“You burn me.”
Sappho, Fragment 38.
If Not, Winter, Anne Carson (trans.)
A Cottage In The South Downs
"Did you plant this?" Aziraphale asks, touching the leaves.
"Oh, yeah. Guilty as charged."
The apple tree. Once, everything was apples. Language started slowly, we picked up a few words at a time, inventing them as we needed them. In the beginning, we called every fruit and vegetable an apple. Berries and nuts too. When tomatoes were finally brought to Europe from the New World, we called them love apples. The French had glanced at a potato and called it pomme de terre. Apple of the earth. Old English had done something similar when confronted with the cucumber, glancing warily at it, shrugging and calling it orþæppla. Earth-apple. Want starts widely. We don't have a name for want at first, just this blind hunger. We know the feeling of hunger, of an empty stomach. In the beginning, anything will do. Give me an apple, we yell, our hands stretched out. The tricky bit is the reply. What kind?
We didn’t know then what we wanted. We do now. You and I, this little garden. The apple of my eye. In the beginning, we were starving and anything would do. Crabapples and thornapples too. But then you. That's the trouble with love, that want can become a craving. That once you get a taste for something, nothing else will do.
They are standing here in a garden, this one just out the back of a cottage in the South Downs. The late afternoon sun, this empty house. Crowley slinks past, curling his shoulders like a cobra flares. Self-protective.
“Do you like it?” He asks.
“The tree?" Aziraphale blinks, looking at him. "Or the cottage?”
Take your pick, angel. Anything. He shrugs. "Either or."
(This isn't really the beginning. Let's go back, let's see how they got here.)
It started with a garden. It had started a few weeks ago, the two of them in their usual places in the back of Aziraphale's bookshop. Crowley half-draped over the sofa with his slickspine doing things no human spine should ever consider. Aziraphale gesturing with a bit of scotch, saying something or other about his half-mad idea to try to cultivate an herb garden on his kitchen windowsill.
"See, that's the thing about gardening," Crowley says, "You gotta put the fear into them. If they don't respect you, then you've already lost. The plants will have won, angel. You're done for. Doomed. You'd be rotten at it, you're too nice."
"Yes, my dear." (Aziraphale tops up the glass.)
"Aziraphale," Crowley lies back on the uncomfortable sofa, eyes half-shut and as yellow as a warning sign. Hiss-yellow, he has thought of them (though he has no idea what that means). "You're humoring me. Stop."
"I'm not humoring you, I like to listen to you. There is a difference."
"Is there?" A quirked brow, a quirked mouth. His rail-thin nose and sulfur hair, this list of his drunk self. He bobs a little there on the sofa, weaving a little.
"When did you take up gardening? I can't remember. Was it in London? 17th century? You had a lot to say about Shakespeare and his thoughts on rosemary."
"I hate the sad ones. There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Sop, angel, that's sop. It's good in gin, that's what." He pauses, one hand tangling in his hair. “Well, I mean rosemary’s good in gin. Not sop. Sop’s not good in anything.”
"Fine, then. You're a gardener. Tell me about rosemary."
"You've got shit light in your kitchen. Pick a better spot."
Crowley shrugs. "Leave it up to me. Something outside. Just trust me." He looks at his hands. Look at them. Two hands, made of bone and skin. Soil beneath his fingernails. I'll find you a better spot for your ridiculous herb garden. Not that kitchen, you've got the worst light in that kitchen.
What is it about apples? What came first? Was it the apple, was it us? When we landed there, flung out from skystuff hands, tossed off like drops of water after washing yourself up, was the tree already in the garden? Or did it come later? We don't get to know. In the beginning, there were apples. There's some evidence that apple trees were the first we ever cultivated. That we looked at the apple and thought yes, alright, I'd like some more. We've always wanted apples. In Eden, millennia and millennia and millennia ago, the tree had been Malus sieversii. This wild cultivar from the mountains in central Asia. This apple is the ancestor of all our modern apples. It's given its genetic code to everything we bite into now. (It had even given its name to the largest city, Almaty. Forests thick with apple trees surround the city so they had built a city and called it full of apples. )
But we’re talking about gardening. When had he picked it up, Aziraphale had asked. It had been much longer than London. Far longer than Shakespeare. You see, Crowley was the first gardener. Let's cast back, look back, back again. There had been a garden in the beginning. That very first beginning. We called it Eden. But we aren't very clear on timelines and names get all muddled up, so all we really know is that, in the beginning, there was a garden. Adam and Eve and their little apple tree too. Angels guarding the gates. How many angels? That's the real trick. In the beginning, there were two. "Go on down there," they had said. "Keep them out of trouble."
There is diffused light in Heaven but nothing of sun. So this is the first sunlight on Crowley's face. His name is not Crowley. Not now. Not yet. He is still rust-haired and his eyes have never once touched yellow. Never the seep of it, stain of bruise-yellow. (That comes later, let us focus on the now.)
He had been a gardener once. Here, in Eden, there had been all plants together. Annuals and perennials. He had worked them with his hands, his newly-given humanform hands. Had trained ivy to grow up over an arbor. Had laid the bedding soil, built up the berm. There at the Northern Gate, he had watched the first two humans stumble into streams and out of leaf piles, had watched them sleep in bowers. "Keep to the Northern Gate," they had said (Gabriel mostly). He had. Really. Well, he had tried. Well, except for that whole curiosity thing. It had been the plants' fault, alright? He'd just wanted to know if they looked the same over there as they did here. If his little corner was similar to that little corner. That Eastern Gate. It wasn't his fault, not really. He'd just wanted to know.
You had looked like the sun. It was new still and everything was new and I had never seen you before (there's too many damn angels). You liked to sleep on that hill. Well, doze, really. Flaming sword and all, just propped up to the side. You wore a lot of white then (not much has changed).
"Your robe's 'bout to catch fire," Crowley had said, leaning against an elm.
"Oh bother." Aziraphale had puttered to pull the fabric away from the flames. Keep it safe. He had looked up then at Crowley, blue-eyed and curious too. "I haven't met anyone else yet here. Well, other than Adam and Eve. Lovely couple, you know. They brought all those pears from another corner, not sure which one." He points at a pile of green-peel fruit. "Oh, pardon me, I'm Aziraphale. And you are?"
Crowley had given his name. His first of names. It had not yet been Crowley or Crawly or Anthony J. It had been something else entirely. (He doesn't know that it is his last time saying it.)
"Pleasure to meet you, I've heard you've been working on some wonderful things," Aziraphale says, nodding firmly. "Have a pear?"
Soon-to-Be Crowley had taken the pear. He had never tried eating, not yet. It hadn't seemed interesting. But he watched the other mouth, the lips and the teeth and the pear-pale flesh. The shred of a Bartlett under incisors and molars. Pear juice had run a bit around Aziraphale’s worrymark chin and Aziraphale had wiped it off with the back of his hand. Crowley's stomach had rumbled. Oh, that's hunger. He realizes this belatedly, that their corporal forms must be fed. (He hadn't really thought about it yet. If he's entirely honest, he hadn't been quite clear on the location of his stomach yet either. There had been diagrams and presentations but he'd dozed off through most of them.)
"So it's pretty good?" Crowley had asked.
"Quite, my dear boy."
He had nodded and shrugged. Bitten into the pearskin. Oh shit, alright. Aziraphale hadn't lied. It had been good. "Gotta give it to you. You've caught onto something here."
Aziraphale had laughed. He had spread his hands out over the grass, waving the bit of green below them. His wings had rested back behind him, expansive and relaxed. "Are you guarding a gate?"
"Nah, not really. I mean, I'm supposed to stay near where they are, find the kids. I've gotta give a speech."
"Yeah, you know. The big Danger: High Voltage sign. Watch for Snakes. Gabriel figures that Hell's gonna wise up soon to Earth and start interfering, so I'm supposed to put the humans on guard." Crowley shrugs. He's still figuring out this whole body thing, how to move, how to press and release. How to ease tension. He hates giving speeches. Brushes hair from where it has blown in his face. It's long, yes, and the color of apples. (He knows, he's seen them. There is a tree.)
"What are you going to tell them?"
"Just some stuff about Lucifer. And the Fall." Crowley pulls a face then, "Gabriel gave me an outline. A script. Not gonna use a script. I'll wing it though. They're humans, gonna try to make it at least a little interesting. I mean, have you ever cared about someone else's gossip? Adam and Eve ain't gonna care unless I spice it up."
