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"...and every time we kissed there was another apple
to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it's noon, that means
we're inconsolable.
Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we'll never get used to it."

Richard Siken, Scheherazade

 

There is a bus.

The bus is not the problem. The problem is that the bus is quiet, the problem is that he cannot find a comfortable way to settle his shoulder blades against the molded plastic seats. They stick into the wretched back of the seat, these bone-made wings. The problem is that Aziraphale keeps crossing and uncrossing his legs, fussing with his hair, opening his mouth to say something and closing it again, leaving whatever it was left unsaid.

Quit fidgeting, angel. You could power an electric car. His fingers tighten where they are shared. Flesh and bone. The alternating beat of his knuckles and Aziraphale's. (He doesn't look at them; he never is unaware of them.) At some point, he should move his hand. At some point, Aziraphale should too. So, he is thinking about absence. Subtraction. It had been easier before. When there had been the want, yes, but it had been unknown in the scope and size. When it had not been parsed out, when he could not pick out the notes of it like a drumline in a song, like a hit of acid in a dish. Absence allows definition. It allows us to learn the details of a thing, to know the size and edges and flavor of it too. You cannot learn want without absence. 

He had stumbled into a fire today, discovering absence. Crowley knows too much now. He has always known, though it had been something to ignore. A quiet hum, a distant train to pretend isn't there. You can learn to ignore a babbling brook. It’s the sudden silence that is the surprise. Absence. His hand shakes, he grits his teeth. Aziraphale tightens his hold. Crowley doesn't know what that means, their hands here, only that he had offered as Aziraphale had sat. The bus had been starting to move, Aziraphale had looked about a gust away from collapsing. It seemed natural at the time. Now he cannot figure out whether it makes more sense to move his hand away or to keep it there.

So he does nothing. Stares out the window at the dark hills, counting goats, watching the reflection of the two of them. Thinking not about the end of the world, not about whatever is after. Not about Aziraphale in his flat, no. But thinking, strangely, about thousands of years ago. A foolish angel on a stone wall. A foolish snake in a green garden. Apples too. How bright the stars had been then in the yawning black infinity of night.

He wants to say "Do you remember the desert there, after we left the garden? You gave me water once.”

He doesn't say it.

 


 

There had been the Beginning.

There had been a great many beginnings over the years. This one had started with a garden. This one, Eden, hadn't really been the first beginning. There were many more before that. The stars were made before and the angels first of all. By the time this garden had been called into being, Crowley had already fallen. Stars had been long-since born and had died during the space of his time in the dark. Oblivion. This furious and dark pit.

"Go on up there. It's called Earth, we think, go on and make some trouble." (He hadn't argued at all. Dull place, Hell. Not much imagination to it. You can only do so much with brimstone, he grouses. Crowley had been sick of flayings and torment, bone-weary of blowflies and putrescine. He hadn't meant to fall. Hadn't, honest. He's just always had too many questions. Too much doubt, too much curiosity. Hadn't fit in.)

That's another story. He's not thinking of Hell, not this time. This time is later, somewhere in Mesopotamia. After the garden, there had been Gilgamesh. He had hung around Gilgamesh a lot back then, had curled as an asp about his arm after his loss of Enkidu. Crowley had watched the Urukian king mourn. Had watched his hands once made for spreading across skin, for curling around hair and beard-rough jaws, yes, had watched those hands only grasp stones for cairns and graves. He had begun to understand love then. And loss too.

Why is that important?

Keep reading.

 


 

The bus has stopped.

That makes sense, of course. You can't go on driving forever (though Crowley has, in fact, tried). So it has come to a stop here, this night-dark corner outside his flat, his keys unsettled in his hand. He hesitates for a moment at the step, waiting for Aziraphale to follow. 

Crowley does not have a guest bedroom.

Not that, for a perfectly-supernatural demon, it's too much of a problem. The sofa is easy enough to lengthen and widen, to add a few pillows, all with a spare miracle. So, it doesn’t matter. Really. No, it doesn’t. Not truly. A simple thing. Still, his carotid twitches and his jaw is tight, molar-clenched. "You can stay at my place. If you like." (A cringe at the second sentence. The second sentence is the revealing one. He should have stopped while he was ahead but no, there he had gone on, saying if you like in the same way you might say please. )

The flat is dark when he puts the key in the lock, rolls the tumblers, opens the door. There is nothing but starlight from the windows. The front door opens to a long and sharp hallway, to high ceilings that give no impression of reaching upward. High ceilings that seem to instead give the idea of just how very very far away the ceiling is, how far away the sky is, the impossibility of up there. There is the impression of a cave, of an underground cavern. Aziraphale’s eyes are always a bit wide when he comes inside. (He is always watching Aziraphale, this should be no surprise.) Crowley never misses it, the way they dart about, trying to find a surface to land on, something to gather up. Any private information to glean about his longtime associate.

