Chapter 1: Prologue
A cottage in the South Downs
Crowley is filthy. There’s dirt under his fingernails, there’s sweat in his hair. The sun is bearing down and he’s still not quite done with viciously pruning the wisteria, threatening to pull a bloom out of it with hell-sharp shears. He scowls at the roses, daring them to argue with him. Lifts his broomstick-skinny arm and swipes the damp from his face.
“You’re a sight, aren’t you?” A warm voice comes, wrapped up in strong arms there about his middle. Perfectly matched. Arms with swells and rich with skin and sinew to slot into Crowley’s sharp and empty spaces, to fill him back up with ballast. Center him, set him right. Aziraphale leaves a kiss on the side of his face, right there on his sweat-damp tattoo.
“Angel, careful. Look, I’m gonna get dirt and stuff all over you.” (He protests but there’s no force in it. There’s laughter, there’s warmth. This is an old dance. They’ve done it for millennia. Careful, I’ll stain you, says one voice. And the echo comes, stain me, I don’t care .)
“That’s what miracles are for,” Aziraphale murmurs. “The garden’s looking lovely, dear. You’ve done a wonderful job.”
“Eh, just you know, showin’ the hedges who’s boss,” Crowley says, turning to move that kiss to his mouth. He knows his welcome here. A decade later in a shared cottage with a single bedroom and a big brass bed. Aziraphale’s arms and mouth always open to him now as the bookshop had always been. (Aziraphale has always let him in wherever he could. Now, much later, Crowley knows he has a key to everything. A key to the kingdom, here at hand.)
“Can I?” Aziraphale whispers, reaching up and gesturing to Crowley’s half-ruined ponytail.
“‘Course, angel,” he says, leaving a soft press of his mouth on Aziraphale’s temple, feeling the steady beat of life there against his lips. “Anything you like."
Aziraphale pulls at the tie, pulls his red-tangle hair down around them. A curtain of red anemones and red aster, smelling like dirt and salt. Like this, two heartbeats holding each other and this red fall of hair to block out the world, it is easy to forget that anything else exists. That anything else has ever existed.
It doesn’t matter. It’s just them. It always has been.
“I love you,” Crowley says, soft and gentle. There’s nothing of ache in it, nothing of tension and ruin. It’s different now. The I love you of a long-time lover. The I love you said like a pulse, like a heartbeat. Steady and counted on, said simply because it exists. Given with no demand. Crowley has always wanted to get here, to move past the valleys and mountains of falling in love into the soft expanse of love itself.
“I love you, my dear,” Aziraphale says, wrapping it up in arms around Crowley’s neck, wrapping it up in a kiss.
How did they get here? Let me tell you a love story. As a wise writer once said: " The first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.'"
Chapter 2: vigil strange I kept on the field one night
[Prompt: "I have made the Obscene decision / To do something Unforgivable / For the sake / Of our survival / Listen to me: I was a child who only wanted / To heal things" from here.]
Chapter title is taken from Walt Whitman's Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night.
Somewhere in Egypt
“Crawly?” Aziraphale asks. He parts the reeds and walks over toward the figure there, sitting on the rivershore. “Is that you?”
“Yeah, over here,” the slumped figure mutters quietly. He’s a collapse there, head dropped and back hunched over. His spindle-fingers long and picking at the grass, tearing it up from the earth by the root. Shredding the leaves as he goes. Aziraphale thinks of a bundle of dry sticks dropped in one place, waiting for the match.
There’s a creeping unease to Aziraphale’s shoulders. This is not a good night. (There’s a deeper disquiet with the way Aziraphale’s lungs expand, the way he can suddenly breathe easier. I am so glad you’re here. No, it would not do to say that to a demon. To a hellthing. Especially not now, not tonight. Not tonight.)
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Crawly bites. He looks over at Aziraphale, his jaw wound tight. His brow dark and furrowed. That tension runs along all of him. Down the cord of his neck, thumping in the carotid. Down his shoulders, wraps about his arms. His long hair catches the moonlight, red as jasper and carnelian too. (Jasper called khenmet, pulled from a word meaning to delight. Carnelian called herset, which would later come to mean sadness. Aziraphale wants to reach out, to touch the red hair, caught there in a bit of wind. He doesn’t. Doesn’t. Doesn’t. No, don’t even trouble over it. That is not for me to touch. Not for me to have.)
“Are you here for - "
Crawly scowls out at the river. Plucks at the grass again. Aziraphale sits near him, suddenly not wanting to let him be alone. Why? You’re a demon. I should let you be. Shouldn’t be here at all. Not tonight, certainly. Not tonight. It is absolutely inappropriate.
"Isn’t everyone?” Crawly asks. “Aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale whispers.
“I thought the rainbow was supposed to be a promise.” Words laid bare in grief.
“Yes, well. I’m afraid this isn’t, well, exactly the same. It isn’t drowning,” Aziraphale says, rubbing unsettled hands over his own thighs. “To be precise.” That same sick pit in his stomach. The ache. He knows what’s on the menu for tonight. He has been here for all of it, here in this city sick with rivers of blood and frogs, locusts and boils. It has been dark now for three days.
It is not yet midnight.
“To be precise.” Crawly repeats with a wild, empty laugh. Something sharp and spare. “Angel, I - ” His hands come up to brush the hair from his face. Aziraphale sees the flash of color, the smear on the side of his palm, the heart-red stain under the fingernails. He is clutching Crawly’s hand before he realizes it. Warm and skinnyboned in his own wide grasp, turning it over to see the blood caked there.
Aziraphale realizes that Crawly is not breathing. (Neither is he.)
“It’s lamb’s blood,” Crawly whispers. Quiet.
He nods, feeling the wind catch in his own curls, against the fabric of his own clothing. He doesn’t let go. Doesn’t let this shivering, warm hand drop. (Crawly doesn’t attempt to pull it back, to take it away.) Lamb’s blood and a demon’s hand covered in it. The voice of God echoes in Aziraphale’s own ears. “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.”
“Did you - ” There’s no breath to his voice, barely a sound. Did you do this? Did you help them? Did you paint the doors with them, for them? (You would, wouldn’t you? You always would. You tried to gather them from the Flood. I wasn’t supposed to know that. I wasn’t supposed to see. Wasn’t supposed to hear.)
A shrug goes through Crawly’s body. “Just some stuff. I’m tall-ish. Could reach better.”
“Oh, Crawly.” Aziraphale spills out his name like a talisman. His voice gripping onto the syllables like he might be holding an almadel inscribed with the names of the angels. (It is the first time he says Crawly’s name like this. The name will change later, yes, but Aziraphale will still say it like this, quiet and soft, full of light. Full of relief.) “I must, oh, thank -"
”Don’t, don’t you dare,“ Crawly hisses, tensing further and biting his lip. "If anyone hears - “ He looks around, over his shoulder. “Don’t tell, please."
His yellowdust eyes catch in the moonlight. You should be terrifying. You should be repellent. Why aren’t you? Aziraphale’s fingers curl around the tired hand, feeling the way the bones and skin shiver under him. He thinks about yellow. Snake eyes, this serpentwatch here. There’s nothing of hell, nothing of suspicion. This is not sick-yellow but a study in gold. Your eyes look like the skin of the gods of this place. The gold leaf of their statues too. You are nothing but the sun.
Not all snakes are dangerous.
"I won’t, I promise,” Aziraphale nods. Murmurs (soft as the river there, rising and babbling). There is a memory of an ark and Old Testament clouds, the promise of rain. These same hands, this same face. Open-mouthed dismay. There is a braid now too, buried in the burning bush of his red-wire hair. The clothes have changed but they are still soot-dark, this kilt long to his knees, this sheer fabric across his chest. How many ways have I seen you, how many times? In how many styles, cities, in how many languages? How many times have I seen you and never looked?
“Do you - “ Aziraphale pauses, unsure how to press on. He swallows, gathers himself up. Stiff upper lip. (Once more into the breach. He must trust the sea to stay parted). “Do you suppose that it will help? Will they be safe?"
"From this damned ‘policy decision’? I don’t know. I got as many doors as I could,” Crawly says. There’s a stone-heavy sigh. “Not everyone believed me.”
“What did you tell them?” Aziraphale murmurs. He looks up and holds eye contact. A spiderweb between them, a tight wire. (He is afraid of looking away, afraid of letting go. After this moment, my dear, what will become of us?)
Crawly’s voice is rough. “Aziraphale, come on. You don’t - you don’t want to know.”
“My dear.” (It is the first time it falls from his mouth. The first time he thinks it loudly. As he says it, he realizes it has always been there. My dear Crawly, there on a garden wall, damp in the rain. I covered you once in the rain, do you remember?)
The yellow eyes close briefly, he turns the sharp face back toward the river. “Told 'em I was an angel of the Lord,” he says. It comes out low, pitched there under his breath. “I mean, not entirely a lie, you know. Just kinda fudged the timeline a bit. Sorry, yeah. Demons, you know, really can’t trust 'em. Just one more thing for the unforgivable pile."
It sounds like you can’t trust me. Aziraphale breathes in, bites his lip. Glances back to the reeds. To the lamb-painted city behind them, waiting there with baited breath for the darkest parts of the night. You can’t trust demons. They wile and ruin, tempt and destroy. (You’re different, aren’t you? Why do you feel different here, held in the palm of my hand?) He wants a drink. He wants to offer an amphora of wine to Crawly, to get his mouth as red as his hair and say look, let us both forget, just for a little while. There’s an ache in his chest, a weight, as if the words of Heaven were stones slowly being piled upon him. Heavy, yes, and pressing in.
Aziraphale hasn’t let go of Crawly’s hand. (He hasn’t tried to take it back.) He moves his uncertain thumb over the back of the hand, counting the tendons and tracing the veins. Next to him, Crawly sucks in a soft breath.
What are you to me? Why do you make me feel off-center, off-kilter, spun out of space? (You are nothing I was warned about. Nothing foretold.)
"May I sit with you? For tonight? Until it’s -” His teeth at the worrywobble of his own lip, digging into the flesh. Digging into it like he wants to clutch at the hand in his own grip. (He shouldn’t grip harder, pull tighter. Shouldn’t stay. Just tonight. We can’t be blamed for tonight, can we?)
Watch the throat, the bounce of a nervous Adam’s apple. The quick flick of the line of sight up to the clear sky, the watching moon. The peering stars.
“Sure, angel. Anything you like,” he murmurs. Lamb’s blood under Crawly’s fingernails (dried now, flecks rubbing off onto Aziraphale, this white linen of his kilt). Aziraphale moves slightly closer. Crawly stops digging at the dirt and the well-torn grass.
The night keeps on. Stay with me, let me stay with you. Let me cover you with myself, these hands of mine laid over yours, this shadow of my wing. Let me cover you from their sight, let them pass us by. Someday, perhaps, there will be a way I cannot yet see, a path leading us out of here. Where I can walk with you and hold your hand in the sunlight too (with nothing of blood on either of us).
Chapter 3: and from the gentle battleground
Title is taken from Elizabeth Bishop's Argument.
His heels click on the tiles of the peristyle. White and black, black and white, set in alternating patterns. Marble columns hold up the structure. This perfect marble, fit for a king and quarried in Languedoc, as red as Crowley’s own hair.
Just past the Grand Trianon, the gardens of the palace roll on. Perfectly ordered, perfectly precise. If he squints, the lines and distinctions fall away until he can only see this edge of marble and blue sky, green trees and pale clouds. There have been other gardens, other walls. He curls his fingers tight (he’s always had aching bones, can sense rain when it’s coming).
He keeps one suspicious eye on the clouds.
“I thought I might find you here,” a voice comes from behind. Crowley groans a little, silent in his own throat. (His spine lights up, lightning shot from vertebra to vertebra to vertebra.) “You missed a lovely dessert.”
“Thought I’d get some air."
Aziraphale nods, drawing next to him. He has two glasses of cognac. Stretches out his left hand to offer one. Crowley swallows, taking the glass and trying to keep his eyes off of the cornflower-blue of Aziraphale’s sleeves, the gold-stitch, the creamwhite of the silk stockings. This century looks good on you, angel. (Aziraphale had never taken much of an interest in clothing until recently. Now, every time Crowley sees him, there are ribbons in new shades and new fabrics. There are stockings in an infinite variety of colors. The trouble is that Aziraphale has always been beautiful. Unstudied and unpolished, yes, and beautiful all the same. Now, standing here next to him, both of them watching the blue of the sky deepen into that rich shade that the painters love best, Crowley can only steal nervous glances at the carefully-placed cloud-white curls. The mirror-polished fingernails. The cord of calf muscle gently covered over with quiet silk.)
The sound of the music falls out from the palace. Ramping violins. Screeching bows. Crowley flicks a glance up to the clouds. Out here, he can breathe, in there, the air is thick with the smell of new kings and their old crowns. Crowley could not stand to stay inside, to look at the twenty-year-old face of the young Louis, while the whispers around him run thick with the rumors of a Congress assembling in Philadelphia, stories of tarred-and-feathered tax collectors, punishing new quartering acts, the closing of the Boston port. Across the Channel, Britain seethes. Crowley knows that dropped stones make waves in all waters. That an earthquake in Lisbon will cause water damage in Cornwall. Nothing and nowhere is safe from turbulence.
He doesn’t want to look at the king. It’s better out here, in the gardens of the palace. In the green and the blue, standing on the edge. If he doesn’t look too closely, there might be an apple tree. Go back, back further. There had been gardens in Heaven, not quite this but similar. Paler and there had been marble arches and columns, there had been feathers on the ground. Crowley had leaned against a similar balustrade before, watching the clouds. He’s always had spongey bones, a nervous spine, can tell a storm before it hits. He had leaned lazily then, up against a column, his hair long and tangled, scattered with braids tied in gold light. There’d been that pressure-heavy stormpromise then too, curling around Lucifer and his ever-loud questions. Lucifer who had taken God’s love in his hands, well-packed and well-boxed, and thrown it in the harbor.
You can always tell a revolution. War is never a surprise. Crowley shifts, his dark-woven jacket shifting with his shoulders. His body within the fabric like a collection of discarded wires, right angles, teeth-scraped chickenbones. His spine itches.
"Thanks,” he murmurs, gesturing with the glass.
Aziraphale smiles, light caught in his eyes, his pale lashes. The just-parted mouth. “Couldn’t let you miss out. Wouldn’t be any fun without you, my dear.”
(Crowley had stood on that balustrade. No one had walked up to him then, offering him cognac or wine. Nothing of nectar, no plate of ambrosia. Crowley had only watched then. Had only watched Aziraphale, steady Aziraphale (those eyes like chromium, like the sea). They had nothing in common, no reason to talk to each other. Different departments, different projects, different circles. Crowley had worked on the stars, submitted progress reports on nebulae and galaxies, thrown paper airplanes at Gabriel’s head in dull morning meetings. He’d never been entirely clear on the Principality department or what Aziraphale does there. But he had liked to look. Liked the way Aziraphale wears his wings, the look of him tucked in the back corner of the staff breakroom, nectar in hand and absentmindedly staring off into space.)
That had been then. This is now. I love you. I don’t know how long. (It’s impossible to pick the exact moment. We can never know. Here we are in boiling love, the temperature ratcheting up bit by bit by bit. When is the moment when it is too much, too hot, when our skin is pink and burnt? It’s too gradual, we never know until it’s too late.)
“Something’s coming, isn’t it?” Aziraphale says, quiet but firm-voiced.
“Yeah. A big one,” Crowley says. “They’ve been talking about it for years downstairs.”
“Which side is your people’s?”
Crowley shrugs. “Dunno. Can’t remember. Not important.” Does it matter? Both, maybe. Neither. A mix, really. He doesn’t think about who might be in the thousands of future dead. (Few revolutions are bloodless. Heaven and Hell are already sweeping up their halls, airing out rooms, ready for the inbound.) Crowley keeps his old yellow-bellied eyes turned toward the clouds, the faintest hint of rain there on the grey underside. Don’t look at Aziraphale. Don’t look, don’t look. Don’t look at the side of his body, a space there for a sword in a scabbard and only air instead. Don’t look at soldier-hands charged with the holiness of God, with a sacred mission. “Keep the earth safe,” they’d charged Aziraphale (Crowley knows this well, he never forgets), “Keep the Garden safe. Don’t let Hell get their claws in your charges, don’t let them plant dissent, plant creeping vines, plant rumors, (plant themselves, a tree, a lifetime). Don’t let their brimstone-breath stain you.”
He swallows, standing only a few inches from Aziraphale. Close enough to watch the dusk fall across his face, close enough to see the sheen of sweat on the back of Aziraphale’s neck. To see his eyes flicker over, catching on Crowley’s jagged nose, razor-jaw. His cataclysm-red hair. Aziraphale’s fingers twitch. (Crowley doesn’t know why, whether in want for his sword or want for touch or something else entirely.) Don’t you dare let me drag you down here. Don’t you dare come tumbling down after me. (If you found me across a battlefield and lifted your sword, I wouldn’t fight. I wouldn’t have then. Still wouldn’t, angel. But you don’t have a sword, do you? You gave me your wings instead. Why?)
Not a day passes that he does not remember a garden and a wall. The first of his days (the ones that matter). Not a day passes that he does not remember a marble cloister, thick with a celestial garden, thick with ambrosial perfume and wet with rain. He remembers the metalbite sting of a sword in his left shoulder, the parting of the ground beneath his feet. The blackspit wound widening, creeping and necrotic both in him and under him. The last of his days (the ones that never would matter again).
It had taken ages to Fall. (It had been a very long way down.)
“I hate war,” Crowley hisses. He hadn’t meant to say it. (What have you seen? They have been in many wars. Crowley as a surgeon in the field. How quick are you with a saw? Giving the men a bit of leather to bite upon, a bit of whiskey to drink. Take their shot-up arms, their ruined legs. Take them quick, quick as you can. The only kindness in the field doctor is speed.)
Aziraphale nods. Clears his throat. “I don’t like it either,” he offers. Takes a sip, sighs. “I suppose it’s all part of the - ”
“Don’t you dare say it’s part of a plan, angel."
There’s a slow blink, Aziraphale is looking at him strangely. Too drunk. Too indulgent. Too soft in the eyes, as soft as silk stockings. As soft as velvet and cloudspit. As soft as petals there, laid out on trimmed grass, marking the way to the Petit Trianon.
"Then I won’t.”
Crowley nods, doesn’t smile. His mouth pressed thin. His hair is pulled tight into the curled hairstyle in fashion. It’s giving him a vicious fucking headache. Don’t, don’t be gentle with me. Go back inside. Don’t let me fuck this up.
“Can I tempt you to dance with me?”
Crowley’s mouth parts in surprise. His brows arch like sharp aqueducts. “Angels don’t dance.”
(They do think about dancing. Dream of it. Crowley had dreamt of dancing once, millennia ago. There had been music in Heaven and no one to dance with. He had had itchy palms and a nervous foot. Do you want to dance? He’d wanted to ask. To walk right over across the room, pull the scrolls from wide hands and catch those bluevase eyes. To say shall we give it a go? I know your name, do you know mine? I won’t step on your foot, I promise. I’ll be careful. Doesn’t matter, he’d never asked.)
Aziraphale shrugs. “Never been a very good angel, I’m afraid. Oh, don’t look so terribly shocked.”
