"One day, tens of millions of years from now,
someone will find me rusted into the mud of a world
they have never seen, and when they crumble me
between their fingers, it will be you they find."
Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods
Tadfield (A train station)
The clock reads a quarter past eight o'clock. Aziraphale eyes it, keeps his hands behind himself. Knitted together, held together, yes, just like they're supposed to be. His eyes flit from face to face to nameless face, none of them quite right, none of them what he is looking for.
He is looking for a man with sharp features and red hair. He is looking for a man in a long black coat. He is looking for Crowley. He glances at the clock again, scattered and uncertain. Shoves his hands into his coat pockets, rolls his shoulders slightly to clear the odd feeling of being out of place and out of time.
His heart here, done up in knots. An answer to a question here, stuck in his throat. An answer to a question long asked.
Let us hear the question.
Aziraphale finds water makes him nervous. He skirts the ocean, careful never to step too far into it. Not all waves can be fought, some will take you happily with them. Years ago, in April 1912, a cousin of his had decided to try something new, aim for a bit of a change. A new life. Had boarded the Titanic bound from England to New York.
Had drowned with it too.
Water always terrifies him. This feels like water. Like he is in the abyssal deep, where the inky cobalts fade into violets and blacks. Sound is muted and delayed, as it passes through meters of pressurized water before vibrating into his eardrums. He sees things a beat too late, residual images from a past moment. He is only a reaction to the world around him. He is nothingness, a vacuum. (He must be, for nothingness is safe. Nothingness is made to absorb the detonation of a bomb. He absorbs waves and energy, light and color. He does not emit. He says nothing, gives nothing. The world is silent here.)
Yes, it feels like being underwater.
December 1919 (the night before)
He watches the dancers. Forward and backward, to and fro. Up and down. This old waltz of forgiveness and advancement, then retreat again. His father reclines on a chair, his mother just further past in white. Her long hair parted at the center, drawn back. Dark against the smoky white of her pale face. The house glitters with silver and gold. Lit lamps and candles, shining crystal. Champagne sparkles from every tray on every jacketed and offering arm. Happy new year sounds out from every corner.
They have always had sumptuous New Year's parties at the manor but with this one, his mother and the household staff have outdone themselves. It glitters from velvet window drape to shimmering silk dresses. It catches on bowls of oranges and persimmons, pomegranates and pears. Everything laid out for the offering. Feast , the house seems to say. Seems to offer itself. Might as well go out with a bang, Aziraphale thinks, looking about. That is, if this is to be our last one.
The pending sale of the manor hides behind each smile, lies in the shadow of every line of every face. The last one, the last one, the last one. The terror of the unknown stretches out before Aziraphale. When he passes a mirror or a window and catches his reflection, he can see the worry there in the fold of his brows. Can see concern in the mess of his dandelion-junk hair. It's in the lines at his middle-aged eyes and around the mouth. The soft neck all done up in a starched collar and a bowtie, there in the formal black jacket. This manor had been the home of his family for centuries. Until a year ago, it had been expected to go on, march into the new decade as similarly as the last. Onward and forward, constant and steady. Ever-unchanging.
("How much is gone?" Aziraphale had asked, looking at his father's pale face. His father's hands still held the letter explaining the catastrophic financial loss that had occurred when the Canadian Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad had been nationalized. Everything had been invested, his father had whispered. The family fortune. All gone belly-up.
"Everything. All of it. We'll have to sell."
Aziraphale is looking for Crowley. He furrows a pale brow. Where are you? Did you come tonight?
Hasn't found him, not quite yet. Anthony J. Crowley, that strange creature. The ever-black suits, the odd preference for dark-lensed glasses. (Aziraphale has rarely seen his eyes.) Five years younger, but sharp-faced and auburn-haired. A lawyer, a fairly successful one at that, with a practice in London. A flat in Mayfair. Stop, he tells himself, shake it off. (He tries not to think of Crowley, who is from somewhere north, somewhere in Scotland. He could sense the unorthodox Brythonic rhythms to Crowley’s pale skin, fire-scorch hair, Scotch-gold eyes.)