But there is nothing much. Nothing left in the open. Crowley has long since taken to preferring to keep his spaces bare and sparse, to leaving nothing of himself offered up. There is clean leather; there are empty counters. The unusual sculpture (Aziraphale has never mentioned it). They do not come here often. It's only been once or twice. Only to meet before dinner, to grab a bottle of something or another. Crowley wonders what Aziraphale expects to see (he has never asked).

You can stay at my place, if you like. It echoes like a pinball. Ricochets from across his skull, corner to corner. As if I had said please.

Please is a dangerous thing. He shifts uneasily, thumbs in his beltloops. It seems absurd that, most of the time, he moves his body without thinking. Now he cannot decide where his hands have ever belonged, how large his steps have ever been. It is not the idea of Aziraphale in his flat, in his space, his den of iniquity that throws Crowley. Still, there's something uneasy about it in this looseness of definitions. No I don't think my side would like that. No sides, no nothing. The blank space of after. How do you know what to do when there is no one whispering in your ear? He pauses in the hall, pointing on into that long ache of shale grey. "Bedroom's that way. Don't worry, no brimstone or anything. Or scales. I just had it cleaned."

Aziraphale smiles at him. He takes his jacket off, hanging it carefully in the front closet. Crowley has somewhat forgotten he has a hall closet. That could be useful. He wonders what is in there. Moths, probably. Aziraphale holds his hands clasped in front of him. It’s almost amusing, really, that six-thousand years later, they can still find situations to be awkward in. "Oh, my dear boy, I couldn't possibly put you out of your own bed." 

Crowley shrugs, leaning against the wall. "Nah, angel. Not like I haven't slept out here before, you know. Nothing to it. Besides, you do remember Mesopotamia."

"Oh yes," Aziraphale shudders, "Those dreadful stones." They both think back to stone headrests, grimacing at the ghost of old neckaches.

"Exactly, gotta hand it to humans. Cotton is a huge step up. Bloody inventive of them, weaving.”

"Bit fond of silk, myself," Aziraphale says, moving into the flat.

Crowley follows, arching a brow and rolling his eyes. “'Course you are.” (He is always amused by that strange dichotomy. Crowley lives sparsely, disinterested. It’s the angel that’s the bit of the epicurean, has the slight touch of the hedonist. Though, really, if you get right down to it, that’s rather what makes Aziraphale worth knowing.)

"Right then," Aziraphale says, hesitation in him. "I've never - stayed the night at anyone's. Do we just go on to bed then? I'm afraid I'm not sure -"

"What? Oh yeah. I mean, I suppose. Haven't really either -"

"Oh."

"Yeah."

"It occurs to me," Aziraphale fiddles slightly with the edge of his sleeve, invisible wrinkles, "That I'm not tired. Are you -"

Crowley grins. "Not in the slightest. You know, I've still got that red you left from. Wait, when was that?”

“I think it was 1981.”

“Oh yeah,” Crowley drawls, “MTV.” (That, of course, had been one of his.)

"Oh," Aziraphale and his slow dawn smile, "That would be splendid. Pour it out, good fellow."

"Aziraphale, do me a favor and at least catch up to 1980."

"Pour it a bit heavy, would you? Thank you."

Crowley laughs.

This is nothing unusual, nothing different. The same always, the same forever, even if it's a different location. Crowley in the kitchen, collecting stemware and a bottle, an opener too, while listening to Aziraphale drone on about something or another. Something something prophecy. From around the corner, if he leans, he can see Aziraphale perched on the leather sofa, hands together between his knees. 

Crowley finds the wine opener at the back of the drawer, an ancient cork still on it. He scowls, knowing it is here from another time with Aziraphale. He doesn't drink red wine alone. He stands for a moment staring at the cork, red-dark and crumbling, the taste of smoke still on the back of his throat. Burning paperbacks. His hands curl around the cork, prying it off.

Shake it off. Get a damn grip on yourself. If there’s a strange roll to his shoulders, if there’s an uneasy set to his stomach, it’s just that it’s been a remarkably long day. He is dark even against the bleak kitchen. Let us look at him. Look at the pale face and the knifesharp cheekbones, look at the too-lean frame, the too-skinny self. Look at him, a graphite scribble. Angular as spider-bent legs. See the whiplash-slither of his body and the yellow ochre of his eyes. Mankind knows yellow twice over. It is the color of brightness, yes, of joy, of the sun. But is the color too of rotted fat, of fish in lye. It is the color of sick, of a bruise on the fourth day. Hellhaired and bruise-eyed and sharp-boned, yes, he would cut anything he touched. A rusted blade.

So he touches nothing.

The hall is remarkably clean when he walks back with two big-bowled glasses of a red, bitter cabernet. Tannic and edgy. The floor shows no Ligur puddle to be seen. Aziraphale and his too-innocent smile, leaning back on the sofa. Saying oh good, I could use a glass. Crowley collapses in the chair, legs kicked out, a strange pile of right angles and hypotenuses. He looks at the self-satisfied smirk on Aziraphale's mouth. You always smile like that when you're particularly pleased. His stomach is warm and uneasy.

“Thanks for the -“ He waves at the front hall. 

“You could have been killed,” Aziraphale says, looking over at the holy-water-free hall and frowning.