"Oh," Aziraphale says, his eyes crinkling a little, "That's a wonderful idea. Perhaps you could bring them a few of these mangos when you go? They're not common in the bower they're living in but they're so delicious, I really think they must try them. You too, my dear. Here, take these."
Take the mangos, look over at where he's supposed to head. Adam and Eve, down there in a valley. Time to get a move on from up this wide hill.
It’s a long way down.
It had been much later when Crowley had slithered up again in Eden, snaking past an angel's bare feet.
"Well, that went down like a lead balloon."
"Yes, quite - wait, what?"
"I said, that went down like a lead balloon."
The pause, the moment, the frown in Aziraphale's eyes. "I'm sorry, you - "
You don't know me. You don't know my name. Say my name. Say it. Aziraphale doesn't know his name. He hasn't been given a new name. So he plucks one from the ground, picks it up out of the dirt, like nervous hands might pull grass out by the roots. "Crawly."
It's easy to remember that look in Aziraphale's eyes. The hesitancy and unease, the get away from me, foul fiend. No one becomes a monster by choice. We are cast out, cast down. We try to climb our way back and our fingers scrabble against the earth and are ground under heels. Get away from me, monster. You never forget the first time. Who are the monsters? Who decides to become a monster? I guess I did, he thinks, if you think about it. Why is it so bad to ask questions? Why was it so bad to say I need a little more information, can you tell me where we're going?
God had dug him a Pit. Pulled the cloud out from under him. It had been a long way down. That's the only good spot to put a monster. In a pit, somewhere dark and dug out. That's why Grendel keeps to his lair, that's why the Cyclops stays to his cave. Monsters don't belong to the grass and sky, to the light and the sun. They are not the hero, they are there to test the hero. Move the story forward. Monsters don't get stories of their own.
Crowley knows this already.
Crowley may have found a decent place to grow an herb garden. In fact, he may have even bought the damn place without ever having visited. This is his first time here, midsummer in the South Downs. His key in the lock. This empty house.
He walks through, boots against tile and carpet, hearing the sound of himself echo. There's a long line of windows in the kitchen there. They look out to the back garden and to the water further past. The sea, over the hill slope. He squints a bit. Even with sunglasses, the sky is bright here. Too bright. It bounces off the water. I wonder how many men have drowned in that. He tries to count the shipwrecks (he has a long memory). After this visit, he'll come often. A few times a week, more or less. Sometimes with workmen and furniture, sometimes with an eyebrow spearing a bucket of very nervous white exterior paint.
A path snakes up the back of the place, around a patch of garden. Ivy crawls up the edge of the fence, the side of the cottage. The soil out here is half-spoiled by sand. Crowley kicks at a tussock of half-brown grass. He tears a leaf from the escallonia bush. Glares at it, then glares indiscriminately at anything else that dares to wear chlorophyll. You know how it will go, he might say, if you dare pop a leaf spot. He doesn't say anything, not this time. The plants are already well, well aware.
"Look, you useless things. I've got to get to London. I'll be back later this week," he hisses. "Don't you dare get any ideas ."
He doesn't know why he had bought the cottage. It had just been this idea. This impulse and he's never never never been good with impulses. So he'd dropped Aziraphale off at the bookshop, still lunch-drunk (and with a little bit of chocolate ganache just there, there at the corner of his mouth). Had seen it posted and then just walked into the realtor's office and said the cottage there, the South Downs one. How much? Aziraphale had said he wanted to garden. And Crowley had liked the green here (it was always his favorite color). He’d paid cash.
(He still hasn't mentioned it to Aziraphale.)
The shore is near here. The cottage is a mild walk from the Seven Sisters, that rolling mess of white chalk hills along the Channel. He picks his way over there, his hands shoved into black denim pockets, kicking at the rocks along the path. He likes them, though he wouldn't have expected it. These dry valleys gradually being eroded, consumed by the sea. He likes erosion, endings, impermeability, change. Things that are not his, things he does not get to claim. He is not of earth, there is no entropy promised to him. No such hope of an ending. He is a constant thing. But here, here is a bit different. The cliffs will fade away entirely someday. The grass dies and is born again, the bit of clover too.
It’s just that there’s not much space in London, not really. His flat is nowhere much for anything beyond potted plants, a few tolerant trees. Some things, no matter how much you rant and bully, still need light and fresh air and black soil. This cottage has the space (and the light too). Just the thing for a few tomato plants, for hostas and phlox and Japanese maple. Trees, yes, with their roots like veins shot out into the earth. Deep and reaching, sometimes tangling around each other. A pot is no proper place for a tree.
Just the spot for rosemary.
On this first day, Crowley plants an apple tree. Adds a little miracle to help it grow, the shoot immediately popping forth from the soil.
Then, this strange exhaustion. He looks at his hand, at the growth in the dirt. He's out of breath. That's really fucking weird.
It takes an hour and a half to get to London. Well, for most people to get to London. Lead-foot Crowley can do it in about forty-five minutes if he's really got a mind for it. Besides, it's a pleasant enough drive. He's meeting Aziraphale for lunch. Soft-smiled Aziraphale with that quirk to the eye, who will certainly smell like bookdust and leather brogues, like the ambergris of the cologne his barber had suggested. Who will, almost certainly, put a hand out on Crowley's arm later, saying can I tempt you to dessert?
Crowley never touches back. But he thinks about it.
I could touch you in a rainstorm.
Picture it. Crowley thinks of redbrick walls, he thinks of the building not far from Aziraphale's shop. Redbrick and mortar, yes. Perhaps, if you like, they'll be walking past the building. The Bentley parked just across the way. It will be night. (Maybe tonight.) They'll be walking as they always do, hands those scarce few centimeters apart and the superheated air between them. Rolling boil air, humid and murderous.
I could kiss you in the shop.
It could go another way. Aziraphale’s bookshop, the paperdry air and the hint of pulp and ink. Books line the walls up to the flat, line the backroom there like wallpaper. Yes, he could surprise Aziraphale. Imagine him coming back from the kitchen, carrying a bottle of wine and glasses by the stem. Pushing him back into the wall, letting the bookspines leave their imprints. Yes, let Eliot and Swinburne have their say. Just for a moment, here, pushed against them.
I could suck a bruise into you, there in the kitchen.
It is a bit of pretense, the idea that Crowley cannot cook. You cannot suffer want without making souvenirs of everything they are. Aziraphale loves food, so Crowley can cook. He has learned slowly, slowly, slowly over the years. His hands chop zucchini, slice at nothing. The cadence of his blood hums Aziraphale Aziraphale Aziraphale . Who has touched you? Who have you loved? Whose hands on your body, your chest, your calves like railroad curves? He roasts potatoes, slices a rolled pile of sage leaves to add to a brown butter vinaigrette. Sometimes the knife slips. It's a human body, heavy with blood. He miracles the damage away. When the food is done, he pours a heavy glass of scotch. Sits for awhile, there on the barstool, staring at the wall. Staring at empty pots and dirty measuring spoons. Waves a hand till there's nothing. (I said he cooks. I did not say that he eats.)
I could touch you never (this is the most likely).
Let's talk about removal. Cutting. Erasure. Crowley sits sometimes, thrown into his throne-chair. He closes his eyes, focusing on each cell in his body. Imagines digging down into each of them, pulling out Aziraphale from them. Like wiping grease from an engine. Like washing fruit before eating.
Who has touched you? Who have you touched? I need to know.
He’s thought about it. For centuries (millennia). He’d given into himself first in Rome, strung out on oysters and drink, still half-sick from watching Caligula. There in his bed, the white-dark walls. Had wrapped a fist around himself. His absurdly too-human body. He is not human but it's rubbed off on him a little, these human wants. You can't hang around a feast forever without eventually saying hmm, I'd like to try a little of that. You can ignore desire if you like. He ignores it. Keeps it locked and hidden and do not touch. But you know how it is, drunk and miserable and strung out too long. His dick in his hand, hot and absurd and wrong. Pulling at himself with all the grace of a shipwreck, fucking his fist like a punishment. He’d come in his hand, had lain there for an hour with his fingers lax and still wrapped around himself. What a fucking mess.
I’m not doing that again. (He had. He does. It happens all the time. He could will it away, of course. Banish his body's response. But he likes it. A little. This hard-edged proof of it. I want you. He can lie about a lot of things but when it's poker-hot and pressed into the mattress, there no room for argument.)
