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to carthage then i came

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To Carthage then I came  

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out

O Lord Thou pluckest

 

burning

 

 

I.

 

The bus jerks to a halt as soon as they glide into the peripheries of Mayfair. Truthfully, it’s an inanity: they could have been left at Crowley’s very porch sans any questioning, but Aziraphale finds himself too dizzy to voice it as he comes to.

‘That’s our stop, angel.’ There’s Crowley’s voice, oddly distant.

Aziraphale blinks, focusing on his shape, looming against the backdrop of dark leaves and lampposts outside of the window. Everything seems eerie, disorienting.

He must have—wonder of wonders—fallen asleep, God’s last hypocrite, what with all the centuries of berating Crowley for it, denouncing his proclivity as a hideous human habit.

Eyes still bleary, he accepts Crowley’s outstretched hand without any questioning that clarity of mind would surely trigger, instead allowing himself to be led out of the vehicle without as much as echoing the vague thank you Crowley throws at the bewildered driver.

Crowley’s fingers are long and startlingly cold, smudged still with something black that should’ve been long taken care of.

It’s crisply cold outside as well, shockingly so. Wet. As if through a haze, Aziraphale recollects that somewhere around St Pancras rain has started falling, not a drizzle but a proper rain, steady as they cut deeper into the layers of London.

All the world, now, seems to be sunk in a trembling shiver of splintered lamplight, quieter than ever in daylight. A flood, a cleansing. Symbolic, if not—

‘A little obnoxious,’ Aziraphale mutters, in disdain.

‘Think of it as a bookend,’ comes Crowley’s mutter, still strangely faraway. ‘I do. The garden, here. Always bloody rain.’

A lamp flickers. Aziraphale’s hand becomes suddenly aware of persisting touch.                             

The garden, here.

Slightly thrown-off, either by the perversity of such shut-in silence reigning over London or by Crowley’s seamless follow-up to a remark which for all intents and purposes should have been incomprehensible, Aziraphale hesitates. He withdraws his hand.

Crowley stands with his head thrown back, looking up. A spindly dark shape, shoulders bent slightly forward with weariness. Unprepossessing.

‘Unreal,’ he mutters, as if to himself. There’s, again, something unreachable in his voice, hollowed out. Aziraphale can see the tension in his jaw as he closes his mouth and swallows.

‘Crowley,’ he blurts, gripped by a sudden irrational fear. ‘Your place—’

‘S’just round the corner,’ Crowley says, softer now, tilting his head back down.

Those damned glasses, Aziraphale thinks. A terrible concealing thing, so many times an enemy to certainty, lending so much to flight of imagination.

‘Still, I assume,’ Crowley says dimly. ‘We’re still intact, so—’ 

‘Still?’ Aziraphale repeats, dazed again. There are droplets of water clinging to Crowley’s hair, one of them trailing down the sharp slope of one of his cheekbones.

‘I’m not sure,’ Crowley mutters cryptically, taking off again, ‘C’mon.’ 

He makes a broad vague move as though to usher Aziraphale forward, hand brushing idly by the angel’s elbow, fingers pulling lightly. Quite against reason, a shiver travels through Aziraphale’s body. He hesitates. 

There’s no obvious logic to it, certainly, to find anything in this intimate or foreign after years and decades of such little unspeakable collisions and courtesies.

At least Aziraphale tells himself so.

But as Crowley leans against the door, fumbling with the key as though there was any need to open them the usual way—in a disarming nod, perhaps, to their self-imposed millennia-long spectacle of pretend humanity—Aziraphale watches, and something inside him aches.

An irrational feeling, surely, nonsensical. One of the demon’s shoulders is pressed into the door and Crowley nearly falls in backwards as the lock relents, arms spread in a way that instead of nonchalant seems almost vulnerable, a small smile on his narrow face. 

‘Welcome, pilgrim,’ he says, stumbling slightly and making a hazy arch in the air around him, ‘you have returned, the prodigal son in tow.’

‘Which is which?’ Aziraphale asks with a strained smile, stepping inside. The cool dreary composure of tall concrete-grey walls seems somehow intimidating.