"I would have been," Crowley says. Simple, direct. He drinks and doesn't offer anything else.

Aziraphale sighs.

So it goes. And if, after a glass or six, he finds himself maudlin-drunk and trying to figure out the exact shade of Aziraphale’s pale hair (starstuff, he thinks, remembering old tools in an old kit), what does it matter? It doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. A frown at the dark windows. He wonders if there are storm clouds gathering outside. The black ones, the Old Testament clouds. The rains and the flood and oh, does he remember how to swim?

Try not to drown.

“It’s so dark in here.” Aziraphale sips at the wine, looking around at the grey walls, the shale of the cave, the green-leafed plants lining them. A cave. A lair, as the uninspired might say. “Oh, I mean, I didn’t mean to say. It’s beautiful, of course. Just dark.”

Crowley shrugs, “Suits me.” And it does, it does suit him. It is sharp. It is a reminder, really, deep at the core, a little do not forget. What serpent gets to keep the light? He isn’t sure if he wants Aziraphale to like it here or hate it. Strange times.

 


 

Hours pass. Crowley finishes some long-winded sentence culminating in " - and that's the problem with potatoes." He thrusts an empty wine glass at Aziraphale's distracted face, quirking one aqueduct-arch brow and saying, "Hey, angel, you in there?"

Aziraphale frowns, blinking open one bleary eye. "Oh yes, sorry. I must be drifting. All this wine, you see."

Crowley and his skeptical look. "Right."

They don’t talk about it. Aziraphale musters that half-smile and said I suppose it's about that time then. Crowley watches (he always watches) as Aziraphale moves to the sink. As he gently rinses out the bit of wine in the glass, dries it on a handtowel, sets it out on the rack to air. Nothing about this is new, but maybe that is the trouble. This too-easy way they always slot together, making sense out of languages that shouldn’t be mutually intelligible at all. There are plenty of things that do not mix. Salt and fresh, fish and cheese, angel and demon. Silk and cotton. It doesn’t go. (Does it?) 

"Bedroom's at the end of the hall, yes? To the left?" Aziraphale pauses at the hall, rumples in his shirt and under his eyes, half-awake. Crowley's hand twitches.

"To the left," Crowley says, nodding and looking out the window. He doesn't look. Not at the spot of white walking through the door at the end of the hall. It is different knowing that Aziraphale is going through the bedroom door and not the front door, that he will rest in whatever his preferred fashion is, tucked into slate-grey cotton sheets, his head on a pillow that Crowley knows all the lumps of. That in the morning, there will be bits of Crowley's own dead skin cells on his scalp, in his hair, on his skin. That they might settle on his mouth. That as Aziraphale might lick his lips, just to wet them, he would take in a little of Crowley.

Don't think about that. That's bloody fucking weird, eh? Don't be weird. He drains the glass.

Don’t talk about it.

 


 

I met you once, a long time ago.

There had been Eden. That's ancient history. The genesis of it all, lined with plants that do not go at all now. The escallonia and the pine, the palms and the ivy. This toybox of growth that would be tipped over and scattered then across the globe. Pine to the north and palms to the south and seaweed deep in the oceans too. It had been just another day. A new assignment. “Go on,” he’d been told, “Get on up there and make some trouble.”

What he'd done, in truth, hadn’t even been a temptation. Not really. Not in any proper sense of the word, at least. He’d just slithered up, belly on black earth and damp grass. Had slithered up, yes, and reminded her of options. What's the problem with knowing good from evil anyway? (He’s never been great at this, knowing what he's supposed to do. Really, if you think about it, that’s what got him into this whole mess anyway.)

So he'd watched the two first humans stumble on out into the sand and, in his endless boredom, struck up a conversation with the pale-clad angel there at the Eastern Gate.

"Didn't you have a flaming sword? What happened to it?"

"Uh. Gave it away."

"You what?"

"I gave it away!"

That's the trouble with angels. The trouble with Aziraphale. The chink in the wall, the door of the Eastern Gate. You. You're different, aren't you?  He had not known then that he should be careful. (He had not been careful.) How can you watch out when you have no idea of the cliffs, when there is no hazard sign posted?

 


 

It really cannot be counted as night now, can it? Near four in the morning. The most industrious creatures are already up. Running, starting breakfast, bringing down the laundry. Crowley lays on the couch, industriously attempting to avoid the concept of morning. Sprawled out like a bent wire hanger. Tossing and turning, staring at the faraway ceiling sometimes and the riverstone-grey walls others. The stars too. (That one's Polaris. I remember that one.) He is too, too aware of Aziraphale in the other room, too lost on wondering when, exactly, that proximity had become an issue.

He doesn't know. Cast back, further back, through all of history. Through all of time. There had always been careful lines drawn there in the sand. Remember the sand. It had always been Crowley's job to push, to try to erase the lines, to lean against the wall. Chiseling, yes, that too.

Now, there is the strangest sense that there is no wall. That if he does lean, he might fall. 