He isn't one of them. In a house of lords and ladies, Crowley doesn't quite belong. Yet, as the son of the man purchasing the estate, Crowley is, perhaps, the one who belongs the most. Aziraphale shifts his shoulders slightly, there under his suit-coat. Change looms stickily ahead of him. Everything is changing, isn't it? It's a new decade. Everything feels faster. A new decade, yes. It is nearly 1920. Something different shimmers in the air, shaping the world around him. Aziraphale shakes his head to clear his mind. He fusses at his jacket, fixes his cravat in a mirror, tries to roll the scent of change off of his shoulders. (It's a strange weight. He's not yet quite sure what to make of it.)
There's a shift in the room, the dancers part. Aziraphale catches the sight of Crowley there, facing the window, frowning intensely at something out past the panes of glass. Hair like fire, like a wax seal on a letter. (Like mulberry juice staining skin.) His tailcoat and trousers both dark. A white cravat. Just breathe , Aziraphale instructs himself, ducking his chin slightly. Don't be ridiculous.
He closes his eyes, brushes invisible wrinkles from his waistcoat. When Aziraphale looks back up again, Crowley is gone.
They did not, perhaps, meet auspiciously.
He remembers meeting Crowley for the first time, one year prior. Their fathers there in the nearby study, settling the sale. Crowley's father had made an offhand comment about installing telephones within the house (something something progress), setting Lord Haven off in an apoplectic fit.
Aziraphale had sat tense there in the wingback chair, silent and uneasy. Crowley had loped over, that jangle of bones in a black jacket and wool trousers, collapsed onto the adjacent sofa. "Well," he drawled, tilting his head toward their fathers in the other room. " That went down like a lead balloon."
"Yes, quite - er, sorry?"
"I said," Crowley repeated, leaning forward and glancing over his dark lenses. ( Oh, your eyes. That hazel like sunlight. ) "that went down like a lead balloon." He had frowned then and cocked his head a little to the side. Draped an arm across the back of the sofa. Oh, you shouldn't do that, Aziraphale had thought, looking away. (Please do it again). "I can't see what's so bad about a little change anyway."
"The purpose of the nobility is to uphold tradition," Aziraphale had said, breathing in. Am I supposed to be talking to you? "To set an example. Otherwise, it'd all go to shambles."
"Shambles, eh?" Crowley had looked a little closer at him. Aziraphale felt a flush climb his uncertain skin. "Didn't I see you at the assembly for the Representation for the People Act? A couple of years ago? Swear it was you."
Aziraphale shifted uncomfortably in his chair, biting his tongue. "More wine?" He finally offered.
Crowley had grinned, moved closer to extend his glass. That was how it had started. The trouble is that not everyone welcomes change with open arms. He does not get to choose it. Our births can be damning and heavy things to carry, Aziraphale is born to bear tradition. His father had built his very life on tradition, tearing into progress with bared and sharpened teeth.
There had been another night, months past. Sometime in the long summer. The long table laid. A ham at the head, a goose at the foot. Boiled mutton to be passed. Oysters. Vichyssoise in a silver tureen.
“Anthony,” Lord Haven had barked, “you’re an educated man. What do you make of all this evolution nonsense?”
Crowley had set his fork down very carefully. His plate spare of food, never one to eat much. Aziraphale’s eyes had caught on the five o’clock shadow, the sandpaper scape of his jaw. "I think," Crowley had said slowly, "that Mr. Darwin has some very interesting ideas, sir."
"Ideas fit to send a man to hell. Not our place to doubt or ask questions. Aziraphale?" There was no question in the tone, no room for argument. Aziraphale had breathed in slowly, steadying himself. (His broad shoulders were not yet carrying the world.)
“I'm afraid I'm not really certain, sir,” he had said.