There’s a hand stretched out to him. Palm up, warm and extended (no sword in sight). There is cognac on his breath. Wine too. Crowley pulls a smirk on his own face, covering himself up. “Tell me something I don’t know,” he says, teases even. “I remember the oysters.”
Aziraphale flushes. “Well. You can’t say they weren’t remarkable.”
“Never did. Never would,” Crowley grins. When he takes Aziraphale’s hand, it is warm in his own. Nothing burns black, nothing creeps dark and ruined from where he touches. He watches their skin, hand in hand, atom-to-atom, keeps an eye on the veins that run along Aziraphale’s wrist. They stay blue and green, skin like parchment. Nothing ruined, nothing stained.
His chest aches. Here he is, hand-in-fucking-hand with Aziraphale. Pressure-cooked, ruined, thick with the promise of a storm. Something’s coming (Crowley has always had knowing bones). Aziraphale looks up at the sky. “Oh, I do hope it rains."
I don’t. "What? Why? It’ll ruin your clothes, angel. And that hair.”
There’s a roll of the eyes. “It just, well,” he says, “Reminds me of that day. In the garden."
"Eden?” Crowley asks softly, strange-voiced. He doesn’t look up. Keeps his eyes steady on their hands, the knot of their barely-pressed fingers.
Aziraphale tilts his head gently, just visible from the corner of Crowley’s eye. “Well, yes. Is there another one?”
Yes. Something before. But that doesn’t matter. Never matters. It’s over and done with. If you don’t remember, then I don’t need to either. History’s just history, let it all burn. There’s a garden here and rain too. You gave me your wings last. Your hands now. (I shouldn’t try to find you in a garden again, I shouldn’t look for storms. I shouldn’t wonder what you might offer next. I’ll fuck it all up, angel. Promise I’ll be more careful next time, promise I won’t pull you down. Won’t take your hand, won’t scorch you, leave brimstone under your nails. I’ll be more careful, swear it. I will. It’s just a bad night. Bad year, bad decade. Storms are coming. I hate rain.)
There is music coming from the palace, there are black and white tiles under their feet. Red-marble columns, the smell of grass and chlorophyll, the long roll of royal gardens. Aziraphale moves his hand and settles it on Crowley’s left shoulder. (A sharp breath then, quietly muffled. A flicker of dissonance in the melody.) There are storms coming, times are changing.
I love you. (I shouldn’t. I’ll never tell you. Promise. You won’t have to worry about it. I’ll keep it to myself. It’s my fault, my problem. I’ll take care of it.)
Was there a point when it was allowed? It is hard to tell, history is unreliable at best. We only write down what we want to. They’ve been telling him all this time that there is a single story, quite linear, flowing from God to Adam to Noah to now. There are rules, of course. Immutable, fixed. They have never changed. No, do not take the Lord’s name in vain, do not covet thy neighbor’s wife, do not fall in love with the other side. Very simple.
Things change. That’s the sticking point.
Chapter 4: his skin barely keeping him inside
I've taken the title from a line in Richard Siken's 'Little Beast'.
“How are your wrists?"
"Quite fine, thank you,” Aziraphale says, though his fingers trouble at them, rubbing out the manacle-ache. There’s a dark flush there, just at the veinnest of the underside. But Aziraphale doesn’t mention it, so Crowley doesn’t ask further. Turn back to the table. Look at this plate, these crêpes like soft blankets (served with honey, yes, and plum compote too).
Aziraphale finishes his own crêpes, pats at his mouth with the folded cloth. Without a word and only a slight-quirk brow, Crowley pushes his own plate over. Untouched, uneaten, unspoiled. (His mouth here without the taste of honey and sugar, cream and plum. Unkissed, unsullied, unbruised.)
“Oh,” Aziraphale says, looking up with a smile, “oh, thank you."
If you’re hurt, tell me. I’ll fix it. Crowley thinks it and doesn’t say it. Instead, he schools his nerves and lets his spine seduce the chair, this cobra-curl-coil of him, one arm flung out over the table, the other holding his sharp chin. Instead, he says, "Next time you plan to grab a snack in the middle of a warzone, at least do me a solid and let me know.”
“I wouldn’t want to bother you, my dear.”
“Angel,” Crowley says, his voice the measure of a guillotine. (They are so good at dancing, at not saying anything. This is too close to the surface.)
Aziraphale looks up, his bluelight eyes catching Crowley’s own gaze. Fork half to his mouth. There is a moment, time enough for a swallow to trouble at the soft throat. Crowley watches the bounce of his Adam’s apple. “Alright,” Aziraphale finally says.
It’s too close, too close to what he wants. There needs to be space, there need to be intervals. You cannot just peel away fantasy like tissue paper, you cannot put reality too close to the bone. There are bruises on Aziraphale. (Crowley hasn’t put them there. His hand clenches under the table, he breathes too sharply, looking at that soft throat. How many times have I wanted to get my mouth on you, suck a bruise into that hollow between your neck and shoulder? How many times? Make it purple and mottled and you’d moan, you’d ache. I’d offer to take it away and you’d say no, no, no I want to wear you.)
Not all bruises are unwelcome. Would you give me some, your fingers and your tongue? Let me catch them in the mirror tomorrow. When I wonder if you’re real, when I worry I dreamt this, let me press on them and let them hurt. Let me remember then. I’ll know you touched me once. It will be enough, won’t it? (It will have to be enough.)
Where are we? Let us look. Just a cafe in Paris. You’re steady, you’re safe. There’s all of you together. (What if it wasn’t the humans? What if we’re seen, what if they cotton on? I haven’t been careful. We need to think, I need to plan. I need insurance. Don’t you dare leave me here.)
The manacles are gone. The prison escaped. There’s something in Aziraphale’s eyes, in the way he keeps flicking his glance over to Crowley. Something in the gentle measure, in a bit of heat. (Crowley’s kept his miserable hope leashed up for so long. Keep an eye on that jailcell, don’t let it get out.)
This is how we love. We pack everything inside of ourselves and when we fall in love we keep our teeth away and clip our nails back. We pack the heavy things at the bottom of ourselves (in our feet, our toes). Keep it balanced. Crowley keeps his love on top, always keeps Aziraphale here up at the gentletop of himself. You always pack plums at the top of your bag. Never let them jostle at the bottom with cans of tuna and milk cartons. Don’t damage the skin, don’t bruise the flesh. Not until you have it in your loving hands (not until you’ve got it in your mouth).
“So,” Aziraphale ventures, “If you’re not part of all,” he waves his hand toward the cafe front. Waves his hand out toward Paris itself, “this. What wily things have you been up to, my dear?”
Crowley shrugs, smirks a little. Eyes his bit of wine. Swirls it about in the glass. What have you been up to? Why does it sound like ‘I missed you’? He tries not to look at Aziraphale. He looks at Aziraphale. (He’s never been good with temptation.) Steals a glance, something to keep him fed until the next time. The hungry never pass a meal. Scraps will do. Scraps are fine. The soft red revolutionary’s cap hides the curls entirely. Shame, really. This sash in the colors of liberty, fraternity, and equality. That bright smile that Aziraphale always wears when he’s gotten something he’s wanted. When something’s gone his way.
Like the cat that got the goddamn cream.
This is a question of want. Is it me? Or the crepes? What are you so pleased about? (Let it be me. Satan, please. Let it, just for now. Let me take that back with me, a little taste on the tongue.) How does it feel? Ache. Kept in, unlanced. He’s got trouble with his heart. Sitting here, bleeding out under the skin. The sound of Aziraphale’s worrywobble voice like pressing on a four-day-old ache, yellow as bile (yellow as heretic eyes). Crowley shifts a little there, remembering satin shoes. Cream and gold brocade, this ruffle of cloud white at the throat. The turn of cliff-curve calves in white tights. White, the color of ruin. White as knuckles curled into white sheets. White as hot breath against an ear. (Don’t think it, stop. Get yourself together. Gather your shit in.)
A throat clears. Crowley looks up, blinking behind dark lenses. His fingers still drumming on the table, slouching in his seat like a respectable hellthing. “Would you like some?” Aziraphale asks, holding out a bite. A square of torn crêpe, honey still dripping. A parcel of fork-cut plum.
Crowley eyes it. “Not hungry, angel.”
(If he doesn’t eat, the crêpes will last longer. Aziraphale always dawdles over the second plate. Always closes his eyes and praises the chef, the structure of sugar, the discovery of fire. If Crowley doesn’t eat, they’ll linger here a little longer. Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. This is where he can live, locked up. A colleague at a lunch table. An occasional interruption. This cafe like cell walls. Iron bars, perhaps. Or roses too.)
Sometimes their legs knock under the table. Crowley pauses, glass half to his mouth. Barely breathes. Steals the touch like a bit of bread. Like a pat of butter and the silverware with it.
Aziraphale doesn’t move his leg. “I’m very lucky to have bumped into you,” he says, low and quiet. Crowley strains to hear it. Did you say that? (Did I only want you to? Let me kiss you. Let me store you up like salted cuts of lamb for the winter, like potatoes in my cellar. It will be cold and long. Let me gather you.)
He manages to get the glass to his thin-line mouth. Drinks too much at once.
Keep it safe, keep it locked up inside. Manacled and chained. Don’t let it out. Keep your skin intact, keep the wound sealed. Don’t let it out (it’ll get everywhere, make a mess of things). Stay here, behind the walls and the glass, smelling like honey and plums. Stay here, with the blood on the outside. Out there, the heads roll. Out there, Paris burns. Don’t open your mouth. This silver-fork held to him like a dangerous key.
Crowley swallows. Keeps his hands steady. “We should get back then, eh? You’ve got bookshop things? Piles of Fanny Hill’s memoirs to sell?” He waggles his brows.
Aziraphale shakes his head, a smile curling at his mouth. Candlelight in his eyes. “Nothing pressing, I think.” He pauses then, breathes in deeply. Casts his glance over at Crowley. That damnable cap slides back a little, exposing bookdust curls to the air. “Do you? Have anything pressing, I mean? Surely we can linger awhile here. I would so love a cognac. Surely we don’t have to leave quite so fast?”
Crowley catches his breath, keeps it in.
“Yeah, angel,” he breathes. Catches his reflection in the cafe’s windows. Watches the glint of light caught on his revolution-red hair. It bounces off dark lenses and very-white knuckles. “Sure, we can stay. Got nowhere to be, really. Nothing big. No hurry at all."
Aziraphale beams. He lifts the fork again. “Are you sure you’re not hungry? Not even a little peckish? They really are wonderful, you must try them.”
Crowley grins, letting his smirk take over. Lazy and indulgent. “Well, maybe a little hungry. Give it over then. I’ll have a bite.”
Let’s stay here awhile. Keep your key, put it back in your coat, your mouth. I’m not ready to leave, I’m not ready to come out. Still a bit tender, you see, pulpy and soft, barely held in by my bit of skin. Unless you ask. (I’ll go anywhere you like.)
Chapter 5: Veiling His Radiance Stood At The Front Door (Slightly Disguised)
[Prompt: "Wheresoever she was, there was Eden." From Eve's Diary by Mark Twain]
The title is a quote from the Second Elegy of The Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Let us go back (this has been going on since the dawn of time).
St. James Park
“Come on, angel,” Crowley says, scaring off a curious duck with his cane. “You coming?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Aziraphale splutters, gathering his distracted self together. He is a steam engine switched on, conductor in his seat. He rights the wrinkles in his sleeve, touches his hat. “I’m sorry, my dear. I was - distracted.”
“You’re the one that wanted to see the bloody pelicans."
"They’re such charming creatures, I’ve always been fond.”
“I know, angel,” Crowley says. It’s soft. Aziraphale can hear a smile tucked into the voice. Folded up like a letter, secret and safe. It is a warm August day in the park, a warm tone to Crowley’s voice. The afternoon sun has tripped on over into gold. It glints off of the snaketip of Crowley’s cane, the edges of his lenses. It settles into the nightblack wool of his sleeve. Aziraphale watches the light, knows that if he touched that arm (took it, perhaps, let him dare to consider), it would feel impossibly warm. “You always did like a garden.”
Aziraphale can feel his mottle-blush start in his throat. There on his cheeks, his red-dust nose. Down his chest. Change the subject, change it quick. “What kind of trees are these?” (They’re Plane trees, Aziraphale already knows. He asks anyway.)
“London planes. Platanus × acerifolia. Look at the bark, the way it flakes. You can tell by that.”
“You should have been a gardener,” Aziraphale laughs, smiling at Crowley’s interest. Watch the curious way he tilts his head up to admire the branches, the leaves in the late-summer wind. The way the sunlight catches on his red sideburns, the color of Roman terracotta. Planters’ pots.
Crowley looks back at him, the dark brows knitting together. “Sure, next life, maybe,” he says, strange and quiet. “Let’s go then.”
Sometimes they meet in gardens. Parks. St James has been a favorite these past hundred years, ever since Charles II had poured some French-flower-fury into it and opened it to the public. Aziraphale never tells Crowley that he likes to let his eyes unfocus while they’re here. Likes to fade out into only green and blue, the grass and the sky. The poppyroll of flowerbeds and the mulberry trees together. If he doesn’t focus, if it’s only the trees and the sky and the redhair too, it feels like Eden. It smells like Eden, the chlorophyll and the pondwater. All gardens smell the same, the earth has the same perfume. It always has. Aziraphale has tried to come here alone, just himself and the growth of creeper ivy. Just himself and the scarlet oak trees. It’s not the same. It’s always London then. There’s no Eden without Crowley. It’s there inside him, carried around. Aziraphale knows, has learned this bit by bit. Year by year. When the wind blows, brushing Crowley’s scent toward him, he always expects it to be something of brimstone and scorch. Dank and rot. Fallen things, rotted things. Hellthings. Not this, not this bit of moss and lichen, not this blacksoil, this red apple. The smell of hot metal and seared steak, this bit of stardust too. You smell like the beginning, Aziraphale wants to say. (He doesn’t say.)
The pelicans have been housed in the park since 1664. Always at the duck pond, their wings clipped, their bodies kept to the earth. Aziraphale has always loved watching them. (He’s never had to mention it, Crowley always steers him here anyway. There is always bread in Crowley’s pocket. He offers it to Aziraphale without a word, they tear it apart, throw it to the ducks. Pelicans too.)
"I love watching them,” Aziraphale murmurs, watching Crowley out of the corner of his eye. It’s the large white wings, the gentlesoft feathers. The way they duck their heads into their wings, keep the feathers clean and cared for. Safe. How long has it been since someone’s touched yours? Do you do that down there? Ever? He roils with a sticky discomfort in thinking of a hellcreature touching those black wings, those crow-wings.
“I know. We’re gonna run the city out of bread if we keep coming here.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. I can miracle it up next time if we must."
Crowley shrugs, grins. "Nah, don’t worry. That’s mine. My treat.” His shrug brings his bent arm closer to Aziraphale. Still sunwarm, still dripping with heat. Crowley is always an invitation. Always an unopened envelope. Aziraphale swallows, seeing his name written there, on the quietly offered arm. Stretched out to him for thousands of years. You always are the beginning, you smell like Eden too. Can we go back? Can we start again? (If I reach for you, can we start now? I don’t know where I’m going. Do you?)
Next life, maybe, Crowley had said. It rings in Aziraphale’s ears. He swallows, ducks his chin. Tears a piece of bread from the roll, tosses it to the pond.
“Let’s go for dinner,” Aziraphale breathes. I shouldn’t. We shouldn’t. I must be careful. “Or just, perhaps, you could come back to the shop. I have a wonderful new cognac, I think you’d quite rather - ” He cuts off as he turns, noticing that Crowley is facing him. Staring even. His mouth slightly parted, brows raised. Aziraphale’s heart scatters, glass marbles tossed on a hardwood floor. He doesn’t know where all the pieces have fled. He doesn’t know how to find them all. Why is this important? I’ve invited you back before. Why does this feel different? Like something else?
He doesn’t know. (He knows. Some things you know without words. His body knows, his skin, his veins, his blood, his bones. The feathers of him too, where he keeps them hidden.)
“Do you think - are you -”
“Crowley, please.” Don’t leave me here alone. I’m not ready. I don’t know what to say. Please.
Crowley rights his mouth, rights his shoulders. Gets a better grip on his cane. Breathes in. “Well, I suppose if cognac is involved. Wouldn’t be very demonic of me to say no to drunken temptation.” (Why does it sound like I can’t say no to you?)
(Please, I don’t want you to.)
“Well,” Aziraphale laughs, unsteady and unmoored. A bird about to catch flight. His wings had been clipped once, there are miracles afoot. “I believe sharing is a heavenly thing, isn’t it, my dear?”
Come back, come back, bring me your garden heart. You keep the beginning inside of you, you’ve always invited me in. Let me knock. (Will you answer?)
Chapter 6: but touches twilight
[Prompt: A night at the opera.]
Note: The title has been taken from Algernon Charles Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse.
Covent Garden, London
“Oh, sit down, would you? You’re making a racket.”
“You are,” Aziraphale says, “Look, if you didn’t want to be here, then perhaps you shouldn’t have come.”
Crowley pauses, looks at him. Collects his scattered limbs from the aisle and over the seat and leans back to affect a more decent posture. “I want to be here, angel,” he says, quiet, half-lost in the hushed hum of the opera house.
“Well,” Aziraphale sits back as well, slightly mollified. “This is one of my favorites. Have you ever seen it?” He looks over at his companion but Crowley only shakes his head, only a little. “I saw it a few times while you were - while we - ” He doesn’t know how to finish that. How do you say while you were away, while we weren’t speaking. Seventy-nine years. Seventy-nine years with no one to call me ‘angel’. Seventy-nine years with no one to sit on my sofa, drink up my good wine. Seventy-nine years of startling at yellow (keeping an eye out for red).
He watches Crowley. Sometimes it’s too easy to wonder if there’s something there in the endless little kindnesses, these indulgences that get spooned out one by one by one. It’s the danger of light, the way it reflects. Aziraphale watches Crowley and cannot tell, doesn’t know. Is this yours, do you feel something for me? (Or is it just me again, my flinch-bright heart, reflected back at me?) It’s just how you are, isn’t it? (This isn’t just for me.)
“Psst, angel,” Crowley taps him. “Want a drink?” He grins as a bottle of wine and two glasses miraculously appear on the oxblood-carpeted floor near their feet.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale hisses, a scandal between his teeth. “that is strictly forbidden in here and you know it -”
“Shhhhh.” Crowley opens the bottle and pours the glasses. Pushes one into Aziraphale’s uncomplaining hands. “Besides, who’s to know? No one can see us.”
A point. A very good point. It’s just the two of them here in the box seat. No one looking up, no one looking over. No one to watch Crowley lean forward to clink his glass to Aziraphale’s own. His hair catching and burnishing under the lights of Covent Garden. Red as oxblood, as this carpet on the floor, the velvet of their seats. (Red as the tongue thick and heavy in Aziraphale’s mouth, wine-stained and with too much to say.)
“Gotta say,” Crowley drawls. “Didn’t know you were so much for Wagner.”
“If you must know, it’s the story. It’s terribly romantic.”