Distract yourself. Put a pot of water on to boil. Add salt. Make it taste like the sea.
Who's touched you? Tell me their names. (I won't tell you mine. I don't want you to know.) I will not steal your name. I will not let you take mine. He closes his eyes. How have they touched you? He wonders what he hasn't seen. They pass hidden through humanity so they have been given flaws. What about a birthmark? Is there something there, hidden across your back? What are you like south of the waistband and west of the sun? What is it like to enter you fully, your body like a shelter? Do you feel the same wrenching pleasure, the sickness in the thick of you, the wave of shame after coming down? What about a kiss? Something simple, something easy? (Nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever easy.)
Too warm. Too hot. Left in the fire far too long.
He's boiled over. (What a fucking mess.)
He is late.
“Will you meet me, my dear?” Aziraphale had called that morning, his voice sounding through the mobile.
“Sure. Aziraphale. Of course, give me an hour or something, you wanna do one-thirty?”
“That’d be splendid, yes. How about that little place around the corner from the shop? The Greek one. They’ve got that marvelous outdoor area and their mignonette for the oysters is just incredible. Oh, and I think their skate is on special lately.”
“You know what I think about fish specials,” Crowley had groused.
“It’s not like that anymore, my dear boy, they get shipments all week.”
"Oh, I know exactly what it's like, angel, I invented supplier schedules."
Yes, lead foot or not, he is late. Aziraphale is already there, seated at a two-top and facing away. His trusty sawdust-colored jacket and his cotton-stuff hair. There is a moment before he turns and Crowley takes his fill of him. He knows all the lines in the face, knows the beardstart and where it is sparse. Knows the one unruly hair in the left eyebrow, the bump in the nose, the shade of blue on the edge of the iris. The constantly semi-rumpled pale hair that always reminds Crowley, a bit, of a pile of turned-out fresh laundry, still warm and ready to be folded.
"Crowley!" Aziraphale says, reaching up to graze Crowley's arm.
"Sorry I'm late."
"No matter, I took the liberty of ordering you a drink. Didn't think you'd mind."
I never mind.
Aziraphale is a touch-strong man. He touches everything (Crowley knows, he always watches). Aziraphale loves and he likes to love through his skin. His fingers on a particularly fine leather binding, dipping into the embossed author, the tooled name of the title. His hands breaking apart a loaf of Italian sourdough, fingers coming away with residual flour. Dipping his hands into sacks of grain, rubbing a fine weave of silk through. He touches Crowley too, in his usual and gentle way. The touch on the arm to still Crowley's whiplash self, to make a point during an argument. Aziraphale who thinks nothing of oh, my dear, you've got an eyelash just there, let me get it for you. Crowley has a good memory. He catalogs them all, cross-examines them. Six-thousand years of maybes and what-ifs and what was thats ? But Aziraphale is just as easy with his touches on glass bottles while pulling out his favorite vintages. He touches his favorite fountain pen far more often than he reaches for Crowley. No, in context, it means nothing. It's just Aziraphale as usual. Don't look too closely, it doesn't mean anything. It doesn't.
Get a grip on yourself.
Aziraphale had been inclined to more touch, long ago. To occasionally reaching for Crowley's hand, as if to hold it. To a quick hug at meeting. He's stopped all that now, centuries and centuries past. Crowley knows that he had gone too still, had not known what to do with his face. Aziraphale might pity him, perhaps. Or at least, in his distance, he is being kind. Crowley wants to scream, to shatter something. Throw a bottle at the tile floor and leave it there for days. He doesn't. He doesn't. He glares at an ivy plant instead, daring it to make a wrong move, fail to thrive. Crowley does not know how to say to Aziraphale, touch me touch me touch me but I have glass bones, be gentle, I might shatter under you. (Let’s not even think of Eden. We all know how that went. What a cockup.)
"Did you want anything, my dear?"
"Hmm?" (He's been distracted again. He's often distracted.)
Crowley quirks a brow. "Order for me." (He'll try a bite. He always does at Aziraphale's insistence. It's part of the game. Aziraphale always wants too too too many things, always orders for the both of them, pretending, of course, that one is Crowley's. It isn't. It's part of the dance.)
"Yeah. Some of that," Crowley tilts his head. Leans back in the chair, arms behind his head. "What are you getting?"
"Apple galette. Crowley," Aziraphale says, pouring a bit more sherry, "I've been -"
There is a long interval. "You've been what?"
"Sleeping," Aziraphale looks away. Glances at the other tables, minding their bits of steak and chicken thighs. "I've been sleeping."
"'Bout time, you know. Best thing to do, really. Sleep through the boring bits, even some of the fun bits." Crowley has always slept as his habit. Every night, really, unless something interesting is going on."
"No," Aziraphale says slowly, cautiously. "I think you might misunderstand me. I've needed to sleep."
Oh. That's another matter entirely. “Ah.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“That explains it then,” Crowley says, pouring a significant bit more. “I’ve been having some trouble myself but I didn’t think - “
"Trouble?" Aziraphale frowns.
"Getting tired. After - miracles."
"What do you think - "
“They’ve shut the gates to us. They’re leaving us alone, Aziraphale. They're leaving us entirely alone.”
Aziraphale bites his lip, “I would have expected to Fall.”
Don’t even think about it. “Don’t think you can if both gates are shut. Don't think there's anywhere to go."
"Oh," Aziraphale says.
"We've been cut off."
"Yes," Aziraphale breathes, wide-eyed, "I'm afraid so. Right. So that leaves us with …”
"Welcome," Crowley says, "To Humanity."
“What do you think we should do?”
“Right now? Get incredibly fucking drunk," Crowley mutters, pursing his broom-thin mouth. "Let's get the check. You have wine at yours, right?"
Crowley leans back against the sofa. Glances over and around. At titles and lamps, the edges of the bookshop. The damask curtains.
"Do you think we're properly human then? Now, I mean." Aziraphale runs his finger repeatedly over the glass. Over and over again. "Do you think we have souls?"
Yes, no, maybe. I don't know. "I have no idea."
"To live like this, not knowing. Having no idea of what could happen -"
"That's how they all live, isn't it? It's our lot now. You don't get to know." Crowley shrugs, scowling at the rapidly disappearing bottle. Scowling at his own drunkenness, which will last till morning whether he likes it or not. Things have changed. There's a little bit of demon in him still but he can feel it fading. Cooling like an ember.
"Yes," Aziraphale murmurs, "You don't get to know."
"Crowley," Aziraphale says, "Forgive me, of course, I'm quite - quite drunk, you know. But remember when you talked about - about Alpha Centauri?"
"Yes. What about it?"
"What did you mean?"
"Well, if the Earth's a ruin, we had to have somewhere to go, angel, didn't we? Can't very well both just stroll on up into Heaven. Or into Hell for that matter. Not that you'd want to. God, brimstone's a terrible decorating element."
Aziraphale nods, quietly just repeating, "Both." He pauses, adjusting his waistcoat and blinking, sitting up in the chair. “I think,” Aziraphale says, “That we must prepare for eventualities.”
“Well, our living arrangements, for one.”
“You don’t like it.”
“It might be easier if we were closer, you know. There’s a great deal of the unexpected here.”
Crowley cocks a brow. “What do you mean, closer ?”
Aziraphale shrugs. “Well, there is an extra bedroom upstairs and you’ve only got one and -“
“Wait, wait, wait, angel. Hold the fucking phone. You want to live together ? Here ?”
Aziraphale and his defensive shrug. “Well, it does make more sense, you must realize. And neither of us are quite prepared for mortality, you know. What if you get ill? Besides,” Aziraphale takes a sip of wine, concealing a bit of a smirk, “Your place is dreary. ”
“It’s modern. Not your mausoleum. I hate whoever invented damask.” He pauses, "There is … another option."
"What do you mean, dear?"
“Er, I own a cottage.”
Aziraphale stares, wineglass forgotten. He furrows his brow. “A cottage?”
The end of the world is coming, have you heard?
Tell me about it. (Tell me what it is to have a life without loving you.)
Crowley shows up at the cottage later in the week. Sweeps the floors, washes the walls. Throws out the paint cans. Aziraphale will come to look at it in a few days. So he mucks about, getting it ready. Making it presentable. He can see the apple tree from the kitchen window. Crowley knocks on the window, pointing at his eyes and then at the tree. I'm watching you. Don't you dare forget it. (The fruit gets a bit brighter, a bit redder. Sharp against the sun.)
