into the back room, his sunglasses missing and his eyes wide and panicked.

"Angel?" Crowley asked, his voice quiet, confused. Afraid.

"Like I said, Crowley, I'm quite alright," Aziraphale said again, clasping his hands together in front of him to try and hide his palms, the way his fingers shook, the still-too-fast beating of his heart and panting of his breath. "Don't worry about me. How were the plants?"

"I felt you panicking,” Crowley said, taking a few steps closer, his brow furrowed, scanning Aziraphale's face. "What happened?"

Aziraphale closed his eyes, sucking in a deep breath. If Crowley had felt that… He really ought to learn to keep better control of his emotions, oughtn't he? No need to worry the poor demon, he most certainly had enough to worry about on his own without Aziraphale’s problems joining the mix.

Aziraphale opened his eyes, blinking back more useless tears, and smiled slightly. “I'm alright, my dearest."

"Don't lie, angel, please," Crowley said, taking another step forwards and sinking to his knees in front of Aziraphale. "We said we wouldn't lie to each other, right? We promised it. Aziraphale–"

Aziraphale flinched. He had, hadn't he? He'd made a promise not three weeks ago, and he'd already broken it. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Crowley, I won't– I'll do better, I promise, I didn't mean– I'm sorry, I'm so sorry–"

"Waitwaitwait, shit, no, that's not– fuck, no, angel, don't be sorry, why are you sorry?" Crowley said, reaching out and taking one of Aziraphale's hands.

Aziraphale's breath hissed in, and he drew his hand back before he could stop himself, not wanting Crowley to see the tiny crescent-mark cuts he'd dug into his skin.

"Aziraphale?" Crowley asked again.

"I'm sorry," Aziraphale breathed. "I can– I'll do better, in future. I know it's– but I promise, I can try, for you. I'm sorry–"

"I'm completely lost, here, angel," Crowley said, not moving to reach for Aziraphale's hands again. "What happened? What's wrong? Did I say something?"

Aziraphale let out a tiny laugh, and it turned into a sob halfway through. He clapped a hand to his mouth, squeezed his eyes shut, and shook his head, wanting Crowley to understand and yet hoping desperately that he wouldn't.

"Angel," Crowley said, yet again, his voice almost pleading.

"You haven't done anything," Aziraphale choked out, forcing himself to speak through the lump in his throat, over the pounding of his pulse in his ears. "You haven't done anything wrong, Crowley, and that– that's exactly– that’s why, it’s all just been so…”

"Wait, hang on," Crowley said, his brow furrowing. "You're… this is because… because things are… too good?"

"Because you're too good," Aziraphale said. "Because for six thousand years, you've been nothing but patient with me, and generous, and kind, and so, so good, and I've spent the whole time making you miserable, I hurt you, Crowley, and you deserve so much better–"

"Stop. Aziraphale, please stop," Crowley said, reaching out to take Aziraphale's hands again, and this time Aziraphale let him, managing at least to close the dents in his palms enough that they wouldn't bleed all over poor Crowley.

Crowley. Crowley was still talking. “First off, you never made me miserable. Why would I keep hanging out with you if you’d made me miserable? I may be stupid sometimes, but I’m not that much of an idiot, yeah? I don’t– I couldn’t possibly do better than you. Not in a million years. You’re the best, always have been. You’re literally an angel–“

Aziraphale bit back a frantic sort of laugh, barely catching it and turning it into a gasping breath. No, it wouldn’t do at all to break down right now, not while Crowley was here, being so wonderful and gentle and kind. Aziraphale had just promised to be better, he wasn’t about to fail that promise so quickly!

Crowley stopped. “I don’t understand. What happened? Did someone hurt you? I was only gone for an hour.”

He sounded so afraid, and Aziraphale was reminded suddenly of nightmares of burning books and fire in Heaven and attacks by angels in the night– he could see the ghost of the panic that always haunted Crowley when he awoke from those dreams in his golden eyes now.

