"The wooden halls like caskets. These terms from the lower depths.
I take them back.
Here is the repeated image of the lover destroyed.
Clumsy hands in a dark room. Crossed out. There is something
underneath the floorboards.
Crossed out. And here is the tabernacle
Richard Siken, Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins,
but not mine.”
Patti Smith, Gloria
Let us, if you have a moment, consider stories.
We are the storytellers, the keepers of words and our scraps of dreams. When we first began to understand ourselves, when we first began to dip our hands in red ochre and to mark our existence onto cave walls, we started with stories. Stories are passed down, handed over like fine silver and a bit of pressed flowers. We lose coins and our pictures burn. But we keep stories. You don't even need to trouble with paper or a pen. All you need is a voice.
Ask anyone and they will tell you that a story must have three parts. The beginning, of course (you must start somewhere), the middle, and the end. Here's the kicker. They don't have to go in that order. So, here, stay. Let me tell you something. This one starts, as it will end, with a garden. We do not always start with the beginning. Let’s blame Homer, kicking off in the middle, dropped somewhere else, in the midst of things. In medias res. Some Beginnings are middles. Some are ends. Some are nothing much at all.
I won't tell you the order. Where the beginning is, the wide road of the middle. What we might call the end. You'll see, keep reading.
A bookshop in Soho, London
The bookshop always reminds Crowley of Rome. It's the narrow aisles, the way you must duck your head in certain spots. Mind the ceiling, mind the sky. The corridors he'd walked through there, from hidden passageway to concealed room, had also been claustrophobically tight. Just enough space for your arms and your chest. Don't you dare try to breathe (thank god he didn't need to). The floors had always been sharply angled. You had to know where to put your feet, had to know how to dance your way in. Be careful, keep your hands put out. Don't you dare fall.
Crowley had been a gospel teacher once, giving lessons to the motherless. Or the fatherless. The Children of God. (That's the trouble with genderless words, we never get to know. We try to apply our gendered words to God, try to give human hands to the handless, to give human eyes to the eyeless. It's like trying to trap the ocean in a cup. There's too much there we miss, can't ever get the whole of God in.) Once upon a time in Judea, the kingdom of Heaven had been at hand. Or something that claimed to be. (We never did find out. Still waiting to hear how it goes.) In Rome, there had been secret rooms. Secret doors and hidden passages too. You had to know a guy. Had to know the password, the covert knock. Let me in, you'd say, mouth pressed against the wooden door. I want to hear the Word. I want to know.
Don’t tell anyone, they warned. Don’t say where to find them, don’t spit out a name. Here is the Word. Keep it secret, keep it safe. Someday there will be a world to say it and a world to hear it.
Crowley had seen Aziraphale then. Knocking about in and out of Rome. Greece. Antioch and Alexandria. Constantinople too. There had been words, secret and safe. I love you. It'd throbbed there, like an infection of the tongue. He kept his mouth shut. Kept it in. Don't say it. Don't make a sound.
(The dawn of Crowley is not here. It's also not the moment he had woken, blinking into existence, the edges of him still stardust and psalms. No, the first act of Crowley had come in Eden, slithering up snake-bellied to a garden wall, his sight caught by a bit of movement, sunlight caught in spidersilk hair. An angel. Figures. He’d side-eyed the angel, arched a brow, drawled in his lazy way, “Well, that went down like a lead balloon.”
“Yes, quite,” The angel says. Then pauses and thinks. “Wait, sorry. Pardon?”
“I said, that went down like a lead balloon.” That had really been the start of it all. The soft spot of his sly-serpent heart.)
He’s not in Rome. Not now, not here. Here in this knobbleknock bookshop, everything squeezed tight. Too many books for the shelves, papers stuffed in around them. So many things that the very shop itself seems at an angle. As if, when walking in, you should reach out for a wall, grip the table, make sure you don’t fall down. He's half a collapse himself, barely-strung wires fattened with a bit of muscle, wrapped in a black-shroud jacket and tight jeans. Looking for all the world like a parody of Lou Reed. Like John Cale's leftovers. He knows what he is.
Crowley sniffs at the glass, a bit of peaty Scotch and absinthe wafting up like a bad idea. "You know, the sheer smell of this stuff is almost pungent enough to drown out the shop."
There's a huff. A snap of fingers and the myriad of unidentifiable unpleasant odors lift. Crowley doesn't need to look over at Aziraphale to know that his eyes are rolling heavily, that he's got that fond smile playing at the edges of his mouth. That he's also sniffing his own glass and questioning Crowley's recent adventures in craft cocktail making. No, he doesn't need to look. (He does anyway. There's the soft lift of the lip, the arched brow, the lamplight caught on riverbed eyes.)
"It's good for business."
"Bad for business, you mean," Crowley says, taking a sip of his concoction. It's not half-bad. Just a bit strong on the simple syrup for his preference. All in all, it's good enough. Serviceable. He takes another sip and throws his shoulders, drapes his arms along the long lines of the sofa, drops his head back along the cushions. Here he is, a collapse of a man with hell-painted hair. It's well-past nightfall and he's indoors, yet still wearing dark-glint sunglasses. He shifts and his jeans have no choice but to shift with him, painted on so tight that you might wonder what sort of miracle got them on in the first place. For the first time in a very long time, Crowley just lets himself breathe. Closes his eyes, laughs a little.
"What are you on about?" Aziraphale asks, well-caught in his own armchair. A wingback with piles of books set about it. His cassock-pale hair is a bit wild and on end, as if he has been dragging his hands through it. The lines in his face more pronounced, his khaki gabardine overcoat thrown over a table. Not hung up carefully, not gently put away. Just thrown there as if even hanging it up might be too much effort. Too much work.
"Just - I don't know. Can't believe that worked," Crowley brings his head up, looks over at the angel. "Just that's the end of that then? No more nothin'? You took a bath in holy water as me and I turned the heat up a little as you and now it's all - over? We're just free to do as we like? For now, at least."
It's all over. That's the end of it.
Aziraphale tilts his head, watching the way the liquid slides along the glass of the tumbler. Thoughtfulness curling his mouth, dimpling his chin. "Not over, my dear," he says, strange-voiced. "Perhaps it's only the beginning."
What do you mean by that? He wants to ask, to lean forward, to hiss what exactly are you saying here? To say I'm always off-kilter around you, I'm always three steps behind. Is there something I'm missing? (Tell me there is. Tell me I'm not looking for something that's not there.)
"Er - "
Aziraphale keeps on, still not looking up. Still just watching the endless infinity of his drink swirling in the palm of his hand. "Do you know that something was written about it once? That the doubters and the knowledge-seekers would inherit the Earth? The Kingdom of Heaven? It was in one of the Gnostic Gospels."
Crowley arches a brow. "Thought your lot didn't go in for heresy."
"I took an academic interest."
"Wait, where was this written? I don't remember any of that."
“Well," Aziraphale murmurs, flushing a little and brushing invisible wrinkles from his shirt. “I believe I have a few that never made it to - er, shall we say wider circulation?”
Crowley freezes. “What?” He frowns, glancing around at the bookshop that he knows perfectly well. Every title, every author. He knows where Aziraphale likes to leave piles of Dickens, that there’s an old copy of Jane Eyre fallen half behind the shelf in the corner. He’s spent enough time lazing about in here to know the feel of every bookspine pressed into his back. When Adam had remade the world, Crowley had glanced about the bookshop like an I Spy puzzle, counting out the differences.
The point is this, Aziraphale has never had a collection of Gnostic Gospels. His taste in religious texts does run toward the heretical, yes, but generally of the more Biblical variety. Crowley is incredibly familiar with Aziraphale’s collection of misprinted Bibles. (He’s never quite told Aziraphale that, in 1651, he'd lurked around the Bilton and Scaggs publishing house and had struck up quite a conversation with a young typesetter on the virtues of sticking it to the man. Defacing Bibles by temptation has always been one of Crowley’s particular favorite flavors of wiles.)
Aziraphale fumbles at the bottle, holding it by the neck, splashes a bit more of the Scotch in his glass. “The Gnostics, my dear. You remember them. You were at Carcassonne, weren’t you? I’m certain you were.”
“Been a lot of places, angel.” Crowley furrows his brow. “Wait, which gospels?” He looks around. “Where?”
“Well, there’s -“ Aziraphale flushes a little. Crowley arches a dark brow. “A back room.”
“But this is the back room.”
“Well, a back back room,” Aziraphale says. “For storage. And, well, a few things I’ve kept. Through the years.”
"For stuff you've squirreled away, you mean. 'Cause you don't want anyone to touch it."
"For safekeeping. "
"Six of one, half-dozen of the other."
"Just callin' it like I see it, angel," Crowley laughs, "You're like a dragon with its hoard."
"Yes, well," Aziraphale sniffs, "Perhaps the dragon simply appreciates the gold more."
"Sure," he waves his hand. "Anything you say." He quirks his brow, glances about. "So where's this back room anyway? I've never seen it."
Aziraphale stands up and sets his glass down. "Oh dear, I probably shouldn't have said." He sighs, "Now, Crowley, I'm trusting you to be gentle with everything in there. Be careful. Some of those pieces are nearly six-thousand years old."
Crowley stares at him. "You've kept things. From the Beginning."
But Aziraphale is moving. Up and around the chair, pulling his waistcoat down, resettling his bowtie. At the start of the narrow-knock steps to his upstairs flat, he pauses and looks back. Crowley is still sitting open-mouthed on the sofa, staring at the equation of secret gospels and unknown storage rooms, trying (unsuccessfully) to solve for y.
"Are you coming?" Aziraphale asks, one hand fumbling at the bannister.
"Er - where?"
"Well, I mean, I never use my bedroom, so I figured it was a fairly reasonable storage space. It's quite dry, no one ever goes in there."
No one? Crowley grinds the question out under his half-cracked molars.
"This is it," Aziraphale says. He lays the crumbling papyrus out with careful and well-gloved hands. "This is the one I meant."
Crowley stares at the page and blinks. Glances up. "I thought all of these were destroyed."
Aziraphale shifts in an uncomfortable sort of way. "Yes, well. I wasn't quite interested in sharing this one. With the world."
It's this needing to know that's always got us in trouble. (Crowley knows all too well, it's all his own damn fault.) The title is laid out at the top, written in an ancient form of Greek. He doesn't need to read the rest, doesn't need to read beyond The Gospel of the Serpent. Crowley knows this one. Knows the tales, knows them all. This one comes through from another time, centuries and centuries ago. There had been hidden rooms and passwords too. Secret knocks. Some things you do not forget. The scrape of a wooden chair across a stone floor. The sound of soldiers in the streets.
Aziraphale clears his throat, reads aloud. "These are the secret sayings of the Serpent of Eden, spoken by an angel of the Lord, healer of Tobias, brought to us in quiet confidence. The angel said, "Do not look for a Kingdom above or below. It is not in the earth or the firmament. Not among the stars. Look here, the Kingdom is inside you." And he said, 'Blessed are the seekers and the apple-eaters. For they will be the bearers of Earth."
"Riveting stuff, angel," Crowley mutters. He distracts himself by wandering the length of the unfamiliar room. Up and down, down and up. He runs his fingers along the usual spines. Far enough back, back toward the desk, the spines turn to codices and boxes of scrolls. Dust-collectors here, these well-worn words.
He shrugs, moves on. There’s a collection of much newer bindings tucked back here, incongruous with the rest of the lot. He keeps moving, trailing his fingertips along the spines.
"Oh!" Aziraphale calls, something strange in his voice. There's an edge there, a bit of a wall. Crowley wonders. "Those aren't the religious texts. Something rather different, I'm afraid."
Different? Saucy, you mean. He pulls on a title, slides it out easily from the shelf. Reads the title and blinks. Reads it again. It's only on the third pass do the words start to settle and make sense. The Beginner's Guide to Bottoming sits directly beneath Crowley's touch. He dips a brow, traces the title out with curious hands.
He frowns at the book. "What's this then?"
"Yeah, I can see it's a book." Crowley looks up, arching his brow further. "Interest of yours?"
"Something of that sort, yes," Aziraphale says, prim-voiced and buttoned-up.