He wanders a little too. There is a church not far from the cottage. Let's test something. His feet wind there almost unexpectedly, walking into the graveyard and then down the nave. No heat under him. How strange. He can go into churches and cathedrals now, isn't that odd? To touch the stones without burning himself, walk on consecrated ground without blistering his feet. He'd had to bandage his feet for a week in 1941 once, after plucking an angel from a bomb site. He'd gone back for the rubble, taken a statue later. Would-be lovers are curators, gathering souvenirs of maybe-moments. Theoretically, he could even drink holy water if he wanted. (He hasn't tested that one. Not yet.)
Churches and monasteries. That's never been possible before. He's always clung to the outskirts, slinking past the edges. When Aziraphale had spent most of the fourteenth century holed up in Glastonbury Abbey's dusty scriptorium, hands half-dark with iron-gall ink, Crowley had spent the bulk of it ale-soaked at the local tavern, keeping one eye on the abbey door, waiting to see if Aziraphale ever ventured out. Once in awhile, never often, the angel might come out to pull stones from the river, something something about inkmaking. Crowley didn't know. Didn't care. He'd stroll on up then, hands in his pockets, saying what's all this about then? (As if he hadn't been watching; as if he did not already know.)
Goddamn, how he had hated that entire bloody century.
Mortal now. Human. Unburnt by churches. The thing about being mortal is, well, mortality. A different terror snakes up him, a strange infection. A paralysis. The introduction of the end. It changes the edges of things, knowing that the end will come. When we say I want to keep you safe we never include the last part. We never say for now, for as long as I can. Privately, we wonder about clocks and calendars, how long we get to have. We don’t know. He doesn’t know. They had known once, the old beat of eternity. It is different now. Maybe they have souls, maybe they can wrap themselves in net and tape, try to stick together. But can they have souls? Do they?
How does it go? The end? Tell me how it will go, tell me. Tell me. Who will go first? If it's you, I will gather you up, the bones of you. I will bury you in earth. Sink you in the sea. Set you ablaze. Anything you like. I will write your name on every rock, every grave, I will make every breath a syllable of you. (I would beg for it to be me but I don't want you to be alone.) I want you. I used to have time to want you. There is no time. Not anymore. What do we have? Sixty years, if we're lucky. (I hope we're lucky.) That's no time at all. I wish I'd told you sooner, loved you longer.
Tell me about loss. Tell me about the measure of love. We can know love, know that we’re sick with it, that the infection is already there, yes, but it’s loss that does the real work. We make spaces for each other, carving them out from our bone and our muscle, letting each other occupy the hollow parts of ourselves. We say look, this abscess, this echo hall, it has your name on it. If you fill me up, then I never notice. My weight stays the same, me and you. It is when you are gone that’s the trouble. My abscessed chest, my spongey bone. Brain prion-eaten and left riddled with holes as a tin can for target practice. We can measure the size of those empty spaces, we can say this is how much I need from you.
So he sits for a while, here in the pew. I didn't mean to fall. Honest. Why did you give me all these questions? Why did you shove them in my mouth and tell me not to speak, to not open it? I couldn't breathe through them. Why didn't you answer? Why did you stop listening?
There's a ladder, there in the cottage shed. Later that night, he fetches it, leans it up against the house. The winds blow out of the northwest and bite his face. It is late. Past eight o’clock. The whiskey bottle heavy in his coat pocket. There's a book in his pocket too. Paradise Lost. John Milton with his liar-stench words, shoving sentences into not-yet-Crowley's mouth that he'd never fucking said. Here he is now, Crowley is laid out against the blackgrey shingles, yelling at God somewhere up in an untouchable sky. "What though the field be lost?" (Those were never his words nor Lucifer's either. But they sound nice.)
Look at the edge of the roof. It says take a step. Take a step, it’s so easy a child could do it. It's a long way down, even these two stories. He doesn't go near it, sinks back to the chimney and the shingles too.
(All is not lost.)
His scorchmark self. Falling that quickly heats everything, sets it on fire. No wonder Hell burns, it had been cold once. Before the Fallen had pitched forth and cast down, catching fire in the million-lightyear fall. His asteroid body, his space-shuttle body, superheated. He had formed a crater where he'd hit, burnt the ground there. The soil, this charcoal-stain where he touches. You never stop incineration until there's nothing left to burn. (He is careful of where Aziraphale touches him, of where he touches Aziraphale. When he pulls back, he looks for burns on Aziraphale's body. Scorchmarks. Be careful. He must be careful.)
But, there, that's the rub. God never answers. Ineffable, for fuck's sake. They do not get to question. Asking is the providence of humans. They get to say so what's that all about then? Not him. Never him.
It's too warm. Fire still. When's winter getting here? I love you, I love you, I love you. He has been so good at not saying it all this time. Six-thousand years. Can you imagine six-thousand years? After a few hundred, you would imagine it would get to be a bit of a habit, the not saying it. But it never is. Holding back I love you is like trying not to get sick, it rises in his throat. He swallows, swallows again, sick with it. Don't say it. Don't say it. There's nothing here that's good, angel. I can't say this to you. It's like tearing open a wall and finding black mold. It'll get in the air, get in your lungs. I can see it, these spots of mold on me. Coughing, red-eyed, exhausted. Delirious. I won't say it.
He looks down at the ground from up here on the roof. His shingled perch. He wonders if even that distance would burn. If he'd leave a burnt crater there too. (He had wings once, they're supposed to catch you. They hadn't helped.)
You were an angel once.
That was a very long time ago.
They are packing up Crowley's flat.
It smells like cardboard. Tape too. Crowley has dropped himself into his desk chair. He can hear Aziraphale in the other room, carefully pulling the glasses from the cabinets and wrapping them in brown paper, tucking them into boxes clearly labeled kitchenware.
It's a bit of an odd piece, this too-ornate throne. It doesn't quite go with the rest of his minimalist preferences. That's why he's picked it, the jarring bit of it. It's strange, it doesn't fit, it doesn't make sense. His slouched body dropped in, elbows out and legs thrown out like branches after a storm. This glare of him turned onto every surface. He scowls at the windows, the desk, the hallway, the nerve-shot plants. It has been three hours since he's gotten back, dropped into this spot. He should get up. Eat something. Drink something. Read, maybe. Turn something on. Anything would do.
Something is itching at his spine. Something is itching at his fingers. The offense of khaki gabardine, of wool and tweed, of a white cotton shirt. Of the insurmountable idiocy of his own hell-sunk self and that spin of him at being called a good person, how fucking dare you. He hadn't thought ahead, had not, had not, had not. He should have (he usually does). Crowley is very very very careful. Few realize that (including himself). He calculates measurements. Proximity, velocity, volume. The distance between us, how far away you are. How fast you are going (how fast I am). The size of how I want you, the space in me for you. This something, whatever it is. How to name a new thing.
He had not been careful today. The word good and the sudden wall, the push of Aziraphale into it, the bit of dust falling from the ceiling. Proximity too, their noses, faces, all of themselves far too close together. Now he has learned the temperature of Aziraphale's breath, the feel of exhalation. The grip of a shirt in his fingers. Weight. The weight of Aziraphale's body, lifting him up to the wall. Yes, too much information. (This isn't the first time.)
He shifts uncomfortably.
"My dear," Aziraphale says, walking in from the hall. "We cannot take these."
"Why not?" Crowley frowns, looking up at where Aziraphale is pointing into the room across the way. Following the square fingers up to the shelves lining the walls around the bedroom.
"They're poisonous, Crowley," Aziraphale says this like it's the most obvious thing in the world. (It is not.)
"You won't just get discorporated now, it would kill you. No, absolutely not. Out of the question." Aziraphale breathes deeply, brow furrowed and mouth turned down. It's the usual look for when he has set his mind to something.
"It's just a bit of plants, angel. I'll be careful." (He has already decided he will not take them. But it can't hurt to bait Aziraphale a little, can it?)
"I won't hear of it."
Crowley lifts a mister, sprays the leaves of the aconite and the nightshade too. "Alright, alright. I guess if you insist."
Aziraphale beams. Next to the window, his skin seems warm and dry as sand. I want to touch you and find out. It reminds Crowley of a desert, out there beyond a garden. It reminds him of the pillars in Jerusalem, the stones they had built walls from (and temples too). His hands curl into fists, he shoves them into his pockets, hiding the fish-belly skin from view.