Get a grip on yourself, you useless angel, Aziraphale scolded himself. Don't force him to bear your problems on top of his own. You should be better than this. You should be stronger than this. You must not worry poor Crowley any further. Be better.

Aziraphale smiled, as gently as he could and only slightly watery. "No one hurt me, dear. I promise. As I said, I was just… lost in thought for a little bit. Don't you worry about me, alright?"

"Angel…"

"Crowley. I'm fine." And then, to underscore his point, Aziraphale untangled his hands from Crowley's and patted his knees before standing. "Right. Shall I make some tea? Or would you prefer coffee? Cocoa? How were the plants?"

"Waitwaitwait," Crowley said, leaping up and blocking the path to the kitchenette. "Aziraphale, stop. What– why– why won't you talk to me?"

Aziraphale blinked. "I don't… I don't want to upset you."

"Bit late for that!" Crowley snapped.

Aziraphale flinched, the guilt clawing its way back up his throat like bile. "I– I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I’m so sorry–"

"No, no, fuck, nonono, don't be sorry," Crowley said. "Angel…" He sighed, took a step back, ran a hand down his face. "I… you've been so… the last few weeks, you've… you've helped me. A lot. With… all the nightmares, the… being afraid all the time, and... all that. You've… I don't know what I would've done, without… without you here. And… I dunno, angel, I just… I wanna help you, too. If I can. Pay you back, y'know?"

Aziraphale let out a soft laugh. "Dear, I've been paying you back. How many times have you saved me over the years? Regardless of the risk to yourself. It's… it's high time I returned the favour."

"See, that!" Crowley said, pointing at Aziraphale. "That! That's what I'm talking about, angel. D'you know what would have happened to me, in the nineteenth century, if you hadn't been doing both of our bloody jobs while I slept?"

Aziraphale blinked. "Well… yes. That's… that's why I had to, dear."

"You didn't," Crowley said. "You didn't have to. You didn't owe me anything. It would've been so easy for you to just… ignore it. Forget about me. Claim the wins for Heaven and move on, leave me to my fate. But you didn't."

"Of course not!" Aziraphale protested, completely taken aback by all of this. "I couldn't do that at all! Hell would have destroyed you."

"No, they wouldn't have," Crowley said. "Not just for slacking off. Shit, if I'd worked for Belphegor instead of Beelzebub, I might've gotten a commendation for sleeping for sixty years. It wouldn't've been fun, if they found out, but it also probably wouldn't have been worse than maybe a month tops in the Pit, depending on how long they’d let me get away with it before dragging me down."

"Dearest–"

"Wait. Just… hold on, yeah?" Crowley took a deep breath, then forged ahead. "You, on the other hand. What would Heaven have done to you, if they'd found out you were doing temptations? Filing paperwork for Hell? Signing reports as a demon?"

Aziraphale blinked again. "Well… I mean, that would have been considered treason."

"Right," Crowley said. "Like the end of the world, yeah? They'd have killed you for it."

Aziraphale nodded.

"I didn't know that, back then," Crowley said. "When I woke up, and saw all the copies you'd made of reports you'd filed, I didn't know what you were risking for me. You risked eternal extinction just to save me a little bit of pain."

"Crowley–"

"That's not the only time," Crowley said, barreling over Aziraphale's half-formed thoughts. "When you came to warn me, in Sodom? If I'd been smote– smitten? Smited? Whatever– if I'd been hit by Sandalphon, I wouldn't've been able to crawl my way back out of Hell for at least a hundred years. During the Inquisition, you saved me from four different auto-da-fe's, and one of them had real holy water, I could feel it."