Crowley should stop talking. Should put the book back. He doesn't stop talking. Doesn't put it back. "So, er, you like someone telling you what to do then?" (The words come out strangely flat and bare. He'd meant them to be teasing, a joke, a wink and a nod and a nudge nudge, say no more. They're not. We always know when they mean something. We always know when we've laid ourselves bare. The words hang there between them, strangely vulnerable.)
"It's more that I prefer to be doing the telling," Aziraphale says, echoing softly in the back room. The words bounce off of the walls, the hardwood floor, the bookspines too. Perhaps, perhaps it's not quite that. Perhaps they only echo in Crowley's mind, caught in his head, ricocheting aout his skull. I prefer to be doing the telling.
Oh. Crowley doesn't look up. The cover of the book is suddenly incredibly interesting. Doing the telling. Crowley knows what that means. Knows it from the flamelick of the crown of his head all the way down his slither-hot spine. He stands perfectly still, hand still on the cover, the book burning him like a Bible. He doesn't move.
"Put the book down," Aziraphale says. He says it in a strange voice, heavy and a bit unsure. As if he's testing out the weight of a package, the weight of a bag, saying can I carry this? Then, a bit firmer, a bit lower. It comes as a command. An imperative in the steelsoft voice of a warrior of God. "Put it back, Crowley."
He swallows. Hot in his ears, hot between the shoulder blades. Why? He isn't sure. There isn't anything unusual about this. No one would bat an eye. He shouldn't bat an eye. He shouldn't count the stones in this simple sentence, shouldn't try to measure the weight of this request against any of the others. There's a joke in him somewhere, a laugh. Aziraphale is watching him. Heavy words, heavy stare. (The weight of it could sink you, the weight could ground you, keep you on earth.) He will sink, won't he?
Crowley puts the book back. Doesn't say a word.
Aziraphale turns then. Doesn't look at him. "Lunch is at one then tomorrow, is that right, my dear? Oh, I do hope I didn't get it confused."
I love you. (He doesn't say it.)
We measure out love by empty spaces. By the holes it bores into us, by the gaps left behind when it is gone. A lover once loved is already marked, already has a little wear and tear on their bones. Bones tell every story, every bit of history. Your dental work, your nutrition. Social standing. We can look for the scrapes and dings of love, find out how much you needed. This is the trouble, when we strip down and bare ourselves, there's nothing but bone. When we finally stand in front of someone else, asking to love and be loved in return, we have to bare ourselves to the bone, show all the empty spaces, say I need a lot from you, is that alright?
The bare truth is this, sometimes they run. Sometimes our would-be lovers look at the spaces, see how deep they go. Sometimes this is why they leave.
Crowley needs too much. (He knows this already.) It's worse when you've had a bite of something. When you've had a taste. It's hard to want blindly. You cannot crave without knowledge. We've never said god, I could ruin a pint of ice cream without knowing the exact flavor we're after, without knowing the way it melts on our tongues. The viscosity of cream, the slipslide of wet sugar there, pitching down the back of our throats. Crowley knows. He knows what he wants. He wants the weight of Aziraphale’s fingertips. He knows the taste of his sweat, the exact curve of his fingernails (left there on Crowley’s skin).
Here he is, sprawled on his bleak leather sofa and glaring a warning into a bit of ivy. One hand tearing at his hair, the color of red giants, the color of a Mars storm. Pulling at it, tearing from the root like a regrettable weed. As if he could dig out the memory from his mind, bury it somewhere deep and untouched. As if he could pull Aziraphale out from himself. Pull out that godforsaken scrap of parchment. Pull out that absurd book that he had found. He can't stop thinking about it. Aziraphale's choice of BDSM literature. The Beginner's Guide to Bottoming. The way Aziraphale had said I prefer to be doing the telling as if he'd lifted a heavy weight. A paperweight, perhaps. A stone. A bookend. The way he'd turned the words over in his mouth like feeling out the heft of them. The way he'd found it pleasing on the tongue, had leaned forward and added put the book down.
Crowley shivers. Presses his palm against his jeans, trying to take the edge off. He knows the flavor of what he wants.
1967. It'd be better forgotten. It'd be better if I didn't remember a goddamn fucking thing.
It had happened once. Only once, somewhere there in history (so Crowley only ever thinks about history). In 1967, there had been a car on an orange-lit Soho street, lined with bookshops and adult stores. A neighborhood of secret rooms, books and magazines hidden behind counters. Whispers again of don’t you dare tell anyone about me, about us, about what we’re doing here. Maybe someday we’ll be able to talk about it (maybe one day there will be a world to listen).
The car door had slammed behind Aziraphale. Crowley had sat there, his heartbeat scattered like marbles dropped on a tile floor. His hands cupped around a tartan thermos, cupped around angel-blessed water. It's the real thing? he had asked. The holiest, Aziraphale had said, voice catching like a foot tangled on a rug. Did you bless this yourself, is this your own? Crowley had wanted to ask (never asked).
He'd thrown himself out of the car in the heartbeat after. One foot in front of the other, one hip slung past the other. Tried to drop a heavy knock on the bookshop door but the door had swung open, easy as you like. Aziraphale had stood there, just a few meters away, turning back to look. His coat only half-off. His pocketwatch set carefully on the little table.
“Angel, what the hell was that about?”
Crowley will never forget how Aziraphale had stared at him. That catch of breath, the bobbing of his Adam's apple like a buoy on open water. The slight lift of the jaw. Something off, something not quite right. Something unusual in the air between them, disrupting the atoms of the space they live in. They had been unbalanced. This is the trouble with a poorly-weighted shelf, everything slips, slides, crashes together. Aziraphale had glanced away, not looking at him properly. Do me the decency of looking me in the goddamn eyes, angel, Crowley had thought. His spine had caught fire as he realized that Aziraphale was looking, only was watching his open mouth instead.
"It's nothing," Aziraphale had said, turning back as if to head deeper into the bookshop. "Nothing."
"Nothing," Crowley had repeated, empty-voiced. Nothing. Nothing is a bath in holy water, a shot of bleach to the esophagus, burning him from the inside out. Nothing. Nothing but an infection hollowing him out. Leaving his bones spongey and his tissues soft. Nothing but all the spaces where Aziraphale should be.
There had been a swallow. Aziraphale and his nervous tug at his coat sleeves. "Yes, Crowley. Nothing."
Like dropping a knife on your foot, like oil spatter from pan. Little burns everywhere. Crowley had scowled, dug his brows deep, stepped forward. "You're seriously gonna tell me I've made everything up?" He asked softly. (Softer than he likes. He'd aimed for a hiss, landed somewhere here in pleading.) "All of it?"
Aziraphale still would not meet his eyes. "All of what, pray tell?"
One, two. One, two. One, two. This beating of his nervous heart. Don't make me say it. Don't. You must know, you have to know. If you don't, if I've been having these conversations alone and just thinking you were a part of them, do you have any idea? Any at all? (I know what it feels like when you look at me like you shouldn't, when you think I'm not watching. Don't tell me I've made that up. Please. Don't take that from me, it's all I've got.)
An anxious lick of the lower lips, wetting dry skin. "Do I?"
"Angel," Crowley had said (had begged, really, he's not too proud).
The rainblue eyes had slammed shut. Crowley watched them, the lines forming with the dropped brows, the thin-pressed mouth, the deep inhale of breath as if we could ever ever ever steady ourselves with a scrape of air. " Don't, " Aziraphale had whispered, "Please don't. It will ruin everything."
Crowley swallowed, “Well, let’s fuck it all up then. Angel, you gotta know. You know, don’t you? I -“
Aziraphale looked up. “What, Crowley? What do I know?”
“Don’t make me say it.” Don’t make me spill it out. Don’t let me drop this. Please don’t. Let me just once not be first. Will you catch me?
And he had just watched then. Had counted out the beats of his lungs, of his nervousfuck heart. Had watched Aziraphale’s chest going up and down. The flicker of eyes to mouth and back. The twitch in his neck, the promise of his carotid. Had wanted to press his fingers to the side of Aziraphale's throat, measure the speed of blood. See if it was also saying yes, yes, yes I am a river, sail me. Climb on the backs of my blood cells, travel me.
Aziraphale had stepped closer. (Maybe Crowley had. He can't remember clearly, he couldn't tell. Does it matter? It doesn’t matter.)
Aziraphale licked his bottom lip. (He can blame dry air, blame a nervous tongue. Blame a hungry mouth.)
His ears had rung. They're ringing now, here in a flat in Mayfair, fifty-two years between them. Back then, in a barely-lit bookshop in Soho, there had been scarcely four inches between them. Too close, too near, too much. Proximity is a promise. You cannot get within six inches of someone else’s mouth without a kiss or a fist. His own hands are uncurled, unfisted, twitching and aimless. Misplaced. Crowley had swallowed. Shifted. He remembers that the room had been warm. He remembers watching. Remembers calculating distance and time, yes, and trajectory too.
We always know when we’re about to be kissed.
"I mean, I will if I gotta, but just - "
He never finishes that sentence. Aziraphale's hands had come up, gripped at his jacket. The gold-painted irises shook slightly, gripped in focus, dedicated as a scholar at the desk, a monk in his scriptorium, bent over a bit of gold leaf and a scrap of parchment. Illuminate me. There had been a war and Crowley has never been sure what side he is on. If he might be wearing red or blue, blue or grey, black or gold. Doesn't matter. All that matters is that they both look the same once the gloves come off, once the uniforms are peeled back. Skin and bone and blood and wings. Ten fingers, ten toes. A heart for the giving. Aziraphale had breathed in, his eyes widening. Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes. (Don't kiss me until you can see the whites of mine, until you're that close. Once you are, do with me what you like.)
We always steady ourselves before falling. Before jumping from a plane, a diving board. Before tipping backwards into the sea. Aziraphale's hand had tightened in the sky-black fabric. A thumb pulled slightly at the collar, pulled Crowley down just a fraction. An involuntary request, an involuntary motion. Come to me, bend to me. Give me this.
The moment had broken. Aziraphale grabbed him by the jacket lapels and pulled Crowley tight against, wide-eyes slammed shut, a mouth pressed to his, desperate and firm. There had been no breath, no need for breath. You do not breathe while drowning, you do not breathe while under the sea, while cast out into space. In the center of a fire. We practice holding our breath so that we might stay in these moments longer, these spaces between air. (Pockets of nothing. What are we doing? Nothing. Let's do more of this, give me more nothing. I can hold my breath.)
"Come with me," Aziraphale had said, lips grazing over his own. A body dragged over the rocks of Crowley's own. Which way is up? Who is drowning? Who is the storm? Hands had worked up against his neck, thumped against his own heartbeat, his betraying arteries. Hands in his own red-scare hair.
"Where?" he had whispered. (He knows what he wants. Doesn't hope to suggest. Don't get it wrong, don't presume too much. Don't want too much. Don't fuck it up.)
His own palms had moved over Aziraphale's chest. He's already stumbled, already missed steps. Minutes ago, he had sat in an oil-black car, holding a thermos in his hands. Now his mouth tastes like ambrosia and bergamot, sketches of Earl Grey. Aziraphale's cologne lingers in his nose, little catches of citrus and cedar, ambergris too. How did I get there? Shouldn't I remember every moment? You're too much, too distracting. I've thought about this too much. Don't you dare let me forget. “What are we doing?”
Aziraphale hadn't said anything, just pressed his nose into Crowley's jaw, mouth into his neck. Crowley knows the difference between a nothing that says I don't have the words and a nothing that says this isn't real. Aziraphale hadn't said anything, didn't have the words. Everything had been there between them, in the palms of his hands wrapped there around Crowley.
This was never nothing. (Crowley remembers still, all this time later, the measure of everything.) Aziraphale had shook his head, his hands had dropped then to Crowley's own (lost there, pilgrim hands far off course) and woven their fingers together. "Just come," he had said, soft as night.
They'd made it up the stairs. At the top of the skinny stairs, they had frozen. Crowley's fingers curled around Aziraphale's neck, dipped into his hair like pulling through warm sand. There had come a sound from downstairs, somewhere near the front of the shop.