Crowley draws in a sharp breath—wet top-to-toe, seemingly even thinner than usually. ‘Fair question.’

Before he can second-guess the impulse or dwell long enough on the stark hostility of their morbid surroundings to arrive any worrying conclusion about the connotations of Crowley’s housing habits, Aziraphale lets the door fall shut behind him and approaches him.

He stops backtracking as if on cue, stilling in one spot.

They stand face to face. Eyes to glasses. Restless, Aziraphale’s hands fly up to the lapels of Crowley’s blazer, pluck feebly at the ruined fabric. Ash and water, a dark residue on his fingers now. Or maybe it was there before, from Crowley’s fingers—

‘I don’t think even a miracle will help these,’ Aziraphale observes, fatuous.

‘I don’t think I’m even capable of any,’ Crowley murmurs, oddly docile. ‘At this point.’

Think of something or I won’t ever speak to you again.

Aziraphale exhales slowly. ‘Perhaps not, but the big one was quite effective.’

Crowley snorts. It would be a nice thing, nice bookend, Aziraphale thinks fleetingly, to see him genuinely smile, but he bows his head slightly, as though to duck or maybe let it fall to Aziraphale’s shoulder.

No, not quite.

‘Thanks,’ Crowley mutters, thickly. ‘I think we should maybe take that off.’

Aziraphale’s hands twitch, imperceptibly, where they’re still smoothening the wrinkles in Crowley’s suit.

‘Off?’ he manages, head spinning. 

As if reading his mind, Crowley inhales sharply and steps back, further into the flat.

‘Yeah,’ he says tightly, moving as though to try and nervously shake off his jacket. He finally manages to shuck it and toss to the floor. A faint layer of soot-black dust, wispy, falls off him to a gust of wind, and scatters on the spotless floor in inky smudges. Aziraphale stares after it.

‘No miracles, you said,’ he says, frowning.

‘I’m not doing anything,’ Crowley replies absently. ‘I’m kind of … stuck. He said no meddling, didn’t he? Adam. But I can still feel it all, locked. Happened, not happened, it doesn’t know it, it’s … confused.’

He looks a little unhinged. Aziraphale frowns. ‘It?’

Crowley exhales shakily. ‘The … world. In limbo. Can feel it ssstill on me, kind of like … clinging, old world, new world, jussst something, kind of in between—’ he trails off, at a loss.

‘So it’s not over yet?’ Aziraphale says quietly, hardly moving. ‘Are you sure?’

He has an unpleasant impression of something heavy and physical remaining present in his pocket, reminding himself of its existence. Scrap of parchment. A sudden sting of awareness. Ah, yes.

Fire. 

For a moment, Crowley doesn’t do anything. Then he stammers, ungainly. ‘No. I … I don’t know. I’m … confused. I thought it did.’ 

The mild, misplaced wind is still there, moving the tips of his dishevelled hair. Crowley sighs.

‘I’ll get some wine,’ he says, clearer now, if a little dejected. ‘You get yourself comfortable. We have some celebrating to do.’

He smiles—it’s brittle again, boyish, and Aziraphale loses track of thought for a moment. His heart tugs.

‘Quite right,’ he whispers, as Crowley disappears.

After a beat, he steps forward. He tugs on his bowtie along the way, pulling it untied, then shakes off the coat and unbuttons the vest. Rounding the corner, he falters lightly— 

but there’s no mystery, there. Only the balcony door, swung wide open, with only the thin sheer curtain billowing into the spacious cold room.

It, too, feels oddly vacant, uninhabited. Aziraphale hangs his overgarments on his arm as he walks in, scanning the surroundings with an involuntary frown. Everything, the sparse furniture in a style he can’t trust himself to reliably name, the immaculate grey surfaces of the walls and floor, the unfinished painting, the unnaturally lush wall of stunningly well-tended morbid houseplants.

Such stillness inside, such aggressive starkness. He pictures the bedroom: a large white bed, sterile sheets, no window.

A shiver, again.

There’s a record player in the corner, dissonantly old-fashioned. Aziraphale starts towards it like moth to flame, blaming his unease on the silence. It’s strange here, different than the dense cosy stillness of his cluttered bookshop. Untidy, warm, homely—

Hold that thought. His throat tightens. The music starts with a dry crack, poignant.

