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landscape after cruelty

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and this is the map of my heart, the landscape
after cruelty which is, of course, a garden, which is
a tenderness, which is a room, a lover saying Hold me
tight, it's getting cold.

snow & dirty rain - richard siken

Angels are beings of love.

Soft love. All-reaching love. Indiscriminating love. They love everyone, in that way that movie stars love their fans: vaguely, widely, impersonally. They want happiness, they want forgiveness, they want salvation—peace and goodwill and all that. But they don’t care who they’re meant to give it to. The love, that is. The peace, that is.

An overarching peace. A celestial feeling. Something large and forever and healing, but so very, very anonymous. So lonely.

There are innumerable differences between humans and angels. But that might be one of the larger ones.

Aziraphale doesn’t love right.  

He thinks he does, at first. He probably does, at first. When the world isn’t quite there yet, and there’s just God and Her angels—before the fallen, even—he thinks he loves correctly then. It’s difficult to explain, but there’s no thought to love, here. No contemplation. There’s just Heaven and Her and the other angels, dedicated to their God. And when some of them fall—well, they deserve it, after all. Asking questions. Doubting. Contemplating.

And then there’s the Earth, and there’s humans, and Adam and Eve and the Tree and the Eastern Gate, and if Aziraphale has to guess when he starts going sideways, it might be here, when he sees the humans so cold and so new and so vulnerable, and here, when he sees Adam hold Eve softly and he sees that Eve’s already expecting, and he makes the decision, not so much a conscious one, to give them his sword, not because he’s supposed to, not because he was told to, but just because he thinks he wants to, because he thinks it might be the right decision, because he sees how they’re already hurting and he wants, for some reason, to do something to fix that, even if it’s small, even if they’re still kicked out of the garden, even if he’ll spend the next six thousand years trying to hide the fact that he doesn’t have his sword anymore, even if there’s guilt, even if he wonders. Contemplates.

Yes. Here.

This might be where it starts.

Of course, there’s an equal chance that it’s sometime later.

Or maybe that it just keeps happening, all the wrong way.

They’re at the opera.

Aziraphale goes to the opera quite frequently for a being that’s been around since the creation of the Earth, which comes to equal about once every few months, and Crowley joins him for every single one of these excursions. Aziraphale could probably go by himself, if he really wanted to, if he really needed to. He imagines it’s just as beautiful without a body next to him, without someone to walk side by side into the opera house with, without a snarky comment mumbled into his ear at inopportune times, without a comfort that comes from being with Crowley. He could probably do without and be just fine, he thinks—but since he’s never had to, he can’t really know. And he doesn’t think he wants to.

It’s here, while their eyes are trained ahead of them, that Crowley’s hand brushes against Aziraphale’s. It burns something so suddenly that Aziraphale snatches his hand back and just hardly keeps himself from yelping in surprise.

It doesn’t actually hurt that bad, relatively; Aziraphale’s definitely felt worse. But it’s so surprising, and maybe some of the burn comes from the fact that he’s not prepared for it, and he can’t help recoiling on instinct alone.

It does something to Crowley’s expression. Just a small twitch, but Aziraphale has been around long enough—has been around Crowley long enough—to notice every subtle change in Crowley’s face. It reads something like an apology, even with his dark glasses on.

But Crowley never says that out loud.

As hard as Aziraphale tries, he can’t think of something to say, some explanation, or some question, or an apology of his own, and later, when they’re walking back to Aziraphale’s shop in silence, Aziraphale will be too uncertain, too anxious, too worried about the ghost of that touch in his memory to open his mouth, and so he’ll stay quiet, and Crowley will stay quiet, all the way up until they reach the bookshop, and the week following they will not be quiet in general but they’ll be quiet about this, about what matters, and Aziraphale will think it obsolete. So he won’t mention it.

For now, in this moment, Crowley draws his hand back. His expression returns to vaguely disinterested neutrality, a clean slate.

He doesn’t move at all for the rest of the show.

Aziraphale doesn’t either, but he thinks he might want to.

Which is part of the problem, isn’t it?

That Aziraphale wants to. That Aziraphale wants.

Sometime in the eighteen hundreds, Aziraphale reaches across the table to pat Crowley’s arm.

It’s an innocuous motion, just a polite impulse, or maybe one meant for comfort. But it makes Crowley flinch like it burns, and with the searing in Aziraphale’s own hand, he figures it’s because it does.

The touch is so light. How can something that gentle hurt so much?

Aziraphale snatches his hand back. This time, without the cover of music and story playing in front of them, he just stares at Crowley. He tries to think of something eloquent to say, but the best he can manage in the seconds of silence that follow is, “Um.”

Crowley puts his hands in his lap. Out of reach. “I, uh. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Aziraphale says. “I was the one who touched you.”

Such a vague phrase, such an innocent sentiment. But it still makes his chest clench for a reason he can’t explain.

“Right.” Crowley thinks about it. “And…why did you?”