Aziraphale flinched at the mention of holy water. He had thought–

"Speaking of holy water," Crowley said, his voice softening slightly. "You gave that to me, even though you obviously didn't want to, and it saved my life, angel. I could never have taken Hastur and Ligur together, not in a million years, and I only managed Hastur alone because he's an idiot. Your holy water saved my ass, and then you came back, without a bloody body, and you found me and gave me a kick in the pants and sent me off to Tadfield, and you helped Adam save the world."

"I tried to kill–"

"And who told you to do that?" Crowley asked, taking a half a step closer. "Who suggested it in the first place? Who yelled at you to pull the bloody trigger? We're both just as guilty of that one, and Adam forgave us both, remember? We thought it was the only way. And then, when Gabriel and Beelzebub showed up, you were the one who got them to back off, to leave Adam alone. You were so clever, angel, it blew my mind. And then, with Satan, when I gave up, you pushed me on. When Adam was scared and lost and confused, you bought us time, and you gave him hope and a chance and an idea. You helped save the entire bloody world." Crowley closed the rest of the distance towards Aziraphale, taking his hands once more, ever so gently. "You've saved me just as often as I've saved you, angel. We're already even, yeah? And I love you, and I want to help you, like you've been helping me. So… will you talk to me? About what's bothering you?"

Aziraphale felt the tears welling up again, and he forced them back as firmly as he could. “Crowley, I love you ever so much.”

“I know,” Crowley said, lifting one of Aziraphale’s hands to press kisses to his knuckles. “I love you, too, angel. And that’s why I want to help. Is that okay?”

Aziraphale blinked back more tears, feeling his throat closing up. “I don’t… I don’t want to upset you. It’s probably quite stupid, compared to… to what you’ve been through.”

Crowley shook his head gently. “If it’s bothering you this much? There’s no way it could be stupid.”

Aziraphale nodded, slowly, then breathed, “I just… I have hurt you, Crowley, I know I have, please don’t pretend otherwise. 1862, 1967, even just three weeks ago, when everything... Every time I reminded you of… of what we were, of the fact that we were on opposite sides–“

“Angel–“

“Crowley, please,” Aziraphale said, staring down at their intertwined hands, his grip loose enough to let Crowley pull away whenever he decided he was done with this pitiful display. “If I don’t... if I don’t say it all now, I doubt... I doubt I ever will. So if you truly want me to... please, just... let me.”

He dared a glance up. Crowley was staring at him, eyes wide and fully gold, lips parted slightly and brow furrowed in concern.

Aziraphale’s gaze dropped back down to their hands, the guilt and shame and fear all writhing in his chest and closing up his throat and spilling out of his eyes, his lips, for the very first time. “I was cruel, Crowley, and not just to you. I hurt so many. In the… in the War, the first War, I… I killed people, Crowley, I killed so many, and I wounded so many more, and I’ve no idea if I hurt you, back then, before I would have known who you were– and here, on Earth, it was my sword that brought War to humanity, and I just wanted them to be able to protect themselves, I didn’t know–“

He choked on a sob, but the words didn’t stop, pouring out of him, a river of doubt and pain and guilt, so much guilt, things he’d never dared examine too closely for fear of exactly this happening.

“So many times, I stood by and watched while Heaven did terrible things– while She did terrible things. The Fall, the Flood, the Crucifixion, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues in Egypt, so very many more, and I never intervened, I never helped, I tried to– to justify it, to excuse it, to myself and to you, even when it was utterly inexcusable, because I just couldn’t bear the thought of Heaven being wrong– oh, Crowley, I’ve been so stupid, for so very long, and I’ve watched so very many people die, useless deaths, senseless deaths, and I couldn’t help them, I couldn’t save any of them, I was too weak and pathetic a-and clinging to the idea that any of it was… was righteous, but it wasn’t, none of it was, and I– I–“