“It’s Gabriel,” Aziraphale whispered, eyes wide and nervous. “Fuck.”
“Goddammit," Crowley had hissed. (He remembers Gabriel. In 1967, yes, and standing in Tadfield too. Crowley remembers a Gabriel from millennia ago, back when they had worn the same uniform, same insignia. Had carried swords cast from the same steel. There had been a cold white room and floor-to-ceiling windows. Suits hadn't been the in thing, not back then, all those thousands of years ago. They had both worn white robes, cut from diaphanous fabric. There had been long hair and they had worn their halos out.
"Looks like you've been a bit of a fallen angel," Michael had said, reaching out with her snarl-fist. She'd grabbed his halo and snapped it across her knee, cleanly broken in two. Behind him, there had been a sudden spray of light. Fireworks. Not-Yet-Crowley's hand had swung around to his shoulder. Pain had burst there, sudden and swift and it was Sandalphon that he had found behind him, his repellent sword sticking out of Not-Yet-Crowley's back. When he pulled his hand back, it had come away red as poppies. Red as dying stars. Blood then, blood always.
This is how you go. Not stairs, not an open floor. It's the bloodloss that comes first. Crowley would wake up later on a concrete floor damp with rot and moss, a web of scar-torn tissue forming over his left shoulder and the pieces of his ruined crown tossed in after. You never do get the sulfur out from under your fingernails, doesn't matter how much you try. Doesn't matter how much bleach you soak yourself in.)
Demons have long memories.
“Go,” Aziraphale had said, “out the back door. Hurry.”
Crowley had nodded, left. Grabbed his jacket and snuck out the back window, scaled the drainpipe. Waited next to the phone. Aziraphale hadn't called but had knocked on his door instead. Twelve hours and twenty-three minutes later. (Not that Crowley had been counting.)
“We can’t," Aziraphale had said. Crowley had locked the door behind him but Aziraphale doesn't come in. "Not again. Not ever.”
“You know what they will do if they find out. I cannot -“
Crowley opened his mouth. Brow dark and dropped. “Just once, can I just, please -“
"Don't say it," Aziraphale had whispered, closing his eyes. His chin dimpled with misery. "Please don't say it."
Crowley had nodded then. Shut his damn fool mouth, snapped his teeth together. Bit it back, cut it off. Had swallowed down I love you like strychnine. A cyanide capsule. (Mutam : Adjective. saying nothing, silent; uttering no cry; silentia muta noctis: deep speechlessness of night; mutam dico : I do not say a word.) Aziraphale doesn't say anything. Crowley has always known the difference between a nothing that says I don't have the words and a nothing that says this isn't real. Aziraphale didn't say anything, didn't have the words. His hunched shoulders had said there is nothing, this isn't real. It's over. Let it go. Don't wait up. Don't set a watch by this love, nothing is there. Nothing will come by. Nothing will wake you up. You'll sit there forever, waiting for love to darken your door. Let it go.
“Alright,” Crowley had gritted out, pushed through tight teeth. “Nothin’ to say, eh?”
Aziraphale had forced a smile. “Oh,” he whispered. “Thank you.” He gestured to the door. “Would you like to try for lunch?”
Crowley had sucked in a swallow, a gathering of air. A suckerpunch to the lungs. “Might need a moment.”
Aziraphale and his worrywobble lip. His stutter-nod. “Oh, yes. Of course.” Then he started delicately, parceled out carefully-picked words. “How - how long do you think?”
I don’t know, angel. I can still taste you on me. If I look closely, your sweat is on my neck, your hair is on my clothes. Your spit is still in my mouth. “Give me a few weeks. Gotta catch my breath, you know.”
Aziraphale’s thin-pressed mouth troubled. He had glanced at Crowley then, nodded, looked away. Crowley's black-wrapped arm had come out, long fingers catching on Aziraphale’s arm, stopping him from turning. It had been a gentle touch, something that could be thrown it off. (Aziraphale hadn't shaken it off. Had looked back at Crowley.)
“Hey,” he had said. Soft and quiet, making a bed with his voice. A feathernest to catch them in. “Hey, it’s gonna be alright, angel. I promise. Swear. We’ll get lunch soon. Back to normal. Promise.”
Aziraphale nodded. (He hadn't cried. Crowley has never seen him cry. He pulls that soldier-face on like a mask. See the stiff upper lip, the eyes like rain. I love you, Crowley had wanted to say. Didn't say. Never says.)
He'd tried to swim once. It hadn't worked. How does it go in Latin? Tibi rident aequora ponti. The waters of the sea laugh up at you. The thing is, time keeps on. A few years later, a man would walk on the moon. Leave a footprint right there, on something out of Earth. The world is moving faster, going further, reaching the stars. Not them, never them. You go too fast for me, Crowley sticks to the roof of his mouth, sticks like congealed blood in his mouth after a fight. He wants to spit it out, gargle saltwater. I'll stop time if I have to. (Anything you like.)
"Please don't think about it," Aziraphale had said, his eyes wide and strange, water-damp, "Just - keep your head down. We'll just pretend there's nothing. Nothing different, nothing changed."
Keep your head down (if you wanna keep your head). We don't know anything. We're innocent.
(Crowley bites his lip now, shifts uncomfortably on his couch. Fifty-two years later. He glances over toward the hall, this self-same hall that had held a nervouswreck angel telling him this is nothing, don't think about this. Don't look back, don't hang on. His teeth on the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood.)
Let it go, Crowley, Aziraphale had said. Drop it, bury it six feet under. Don't turn back and look at this. Just please forget it happened. If we're ever safe somewhere, we can come back, turn around, bring it back to the surface. Don't go looking for it. Don't look back.
"Anything else?" The shopkeeper taps his fingers on the glass counter. Crowley ignores him, focusing on the ratio of buttercream to shell, to the depth of the macarons' feet.
"Meyer lemon and passionfruit. Sea-salt caramel. What about the black sesame? That good? That too. That'll do." Crowley moves along the counter, eyeing up the offerings. There's coffee and rose petal, pistachio and Framboise. Praline, yes, and orange blossom too. A dark red one, near berry-black, catches his attention.
"And a few of those, will you?" He says, jabbing a long pointer finger at the far tray.
"Sure thing," the seller says, packing up the pomegranate-flavored bites. The macarons lined up in a perfect row. Tied off with a bit of ribbon. Crowley rarely shows up to the bookshop without something in hand. A bottle of scotch, a parcel of pastries. The trouble is that Crowley cannot ever pass a shop without thinking of Aziraphale. He passes a window and there the angel is again, printed in black ink on books of history and poetry. There he is, baked into sponge cakes and tempered into chocolate. Crowley knows Aziraphale, knows his opinions on every form of buttercream and all the frostings of the world. Italian and Swiss are far superior, my dear boy, I can't stomach the absurd amount of sugar in that awful American stuff.
"Here," Crowley holds out the bakery bag. "Nothin' big. Just was nearby." (The bakery, in fact, was on the other side of London. Neither of them addresses this fact.)
"Oh, my dear," Aziraphale says, taking the bag from him. "They always do the most marvelous job. Just the most perfect shells, look at them." He's opened the box, pulling out one jewel-colored cookie after another. There's buttercream on his fingers. Jam too. "Would you like one."
"Nah, angel," Crowley murmurs. He never takes a bite of the pastries. Just swallows up the look of them on Aziraphale instead. The way Aziraphale's sleeves are pulled back, the way he closes his eyes as he bites into a deep yellow one. (Must be the Meyer lemon.)
Crowley doesn't even realize he's sweating, pulling at his own collar. Aziraphale opens his eyes, glances over. A slight smile on his lemon-dusted mouth.
"It is rather hot, isn't it?" Aziraphale says, his voice pitched low. He looks directly over, catching Crowley's eye, the line of sight. Keeping the eye contact unbroken, Aziraphale leans forward in the chair. Forward. Toward. Rolled up sleeves and one elbow coming to rest on the knee. " Open the window. "
Crowley swallows. He should say just miracle it, angel. He could miracle it himself, just a flick of the wrist. He could make a joke about Aziraphale's sudden demanding nature. Instead, he is warmer than he was before and electric in his spine. He isn't sure what game they have started, who started it. What the rules are. He knows his eyes are wide. He is suddenly intensely aware of his body, the shape of it, the proximity to Aziraphale's own. Crowley gets up slowly from the sofa, deliberate and long. A bit of a slither in his bones, his hips. Why? What are we doing? (He doesn't know but his body wonders. Wet-mouthed and trying not to think about the cock in his own pants, this sharp-red want.)
Opens the window without a word. Leans against the wall for a moment, silent and aware of the bend of his arm, the curl of his neck. How do I look to you? Is this how you tell others? (Is this how you would tell me?) Would you ever - (Are we?) He catches that gaze again, that sharp blue stare. Unblinking, taking the measure of him, sounding him out. (Crowley thinks only of that damnable book he had found not two days ago. Thinks only of the way the words had sounded on Aziraphale's tongue, "I prefer to be doing the telling." Crowley shifts, trying to slow down, trying to breathe. Do you ever think about telling me things? What would you want me to do? )
"Thank you, my dear," Aziraphale says mildly, dropping back into the wingback. "Would you like a top-up? Your glass is low."
Yes, I would like. I would very fucking like. I want you to want me (enough to tell me, enough to make me bend).
That’s the rough edge, the wavesnap of our lives. We are each a dark sea, we must always keep our own lights on, watch for rocks in the water, watch for sudden deer in the road. Don’t show your soft underbelly. Even if you want, even if we come together with wet mouths and question-mark fingers, we must always do it cautiously. Keep our teeth out, keep the lights on. I want you to tell me. I want you to make me. (I want you to love me enough to want me like a shipwreck, to force me to shut the fuck up. I want you in this wild way and I want you to snap me up, shut my brain down. Make me admit how much I need you, make me, god, make me admit to everything I think about you. Make me tell you what I want. Make me not be nice. Make me not be kind. Give me permission to make a mess of myself over you. Take me, god, take me and use me. Fuck me silent, exhausted, until I can’t overthink it. Until there’s nothing left but you and I and that bed too. Nothing left of my anxious mess because you told me to tell you. You wanted it, it’s not my fault then.)
He takes the top-up. The conversation slides to the nature of bebop and the correct deterrence of hopeful bookshop customers. No one mentions skin. A kiss. A gospel secreted away upstairs. No one says do this, come here, remember when.
Later, later in his own bed, Crowley shudders as he comes, thinking of Aziraphale holding him down, the weight of the other man heavy as the commands in his throat. You're mine, aren't you, dream-Aziraphale says, pulling at the shame-red hair, tell me how you're mine. You're going to come now because I want you to, aren't you? He comes for a ghost of Aziraphale, yes yes yes yes, god yes, please. Chokes on his own spit, throws the sweaty sheets to the side, pushes his damp hair back. Scowls at the corner, the empty bed.
God, fuck, look at yourself, he thinks. Here he is, a collapse of bones in a ghost town of his own bed, making a mess of things.
I served you as a garment and you did not know me.
Lunch at the Ritz isn't new. They've been here, hundreds of times now. An Arrangement within an Arrangement. It doesn't have to be the Ritz. Aziraphale loves food, pours over the Michelin guides, the James Beard awards. Oh, my dear, he says, let's try this next. Crowley never eats much but he whisks them anywhere Aziraphale would like to go. He remembers the swirl of red wine in his glass at Le Bernardin, the dwarfing paintings of the ocean behind them. The hush of the dining room. They had eaten scallops with brown-butter washed dashi. There had been clams and mussels, poached shrimp. Miso-marinated black cod. He had read the poetry-menu of Atelier Crenn, drowned out the blue eyes across from him with a dash of kyr royale. When Aziraphale had whispered something about New Nordic cuisine, Crowley had miracled a reservation open at Noma within an instant.
"I haven't been to Saint Petersburg in decades," Aziraphale had said idly once, fifteen years ago. Crowley had brought them there in a flash, tumbling together near the Peterhof Palace, drowned out by blue sky and gilded statues.
"The same?" He'd asked. There had been a lovely restaurant they had used to frequent. Long ago, in another lifetime.