“Bit sad though, isn’t it?” Crowley quirks one side of his mouth, an absent smile. He’s impossible to read through the dark lenses (sparkling here under the infinities of theater light). But we never say things just once, in only the one language. Aziraphale cannot read his eyes so he’s spent millennia learning the shift of an arm, the tension of a hand, the slight quiver and swallowdance of the Adam’s apple here at the throat.
This is only going to break my heart, isn’t it? Best not to think about it. That way lies ruin, of course. (Do you think about it? Ever? With me? Do you think about me? Would you ever? Ever consider?)
Would-be lovers are photographers. Memory-makers. Aziraphale has always been a curator of moments and memories. His magpie fingers keeping a handkerchief, a letter, a feather too. He watches here, Crowley in black, a dark cut against the chair. I would have you here on velvet always, lay you down on a pile of berries, a bed of feathers. Take in the cut of the tuxedo, the dark fabric. The jackets have grown longer again, now after the war. Aziraphale still wears the shorter style, always a bit behind. Always trying to catch up. There’s too much to keep an eye on, too much to pay attention to. He cannot keep track of all things. Can I be blamed when all I watch is you? (He had been better at this once. At keeping with the times. It’s different now, in a post-war world with church dust still under his fingernails and still trying to catch his breath. Remember the weight of a bag of books on your arm. The feel of a leather handle. Little demonic miracle of my own, Crowley had said and all Aziraphale can think of, can hear, can breathlessly replay over over and over again in his head is I love you. Who can blame Aziraphale for not wanting to wash his hands, to change his clothes, to change anything from this moment when their hands had brushed once?)
“Yes,” Aziraphale says, hushed voice, velvet-caught. “It’s sad.” The lights begin to dim. “Hush, it’s starting.”
How can it go, the story of love? Can the night ever love the day? They cannot touch, cannot stay in one place. Never together. Tristan there and Isolde too, standing on their ship. Is there wine? Tristan had asked. There is, let me get it.
How was Isolde to know that this was the curse-charmed wine? This love potion brewed to plant love for her husband, for her place in the world. For where she belongs. Not for this, this sailor-knight, shepherding her to Cornwall. Not for Tristan, just another knight doing his job, taking her across the sea.
They drink the wine. (“Oh, don’t,” Aziraphale whispers under his breath. Do, please. Drink it, all of it. Don’t spill a drop.)
Crowley shifts a little, still there next to him. He never bothers with opera glasses, just the familiar dark lenses. The familiar nightblack clothing, the memorized cliffs of his jaw and cheekbones, that harsh-cut zygomatic arch. The tense-grip of his hands, his redhair-dusted knuckles, there on the wineglass stem. (Nothing unusual, Crowley always seems far too tense, that wiresnap underlaid. Slithering there, alive beneath his skin. Aziraphale wants to touch his shoulder, take his hand, smooth it out. Pull it out from the root. He doesn’t move, doesn’t touch. It isn’t his right to know where it comes from, how to take it away.)
“Do you want some more?” Crowley asks, holding up the bottle of wine.
Aziraphale nods, always wanting. Always. His mouth still wine-stained and tannic. He presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth.
“Yes, please. Would you, dear?”
They drink. The show goes on. Outside it is a summer night, a late twilight. This moment of touch, night and day brushing arms, shoulders, and hands too. Will you be here tomorrow too? Will I see you again? The night asks, watching the day pack up.
Always. (I’ll be here always, right next to you. We can have the twilight, yes, and the dawn too.)
Chapter 7: My Hands Are Cupped And Like A Glass
[Prompt: Letters and lamplight, vellum and ink.]
I have taken some inspiration here from Tattle Tale’s Glass Vase, Cello Case (which the title comes from) and from Naomi Replansky’s The Dangerous World, which I have sorta-quoted in the final line.
It’s always after Crowley leaves. Late at night. After the wide-mouth yawn, after the shuffle to the kitchen to rinse out the wineglasses. After Crowley’s long fingers run through his long hair and he mutters a long-pushed-off sentence of it’s getting late, night’s getting dark, I should head back. Don’t want to keep you.
(You can keep me. Please do.)
Aziraphale finds himself at the desk. It’s wide and dark, carved in a Baroque style. Drawers on either side of his chair. Aziraphale finds himself reaching into the bottom right. Pushing past papers and ledgers. Past stamps. Past a little book of watercolors. He fumbles at the back. Pulls it out. A false backing, a hidden drawer. Let’s look now at secret things.
Secret things. Well-kept and sealed up. Don’t open. (Don’t go unscrewing the cap.)
Back here, it’s nothing wrong. Nothing illegal, nothing so terrible. Just a sheaf of papers. Unsent letters addressed to no one. He’s written them all, all in his scrawled-out hand. There are no names. It’s alright, I suppose, if I don’t put your name on it. Or mine? These could be meant for anyone. Yes, plausible deniability. If you don’t sign your name to a love letter, to a confession, it cannot possibly be true. Aziraphale rifles through the pages. Paper, yes, and parchment too. This collection goes back to 1666. September. (There had been more once, so many more letters. But there had been a fire in London then, tearing from old Roman city wall to city wall. This firelick ruin. It’d eaten up the houses and parish churches. St. Paul’s Cathedral. And yes, centuries of letters too.) Aziraphale puts them to the side. Scratches at his neck, frowns with his wobble-mouth. Gets out a fresh piece of paper. Clean and unmarked. Not guilty yet. Gets out a fountain pen filled with black ink.
It’s not as if he has anything new to say. But that’s the ruin of this. I wish I could come up with something new. Something that hasn’t been said by everyone. That hasn’t been in everyone’s mouths already, common and usual. Everyone says ‘I love you’ and why does it feel like those words are too small or too plain, never ever ever enough?
Aziraphale fiddles with the paper. Frowns. Puts the pen back. Reaches into the drawer again and draws out a feather quill instead. It’s white and long, slightly damaged from the jostle of the drawer. A feather pulled from his own wing. He’ll write this with himself, this torn-out and long-kept piece of himself. What to write? He shifts in the chair. Gets up, pours a bit more scotch into the tumbler. Sits back down. Scratches at his neck, his chin. Runs a hand through his paperwhite hair. Writes one sentence on this scrap of paper and miracles it against age and water. Like keeping a kettle on until a lover gets home late at night, this scrap of paper told to stay fresh, stay still.
That’s love, isn’t it? That it makes all other truths ring false? Nothing else matters. His quill had started in the top left corner. He is writing in English, though it could be any language of Creation. English is like this. Top to bottom, left to right. Beginning to end. There are rules. Language has rules. To tell how I love you, I must follow the rules. Explain how we got there. Leave breadcrumbs so you can follow me. This is how we breadcrumb-trail a love letter. Start in the top left corner. Make it clear, make it legible. Spill it out, wetdark ink on a flat surface. (Never put your name. Never sign mine. We can pretend this never happened.)
Across the flat is a thermos with a tartan print. Aziraphale unseals it, drops the letter in. A message in a bottle. Don’t ever open this, don’t ever read this. Seals it back up, miracles any possible residual damp from the metal walls, the plastic cap. He drains the rest of his scotch and sits in the wingback chair for a long time, a book open in his lap and all of it unread. Just there, watching the dawnlight climb the walls.
It is three days later when Aziraphale watches Crowley saunter out of a Soho bar, hands in his pockets and impossible glasses on an impossibly-cut face. Aziraphale breathes in as Crowley crosses the street. Crowley is slightly leaning down, intense and thought-tangled. A car brushes near him, too close for comfort. Don’t fret, that would be fine. It’s only paperwork. It’s only a car. The thermos feels heavy in his hands.
Crowley slams the Bentley’s door, blinking at the sudden angelic interruption in his passenger seat. Orange light burns his hair, bounces off his lenses. Lands on Aziraphale’s coat, his deep-breathed chest.
“What are you doing here?” Crowley asks, his shoulders bent like a question mark.
“I needed a word with you.”
“What?” Crowley’s brow furrows a bit. That whiplash spine curved in the seat, turning toward Aziraphale. He’s so familiar there, just across the car. There in black. The wind had ruffled the apple-red hair. Aziraphale wants to set it right (he curls his fingers in his lap, does not reach across).
“I work in Soho. I hear things. I hear that you’re setting up a caper to rob a church. Crowley, it’s too dangerous. Holy water won’t just kill your body. It will destroy you completely.” You would be reduced to nothing, nothing, nothing. You would cease to exist. I wouldn’t even have your bones. I wouldn’t have even a photograph of us. Just your scarf, the one you forgot on the table. Only that.
“You told me what you think. One-hundred and five years ago.”
“And I haven’t changed my mind. But I can’t have you risking your life. Not even for something dangerous. So you can call off the robbery. Don’t go unscrewing the cap.” Be careful.
“It’s the real thing?” Crowley asks, taking the tartan thermos with two careful hands. His long fingers come near Aziraphale’s. Aziraphale moves away.
“The holiest.” (He had poured it himself, blessed it with his own miracle. Aziraphale shifts uneasily against the seat, eyeing the thermos as if he had handed a gun over loaded with homemade bullets. Don’t cut yourself on me, please.)
“After everything you said,” Crowley says, soft and quiet. He looks up. “Should I say thank you?”
“Better not.” Please don’t. Not for this. Not ever. Aziraphale tries not to think about how his human body is made up of seventy-percent water. He tries not to think about the blackjacket arms there and the long spindlefingers too. How these hands could cup Aziraphale, the water and the bone of him, the blood and the feathers, could drink up Aziraphale from his own hands.
“Well, can I drop you anywhere?”
“No, thank you,” Aziraphale says. Crowley is quiet, tense in the neck. In the shoulderset. “Oh, don’t look so disappointed. Perhaps one day we could I don’t know. Go for a picnic. Dine at the Ritz.” Perhaps one day no one will be watching. Perhaps, one day I will not splash you with holy things.
“I’ll give you a lift,” Crowley adds, his voice open and wide. There is too much promise in it. There is too much orange light. “Anywhere you want to go."
Aziraphale’s head feels storm-torn, his spatterswift heartbeat doing dangerous things to his ribs. Banging against them, let me out let me out let me out. Aziraphale breathes. Yes, focus on that. Am I still, still breathing? Breathe. One two three four. "You go too fast for me, Crowley."
Drive safe, don’t open that. Aziraphale watches Crowley there, his cupped hands around this thermos of holy water. This carcrash ruin wrapped up in his chest. Just this bit of holy water and a scrap of undrownable paper with the single line please, I love you.
He gets out of the car. Brushes invisible wrinkles from his coat. Rights his bowtie, cracks his knuckles too. Presses his mouth together, tight and firm. Time to cross the street. Time to head back. Time to leave the Bentley. Right. Stiff upper lip. Best not to dwell on it. (Nothing stays sealed forever. Not a tomb, not a thermos, never lips. How long? How long until you know? How long until you pour me out, the water of me and the words too?)
Be careful. Drive safe. Stay dry, please, you must. Because you hold me as a glass holds water. (You can be shattered like a glass.)
Chapter 8: the interiors of collapsing stars
The title is taken from a quote by Carl Sagan: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies was made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” There is another quote I’ve used at the end: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
Sunday, October 21st, 2012
There was, in fact, a Beginning. Do you remember?
In the Beginning, there was only darkness. The pressurized deep, the heavy weight. We collapsed together in a pile of nothing, a pile of one. Just this, the singularity. You and me, me and you. Both of us together as we were nothing apart. No edges, no boundaries, no distinction. If we had had hearts then, mine would have beaten in your chest. Yours in mine. You would have felt my pulse, my nervous headache. I’d know that ache in your hip. It was different then. We needed nothing. We were everything.
The hammer fell, the bubble burst. We were torn into pieces, subatomic particles. Our split is the first demarcation, the first separation. The first wall thrown up is the edge between us. We were thrown to the reaches of the Universe with light as a consolation prize, so that we might, someday, find our way back.
All of us together. Humans and the mountains too. Sky and water. The half-read book in your lap, the stain on my shirt. Lint and gold. Same stuff, same stuff. All once wrapped in stillness and dark, nestled at the start of things. Before the hammer of Creation had fallen. (God had gotten bored, you see, wanted to hit things, pull the grass out, throw stones at a pond.)
Everyone was nestled together, yes. Angels even. The difference is this, angels remember. (Demons too.)
Crowley curls his lip a little, fiddles at the knobs on the oven. The stench of the Beginning curling up in his hawk-sharp nose, mixing with the sweet yeasted smell of fresh-baked bread. He’s trying a sourdough this time. Several loaves there in his oven. He reaches into the oven, the heat like a shroud over his arm. Knocks on the crust. Not quite hollow yet. Not quite ready. Not yet.
We must be patient. All things come in time. All bakes will take as long as they wish.
“Blast,” he hisses, seeing how the loaves have spread and risen. He’s fucked it up a little (again). The loaves have gotten larger, risen far more than he’d expected. They touch there in the oven, baked here and connected together. Bakers call this touchpoint of two loaves the kissingcrust. An imperfection, an irregularity. Not like the other loaves, these two will always have a rough spot there, right where they’ve been torn apart. Mirror images of each other.
That’s the eighth fucking set of loaves. This is goddamn impossible. What’s the point in even finishing? All fucked up from the start there. No coming back. Fuck it. He pulls the loaves out and considers tossing them. With a hiss at nothing in particular, he snaps his fingers and everything is gone. The hot pan. The flour on his counter and fingers. The flour in his Mars-red hair. Everything except the imperfect loaves and their kissingcrust touch. He stares at them, scowling with sword-stabbing brows. (If the bread had had knees, it would have shaken.)
Fuck me. Hang it all. This was a stupid idea from the start.
Crowley can, as with most things, blame it on an angel. One bookdust-haired angel in a fussy waistcoat of worn and ruining velvet. One wine-drunk Aziraphale who had been refilling their glasses and twisting his gold pinky ring (in that nervous way of his, Crowley knows far too well). One bitten-lip angel who had said then “We’ve never given gifts to each other, have we? Not deliberately, I mean. Properly. As a thing.”
Crowley had shrugged, tossed his arm across the back of the bookshop sofa, settled into the divots and spaces that he’s carved out slowly over the years, as deliberately and fiercely as if his body were a penknife scribbling his own name over the shape of it. Mine, he always wants to say. If you’ll have me. If you’ll allow it. I shouldn’t want you like this. I shouldn’t want the shape of your life like this. I shouldn’t want to take all of you and your things too and make them a part of me. Make mine a part of yours. I shouldn’t try to disturb the edges of you, the boundaries of your space, try to leave a little of me on you. Touch you. Touch this. This is the one part I can have, leave a mark. (Please don’t tear me away.)
“Do you want to? I mean, we can miracle anything, yeah? Not sure the point?"
"I’d like to try,” Aziraphale had said. “Perhaps something that can’t be purchased?”
You ask for a gift and I’d give you anything. Tell me rules, boundaries. How much is too much. What I can give, what I can take. I can’t see the surface anymore, can’t see what I’m supposed to do. It’s always different with you. Don’t let me fuck this up. Don’t let me ruin it. (Is this too little? Is this too much?)
He glances out the window, judging the sky. The clouds. It’s late October and the leaves are beginning to yellow. Beginning to turn from green to amber and to hustle on then into red. Crowley has always been partial to October. He likes the cool air, the crisp bite of it through his jacket, wiping the heat from his too-much self. His too-feverish body. It’s something strange, how boiling-hot he runs, a quirk of his corporation perhaps. Running occult software on a human machine. (He knows, from the few moments of a hand brushing a shoulder, an arm set too closely near, that Aziraphale is much the same. That heat pours off him like lit coals, like leaning too near a fire. You burn me, Sappho had said once. Some fires we ache to throw ourselves in.)
It’s time. Fuck. No time to bake anything else. And a miracle would really miss the point of it all, wouldn’t it? (It would.) Gather it all up, pack it in. He shrugs the jacket on, a black separation marking himself off from the world. There are sunglasses too. (He is always aware of his edges. Always aware of his borders. Don’t spill out, don’t mess up, don’t fuck it up, don’t be too much.)
At seven o'clock, he finds himself again on the bookshop sofa. The divots of it curving perfectly around him. The peaks and valleys of the lumpy cushions exactly placed for the shape of him. Go on then, the sofa seems to say, settle in, settle down, you fit so well here. You were made for me (I was for you).
“So,” Crowley says, clearing his awkward throat and feeling anxiety lick up him. It climbs the stairs of his spine, taking his vertebrae two at a time. “How d'ya wanna do this? Do you wanna go first? Or shall I?”
Aziraphale pauses, touches his finger to his mouth slightly, there in thought. (It’s a common habit. One Crowley takes to bed, remembers in the dark.) “Perhaps, my dear boy, we might trade and go together?”
Crowley nods. “Yeah. Sure, angel.” Breathe in, don’t panic. Breathe. One, two, three, four, count the measure of it. Don’t worry, it’s just bread. Not a big deal. Just a gift. (I hope you like it. Please. It’s not too little, right? It’s not too much?) The sound of crinkling paper fills the room. Aziraphale doesn’t tear. He tucks in at the corners, undoes the tape, unfolds the wrapping paper. Pulls the box out, lifts.
Crowley hasn’t gotten very far on his own, his hand paused in the small bag. Questing fingers still looking, trying to see what’s in the depths. He’s mostly wide-eyed and swallow-throated, his heartbeat a terror in his own chest, watching Aziraphale open the box.
“Oh,” Aziraphale says.
Oh. Oh. What does that mean? Christ, angel. Give me something. “Er - I mean, it’s just -”
“Did you make this?” Aziraphale asks, lifting out two loaves of sourdough. Heat-baked and slashed at the top, flour-dusted. He catches sight of the tear on the inner corners, a mirror image. Imperfections. (They should never have touched. I should have thought about the rise, thought this through. Now they’re scarred and marked. Sorry about that. I wanted to give you something perfect.)
“Yeah,” he breathes, his shoulders sharpening as he hunches a little. Aziraphale leans forward, brushes his arm to get his attention. (Crowley’s skin is impossibly hot there, below the blackedged jacket. The edge of him. He knows that if he peels back the sleeve and stretches out his arm, there will be a mark there. A burn. You touched me here once. ‘You burn me.’ There goes Sappho again.)
“It’s wonderful,” Aziraphale says, soft and quiet. There’s something in his voice. Something Crowley can’t quite make out. He looks up, catching on the slight worrywobble mouth, the curl of a bright smile tucked in there. On blue-bronze eyes (never settling on a color, never telling him what to expect) that are soft and considering. Full of space to fall into.
(Can I? Will you catch me if I do? The end of the world is coming, we don’t have much time.)
“Er, well,” Crowley stumbles over his shit words like rocks. Nothing elegant here, look away. “Hope you like it. That starter’s a bitch to keep going.”
Aziraphale smiles wider. “Open yours, please.”
It is not large. A small silk bag with a ribbon pull. He takes his icepick-fingers and works the knot, undoes the cord. Tilts the item out into the palm of his right hand. Seeds. A dozen or so. Small and dark brown, almond-shaped. He glances up, a question caught in his eyebrows.
“Oh, I do hope that they grow. They’re apple seeds,” Aziraphale’s voice is just a notch above whisper. Something hushed. “I’ve, well, you see, I’ve had them for quite awhile now.”
Crowley tilts his head. “Define awhile.”