They have spent the better part of the day hauling the boxes in.
"God, summer is a worthless season." Endless and sticky. The too-strong sun and the sweat collecting at his hairline, snaking down the back of his neck, down his long spine.
"You've never minded before," Aziraphale says, not looking up from his book.
"I never needed to!" Crowley points out. "I could just set the internal thermostat before. Now it's all this damn sweat."
Aziraphale peers over an open box. "Crowley, you should take your jacket off. And try shorts. Look, these are quite comfortable." (Aziraphale and his ridiculous bermudas. Who even finds those in tartan?)
"No," he says.
"You're being petulant, my dear."
"I'm not." (He is.)
"Put that box down."
"We still have loads to do."
Aziraphale stands up, walks over. Takes the box from him. "It can wait. Let's settle dinner."
"There's still one thing," Crowley says, later, much later. The takeout cartons still on the kitchen counter, Aziraphale pecking at the remnants of his pad thai. "That we have to talk about."
"What's that, my dear?"
Crowley waves his hand in the direction of the bedrooms, down there, down the hall. "Which bedroom do you want?"
"Oh," Aziraphale blinks, "I don't think it matters much to me. You pick."
"Let's go look at them," Crowley says, "Come on." Aziraphale nods, washes his hands in the kitchen sink. Runs them through his flourdust hair, smiling a little at the insistence. They move to the first one, the slightly bigger of the two. "You should have this one. It has nicer light."
"Are you sure, my dear? It really doesn't matter to me - "
"Just trust me. You can grow things on the sill if you like."
“God, I feel so drunk,” Aziraphale leans his head back against the eggshell-cream wall. "We should have waited to drink until after we brought the bed in."
“We didn’t have much.”
“I didn’t eat anything this afternoon.”
"Mmm, that'll do it."
"I like this though," Aziraphale says, quiet and his eyes closed, head tilted back. "This house. I can't imagine living with anyone else, Crowley."
I hope not. He grits his teeth, throws heretic-yellow eyes to the side. Lets his own head tumble back, lets his own eyes close. This comfortable space of winesoft and half-asleep. "What do you want to do with it all?" He gestures wildly, leaning back. "The rest of your life."
Aziraphale pauses, "Much the same, I expect. Travel, read. I'm still looking for the perfect scone, you know. It's been so dreadfully long and they're always terribly dry."
Crowley snorts. (He is intimately acquainted with Aziraphale's thoughts on scones.) "Right."
"But really, my dear, I was thinking," Aziraphale says, reaching a hand out to pat Crowley's knee. Crowley stares at him for a while. That wine-drunk frank stare. Aziraphale and his bone-dust hair. Aziraphale in the growing light. The suntouched skin at the temples, the millennia-ancient veins and capillaries, these old nerves. Aziraphale of the I’m nothing special. (Completely ridiculous, that. You are, you’re different, you’re perfect. You don’t fit in. I never did either. But you try more, you mean it. You’ve got a heart. What angels have hearts? None of them. Just you. You had a sword and knew they would be cold and hungry. Their lives are nothing to you, a drop in a bucket. You could have forgotten them. You didn’t. ) "Might I ask you - a question?"
“Is Hell like that - everywhere?”
Crowley quirks a brow, leaning back in his chair. He waits for the admonishment to come. But it doesn’t, just Aziraphale and his wobbly smile, trying out a question in his mouth and not sure how it tastes. “Like what?”
“Dark, cold. And the flies. ”
He shrugs. No, not everywhere. Some places it’s worse. “Not exactly. There’s a lake of ice in there, you know. That’s at the center, haven’t been there much. Kinda try to avoid it. And you can’t forget the river of blood. That’s a classic.”
Aziraphale shivers. “And you like this stuff?”
No, I wear it the way the men we saw in Venice in 1347 wore black, how they put the fingerbones of their saints around their necks. How they surrounded themselves with the dead and painted pictures of dancing skeletons. I wear it because it’s mine, it’s the only thing left. I can’t foul it, can’t fuck it up. They didn’t just shove me from Heaven, you know, they made me a virus. So I only touch these things. These are mine, the dark stuff. “Like’s a strong word, angel.”
“How did you get used to it?”
Crowley just quirks the corner of his mouth. The same corner always when Aziraphale asks a question he cannot answer, this empty question of how. I didn’t. I haven’t.
He doesn’t say anything.
"You don't ever have to go back there."
"You don't know that."
"Of course, I do," Aziraphale says.
"Why did you ask?"
"Just was thinking about it. The Fall."
"I mean, seems like it's still the big topic of conversation up there. Don't you guys ever like…. watch a show or something? Play tic-tac-toe? There's gotta be something to talk about other than a couple of angels fucking tripping off a cloud."
Aziraphale frowns slightly, his hand rubbing the handle of his mug over and over again. "It was a bit of a to-do, my dear."
"Hundreds of thousands of years ago. "
"Crowley, you know perfectly well that time - "
Crowley waves his hand, his shoulders tight. He stares at the wall, at a dark-leaved spider plant. Making notes to criticize the orchids. Of course, no one can talk about a blasted fucking thing other than that. "Yeah, I know."
"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to make you upset."
"I'm not." (He is.)
Aziraphale looks doubtful. There is a long stretch of silence. Crowley looks at him in the peripheral, seeing the question begin in Aziraphale's brows, down the nose, the set of the mouth. "It's just always so… strange to me," he says. "I know the names of the fallen. I knew a few of them myself even. And I do know most of your associates these days, or who used to be. But I don't know -"
"Who was who?"
"Yes," Aziraphale says, quiet. Crowley can hear the question behind the words. The slide of I don't know who you were, I want to know. I need to know. Did I know you then? Who were you? Tell me.
He finishes the glass.
"Forgive me, please, I shouldn't ask, of course."
Crowley quirks his brow, "Shoot, angel."
"How much do you remember? Before, you know, you -"
His fingers tighten. Just for a moment. "All of it."
"Do you still think about it?"
"Don't worry about it," he shrugs. A roll of the shoulders. "I didn't fit in. At least now I don't have to see Gabriel's bloody face every blasted day."
"What was it? You never said."
"What was what, angel?" Crowley and his question-mark stare trailing down a collarbone, the long road of throat. Stop looking, stop thinking. "I can't read your mind, you know. Help me out."
"Your name," Aziraphale says. Quiet. Soft.
"What are you on about? You've known my name for ages."
"No," he pauses. "The other one. The first one. In Heaven."
Don't ask me that. "Why do you want to know that?"
Aziraphale tilts his head to the side, winedrunk against the wall. "I've just always wondered."
"You have.” (Said flat, said wonderingly.)
"From the start. I know it's terribly private. I'm so sorry, my dear, I shouldn't have asked."
"I'll write it down for you. Sometime." I don't like saying it. (Remembering is rotten work.) He shifts, “Not now.”
Aziraphale smiles at him. This ember smile, warm and banked. Crowley hears drums in the distance, calling for war.
Do you know how I love you? It’s like choking on the sun. Sunswallow. It’s like that day in Spain, when we walked through Barcelona and you told me about rivers and skipped rocks and we threw bread there too, yes. The Gaudi basilica in the back, twisting like a melted candle against a twilight sky. You and I were sick on ham and wine and bowls of salt too. And you said “Did you know this is the closest I’ve ever felt to Heaven? Here on Earth?”
“In Spain?” (I had been confused, I had not understood. I hadn’t wanted to.)
“Joy. In Spanish, it’s alegria. I suppose that, while we are here, we should call it as the Spanish do.”
Alegria. Alegria, indeed. (He remembers alegria. This spit of joy in his mouth. He'd held it there, swished it around. It had tasted like dessert. The sun had gone down and Aziraphale had gotten manzanas asadas. Apples baked in butter and sugar. Tender from heat, caramelized dark. The Maillard reaction. Crowley had tried a bite, as he always does when Aziraphale insists. It had gone easy under his fork, soft as skin. Alegria tastes like apples.)
Should I? Let myself? (Should you?) Consider risk. The exposed self, the exposed skin. I cannot let myself love you. You will die someday, I might have to clean up the mess. Or I will, and you'll be saddled with me. I can't do that to you. Then again, it comes anyway, doesn't it? No matter how I press? Let me be careful. Fill a shed with canned food and water. Bullets, enough ammunition for a family of four for three years. Just in case.