Aziraphale whispers to himself, ‘This feels so—’

Feels so what?’

He starts. 

Languid, long-strided, Crowley shuffles to the balcony door and closes it with one shoulder. All charming uncoordinated limbs and wobbly grace, quiet like a cat.

Aziraphale swallows. So unlike you, he thinks.

He says, ‘Nothing.’

 

II.

 

‘That’s new,’ he hears himself blurting, sauntering further into the living room, a bottle and two glasses tucked under his arm. 

Aziraphale has twitched, as if burned, at the sound of his voice, and leapt away from the record player.

He looks strange, in his saddle shoes and white shirt with the top button of the collar undone, with a bundle of velvet and tartan flung across his arm. Clashing, stunningly, with the entirety of space around him, drawing attention like a flare.

That, too, feels strange, because he’s had Crowley’s attention caught and centred on him, whole, for overwhelming stretches time already, unspeakable times, and this is just—

‘What is?’ Aziraphale asks, uncertainly. His eyes skim down Crowley’s body, briefly, as though similarly distracted. ‘Has something changed, then?’ 

Crowley nods at the vinyl, circling the centre of the room with Aziraphale in it and depositing himself on the floor by the couch. The angel’s eyes follow him, inscrutable, all the way.

‘The music,’ Crowley says, positioning the glasses precariously on the table and trying to shift his attention to the stabilising act of pouring wine. ‘Used to be all Mercury.’ 

‘The—planet?’ Aziraphale says, ridiculously in earnest, and it’s so fatally endearing Crowley has to swallow down an irrational rush of strong affection. 

His grip falters a little, red spilling over.

‘No, the bebop,’ he replies, a little curtly, biting into the inside of his cheek. He wipes the spill off with his cuff. ‘Haven’t you really noticed it’s always bloody …’ Crowley pauses, sobering.

‘I suppose you, of all people, really wouldn’t,’ he says at length.

He looks up when silence persists into a drawn-out minute. Aziraphale is watching him with that odd face again, like earlier in the corridor: guilt and a smidge of something else, infinitely more confusing.

Like he’s reading into it, expecting something that would, if they’re being honest, be wildly unprecedented, were it to happen. But it’s there, a vigilance, a hunted tense look like Crowley’s still a predator crawling around his prey.

Suddenly mildly nauseous, Crowley looks down. He can’t even think of a reason now.

The music continues oozing from the record player, something about playing with fire, of all things, as Aziraphale approaches carefully and lowers himself to the floor across from Crowley. 

Crowley smiles at him. By some grace, Aziraphale does mirror it—wan as it may be. 

‘What shall we do now?’ the angel murmurs, linking his hands in his lap. His legs are outstretched, ankles crossed.

What shall we ever do?’ Crowley counters, murmuring. ‘Live, I s’pose. Continue on. Start over.’

In a frankly inane burst of chivalry, he leans gallantly across the table and hands Aziraphale his glass. Ever-cautious, the angel coaxes it out of his grasp and leans away, resting against the armchair behind him. 

‘Game Over, Insert Coin?’ he mutters, taking a sip.

‘So you do listen,’ Crowley says, almost brightly, and smiles again. ‘Well, yes. A nice little memento mori we’ve had, and if it’s over—’

‘If,’ Aziraphale enunciates, pouting slightly before he tastes his wine again.

‘I told you I’m not sure,’ Crowley says, suddenly nettled. ‘Stop being so nit-picky, my personal—’ he cuts off. Frowns. 

Personal.

‘What is it?’ Aziraphale sighs, not unkindly. ‘Run out of insults, have you?’

‘Hell. Should be personal,’ Crowley says, disregarding him. ‘Were it to work—’ 

‘Implying it doesn’t?’ Aziraphale says, brows rising a little. 

‘Do you see us reigning in terror, Aziraphale? It works no more than Heaven,’ Crowley replies, at length. 

‘Personal Heaven,’ the angel says wonderingly, and winces as though he’s tasted something foul. ‘Goodness.’