“I guess I forgot. That that happens, I mean.” Burns.

“Right,” he repeats.

“Why?” Aziraphale says. “Why do you think it…?”

Crowley’s face scrunches up as he opens his mouth, a small, odd grimace he tends to do when he’s trying to wave something off as nothing. Aziraphale tracks the hand he raises and the vague shrugging motion he does. Crowley’s nails are trimmed short, and Aziraphale wonders suddenly how calloused his hands are. If they are at all, that is. Maybe he magics away the callouses, or magics them there? Does he do anything to warrant callouses, or does he tend to rely on magic, the way Aziraphale likes to?

Aziraphale thinks maybe he should know these answers already, and some part of him deflates when he realizes he doesn’t.

The other part wants to know. To ask. To touch Crowley’s hand.

“Dunno,” Crowley says. “More angel and demon things, I suppose. Maybe insurance, to keep demons from—well.”

“From?”

“Seducing your lot, maybe?”

“Oh.” Aziraphale thinks about this. What he wants to ask is, Has that actually happened before? What he asks instead is, “It hurts you too, then?”

Crowley nods, looking at his glass of wine. At least, Aziraphale guesses that’s where he’s looking. He never knows for certain, what with the glasses.

“What was it like?” Aziraphale asks.

“Touching you?”

“No, I—” Although maybe that is what he means. But he finishes weakly, “Falling?”

There’s a moment. In it, Aziraphale thinks about Heaven, and about his sword, and about the way Crowley’s hands look, his fingers thin and long and tapping now against the tablecloth, his nails bit down to the quick, and he thinks about the burn, the quick quiet searing, and some part of him maybe imagines that this time—this touch—maybe it didn’t hurt as badly as the first.

“Lonely,” Crowley says.

So, then, maybe it starts here:

A moment, an opened bookshop, a permanence. Crowley shows up to Aziraphale’s shop with a package folded in his arms, and after a quick second to take in the new place, he reveals the present: chocolates.

Aziraphale stares at them for a second too long. He rushes to make up for it once reality catches up to him, babbling about the wine he’s got in the back that would go perfectly with this, oh, hold on, let him go find it, and make yourself at home, Crowley, dear, I’ll just be a moment.

He takes more than a moment. He finds the bottle easily, but the explanation for his behavior comes a little harder as he stands in his back room, staring at the wine’s label. He really has to think at it—and when nothing sensible emerges, he chooses instead to brush the whole thing off. No point leaving Crowley waiting for nothing. And dwelling on questions never has helped Aziraphale.

(It should be noted that, at this point, Aziraphale is still playing with those questions about Crowley’s hands.)

Maybe it’s here, when he returns with the wine, and Crowley is standing with his head tilted back as he looks at the books on the top of one shelf, still carrying the package and his shades sliding gently down the long slope of his nose to rest at the tip.

Or maybe it’s here, when Crowley turns to see Aziraphale, and a small smile flits to his face, a tug of some emotion like—calm, or like familiarity, something Aziraphale can’t pinpoint exactly but he thinks he’s seen it before, maybe, on the faces of smitten men, or mothers watching their children from a distance, or—and this is the stupidest thought he has all night—just on Crowley, time and time again.

Yes. Maybe here is where it hits Aziraphale that he is loving, but not loving the right way. Because angels are meant to love—it’s their whole thing, just next to being agents of God and thwarting evil and leading humans down the path of holiness and all that—but they aren’t meant to love with their whole chest, with such an ache, with something that makes them think and feel: Oh.

And that is what Aziraphale is doing. Thinking, Oh.

Maybe it shouldn’t be, but his next coherent thought is, I want to touch him.

Even if it burns.

Which it does.

Aziraphale knows it does because he tries it. Again, and again. Small things, just accidents at first, and then Crowley is trying back, and they’re no longer accidents but quiet secrets.

It’s the brushing of shoulders as they walk down the street, and their feet knocking against on another under the table at dinner, and Aziraphale bumping into Crowley as he tries to flitter around him in the limited space of his bookshop, and the tips of Crowley’s fingers brushing Aziraphale’s forearm, and on one drunken occasion, an arm slung over him in what might be considered a half-hug to anyone capable of coherent thought at the time (the two of them mostly were not).

So, it does hurt, yes. Especially at the beginning. But somewhere around the 1940’s, it dulls to a sting, and then by the 70’s, just the threat of something harsher, bearable but there. Then, it’s a whisper of heat, a shapeless reminder of pain that Aziraphale has come to enjoy despite Heaven’s (and possibly even Hell’s) best efforts. By the time they’ve successfully avoided Armageddon, it hurts so little and has become so routine that Aziraphale hardly notices it.

Not that that’s why he’s kept up the casual touching, though. Even if it had never gotten better—even if it had gotten worse—Aziraphale thinks he would’ve kept trying, kept reaching out, kept knocking shoulders. Crowley brushes the back of his hand against Aziraphale’s forehead one night, and Aziraphale thinks, stupidly, that he would’ve asked for this touch even if it scorched him.