He glares heretic-yellow eyes at the ceiling, scowling. This isn't fair. (What isn't fair?) Not this, this whole mess of a thing. I thought I had more time. I need more time. Please. He is terrified. Terrified, yes, that's the word. Of an angel in his silent bookshop, cataloging the books and the strange dampness. It is not the angel bit, no. He is terrified of Aziraphale himself, angel or no. Of a man with an easy and nervous smile, a man who had stopped updating his vocabulary fifty fucking years ago, who calls The Velvet Underground bebop for all the demons in Hell, dammit. A man who has bluevein eyes and dandelion-spit hair and who had taken Crowley's hand on the bus and kept it, yes. This keeper of things, this cataloguer, librarian of whatever he has watched, read, loved. Who takes things into his hands through the centuries and shepherds them with care. 

Things, yes, like books and sheet music. Demons too, perhaps.

Crowley loves that about him. Fuck that, fuck everything, don't even fucking think that. Love, that strange word that he's always taken for granted, something that angels blast indiscriminately as a floodlamp and something mortals fall in and out of as constantly as a puddle. Something that demons don't do.

(He's never been a particularly good demon.)

But it's the only word for Aziraphale in his bookshop, his gentletouch hands running down the spine of a first edition as they might run down other spines. Bone and flesh. Aziraphale is a keeper of stories. He loves all the stories, all the books and the tales. He gathers them up and Crowley thinks of crows and of magpies, their little nests of bright things and twigs, a hint of red ribbon. Aziraphale, the shepherd. Crowley always rolls his scale-yellow eyes at the bookseller. Shakes his head at this librarian-angel in his vellum-pale coat. Crowley of the "Oh, that's not mine, I don't read books." (They both know that isn't quite true, not entirely. Claiming to not read is one of those things he just does, though he is never quite certain why. There are books hidden in his flat, though not many. Sometimes they disappear from Aziraphale's shop, one or two at a time and are always carefully put back a few days later. Crowley has a preference for later things, twentieth-century. New and strange. It cannot be intentional, of course, if Aziraphale leaves out a stack of Vonnegut novels on the desk on days that Crowley stops by. He would never dream of suggesting The Stranger to Crowley and certainly never think of just leaving it right there, next to Crowley's jacket on the table. Never.)

He thinks of the copy of Cat's Cradle hidden under his mattress, under Aziraphale himself. That same warmness. 

Fuck. He wants a glass of water. Doesn't need it. It's just, perhaps, something to do. He walks to the kitchen still half-drunk and half-wild, his legs weaving and his snake spine curved. His features are always sharp. A scowling bit of obsidian and broken glass.

The black cabinets are entirely too glossy. He prods at his face in the reflection. Trying to squish the too-sharp bones, tamp down the angles of himself. You do not get to select a body. It is given to you (humans, demons, angels alike). Crowley can shapeshift between human and snake but he cannot choose to live permanently in another. No, bodies are given. Doled out like meal slop. He's been plunked down into this one, too skinny and too bony to be of any pleasure. Only good for draping over sofas and for shoving his arachnid-hands into pockets. So he frowns at himself, pulling the strands of war-colored hair lower, trying to soften the blow.

Bebop, honestly. He rolls his eyes. Sometimes, he swears Aziraphale is just trying to fuck with him. It’s a bit like a dance and he isn’t sure of the steps. But then, angels don’t dance. (Aziraphale had learned the gavotte once, he is a strange one.)

A sound behind him. "Can't sleep either, my dear?"

"Fuck, Aziraphale. Are you trying to discorporate me? I could've had a heart attack."

Aziraphale offers that warm wobble of a smile, the one that comes forth and hides and then strides forward again, as if the other man can never decide on whether or not he should approve of Crowley. "You don't need a heart. Anyway, you don't suppose there's any more of that red, do you?"

"We finished it hours ago. Got a few bottles of whiskey though."

"I'll get the glasses."

"We could just drink from them, you know. Not like you're gonna infect me with holiness. Besides, think about it. No dishes."

"Crowley."

"Fine, but you're washing up."

"Of course," Aziraphale smiles, moving past him to the cabinets, entirely too comfortable in the space between them. Smelling like sweat, smelling like dust. Like dryer sheets and nerves. Crowley doesn't move, this taut wire. A funambulist about to fall, the wire stretched across buildings, across a violin, across his shoulder blades. I want you. It is a wide want. The want of angels and demons (ethereal, everlasting, ad astra). It is the want of his human form (sticky, pulsing, let me lick you stern to bow).

Frozen, tense. Thinking of this day, of the past twenty-four hours. The end of the world and the start again. A burning bookshop and his hands looking for anything, anything at all. He knows that their fate is discorporation but he understood suddenly the need for Gilgamesh to gather stones, to collect bones, to build a grave. He would have built monuments. Carved Aziraphale Aziraphale Aziraphale into any mountain, graffitied onto all skyscrapers. It wouldn't have mattered. He would have scarred the world with his ache (after he'd finished the bottle first).