Aziraphale looked up at Crowley, his vision blurred with tears. “Of the two of us, I– I should have been the one to Fall. You’re so– so good, Crowley, so kind and thoughtful and brave and clever and compassionate, you put yourself in danger in order to help humans, to help me, while I just… just let such awful things happen, even helped them along in some cases– I’ve fought in wars on Earth, too, and I’ve– I’ve hurt so many people, and I’ve lied and I– I’m greedy, and prideful, and lazy, and weak, and I know, I know, that your sins are nothing next to mine, and I just– how is it possible that someone as wonderful as you could have Fallen, while someone as wretched as me hasn’t?” He closed his eyes desperately and shook his head. “I tried, Crowley, I really did. I’ve tried so hard, for so long, to be good, and it– I was never, ever good enough, and it wasn’t–“

And now Aziraphale was crying, fully, properly crying, and Crowley let out a wounded sort of sound and shifted forwards, tugging Aziraphale into a hug, pulling him close holding him tightly. Aziraphale wrestled with his tears, fighting to expel the last of his thoughts before he couldn’t any longer, clutching desperately to Crowley’s jacket, burying his face in the crook of the demon’s neck. His voice was muffled, but still, the words spilled out of him, like bile, like blood.

“The good I was striving for wasn’t even truly good, was it? It never was. Heaven was never good, and yet I tried so hard to be what they wanted me to be, and I failed, and if I couldn’t even– couldn’t even be the– the version of good that they wanted, how could I ever be truly good? I– I’m a bad angel, and a worse friend, and I know, I just know, that I’m going to mess this up, mess us up, I always do, and I don’t– I’ll drive you away eventually, just as I’ve driven away everyone else, I’ll be– be too slow, or too weak, or too– too me, and that will– that will be the loss that I can’t recover from. I’m so very sorry, Crowley, I don’t want to– to trap you with me, but I don’t– I don’t know if I can exist without you any longer, I love you so much and I don’t– I can’t ruin this, like I’ve ruined everything, I can’t hurt you like I always do, I just can’t.”

Aziraphale stopped, finally, all his sins and failures and weaknesses and guilt out in the open, there for Crowley to see, to judge, and he sucked in a shaky, hitching breath, breathing in the warm and steady scent of Crowley, just in case it was his last chance, just in case his demon finally, finally saw through the ruse and recognized Aziraphale for what he truly was.

When Crowley spoke, his voice was low and soft and slightly strained, breathed almost into Aziraphale’s ear, his breath warm against the angel’s neck. “Is it my turn, now? Can I– can I talk?”

Aziraphale nodded, squeezing his eyes shut against a fresh flood of tears and loosening his grip on Crowley’s jacket, letting the demon pull away should he need to.

“Right,” Crowley said, and he did pull back, but then his hands came up and cupped Aziraphale’s face, wiped at the tears on his cheeks. “I think we should go sit back down, yeah? That was… that was a lot, and you… looks like you could use it. Let’s sit, yeah?”

Aziraphale opened his eyes, not quite brave enough to meet Crowley’s gaze yet, and nodded again, letting Crowley lead him the couple of steps back to the sofa and sit them both down once more.

Then Crowley kept moving them, lying himself out on his back and pulling Aziraphale down to lie on top of him, Aziraphale’s head pillowed on Crowley’s lean chest, Crowley tugging Aziraphale close, holding him tightly, pressing gentle kisses into his white-blond curls.

Aziraphale glanced up at him, exhausted and confused and afraid,the tangled threads of his emotions still a hard knot in his chest. “You’re not… you’re not upset with me?”

Crowley kissed Aziraphale’s head a little harder, clutched him a little closer. “No. No, I’m not– I could never be mad at you, especially not for something like this. Not ever. I just… shit, Aziraphale, I didn’t… I had no idea… fuck, Heaven really is a bag of dicks, aren't they? Useless wankers, the lot of 'em."

Aziraphale blinked, frowning. “H-Heaven? What– wh-why–?”