“Seems God’s pretty clear on the Garden,” Lord Haven declared. That was that. (At least under this roof.)
Aziraphale had nodded. His father had always been strangely heated by the argument that has raged since the publication. The Garden or the apes? Heated debates come easily. A clash of kings, theologians and scientists. His father likes to keep John Phillips’ rebuttal handy, Life on the Earth, its origin and succession. He has a habit of quoting from it at length, particularly after a healthy snifter of brandy. That isn't for men like us, his father had once said, keep your eyes on your ground. Yes, the ground, the dark soil beneath his feet. His future isn't change, it is not any manner of evolution. His future is to be Lord Haven, to bear the title aloft. As his father does and his father before him. But he will not inherit this manor, this house situated in a fair spot of the cliffs, near the slow river, long before it feeds into the sea. No, he'll keep the title, lose the house.
"What can your knowledge hurt him, or this Tree impart against his will if all be his? " Crowley had said, something odd and challenging in his voice. Aziraphale recognizes John Milton's words. He cannot think of anything but Satan's voice thrown out into the dark, the thrill it had sent down his spine to read "What though the field be lost? All is not lost; the unconquerable will and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield."
He had wanted nothing more than to hear Crowley read this out loud to him, to hear these words in Crowley's voice, near to his own ear. He'd shuddered a little then, laid his folded napkin quietly on the table. Did not make eye contact with Crowley for the rest of the night.
December. Dark month, December. There in the deepest part of the year, covered over with ice and night. Aziraphale stands near the window, looking out over the grounds. The party fades to a distant haze behind him.
"You seem nervous." A whispered voice, the press of a glass of champagne into his hand. The bubbles sparkle up at the top. He can feel little spatters of jumping champagne on his hand, like stars falling on the skin. Aziraphale looks up, blinking a little. He's not ever surprised to see the sharp profile, the burnished-red hair. Still, he stumbles over himself a little when Anthony J. Crowley turns up. ( What's the J stand for? he had asked once. Crowley had shrugged in that casual way of his. Just a J, really, he had said. An answer, maybe even a true one, yet it had felt strangely unsatisfying. As if he had looked behind a curtain or under a rock and found nothing. Learned nothing.)
"Well, not nervous exactly," Aziraphale says, "Just enjoying the festivities."
"It looks good, angel," Crowley nods to the lit candles and the polished silver. "Your lot went all out." The flowers and garlands pinned to the walls and wrapped around bannisters like a lover might. It is a fine party. Aziraphale knows that if he ducked downstairs, he would find ham and bacon hang from the rafters of the smokehouse. Sweet potatoes and turnip greens. Crowley lifts his glass, takes a sip. Aziraphale watches the way his throat works, the wrap of his long fingers around the winestem. (Crowley must be picking at his cuticles again. A nervous habit that Aziraphale's quietly noticed. He loves these little truths that peek out from under Crowley's blithe exterior. What would I find if I peeled back more? What are you hiding under there? )
"Everyone did a lovely job," Aziraphale agrees quietly, looking around. This house. He knows the echoes and the corners, the way the shadows fall throughout the day. He knows the weight of it on his skin, the pressure of his own name. This house that he grew up in, home of his family for seven generations. A house that will never be his.
It will, instead, be Crowley's someday. Odd thing, life, the twists and turns of it. The way things shape up and come about. (Aziraphale had once asked Crowley what he intended to do with the place. He hadn't known what he'd expected, it had still been early in their acquaintance. Parties, perhaps. Something about trying to get a title. He hadn't expected Crowley to shrug, to look a little bashful. To say "I've never had a garden in London. Love to grow something, some plants and stuff. Trees. All this land here, seems like a garden would do well." )
There's a curl to the corner of Crowley's mouth, a quip barely held back. Aziraphale is used to this indulgent humor on him (he wears it often, wears it well). Crowley laughs slightly, the smallest shake of his head. "Cheers."