Then the angel had come back. And is standing in a buttoned pajama-top in his godblasted kitchen. His breath is scattershot. Racing pulse. Sweat. He clenches his hands, his white-knuckled and knobby fingers. Aziraphale is there, standing there with two glass tumblers in his hand and gentle concern in pale blue dot eyes and coming forward. And Crowley knows he's real and knows he's alive but he cannot make something in him understand it, cannot quiet this something, wants to reach out and touch the arms of him and the mouth, the long ropes of muscle and the hair at his temples, to swallow him up and say yes yes yes you are alive.

He is burning up. Sappho had said it best, hadn't she? You burn me.

This heat is familiar. He takes it to bed every night, buys it a birthday card. It’s there now, it's been there all day. He cannot always ignore it and once again finds himself in bed, waking and frustrated, fucking his fist until he cries out. It is not enough, it is never enough. Worse still, he wonders if Aziraphale has experienced the same, the ache and the discomfort, pulling at himself until he's white-eyed and crying out. What are you bloody thinking about? Who are you looking at? What in hell’s name do you fucking want?

"Are you quite alright, my dear?"

"Fine. It's nothing. Not interesting. Hand 'em over, angel."

Aziraphale hands him the glasses. Crowley pops the top from the bottle, splashes the woodbrown liquid in.

"What do you think they'll do, our respective sides? They can't let us go too easily. We've been a bit of a bother, I'm afraid."

"No," Crowley agrees, rolling the drink around in the glass. "It's fairly certain that we're fucked."

Aziraphale frowns, small and melancholy. He sits back in the barstool, clasping his hands around the glass. "There was so much I still wanted to do."

"Like what?" Crowley looks up, squinting at him, his hair brushed back from his forehead, wild from his fingers running through it. What did you want to do?  Aziraphale pauses, an odd hesitation in him. He looks up at Crowley and there is too much in it. Don't, don't say it. (Please say it, I can't. You know that, don't you?) And it's here, they have been here before. Thousands and thousands of times. Close enough for a spider to weave her web in the nothing of space between them. Drawn closer, silk by silk by silk. He can feel it in his throat there is no forever, you are running out of time. He can hear an old sentence, you go too fast for me, Crowley. So here he is, stifling between. Unsure.

Aziraphale swallows. His eyes hold Crowley's. Crowley stands very still, wretched. Terrified. Watching Aziraphale's very wide eyes, the open of the mouth. There is a softness in Aziraphale’s look, in the swallow of his throat. It could be? (It might not be.) He wants to scream it; he wants to say nothing at all. Let me stay in this bit of maybe. Maybe is not no, maybe means perhaps, someday. Maybe means you might feel the same. (You might not.)

"It's nothing," Aziraphale goes on, not having the decency to look away. "I just - I've always thought, you know, that I would - like that. Someday."

"That." (It comes out flat.)

"Well, yes. Romance. All of it," Aziraphale says. "Love," he says, softer. Crowley turns away, shoving his hands into his pockets. The scrape of denim on his skin. His teeth deep in the meat of his lip.

"Never thought about it," he says, "Can't be that hard for you, right? Not that I remember much of angel-stuff. Not much of an expert on it these days. Temptations, yeah, all in, all the time. Love's more your lot. That's just Tuesday for you, really. Can't have an angel without love. Love ain't our speed."

Aziraphale stares at him, shoulders set. Opens his mouth, closes it again. Looks, then looks away. Wait, I didn't mean it. Wait, go on. Wait, tell me, what were you about to say? But the minutes beat on into nothing. Aziraphale brushes his sleeve of invisible dust.

"I didn't quite mean - "

"Crowley," Aziraphale says. And this time his name is said differently, it is said like a nuclear blast. Said like rising flood water, like the first spit of ash from Pompeii. A promise of disaster, he thinks, that everything will change after.

"I forgot how good this bottle was. Great vintage. Think I picked it up a couple of decades ago. Nicked it off some guy in a card game maybe or a dare or - "

"You're rambling, my dear."

" - Think I picked up a couple of other things from him too, you know. They're probably around here, I could go look - "

"Crowley," Aziraphale sets the glass down firmly, clicking on the counter. His hand reaching up toward Crowley's chest. It's a strange thing, this breathing. He has never run so ragged, never run so low on oxygen before. It's only been the once. Only once, earlier that day, in a firepit bookshop. (Twice in one day like this may very well kill him.) 

"Don't," Crowley says, holding Aziraphale's hands very still, several inches from himself. "Don't, Aziraphale. I can't. What if - " What if you Fall? What if I am an infection? Remember how the infection had crept into Constantinople? They had had so many dead that they had thrown them into the walls of the city, had sealed them up. There are still bones there, surrounding Istanbul. How am I different? The necrotic creep of me? The ink of me? What if you dip the feather quills of yourself into me and they come back stained? It is something they have never discussed. Yet another page ripped from each of their books, something stolen and hidden away saying do not read this, do not look for it, this is not for publication. There is nothing, nothing, nothing to be said about the Fall. This million-light-year freefall into sulfur, this loss of light. The sudden cold, the knowledge that you will never be warm again. Crowley can read Aziraphale, the strange quirk to the brow and sharp-focus eyes, the tightened knuckles, the buckled lower-lip. If you ask me now, I won't say no. Don't ask, please, do not ask. (Please, for the love of God, Satan, anyone. Ask.) 