Isn’t that silly? To want something, despite the pain? To love something, despite the wound?

Probably.

Aziraphale wonders about the other angels. If they’ve ever loved one thing enough to deal with discomfort or with effort or with pain. Or maybe all-encompassing love doesn’t require that. Maybe just the individual. Maybe just his.

Lying together the day that the world was supposed to end (but didn’t), Aziraphale presses the whole of his body against Crowley’s and notes how it’s hardly a feeling, that supposed insurance.

Crowley didn’t have a bed until twenty minutes ago, when Aziraphale mentioned being tired, and now they’re in his room with the blinds closed, the weight of the comforter over them surprisingly pleasant. Aziraphale had imagined Crowley would want something expensive and sleek and fashionably uncomfortable, but the blankets are soft and plush and nice enough that Aziraphale thinks he’d like falling asleep here.

Angels don’t need sleep, really, the way they don’t need to eat or breathe. But Aziraphale has always been more interested in those human parts of living, and somewhere around the thirteenth century he realized how nice sleeping could be.

It isn’t until now that he realizes how it could’ve been even better, had he had Crowley like this the entire time.

Wrapped up together. Legs tangled. Bodies so warm and pressed impossibly close, and even the awkward sharp angles of Crowley pushed against him isn’t unpleasant so much as it is oddly endearing. It’s unclear if the warmth is from the fact that they’re touching, or from the blanket draped over them despite the summer night, but either way, Aziraphale doesn’t move.

Crowley has his head against Aziraphale’s chest, Aziraphale’s hands playing with the curls, running through them gently, and when he drags his nails over Crowley’s scalp lightly, Crowley lets out a small, content sigh.

With the hand that isn’t occupied, Aziraphale picks up Crowley’s and laces their fingers together.

“How long have you been in the habit of biting your nails?”

Crowley hums sleepily. “Forever, probably.”

“Even before you saw humans doing it?”

“Even before.”

Aziraphale brings their joined hands closer to his face to inspect Crowley’s nails. “You used to get them done, didn’t you?”

“For a bit,” Crowley says in agreement. He shifts slightly, so that his leg is slung over Aziraphale’s instead of slotted in between them. “But they were a pain in the ass to keep around. Can’t type anything with ‘em.”

“I can’t imagine you can,” Aziraphale says, grinning just a little.

“And anyway,” he continues, “I’d just bite them down, and nail polish tastes horrible. I gave up on that quickly.”

That aligns with Aziraphale’s memories of Crowley wearing brightly colored, almost-completely-chipped-away nail polish. He studies the paint-less nails now, then untangles his hand to turn Crowley’s over and look at the palm, running the tips of his fingers over Crowley’s life line. At one point, Aziraphale read a book on palm reading, and he tries to remember some of it now.

“What’re you doing?” Crowley lifts his head up from Aziraphale’s chest just enough to watch Aziraphale drag his fingers along.

“Trying to read your palm,” he answers.

“That’s all a hoax.”

“But it is fun, don’t you think?”

Crowley seems to think about this, but Aziraphale can tell he’s just hardly suppressing an amused grin. “Like astrology?”

“Exactly.” Aziraphale, finished with his inspection, runs his thumb over the back of Crowley’s hand gently, just barely touching. Crowley sucks in a breath. “That’s one of yours, isn’t it?”

“Undoubtedly.”

Crowley stretches to press a soft kiss to Aziraphale’s neck, and that burns more than any hand intertwining could. The kisses always do. They’ve always hurt more than any other touching; maybe whoever’s in charge of this insurance can tell when a touch crosses out of the “accidental” or “strictly platonic” kinds and into the “meaningful in every sense of the word” kind.

As with every other touch, the pain from kissing has dulled, too, but not enough to hide the sting of heat against Aziraphale’s throat.

Some part of him is glad it hasn’t.

“What did it say?” Crowley asks.

“Pardon?”

“My palm,” he explains, between pressing another kiss to Aziraphale’s neck. “When you read it.”

It takes a moment for Aziraphale to think about it, only half because it’s been so long since he read that book. Crowley’s breath against his neck, just hovering there between kisses, is very distracting, after all.

“That you’re going to live a long life,” he says.

Crowley laughs into Aziraphale’s neck, loud and startled and silly in its authenticity, and Aziraphale can’t help the way he smiles, or the way his chest expands at the sound, or the way that he thinks he would like to stay here forever, safe and so fully himself and so deeply, irreversibly in love.

“I’d hope so,” Crowley says, but by now Aziraphale isn’t following the thread of their conversation any longer. He’s just thinking about that burn, addictive and indicative—of his feelings, of how they’re still alive, of how much he’s willing to go through, only for Crowley, just for Crowley—and how much Aziraphale wants to kiss him.  

So, he does.