"Oh yes," Aziraphale had said, leading onward. So they’d found themselves here, in this restaurant somewhere near the banks of the Neva. A stone's throw from the Summer Garden.“We’ll take the bottle,” Crowley had said to the server. He’d poured the wine heavy into each of their glasses.
“Cheers,” Aziraphale had said and Crowley had clinked glasses and drank, unsure what he was saluting. There had been caviar then and cream-colored walls. Chandelier-cut light. This building on Nevsky Prospekt. There had been goose pie with a million-layer flaky crust, want-red berries, served with sour cream. Baked oysters plucked from the bay of Peter the Great and filled with blue cheese and garlic. There had been crepes suzette to finish, served with vanilla ice cream, flecks of dark vanilla bean sprinkled in the smooth white.
He’d broken then. (Sometimes, when they leave England, when they go further afield, he can almost forget that they’re being watched. Almost forget to be careful.)
“Angel,” he’d said, that strange tone to his voice.
“My dear. Why don’t you try the soup?”
Aziraphale had gone very still and very white. His face had said Not now. Not right now. Not the right thing, not the right time. I wish you were free (I wish I was).
Crowley drained the rest of his glass. I wish you could. Do you still want to? Would you? If we could, if we didn’t have these shackles on our hands and feet. If you hadn’t been conscripted into a war you never wanted to fight? You and I. I’ve never seen you in your uniform, never seen you draw a blade. If you had to, if you found me across a battlefield, would you draw a sword?
They would tell you to. (I wouldn’t fight.)
It had been decades since they had kissed once. Aziraphale had told him not to turn around, to never look back. Crowley isn't sure he's being followed. Perhaps it's a trick. Perhaps it's a farce, a sham. Maybe he'll get to the surface and there will be no one there behind him, no arms to fall back into, no one to love. He swallows, dry and parched as the desert had been once. (he had wandered there alone, long long ago).
Aziraphale had offered him an odd smile then. There's something curled up there in the corner. A bit of misplaced cream, a bit of crumbs. A tuck of wait for me.
That had been fifteen years ago. They had been nowhere safe.
What about now?
Don't look back.
Lunch again, back at the Ritz. Crowley drapes over his chair, keeps the sunglasses on like a shield. He wonders how much Aziraphale knows, how much he can tell. Do you have any idea that I haven't stopped thinking about your fucking bookshelf at any point in the past week? That I've gotten myself off every single fucking day to the way you said 'open the window'? Fuck me, angel.
“What do you think about them?" Aziraphale asks. Crowley blinks, mind completely elsewhere (down his own trousers).
Crowley shrugs. “They’re interesting. More fun than anything upstairs or downstairs. Damn sight more creative. I like 'em.”
(It's interesting to think about humanity. Watch them skitter to and fro, rats in their cages, greyhounds at the circuit. Yes, the race starts, mind the track, don't fall down. Do as you're told. Crowley wonders how it would be different. How would it have been if he'd been born somewhere in Scotland, if his mother had always made rubbery eggs and he'd dried his hands on her skirts, if he'd taken to falling in love with a bookish boy from Edinburgh, a boy with riverbed eyes and cottonspit hair? His father might have pointed out the neighbor girl saying, she's a nice girl, why don't you go on then and settle down? His father might have had beer on his breath and might have watched Crowley carefully, might have hissed no son of mine. Things might have been different then. Humans have free will, yes, he's perfectly aware. Sometimes, in fact, that's the trouble.)
He's not human. Neither of them are. Not much of a demon these days either. There's no one watching, no one hissing anything at all. He's already been shoved out the front door, already watched them change the locks. Already been told to sod off, get out of here, don't come back. He drains the scotch in his glass. Crowley glances up, drunk-eyed through hazy eyelashes, watches Aziraphale stare off into space. Aziraphale bites his lip and Crowley watches, remembering how they had kissed one night. Fifty-two years ago. His pilgrim-fingers spread out over the sofa cushions, looking for old impressions, old indentations, a ghost of a night they had spent on it together. Fifty-two years ago.
“Is that why you -“
“I what, angel?”
“The gospel. The secret meetings."
I don’t know. Seemed like someone needed to speak up. That someone needed to say it. There’s nothing wrong with knowing. With asking questions. Should be more questions out there, that’s what I’m saying. Crowley shoves half his nervous-hands in his pocket, pulling at a loose thread.
"What secret meetings?"
"Crowley," Aziraphale says, "You cannot possibly pretend - "
"Don't know what you're talking about, angel," Crowley mutters, drowning half his words in the wine.
"The Gospel of the Serpent, my dear, come now."
"Lotta snakes out there."
Aziraphale smiles, that same soft smile he had given to Crowley a week ago. That same soft smile that bore to the world in it. "Alright," he says. It's quiet and indulgent, gentle as a snake-charmer hugging a basket.
God, I love you. (Stop being so ridiculously indulgent. Please. Let's just forget this.)
Crowley wants. Wants to know things. To know Aziraphale intimately, Biblically. To lay his body out like an index and find the best passages, highlight his favorite parts with his tongue. Want is common. It’s built-in with the base model. After the apple had been taken, what was the first thing we had done? Adam and Eve in the grass, dropping the apple from their mouths and asking questions with their skin. Knowing in this way, this secret way, knowing each other.
Why do we love innocence? Why do we dress up purity with laurel crowns? Tell me what is wrong with our starstuff bodies and our well-beating hearts, tell me why we should keep them unused and dusty. Factory-sealed and put up on a shelf. No one buys fruit just to look at it.
The point is to bite in. Taste. Get your mouth on it, your tongue. We don’t have to stay clean (that’s what towels are for).
You know you want to.
There are a lot of things Crowley wants. The nothing of trivial talk, mindless chitchat. He wants how was your day and what should we do for dinner? A shared laundry pile. Food that is not his in the cupboards. Spit in the sink that isn't his own, blond hair in the drain too. Two towels on the rack, one for each of them. To wash up, side by side, in the pale fire of morning.
Crowley wants. Want is a loaded question. We are terrified of the size of it. Of the spaces that it has carved out of us. Infection erodes bone, eats holes in muscle and sinew. If we were to burn the infection out, cut it down, how much space would there be left? How much would we need? If the want was gone and only the emptiness was left, how much would I need from you? (Fill me back up. Make me whole. Indemnified and new.)
Is this okay? Can I? Can we? I want to know you, the secret parts of you. The books of you that you don’t put on the shelf. The chapters that weren’t put in your holy books. I’ll be a heretic of you, learning all the gospels that are not common, not allowed, unpublished. The church says I shouldn’t know you like this but I would I would I would. I would kiss psalms into your thighs and praise the secret gospels. (I’ve always needed to know too much. To need too much. I can’t get my hands out of the sand, can’t leave you alone. What if there’s something I’ve missed? A tablet, a scroll. What if I haven’t found it and there are secrets of you I have not yet loved?)
I don't want your tongue to taste like honey. Don't flavor yourself, don't make yourself taste the way you think I'd want. I want you bare, I want you sweaty and salty. I want the worst of you (and the beauty too).
"Pass the tea, would you?" Aziraphale asks.
"You know," he says, pushing the plate over. "This cake is absolutely scrumptious."
"Try it ." And Aziraphale holds out the fork, that strange glint in his eyes. His mouth partly open, inhaling all the way. Brows slightly raised here, in this face of a hungry man.
Crowley blinks, realizes too late that his hand inching over the tablecloth. So he takes the fork. Aziraphale had told him to, so it must be good. It must be alright. It must be what he wants. Takes the fork, swallows the bite. He tastes it, every layer of the opera cake. The shell-top of pristine chocolate ganache, the sponge cake and the cream. When did he close his eyes? He doesn't know. He opens them again, looking up to see Aziraphale still watching. Still open-mouthed.
"Well," Aziraphale says, his voice low, "did you like it?"
"Yeah, angel, yeah," Crowley nods, his thumb brushing across his mouth, catching crumbs and a sweep of chocolate. "I goddamn liked it." (I loved it. I love you. He doesn't say it.)
Surrender is a funny word. Crowley sometimes likes to fantasize about being on offer. There at the Ritz, cream still on Aziraphale’s mouth and a hand suddenly under the table and sneaking past the white linen tablecloth, sneaking past his black denim and the zipper alike. And I won’t tell you no, angel. I won’t and you’ll know that (I know I cannot) and god, yeah, cause I’ll just have to trust you that you know what you’re doing (that I’m in good hands). You’ll lick that spoon there with the last bits of the creme brûlée and tell me how good it is, tell me how delicious, how you love when I take you there. And you’ll stroke me off right there, your hand on the filthy mess of me and I’ll try to be good, I swear. I’ll stay still, stay silent. You’ll whisper how you don’t want to wait, how you want me to get in the backseat of the car and how you’re going to keep me silent and steady there too, fucking yourself on me. How you won’t give me permission to come for hours (days maybe). And you’ll take the last bit of the creme brûlée and tell me to try it, that it’s delicious (the best thing you’ve ever tasted). “Go on then,” you’ll say, bringing the spoon up to me, “Go ahead.” And, angel, oh, you and that rapid wrist, that swipe across and yeah, I’ll go on, go ahead, come for you there under the table with your silver spoon on my tongue.
(I always come when you call.)
The trouble is that Crowley has an active imagination. Always has.
He just thinks about things. It had started in Mesopotamia. Soaked and miserable and trying to get dry, laying down on a bed of reeds, pushing his hand around himself and if he was bitter and angry and if he wanted to just not have to think, not have to question, just have the goddamn words fucked out if his mind, is that so entirely wrong? Yes. By an angel. By a goddamn flaming sword-wielding Principality who winces at the sight of thunder. (I’m glad you did, you do. I wish you hadn’t. You shouldn’t make me like you.) Crowley tightened his fist around his desperate-red cock, thinking of steelsoft hands. Aziraphale could hold him down, this slitherfuck of him. Crowley is always moving, even writhing now. Aziraphale could pin his arms down, his legs. Make him stop. Shut up his mouth with a tongue, shut up his mind with one hand on his dick, fucking the damnation out of him. At least for a bit.
He will fall asleep later that night while thinking about this, about their hands in the dark, a thumb over him, palm to palm. Yes yes yes yes fuck. Crowley will come on his own fist, head thrown back and damp not with rain but his own saltsweat. His own bad decision. Choices, yet again. (He’s never been good with them.)
Mesopotamia was the first time. (Not the last. Ignore it. Cross it out.)
“So, that stuff, in your books.”
“Isn’t it … humiliating?” He asks, “You know for the -“
Aziraphale shakes his head, mostly focusing on the wine label.
“What?” Crowley says. But there’s that look in Aziraphale’s eyes again. A blush on his cheeks, his nose. The tip of his ears.
"No," Aziraphale says, touching his bowtie. Adjusting it. He doesn't look at Crowley. Just straightens a pile of books on a table. "As I'm to understand, it's quite, erm, enjoyable for some to take direction. To let go, I believe."
Crowley leans back against the shelves, keenly aware of every bookspine pressing into his back. Measuring his own skin, the way he moves. He presses back further than he needs, craving some kind of contact. Some kind of pressure. "Sounds like trouble. That could go really fucking south. Having to just blindly follow some orders? Look, I've always been skeptical of orders. You can't just go around with your eyes shut and -"
"It's about trust," Aziraphale says, looking at him.
"How’s that?” Crowley asks. Doubtful. Warm.
"Boundaries are set before, of course. It's about trusting each other. The sub has the ultimate word, my dear."
"Word," he says, cavern-chested. Reduced to an echo.
"A safeword. To stop anything at any moment. It's about pleasure, Crowley."
Crowley stares. Doesn't look away from Aziraphale's hand on the corner of the bookpile. Careful fingers with trimmed nails. They have never talked about sexuality so openly before, not without a joke, a laugh, a spot of oh you know how humans are. Never talked about the very real fact that they wear human bodies, have human blood, human heat. It has been six-thousand years. What have you done? Who have you been with? What do you do when I'm not around? That damn thumb keeps moving over the spine, the edge of the book. Rubbing the pages. Almost opening the cover, closing it again.