"I won't," Aziraphale says. "Fall, I mean."

"You can't." He breathes. That is the only thing now, breathing. Count it out. One, two, three, four. In and out. Don't look up, don't look at Aziraphale's nervous face, don't look at the furrowed brows, the open mouth, don't. Crowley thinks of the past. Would-be lovers are historians. Museum curators. Yes, carefully preserving the past, pulling out the old books over and over and over again. Re-examining every moment of the other, all the moments of maybe, all the caught eyes and was that somethings. Crowley swells on the past. Remember a night in 1967, the two of them in the Bentley and a thermos of holy water between his thighs. "You go too fast for me, Crowley."

Too fast. Tell me about speed limits. Your velocity, tell me.

"I get to make my own choices. We all do," Aziraphale whispers. (It is too close, too much. Somehow the hands are against his chest, somehow Aziraphale has closed that space between them. Subtraction again. Or is it addition? One plus one? He doesn't know, he has never been good with figures.) "How I feel for you isn't a sin. It isn't wrong."

Isn't it? That's the thing, he doesn't know. It sure seems like it should be but then, he never did get to eat of that apple. Eve had offered it to Adam, not to an old serpent at her feet. Tell me what's right and what's wrong, tell me what the plan is, tell me what you want from me. Tell me why you filled me up with all this doubt and nowhere to put it, tell me why you've soaked me with all this want and gave me no hands to reach. Tell me why you threw me out, down a fucking well, out with the day's trash. How can you have made me and have no use for me? Tell me what this is, that you won't do it to him. Listen to me that he's perfect, beautiful, that this idiot angel is the best thing you've got and if you so much as darken him, I will tear you out from the sky and into confetti. Listen to me. Tell me.

His chest is heaving. He has not opened his eyes, has not wrenched his teeth from his hard-bitten lower lip. He can stay in this space forever, perhaps, if he does not look, does not reach, does not speak.

There is a hand on his face. Cool, shaking. Gentle-fingered with rough skin. "I love you," Aziraphale says. It is a storm couched in a whisper and Crowley doesn't know who makes the howling sound that follows. But it comes, it echoes on the sparse furnishings, the empty corners. "I love you and it's good, my dear, it's the best thing I've ever done. I need you to know this, of course, though I don't know if you - "

"Angel," he hisses, "shut up." But maybe, maybe he never got to saying the last part. How can you say anything when you are a shattered pot, a dropped amphora, a thousand-piece puzzle coming apart? Crowley doesn’t even realize that he had moved, that his hands have fisted into Aziraphale's shirt, that suddenly his mouth is on the other and thank you, god, thank you, this is the only thing, please understand that I cannot be blamed, that I cannot say no forever, if you need to throw someone in the fire, pick me, I'm burnt anyway, please. He is hard and angry as volcanic rock, tossed tephra. Crowley kisses him because his heart will stop otherwise. Yes, his mouth on Aziraphale's, his fingers pulling at the other man's. Sharp and too-much and too-hard and pulling, yes, there will be bruises there. On the bicep, the underside. Swallowing the rest of the sentence in Aziraphale's mouth, the rest of I don't know if you feel the same? And fuck, fuck, fuck, he isn't sure if that is what Aziraphale had meant at all. Aziraphale, who is steady and still beneath him during this half-second. Fuck his impulsive self, fuck the world, hang it all. Let it burn. Six-thousand years and he’s fumbled it all at the end. All in an instant, this pulse of him, this half-second before the hands on his chest push back, before Aziraphale quietly wipes Crowley’s spit from his lips and politely rights the ship. As he should.

He pulls back slightly, eyes shut. Whispers against that open mouth. "I'm not trying to go too fast, I swear, I swear it."

"Oh, love," the voice comes. The hands do not push. The mouth opens. He falls forward, he falls and falls and falls and it is different this time. It is different because there is a khaki gabardine coat in the front hall closet, because Aziraphale smells like bookdust and like lavender soap, like the salt-sweat of his hairline. Because there are angels, yes, and demons too and because none of that matters. Not here. None of it will ever matter here in this flat, perhaps someday in a quiet cottage against the sound of the sea echoing on chalk hills. Wind in the grass. Because there was a garden once and there will be a garden again but this one will be smaller and Crowley will still yell at his wisteria and Aziraphale will apologize to it afterward. Because no, no, no, what matters is that Aziraphale is warm as a stone in the sun, that his arms are tight and make circles for Crowley. Because, really, they always have.

Tell me, tell me, tell me. I need to hear you say it. What if I got it wrong? Tell me. This ash of him, his starved mouth, the taste of Aziraphale moving quick and desperate against him. Those spine-running fingers at Crowley's neck, pulling him in tighter. In his hellfire hair, pulling it at the roots, twisting Crowley sideways and running a mouth over his cheek, his hollow face and stabbing jaw. The long neck and the curl of the ear. Can you imagine how I want you?