Aziraphale lifts his glass, takes a sip of his gin and Dubonnet. “Rather six-thousand years. More or less."
Six-thousand years. You’ve kept these for six-thousand years. See here, now near the end. See how we find the Beginning again. Crowley glances up, watching the light dance in Aziraphale’s eyes. The scattered breath of his own uncertain chest. Something said, something unsaid. Gifted and recieved, slotting into together.
You touched me once (before we were anything at all, before I knew what that meant). Pressed in, left a space for yourself. I left something on you, never brushed it off. You touched me once, there in the dark. I will never be unmarked again.
To bake bread, to grow apples, to fall in love, you see, we must first invent the Universe.
Chapter 9: How To Tell A Story (Listen Closely)
[Prompt: Write a ~300 fantasy one of them has about the other.]
The bookshop is dark. The lights are out, this stream of car-lamps and the sounds of the city locked away outside. Aziraphale stares off at the shelves, his fingers troubling at the arm of the chair. He is not really looking at the shelves, just letting the bookspines fade out into unfocused questions. He couldn’t name a single one right now, not an author, not a title. Not now, this drifting off elsewhere.
Love is dangerous. It creeps in when you’re not looking. Makes you see things that may or may not be there. Yes, snaking in like a virus and stealing the breath from his lungs and tangling his heartbeat. When Crowley’s around, Aziraphale catches himself forgetting basic things. Blink, breathe, beat, repeat. (Love is a dangerous thing. You could forget to live if you’re not careful.)
I should tell you. Perhaps not. I’m not sure. I think you love me in a way? (Is it this way? Please, please let it be like this, please want me the way I want you.) Aziraphale swallows. His nervous throat, his hands moving to his thighs. He already knows how this will go (it’s not the first time).
We are storytellers always. Hungry hearts are the worst of all. So he tells himself a story with fever-burn cheeks and slam-shut eyes and quick breath, yes, and hands at his zipper too. Oh, he thinks.
This is how it might go. The smirk comes first, which might be pressed to his sweat-storm throat. Crowley would be starving too, hungry to the bone and swallowing Aziraphale’s Adam’s apple, tonguelashing the divot at the base. He would have wandering hands, yes, and they would feel like sunlight. Snake-slithering into his shirt, down his chest, his solar plexus, past his waistband too. (Would you be terrified? The first time? Other times? Would you be shaking? I would be ruined, you know, leaves in a storm. I hope you understand.) These hands reaching in and circling him. (His own hands do the dirty work, taking himself in hand. He is practiced with his body in a way this dream-demon is not. He knows how to pull, to give, to press. Oh lord.)
No, this is not the first time.
Aziraphale’s breath is loud in the shop, echoing on the hardwood floor and the bookspines too. Echoing off lamps, ceramic mugs, swallowed by a rug and a tapestry. He hears himself echoed, pretends it’s a second voice. Let me touch you, let me hear you. (What would you say?)
This is the ruin of him. Angel-flotsam, angel-jetsam, ruined here in a wingback chair and with his half-empty wineglass abandoned. Fucking his furious fist, wincing at his own something, his too-much, this unvoiced need. (Sometimes, I think you’re looking back. Sometimes, I think I should say something. Should I? What would you do if I kissed you?) Go further, back to the story. Back to the dream. Where were they? Oh yes, Crowley’s hands and his mouth. Someone should say something, say do you want to take this upstairs? And yes, yes, the other will always answer let’s go, god, yeah, right now. There would be a mouth to seal it, to eat up the rest of it. They can fill their empty stomachs with each other’s words, yes, just like this. (Would you smell like apples up close? Like motor oil, like hot metal, like that vetiver aftershave I’ve seen on your counter?)
There are several ways to tell a story, we can open it anywhere we like. But we must always cover the important parts. There is exposition (your hands over the front of my trousers, a kiss on the mouth). There is rising action (the touch of you on me, oh good lord, oh you’d be so warm, could you drop to your knees). There is the climax (oh fuck, oh hell, oh what, god).
But yes, there must be resolution too. (A bed, soft light and hands. A dry kiss to the eyelid, to the corner of his mouth. Long-woven fingers in damp pale hair.) How do we end the story?
“I love you, angel."
(Oh yes. That’s right. Like that.)
Chapter 10: Recipes (For Gin Cocktails and Stain Removers)
We discovered gin sometime in the long march of the Middle Ages. We can trace it back, back, further back. Once we discovered that it’s an anesthetic for the heart, we’ve never put it down. Crowley’s never been particularly fond of gin, (”Look, angel, you can drink your gin cocktails, do whatever you like. That’s your funeral, not mine. I’ll find something that doesn’t taste like bloody turpentine.”)
Sometimes, he drinks it anyway. At this moment, half-struck in the night, his mouth tastes like a pine tree.
Crowley grimaces, rubbing his tongue along the roof of his mouth, trying to pull the juniper-rot from the inside, from the cheeks and from between the teeth. It doesn’t matter, nothing will get it out spare a miracle or a toothbrush. (He doesn’t want to get up, sprawled here across the bed, his arms flung out and legs draping off as if he’d forgotten how to manage them. He miracles the taste away.)
Gin, the morning after, always tastes like regret.
This slow-blink, this cotton-gunk stare. Wipe the drunk-sleep from the eyes. Crowley is uncomfortably sober now. Too aware of the shape of his head and the sharpness behind his eyes, the promise of an all-day headache. Too aware of his body screaming out for fucking water. The misery of this whole human corporation thing. He can ignore it, will himself together. But no, not yet. It’s too much work. (Sometimes he prefers to rot.)
The gin bottle is incredibly empty. He looks with suspicious-yellow eyes from the bare bottle on the floor to the cellphone there, next to his hand and half-under the pillow. What time is it? He wants to know. It’s dark still, there’s nothing of sunlight coming through the tall windows. That wide expanse of night anywhere between midnight and four in the morning. The moon’s thrown up there somewhere and the stars too. He isn’t looking at the sky. He’s staring, curling his upper lip and this sunken-ship feeling in his chest. He’s staring at the phone.
You see, this isn’t the first time (it won’t be the last).
What the goddamn hell did I send? His crusade-quest fingers pull it toward him. He needs to find out. Rip the bandage off, so to speak. Might as well see what he’s managed. This is the trouble with gin, it loosens you. Why the fuck did I get drunk? Why do I do this? Goddammit, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t want to look. (I need to know. Did something get through? Fuck, please. No. It better not have. I should get rid of this blasted phone.)
There are seven failed calls. There are twenty-three unsent messages. There is a miracle in that his little demonic miracle, this breathalyzer-lock on his phone, continues to hold. He had almost fucked it up once, long ago and early on. His first time with a phone, having traded numbers with Aziraphale. He’d been impossibly trashed in New York City, for some goddamn reason or another (they don’t need many demons there, they get on with it well enough themselves). Have you tried corpse revivers, someone had said, just casual as you damn well please, and what self-respecting demon can turn down a bloody corpse reviver? Honestly. So there he had gone, soaked in gin and Cointreau and absinthe too, dialing Aziraphale’s bookshop number and muttering incoherently into the phone.
He had been too drunk to talk. To make any sense out of words. Aziraphale had gently wondered at him later, asking what he had tried to say. “I’ve been thinking of when you called me last week, my dear. It sounded terribly important. Do you remember?” Crowley had shrugged, skinny shoulders rattling in his bleakblack coat. “I was just drunk, you know. No idea, angel. You hungry?”
(He may have thanked God, just that once. He doesn’t make a habit of it.)
Go on then, delete the call log. That’s simple. Nothing really to see there. The texts are the problem. His phone doesn’t seem to have a mass delete option and he keeps forgetting to miracle one into existence and suddenly here we are, Crowley and his longrope arms tossed over sharp knees, this dangerloom headache, this Krakatoa in his chest.
Crowley and his sour fingers, going one by one. Delete, delete, delete. They’re nothing, the usual. Aziraphale’s name over and over and over again. His miserable attempts at spelling the damn thing while gin-drenched. (None of them are right.) Then, he hovers on the last one. hey so i shouldnt send this butyeah i think maybe i love you. His mouth tastes like a tree, like resin and sap and this chewed-up pine-spit gin. He’s tried to miracle it away but you know how things linger, no matter how we scrub. You know that stain that sticks despite the bleach. It’s there, deep in the fabric of him. Gin-flavored.
Crowley deletes the last unsent message. He remembers his legs and pulls himself from the bed. Splashes water on his face, fills a glass. Drinks it down. It’s okay, drink some water. Nothing happened. Nothing sent. (I’m a goddamn idiot. I should throw that fucking phone out the fucking window.) It’s fine, get yourself together. Go back to sleep.
Deep breaths. He falls back into the bed, pulling greyshale sheets up over him. A cotton cave. Soft like arms. This well-punched pillow below his Mars-storm hair. What a wreck, what a ruin. The sun is starting to come up, you can watch the betrayal of the thing through the windows. The barest fade to navy, the coming of day. Argh, I should really get some damn curtains. He rolls over, pulls the sheets higher. Pushes the phone back under his pillow. (He should get rid of it. He doesn’t.)
Drift off. Go back to sleep. What is that?
The phone is ringing. (How long has it been ringing? He doesn’t know, he cannot remember.) Go on then, answer it.
Someone’s waiting on the other end.
Chapter 11: Magnum Silentium
[Prompt: The National's "Lemonworld". This line - "I'm too tired to drive anyway, anyway right now / Do you care if I stayed?"]
Crowley talks in his sleep. This isn’t new. (Aziraphale has known since the first time in Mesopotamia, drinking together. When Crowley had passed out with his face pressed into the stone table, too much wine on his breath. Yes, forehead dropped there and his voice coming out in strange cadence between sleep-breath, something something about a Cedar Forest, something something about the Bull of Heaven.)
And now, here. There’s no stone table. There’s still wine. They’re both drunk (they don’t have to be). And Crowley is sprawled out over the sofa, red hair creeping out molten over the fabric like magma. Stay there, let it cool there. Become basalt for me, cool enough to the touch and unmoving. Stay there. Let me. Aziraphale says nothing, pressing his mouth into a line, breathing in. Readying up the usual lines. Yes, this common dance. He tightens the grip on the wineglass.
“You’re drooling on my sofa, my dear.“
“You are, I can see it.”
“It’s good drool. Mine,” Crowley mutters, not removing the rawboned, black-sleeved arm from where it’s flung over his eyes, preventing the audacity of the lamplight from intruding.
Aziraphale sighs. “You’re falling asleep.”
“Yeah, that'sss right.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale says. He sets the glass down with a clink. Aziraphale has sharpcaught breath, a strange Do Not Enter sign hung on this night. It’s strange-edged, even if the dance is familiar.
The arm moves a little. Sunlit-yellow eyes blink at him a little, sleep-drunk. “Angel, come on. I’m too tired to drive,” he says, not blinking. (He should blink.) And there’s that broomstick-skinny mouth and it’s too familiar, too well-known, this next line, “Do you care if I stayed?”
(Aziraphale has made it up enough in his mind. Tell me about a cold memory.) Aziraphale pauses, pressing his spine back into the catch of chair. Maybe the stiff back will give him the strength to say not tonight, not tonight. You don’t know what you say in your sleep. (I can’t bear to hear it.)
Crowley talks in his sleep. It had started with forests, yes, and the Bull of Heaven. In Rome, Crowley had dozed off and said I like watching you. In Glastonbury, he had said I miss you a lot. In Paris, after heads had rolled and Aziraphale still had sugar on the side of his mouth and Crowley had drunk his fill and dozed off again too, it had happened once more. I think about you sometimes. (Aziraphale had straightened up then, quick as silver, dropping Crowley’s rubyport-head right off his shoulder. The sudden movement waking him up. “Hey angel,” he’d said then, wiping sleep from his eyes. “Sorry ‘bout that. Lot of work there, you know, in dashing rescues.”)
The worst had come in 1817. Crowley had been asleep for ten years, head lolled back onto his pillows and long neck offered to the air or to a knife, whichever might show up first. Aziraphale had wandered around the bookshop, wandered around the city, always with his eyes open and looking for the usual long-lean cut of black. Nothing came. Silence. After three months, Aziraphale had broken into Crowley’s Mayfair flat (it was, perhaps, just a minor miracle). Found Crowley’s chest moving softly under grey blankets, his eyes closed in sleep. Dust on the chairs. Aziraphale had sighed, waited for Crowley to stir. He hadn’t. He didn’t. So, Aziraphale came weekly. Watered the plants, miracled the dust. Sometimes Crowley would talk. Little things. Nonsensical words. Fragments, even. In 1817, Aziraphale had been reading by the bed. Crowley had rolled over, dropped a moan then from his skinnytwist mouth.
Good lord. (Aziraphale is still fever-red with the memory. He should cut it from his mind. This image shared without intent. Crowley’s bent-wire body twisting against the mattress. Hungry arms at a pillow. Saying something of “I love you, angel, do you know how much, do you have any -”. Aziraphale had slammed the book shut and miracled himself to his bookshop.)
What would you say now? Is it still - the same sort? “Crowley, you’re creating a demon-shaped permanent dent on my sofa,” Aziraphale sighs. “You know you should -”
Aziraphale looks up. “Pardon?”
Crowley is staring at him. The yellow-star eyes constant and the brow furrowed and he’s pushed his slitherspine-self up on his elbow, just there and still in all that ostentatious black (he must know how it looks) and just staring. It’s only the millennia-count of knowing the other man that Aziraphale can see the rapid measure of the vein at the throat, the slight shake to the even focus, how Crowley is carefully trying to keep scattershot hands steady.
It’s now. It will happen now. Will it? (He’s not ready. Is he?) Aziraphale swallows. “Well, it’s just not quite appropriate, you know it wouldn’t be approved of, you staying here - ” (It’s useless, this. He hasn’t thought ahead.)
“Who wouldn’t?” Crowley asks, quiet and with that strange soft tone he’d taken there at the bus stop. You don’t have a side anymore. Neither of us do. We’re on our own side. (Aziraphale knows, he knows, he does. It just hasn’t quite ….settled in. Habits take awhile to form, to break. Heaven has packed up its bags, left no forwarding address. There is nothing in the spongey spaces of his bones, he’s left his mouth open with nothing to fill it. No air, no rain. Like walking through a house after a break-up, seeing what’s leftover. Seeing what’s still there. This is what is left of me.) “It’s just us, angel,” Crowley says, still watching carefully. “Our side.”
Aziraphale tries to keep his breath even. “You - say things. In your sleep.”
“Yeah?” Crowley asks, arching an eyebrow. He clenches his mouth, his jaw. Closes his eyes, tight and lined. There’s a question there, sitting unasked in the bags under the tired eyes and the tense set of the throat. This bit of what, exactly, are you afraid I’m gonna say?
Aziraphale doesn’t say anything. No, his fingers sit tight on the wineglass. He takes a sip, holds it there, brings it down into his throat. Liquid courage. Stiff upper lip. All at once, none at all. Oh dear.
Crowley just closes his eyes again. One long hand comes up, runs over the bone-sharp face, catching on the cliffs and jagged edges and pinching the bridge. It’s razor-edged, mountain-like. Aziraphale thinks of catching on it, catching his mouth on the jaw, the supraorbital ridge, kissing the dark brows and the eyelids and tumbling on over into the mouth, that magnetic spot - “Alright, yeah. Yeah, angel. I should get back. Got stuff. I’ll see you. Tomorrow, for lunch. Still on?”
“Yes, quite,” Aziraphale manages. “One o’clock.”
Crowley nods, stretches then. He moves his glass into the kitchen. Scratches a little at the side of his face. “Right. Gonna go crash. Not the car, angel. Don’t look at me like that. C’mon. I mean in bed. Hit the hay. See you tomorrow.”
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Crowley winks, grabbing his jacket from the back of the chair. But he’s moving slowly. Aziraphale watches, drinks up the unsteady twist to the hips, the unsure pacing. There’s nothing here of the serpent, just these angular and jerk-rattle motions. This sleep-stop-start of an uncertain man. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Don’t do anything I would do. Don’t speak. Don’t say it. (Say it. Someone needs to go first.)
Aziraphale stands at the window watching the Bentley pull away. He pulls at his bowtie. Fusses with his creamline curls. He is thinking of a bed in Mayfair. Thinking of grey sheets and of red-royal hair across a pillow. A twist of a mouth and what’s kept inside. What will you say tonight? To your walls, to your bed? (Not to me?)
It’s late, it’s late. We betray things in the dark, at night. Say things we shouldn’t (all of them are true). Pay attention to what is said after dark, half-asleep, when we too tired to tell a half-truth, too weary to pull up a lie. Aziraphale’s wine glass is surprised to find that it’s become scotch. He knocks the rest of it back. Wipes the wet away from his mouth with a handkerchief. Stares at the sofa, the spot of damp-dark drool there on the fabric, there where Crowley had laid out in a collapse, half-asleep with open arms and an open mouth too.
Yes, I care if you stay. (Don’t listen to me, please, I wish you had.)
Chapter 12: With Nothing On My Tongue (But Hallelujah)
[Prompt: Title/concept taken from Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah]
“You never eat,” Aziraphale had said tonight, holding out a soup spoon. There had been stainless steel and mirepoix. Stock-soft carrots and well-seasoned potatoes. Crowley had hesitated, breathing in the bit of celery and onion and chicken broth too.
“Not hungry,” Crowley had managed. Had picked up his glass of red wine. Downed it while thinking of peaches. Thinking of pears. They had split one once in a garden, before it had rained. This had been the first time Crowley had watched Aziraphale open his mouth and take something inside of it, pearflesh on a half-starved tongue. Oh, this is marvelous, Aziraphale had murmured, tearing into the bite. Crowley had blinked then, blinks now, not thinking of calvados-soaked peaches or butter-rich baked pears. There are other things to swallow, to eat. Tell me if you’re hungry. (Crowley is starving.)
He’s in bed now. It’s late. Maybe it’s early. Doesn’t matter, all that matters is that it is dark and useless and he’s alone. Crowley here, laid out on his emptyfuck bed with the wide, grey sheets. They’re damp and creased under him, from his weight, from where he twists. His hands pull at the sheets sometimes. His left land. The other is tight around him, pulling at his oven-hot self and trying to tell himself a story.
A story. Let me make you something. Let me make you coq au vin. It’s your favorite, angel, I know it is. I watch you. Watch you close your mouth around the spoon (my finger, my tongue, the meat of me). Watch you suck it in, swallow it down. You make that sound (you always make a sound). You’re no good at secret-keeping (you’d be loud with me, wouldn’t you, tell me what I need to hear?). Crowley and his sharpspike spine, the electric shock of his ache shooting from crown to toe just at thinking of Aziraphale’s chin damp with a bit of the mix of viscous cooking juice. Red wine and chicken stock, a splash of Cognac (burnt off in the fire). Wondering at what it is to kiss Aziraphale’s worrydance mouth with coq au vin on the tongue. What it would be to taste tannins and a haze of onion and garlic and thyme. Butter last, yes, thick and soft in the mouth. That’s what would linger there as Crowley would pull away, biting his lip and breathing a bit harsh. He’d have something good to say, of course. Something about I love you, you daft angel. He’s not sure yet, how to say this. Still trying to find the words, the right time, the right place. Piece it together. (It’s never the right time. Never the right place.)