"You've done this."
There's a moment of pause. The light is still low, cast in afternoon sun through the windows. The shop smells like dust and familiarity, paper and tea. Some measure of home. "Not - not in a purely practical manner, mind," Aziraphale says, low. Quiet. "I suppose I have more, shall we say, theoretical experience?"
"You've thought about it."
"Yes," Aziraphale says. He looks up, catches Crowley's eye. Crowley presses his hips to back further into the wall. His rapidrhythm heart feels bruised, sore from his racetrack blood. No human body should contain this much heat. His breathing is faint but harsh, asphalt-rough. "Have you?"
Breathe. "Theoretically, I guess.”
"I'm a bit curious," Aziraphale starts.
"If you were to choose a word. What would it be?" There's something in Aziraphale's voice that Crowley can't quite catch. It sounds like do you trust me?
Crowley stops breathing. He is standing there in silence, grateful for the cut of his jacket, the darkness of his jeans. He needs to get out of here, to miracle himself to his bedroom, tear himself out of his own boxers and wrap his half-starved fist over himself. The car even. A quick miracle to make the windows dark, he won't even leave the street. There, parked outside of the bookshop, sitting in his own seat, zipper down and hand on himself, spitwet and thinking about dropping to his own knees, pushing himself between Aziraphale's thighs.
Will you? Come in after me? Let me go after you? We tried once, couldn’t hold on. It went dark. I let go. I shouldn’t have let go (you asked me to, I shouldn’t have). Is there still something for us? Tell me. Tell me. Please. I love you.
All futures are temptations; not all temptations should be fought against. Want is not wrong. Some wants we should strive for.
"Aster," he says, low and quiet, tripping on the flowerword as he says it, wincing a little. Yeah, angel, I trust you.
"Aster," Aziraphale says. "A lovely word."
Wait for me, I'm coming for you.
A parked car in Soho
2019 (Several days later)
Crowley thinks about Aziraphale. He can’t stop while he’s laying in bed, slouching against a barstool, a pile of leather and denim dumped into the Bentley’s front seat. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. He can’t stop, he never stops. His stomach twists in knots. A storm in a teacup, a vole caught in a sack. Something trying to get out, claw out, make itself known.
I love you.
Mostly he thinks of the feeling of water. Go back, go back, thousands of years ago. Standing on opposite sides of the shore. Can you make it over? The rush of waves there at the Hellespont, trying to keep his head above the surface, trying to keep his eye on the bouncing light on the other shore. He’s trying to stay up, stay afloat, carry all his everything with him. This is always how we come to love, with our stone-weighted packages. With our bags of secret histories and ancient things, all penned into books and scrolls, chiseled on tablets too heavy to carry. We bring everything, we bring too much.
Did we fuck this up? Did I? I shouldn’t have let you go. I shouldn’t. How far has this gone? You might have loved me once. Fifty years ago. In a bookshop in Soho. You’re still there. Same address. Same you. Do you have the same blood, same heart? If I came to you, would you know me the way you did that night? Did you wait? (You never promised me anything. Not in words. Your mouth might have. I’ve never washed that shirt. Still there in the back of my closet. Miracled to still smell like you.)
Did you wait?
Are you still?
(What if I came over? What if I came by now? What would you do?)
Some things are best put in Latin. There had been a phrase, multa nox . Deep in the night, late. (Too late.)
Is it too late? Did you wait?
Tu. Pronoun. You, you yourself. There is time enough at last and they sit here, quiet in mutual calm. Crowley thinks of the future (he can abandon history now). Winter comes quickly here. The summer stretches on languidly and then, one day, as if suddenly jostled, the wind has winter on the back of it. Winter will come and there will be ice and snow. He thinks of seeing snow in Aziraphale's pale hair, his eyelashes. His hands red with cold. ( Let me take your hands, wrap them in mine. Blow my hot breath on them and rub them. Warm you up. Come in, come in from the cold .)
They have gotten dinner again. Have been out every night this week, each one heavy with promise. Each one weighted with something or nothing. Crowley keeps at his patience, knowing, hoping, begging that at some point Aziraphale's commands will push over from get the wine and come over now to kiss me here, right against the bookshelf. But nothing has outweighed something, nothing is what keeps happening.
He's losing his mind, his fingers are white-knuckled on the steering wheel. Aziraphale turns down Freddie Mercury's voice, pulls the cream sweater a bit tighter around himself.
"Trust then," Crowley says, picking up an aster-scented conversation from three days earlier.
"Yes," Aziraphale answers. There's no missed beat, there's no question of meaning. It's the only conversation worth having.
"You haven't trusted anyone?"
"For me," Aziraphale says, one uncertain hand in his lap, the other there on the seatbelt. "Well, it would have to be about love too."
Oh. Crowley grips the steering wheel. He hasn't let go. Presses himself into the seat, afraid of his skin, afraid of flying everywhere at once. He breaks, shatters. Overflows. "Fuck, angel. Tell me to kiss you."
Aziraphale freezes. Swallows, looks over at him. "Do you want me to?"
Crowley turns in his seat, runs his hand over his face, catching in his own war-torn hair. " Yes. And all of it. Everything. I am losing my bloody mind, can you not see that -"
"Tell me exactly, " Aziraphale says. His hands are very tight on the seatbelt. "What you want."
"Just, fuck, god, all of it," Crowley closes his eyes. It's less mortifying with his eyes closed. "Tell me to kiss you. Tell me to take everything off. Tell me to get on my knees and suck your goddamn cock and then I want to fuck until I don't remember my name, please -"
“Do you love me?” Aziraphale asks. Crowley stares and it's like being across the water again. The Hellespont rushing past and a lantern in the night. The River Styx and he's always had too much in his pockets to weigh him down. Too many stones. Silver too. Might as well pay Acheron, might as well take the boat. Might as well try, might as well try to get across. Wait there, I'm trying. Wait, I'm trying.
Don't let me drown.
“Angel, you know -“
“Tell me how," Aziraphale says, wide-eyed. Breathing harshly. "Please tell me. Tell me I didn't ruin it. Back then when we couldn't - please tell me." He shoves his eyes closed, tight and tense. "Is that what you wanted to tell me then? In 1967. When I wouldn't let you. Is that what you would have said?"
His breathing is harsh, ragged as broken bones. Shattered concrete. “You don’t want to know.” I need too much. (You'll see it. You'll run.)
Crowley swallows. He’s always assumed that the very worst parts of him are safe. His want, his sick, miserable want. That even if it could be indulged, even a little, the depth of it could be unconfessed. We always assume we can clean the house before anyone comes over. Empty the fridge, take out the trash, dust the shelves. There’s an understanding that we don’t share the details. Now here Aziraphale stands, sounding out the depths of him. Shining a light there. Don’t come down here, he wants to say, you won’t like what you see. Let these scrolls stay in the sand.
“In love with you. I have been in love with you since I saw you there. In Eden, standing on a fucking wall. You gave your sword away and, well, I guess that was the end of that. For me, I mean.” He closes his eyes, grits his bitter teeth. “I never stop thinking about you. Never. It’s alright, I guess. You can get used to anything, I’ve learned to live with it. Gets worse sometimes."
He can hear Aziraphale's breathing there against him. But Aziraphale hasn't said anything, hasn't touched him, hasn't fucking moved, so Crowley just keeps letting the words fall. All of them, all of them that he's gathered up across every language. "I love you. I loved you from the moment I saw you or, well, I knew that I would love you. Didn't have a say in it. I've tried to stop, promise. Tried everything I could think of. Seeing you, not seeing you. Sleeping. Nothing worked. Nothing ever fucking works. I just keep on loving you. And that's the worst of it, angel, I'm gonna love you till the end. The end of time, the end of Creation. I'm so sorry. It's a lot and I just, please remember that it's been a long couple of weeks and I'm tired, I know this is too much, I've fucked this -
"Crowley," Aziraphale interrupts. "Stop. Look at me."
He stops. Blinks. Opens his eyes. There's Aziraphale and his bluevase eyes, always this steady-sky. He's barely breathing (neither of them are). His knuckles white on the edge of the armchair, mouth parted. His lip damp. He's licked it. Must've. (Crowley wasn't looking.)
"Kiss me," Aziraphale says. Those eyes focused. (Crowley thinks they are the color of sometimes. Of liminal spaces and intervals and in-between things. Eyes that never have settled properly on a color, green and blue and gold all at once. Aziraphale has always been a gatherer, a keeper of things. Look, you've taken in all the colors too.)
"You have a bedroom. A bed," Aziraphale whispers against his mouth.
"Yeah," he says, "I do."
"Take us there then."
How long? Just the once? For now? (He'll take it. Anything, sign anywhere. Please. Please. Please. Quad fugiens semel hora vexit. What the transient hour brought once and only once.) I love you, I love you, I love you. It's this sad song, this tragedy. This old beat of his heart singing again. Don't look up. Don't look back. Keep your eyes shut till you're safe.
They don't bother with the lights. Why bother? It's a familiar song, love (even if we've never sung it before).
Crowley hesitates in the room. He doesn't want to reach first. He will if he must. There's a question in the set of his mouth. A question of how much? How much can I have? How much will you give me? How fast? I'll temper myself to you, I'll go any speed you like. Whatever you need, angel. Whatever you want. His mouth brims with questions. Questions about arteries, about vertebrae, about the road of their spines. I want to discover you. Aziraphale stands there, hands wide and at his sides. They're both breathing heavily, both terrified. You cannot unbreak the bread. You cannot unshatter the glass. The Temple, once destroyed, has never been rebuilt.
You're clean now. Innocent. Are you sure?
"What's wrong with knowing?" Aziraphale asks. (Crowley has spoken aloud again, his damnable mouth. Traitorous again.)
Crowley's blood heats. He is hyperaware of measurements. He tries to settle his shoulders, reason with his slitherspine. Resettles. Settles again. Act natural. (Can he? What is natural? He doubts everything. Wonders what he has ever done with his hands, his fingers, the space of his feet.) Aziraphale catches his eyes. What has he ever known about heat? What has he ever imagined about love? About want? He has forgotten the facts of fire. Fire burns. Melts glass, blisters our skin, leaves scorchmarks on wood, yes, and hair too. He's forgotten warmth, he's forgotten how it feels to lean near a bonfire. Near a burning bush. He's forgotten what it is to be warm. He's always known that love sparks, that he's a bit of flint waiting to strike tinder.
The wind turns. The weather is changing. Is it safe now? You're so warm. "I don't know what to do," Crowley whispers.
"I'll tell you then," Aziraphale says. "Is that alright?"
And it's so simple, isn't it? The way I want you, the way you want me. This clatter of magnets, this unbalanced shelf. Here we come together, lip to lip, mouth to mouth. It doesn't have to be fast. This draw of chest to chest. Aziraphale's slightly shorter, his eyes turned up and shining in the barest offering of light. Crowley knows his own are the same. Skitterscatter heartbeats running away from them, the reins loose. His arms coming up around Aziraphale's waist, gentle and reverent. I'm going to kiss you now.
"Kiss me," Aziraphale repeats. Crowley licks his lips, feels his deep breath suffuse throughout him. The wind is so much warmer than it once was. There's no danger on the back of it, there's nothing cold. There's no winter there, licking at the heels of his boots. There's only this, this bright spot. This parchment-haired man, the lines under his own eyes, the hope in his own mouth. They can be obvious now, can have hearts laid bitter-bare and asking.
Crowley kisses him. It should be demanding, should be hard. After all this time, after all this time. This long time. It's not. It's soft, it's gentle. A softknock of his mouth to Aziraphale's own. It's a promise, an offering. Lighting candles with his touch, saying a prayer with his skin. I will love you, I always have. I will always wait for you (anything you need, anything you want, anything you tell me). Always.
We are always tempted to believe that there's only room for one doubter in love. That one of us must stand firm. But Aziraphale is just as nervous beneath him. "I was afraid I ruined it," he whispers there, pressed into Crowley. Pressed into salt-wave skin. Pressed into a shaking kiss.
"There's never been anyone else but you. You gotta know that. Yeah?"