Crowley picks at the carpet. Looking away, at the white-paint walls, at the empty space of the room, ready for whatever you might toss inside. Not at Aziraphale. Not at the bite of the lip, the eyes. Those frowning eyes. Waterdrenched. Pisces eyes. They always get it wrong, humans. So bloody wrong. There's nothing of air in you (there's no fire in me).
“Truth or dare, Aziraphale.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
Aziraphale has this strange smile at the edge of his mouth, "Oh, Crowley, you cannot - "
He winces. "Sorry, yeah, that's my cock-up. Shouldn't have asked." (Don't think about Aziraphale in the morning, stumbling out of his own separate bedroom in a blue terrycloth bathrobe. Wild and rumpled. Don't think about anyone Aziraphale might invite back. This is my housemate, Crowley. Good fucking god.)
“You blessed idiot - “ Aziraphale says, moving suddenly forward. It's fast. Too fast. Not fast enough. This swift crash of the wineglass to the floor. The hands on his face, the back of his neck, creeping up into firescald hair. Aziraphale hesitating in front of his mouth. Crowley swallows. His hands rising to cover Aziraphale’s. His hands white-knuckled and tight on Aziraphale's own warm fingers. Crowley is shaking. Not much, just there in the tremor in his hand. He holds his hand very still.
"No," Crowley says, because it is suddenly obvious. You're trying to kiss me. You can't, you can't. (Please do.) "You'll - I can't." Not again. Not this time. Tell me, are you terrified? Have you also stuck your finger in a socket? Are you as ruined as I am?
"You can't touch me. Not like that." You'll Fall. Don't you understand how infection works? Look it up in any book (you have so many, you should know).
"You don't want me to."
"I didn't say that," he says. Whispers even.
"My dear, then what -"
"I can't sign you up for this." (It doesn't matter. His heart, old Judas Iscariot, beats on.)
"Crowley. No one's watching. We're human. It doesn't matter."
Crowley has never been good with fire. He's supposed to be, he's a goddamn demon of Hell (or once was). But no, he's always been a bit more soildark, a bit more woodrot. Earth and worms and other buried things. He is terrified. Words in his mouth, on his tongue. Ready to be offered, ready to be swallowed. He is hesitant, wanting to say show me how to touch you. (He is red-faced, red-eared, yellow-eyed. His tongue tangled up in nerves.) Aziraphale's hands reach into him, deep into the meat of him. Take what they want. Take the breath and the spit too. The rhythm of his breath falls in. He thinks of brimstone; he thinks of fire. Aziraphale, the rhythm of his heart, Aziraphale, the pulse flushing in his ears. Show me how to touch you. (I want to do it right).
Kiss me for fuck's sake. And so Aziraphale does. Pushes him back against the wall, hands to the chest, this freshwater mouth finally on his own. And he smells like stale sweat and like dust and cardboard and iron too. Like a bit of wine still and so human, so goddamn fucking human. And this is it, this addition and subtraction, this does my nose go there, can you turn that way? This rush of blood to everywhere, this detonation in his chest. What kind of ruin is this? Aziraphale's mouth parted below his own, against his own, this knock of teeth, this tease of a bite along his lower lip. This please be careful what you find in there, you've opened my mouth, I won't be able to keep from telling you I love you now.
His hands here, cupping the sides of Aziraphale's white-bright face, this cotton-junk hair. Tangling his fingers in knots at the back of his neck. His breathing comes heavy, stormloud and ruined and oh god, I'll die, please, god, I need you, kiss me again (never stop).
Wide-eyed Aziraphale, his eyes the color of the first rain. Mouth open and wet with Crowley's own spit. Shit, I look good on you. “I’m not sure -," Aziraphale fumbles, "Should we - do you want - “
Crowley bites the rest off with his mouth, with a curious and mapping tongue. I want everything. I want to map you. I want to learn coastlines. Where you start and I end, I can't tell. Show me.
“Fuck, I have no idea," Crowley says, more to Aziraphale's neck than anywhere else, kissing quietly along the jaw. This prayer-touch of the first time. "There’s no goddamn book written about this.”
“Surely, there’s the right thing and the bad thing.” Good and evil, me and you. Once upon a time. (Aziraphale doesn't seem too concerned about it, not really. Saying one thing and pressing Crowley down from wall to carpeted floor, shifting his hands into the waistband of the dark denim, pulling at Crowley's skinnyfuck hips.)
“I thought -" Crowley says, tries to say. He catches his breath, eyes rolling into the back of his head as Aziraphale presses into him. "I thought that’s what the whole apple business was about. Aren’t you supposed to know?”
“They never seemed to know, humans, I mean,” Aziraphale breathes, “I always wondered.”
“They’re blind rats.”
“Indeed, my dear. But then, if we're human - "
"Are you calling me a rat?"
"A very blind one, yes," Aziraphale laughs, kissing against a collarbone, into the dip above. Loving the valleys of him and the crag-rocks too. "Crowley, my dear, if we're human, does it -"
Does it matter?
"Crowley," Aziraphale whispers. (Crowley and his closed eyes, the why curled up in his fast-shut mouth.) "I love you, you must know that. Don't you? Please, stop thinking."
"Aziraphale, please, god - " Let me eat you. Let me bite you. My teeth are sharp (I've never been good with keeping those in check). Let me tear into you, your skin like the outside of a honeycrisp, that yellow-pink. You're beautiful. You smell like earth. Let me bite you. God, I've been hungry for so long, do you have any idea? Any at all? Aziraphale's hands spread over the skinny-sack bones of his body, the sour-milk paleness. He's lost his shirt somewhere along the way. (They both have.) These hands touching him like an ordinary miracle. He doesn't understand why, but it doesn't matter all the same. Aziraphale touches him. Peels him. His apple-coring mouth sucking kisses and bruises down the edges of Crowley. The throat and the angular pile of shoulders. The narrow chest, the hips. Thighs too. "Tell me what you want," Crowley says, desperate. Let me make it perfect. If it's perfect, you won't go anywhere. If it's perfect, it'll be okay. Let me make it perfect.
"God, you're beautiful," Crowley says. He lowers his mouth to Aziraphale and his hands rise up under the pressed button-down, the swell of his chest. Aziraphale and his quickwork fingers. (Crowley hears his belt buckle jangle as his jeans slide off onto the floor.)
“Is this how -“
“I have no idea.”
“Well, they figured it out, didn’t they?” The humans, there on the garden floor. They got there eventually. Maybe we might too?
“Talk to me, angel,” Crowley says, hands running up and down Aziraphale’s body. The chest of him, the slowsoft slope of his sides. “What do you want?”
“I don’t know,” Aziraphale says, quiet there. “Come here.” He takes Crowley’s hand, pulling them to the bed. “Are you - are you nervous?”
“I’m fucking terrified.”
“I think that’s normal. I mean, I am too.”
“Aren’t we supposed to, er -“ Crowley frowns, not even sure how to approach it. He can want it, think of it, god yes. But how do you pull pieces of the shipwreck up from the deep? How do you grab at the well-dunk secrets of yourself and bear them up to the sky? Like prying apart the hull of the Edmund Fitzgerald, saying look everyone, look here at what I’ve got? (It’s not easy.)
“Supposed to what?”
“You know, dirty talk.”
Aziraphale blushes a bit, glancing at him. Laughing a little. “I think we can say anything we like.”
Crowley swallows. “Alright. Yeah. Sounds good.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, “Just kiss me.” Okay, let’s start there. Sounds good. I’ve kissed you before and nothing drowned.
"Okay," he says. And he kisses Aziraphale, rolls them over. Presses Aziraphale into beige Berber carpet, winestained somewhere. Neither of them care, not now. Aziraphale laid out with blessed-shut eyes and his hair like a halo. Crowley covers Aziraphale with his own body like laying a linen shroud. All of him, yes, every part. This sick want, the way that I want you. No one ever should, I want to crawl into your pores. I want to tear you open, tear myself open. Get a Dremel, get a chisel, carve my name on all of your bones and yours on mine. Fuck, touch me, yes, please. I need you, do you have any idea? This inkblack kiss, nothing you can hide from.