To his own surprise, Crowley giggles. He tries to mask his grin with a clumsy hand pressed to the mouth, unsuccessfully. Blessed miraculous wine

Reach out and touch faith,’ he intones, voice giddy.

‘Oh,’ Aziraphale groans, agonised. ‘No.’

‘We’d actually have to work,’ Crowley tells him, leaning forward. Aziraphale cringes even more, trying to wave him away. ‘If they figured out how to meddle properly. Actually work, instead of—’

Begone, vile man, and hold that thought,’ Aziraphale says morosely, drawing something wobbly and circular in the air and looking sullen. ‘Begone from—’

Feeling oddly meek, and quite abashed by the sharp overwhelming wave of ridiculous devotion, Crowley withdraws, huddling back next to the couch. Aziraphale blinks, disoriented, his hazy eyes half-betrayed.

‘Well. To incompetency, then,’ Crowley says quietly, raising his glass.

‘Ah. But whose?’ Aziraphale points out, either still too sober or not sober enough. His shoulders sag a little and he stares ahead, desolate.

Feeling audacious, Crowley opens his mouth, ‘Her Holiest—’

‘No,’ Aziraphale cuts in, frantically, raising a warning finger at him, ‘better not. We don’t want to draw attention.’

Crowley snorts, only a notch fatalistic. Then he pauses.

There’s a tightness of the ribs, an odd not-quite-constrained anxiety, coiled in his chest, unresolved. He wants to saying something but the possibility of saying too much is, all of the sudden, terrifying beyond comprehension.

But this tension, this age-old sickening left unsaid of theirs, has grown—in presence of his own exhaustion and confusion, which he tries so ardently to conceal from Aziraphale—almost unendurable. Fighting himself just a moment longer, Crowley falters.

‘To you, then,’ he says quickly, a little too quickly to be truthfully neutral, bowing his head. ‘Il miglior fabbro. Efficient inefficiency.’

‘I thought we agreed,’ the angel murmurs. He sounds distant, imprecise, ‘It was a matter of deep, mutual incompetence, and—’

Crowley shakes his head, curling in further on himself and tilting his glass in the air. Bracing himself, he tries to ignore the violent tug of his heart and looks up.

‘You worked it out.’ 

‘I had the book,’ Aziraphale points out, gently chiding. His face is softened, bright even in the wan light of the living room. ‘And you left.’

Crowley swallows.

To be saved, he thinks. Which stopped making sense as soon as— 

The pressure grows unbearable.

Wanted to leave,’ he corrects the angel, mouth dry in spite of the wine. ‘And not on my own.’

‘That’s such a difference?’ Aziraphale says, looking away to the record player, gone suddenly quiet. 

Crowley looks down, onto his hands. He flexes the fingers of the right one, long and unstable, an angry red mark still cutting across the palm where the steering wheel would be. He wants to swallow again but finds himself stuck.

‘Difference as in De Doctrina Christiana, sin is any thought in opposition to the word of God, maybe not,’ he says quietly, straining his voice into the best semblance of sobriety he can muster while still dangerously hazy round the edges. He looks up, meeting Aziraphale’s wary eyes. ‘Difference between think and act, yes. And I think—I think there is. A difference.’

Weary now, Aziraphale presses his eyes closed.

‘This feels,’ he says with a sigh, ‘a little too much like a game of chess for being a celebration.’

Aziraphale: lines under his eyes, expression always a little baffled, a mess of grey-blonde curls in a perpetual halo around his bright face. His uncertain mouth. Stymied now, and so newly, tangibly corporeal.

No, that’s not the word, something more—temporary? Fragile?

Cutting the aching thought before it expands into something like cold terror, Crowley grips the neck of the bottle, pulling his knees back to himself, cradling it between them. 

‘So I lied,’ he says, throat tight as he swallows. ‘So what. What else would you expect.’

The angel opens his eyes. Bright eyes, blue eyes, again so dissonantly fierce.

‘Ah, so it’s that rabbit you’re chasing,’ he says, tranquil only on the surface. ‘Personal journeys.’

‘Shut up,’ Crowley says, mostly because he feels like the resemblance is a little too on the nose and he’d rather not lose track of thought. ‘It’s a fair question. What did you expect?’