“Because someone as bloody brilliant as you should never have been allowed to go six minutes, never mind six thousand years, believing such a load of shit about yourself,” Crowley said firmly. “Because, angel, none of what you just said about yourself was true. You’re not– you’re not weak, or stupid, or a failure, or cruel, o-or any of it! You–“ He paused, took a deep breath. “It… yeah, okay, it hurt that... it hurt to work for opposite sides. It hurt that– that we weren’t free to do what we wanted. But none of that was your fault. You were keeping us safe, angel. All the holy water in the world wouldn’t have stopped Hell if they’d found out about the Arrangement any sooner than they did, and if you’d gotten killed because of me, because we were friends, I’d never have forgiven myself. I was– most of the time, all I ever wanted to do was spend time with you, and it was you who was guarding us against everyone and everything else.”

Crowley shifted slightly, placing a hand under Aziraphale’s chin and lifting his head up, just enough to kiss his forehead instead of his hair before continuing. “And all that shit about you being some cold-hearted, apathetic, cruel monster– have you ever met yourself, angel? You’re not cruel. You’re the opposite of cruel. You gave away your sword in the Garden because Adam and Eve were alone and cold and scared and defenseless, knowing exactly how much trouble you’d get in if they found out, and you helped me hide all those kids on the Ark, and you nearly drained yourself dry giving out so many bloody miracles during the Black Death and both World Wars and the Colombian exchange and every other human tragedy that you ran into, and you built this shop and made it into a haven that every scared and lonely and desperate person in London can come to when they need a miracle. You couldn’t save everyone, angel, because no one can, and if you’d tried you’d have lost yourself in it a long, long time ago, and that? Not allowed. You saw me– or, well, heard me– after you’d discorporated. You’re not allowed to die on me, either, yeah? You’ve got to stick around, for my sake.”

“Crowley…” Aziraphale breathed.

“Nope,” Crowley said, pressing another gentle kiss to Aziraphale’s forehead. “My turn now, angel. I’m not going to leave you. Not over this, not over any of it. There’s just about nothing you could possibly do that would make me want to leave. I love you, Aziraphale, I have done for six thousand bloody years, and so I think I know you pretty well by now, yeah? You– okay, yeah, sometimes you’re a little oblivious, or a bit of an idiot, or sort of selfish, or a petty bastard, and yes, your magic tricks are terrible, and you wouldn’t know style if it bit you in the arse. But I love you because of all that, just as much as I love you for how clever and soft and gentle and caring and good you are. You’re a good person, Aziraphale, no Heaven required, and part of it is that you’re also a person, and no person is perfect. No one at all is perfect. Yeah? If you’re willing to put up with my temper and my driving and the way I glue coins to the pavement when I need cheering up, I am more than happy to watch you pout over stains on your coat and let you drag me around to every sushi place in London a hundred times over. It would be a bloody honour.”

Crowley sighed, his breath warm on Aziraphale’s skin. “Shit, Aziraphale... Heaven never deserved you. You are the absolute bloody best thing to ever come out of there, no question, and the fact that they made you think that you were less than them– you have done so much good in the world, angel, more than any of those smitey bastards could ever possibly understand. You’re clever and kind and you care, you care so much, and that scares them, so they tried to hurt and belittle you so that all you cared about was them. But it didn’t work, did it? Despite bloody Gabriel’s best efforts, you still love the Earth and the humans and food and your books and– and me. You loved me, even knowing that if they ever found out, it’d be the end of you. You loved me, and you saved my life, and you filled out extra bloody paperwork for me, angel, if that’s not dedication then I don’t know what is. Just– just because you were scared of them, and you believed what they told you, doesn’t make you a bad person. Just like how their thin veneer of holiness doesn’t make any of them good. You’re the best of them. The best of us. Always have been, always will be.”

He lifted his head up, and finally, finally, Aziraphale met his eyes once more, and they were warm and gentle and gorgeous, a small smile crinkling their corners. “‘Sides, if you weren’t a right bastard sometimes, you might occasionally have to sell your books, and then I wouldn’t get to watch you refuse to do that, and where would we be then, hm?”