"I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you," he says it directly into Aziraphale's mouth. Into the tunnel of his ear. Putting it close, handing it off carefully as if to say be careful with this, please don't drop it. "Tell me how - tell me what you want - "
There are many ways to sink a ship. Sometimes we go down with it, hugging the mast, letting the waves lick us. Sometimes the band plays on. Let us drown until human voices wake us. Aziraphale blushes a bit, watercolors across the cheek. Gala-appled. "Just you, my dear, this is just what I want -"
"No, tell me." He grits his teeth, the clutch of his jaw. Tight-fingered and holding onto Aziraphale's hands so tightly the knuckles must ache. "Exactly what you want. Please."
"Oh, Crowley - " Aziraphale shudders at the mouth there at the divot of his throat, behind his ears too. The tongue dipped in saltpools, the sweat at his hairline. "Oh, I'm sweating, I should have cleaned myself up -"
"Don't you fucking dare, angel."
"You want that?"
"I want to taste you." There is nothing wrong with sweat and muck. There is nothing wrong with you, your body. Let me taste you.
"Yes," Aziraphale moans, "Please, yes."
"What else, angel?" His hands in circles. Wide parabolas. "Tell me, please."
"I think about you," Aziraphale's disaster-voice, edged and ruined. "Your mouth. On me. That."
Crowley whines. A spasm of heat. So this is how the volcano feels. I want you. I think about it all the time, my hands on you. I want to disturb the soil of you. I want to leave you changed.
“Can I -“ Aziraphale asks, moving his hand directly over the front of Crowley's jeans. No pressure, just the promise of it. Just the body heat there. Fingerhot and searching.
He grits his teeth. Hisses, snake-ruined. “Do you want an engraved invitation?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale laughs a little, pressing his fingers in closer.
“Touch me, angel. Please.” And so he does. Aziraphale’s bookindex fingers there, pressing in. This weight of the world, Atlas would have dropped the earth. These Mercury-hot fingerpads running down the length of his cock like they might finger a spine, might consider a binding.
“What do you want?” Crowley gasps, tell me, I want to make this right. I can’t fuck this up. His hips jerk.
“Anything you want, my dear.”
“I had thought- “
“You’ve thought? ”
Aziraphale looks up, the oddest expression. “Every day, you must know -“
A shake of the head. No, I had no idea. “What did you think of?”
Aziraphale can’t look at him but he can kiss across the mouth, across the razorfin cheekbones, the curl of his ear. Can say there, unseen but desperately heard, “Everything, I’ve had so long to think, Crowley. I want you to - well, I want you to - maybe with your mouth? And, if you don’t mind, I want - “
He is a window and there’s a storm. Words can be bricks. He’s gathered so many bricks, here they are thrown at the glass bones of him. You’ll shatter me. “What, what, fuck, Aziraphale, tell me, good god, fuck. Yes. Anything, everything.”
“Fuck me. Make me feel it.”
Oh, Satan in Hell. Fuck, yes, god, anything. (Especially that.) “Take your clothes off.”
“Is that a yes?” Aziraphale asks.
“Look," Crowley says, gripping. War-red hair wild and his eyes lost too. "You can’t just say that and expect me to remember words. Come here, angel. Now.”
There are storms you cannot hope to survive. All sailors know the shape of squalls, the color of blackdark clouds. They come up out of nowhere here, in the middle of the sea. In the middle of the storm, the sailors always know that drowning is never far. Watch the water, watch the sky. Let me make love to you. Let me cover your body, let me show the dark to your light parts. (Please show the light to me.) Crowley thinks of prayer. Thinks of worship. This is how we come together, this filthy radiance. This vandalism of the starstuff of us. Tell me where your body starts, where mine ends. We have never been so clear on the rules of atoms, let’s pool them together. Share a body, four eyed and two mouthed, just for a little while. If you don’t mind? Crowley and his long-fingered hands, there over Aziraphale. This neck, the Song of Throats. This Song of Your Chest and the hill of your soft stomach too. His questing fingers and his allowed mouth, finally here. At the join of arm and shoulder. Along the fine hair on the chest. Swallowing and tasting the salt of the man below him.
Just Aziraphale. Just himself. Don’t think of heaven. Or hell. Making love is something we get to keep here on earth. Let me love you in earthly ways. In common ways. Let me love you on store-bought sheets, with cheap soap and the smell of your aftershave too. Aziraphale presses his hips against him, his cock brutal. Hard, insistent. “You’re killing me, my dear, please you have to -“
Tell me. There is the sharp shock here, this control. This pacing. These words of Aziraphale’s spilling out here and Crowley knows anything you want, it’s all here in my hands. I like being here, holding onto you. Ask me for anything, I will give it to you.
“Will you just - my dear, you and that wicked mouth, it has been so bloody long, please please plea - " His mouth behind Crowley's ear, his fingers spread across the skinny ribcage. A jailbird heart beneath. Faith, Crowley grimaces. He hates the word, loathes it. This faith that was poured into everyone else and he was propped up with doubt instead. This same God who expects the same of all men but gives some to silver spoons and some to dirt and says good luck, don't fail me now. (How can he be blamed for failing?) How do you want me? Is this okay? (Don’t let me fuck this up.) Hands in water, hands in soil, reaching for something he cannot see, has never seen. Is this wreckage or is it just tilling the soil, seeing what comes forth? His hands there, wrapped around Aziraphale, pulling sounds from the other’s mouth. Drawing a pommel from a sheath. Tell me what kind of apple you’d like. (My favorite is this, Malus sieversii. The first one I ever touched. The first one I ever saw.)
“Oh, Crowley, oh yes, please.”
“ Fuck. ”
“I’m going to go with yes.”
“It’s perfect, it’s transcend - transcendental, oh fuck, my dear, if you don’t get on top of me right now and fuck me, I swear I will die, I swear - “
(Peace, I will stop your mouth.) He kisses Aziraphale, a viper to the throat. No teeth, no fangs here. Just this, we both need air, let’s share it (and a body too). The most delicious things can hurt and it does there, at the back of his jaw, the too right clench of his finger grip. This sink of bodies, this descent into rockpools and water, this searching for shipwrecks. Aziraphale and his spread self and Crowley grips at his neck, his arms, desperately kissing along the long-lined arteries and saying secret psalms to this space above Aziraphale's heart.
"Harder," Aziraphale gasps, wrapping hands around his hips, saying this twice-over. Crowley moans, lost. His well-shut eyes. Yes, harder. Now, I need it, I need you. You have no fucking idea. The world goes white and starbright. He falls apart into open arms and a twinned heartbeat, each staccato and stuttered. The two of them gasping and ruined as Hadrian's Wall. (They can pick the pieces up later, put themselves back together.)
They lay for awhile there. It is growing dark. The sweat cooling on salt-covered backs. Crowley's red-storm hair damp against his forehead, drawing circles on Aziraphale's skin.
“I sometimes forget you’re a separate person from me,” Aziraphale whispers. Are you? Am I? Aziraphale lowers himself next to him, body warm against Crowley's own. Warm as a rock in the sun.
Aziraphale's finger traces the snake tattoo. There on the side of his face. Crowley shivers slightly under the touch, the too-intimate touch. He doesn't talk about it, not much. It has been there since Eden. Since the Fall. It is not a tattoo, there is nothing of ink in it. It is a burn, scorched in from the heat of a million light-year freedive. Even asteroids burn and comets too. He had been scorching and this, this was left.
Aziraphale touches it.
The fingers keep moving. Up through short sideburns and into the thick of his amphora-red hair. Attic pottery hair. He leans into it, this stretch of touch, these approving hands.
"I love your hair," Aziraphale murmurs.
"Do you?" Crowley chuckles, "Gave a bit of a bad name to the redheads." He thinks of a long long time ago, some trouble with palms and the Nile, calling himself Set.
"Yes," Aziraphale says, "Do you remember? Oh, you won't remember, it was so long ago. A bit absurd of me to even bring it up. But there was this night I bumped into you in Rome and you told me about stars. Redshift, I think you called it."
Of course, I remember. I offered to bring you with me. To see them. It was the first time (it wouldn't be the last). You said no. "No," he says. "Can't recall."
"Ah, of course. Quite so. It isn't important. I've just always thought your hair was like that, that color. They remind me of you. The stars."
"You're full of sop. No wonder you hung out with Shakespeare."
The miracles are entirely gone by September. They don't talk about them, this disappearance of magic. No, instead they do the shopping, argue over tea and bread. Milk and eggs. Aziraphale piles books up in the front hall. Crowley leaves cups around the house. Aziraphale is the teacup-collector. He picks them up from wherever Crowley has slithered. From the back garden, from the sofa table, even in the hall. The bathroom counter too. He shakes his head, half-smiling, "It's as if you were raised in a barn or something."