So here he is, a confession on his own bed. Wild and spilled out (red wine dropped in the sheets, forgotten, his hair like a spilled cabernet). Jealous-yellow eyes slamshut. Pretending that his hand is as wet as an angelfresh mouth. Crowley and his wretched fist, curled up there and flying with magical thinking. Yes, fuck, god, like that. Hold me down, my hips. Make it so I’m not too fast (I’ll get there all at once, please, slow me down. I want to last).
Let me worship you. Oh, angel. Aziraphale. Have some fucking mercy. Have you ever heard of mercy? Come on, angel. I’m dying here. Give me something. A sign. Take a bite out of me, please. I need to watch you. I’m aching, desperate. There’s nothing here, nothing in the desert. Bring me water. Make me drink. I want you on my bed, on yours, against the wall. I love you in ways no one should ever love something. (I will ruin you, stain you. I’m the black ice on the road, I’m the red sky at morning.) Don’t come near me. Have mercy. Keep away (don’t, don’t, don’t ever. I need you.)
The bed is a ruin. Ruin, ruin, these impossible sheets already stained by the seawater-wreck of himself, where he’s overflowed here, sweat and hair too. It’s a silent place, keeper of echoes and secrets, so he cries out into the hall and the bathroom. His voice bounces into the kitchen. Off the walls and the well-miracled doors (keep it silent, keep it safe, don’t let this get out). All of these rooms that might bear witness to him, watch him. This only bit of the earth that will know the truth, that will hear the sound of angel, god, I love you, I love you, you fucking - I love you.
(He is careful about sound. He is careful what noises come out of his mouth. He says nothing out loud. There is nothing in him but sound. Don’t let anything else in, don’t take the bite off the fork. Don’t open your mouth. Be careful, you don’t know what might come out.)
“Angel - “ (Cries out, white-blind and desperate and holyshitfuck, his starpulse heart slamming against his own skin, trying to get out. Skitter away. His thin mouth falling away in silence, open and yes, no sound, no sound will get out.) He comes in a collapse, falling apart here like the Colosseum, leaving little of himself recognizable and nothing of use. Aziraphale still a flavor on the tongue, the back of his mouth. Crowley keeps his eyes closed and swallows. Don’t open the eyes, not yet. Stay here where it is warm and dark and there is no truth of the empty bed to see. Don’t think about how you’ll wash yourself off and gather your breath. Wander out to see what’s on television (watch it alone). Don’t think about it, don’t think about it at all. (Don't think about Aziraphale's pause, this nervousneck, the you say things in your sleep, I can't let you stay here.)
This shallow breath, the slowing of his heartbeat. The sweat drying and cool on his skinnybare chest and the knock of his ribs and the divot of his throat. Crowley frowns a bit, the weight settling on him of knowing that he’s fucked up again. Fucked up and fucked his fist once again, once again inappropriate. Wrong. Unacceptable. I won’t do it again. (He will.) He’s gone off-script (can’t manage anything at all). Gone off-script and has found himself once more here in his slop-bucket bed, red-handed and red-dicked too. A ruin. Fucking a prayer out to a holy thing. A prayer. A devotion, a love letter. An invocation to mercy. Come and find me, here and my blazing self. Throw the water on me, throw me in the fire. I don’t care, doesn’t matter, I can’t get you out of my head. Get your feast out, pack a picnic. Rub the pears over me and the peaches too. Lick it off. Let me (I want to taste you, I’ve been waiting for this first bite for so long).
A prayer. A silent request. No sound required, no true words necessary. You can write it in flags, in smoke. We don’t need to speak, we don’t need voiceboxes to speak to the angels, tell them what we need. Crowley stills suddenly. His hand still there. Still in this dark room. He still hasn’t opened his eyes. I accidentally prayed to you. (Did you hear it? Fuck.) What have I fucking done?
A moment. Silence. This space of possibility. The shape of the air changes. In the dark, Crowley can hear someone clear their throat. (Can he?) He does not open his eyes, breathing still hard and storm-scattered. Rib-ruined heartbeats. This rush of too much, of exposure. Don’t look. It’s not real if you don’t look. The bed dips, this weight of someone else. (Does it?) This warm hand on his arm, his shoulder, the side of his face. This mouth here, dry and simple and just this bit of skin to skin. Tasting of salt and red wine and, yes, pears too.
“I heard you,” the voice comes (beloved, white-wrapped). Can I?
“Yeah,” Crowley breathes, “Yeah, angel, anything you like.” Please, please, please, I’ve been asking for years.
(He comes again, hard in his own fist. Just a fantasy. Just a dream.)
Chapter 13: New Methods In Riverbed Excavation
I’m going to tell you a secret. Come close, listen. Nothing stays forever. We knock on the ground under our feet and stand back assured of it. We count on the seas, the shift of the stars, the rising and setting of the sun. But the ground shifts and the rocks move, worn away by wind. Forests burn up and stars die. And this, our star-sun too, hung already in its own grave and waiting for the white-dwarf-end. Sometimes the seas dry up. Lakes and ponds. Sometimes the rivers take off, leave only their empty beds behind. We can see there, the blanket of water now peeled back. See what was hidden.
(Why am I telling you this? Pay attention.)
Crowley is in his bedroom, standing in front of a long mirror. His fists clenched, veins popped. Knuckles white. He stands very still (he would seem calm if you didn’t know what to look for, didn’t know the signs of a riptide). Unbuttons the top buttons of his shirt. Frowns and does them up again. Runs his fingers through his hair a little, fussing at it. Scowls at the hungry cheekbones, his sharp chin, his crow-claw fingers curled here. (He’s too familiar with this body after six-thousand years. Knows all the ins and outs of it. How fast the hair grows, where the freckles come in, which knuckles to crack. He’s known himself since before mirrors. Since crawling up to the Sarasvati after wandering for years after Eden. He'd pulled himself up to the edges and cupped water from the river for his hot face and hot hands. Had glanced into the clear water in his palms and saw only a mirror there, his own startled face looking back at him.)
Should I wear this shirt? Wait, what about the other one? Which do you like better? Doesn’t matter. Not really. Never matters. Get it the fuck together.
He settles the wrinkles out in his jacket. Breathes in, breathes out. Intimidates his heart (it’s no use, it never is).
“Alright,” he hisses at the entirely out-of-line mirror, propped up there with the sheer gall to reflect Crowley back to himself. “Alright. I’m going, I’m going."
Crowley grabs his sunglasses and stalks down the long hall. Down this pinball-wizard hall, now miraculously free of any drops of Ligur-rot and holy water. He curls his lip here, looking at the shale-dark floor, remembering how the water and Ligur had mixed together and formed a hellbroth stream slowly creeping along the floor. After getting off the bus, it had been the first thing Crowley had done, right before he’d even unlocked the door to his flat. This little miracle to dry the riverbed with Aziraphale standing there behind him, biting his worrywobble lip and looking back over his own shoulder to see if they had been followed. (They hadn’t.)
With one hand on the doorknob, he pauses. Tries to steady himself. Don’t panic. Come on, I’m fine. Well. Whatever that means. It’s the same thing. Nothing’s changed. You don’t know a thing anyway so I’ll just be normal. Go to dinner, order a glass of wine. Talk, listen to whatever endless new releases you’ve got in. Have some port, a coffee. Come back here and see if I can even make it to the bedroom before making a fucking mess of myself. (Maybe you’ll come with me, maybe it’ll be one of those nights. I never know. I don’t know what we’re doing. And we never fucking talk about it, do we? Why you come here, why you always leave before I fall asleep. Why you always leave by morning. Why you don’t hold my hand during the day, why you never brush against me.)
By the time he makes it to the bookshop, he’s fine. Really, he is. Absolutely tickety-boo. Yes, perfectly normal, just your standard-issue, everyday-sort of demon. Every bit of him, perhaps, except for the clenched fists on the steering wheel, except for the tight press of his back molars.
He checks his hunger-red hair again in the rearview mirror, just as Aziraphale opens the passenger door and slides into the car.
”Crowley,“ Aziraphale says, in that warm voice. Crowley knows his name in every tone of Aziraphale’s voice but two. They do not speak at night. He does not know his name tossed out from a bent-back throat with fingers dug in his flesh. He does not know his name said in quiet reverence and covered in roses, said just for the sake of saying it. Said in love, the way lovers do, the way we repeat these heartkept names like a rosary, like an invocation. Saying a lover’s name is always a discovery, pulling it out like a pearl from an oyster, wrapped in the meat of our heart. Look, we say, offering their names up on our own tongues. Look what I have found. (You. Your name. Let me keep it, let me wear it.)
He glances over. Aziraphale is always steady and unchanging. See the measure of it here. That same damnable coat, those same trousers pressed in exactly the same way. His quartz-white hair here, skitter-scatter curls all over the fucking place, reflecting light wherever they like.
Wait. Crowley blinks, cocks a dark brow. ”Hold the bloody phone, is that a new bowtie?“
"Oh yes,” Aziraphale says, beaming at having this detail noticed. “My tailor rather thought that something brighter might do. Suggested sky-blue. It is a bit daring, of course, but - ”
“I like it,” Crowley drawls. “Daring looks good on you, angel.”
“Oh, thank you,” Aziraphale says, flushing a little, if you know where to look. (Crowley has watched for millennia.) “I was a touch concerned."
Brings out your eyes. Don’t notice the way the light blue fabric catches on the glimmers of his riverwater eyes. Don’t notice how it sits against the color of his skin, how it sets off the slight color there suddenly in his cheeks, the tips of his ears. Crowley clutches the steering wheel tighter.
"Well, shall we? Don’t wanna miss the reservation. They’ve got that Dover sole again, remember? The one you’re mad for."
"You know, I’ve had a craving all day for the grouse? Might get that. Of course though, that sole is absolutely delightful.”
Crowley laughs. “You’re just full of daring tonight. Come on, angel. Surprise me when we get there.” He pulls away from the shop, adjusts the radio and glances over at the warmspot of Aziraphale there next to him. “Go on then, tell me about all the new stuff you got in today.”
A tumble then of authors and titles. Bright eyes and bright words about pages and bindings, publishers and conditions too. These old books that Aziraphale finds in dried-up bookshops and dusty closets, working miracles to gather them together here, in his little shop of well-loved things. Things to keep, to cherish, words to save safely on a shelf, ready to be picked up and reread whenever he needs to hear them again.
Some things should be pulled from the muck. Some things should be kept safe.
Rivers dry up and turn to dust. When the water recedes, there are always leftovers. When that ancient river dried up, thousands of long-ache years ago, Crowley had walked along its long path and had found fossils and dead grass. Animal bones and shattered pottery. A red-clay jar smashed by a long-gone current, the black paint of the outside still trying to tell whatever story had been given to it. Whatever story it had been told to keep.
He’d gathered all the pieces up. Had put the jar back together. (He doesn’t know why. Why keep this little thing? This little painted clay jar? It’s there, on a shelf in his bedroom, tucked away at the top. Gathering dust but kept safe, all this time later, with the paint still on it, the story still to tell.)
One rawboned hand comes to turn the music down a little, to settle Freddie Mercury a bit, as he tries to hear Aziraphale better. The other hand stays clenched on the steering wheel. It hasn’t loosened since he’s stood in front of the mirror. Because there is a story inside of it, inside this crush-closed fist. Something held fast and held firm. Something to keep.
Because the riverbed has dried up in Crowley’s front hall. The bottoms of rivers and lakes are never empty. We always find flotsam and jetsam there when there is no water to hide it away. Sometimes, if you are lucky, there might be treasure.
Crowley had found something then, there on his hall floor. His eyes had caught the white scrap of paper and he’d bent then, curious-fingered. Had plucked it up from the shadowed corner and smoothed it out.
There, written in black ink. Written in Aziraphale’s ever-sure hand. Four simple words. Just these on this bit of paper saying please, I love you.
Chapter 14: (do I dare) disturb the universe
I've borrowed the title from T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
“Afters?” Aziraphale asks. As if it’s a question, as if this isn’t part of the same old ritual. The same old something something something that they always do. This is how it goes: Aziraphale will lift the white linen napkin to his mouth, brush any measure of crumbs away, inquire about dessert. Crowley will quirk a smile, a half-smirk, half-indulgent thing. Nod and say anything you like, angel. They’ll linger over coffee and port, Sauternes and cognac. Scotch, perhaps, on the rare occasion.
Tonight is no different. (You see, it goes exactly like that.)
Aziraphale has a plate of half-devoured devil’s food cake in front of him, a bit of dark chocolate ganache still clinging to his fork, stuck to the roof of his mouth. The wine glass is held here just in front of his mouth. He is watching Crowley. Watching Crowley, who has a firm-set mouth and a too-straight back. His very hair seems to stand on end, his dark brows have been furrowed all night. His fists clenched dangerously tight.
“Are you alright?” Aziraphale asks finally, giving the long-thought question voice. It’s been pricking at him and he’s danced around it all night. It’s been hours and nothing has relaxed Crowley. Not laughter or food. Not gentle teasing, not warmth. Not even wine. Might as well say it, might as well spit it out.
Crowley shrugs, looking up. The lamplight catches his hair, glints like the port in Aziraphale’s glass. (Ruby, twenty-years-old.) He pulls on a smile like you might pick a jacket up from the floor, sniff it, see if it’s alright. Put it on. “Fine, angel. I’m good, promise. Just a bit, you know, out of sorts."
"Did something, er, happen?” A quick flick of his head up and then down indicates he means from above or from below. Did you hear from your people? (Did you hear from mine?)
“Nah. S’ not that.”
Crowley’s hand is resting on the table. His left, curled tightly and strangely. It’s not far from Aziraphale’s own. It wasn’t quite intentional the way Aziraphale had dropped his hand here, just scarce few inches from Crowley’s. As the minutes pass, he’s keenly aware of the interval. There is something between them. Air, yes, and something else too. He wants to know it, name it. Pluck it out from the space between them. Aziraphale watches Crowley breathe in. Sees him right his shoulders, wet his lips.
I want to kiss you. Would that be alright? In public, with nothing behind it more than wanting you by my side to have and to hold? I’ve heard you in your sleep, that damned prayer. When you say you want me, do you mean more than in your bed? I can’t be just that to you. You said you might love me. Just the once. In your sleep. 1817. I’ve never forgotten. Is it true when you’re awake? Is it real? If I touch you, would that be alright? Would you pull away? Would you touch me back in the same way, gently and with forever in it? I can’t be anything else to you, only this, to be nothing more than a friend. Or only that, to be everything to you. Please tell me it’s okay, that you want this the way I do. (It will be alright if you don’t. I promise. Always.)
You’ve never said it out loud and awake. (I need to know. I can’t tell.)
He can never tell.
There have been close calls. Let’s go back to Rome. First-century sometime. There had been a party in a villa. (Aziraphale doesn’t remember whose.) It had been somewhere in Baiae, there on the coast of the Gulf of Naples. The moon had glittered beautifully on the water and the wind had caught in the white drape of Aziraphale’s toga as if it were tugging on him, trying to beg him to come with it, to tell him secrets too. It had been mid-December. Always chillier at the coast, he’d layered several tunics and a cloak. A party carried on behind him, guests weaving in and out of the villa, drinks in their hands and laughter in their throats.
Io, Saturnalia! They had called. Aziraphale had felt himself smiling a little. A holiday for revelry, for merriment and gift-giving. In these darkest nights of the year, they still find reasons to light it up and celebrate, Aziraphale had thought with warmth in his chest. And they would light it up for the next seven days of the Saturnalia Feast. Aziraphale hadn’t meant to stay for the entire feast. It hadn’t been his intention to linger on. Hadn’t meant to stumble into a demon there on the edge of the water, a miserable pull to his face and throwing rocks in. Hadn’t meant to lean in, drunk on thick and flowing wine, drop a kiss on the corner of Crowley’s mouth.
The Crowley of tonight, here in the Ritz, reminds Aziraphale of that frozen creature in Baiae, suddenly terrible in his silence. Suddenly nothing of a snake but just a collection of broken glass, sharp edges. A set of the mouth as if to say don’t you dare touch, you’ll cut yourself. Crowley had gone stock-still then too. Had also pressed his mouth into a thin line. His voice had gone (like tonight) as stiff as stale bread. Aziraphale had reeled back, sucked the wine from his veins, spat it out. “I’m so sorry, Crowley, I didn’t mean -” (to make you uncomfortable, to do anything you don’t want, it’s so hard to not kiss you sometimes).
“Don’t worry about it, angel,” Crowley had shrugged. (He’d disappeared shortly after, muttering something about Gaul. When Aziraphale had run into him again, somewhere in Alexandria about a decade later, there’d been nothing of the stiffness left. Gone, forgotten. Water under the bridge.)
Aziraphale doesn’t want to ruin things. Not again. He bites at his lower lip, running it raw and ragged. He frowns and licks the chocolate from the fork. It only tastes like a memory of Crowley’s sleeptalk. I want you, he had said but had never said it during the day. Nothing nothing nothing given willingly.
It might not even be true. Aziraphale knows that sleep rules its own domain, that the things said in sleep might not even be true.
It is centuries and centuries and centuries later and they are at the Ritz. There is chocolate ganache still on the roof of Aziraphale’s mouth. Crowley’s hand is still three-and-a-half inches away from Aziraphale’s own (white-knuckled, fisted). Aziraphale has looked at him and asked then what?
Then what? The question echoes.
Crowley doesn’t move. See the lines of tension there at the temple, running down the long neck. The slight rustle of the black jacket, as if he were nothing but shake-shiver bones rattling beneath. Oh, my dear. Let me help. Please. What is it? Tell me. I won’t push you. Just tell me. Aziraphale’s breath hitches as he watches, as he pauses and studies Crowley’s closed fist.
He hadn’t realized just how wrong something was. No, not until now. (Crowley is, when he wants, as good as a cat at pretending nothing is wrong. At hiding it, burying it deep down. Aziraphale knows this, knows it well. Something is very wrong.)
The closed fist, so very near to his own. His own fingers twitch slightly against the tablecloth, aching to reach out with comfort. Wanting to curl around the edges of the other hand, all razors and glacier points. Wanting to wrap around and soften the edges of him there. I was made soft, so that I may cover you with myself. Cushion you from the world. Give me your edges, let us borrow each other. I’ve always been part of you (and you me). Can you feel it? (May I touch you?)
Please. (If you push me away, I will never ask again, I promise.)
It’s only a hand. Simply there, resting on the table.
"Crowley,” Aziraphale says. The dark lenses turn in his direction. Crowley seems to take in the meringue-white hair, the concerned frown. He takes in Aziraphale’s hand lifted from the table, now hovering there over his own. Aziraphale holds it close, just a few small centimeters away. The heat from Crowley’s skin sears him. Here he is, hovering at an oven door. Crouched near a bonfire and getting warm.
Fire shouldn’t be this still.
He drops his hand a fraction. Crowley watches. Aziraphale cannot tell the look in his eyes, does not know the expression on his face. But the hand does not move. There is only the thick, pronounced swallow of Crowley’s throat. There is only a dip of the head, an imperceptible nod. Yes, the motion seems to say, go on, you may. It’s allowed. Please. Touch me.