To his—surprise, maybe, or maybe disillusionment—Aziraphale hesitates. Something grey and amorphous, like guilt, passes through his face in a shadow.

‘I thought you may have gone,’ he says at last, reluctant. ‘I hoped you wouldn’t.’

For some reason it hurts. Crowley can’t break it down, not quite, into any logic but it hurts nonetheless. Feeling like he’s sinking down again, he hazards, ‘Because …?’ 

Aziraphale looks at him, then, properly. The same look he’s had in the street, hard and impenetrable.

‘You’re asking me why I wanted someone to refrain from being cowardly,’ he says, not quite a question. Perhaps accusing.

Suddenly bitter, Crowley stares back. He stretches his legs. ‘Yes,’ he says, finally. ‘Not someone, me. Whose nature, to you—is so inherently different from yours. Expect me to be gone, then, did you? Be fair.’

And Aziraphale looks, in that moment, almost angry. With hurt eyes, he says, ‘No.’ 

The force of it, something so small but infinite, said aloud, strikes Crowley breathless.

He remains, tense and miserable with his belaboured flighty heart, rendered momentarily futile. Oh, don’t think I’m testing you. Don’t think I’m merely playing—

He begins, disjointed and mostly desperate by now, ‘Nothing selfish in it, then, just—you know, angelsss. Compassion extended, your—your umbrella of—’ he cuts off, in sudden panic, and nearly breaks the glass.

Aziraphale’s icy expression thaws, in mere seconds, in favour of worry. ‘Crowley, what are you—’

‘You’ve said,’ Crowley interrupts, steadying his voice and attempting more clarity, ‘in Tadfield. A feeling of love, there. A general feeling, a place devoid of … of malice, of terror. And I didn’t get it. Because I wouldn’t get it.’

Aziraphale shakes his head midway through his utterance, slow, something sad and ancient, like maybe remorse, flicking once again through his features.

‘Crowley, that’s … that’s formality,’ he says, emphatically. ‘St Augustine in Carthage, a cauldron of illicit loves leapt and boiled about me. I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love … it's a whole … paradigm, dear boy, it’s like a sixth sense. You’re not suited—’

‘I’m not suited,’ Crowley cuts in, shaking now, ‘because I don’t see it that way. Never have.’

Aziraphale smiles, a little sadly, ‘But that’s just what I’m saying.

Crowley slams the wine bottle back onto the table. It’s rapid, loud. Aziraphale does not flinch.

‘No. No, because that would mean there’s only one way.’ 

‘And there isn’t?’

‘Has this, all this,’ Crowley insists, voice pained, drawing an arch in the air with both hands now, ‘really not taught you anything about perspective?’

There’s a moment’s silence.

Then Aziraphale smiles again. He looks down, bashful, and makes a small gesture as though to raise a toast again.

‘Ah. Point taken, my dear.’

Trying to pay no mind to either the endearment or the odd echo of his own phrasing in the angel’s voice, Crowley nods and collects his scattered thoughts.

‘If it’s easy to—but it’s not always,’ he presses, pushing himself up and leaning forward, cold hands tucked between his knees. ‘Too straightforward, wouldn’t it be? Doesn’t it say, judge not? So if there’s something concealed—’ 

Aziraphale looks tired. Behind him, the wind pushes the balcony door open again, slow and undeliberate, and he stares after it.

‘Oh, be fair, Crowley,’ he says quietly. ‘I never denied anyone the right to convert.’

Crowley shuts his eyes, then opens them. Perhaps I want too much. Perhaps I am hopeless too.

‘To convert?’ he repeats even so, strained. ‘You’re saying it as though it needs a special environment, Aziraphale.’

He reaches blindly for the glass, swallows down some wine: it stings the back of his throat, dry, desensitising. Everything is swaying, just so, round the edges. ‘That’s delusional. That’s condescending.’

Aziraphale watches him steadily with his glazed exhausted eyes for a moment, as though trying to gauge something. He opens his mouth, expression a mixture between uneasy and searching.

‘Your perspective, then,’ he says at last, carefully neutral. ‘Talk me through it.’

Crowley licks his lips, leaning slowly back.