Aziraphale laughed at that, and then laughed again, and then he couldn’t stop, and his hands flew up to cover his face as he curled in against Crowley’s chest, and he wasn’t laughing anymore, and the tears were spilling out again as Crowley’s words began to sink in, flowing slowly down from his head to his heart as six thousand years’ worth of built-up sobs tore their way through his lungs and throat.

“Hey,” Crowley murmured, squeezing him tighter, rubbing soothing a hand between Aziraphale’s shoulder blades and burying his face once more in his hair. “Hey, I’ve got you. I’m here. Let it out now, yeah? You’re okay. I’ve got you. It’ll be okay now. Let it out. I’m here. I love you. I’ve got you, angel. Let it out.”

“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale choked out, clinging desperately to Crowley’s coat, trying and utterly failing to get himself back under control. “I’m sorry, I should be– should be better, you shouldn’t have to do this for me, I’m so sorry–“

“Don’t be sorry,” Crowley said gently, the hand on Aziraphale’s back pressing a little more firmly into him. “Like I said, you’ve been helping me for long enough. Helping everyone for long enough. Think it’s my turn now, yeah? I’ve got you. I love you. Let me help.”

It was wrong. It felt so wrong, being on the receiving end of something like this, of the sort comfort that Aziraphale had given to countless humans, to Crowley, so many times over the millennia. And yet, Crowley was here, holding him, soothing him, whispering gentle words into his ear and squeezing him close and helping him.

Perhaps it would be alright if, just this once, Aziraphale let him.

Eventually, eventually, after far too long, the sobbing tapered off, and Aziraphale’s breathing evened out once more. He felt exhausted, like the tears had taken all of his energy along with them, bled him dry and left him empty.

Well, no. Not quite empty. Not here, with Crowley’s arms around him, Crowley’s face in his hair, Crowley’s voice in his ears, keeping him sane and grounded and real, just as he always had.

Slowly, carefully, Aziraphale lifted his head, meeting Crowley’s gaze once again.

His eyes were bright and soft, and there were tear tracks on his cheeks, as well.

“Hey there,” Crowley breathed, smiling ever so slightly and shifting the hand that had been cupping the back of Aziraphale’s head to wipe away the tears on his cheeks. “Feel better?”

Aziraphale hummed softly. “Thank you.”

“Anytime, angel,” Crowley said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, dearest,” Aziraphale murmured, pulling himself up to press a gentle kiss to Crowley’s lips before lying his head back down.

There was a brief pause, an almost-silence, broken by slow, steady breaths and the muffled sounds of London outside.

“Do you… do you believe me?” Crowley asked.

Aziraphale lifted his head again, frowning. “What?”

“What I said, about you, being brilliant and all that. Do you believe me?”

Aziraphale frowned. “Um. Well… I-I want to. But… I’m not sure I… I know you wouldn’t lie to me, dearest, it’s not that, it’s just…”

“You’ve believed that you’re shit for so long that it’s hard to start believing something else now,” Crowley said, nodding grimly. “I get it.”

“I’m sorry, my dear.”

“Don’t be.” Crowley pulled Aziraphale down for another brief, chaste kiss before speaking again, their faces still so close that their lips brushed with the motion of it. “It’s not your fault, angel. None of it is your fault. And if you don’t believe me yet, it means I’ll just have to believe it a little harder until you do, yeah?”

“Like I do for you,” Aziraphale murmured, lying his head on Crowley’s chest again– it was quite sinfully comfortable, far more so than it ought to have been with Crowley being as bony as he was. “Believe in the best about you for you until you can do the same.”

“A new Arrangement,” Crowley said, grinning.

“The same Arrangement,” Aziraphale said. “I’ve believed the best about you since the Flood at the very least.”