He will never never never be able to say it first. Never, this I love you sticks in his throat, choking him like a chickenbone, spearing him like an unfound fishbone. But Aziraphale has always known how to read the spaces of this book, this snakespine book and its dark cover. And because he knows that with invisible ink, you must add something first. And Crowley has always been salt-wet, salt-covered, drenched in his own sea of doubt. So Aziraphale knows the developing agent and pours his own silver nitrate into him.

"I love you, you know, you old serpent." (Aziraphale's eyes glitter when he says it and Crowley has seen glitter like this, like pulsars in the night, like nothing born of earth.) How can we call it falling in love when it feels so much like the opposite? Crowley has fallen once. His freeform dive into sulfur. This is different, this is breath in the air and being caught by wings and by talons, borne up again into the light.

“Tell me, angel, tell me what you want from me.” (It is a hiss, a beg, a tell me what to do, tell me anything at all.)

“For you to quit pretending that sofa is at all comfortable. And come with me to bed,” Aziraphale hitches, strong-voiced.

So he goes.

 


 

At the door to the bedroom, he pauses.

"Are you sure? Angel, you don't have to, whatever you want -" He waves his hands out, gesturing at the half-empty room. At the wide bed and the grey sheets, still rumpled from Aziraphale's tossing. At the sleek lines of the black steel-frame furniture. The long windows, the negative space. His hands spread out to say anything you want, I'm happy with. I swear.

Aziraphale sinks his mouth like a lamprey eel onto Crowley's neck, there at the join of throat and shoulder, one of the hollow spaces of him. Sucks a bruise in like fingers in a ripe peach, tender and soft. It will be dark later. "I want you, I have always wanted you," Aziraphale whispers, "to fuck me until I forget every single word in existence." Crowley closes his eyes, he has to. He is drowning, swimming. There is no rope to grab onto, no raft to hold. Only this, the water. He can hear the words under Aziraphale's voice. I want you to make me yours, I want you to fuck me until I forget every word in every language but your name.

It cannot be a surprise to either of them when Aziraphale's back hits the wall, being kissed as if by a drowning man struggling to breathe.

You don’t have to have practiced to be good at all things. He has only theoretical knowledge of undressing Aziraphale but it works all the same. Skinny fingers unbuttoning the soft shirt, dipping into the spaces as they come available. Skin against skin, lips on the Adam’s apple, tongue licking at the shiver, at the heartbeat there. Tasting the salt of Aziraphale’s sweat. You’re an angel but you’re more than that too. I want you like this, shivering and nervous, counting the seconds between when I touch you (I am doing the same). You’re beautiful beautiful beautiful. He is on the carpet, singing psalms to the way Aziraphale pushes Crowley’s hand against himself, the heat and the ache, yes. Superheated. Aziraphale groans as Crowley tightens his grip, starving fingers. A shot of sparks from his crown to his spine.

“Fuck, do you have any idea, any idea?”

“Yes, yes, oh, it’s been too long.” How long? (He wants to ask, he cannot ask. They’re here, that’s enough. It’s enough, it’s enough.) He doesn't ask, instead, he swallows Aziraphale down, fingertips tight in the hips, clawing with maybe-talons at the open shirt. His half-snake jaw wide and carnivorous, hearing Aziraphale's half-whisper of oh love, oh shit, fuck. He is wild, clenched and catastrophic as Krakatoa so he keeps his teeth carefully put away, cannot tell at any given time if they are incisors or fangs, if he is venomous or not. Infect nothing. Aziraphale covers his mouth with his hand, papering over a moan. Crowley pauses, stopping to hiss. "Don't you dare. I want to hear you."

"Oh dear," Aziraphale says, that blush watercolored on his cheeks, over his chest, mottled down the throat.

"I am not joking." (It would be easier, less revealing, less embarrassing to laugh it off. To ignore, to let Aziraphale cover his moans and fumble on through. Crowley hasn't waited this long, these stretched-out millennia, to not get it exactly right.) He stays on his knees, his mouth centimeters away, his eyes steady on Aziraphale's own.

The other man swallows, lifting his jaw slightly. A different sort of want there, sharper and sudden. Aziraphale lifts his hand, gentling into Crowley's red-clay hair, fingers weaving through like a snake in the grass. He pulls suddenly, tugging Crowley's head back, showing the long march of his throat. It hurts wonderfully. He moans through his teeth.

"You like that," Aziraphale says (wide with wonder).

"Yes." Fuck, yes. Again. Again and again.

"Keep doing it. Don't stop. Please." (Saying please like you might say you can stay at my place, if you like, maybe always.)

“Oh, love, I’ve thought about this.” Aziraphale's voice is rough as a rockpath, rough as rusted metal. His hands are gentle, pushing down on Crowley's head, moving the kneeling man back between his thighs.