Aziraphale breathes in. Terrified and obvious and somehow strangely charged, oddly wanton. It is only this, just a hand curling over a fist. Perfectly normal, perfectly appropriate. And yet, somewhere in the sand, several lines are erased and ruined, scattered to a once-teasing wind.
His fingers curl around Crowley’s. Crowley’s bone-skinny fist is shivering slightly, unnoticeable to the naked eye. The skin burns. Aziraphale tightens his grip. Brushes against a little something, a corner of a scrap of paper. There is something there. Something buried in Crowley’s hand. He pulls gently at Crowley, turning the clenched fist over.
“May I?” He whispers. (May I look? See what you have? What is it, what has knocked you off course? May I see? Will you let me in?)
Crowley turns back, his profile cut against the room. Lifts the glass of port, drains it in a go. There is a sigh, a suck of air. A collapse to the very structure of his bones, his body. (Aziraphale cannot see his eyes but he knows they must be closed. They have known each other too long to not learn little tells, pick up on small habits.)
“Yeah, angel,” he says finally. His voice is coarse. “Anything you like. Go for it.”
Pick apart the space between. Five fingers. He goes one by one by one until there is nothing left but this, an open hand and a scrap of crumpled paper in Crowley’s sweaty palm.
A scrap of very familiar paper in a terribly familiar scrawl. Aziraphale knows what it will say without reading it. (We do too.)
Please, I love you.
Chapter 15: (my angel) flung out of space
[Prompt: Binary stars]
The title is taken from a quote from Carol/The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. The poet mentioned within is Anne Carson and the quotes are from Red Doc.
The worst of all things is to be obvious. To be laid bare and open, pages ready to be flipped through and read. Crowley swallows, ruined in his own mess of feeling. He remembers that he had met a poet once, had even drank with her in New York. To feel anything deranges you, she had said. To be seen is the penalty.
Crowley feels incredibly fucking seen.
Aziraphale hasn’t breathed in eighty-two seconds. Crowley knows, he’s been carefully counting each one. Enumerating them, yes. Counting out the seconds before the fall, the moments before gravity does what it will with him (again). His wings are black already. Maybe this will be too much, maybe this will knock the feathers out, crush his bones, stop the flow of blood. Maybe they’ll simply fall off this time, crumble away. There he will be, Crowley, architect of Original Sin. The Once-Winged. (There are a great many things he once was. If asked do you regret anything? he will scoff, say hell no, that his mistakes are what have made him who he is. But we all know the measure of that untruth, he’s no different than the rest of us. Don’t ever look to him for guidance, for how to live. Yes, see him here, caught red-haired and red-handed too. A liar on a bed of broken glass, his fuckups there prodding into his shoulders, his spine. He lies awake at night. In bed, on the ceiling, against the grey-paint wall. I shouldn’t have done this. I shouldn’t have done that. I fucked this all up already, didn’t I? How long till you find me out?)
“I’ll get the check,” he mutters. Finding comfort in familiar sentences, old habits.
Aziraphale’s hand is still warm on his own. Crowley would have expected to shiver, to have to hide his pleasure. Dread is a heavy thing, it overpowers everything. That goddamn scrap of paper sitting there in Aziraphale’s hand like a question mark. It echoes. He doesn’t need to see it to hear it bounce across his skull. Four simple words to disturb his universe. Please, I love you.
Did you mean it? Do you still? (Should I not have brought it? Should I not have said anything? Did I mess this up? I don’t know what to do, angel. Did you mean for me to see it? If you did, how could you not say anything for so long? We’re going to collapse if we talk about it. It’s the one thing we’ve got going for us, not talking about it.)
Aziraphale holds the scrap of paper, holds Crowley’s shaking hand. Crowley wants to wipe his nervous-sweat forehead, wants to cut loose of the table, get in the car. Slam the pedal to the floor and scar the sky with a scream. Instead, he simply waits. Aziraphale’s pale dot eyes lift slowly from reading (reading and rereading and rereading again) the bit of paper. Four words to ruin everything. Four words to burn it all down.
It’s a terrible thing to realize how your life might be built on a house of cards.
How quickly things fall. Crowley should know better. Should know the measure of gravity, how rock bottom calls everything home eventually. He had been there when gravity was created, when it was seeded throughout the Universe, woven like a threat. It’s a load-bearing beam. We always look to the pitch-dark night sky, the scatterplot stars. We always dream of being weightless and free. What might it be to fly? What might it be to escape? We dream of the air because we hope to never be ruled again by gravity. Of never being pulled down again. We dream, always, of having wings to catch ourselves.
Of not being Fallen things.
We could run away together, he’d said. It’s bitter on his tongue. Burnt and ashy, as unpleasant as a pill. Alpha Centauri. Crowley has never told Aziraphale that he’d made that one with the bright spots of Aziraphale still burnt on the backs of his eyelids. That when you are first falling in love, you make quiet memories, silent offerings. When you cannot say it, when you do not get to keep someone, you make little talismans instead. A song to remind you. A poem. The smell of rain on the air, nose-stuck petrichor. Crowley had never spoken to Aziraphale then, still up in Heaven. He had never even dreamt of it. Yet he had made this star, Rigil Kentaurus (one half of Alpha Centauri), the exact brightness of Aziraphale’s halo.
I’m a sentimental fool. (He doesn’t dwell on the presumption of the other star in Alpha Centauri. Toliman, smaller and cooler. Where Rigil Kentaurus is yellow-gold and more brilliant than the sun, Toliman wears orange-red. Doesn’t matter. Don’t think about it. It’s just something ridiculous I did once. Cause I don’t know where the fuck to stop.)
Crowley pays the bill, jerks his head toward the door. Aziraphale is still sitting silently, watching him. His mouth half-open, as if he’s laying out his words. His shatter-sentences, ready to knock them both from orbit. Here they have gone ‘round this over and over again, each circling the barycenter of their lives. The heaviness that pulls them both in, keeps them following each other.
Love has mass. (Crowley doesn’t know how it will feel to be knocked clean, knocked away, to have nothing to tether himself with. Consider space. No up or down, no left or right. Relative nothingness. He could spin out for millennia and millennia and millennia with no resistance to pull against. No one would catch him.)
“Come on, I’ll take you home,” he says, voice rough. “Get in the car.”
“My dear,” Aziraphale says, getting up from the table. Crowley has risen, pulled himself free. (It’s better to disentangle yourself first, better to pull away first. You can control the sharpness of it, know what to expect. If you know when it’s happening, the speed of the fall, you know how hard you’ll hit. Yes, better to do it yourself. Don’t let them get you first.)
Crowley shudders, his shoulders jangling in his dark jacket. His hair pricking up on his scalp, his red-dust arms. If he’d had no flesh to cover him, his bones would have sounded like a windchime. This is the sound of what you do to me. Wind-ruined.
“Don’t,” Crowley mutters. “Just, come on, angel. Let’s - not. Just get in the car."
Aziraphale furrows a brow. They’ve made it to the Bentley. Crowley waits for Aziraphale to get in. Instead, those square fingers rest on the handle, his ever-worrywobbled mouth pressed into a stubborn line. "No, I won’t get in unless you agree to talk about this.”
He grits his teeth. Ducks his chin, Lifts one hand to his face, works at the tension there caught on the bridge of his nose. Fine. If we’ve got to destroy everything, I guess there’s nothing for it. Might as well just get on with it.
“Get in, angel,” he says, tired and exhausted. “If we have to talk, fine. Go on then. We can talk.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale says. Near whispers. There’s something soft there. Another man might hope. I’m not gonna get my hopes up on anything there. I can’t. Don’t. Please. I don’t have anywhere to go from here. (God, please. I’ve never been good with hope, I can’t help it. Please. Tell me you still mean it. Tell me that this isn’t going to end everything. I’ll get myself together, promise. If you don’t mean it. If you do, I’ll show you every day what I never have. I love you. I’ve never told you. It’s choking me, it’s all going to come out. Tell me it’s okay. Let me love you like this, please.)
Crowley has never been good with hope. Demons shouldn’t. He knows better. (Does it anyway.)
“I’ll just drop you off. Got stuff. In the morning. Er, big meeting with my informant network. Gotta keep eyes on - everything. Yeah, that’s it."
Crowley flinches. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s behind his sunglasses and in the dark. He’s unseen. Not too too too obvious. To be seen is the penalty. Please don’t look at me right now. He drives. Freddie Mercury sings. Somewhere, between the Ritz and Soho, Aziraphale reaches over and takes his hand.
"Don’t panic,” Aziraphale whispers.
His breath catches. Heart spikes there with adrenaline. This is how it feels, pitching out of an airplane, off the edge of a cliff, taking a step off of a cloud. The rush of whistling air, the catch of wind in the hair, the cold sweat on the skin. To be terror-torn and rushing rushing rushing downward. Is it any wonder that we say that we fall in love? To love, you have to tear yourself out, throw yourself in. Mind the rocks, mind the trees. Hope that they have hands and wings to catch you. Don’t let go too soon, don’t go too fast. They might not be in place, they might not be ready yet. Be careful of your heart, don’t let it hit the ground, spatter everywhere. Keep your bones in mind, we can only heal so much.
Fallen things, once fallen, are nervous creatures. Aziraphale’s hand squeezes his, short fingers caught between his own long ones. His warm skin there on Crowley’s clammy own. Yellow and red, circling something heavy. Something unseen.
Let go, it seems to say, don’t worry. Gravity won’t pull you down, not while I’ve got you.
Chapter 16: infinity times infinity (let there be light)
[Prompt: Regina Spektor's "Samson". This line - "Beneath the stars came falling on our heads / But they're just old light, they're just old light"]
Crowley pulls up to the bookshop. Cuts the engine. Aziraphale sits there. Doesn’t move. Doesn’t get out of the car. The radio keeps going. Aziraphale reaches out with his broad hands, his well-kept hands. Takes the dial, switches it off. Here we are again, sitting in silence. Just the sound of breath. In and out, in and out. Over and over and over again into infinity.
Aziraphale turns toward Crowley. See the nervousknock of the throat, the dance of a tartan bowtie. The glint of streetlight in his bedsheet-white hair. Wide-eyed and stubborn, steel-boned.
Don’t. Don’t look at me like that.
Aziraphale’s eyes are blue. A strange-skystuff sort of blue. The scrabble of a bit of hazel, the spit of orange from the dawn. They are a riverblue, freshwatered and running. Never still. Rivers are never empty. You’ll find stones in there, you’ll find reeds. Yes, warm-colored reeds and the slap of fish, of living things and sunlight too. Don’t look.
Crowley swallows. “We’re here.”
Aziraphale nods. Clears his throat. It sounds like Pompeii. Like the first dishes falling to the floor. The first tephra, this bit of ash on the skin. It sounds like Lisbon in 1755. There had been a wall of blue then. Crowley remembers it, remembers the sound of the rush of water down the Tagus. The sound of candles scattered to the ground, smashing on the tile. Candles lit to saints and their firelick eating up the floorboards and the walls, choking him on smoke. All Saints Day. An earthquake. When have the saints been kind?
Here, an ordinary day. An angel with his hand not reaching for the handle of the cardoor. The Soho lights gleaming from the Bentley’s blackpaint. This bit of Heaven borrowed on earth. Be kind, be gentle. Have mercy. Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me like that.
“My dear - ”
“Yeah, so. I mean, I’ve got that thing in the morning. Big thing. Real important. Gotta hit the hay, you know. I’d come in but you know - ”
“Did you see that over there? Swear that dog just walked on two legs. Like a meerkat. Wait, do meerkats do that? They do, don’t they? I watched a -”
“Are we going to talk about it?”
Crowley breathes in, tightens his grip on the steering wheel. Tilts his chin to his violent chest. Cold-knock fingers and his white-knuckled let’s not. I might choke on this. I didn’t plan yet. I don’t know what I’m gonna say. (I can’t just say what comes out. You don’t want that. Not that muck. I’ll ruin it, you know. It’s not pretty. Yeah, tell me. Don’t tell me. Not now, not here. Give me a bit.)
“Talk about what?”
“My dear, you must know."
Crowley accidentally looks at Aziraphale. Blinks over. Pushes on. How many times has this happened? This one is different. I am used to asking you. To begging you. I’m not sure what to do here, angel, when you’re showing up at my door. When you’re not getting out of my car. Tell me about speed. Look at the speedometer. It’s useless. At zero. This doesn’t feel like zero. I can’t tell. How much is too much? Stay in your seat, stay there.
(Aziraphale has blue eyes. Blue as tiles in a Byzantine mosaic, giving praise to God. Blue as bellflowers. Blue as the catch of rain in a cup. Blue as the veins on the underside of his own wrists, all tied up with green. Tied up with artery-red. Lapis lazuli. Blue as a stained glass window in a basilica. Crowley has only seen these from the outside. He is not allowed in churches, not allowed to touch a holy book, a holy relic, a holy thing. Here is blue, painted with red and gold. A Book of Hours. A river caught with light.)
"Er, what, exactly, do I know?”
“Turn the car off, please. Would you?"
He swallows, drythroated and spare. "Why?”
Aziraphale stares. Opens his mouth. Closes it. Looks down. Brushes a bit of lint from his creamsoft coat. Troubles a smile. It’s small. It’s half-apologetic. It’s I’m sorry this took awhile. I’m sorry, this is terrifying for me too. Stay still awhile, won’t you? If I ask. Will you stay still?
“Because I don’t want to go anywhere,” Aziraphale offers finally. Into this warm carspace between them. Bouncing off the windshield. The dashboard. The seatbelts. Off red-clay hair. Broken amphora red. Shattered centuries ago, left in pieces.
“And would you mind terribly, well, not going anywhere either? Right now?”
Crowley nods, just a little thing. Boneshivering, trying to keep his hands still. They’re still on the steering wheel, he realizes. He hasn’t moved them. He should move them. (He doesn’t.)
And so, Crowley closes his eyes. Doesn’t mean to. Doesn’t matter. Looks up and then there is blue. This is it, it’s happening. Now. Then. Tell me. What? Where are we going (what do you need)? This oxygen-scorch, this burned-bare forest. Nails against bark, scraping and stuck. Tell me. Why are you coming closer? This is the trouble with blue. (Blue, this lack of oxygen. You are closer, I cannot breathe. My lips are blue, my skin. Breathe it back into me, you have all the air.)
Aziraphale kisses him, kisses him here. In this space, in his own goddamn car. Leaning across the seats, leaning across the years. It could have been ages ago. (After a church, after a planned heist. Perhaps with holy water in his hands, between his thighs.) God, fuck, yes. This rib-beat ratatat of his ruinwreck pulse, this shove of a hand against his chest, his hissing lungs, the spear-stabbed-surrender of his swallowed self.
I love you. Fuck, I love you. (That’s it. That’s all. That’s everything.) This is the way light bends. The way an angel moves across the front seat of a parked car, kissing Crowley’s open mouth and closed eyes too. Taking his hands from the steering wheel, clenched still and sore. This is about coming closer. The wavelengths are decreasing now, everything is shifting toward blue. Turning blue. It is drawing near, coming toward us. Crowley’s hands are crowded into Aziraphale’s shirt, there are hands in his blister-sear hair, pulling him close, yes yes yes please.
My lips are blue, my mouth is blue. Love me in a well-lit way. (Come closer, breathe yourself into me.) Tell me this moment will exist forever. Infinity times infinity times infinity. Come closer, catch me against you. Hold me here, still. Hold me safe.
Let me love you in this parked-car light.
Chapter 17: (I Am Dreaming Of Places) Where Lovers Have Wings
[Prompt: Sappho - "Come to me now once again and release me from grueling anxiety. All that my heart longs for, fulfill. And be yourself my ally in love’s battle."]
The title is taken from a song by Sunset Rubdown. Lyrics to The Book of Love are included in the ficlet.
A Cottage in the South Downs
This is how it might go. It’s mid-autumn but the weather’s still warm. The sharp cool of winter hovers on the back of the wind or after the night comes. Winter like a promise, winter like relief. Ice to the burn. This bit of packed snow where we have scorched ourselves. We burn, yes, and must let ourselves heal too.
The kitchen is bright with overhead light, with the oven light on. It smells like beef and pork. Onions and garlic. There’s parsley on Crowley’s hands, stuck under his fingernails. He’s drinking red wine. Doesn’t care. Doesn’t care about the parsley. (Some of it gets in his long hair even, as he tries to pull it back, push it back behind his ears. It’s long and tangled these days. He wears it loose. Wears it lazy.)
“Let me do that for you,” Aziraphale says, setting his own wine glass down. Sangiovese tonight. He comes over near the stove. His soft smile and warm hands, reaching up behind Crowley’s neck to pull the hair back. Crowley leans in, leans down just a little. Kisses him.
“Mmm, alright. Not my fault that you do it better. The hair thing.”
“You just wanted me to come over here,” Aziraphale laughs. But he nicks a little bit of the pork from the pan. It’s still hot, still scorching in tomato paste and white wine. There will be polenta later. There will be sheepsoft cheese. This is an old recipe, something they’ve made together now hundreds of times. It’s different now, here in the cottage. It’s different here with shared walls and the mail addressed to them both. Different with a hall closet and a pile of shoes, indiscriminately kicked off. Mine or yours? Yours or mine? Doesn’t matter. (All of us together.)
Crowley is very fond of their cottage here on the South Downs. But he knows walls crumble, he knows tiles come loose. It will not last forever. Nothing lasts forever but the two of them alone. There will be future flats and houses and cottages too. Crowley’s hands grip Aziraphale a bit tighter, there around the upper arm. Oh, he’s staring. He’s drunk. (They both are.) I want all of them to be with you. Every place, every future. I don’t want to pull apart. We’re done with that now. Aren’t we? Promise me.
“C’mere,“ he says. (Not sure what it even means. Aziraphale is already standing here with him, in their shared kitchen. Chests pressed together. That smile-soft mouth. Here in Crowley’s hands. Warm and steady and never never never looking away.)
Aziraphale laughs. “Darling, you’re drunk.”
“Yep, you know it. So are you.” He quirks one brow, looks back at the empty bottles of wine.
“True,” Aziraphale says softly. “I do rather like it when you let go like this.”
Crowley colors a little. “Dunno what you’re talkin’ about.”
"You should do it more often, my dear. ” Aziraphale says. His hands drop from Crowley’s hair, satisfied that it’s well-caught and well-put-up. Safe and encircled and nothing out of place. “Oh, don’t you think we should have music? We should try dancing sometime.”
“You broke seven dishes last time,” Crowley laughs, tossing his head toward the previously-unfortunate cupboard. (Aziraphale had once tried to demonstrate the gavotte, much to their kitchen’s lack of enthusiasm.)
“Well,” Aziraphale says, leaning in, his mouth treacherously close. Innocence feigned. “That wasn’t very wise of them to be in the way of my demonstration now, was it?”
And Crowley’s laughing, he’s always laughing here in this kitchen these days. Aziraphale and his ambergris aftershave, that teasing light in riverblue eyes. That scrape of his beardstart against Crowley’s skin when he leans in for a kiss. (In the morning, over the Infernal Times, while baking bread, while digging in the soil, before bed too.) Crowley’s hands tighten a little. They leave bits of parsley on Aziraphale’s shirtsleeves, brush against the vellum-colored waistcoat. Yes, Crowley is red-haired like tomatoes and like iron oxide and like the rust of gates left in the rain. He has yellow eyes but Aziraphale likes them, likes to kiss his eyelids, likes to make sure he’s watching. Crowley had called them bile-colored once. The look of jealousy and heretics. (They had dressed Judas Iscariot in yellow once, Crowley had watched with his yellow-eyed stare. Had noticed. Had swallowed it up.) But Aziraphale never says a word about Judas, never once asks to see the pieces of silver that Crowley might have in his hands. Just watches and kisses him and says something of butteryellow and the gold of Justinian’s temples and dawnlight too.