"I couldn't tell you then but I can tell you now," Aziraphale murmurs, his breath weaving in with Crowley's skin. There are spaces between the atoms of him, the cells of him. Aziraphale's breath settles there, lives there. "I will kiss you for each day that I could not tell you. Each hour." ( It will take time, he seems to promise, we have all of it in the world .)
They kiss. It gets wetter, deeper, faster. Crowley finds himself pressed up against the wall, a memory of a once-hospital in Tadfield.
"Ngk," he hisses.
"I'm going to strip you down. Is that alright?"
"God, yeah. Please."
Miraculously, Crowley is perfectly naked, Aziraphale unties his bowtie. Removes the waistcoat. Rolls up his sleeves.
"Stay there," Aziraphale says, turning to the sidetable to set Crowley's sunglasses down.
Crowley stands. Crosses his arms, shifts a little from side to side. Strange and nervous. Out of body and in it and incredibly aware of the shape of himself, the twist to his legs, his spine. His breathing, his red-dark arousal blunt in front of himself. He doesn't have a scrap of clothing. His hair doesn't offer any decency of concealment. He's agonizingly obvious like this, already cockhard and ruined. Aziraphale still fully dressed in a goddamn pressed set of linen trousers.
"Good," Aziraphale murmurs. He turns back, tilts his head. That soft smile, the starlight catching in his hair. "You're so good."
"Nah," Crowley says, shrugging his bent-wire shoulders. "I'm really not." No, nothing good. Not him, razor-edge bones and firespit hair. (Hellfire-touched and singed, the smell of burnt hair still clinging to him. Cinerem: Noun. the residue from a fire, ashes; the extinct ashes of a fire; the spent or smouldering ashes of love or enmity.)
"Don't speak." Aziraphale comes closer, stands right in front of him. There's nothing casual in it, he comes within an inch. Crowley can feel Aziraphale's body heat, feel the displacement of the air as he moves. If Crowley twitches, he might brush against the coat. Aziraphale leans in, mouth to almost mouth. This almost kiss, nearly touching. Not touching. Just this barest interval of air. His eyes are those pale blue dots, like the Earth hung in its black sky. Like Neptune caught on tape. He watches Crowley, intense and studied. Doesn't look away. "Don't talk. Don't move. I want you to be silent and stay perfectly still. And I want you to keep eye contact. Do you understand?"
Crowley nods. Silent, yeah, okay. (Maybe it's easier silent, not tripping over his own words. Making a mess of things.)
"You're beautiful," Aziraphale says, still ghosting his mouth right over Crowley's. Crowley feels branded, thrown in a steamvent, down a geyser. His skin burns. I could just lean forward, just a little. Kiss you. He doesn't, he stays still. Their eyes stay focused, steady on each other. Aziraphale's are that steady same riverblue, flecked with gold and affection. "I always want to tell you that."
Aziraphale's hands come up his body, always just a half-centimeter away, always just barely buffered by atmosphere. They don't touch him, hovering over his arms, his shoulders, his chest. Aziraphale's right hand drops down the center of his chest, slowly over his stomach, his hips, traces the outline of his impossible cock. Just there, the air shifting around him, the bodyheat promise of him. Just the smallest fuck of his hips and Crowley would press himself into Aziraphale's waiting hand. Aziraphale holds his hand there, mouth slightly parted, focused eyes bright and never breaking from Crowley's own stare. His breath is wild, this heartrattle of himself. He grits his teeth. Don't move, he reminds himself, Don't look away.
"Do you know how wonderful you are? You're kind, aren't you? You don't want to be. But you are, not just to me. I love you for that," Aziraphale says, still too close, still not looking away. Crowley swallows, blinks quickly. Bites his tongue. Don't talk. Don't look away.
Still that hand, so impossibly close. So warm, that air between them. Just the smallest movement. Aziraphale waits, watching.
Crowley stays still.
"Oh, look at you, my dear. You're splendid. Thank you."
"Oh?" Aziraphale quirks a brow, "Aren't you? And what will I have to do to be sure that you remember that you are?"
There is a long quill. Where did this come from? Crowley looks around, cannot tell if it had been miracled there or had been there all along. Perhaps his eyes had drifted shut. Perhaps not. He can't tell, there's just this, this room. This space where Aziraphale exists, where Aziraphale's breath brushes him like the wind. Where Aziraphale reaches out for his body, takes his parchment-skin, reaches out with an undipped quill.
"Come here," Aziraphale says, arm outstretched. Beckoning. Crowley stumbles forward. The tip of the quill touches his shoulder, his chest, just there at the collarbone. There's no ink but the dry words are unquestionable. It starts with a name, with several names. Aziraphale writes his own name on Crowley, there in the top left corner, as if saying this this this is mine.
His dick twitches there, untouched still and earthcore-hot. Pressure crests through him, starting at the crown of his head, his rolling shoulders, his half-shut eyes. He might have moaned. (Can't tell, it's impossible to tell. Doesn't matter, not when it's just this room. Just him. Just Aziraphale. The two of them and their own side.)
"Could you come like this, darling?" Aziraphale whispers. ( No one should have breath like that, hotter than a day on Venus. God, what you do to me. ) "I haven't even touched you yet. Could you, while I claim you with just a feather?"
"God, fuck. Yeah ."
The quill moves up, traces along the cord of his throat. Coaxes a shiver from between his shoulder blades. A tease, a tickle, an incision. Branded and obvious, undone by nothing of touch, nothing of ink. Just the impression of these words I love you. "I haven't given you permission," Aziraphale murmurs, "Don't forget that."
"Fuck," he hisses.
"You'll be good for me, won't you? I know you will." The quill curves down the inside of his bicep, his forearm, lingers over the veinnest on the underside of his wrist, scrawling out love in every language their tongues have ever dabbled in. Love in Sanskrit and Coptic, Greek and Latin. Further, further back. Heaven has a language too.
I love you.
Crowley winces, his eyes pressed tight together. Somewhere lost between ache and delirium. I love you, I love you, I love you. His heart measures it out, spoonful by cupful by oceanful. Am I saying it? Am I just reading what you're writing on me, working into my skin? You'll ruin me, angel, my skin will never know what it's like to be unloved.
His breath comes ragged. Aziraphale is watching him, mouth parted. Crowley nods, digs his teeth into the meat of his lip. He doesn't come.
It's strange. Aziraphale is right there, hungry-eyed and devouring. He wants, he wants, he still wants. Let me touch you. Let me make you feel things. Let me make you feel good. I want to know that I can do that to you. I want to know I can leave my mark on you, that you want me like this. I want to make you moan, gasp, I want to see my mouth on you. Tell me how you like it. Tell me what to do. Use me, please. I need you. Crowley moans. "Angel, please. I need to touch you."
It's just this. These wide hands, these perfectly-kept nails. Aziraphale holds this quill in his hand and Crowley remembers countless other moments of his hands. There at a cafe, curled around a hot cup of tea, the steam teasing at his chin, his nose. These hands and a butter-crumble scone, reaching for a dish of clotted cream. A pile of raspberries, fingertips stained with berry juice.
"What do you need?" Aziraphale asks, mouth next to his ear. He pulls back slightly, just enough to watch Crowley's eyes close. His fingers twitch.
"Let you do what, my love?"
The world spins. His hands ache, empty and needing. Empty as a starving stomach, filled with only stones.
"I need you," he whispers. (Maybe he says it, maybe he doesn't. It hangs there.) Prove it to me, to my skin. Prove that you waited. Prove that this isn't a trick. I can't look at you. I need to know. I need to make sure you're there. Let me touch you. I won't until you tell me. Not until you tell me it's safe, not until you tell me that I can. Prove to me that you're there, that this is still between us. It's not a trick, right? I'm not dreaming. Please. Let me know.
"Touch me," Aziraphale says, holding his eye contact. He takes Crowley's hand, hanging there at his side, useless and dead-bellied and half-starved. Takes it and brings it up, presses his mouth to the knuckles, places it on his chest.
A sound lets loose, torn out into the air. (It's him, isn't it? It's Crowley's own embarrassing need. Yes, obvious and terrible and needing needing needing. It's alright, isn't it? This time. There's soft eyes, there's soft skin. There's Aziraphale, who has I love you on his tongue. Who has always been there, waiting. Who has always walked the same path. It's okay now. You can touch. You can look. You can let the sound out. It's okay.)
Crowley nods, swallows. He wants. He wants, he wants, he wants. Why is there still that echo there in the back of him? This ricochet across his skull of I shouldn't, I'll get myself on you, you won't be clean anymore. I'm not supposed to, we shouldn't. What if we can't go back? Look at you, white and pure. Once you drive a car off the lot, it's never new again, is it? It sticks to the roof of his mouth, things he's been told. Things he doesn't believe, these little pieces of sediment from other mouths, other voices, settled into him and weighing him down.
He might drown.
"Are you - are you sure?"
"I mean, demon and all. I might, you know, make a mess of things." A mess of you.
Aziraphale's face softens. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life ."
Crowley flushes. "Don't know what you're on about. Sure know how to ruin the mood, angel." Don't think about an old gospel, something never sent around. Something never in wider circulation. And the Serpent said 'Bless those who eat and see, those know seek to know. The kingdom of Heaven is inside you. The Seekers shall know the truth and find salvation in their midst."
"Tell me how."
"I want your mouth on me. That tongue of yours."
Crowley drops to his knees. It's easy with Aziraphale. Parting the trousers like the sea, working his hand in. His mouth is wet, ready and waiting. He swallows Aziraphale down. Swallows his moans. Runs a loving hand up to Aziraphale's soft stomach, running through the dust of hair there like a bit of grass. Gentle, gentle. The cock hard in his mouth, hotter than a brand, hotter than a pan from the stove. Burning and aching. There are hands in his hair, pulling at him. This gasp above him. God, yes, let me do this to you. Let me do this for you. Don't let anyone else touch you. This is mine, these sounds you make are mine. I've thought about you forever, I've always needed you like this. Undone beneath me. Tell me how you like it. Use me as you like. Just me. Put me where you like. Fuck into me. However you like. I'll worship you always. I don't need anything. You don't even need to touch me, do you know that? It doesn't matter. Just this. Let me work you, let me suck you dry. Let me make you come, yes, over and over and over again. Let me read you cover to cover. I've never wanted any piece of Heaven but you.
All I need is this. I need to touch you.
Let us pull back the sheets, peek at desire. Desire is always selfish, always hungry and needy. You cannot want without a mouth to curl around the proffered bite, without a stomach to take it in, keep it safe. When we say this is how I want to worship you (lick you stern to bow, head to tail, wetmouthed and slowhanded), we really mean this is how I want to be worshipped . Crowley spends too long at the juncture of neck and shoulder there, giving away a spot on his own treasure map. He tests the soil by grasping at Aziraphale's arms, digging his nails in there, just the way he himself likes to be tilled. When Aziraphale says kiss me and pulls Crowley up from his aching knees, fingers woven in his revolution-red hair, Crowley kisses in the way he likes to be kissed best. (We savor differently on the second read. On the fourth time we've had the meal. Desire doesn't fear familiarity. We still say this is my favorite book, this is my favorite dish. With familiar lovers, we know where to put the oyster knife, turn the key, open to the soft within. We know how much lemon to use, where to put our tongue. We know which passages read best, we know how to open a book to favorite pages, our hands between them and leaning in.)
This is the first time.
Aziraphale curls around him, hungry as an eel, sucking at his skin. Yes, here, skin against skin, inside and out, recognizing each other's bodies. Curled together, each a single parenthesis, a single quotation mark, recognizing their completion. It's you, he could point out to Aziraphale, his other bracket, I've been looking for you all my life. (It aches to be a quotation mark left hanging, incomplete. It is like a wound. There is nothing on the other end to stop the words from spilling out.)
I've called your name. Did you hear?
Aziraphale pushes him back, gasping. Catching his breath.
"Do you think about me?"
"Angel, please - "
"Darling, I want to know."