“Have you?” Tell me, tell me. I need to know. He needs to know, yes. This image of Aziraphale, of the swells and dips of him. The silk of him and plainwater. There is nothing sharp about lakes and Aziraphale covers over his salt crags like water. Crowley reaches up to his chest, the stretch of his stomach too. The sawdust-colored hair across him, up his thighs, there at the base of his cock. He swallows again, hearing Aziraphale cry out at the touch.

"Yes, oh fuck, Crowley, always, always, always. More than I should have." His hips snap into Crowley's mouth, arching for a grainy tongue. "I tried it, you know, sometimes. Oh, my dear, thinking what you would feel like. Oh, good lord. It was never, never -" He pulls Crowley back by his hair again, breathing quick and heavy. "I want you to -"

"Angel, whatever you want."

"I want you on the bed and I want you on top of me and I want - "

"Fucking hell, shut up right now and get over there."

The bed is wide as a galaxy. The Milky Way, ten-thousand light years across. Big enough for two. Crowley hears an echo of his own voice, pleading once, not so long ago (it feels like years). It’s a big universe. Even if this all ends in a puddle of goo, we can go off together. Aziraphale lays against the ash-grey sheets. Grey as ash, as smoke from burnt things. Hell-charred things. Bright and beautiful, the parchment-pale skin of him and the hills and valleys, his body like a map. A topographer's dream. Crowley pauses there, kneeling like a supplicant. Serrated and strange, his yellow-eyed and yellow-bellied need. Aziraphale's face shines at him, starbright. "You're beautiful."

"You're ridiculous, you know."

Aziraphale laughs. "Come here."

So he goes. He runs hands over Aziraphale's calves, his thighs, his solar plexus. He licks in, looking for pearls in oysters. Saltwater to rockpools. His hands edging into the other below him, his body's comfortable weight pressing Aziraphale deeper into the mattress. He wants to touch every part, every inch of skin and teeth and hair and nail. If they spill a bit of blood, he'll touch that too. You're alive, you're alive, you're alive. His fingers look for hints of burnscar, for shiny bits of fire-marks on Aziraphale's skin. For a waft of smoke. (He looks, secretly, for wasp-yellow in the sky-pale eyes. For hints of damnation under his fingernails and molten metal in his mouth. But there is nothing, nothing here of perdition.)

"Fuck me, Crowley. Now, please," Aziraphale says. And yes, yes, yes when he is surrounded and covered, sunk deep, diving deep and safe, there is that strange and welcome warmth in the center of him. This clutch of them together, their sweat-soaked hair and seeking skin, their questioning teeth and answering mouths and rutting, grasping at the cock between them. He fists Aziraphale like a water pump at a cistern, a well-beloved pommel. Aziraphale cries out, his eyes shut and whispering I love you, I love you, I love you. This yellow-dwarf hair like a halo, like a crown. Aziraphale's head thrown back against the mattress and his neck risen. Crowley desperate and kissing prayers into it, prayers he has not repeated for thousands of years. He gives praise where it belongs, to God for Aziraphale and to Aziraphale for his own self. 

"I love you," he finally says, gutting it out between thrusts, wincing at his own words and the bareness of it all. Exposed. Deadly. Left on the side of a cliff, naked and to die. 

"Crowley," Aziraphale keens, fingers tightening on Crowley's rigid, shaking arms. The other man is rough and breathing raggedly, the torn-edged newsprint of his voice. "Yes, god, please." 

And the world goes white. White as it was in the beginning and as white as it will be in the end. White light, this culmination of all light. Gathered and sewn up, this collection of us all together. 

He collapses to the bed, to the pile of soft, soaked skin beneath him. The chuckling, dawn-light smile of Aziraphale. Aziraphale, who pulls him tight, brushes the copper hair from his sticky face, kissing him on the mouth and on the nose, the eyelids too. 

"Alright, angel?" He mutters this from face-down in the sheets, the words mostly caught by cotton. 

"You absurd, dear boy, are you joking?"

He laughs, still warm. Pulls his arm tighter, bringing more of them together. Don't let me fall asleep without touching you. I need you. I need to know you're here. You're safe. That you're already thinking about the First Folio and about ducks or something and that you probably already have thought about eggs benedict, haven't you? Of course you have. 

"Crowley," Aziraphale murmurs, somewhere also lost in the pillows.

"Hmm?"

"Tell me about the beginning."

"What's there to tell? You were there. A question of apples, a lack of flaming sword, a little bit of this, a little -"

"No," he says, covering Crowley's stretched-out hand with his own, weaving their fingers together like fabric. Flesh and bone still. "Before that. You made the stars once. Tell me about that."

 


 

The stars. I was there once. In white, as you are. I had a name once that is not this one, that has never been this one. I've never told you what it was. We hadn't met then, even with all that endless time (there are so many angels, too many). I don't know what you did then, before you were on apple duty. Before you came here. But I worked on the universe. Do you see the stars? I hung some of them.

There was a man I met for awhile. He was onto us. He said that they were made of nitrogen and calcium, iron and carbon, just like these bodies. That we were made from collapsing stars. He held up an apple, told me that to bake an apple pie, you must first invent the universe.

He was right, you know. You know that, angel. He just didn't know the next part.

That you and I were there.