Crowley smirks, dangling another from his long fingers. The thing is that this miracleless life is strangely comforting. When forever had existed, this sort of love had not been an option. There had been six-thousand years of knowing that one day the world would end, one day there’d be nothing to do but to head back to their spots. In heaven, in hell. Never again at the Ritz, never a brush of hands. Nothing.The rebellious part of him, the questioning part of him wonders (he has never been able to quiet it). Perhaps this is not a cruelty, perhaps it is, in fact, some kind of strange gift. Just this. Morning into evening into night. The two of them and their shared bedroom (the larger one, of course). Making dinner together. The sound of a teacup on a saucer. (Crowley never uses the saucers, Aziraphale always does.) The smell of bergamot in the air. Crowley holds his cup very carefully, used to breaking them without thinking. Perhaps not, not with his too-human hands. Perhaps not now. (He doesn't know.)
"Angel, if it was an option, if you could go back -" Crowley hesitates. Back up there, back to that big, white, blasted nothing in the sky. I never told you about Gabriel, I never told you about the look on his face, the shut your fucking mouth and die already. They didn't even talk to you, didn't consider a trial. They didn't care. You were nothing to them. (I've always hated him, the fucking bastard. Let me be a snake again, let me sink my teeth into him, when I pull back, let me scrape the flesh from his bones.)
"Oh, my dear. No." Aziraphale's hand on the side of the sharp face, on the crawling dark brows. "I've thought, well, I've wondered if -"
"Yeah?" What is it, tell me, I need to know.
"Well, us becoming mortal. It's been so slow and, well, rather gentle. It doesn't seem like Gabriel's style. Nor your people."
Crowley nods. "I see your point."
"What if it's not a punishment?" Aziraphale whispers. "You don't have to go back down there, ever, ever, you see, what if -"
We're on our own side.
There are still sides but they are blended now. Interwoven, the pieces of them together. The books next to the bed, the plants on the window. See the bottles of wine, the cabernets for Crowley, the pinot noirs for Aziraphale. See the woven blanket, the photograph of them, yes, that too. The shell that had gotten into Crowley’s boot, had kept for some sentimental, foolish reason (that had been them, the first time, walking together at the shore). The refrigerator, packed with Aziraphale's takeaway and Crowley's cooking. Leftover lasagna with tangy tomato sauce dripping from the soft wide noodles, golden peaches like jewels, sandwiches of pickled sardines on hard, crusty bread that tears at the roof of the mouth.
"We'll never know, will we?"
"No," he smirks, the half-quirk of his lip. "Probably not."
"Well, that's alright then, you know it's always in-"
"Are you about to say ineffable, angel? Don't make me shut you up."
Aziraphale smirks a little, self-satisfied and setting his cup down primly. "Oh, my love, do try."
Aziraphale lays on the white-sheeted bed, spread and wheat fielded. Crowley gets his quill-fingers out, the pointed edges of himself. He licks his bottom lip. "Angel," he whispers.
"To what, my dear?"
Crowley doesn't say anything. His fingers answer for him, starting in the northwest corner of Aziraphale's shoulder blades, these boneflesh wings of his human body. They trail down to a spine and curl back, up and down, wide curves and parabolas. Aziraphale's breath is harsh and stuttered. It cannot be missed, the curves of this sigil, heavenly and familiar (long-lost).
He shrugs a little, frowning. Looks away to the corner, guessing at spiders. "You wanted to know." He pauses, “Don’t ever say it. Not where I can hear it, okay? I mean, you can yell it into a trash compactor for all I give a fuck, I just don’t want to hear it.” Don't call me by this name, don't measure me by this. I'm not him anymore. Not anymore. That was a long time ago.
“Never,” Aziraphale says. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Always,” Crowley kisses the back of Aziraphale’s neck, the start of his shoulder. Hands gentle on their pilgrimages across. “Green.”
“I had green eyes. Back then, before you know, the whole somersault off a cloud bit. Parkour into the Pit Of Despair. Anyway. I never told you that. They were green.”
Aziraphale turns over onto his elbow, looking up at Crowley with the strangest expression. “My dear, I know that already. That they were.”
“Well, it was kind of my color. I was pretty known for it.”
Aziraphale shakes his head, the smallest lift to the corner of his mouth. “Oh, my dear boy, you haven’t looked at yourself for awhile, have you?”
"Go look in the mirror."
(I won’t ever be forgiven. Part of a demon’s job description. Unforgivable, that’s what I am.) His eyes stare back at him. They are not the same color as Before, not this. Perhaps they are still changing, perhaps they have settled. He doesn’t know (he hasn’t been looking). This early autumn mix of green and yellow, this gold-moss hazel. Strange and shifting. He reaches a long-fingered hand up, touching his cheekbone, the zygomatic arch. Crowley is a gardener, he knows of leaves and stems, of living things. He knows that green leaves will yellow if they are not turned toward the sun, if they spend too long in the dark. How do you treat yellow?
Take the plant from the shadowy corner, the too-setback enclave. Bring it out into the sun.
“I thought you’d realized,” Aziraphale says slowly. “It’s been weeks.”
“Yeah, well -“
There he is, human-hands and human-hearted and nothing of hellspit in him. Standing in a bathroom with a tile floor and the soft shoulders of Aziraphale next to him, these rosemary-green eyes staring back.
Tell me about a garden in the rain. Tell me about the rest of our lives.
Aziraphale tips his head back to smell the rain, the petrichor. Rain on the black soil. (Soil still under Crowley’s fingernails.) The smell of it, the roses and the wisteria. The grass and the hawthorn. Just this, as if nothing else existed. (As if nothing ever had.) Is it okay if I love you like this? A bit of earth; a bit of dirt? You’d still be in the sky without me. I am nothing of starlight, not anymore. I am so sorry, I am so sorry. All I’ve got is this, this sack of skin, the bones and marrow too. (I am sorry for wanting this. For clawing you down from the sky. For crawling my way up to earth, belly-first. I am sorry for loving you like this.)
He glares at the rain, somewhere past the window.
"What are you reading?" He is bored, restless, out of sorts. Collapses on the sofa like a cut rope.
Aziraphale tilts the book so he can see the cover, the title there in black. "Paradise Lost."
Crowley makes a face. "Ugh, no. Milton was such a complete bore. He never shut up."
"Oh, I don't know," Aziraphale smiles, that dance on the mouth. "He has a few good lines."
"You're going to read to me, aren't you?"
"You know me so well, my love."
"Get it over with," Crowley grumbles, letting his head fall on Aziraphale's shoulder. His hair is getting longer, he can see it there out of the corner of his eye. Red-copper against the clotted-cream coat. Go on, read to me. Milton's full of shit (I never said the things he says I did). But I like your voice.
"Fast we found, fast shut,
The dismal gates, and barricadoed strong;
But long ere our approaching heard within
Noise, other than the sound of dance or song,
Torment, and loud lament, and furious rage.
Glad we returned up to the coasts of light
Crowley rolls his eyes. “Hell’s never fast shut. They’ll take anyone. ”
“Crowley, my love,” Aziraphale says, turning a page.
“Hmm?” He looks up from here, his head dropped against Aziraphale’s shoulder. The pattern of his skin obvious this close. The set of cells, the downfine hair. The start of the beard, white and greyiron, The mouth, damp with Earl Grey.
“Do shut up,” he says with a barely-contained smile.
Crowley laughs. Aziraphale kisses him. Soft, forget the rain. This is not about the end of the world. It never has been. We don't need forever. What are thousands of years spent apart? Let's take this, always this. Tell me the one about the quiet, tell me the one about everyday things. Let us wake up together; let us pass the milk and buy the bread. We don't need miracles. We don't need magic. Let us have forty years of wandering together in the desert. It is not forever but we have this and enough water to make it. Someday, there will be the end. You will turn grey (so will I). We must always turn out the light.
But it has never been about the end. (One of us must say goodbye first.) It is not about that, it is about this wide stretch of the middle. Let us love madly with these human hearts in our human ways. Uninterrupted for our stretch of ordinary time. Sink down together then, the two of us, this little bed adrift. This wide expanse of maybe. The world expanding and the sun too. Yes, here, together returning up to the coasts of light.
This is not an ending. Just the two of them here in a garden with an apple tree, planted by soil-stained and human hands.