He’s just standing there and swaying. Oh, there’s music. Where did that come from? They’re both dancing. No one’s leading, no one’s following. There are no hands outstretched. They’re already here, chest to chest and hip to hip. Moving in the same rhythm.
Crowley recognizes the song.
“This one’s pretty modern for you, angel. Bebop, I’d call it.”
Aziraphale kisses his jaw. “You’ve been playing this one often. I do pay attention.”
“Yeah, a bit,” Crowley nods, voice a little lost. He should check on the pork. He should check on the garlic. Stir the pot, get the parsley out of his hair. Off of Aziraphale’s shirt. But he’s gentledrunk and Aziraphale is warm and this is not a story about anxiety. Not really. We’re all nervous when we look at the sun, no matter how warm the day is. No matter what sunglasses we’ve got on. We know Icarus had tried to love the sun once, to pull it close. (It hadn’t ended well.)
Crowley is not Icarus. Aziraphale is not the sun. It’s just this, a kitchen in the South Downs. This is just dancing. This is just the smell of a home-cooked meal. The cool autumn just past the window. If you look closely, there is an apple tree. If you listen closely, there is something about love. “The book of love is long and boring, no one can lift the damn thing. It’s full of charts and facts and figures. And instructions for dancing.”
Aziraphale leans his head in, there on Crowley’s shoulder. Yes, always smelling like ambergris aftershave and saltsweat. Clean linen. “Do we need instructions?”
Oh, fuck, I was singing out loud. I said that out loud. “Er, I don’t know, not very good at it. Dancing, I mean. Can’t trust you around dinnerware. Did a little something myself once. But that was in the seventies, wouldn’t know a damn thing now - ”
“Yes, darling, I’ve heard about disco.”
Icarus wasn’t supposed to go down either. (Staying where you are is the trouble. It’s easy to sink.) Crowley pauses, stilling a bit. Aziraphale’s hands are there on his neck. Crowley’s move to Aziraphale’s waist, toying with the belt. He stares at that long bit of neck above the bowtie. He kisses it. The neck and the jaw first, then moves up to Aziraphale’s open mouth. God, I love you. I want to do this forever. Just like this. This little bit of everything.
“What the devil do you know about disco?"
"I pay attention, you know.”
“Do you?” Crowley smirks, kissing the side of Aziraphale’s face. The ear. The curl of the meringue-white hair against the skin. Aziraphale’s skin, Crowley’s moving mouth. Aziraphale’s hands trace along Crowley’s throat, bare now of his long hair and terribly obvious. Fingers toy with the red-stained strands. Crowley knows Aziraphale can feel every lump and swallow. Every bit of his stripped-wire nerves.
Tell me about a trust-fall. This is not will you catch me? This is only are you ready, I am about to let go.
“Yes,” Aziraphale says.
“Do you know how the rest of the song goes then?”
“Perhaps. But you should remind me, I think. If you would be so kind, my love.”
He breathes in. One, two, three, four. Take in this bit of parsley and tomato, this pork and this stew we’ve cooked together. We’ve made it. We’ve grown our garden, we’ve brought our dishes. We’re here now. It’s time. Let’s sit down together, let’s sit down to eat.
“But I love it when you give me things. And you, you ought to give me wedding rings.”
“Oh, Crowley, I -” And Aziraphale pulls him by the neck, brings him there, mouth to mouth to mouth to mouth. This familiar practice of familiar lovers. This well-lit road, this well-traveled sea. “I love you,” Aziraphale whispers, “Oh, do you want to?"
This is the taste. It burns. Crowley cannot breathe. He doesn’t need to breathe. Aziraphale is tight against him and well-worn and well-loved. He kisses Aziraphale. He kisses Aziraphale still wet from the Eden rain, with his hands coming up to surround the other face, hands cupping the soft jaw and in the cassock-pale hair, snaking down his face and his neck like spilled ink. Covering him with parsley. Leaving these bits of himself.
"Yeah. Yeah, angel. You have no idea -”
“Well, I mean, Sappho said something once. I think of her, well - she said ‘All that my heart longs for, fulfill.’.” Aziraphale pauses there as Crowley’s dark brows start to pull together. Crowley’s pulse heating like dinner on the stove. He pulls Crowley closer, kissing him and breathing this bit of himself back in. “What I mean, is. Oh, my love, I do."
Chapter 18: Through The Grapevine
Some use of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is tucked in here.
A cottage in the South Downs
Do you remember when we first drank? Not water but wine? How you came to my table, asked me if I had tried this yet. Your hair tucked into that black robe. (I could still see your eyes then.) Tell me if you do, tell me.
Half-empty. That won’t do at all. Aziraphale frowns, pours a little more into each of their glasses. His hands are shaking (he doesn’t know why they’re shaking, isn’t sure). The low-light of twilight catches on the firegold of his pinky ring. The lamplight from the kitchen spills out, out here in their little ramble of a garden behind the house. He breathes in and smells the hillgrass, inhales the wildflowers. Red poppies. Blue speedwell. This apple tree. (It is September now, heavy with fruit.)
“Are you nervous, my dear?” Aziraphale asks. (Sometimes we ask questions we want to be asked ourselves. Crowley doesn’t look nervous. Nothing of his hands shake, his legs tossed out across the side of the chair, half-drunk head tilted back. Watching the stars come out to play. Long hair ghosting on the ground. Are you nervous? I am. Is that alright? Is that okay?)
“Nah, angel,” Crowley says, blinking over at him. His voice a slow drawl on his tongue. That satisfied smile tucked into the curve of his mouth, the half-open eyes. Half-drunk, half-asleep. Serpentine, yes, and slither-soft too. Aziraphale watches the way his neck arches to turn to him, the way the dark collar flutters with the movement. The angled bend of the wrist and the longgrip fingers there, holding the wineglass from the top. “Got it all worked out, yeah? I mean, I can’t believe I gotta get up at blasted eight in the morning but, you know, ‘s worth it."
Aziraphale rolls his eyes, hides the corner-lip smile of his behind a sip of the red. "That is a perfectly reasonable time of day. It’s broad daylight and you know it.”
Crowley laughs. Pauses, glances over again. (Eyes like a mosaic, like Byzantine gold. Like a censer hanging from three chains. Bright as a burning bush. He never wears sunglasses here in the cottage. Not here, the two of them alone.) A dark brow quirks. “Wait. Are you nervous then?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Aziraphale says, breathing in and closing his eyes. Not nervous-nervous, of course. Just well, I hope everything comes off. It will, won’t it? I know we’ve planned everything. You were so patient (don’t think I didn’t notice, don’t think I didn’t see). You tried all the cakes. Picked up the linens, your black suit too. (Picked the flowers yourself.) You’ve always been steady, you’re steady now, watching me. Unblinking and your mouth parted, that knit of your brow. Why am I nervous?
When he opens his eyes, Crowley is crouching in front of him. This coil of warmth and a black jacket, this skinny hand reaching across to take Aziraphale’s free one (there where he had left it alone on the arm of the chair). “Hey,” Crowley says, whispers. He doesn’t have to whisper. It’s their cottage, it’s their garden. No one is listening. He whispers all the same, quiet in the growing night. His eyes bright with the kitchen light from just behind them, looking up at Aziraphale. “We can do anything you like. Call it off, do something else. Whatever you like, angel."
Aziraphale nods, watches closely as Crowley’s thumb moves over the back of his own wider hand. Watches the ringless hand and the ringless fingers move across his own skin. Separate and same, made out of the same dust, the same building blocks, the same starstuff. "I hope it’s everything you want,” Aziraphale says quietly, “Being married to me, I mean."
Crowley tilts his head, looks out at the garden. Looks back. Stands up a little and leans over, leans in. This apple-red hair around them like a curtain. His mouth brushing against Aziraphale’s forehead, his eyelids. The tip of his nose. He tastes like wine. Like this cabernet sauvignon. (Like that tannic Greek red, heavy on the tongue as velvet, as a promise. A miracle of water, there at Cana. Aziraphale has never forgotten. Crowley’s mouth always tastes like Cana red.)
"I want,” Crowley says, whispering it into the spaces between Aziraphale’s eyelashes, into the hollow hall of his ear, “nothing more in the Universe. But I already have it, don’t I? This? I just want this. You know, living here with you. Waking up with you.” A kiss there on the cheek, there at the sheepsoft jaw, the curve of Aziraphale’s neck, the bend of his shoulder. “I want you and your seven pints of ice cream. Your terrible taste in decorating. I mean, seriously, angel, I can’t believe you picked tartan sheets.” His fingers pressed there, opening Aziraphale’s mouth. His lips across the temple, the crown. “Making you laugh, bringing you tea. Whatever that means, if you let me. If you like.”
Oh please, oh yes. Yes, god, please. Aziraphale moans a little as Crowley presses in, opening himself to this softpress mouth, this knocking tongue. This familiar love, slotting together in practiced ways like a favorite book finding its home on the shelf. His hands clench at Crowley’s jacket, bringing him in tighter, moving closer against his chest. Closer against his beating heart. “Crowley,” he says, not knowing what he means, not knowing how to finish it (knowing that he doesn’t have to, it will be heard).
“It doesn’t matter how I get to keep you, angel,” Crowley whispers, hands tangled up in the linenwhite of his curls, offering up words between kisses. Sentences and fragments here, filling up the little spaces between them. “As long as I get to keep you. Just like this. If I get to put a ring on you, well, that’s even better. Kind of a goddamn dream but, you know - it’s whatever you want.” A kiss again and a pull back. The minor fall, the major lift. Eyes as gold as the Mercy Seat there, watching him carefully.
I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. I wish I’d said it earlier. Early and often. Everyone is nervous before coming to the river, before having their head dunked in. (I am too.) Aziraphale tightens his arms around Crowley, piled here in his lap, straddled across him on a chair in their own garden. Two middle-aged heartbeats lined up, tracing the lines in their faces, their eyes, their skin, seeing their histories written there. Kissing each line here in the book, laid out in crow’s feet, the undereyes, the softness of the neck. It’s been a long book (there is so much more to go, let us go together).
“Do you still want to do this tomorrow? With me?” Crowley asks (his fingers tight, his mouth soft, his eyes steady and warm).
There is only one answer. “Darling, yes, always. I absolutely do.”
And Aziraphale kisses Crowley then, under this bright fallen night sky. These I love yous echoing off the side of the cottage, off of grass blades and chalk hills (thrown out into the stars). We are always nervous about miracles, about mysteries. Will this work, will this hold? Try this wine, I made it myself (I hope it’s good, don’t tell me if it’s not, please). It is hard to tell a heart to breathe. But in the morning, there will be roses, yes, and dahlias too. And a mouth that will taste like Cana wine, a kiss that will open to him like a tabernacle.
Nothing changes with these rings, this bit of silver and miracle-gold (here I am, you see, I’ve always been here).
Chapter 19: world enough and time
[Prompt: "The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human." - Michael Ondaatje, In The Skin of a Lion]
London (A parked car in Soho)
Dreamers often skirt the truth. They never admit to idealism. They don't offer their bitter-bare hearts, they don't cough up their chickenbone hopes caught in their tight throats. Dreamers don't peel back their tender skin to the pulpy flesh below. They know what's underneath, that their wants and hopes have already left them bruised. Soft as a plum left forgotten at the bottom of a bag. Tender at the bone.
Crowley hates being a dreamer. He always has. He's always known what he is, the too-human structure of him. That his heart is too human, laid out too clearly. That when you look at him, you can get from A to B quite easily. See the shift of the eyes and the hitch of the breath. See the way he lingers around the bookshop like a bad stench, the way he brings flowers to the opening. Chocolates too. Never lets Aziraphale pay.
We know all the signs of a man in love. We always know that the ones who protest, who bare their teeth and snarl. Who push away from the table hissing I don't want this, this isn't me. Yes, we know they're the most hope-lost lovers of all.
"Don't go anywhere," Aziraphale says, pleading and leaning across the front seat. "Don't, please. Don't panic. Please. Tell me this is okay."
This press of lips, this pull of mouth to mouth. Crowley's ache-clenched hands fumble at Aziraphale's shoulders, his arms, the sides of his face. "I love you, I love you," he spills (it's been kept in too long). "I didn't know if you still meant - when did you - was it in the thermos all this time - "
"Yes," Aziraphale whispers there, in the moments of interrupted air.
"All this time - " Crowley sinks into his neck, bites at the tender muscle. (He would love to be a wolf and not a dreamer. Not a gentle thing. God, I want you. I need you. I wish I could be angry, I wish I could be anything but this, look how you take me apart.)
"I was afraid," Aziraphale says, pressing it into a kiss there, nudged into close-cropped sideburns. “You must know that, you do, don’t you?” (And that, truly is all that matters. Oh, angel. I'm so sorry, I'm so fucking sorry. I wish I hadn't done this to you, brought you here. I wish it had been easier for you. I would have done that for you, you know that, don't you? Everything I do, everything I ever do is for you. I never meant to hurt you. Not by loving you. Especially not by loving you.)
"Fuck, I'm so - I shouldn't have - I'm so sorr- " Crowley shudders, there as Aziraphale takes his wrist, presses a kiss into the veinnest. A press of love from a damp mouth, from a grasping hand and want-dark eyes. It races up his arm through the vein, love carried on his red blood cells, headed directly back to the heart.
"No," Aziraphale presses tightly on him, pulling him closer. Tighter. Needy hands for a needy mouth. "No apologies. I regret nothing. I could never regret you." A kiss to the jaw, the two dark brows. "I'm right where I want to be, my dear. Where I always should have been."
Aziraphale unlocks his door, opens it. He rights his cream jacket slightly, touches the bowtie there as if to center himself. As if to check in, say yes yes yes this is real. He turns back with lamp-bright eyes, an outstretched palm.
"Do you want to come inside?"
Crowley stares, reaches up to touch Aziraphale's hand. Given to him finally, free and clear. Look for the strings, the marionette pull. See that nothing is there, no one is watching. No one is pulling on them. Here they are, free at last. Stateless, kingdomless things.
The earth had been stateless once. Kingdomless. In the beginning, when there was only garden and nothing else to find.
"Yes," Crowley says. "If I get to keep kissing you."
Aziraphale grins. "That, my dear, is rather the goal."
(There are only two kingdoms. Two places. In or out. Our side or their side. Up or down. Left or right. Having and having not. This is the key to the kingdom. Crowley walks through the door of the bookshop like a man moving in, holding his new keys, his new address, looking at the blank walls and knowing just how he'd love to fill them up.
I will cover this space with my love for you. Here we are, finally, at the start.)
A park in the South Downs
October 28th, 2031
It has been a long time coming. Crowley closes his eyes and checks his skin, measures his pulse. No, it's not a falseness, not a hallucination. Not a dream. He's here, still standing under a mulberry tree in an endlessly familiar park. There is a duck pond just across the way. He can hear the pelicans in the air, calling to and fro. The October leaves are yellowing, the sun is impossibly warm on his black-jacketed back. He fusses with his hair, longer than it has been in millennia. It had been this long once before, standing in front of a half-built Ark and watching an Old Testament sky. He'd been a single-serving creature then. Party of one. Incomplete. Unsolved. No one escapes the rain alone.
It's different now. He looks up at the cloudless sky, squinting against it. (Strange now, in the park with nothing to shield his eyes. There's a spare miracle, a little demonic intervention to slide suspicion off of him. It's mildly uncomfortable but Crowley is determined. He wants this with nothing between them. He wants this memory to have nothing to darken it. Nothing of shadow may linger here.)
Crowley mutters under his breath. Scattergraph hands half-shoved in too-small pockets, practicing his vows under his breath. He's been terribly nervous over this. It's one thing to talk, it's another thing to mean it. “We don’t really need vows, do we?" He had said a few weeks ago to Aziraphale, draped upside-down over the sofa, a wineglass half-forgotten in his hand. "I mean, till death do us part? How do you manage that? We’re an angel and demon, you know, that whole immortal thing? We don’t get sick. I mean, I’m sick of things. Like, if you don’t stop trying to pull a coin from my damn ear, I swear on Satan’s infernal toilet seat that - ”
“You swear you’ll do what, my dear?” Aziraphale had asked, as infuriatingly placid as you like, stirring his tea. He hadn't looked up but Crowley had still caught that smile on the edge of his mouth, half-hidden. Crowley had crossed his arms, collapsed into a chair. His knees and legs tossed about. Aziraphale had got him there. (He’d never had an end to the sentence.)
“Alright, what’ve you got then?”
"Mmm, no, I'm not telling you," Aziraphale had said, turning the page. "I suppose you could say it's a surprise."
"Bastard," Crowley had muttered, grinning and thick with affection.
Now, here at last, waiting for Aziraphale to finish with whatever it is he's doing, Crowley's practice-worn vow rises in his throat. I will love you always. Forward in time and back again. Across every inch of space. Every bit of you, your existence. I will love you in the spaces you are and in the empty spots where you are not. He twitches here, leaning against the bark of the tree, slightly awkward and his face redburnt with nerves. He shifts on his scattershot hips. His cord-skinny hands are shaking, he tries to hold them very still.
Aziraphale steps out, moving toward him. That impossible smile, that half-nervous twist of his hands in front of him. There in a black tuxedo, there in this silk green bowtie matching Crowley's own.
(What about green? Aziraphale had said. You are fond of green, aren’t you?
Sure, yeah. I guess. Why?
It just makes me think of you. Where we met.)
Let’s look. It is an autumn day. October-mild, the worst of the summer having burnt off finally and cool air rushing in. There is the smell of apples and grass. There is the relief of the promise of winter on the back of the wind. Colors are showing here in the park now. Russet-red leaves and there’s gold in the trees too. Crowley takes a deep breath, inhaling the light and the smell of beech and maple. A tumble of dahlias there in his lapel, fitted nicely. Tied up with a ribbon. Roses too. This terror-swallow of his throat. God, I love you. As they say their vows, here as just two men under a tree, there are no witnesses.
It's just them, as it always has been. As it should always be.
Crowley goes first. Stumbles over his imperfect collection of words, words of love and empty spaces. He holds onto Aziraphale's hand tightly. Too tightly, too desperately. Always too much. But Aziraphale just stands there, warm and open, smiling and damp in the eyes. (You old sop.) Always this bit of ballast. Always this soft landing. I love you. Thank you for keeping me steady. Keeping me afloat.
Aziraphale clears his throat as his turn comes. He gets out a folded piece of paper. Looks. Glances over it, then tucks it away again. Instead, he reaches out and once more takes Crowley's hands, both of them, there in both of his own.
“There has always been something between us," Aziraphale begins, "Nothing of heaven and nothing of hell. Just us as earthly things. I want to say this is the start, that this is something new. But this order has always been there. Very faint, very human. Ever since the first day, though we didn’t know it.”