"Always," Crowley hisses, his fingers curling into a fist. Always and every time. Ever since the first time, ever since I discovered what my body could do, all the way back there, stumbling out of Eden. You went east, I went west (I was looking over my shoulder the whole time, watching you). I didn't think of anything at first, nothing. Just how it felt to wrap my hand around myself, caught red-handed with the weight of my cock in it. It was that first time, you see, gasping and the air punched out of my chest, coming in my own fist and your face and your voice suddenly there, the only thing I could remember, the only thing to hold on to. (I never thought about anything else after. Ever again.)
"How? Tell me. Show me, please."
Crowley swallows. Ducks his chin, takes a breath. His hand there on himself, the heat of his own body reflected back at him like light bouncing off a lake, a river, an open sea.
Show me, Aziraphale had asked. Crowley shivers a little, heat in his face, the tips of his ears. It’s flaying to be so obvious. To touch himself with no direction and no one to blame. Just to say this is how I like it.
He’s shatter-hard and wet with himself already. A leaky faucet, a turned-on tap. Aziraphale’s eyes are wide and watching, as rapturous and focused as they might catch on a server with moules marinere. Oysters on the half-shell. Crowley hasn’t been touched. Aziraphale cannot know the temperature of his redwant dick, the width of that vein snaking up the underside, the taste of him. Still, he feels impossibly bare. Impossibly known.
“Show me,” Aziraphale whispers. “Show me how you fuck yourself and think about me.”
“Christ, angel,” Crowley mutters, flushing harder as his wrist starts to move. Hiding his embarrassment behind his words, his disbelieving mouth.
“Tell me when you’re close.”
Crowley grits his miserable teeth, near-cracking the back molars. “Not gonna take long.”
Up and down, in and out. His familiar-fucking fist. He doesn’t moan, doesn’t gasp, keeps his damn fool mouth shut. (He’s opened it up before, fucked everything up.) No, Crowley had learned how to keep himself quiet, to not say anything. His furious fist flying over him, fingers harsh and blaming.
He doesn’t go gently, no, not into this night. (He gets close, his mouth opening to silent moans. To soundless gasps. The sound piles up inside of him, centuries of it. Someday he’ll fuck it up, let it all out.)
Someday he’ll scream.
"Stop," Aziraphale says. “You’re close, I can see it.”
A stutter first. Crowley stops, drops his dick like a hot pan, his hands flying up, spread and empty as if to say look, I’m not hiding anything, swear. Sweat sticking his hair to his forehead, desperate for air.
They are very still for a moment. Crowley tries to slow his breathing. To control his pulse.
"Again," Aziraphale whispers. Crowley nods, wraps his hand around himself again. Fucks his fist right to the edge while watching Aziraphale take him in, that mouth half-parted, his cock still wet with Crowley's own spit.
"Stop," Aziraphale says.
Crowley stops. Drops his head, drops his hands. Minutes pass. The tide recedes.
"Now," Aziraphale says, leaning forward.
"Angel," he hisses, eyes shut tight. It's too much, it's too much. "I won't last."
"You will, darling. Won't you? For me. Go on. You have aster, my dear. My love. You can, it's there if you need," Aziraphale says, his hands brushing the side of Crowley's face. There's a kiss pressed here, right in the hollow of his shoulder.
He shakes his head. "No," he gasps, "I don't need it."
"Touch yourself. Is this how you do it in bed? At night? When you think about me?"
Christ. His ears are bright-red, his hand is rough, trying to keep the edge at bay. Gentleness would ruin him now. If he can dull it, if he can be too rough. If he can just keep himself off, if he can be good. If he can obey -
"Stop," Aziraphale whispers, there into his ear. Hot and wet. "Get the wine."
Crowley breathes harshly, glancing up. Ragged and ruined. "You're going to destroy me, aren't you?"
"Over and over and over again, my love," Aziraphale says, his eyes warm. His own hands wiping sweat from his brow. "I've thought about this every day, every single day for fifty-two years. I want everything."
You can have it. I'm here.
"Do you have a preference?"
Crowley shakes his head. No. But that's not true, is it? He wants it to be good, to lay the options out on the table, to let Aziraphale decide. He doesn't want to pick the wrong path, sideline them into the wrong thing. It's better if he says nothing, does nothing. It all is good. Anything with Aziraphale, yes, anything is good.
Aziraphale watches him, runs one hand along Crowley's arm, up and along the shoulder, down the skinnyknock chest. "Nothing, my dear? Nothing at all?"
He shakes his head. "Not really, angel."
"I could fuck you," Aziraphale whispers. "Lay you back and open you up, my love. Climb inside your body and stretch you out. Count every bone and blood cell while I'm deep in you. Would you like that?"
God, yes. Crowley nods. Keep me still, do with me what you like.
"Or," Aziraphale whispers, one finger moving along the cliffside of Crowley's jaw, "I could use you. I'll lay back and have you service me. Take my pleasure from you. You'll make the stars fall, won't you, if I tell you to? I'll come over and over and over again and you won't, darling, will you? Just keep right there for me, hard as ever, just as I like? Wouldn't you? Would you give that to me?"
He looks and Aziraphale is watching him with an open mouth and wide eyes. Like he's struck a match and thrown it on the kindling, starving for the flame. His hands here, the fingertips curling into Crowley's jaw, keeping him there, looking at Aziraphale. He cannot move. Crowley doesn't mean to moan but he does, closing his eyes fast so Aziraphale cannot watch them roll back. But his hips jerk, his shoulders rise and jaw lifts, that hot sink into an electric hit of want. Good fucking god. Yeah, angel. Yeah. Use me. Anything you like. Let me. Please, fuck. Yeah, just like that. Let me make you sing, let me do this. Let me show you. I love you, I love you, I love you, I can show you. I can prove it. Please, let me.
The bed is wide and wrapped in sheets of graphite-grey.
"Did I scratch you?"
"No," Crowley shakes his head, "Just static."
"You're mine, aren't you?"
Crowley shudders, "God, yes, yes, always."
“Fuck me like I’m yours. Please, my love, now. ”
There’s no pleasure like this. His hand, his fantasies have never come near. Pushing himself into Aziraphale’s body like sinking a hand into the sand, welcomed and warm. The sand shifts to make room for him, to fit him perfectly. His mouth open, eyes focused and starving, inhaling the way Aziraphale’s head presses back into the pillow, the moan that runs away with him.
"I never thought I would see you again," Crowley whispers, "The shop was burnt and you were just, you were gone."
“Oh, love.” Fingers there on the side of his face, up into his hair.
“I lost you.”
Aziraphale shivers. “You won’t. Not ever, I swear.”
I saw you lift that sword, the one you were given to use on me once. They gave it to you with my name on it. And you didn’t, you didn’t. I’m sorry I ever doubted you (I shouldn’t have, I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.) You’ve only ever given your weapon away, dropped it. Given me shelter from the storm.
“Tell me what to do.”
“Gladly,” Aziraphale says, kissing his fingertips. A ghost of something in his voice. “Tell me what you thought about. I want to know, love, everything you dreamt of. Everything you thought about. Everything you’ve ever wanted.”
“Angel,” Crowley swallows. Are you sure? Crowley closes his eyes, groans.
"I want you to tell me what you want. Everything you've imagined." Aziraphale leans in and whispers, “Tell me your gospel, my dear. I want to hear the Word. Tell me.”
It’s a lot.
He starts with a roll of his hips. Aziraphale’s eyes slide shut, hands gripping at the sheets, moving up to wrap around Crowley’s arms.
“I wanted - I wanted to worship you. I couldn’t pass a temple or a church without thinking about laying you out on an altar and sucking psalms into you. I wanted to make you moan, just like this, and I’d always think about it. Always, angel, every fucking day. Sometimes twice after seeing you. I wanted to be the oyster, the cake in your mouth. Do you know what you look like with a spoon in your mouth, the way your throat looks when you tilt your head back, tell me how good something is?”
Crowley is gasping. His breath harsh. He kisses Aziraphale’s jaw, the space behind his ear, up into the damp curls. The sweat of him left on parted lips (licked off the way oyster juice had never been all those years ago). This isn’t hard, this isn’t a sea of fury, this is no ruin. He wants to dig as deep as he can into the earth, reach the bottom of the sea. It seems just out of his grasp, that if he keeps going, if he reaches deeper, he’ll never have to leave. Never have to pull out of Aziraphale’s body, out of these arms wrapped around him, pulling him in. Out of these legs around his waist saying with taut muscles wait, don’t leave, oh stay, oh stay, oh stay.
I love you.
Aziraphale looks at him, wild and storm-eyed, his mouth out of direction. Out of imperatives, out of commands, out of everything but the very simple stay here, keep going, fuck me harder (love me).
“Mornings,” Crowley whispers. “I thought about waking up and you’re there, with a book in your hand and your awful tea. And I want my clothes in a closet with yours and I want to see you everyday and I don’t want to have to pretend that I don’t. I want to kiss you in the afternoon for no reason. No reason but that I love you, I love you. I love you. I have loved you since Genesis. Since Eden. I would have lived in those walls forever if you had been there. I don’t want you to leave again. To watch you walk off in the rain, with a thousand years before I see you again. With a thousand years for you to find another love. I want to lay you down in a garden, like I wanted to. Fuck, I’m so sorry, angel -“
Aziraphale grips Crowley by the nape of his neck, chokes off his miserable apology with a kiss.
“Don’t,” Aziraphale whispers, ruined against his lips. “Don’t ever apologize for loving me.”
Crowley nods, their foreheads brushing. He moves softly, still trying to reach the center of the earth. Still trying to get to the stars. Aziraphale gasps at his movements, pulling Crowley’s right hand down between them, wrapping long fingers around his furiously-hard self.
“Anything,” Aziraphale breathes, “Anything you want to do to me. As long as you’re touching me.”
"God, angel," he hisses, snapping out the words to his wildbeat hips. "Aziraphale. Please. Please. Please. I can't - I can't hold it back. I'll miracle it, if you want. Is that what you want - Anything you need - "
"Come for me, my love," Aziraphale digs his fingertips into Crowley's neck, pushes them up into rose-red hair, obvious as wine, stained as sin. "Please, I need you. Always."
"I'm yours," he gasps. Aziraphale pulls at Crowley's hair, curls around the strands and there's ownership and possession. There's you're mine, you're mine, you're mine. This is mine, you open and within me. His mouth sinks into Crowley's neck, his shoulder. Sucking, a bit of teeth. There will be bruises later. There will be bruises to prove that this is real, that this happened once. Crowley feels Aziraphale pull at him and comes incredibly hard. White light behind his eyes, dissonance in his ears. His hearing fades out and his heart skids wildly across the floor. He collapses on the bed to the side, careful of his weight.
Aziraphale pulls him closer. On top of him. Arms come up around his back, brush sweaty hair from his face, settle over his shipwreck heartbeat. Slowly, he begins to calm. Measure by measure by measure.
"Is this alright?" Aziraphale says, uncertainty in his voice. "It’s not the normal -"
"Does it have to be?" Crowley asks, popping one eye open. Teach me. Tell me things (what you know, what you like). Isn't this the story of love? We say it's vanished but here we find it again and again and again in the strangest of places. A weed cracking through a sidewalk. Tendrils of creeper ivy like hands of loving grace. Split a piece of wood and it is there. Lift up a stone and you will find it.
"I remember you in Rome," Aziraphale whispers, moving his fingers through Crowley's hair like a comb. "You read a great deal then. Wrote things too, if I'm not mistaken."
Crowley shrugs. (It's difficult to shrug, pressed here into a feather-mattress, the weight of close-curled arms around his shoulders. He tries all the same.) "I was being subversive. You know, fomenting."
Aziraphale kisses his knuckles. Gently here, one by one by skinnybone one. "How did you put it? When will the kingdom come? It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it. " He looks up from the hand held to his mouth, catches Crowley's sight, "You've always had a wonderful way with words, my dear."
He had not blushed with Aziraphale bent between his thighs, no. But Crowley flushes here now, red as a cave painting. Smears on a stone wall by early hands. Red, this first color we mastered into ink, writing down these bits of knowledge. This apple too. When we knew ourselves first, here for the first time, awakened in human bodies, we knew ourselves in red.