"Cheers," Aziraphale repeats. They drink.
"I must thank you, by the way," Aziraphale says, pitched low. Crowley blinks, his lazy hip leaning slightly against the sideboard. A taper candle flickers on the low table opposite.
"I heard about, well, what you did. With the story on Father's losses. Keeping it quiet."
"Oh, that." Crowley squirms slightly, "Don't worry about it. No big deal." When did your accent become familiar? When did I start carrying it around with me? The shape of the sounds of your words. The way you fold them with your tongue? Aziraphale can hear a shadow of Scotland in Crowley's voice. He knows Crowley had grown up there as a boy, somewhere near Glasgow.
"It's quite a big deal to me. And it must have cost you a fortune. I must thank you, of course, for myself and for my family."
Crowley turns to him slowly. Pauses, biting his lip, then quickly letting go (as if he had overthought, overconsidered). "Look, if you're gonna absolutely insist on thanking me, then do it just for yourself, angel. It wasn't at all for your blasted family."
"Why did you do it?"
There's a shrug, an attempt at nonchalance. "Didn't wanna see you embarrassed."
"Why?" Why am I pressing, why am I asking? You've nearly said so many times (I've never let you). I should let it go. Let it drop.
Crowley's mouth thins out, he drinks again. Says nothing. Keeps it silent, keeps it still. "The dance looks nice," he finally mumbles.
"Yes," Aziraphale says. He doesn't turn to look at the dancers, doesn't move at all. He's in that strange space of one-and-a-half glasses of wine, loose enough for honesty yet clear as a bell. He stares at Crowley's profile, the dark glasses he insists on wearing even indoors. I wish you'd take those off. Let me look at you . (Aziraphale has only seen his eyes a handful of times. He knows they are long-lashed and set with fine lines, gentle crow's feet. He knows they are the strangest shades of amber and hazel, that they glint gold in the sun or next to a fire. He wants to see them. Show me, please. )
Words sit on his tongue, he cannot make himself spit them out. He is not certain what they are. How many times have they been here? Aziraphale closes his eyes and remembers a moment from the past summer. It had been late May or early June, he cannot be sure. Crowley had wanted to take a walk through the orchard, through the bit of bramble. I like plants , he had said as a simple explanation. Come with me. They had strolled through, turning this way and that, steady as you please, each laughing and muttering and comparing notes on their families and fathers. The weight of expectations and the sizes of shoes to fill. He had told Crowley how his mother had taught him to eat wild thistle. To pull the petals out, one by one, and suck the strangely sweet nectar out. The bees had fought him for it, clustering around his childish face. Things had been simpler once.
Yes, they have been here before, standing at the edge of something. It is bitter as ash to remember, to still taste.
"You could run away from it all," Crowley had said, pausing there. They'd come to a small gazebo. White and octagonal with nothing in it, not this early in the summer. "The house doesn't matter, we could go off together."
"Go off together?" Aziraphale had frozen, blinking. It had been close to dusk, blue light falling on both their faces there, standing across from each other. "Listen to yourself."
"We're friends, that's all that - "
"Friends? We're not friends. I have the title to think of. And the family. We're in opposite places."
"That's all changing, Aziraphale! It's coming to an end, don't you see that? How are you so blind? How is someone as clever as you so fucking blind? None of that will matter. We can have our place. Our side."
"There is no our side, Crowley. Not anymore. It's over."
It had taken a long time for Crowley to respond. One heartbeat, two, three. Reach out, fix it, take it back , his heart had clamored. His voice had stilled and caught in his chest. "Right. Well, then. Have a nice - whatever." Crowley had strode off toward the house, cutting a dark figure against the grass. By the time Aziraphale had reached the hall, he had been long gone.