‘Nothing special, I’d sssay,’ he says tightly, unable to help the vague hissing lilt. He drums his fingers on his knee. Aziraphale’s eyes follow the movement languorously, wine-dulled, half-troubled. He seems slightly put-off. ‘The human way.’

At this, the angel’s expression sharpens. ‘Human?’

‘Well,’ Crowley begins, letting himself sink back into the white leather couch, stare up at the distant ceiling. Reality feels a little distant by this point, impalpable. ‘To a point. But they do see the whole thing as something less than eternal, don’t they. Not fixed, not obvious, not sensible. Unexpected, something you can’t help, something … something to lose if left unattended. Selfish. Fragile.’ 

Aziraphale sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. He sounds tired. ‘You’re difficult to follow sometimes.’

‘Difficult?’ Crowley echoes, feeling hollow. ‘Am I too fast? Am I going—’

And just like that, there’s something new in the silence between them, a tightening. The glass almost slips from his grasp, sliding from between languid fingers. His vision clouds. 

‘—too fast for you?’ 

Across the floor, Aziraphale has stilled.

Loved love, Augustine,’ Crowley picks up, voice quiet, looking at the red-streaked open palm of his hand. ‘How noble. But what if he couldn’t? Theory. Theory’s one thing, but—ah, has no one ever done it the wrong way? No one envied, loved the wrong thing, for the wrong reason, in the worst of circumstances? Has no one ever hated love? It hurts, doesn’t it? It must hurt. Else what would be the point of all the self-denial.’

Aziraphale doesn’t raise his face, still uncannily motionless.

‘What you said,’ he begins at last, some odd colourless urgency in his muted voice, ‘about loss—’

‘That happens, too,’ Crowley says, weakly, feeling his throat constrict. ‘I’ve heard. To die, or be left in the middle of it, or—’

He looks up again, feeling dizzy. In the wan bluish light pooling through the half-drawn blinds, murky as the cloudy night outside, the ceiling seems an imprecise border too far away to reach except by blind faith of leaping upwards, hoping for still having wings. 

The antonym of falling, perhaps. Still just as terrible.

Aziraphale speaks out, again, ‘But death is—’

Feeling hazy, Crowley cuts in, cuts him off, ‘Stop all the clocks.’

Aziraphale finally looks up properly, eyes wide open. The worst sort of innocence to see in him, because genuine—rare as it is.

Crowley inhales, enduring, almost shaking to the erratic beating of his heart.

‘Cut off the telephone,’ he picks up, hoarsely. ‘Silence the pianos and, with muffled drum, bring out the coffin. Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead, scribbling in the sky the message—’

Aziraphale swallows audibly, ‘I don’t—’

He is dead.’

Silence now, and so burning at that. The wine stings at the back of his throat. Crowley opens his mouth. Inhales.

He was my north, my south, my east and west,’ he goes on, voice thready again, all pressure of intonation gone somewhere irretrievable, ‘my working week and Sunday rest, my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song. I thought that love would last forever, I was—’

Aziraphale’s face is frightening in the wan light: still as time itself, all the way back in the garden. Only the wide eyes, gleaming vaguely with something ethereal, fixed on him across the whole tremendous insurmountable distance from couch to armchair. Fixed, as though in resentment or hope. 

Resentment for hope. 

—wrong,’ Crowley finishes, voice cracking into something too audible, too jarring in this frail liminal space between deep night and early morning.

Cracking fire. He almost blinks, too.

The silence is vast, stifling. He’s breathing through open mouth, eyes wet and humiliating as he stares across the room, searching for a mirroring expression. His lips are stiff and pliant.

‘Was I?’ he asks, feeling shattered.

‘Crowley,’ Aziraphale says, barely even vocal.

It’s too much. Something inside Crowley flickers from desolation to desperation, quick, angry.

‘A snap of fingers, and you were gone,’ he breathes out, sharp. ‘All that holy blasted self-denial, to waste. Up in flames, and I’m left there, without as much as—a fucking word. Where is that profound, Aziraphale? Where? Explain it to me, how is that better than leaving.’

Abruptly, Aziraphale puts away his glass, knocking over something on the table. He pays it no mind. He’s staring at Crowley with eyes that seem to be burning.