I love you I love you I love you. (Et. Conjunction and adverb. and what is more, too, also; I, too, you and me, and after everything you said… )
“Do you miss Her?” Aziraphale asks suddenly. His hands trace parabolas and wide curves over Crowley's shoulder. He shivers in the dark, undone by tenderness.
Crowley is quiet for a moment. “In some ways.”
“Do you still love Her?”
“Yes,” Crowley says, quiet in the dark. How can you explain this rejection, this most primal, most original connection? Creator and Created, father and son, mother and daughter, parent and child. He had walked in Her light everyday when he was young. Known the heartbeat of Her, pressed up in his nebula-body then against Her. She had said go on then, child, show me what you’ve made. And so Not-Yet-Crowley had said these are mine, look, and taken Her to see the stars that he had fashioned and polished, hung up there in the firmament to dry. If they had had hands, he would have tucked his smaller one in Hers. If they had had human bodies, he would have crawled into Her lap, his back to Her chest, the steady and reassuring sound of Her heartbeat, the way She would tuck his hair back, Her arms holding him tight. He frowns a little now, remembering how it had felt to be young and warm. To be called home in uncomplicated times. The trouble had come later, when he’d grown up backwards and inverted, too many questions in his mouth ( you put them there, all of them ). She had said I think you should leave. Don’t ever come back. Don’t you dare try to come home.
The stripped-down, threadbare truth is this: he feels better without Her.
"I want to know you. All of you. All your secrets," Aziraphale whispers. "I shouldn't. It's terribly selfish of me."
Crowley furrows his brow. "You know everything, angel. I mean, maybe not the nitty-gritty details of how much coffee I drank this morning but you get the idea."
"You had six cups, my dear."
"Wait, how do you know that - "
"You're entirely predictable. A creature of habit. Very endearing habits, I might add. I know you, my love, but -" Aziraphale says, then hesitates. "Not quite. Not quite everything. There's something I've always wanted to ask."
"Ask anything you like. I'm yours. Hit me."
"Who were you? Before, I mean," Aziraphale swallows. He looks up nervously, trying to apologize with the wobble of his mouth. Crowley is very still and very quiet.
"I mean in Heaven. Before the Fall."
Crowley lets out a breath. "Whooo, yeah, angel. I knew what you meant." He drops his head, runs a nervous-fingered hand through his hair. "Well, er - "
"Oh, well, I mean. You don't have to tell me, of course. I just -"
(Let go of your stone tablets, Crowley. Drop them in the deep, drop them down. You're swimming now, you're nearly at the shore, you've got the light in your arms. )
"We didn't know each other, did we?" Aziraphale asks, "Up there?"
Crowley shakes his head. It's slow and strange. "No, don't think so. Not that I recall. Well, not in so many words." I remember you. Not sure we ever met though. Not properly.
"Oh. Well then," Aziraphale says, shoulders relaxing. "That's alright then. It's just, well, that gospel. It mentions an angel that spoke to them." There is a nervous edge to Aziraphale's mouth, to the way he reaches up to brush the hellspit hair back.
"Yeah, it sure does, doesn't it?" Crowley mutters.
"Crowley," Aziraphale fixes him with a steady stare. That same stubborn look that Crowley's become so fond of. "That angel Fell before Rome. Long before."
"You've sure got a solid grip on history there." He fidgets a little. Propped up on his elbow, a pile of right angles and line segments, an incomplete equation. Aziraphale wraps his arm tighter around Crowley's back, pulls him closer. Presses his forehead into Crowley's neck, the start of his shoulder.
"Should I not ask?" Aziraphale whispers.
Crowley breathes, digs his incisors into the unfortunate meat of his lip. "You can. Ask, I mean. Go for it. Shoot."
"It was you, wasn't it?"
He shrugs. It's easy to shrug. The accusation of his once-upon name washing over him. He reacts to the idea, unthinkingly tries to shake it off. Scrub it out, take it off. That's not my name. (Not anymore.) "It was the name I gave."
"My dear, you know what I meant."
He swallows then, spit thick in his own too-familiar throat. Crowley doesn't look up, suddenly fascinated by his fingernails, by the rough skin at the edges, the start of a hangnail. "Yeah, well. That too. Fudged the truth a little there. Got a little loose with tense."
It's too late, Aziraphale's hands have stopped moving. Crowley very carefully keeps his eyes focused on his own hands. The admission has already slipped from him. It had been easy to lie to humans, to give his stolen name up when they would ask how he knew these things, when they asked why they should trust him. You shouldn't, Crowley had wanted to say. Still wants to say. Look, even this is a lie. He tells himself that he keeps at it, this gospel-telling, because it's demonic and subversive. Because it's not the story Heaven's handing out, writing down, singing on Sundays. (He doesn't look too closely at the other part. Don't look too closely at this, I think I can help you. I know the truth, I was there. I've seen it. You don't have to listen. I can spare you, if you'll just listen to me. If you're careful. They promise you salvation and a kingdom to come. But I've been there, I can tell you, there's nothing of that. It's here, you're already everything that's been promised. This world too. The only thing you need are open eyes to see it. I can show you. )
"I remember you," Aziraphale says there, in the dark bedroom.
He blinks. "What?"
Aziraphale troubles at the sheets, his hand stilling on Crowley's skin. "In Heaven. Before you - "
He bites his lip, his jaw suddenly tight. "That was a long time ago."
There's a nod. Pale curls bounce in the dark. A glint of light on nervous eyes. "It's just that I've always wondered. Always suspected and - I need to - well, I need to tell you that I'm sorry."
"What for?" I don't follow you, angel. I've missed a step.
"At the bandstand, I shouldn't - about forgiveness. What I said."
Crowley shrugs, his shoulders spiking with unease. "Nah, 's not important."
"The thing is there's nothing to forgive."
He blinks. "Er."
Aziraphale swallows and ducks his chin. His voice has lost that confidence of earlier but the steelsoft determination is still there. It's the skeleton of him, the bones and the scaffolding too. Everything he is built upon, this stubborn steel. "You never did anything wrong, nothing. Nothing, my dear. I should never have suggested otherwise, I should have seen earlier - "
Crowley wraps his arm around Aziraphale, pulling the pale curls to his shoulder, his mouth against his own razor-edge neck. "Shh, I've got you. S'alright, angel, yeah? They tell you a lot of things up there, I remember. Trust me, I remember. It's not somethin' you forget. "
(Repent means the pain again .)
"Forgive me?" He asks, looking at Crowley, frowning. Deep lines mark his forehead, catch under the eyes and at the mouth.
He kisses Aziraphale's forehead, his hand outstretched. There's nothing to say but to offer something already said. "Can't. The thing is there's nothing to forgive."
“I love you,” Aziraphale whispers. There is a world to say it now. Crowley closes his eyes, pulls the sound in through his open mouth. Ready to listen, ready to hear.“Do you remember? That night.” Aziraphale doesn’t need to explain it. They both know what night he means. “Do you ever think about it?”
“Every day. Every day of my bloody existence.”
“I loved you then. I couldn’t - well, we know how tetchy they get upstairs. And down too. I was afraid - to be entirely fair, it was a perfectly reasonable fear.”
“Angel.” Crowley brings his hand up, brushing stray hair from Aziraphale’s face.
“I hoped you knew. What I was trying to say.”
Yeah, I did. I was just scared. Wasn't sure we'd get here. Wasn't sure there'd be a time to look back. To talk about it. Wasn't sure we'd make it to the surface. “I do now. Glad it’s a new world. Remade. I can hear you say it.” Tell me you love me. Let me hear the Word. It’s a new world. They’re ready to listen. We’re ready to speak. Tell me everything (I need to know).
"How did you dare keep hope?" Aziraphale whispers.
Crowley bites his lip, shrugs. "Blame Lazarus. Even he got a second chance."
I love you. I love you today, here in this bed. I loved you in the ashes of the Temple. I loved you when the Ark of the Covenant was lost, never to be found again. I loved you in the halls of Solomon and I hung gardens for you once in Babylon (you never knew they were yours). I loved you across the water, while you held the lantern aloft for me, kept an eye out, kept watch. I dropped everything for you. Scrolls, yes, and stone tablets too, so that I might stay afloat. So that I might make it to the other side. And what did you say when I got there, spitting seawater out on a sandshit shore?
"Come," you said, with your hand out and palm up. "the Temple is ruined but I've built a tabernacle. Come with me, it's just for us."
A field in the South Downs
2020 (Six months later)
Come, let’s find ourselves again. This empty stretch of grass, these wildflowers of poppies and bluebells too. There is a blanket spread beneath. There is a woven basket. Aziraphale reaches in and there is a loaf of sourdough with a hard-crack crust and a dust of flour. This cut of Stilton, this bit of cheddar. Let me tell you how to pack a picnic six-thousand years in the making. The wine comes in bottles now, not amphorae, not wine skins. The blanket is woven and nothing of lambskin. But still, the wine is red and tannic. The recipe for bread has been around since the dawn of time. Crowley swallows this oyster just like he had once, thousands of years ago in other places, other rooms. Different voices in the background. Different voices save one. It’s the same taste on his tongue, same texture. And Aziraphale here across from him, face tilted up to love the sun.
Some things never change. They were exactly as they should have been all along. Here we are. There’s a word for this in Latin (Latin keeps all things). Postremo: Adverb: after everything else, last of all, lastly. Finally. Crowley looks out at the lake. Brushes his hair from his eyes. Aziraphale's hand in his own, this steady-beat of an echoing heart. Skin to skin. Why is this always the story? Why is it always our simple and asking hearts crying out I love you, I love you, I love you? (Let me love you, Let me be loved.)
It’s trite, we whisper. Don’t pay attention to me, don’t say anything at all. (See me, see me. Listen. Hear me calling. Please.)
Aziraphale turns to him and there is sunlight caught in the lines of his face, starlight in his eyes, reflecting back out into the field.
“Don’t go crazy, angel,” Crowley murmurs, “We’ve got reservations later.”
Aziraphale laughs as if to say there are miracles for that. He reaches his hand out, brushes the side of Crowley’s jaw. Cups the sharp chin, reels him in like a fisherman in love with the sea. They kiss. Mouth on mouth, simple and clean. An old story. The first story. A story written down in hidden gospels, quieted away. I love you, I love you, I love you. (A story is always in two parts, the teller and the listener. Let me tell you a love story. Whisper back yes yes yes, I feel the same.)
Once, in the beginning, which is also where we find the end, Crowley had been larger than galaxies. He will be again. (They both will be.) He watches now and he watches in two parts, their hands in human hands. At the edges of his vision, his self bleeds out of his body, too much of him, too much of this pulsing love to be contained. He has galaxy-hands here, cupping them up, holding them safe. All of these rolling hills, the earth, the seas in the palms of his hands. This bright and brave new world, remade and let go. A world where we can hold each other’s hands, where I can tell you I love you here in the open air. It’s a new beginning.
They are going for a picnic now. Later, you see, there will be dinner at the Ritz.
(Ad: Preposition with accusative. to, up to, into, to the house of, to the temple of; ad ultimam: in the end; ad astra: to the stars; ad unguem: to perfection .) To you, to me. To us. To this. To the world.
"You're thinking again, aren't you?" Aziraphale asks, squeezing Crowley's fingers in his own.
"A bit, yeah."
"What are you thinking of?"
"Just something I once heard."
Once upon a time, Crowley had been a gospel-teller. Had walked on broken stones in Rome. What is so wrong about questions? He had asked, what is the danger in knowing? Who tells you not to look, who tells you not to learn, not to taste, not to bite? What if this is your Kingdom and you've never looked for it? There had been a gospel once. He hears it now again.
("The disciples said to Jesus, "Tell us, how will our end come?"
Jesus said, "Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is.")
You see, this is not the end, not here, laid out in the middle of a field, pomegranate-juices in their mouths and a starred sky above. Not here, this barest press of mouth to mouth. A kiss to the curl of an ear, the pulsepoint of a wrist. Not here, traded in whispers of I love you, I love you, I love you, amen. You waited for me. We can breathe now. You can look. Turn around, you can find me here. (I've always been with you.)
This, dear gospel-reader, this is just the Beginning.