"Ngh, Aziraphale," Crowley mumbled, burying his face in Aziraphale's hair once more.

Silence descended again, or, at least, as close to silence as one ever got in London. Aziraphale closed his eyes, soaking in the warmth of Crowley's body against his, the wiry strength of his arms, the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the unnecessary but oh-so-human beat of his heart.

"I love you," Aziraphale said softly. "Ever so much. And I'm sorry that I didn't let you know sooner."

"I knew," Crowley said. "I've known for a while, now. I only realised it about fifty years ago, but… I knew. Even before that." He shifted slightly. "Did you?"

Aziraphale nodded. "As you said, I only… only put two and two together, as it were, during the Blitz, but… well. I think I've known for a lot longer than that."

"The Blitz? Why then?"

"We hadn't spoken in eighty years. I thought… well, when you woke up and didn't… didn't try to get in touch, I rather assumed that… that you wouldn't. That it was over. And then… then you showed up, you put yourself at risk of discorporation, you walked on consecrated ground… and, well, at first I thought that… that you were just trying to preserve the Arrangement, or what was left of it, trying to make sure that you weren't faced with Michael down here after all. But then you saved the books, and… you didn't have to do that. Not at all. I'd made sure that we both survived, and you– there was no reason for you to do that, other than– than because you knew it would upset me if the books were destroyed."

Crowley pressed another kiss to Aziraphale's head. "It was… was sort of like that for me, too. It was the holy water. You made it clear what you'd thought of that, and– and even if I didn't know why you were so scared of it back then, I knew that you were scared. You don't cut me off when you're angry or sad or any of those things, you only do it when you're scared of something, so for you to have not talked to me for eighty years... I knew it had scared the shit out of you. And then you showed up, and you gave it to me anyways, and, well. That was that, I guess."

Aziraphale tilted his head slightly, kissing Crowley's collarbone through his shirt. "I love you, dearest. I have for… for longer than I could possibly say."

"I know," Crowley said, tilting Aziraphale's head further and kissing him on the lips once again. "I love you, too."

Silence fell once more, and Aziraphale closed his eyes, snuggling down into Crowley’s arms. He felt exhausted, yes, but also… warm. Safe. Loved.

It was a bit of a strange feeling, still. Not loving Crowley, or even being loved in return, but being so… so open about it. So free.

Loving without guilt. Living without guilt. It was odd. The guilt had been a part of Aziraphale’s very being for as long as he could remember, the guilt and the shame and the fear all warring with one another, tripping him up, holding him back. And now…

“Angel?” Crowley said softly.

“Hm?”

“Love you.”

“I love you, too, dearest.”

“I know.” There was a brief pause. “If you don’t move, I’m likely to fall asleep right here.”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“Nope. Just figured I should warn you.”

“Hm. I might… might join you, dear. If that’s– if that’s alright with you.”

Aziraphale felt more than saw Crowley’s grin. “Right. Night, then, angel.”

“Crowley?” Aziraphale breathed, lifting his head up slightly to look his demon in the eyes once more.

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

Crowley stared at him for a long moment, a soft, sad sort of smile playing around his lips, his gorgeous golden eyes warm and gentle. “I’m here, angel. Whenever you need me, and even when you think you don’t. I’ve got you.”

Aziraphale smiled back, then laid his head back down. They were still there, the guilt, the shame, the fear. He supposed it would have been odd if they had vanished entirely so quickly. But for now, at least, they were… quiet. Ignorable. Calm.

Still holding one another close, loosely, gently, tangled together on the sofa in the back room of the bookshop that was more home to both of them than Heaven or Hell had ever been, their breathing synced and their torn-up hearts beating in time with each other, Aziraphale and Crowley fell asleep. They would face tomorrow, and the day after that, and all the days and months and years to follow, when they came, and they would do so together.

But for now, they rested, warm and happy and calm and safe, and the knot in Aziraphale’s chest loosened just that little bit more.