Crowley almost shivers. Abject terror.

‘So is this you, then,’ Aziraphale says, voice is so dreadfully clear and unyielding compared to Crowley’s incoherent articulations, so whole, ‘defying it all? Or is this you, tempting me?’

There’s something tragic in Aziraphale’s eyes, there has always been. A dissonance, a repression of something instinctual. 

Abruptly, Crowley’s face twists, all involuntary and spasmodic. Suddenly overwhelmed, he buries it in his left hand, now shaking. The other clutches around the glass.

‘I don’t know,’ he says, something so inherently pathetic to it, ‘I’ve never known.’

Silence falls again, cold and indefinite like grief, like the ringing in his ears as he walked out of the bookshop, without aim or axis, without anything. Crowley closes his eyes, breathing unevenly. Start over.

‘I used to think I did,’ he hears Aziraphale’s voice, still so quiet. ‘You’ve … you’ve made me doubt.’

‘Ah,’ Crowley says, swallowing. ‘I am sorry. If you can believe that.’

‘I do,’ Aziraphale replies, so soft it’s terrible. ‘I do believe you.’

Crowley doesn’t look up, just nods slightly, burrowing his face into his hand and swallowing. He doesn’t look up even at the miscellaneous string of sounds signalling movement, doesn’t acknowledge it until he senses Aziraphale presence closer than it’s probable.

Then a touch: startling. Aziraphale’s hand, very hesitant, brushing the edge of his jaw, cheekbone. Crowley opens his eyes as the angel draws his face up.

Aziraphale is looking at him, focused and attentive, eyes full of something like a question. Crowley swallows. 

‘Angel, I—’ he begins.

Seamlessly, Aziraphale takes off Crowley’s glasses.

Crowley stills. There it is again, that absolute focus, undivided attention: a bright holy expression that is neither grief nor elation, neither trust nor hostility, that is so maddeningly unreadable that he could never dare himself to name it or question its constancy. Self-denial, did he say? So be it, self-denial: constancy in rejection, in principle, in—

‘—I might’ve been wrong,’ Crowley whispers, hysterically.

Aziraphale silences him with a kiss.

There’s a beat before he can find his senses enough to respond. When he does, it’s instinctive, erratically eager. Uncertain swift hands, grasping at his shirt, elbow, face. Back arching, leg twitching helplessly on the floor. They lose balance, then, almost toppling to the floor, and Aziraphale pulls back with a sharp inhalation.

He is holding Crowley’s face in both hands now, his expression hazy. It’s not until a moment later that Crowley realises the angel is kneeling between his legs. 

‘It didn’t burn,’ he blurts out, dazed enough to forget himself and blink.

‘You didn’t think she meant literal fire,’ Aziraphale says nonsensically, panting. His eyes are still unnaturally bright, but his face is slowly regaining familiarity and expression. 

‘I thought we were both just taking a really big chance,’ Crowley says, still a little too lightheaded to think.

And there’s something in it all that’s still not quite right, a dreadful ache to the way Aziraphale’s forehead rests against his, to the way his own wandering hands bunch in the starchy ancient fabric of the angel’s shirt. A quiet desperation, a brave attempt to hold back something inevitable.

Pressing his face into the crook of Aziraphale’s neck, Crowley screws his eyes shut. He mutters, ‘Why does this feel so final?’

‘Because I think you were right,’ Aziraphale whispers, and Crowley can feel his lips move, forming words, against his hair. Warm breath, warmer voice. ‘The world hasn’t ended. There’s a price. There is always a price. Alive and dead, both, at the same time. It would be too—too easy, otherwise.’

Silent, Crowley nods. ‘Not over, then. There’s … more.’

He considers the probability of Aziraphale taking him by the hands and pulling to his feet from the floor, of letting himself be led across his own flat, towards his own bedroom. Considers taking the initiative: uneasy and un-straightforward as ever but knowing his aim now.

Or stumbling together, perpetually entwined, aiming in the general common direction.

‘Yes,’ Aziraphale breathes out, and his voice disperses the vigilant silence like the warm rain still falling outside. ‘But not until the morning.’

 

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.