Crowley swallows. Oh, you're gonna kill me with this, angel. (He doesn’t know if he can bear it, being loved openly. Being loved in detail. Letting the light in.)
“You’ve always been there for me," Aziraphale continues. "Patient. Waiting. You knew what Heaven was, that there was no kingdom come to wait for. It took me a long time to be ready to listen. Thank you for waiting. But I rather think that you might have been wrong, my dear.”
Crowley quirks a dark brow. Aziraphale smiles, holding Crowley’s shaking hands there in his own private earthquake.
“There might have been no kingdom of heaven for us. Not for us. But you, you showed me all the kingdoms of the world. I love you. I will love you always. I will love you deliberately and carefully. I will love you through every episode of your awful programs, I will love you through every bebop song and at every speed that you insist on driving that ridiculous vehicle. I will love you joyfully. Because I love you and because you are my heart."
"Angel," Crowley whispers. His words a collapse on his tongue.
"Crowley," Aziraphale whispers. Those skylight eyes on him, watching him. They should be heavy but light is never heavy. Crowley's heart catches with the heat of it, the impossible love. It shouldn't be his (it is).
He is wordless and urgent, one hand there in his pocket, feeling for the bit of eternity he'd squirreled away there for safekeeping. A gold ring. There's nothing on it, nothing remarkable. No stones, no settings. Just gold. Simple.
"Give me your hand." (God, is that his voice? This rough measure of a thing? Heavy and strange? His voice and body, rough and shivering. His nervous heartbeat. As obvious as the nacre that oysters produce, layering around a grain of sand, making a pearl. No, nothing's the matter, he might say. But no oyster makes a pearl without disruption, no creature falls in love easily. Crowley, for all his black-paint bluster, is no different from anyone.)
He lifts Aziraphale's hand to his mouth. Here is a kiss on each of the knuckles. Here is every door set open, every table in the Temple overturned. The laugh slows in Aziraphale's throat, his eyes darkening. Crowley swallows, ducks his head. He has never been more serious. His lips rest on the ring finger, on the wedding band there. It is not worn (not yet). Instead, it is bright-gold and brand new. Still settling in, still making a space for itself on Aziraphale's finger in the way Crowley had carved a space for himself once on a bookshop sofa. We give and receive. He kisses the ring. Looks up, squinting into the sun. Aziraphale smiles, laughs. Kisses him and bends slightly, as a flower might, shielding him from the sun.
Let's look again. What do you see? Two once-strangers against the green grass and green leaves. Reaching out and offering a little bit of shade.
This is their story. This is our story. The one we tell over and over and over again. The one that I have been telling you all this time. That our world was born into love and that, I promise you, it will end that way too.
Chapter 20: The Property of Light
[Prompt: Crepuscular rays]
A cottage in the South Downs
We have always loved gold best.
There are places for silver, yes, we love it too. Some even prefer silver. But gold always takes first place, always takes the blue ribbon. Steals it off the table and off of our hearts. Gold there, the color of the sun. Silver for the moon. We love the moon but the gold sun is what gives us the day, what coaxes the grass from the ground, what lights up our lives. We know that we would be nothing without the sun. We circle it, follow it. We live our heliocentric lives whilst looking up at the sunbright sky and digging in the ground for gold.
Strange things are found in the ground. Things other than gold. Sunless things. Crowley knows what he is, knows that he pushed forth from the dark soil, crawled out of the ground. That his serpent-belly had slithered on over to the wall like a tree root would stretch. Like a creeping tendril of ivy might curl out, looking for a spot of sun. He had found the sun there, pale-haired and standing on the wall looking troubled. That is when Crowley had known (as all shadow-born things know) that he would always chase the light. That is when he had fallen in love.
In a sense, the study of love can be compared to the study of war. There is the initial conflict, the first firing upon Fort Sumter. Each engagement is a battle. A brush of hands, a teasing whisper. The curl of desire, each a personal Gettysburg. The admittance of love is not necessarily a surrender. It is when we give over to it, let it wash over us. When love is welcomed finally with open arms.
Here he is, drifting in the dark, lost in surrender.
“Are you with me, darling?” Aziraphale asks, panting between the syllables.
“God, yeah, angel,” Crowley cries, head pushed back, tilted toward the ceiling, eyes glazed and open. Unfocused. Aziraphale smiles, draws one certain finger up the length of Crowley’s impossibly hard self, soaked to the cock-ruin bone of him by Aziraphale’s spit. Crowley groans, whines. He doesn’t know how long he’s been in Aziraphale’s mouth. He doesn’t know how long they’ve been in bed. It might have been an hour. Perhaps seven. It doesn’t matter.
“I love the look of you like this,” Aziraphale whispers, kissing the sweat-salt damp off of Crowley’s shaking shoulders. Licking the rockpool brackish muck from the divot of his throat, from where it collects in the hollows of his bones. “I’m afraid I’m rather not quite ready to give it up.”
Crowley blinks, focuses on the soft riverbed of these eyes here. Steadies himself by counting the crow’s feet at the corners, the one long white hair in Aziraphale’s left eyebrow. When you are lost and ruined, you can find your way back by landmarks. Familiar haunts, remembered and beloved places. He reaches out and presses his fingers to Aziraphale’s mouth (given to his hand in a kiss). But I don’t need to find my way home, do I? Not anymore, I’m already there. It’s you. Wherever you are.
“Not. Ready?” He asks, trying to surface through his arousal with language caught in his teeth. He doesn’t have many words left. Everything feels murky, sharp. Ferociously scalding. Why aren’t you touching me? Fuck, fuck, fuck, angel, I was right there, right on the edge. Please. Please, please get your mouth on me. I want your tongue there, I want you hot and wet and I want to hear the way I warp sound in your throat while I fill you up. I want to know how I displace the air in you.
Aziraphale smiles. That damnable quirk to his mouth, that cat’s-got-the-cream raise to his brow. Crowley watches, laid back on the bed and long-fingered hands fisted in the white sheets. He tries to gather himself in, gather himself together. Slow his heart, slow his breath. He brushes his red-thread mess of hair out of his sweat-soaked face. Aziraphale sits back, eyes never moving from Crowley. He raises his left hand. Eases the worn gold wedding band from his ring finger. “It’s too much, isn’t it? You’re too close.”
Crowley spikes a brow, breathing hard. He’s spread here, open and obvious. There is a lick of embarrassment even now, all this time later, to be so bare. To name his want. Here in bed with a scattershot heart and twitching hips and grasping hands, here with his dick hotter than stars and plum-dark with hungry blood, here he cannot hide what he wants. Fuck, I need you.
With a sure hand, Aziraphale teases the gold band over Crowley’s lips, never pushing it forth, never seeking within. Just there, a ghost of metal over his mouth. He moves further, bringing the ring over his body, over the skin. Never hard, never firm. Just this, a phantom touch of a wedding band still warm from Aziraphale’s hand. Aziraphale touches Crowley with gold and he cries out at it as it skates down his sternum, runs over his heart. Crowley is a creature pulled out of the earth, meant for dark spaces, meant for the ground. Underground creatures have adapted. They have too-sensitive eyes, they have too-sensitive skin. They can make the best of the little light they have. To be faced with direct sunlight, to touch gold directly, it almost burns.
He hisses there, the band moving further. It skates along his hips, draws figure-eights on the sensitive, soft parts of his inner thighs. So close, fuck. Angel. Please, please, please. I’m begging you. (He might have even begged out loud. He doesn’t know. Doesn’t care. It’s Aziraphale. Aziraphale, who is kissing his shoulder. Aziraphale who whispers you are the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I love you, my dear. I love you with all of my heart and everything in it. Do you know how gorgeous you are? Like this? Coming apart in my hands? I could do this to you always.)
Crowley’s eyes half-shut at the sensation, overwhelmed. Barely floating, hardly treading water. He’ll go all in soon, overflow. He can feel the tidal pulse there in his cock, forward and backward, ready to spill out. To come all over himself and Aziraphale too. To make a welcome mess of things. (It’s okay, Aziraphale whispers, his mouth having found Crowley’s ear. I’ve got you.)
It’s too much. And yet it’s nothing but hot breath on his ear and a bit of metal on skin. Aziraphale brings the ring over, rubs it gently over the very end of his cock. Crowley cries out into his fist, half-ruined, nearly there. His stomach clenches, nearly doubling-over. “Fuck,” he hisses.
“Oh,” Aziraphale says, deviously pleased. “You do like that, don’t you?”
“Christ, yes, I fucking like that.”
Aziraphale smiles and it’s the same every time, he’s cut from the sun. Through his half-lidded eyes, Crowley can nearly see the sun rays that come from him. He doesn’t need landmarks to find his way home, no. Never has. It’s always just been a straight line. Find the ray and keep on following it, at the end Crowley knows that he will always find Aziraphale. I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you, I always fucking have. I always will. Do you have any idea what you do to me? (Crowley remembers that first time there in the car. They had both been shaking, terrified. A love confession still crumpled in the palm of his hand. “And would you mind terribly, well, not going anywhere either? Right now?” Aziraphale had said, a pleading tone bleeding out. They hadn’t made it out of the car for an hour, hot hands tearing at each other like the Maenads had ruined Dionysus. Crowley had come in his jeans, his orgasm had hit like a car crash there against Aziraphale’s thigh.)
“Angel,” Crowley begs, pleads. He needs, fuck, how he needs. He drags a shuddering hand through his bramble of tangled hair. Closes his eyes. It’s all too much. He’s so fucking close. Dial down the sun, shut out the light. Close your eyes. Go back to the dark. To the earth and familiar things.
“What do you want, my love? You’ve been so good. Tell me."
”Ngk,“ he cries, the ring moving in slow-motion up and down the length of him. He’s a ruin, getting himself soaking wet with his own desperate want. "Fuck, please, just - ”
"I want -” he heaves. Chest rising and falling. One arm has wound up thrown across his face, covering his eyes. “Can I - please - just your mouth. Please."
Nothing is said. Instead, there is a kiss pressed to his open mouth, unseen by his blind and covered eyes. There is a kiss to his damp palm, his grasping fingers. To his breastbone, his skinnyknock ribs. His stomach. Then Aziraphale takes him all in, all in a single go. Tongue pressed flat and wide, drawing deliberately up the underside of him, turning him inside out.
Crowley doubles over, cries out. He flings his arms back, pulls forward to grip Aziraphale’s shoulders. To dig his soil-tilling fingers into that steady flesh. He has always sought the light and it comes as he comes, violent and bright. His eyes slammed tight, tight, tight but there is nothing dark, nothing of burrows and nothing of night. Only the white burn of staring too long at the sun.
Some long moments later, he surfaces. Laid here against a beloved chest and a familiar heartbeat. A dusky room and white sheets, a tartan duvet cover thrown to the floor. A slow measure of gentle kisses being pressed into his hair, a hand curled around onto his chest, two rings clinking together as they touch. Their fingers twining together like rays of the sun.
Come on, come on out into the light.
Chapter 21: O Night Divine
[Prompt: a soft night in winter]
Note: Liberal use of O Holy Night has been made here.
A cottage in the South Downs
Outside, it is snowing. Aziraphale doesn't have to look to know it. There's a strange sort of hush to the world when it snows. It will be rather less magical during the day. The cars will slosh through the powder, turning it dull and grey. But right now, on the black velvet-tongue of night, it's beautiful and quieting. Aziraphale can feel the earth slow, feel his own blood settle. Everything is blotted out, as if an eraser had been taken to the grass, to the houses, to the roads. Blotted out and scrubbed fresh again, clean and pure.
They haven't turned the lights on. Haven't turned the lights on and the fire has burnt low. Now just a banked bit of embers, over there in the hearth. A memory of heat still suffuses the small cottage. Crowley has kicked his socks off, Aziraphale has loosened his bowtie, shucked off the tawny cardigan. Aziraphale has the smallest smile. It's easy now. Simple and nothing, just to crack his spine, shift his shoulders. To resettle a gently-snoring mouth against his neck, pull his own fingers through red-wild hair.
Red is everything, Aziraphale knows. Crowley has lists of red. Aziraphale has begun making his own, adding to it all the time. See here the banked hearth (red as your hair). See here the boughs of holly, the ribbons on the tree, the star topper too.
He presses a kiss to the crown of Crowley's head. (With familiar lovers, stolen kisses are different. It is not what we might have, what might get us through the day. It is never what we might have gotten away with. It's a gift, a little something extra. Something we've tossed in with I was thinking of you, I had a little too much love, thought I'd give to you. )
It grows dark early in December, here in the South Downs. Aziraphale never minds. Rarely bothers with the lights. There are candles in each window. There is the brightness of a tree. I like this best, he thinks, when the world grows quiet and the night is silent. The stars are brightly shining. And it's just you and me and we can be here with no one to look for us, we can lie together and sleep a little before the weary world wakes back up.
"I love you," he whispers to Crowley, snoring there and drooling on his shoulder too. (O hear the angel's voice. Feel his arms wrap around.) "I will always love you, I always have."
The long-fingered hand at his waist twitches (a gold band glinting in the emberlight). "Love you too, angel," comes a sleepsoft voice, somewhere pressed into a cotton button-down. "Always. Promise, you old sop."
Aziraphale laughs a bit, kisses the hair again. (Red as cranberries and pomegranates, red as mulled wine. A hint of cinnamon on the tongue, the barest press of star anise.) "Let's go to bed. Up you get."
"Make me," Crowley whispers. An open-mouth kiss to the side of Aziraphale's neck, a flicker of creative tonguework. Aziraphale's breath stalls for a moment, forgotten.
"Mmmm, yeah," he says, low-voiced. Loud enough against a silent night. "But you know, I'd sleep better if I was more tired. Tired-er."
Another swipe of the tongue.
"You're wily tonight," Aziraphale says, turning his face to the side, burying a smile in a birdnest of hair. He glories in this, giving his love freely. He still stumbles over it. There are still flashes of oh, I shouldn't, I cannot, we cannot before he blinks and the world rights itself. There are no chains on his neck now, no flaming swords. Only their side. Only this, a cottage with both of their names on the postbox.
"You like it."
"I like you," Aziraphale says, a hand between them, pulling Crowley up and into a kiss. There is a press of him like a wave to Aziraphale's mouth, rolling and open. I love you. The words are never enough. We say I love you so casually that when you mean it like this, it's hard to unwrap. Look, we want to say, look this one is different. Look, we try to explain, I love you with a different heat, a different measure. There's something new to us. I love you in the oldest of ways, the first upon the cave wall. I love you in this way, ancient and needing. All other loves are imitations. Aziraphale has never learned the words so he kisses it into Crowley instead. Along the cut of the sharp jaw, the edge of his throat. Down along the shoulder here. Aziraphale always lingers on the left shoulder, pushes the shirt down. It hangs half off of him and Aziraphale watches the soft light catch on the gunner's knot of scar tissue there. Right below the clavicle, right above the heart.
He kisses the scar. The raised and mottled skin. Old wounds still ache, still throb. You must be gentle even with healed things. (He remembers the first time, peeling back Crowley's jacket. The half-choked moans coaxed from both of their throats. Oh, yeah, about that, Crowley had said as Aziraphale had unbuttoned the shirt, wandered hungry hands in. I never showed you but there's a thing. On my shoulder. So yeah, don't be surprised. Aziraphale had never seen Crowley's chest bare, never seen his shoulders open to the sky. And here, this long-healed wound with nothing miraculous about it.
Is it - ? Aziraphale had asked, fingertips along the path of the interrupted skin.
Yeah. Sandalphon and his damn sword.
Is this alright? If I touch it?
Go - Satan, fuck yes.)
Aziraphale had kissed the scar then. Kissed the scar and hoped the soul felt its worth. He leans down now, pressing his lips against it. That old familiar rumble of Crowley's heart there below, constant and steady. He likes to feel the count of it under his palm, under his hands. Crowley, ever-present and ever-warm. He always listens. Places his hand over Crowley's chest like knocking. As if saying I'm here, may I come in? Are you home? Did you wait for me?. His serpent-heart always answering, always knocking back yes, yes, yes I waited for you. Please come in. I saved you a spot.
When Aziraphale leans in, Crowley's arms always open for him. He rests their foreheads together, winds their fingers together. Crowley's thumb rubs absentmindedly against the gold band on Aziraphale's finger. Aziraphale leans back, brushing the long hair from Crowley's face, his shoulder. The censer-gold eyes drift shut.
"Come to bed, darling," Aziraphale says.
Crowley pops one sleep-lined eye open. "Are the sheets still flannel?"
"You're a bloody terror," Crowley grumbles. (It doesn't have much bite to it here, not with mulled-wine on his breath. Not with gifts wrapped in red and gold beneath the tree. Not with this thump of a loving heart, this pass of a husband's thumb over Aziraphale's ring. I am yours and you are mine.)
Aziraphale smirks a little, quite satisfied, as he pulls Crowley up off the sofa, down the short hall to a dark room with flannel sheets.
It's late, you see, and it is dark. Night comes early and stays long in December. Winter covers over us like a promise, the earth turning down the bed, the thermostat, turning off the lights. Lie down, rest awhile. Let me cover you with this blanket of soft-slumber snow. Fall on your knees, hear the angels' voices. (Hear mine, telling you of my heart. This bit of love, I kept it warm for you.)
Goodnight to this night, this o holy night. This night of angels, this night divine. (For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.)
Chapter 22: Epilogue
A cottage in the South Downs
You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to say anything at all. Sometimes words aren’t important. They have all of them, yes, every word across Creation. Sometimes none of them are right.
Crowley is dozing against Aziraphale’s side. His breath catches his long hair sometimes, ruffling it like wind in grain. I can touch you, Aziraphale thinks, sometimes caught with wonder at it (it has been twenty-three years since the Apocalypse, it is still a surprise). So he does, boxcar-fingertips, cleanly-clipped and square, brushing the hair from Crowley’s face. The sleeptight face pushes into him further, tucked there next to Aziraphale’s ribs, there under his arm. (Crowley has never been good about being woken up. A forest fire is kinder, a nuclear disaster too.)
Still, Aziraphale is perfectly aware that a bed is nicer, kinder on the neck and back. So he nudges Crowley a little, pushing at his shoulder, kissing his temple. Get up, my dear, wake up. Go get in bed, you’ll thank me in the morning.
“Ngk,” Crowley mutters. (That’s not a word, we won’t count that.) Aziraphale smiles a little, a lover’s smirk. Indulgent and soft as cotton. One butter-yellow eye pops open, an arched eyebrow.
Aziraphale nods toward the bedroom. Crowley scowls, scrunching his face and rolling his eyes and pushing in further to Aziraphale. Pushing in with his face against Aziraphale’s shoulder, his fingers tucking into the linenpale fabric of the button-down shirt, as if to say give me five more minutes, angel, please . (Yes, of course. They have all the minutes in the world, Aziraphale can spare the five.) His hand comes up, trailing against knife-cut cheekbones and the zygomatic arch. The stubble of warm skin. His fingers thread through Crowley’s hairfall, red as pomegranates, red as apples. It’s soft and a bit wiry there at the beardstart (clean-shaven).
I love you, you’re always so impossible. He presses a kiss to the top of the head, this rednest of his sleepdrunk love’s hair. Of course, my dear, five more minutes. We have all the time in the world. We have world enough now, and time too.