Yes, they have been here before. Aziraphale's fingers twitch. He tries to steady himself, to not look at the warmth always there on Crowley's face. It's too much. (One of these days, he'll not be careful. One day he'll forget himself, ruin everything. One of these days, Aziraphale knows, he'll forget to hold back and will lean forward, kiss Crowley the way he wants. The way he always imagines.) Aziraphale stands very still, gripping his sherry tightly. He knows the story, how it always goes. Fathers and sons, sons and fathers. It is a son’s duty to step into the boots left out for him, too big or too little. It doesn’t matter. Take up the mantle that was left for you. Put it on. Aziraphale waits, looking out over the party.
"I should get back," Crowley murmurs, more to his drink than to Aziraphale. "Early train tomorrow."
"Oh," Aziraphale says, "Are you going back to London?"
"Yeah. Work, really. Got a few cases, mostly entailments."
"Of course. Which train are - "
"Oh, yes. Quite right."
"Walk me out?" Crowley asks, looking up. Aziraphale stops breathing for a moment. His throat in knots, the oxygen smothered by the weight of his heart. Want is never light.
He nods. Crowley makes the barest gesture with his arm, guiding them toward the hall. As they walk through the halls and rooms, Aziraphale thinks of Theseus with Ariadne's thread, spiraling deep into the labyrinth. They come to a stop outside, just past the front door. Mists spread out over the ground, thread through the grasses, twist up into the dusk.
“When do you think you’ll be back?” Aziraphale asks, soft and low. Soon, I hope?
“Dunno, a few months maybe. There’s nothing pressing on the sale here and my father’s gonna be in America this spring. So, no reason really.”
“No reason," Aziraphale repeats. "At all?”
Crowley hesitates. “Is there -“ ( Are you closing your eyes? You must be, I wish I could see you. ) “Is there a reason? That I should know about?” There's a catch to his voice. He keeps a steady watch on Aziraphale, a thick swallow making his throat dance.
"Crowley - " Aziraphale starts. (He doesn't know where he is going.)
"Don't tease me, angel," Crowley whispers. "You know how - " He shifts, fidgets. The light catches. "Don't. Not unless - Yeah."
Aziraphale nods. He knows the rest of the sentence without being told. Not unless you mean it, not unless there's something there. He wants so much. (He is not allowed.) He presses his lips together. Crowley's smile wavers only slightly, stumbling on into the dark. He nods briefly, reaching up to place his hat on his head. Tips the dark brim.
"I'll see you then. When I do," Crowley says.
"Yes," he breathes.
"Goodnight, angel. Have a nice New Year's."
(Much of the earth is left unknown. Most of the known earth is water, eighty percent of that water is unmapped, uncharted, unexplored. He is alone here in his confusion and loneliness. Aziraphale does not know which direction to turn. There are no countries here, cities, cultures, boundaries. He notes his progress instead by shipwrecks and coral reefs.)
He cannot sleep.
Aziraphale tosses, rolls over. Throws the covers off. Moves to the window, brushing the heavy valance out of the way.
He is looking for Crowley. (He will not find him here.) In the absence of what he wants, he drags his fingers over anything else, trying to fill himself up. The velvet curtain, the woodgrain of his oak desk. The little stone here, set next to his lamp and inkwell.
Aziraphale picks up the little stone. It is not a stone at all. It's a fossil, some little creature preserved in death. He thinks of his father and his obsession with Charles Darwin, fossil-hunter. Fossils, this strange record of time, preserved in stone. It is smooth in his hands. A skilled eye, trained to nuance, could pick out the little bones, name the creature, tell us what it had for lunch. Our physical traits are always preserved but the records of our thoughts, our weavings in and out of love are not. Yes, if Aziraphale's heart gives out now, if he collapses here, a scientist might pick his bones up in a hundred years, two hundred, three - might say, he had oranges, yes, and apples too. But it won't pick the ache out of his heart, the crush of war-red hair and strong, slender hands.
( Crowley. This love like a ghost.) All love stories are ghost stories. Aziraphale closes his eyes, listening to himself breathe. It is the knowing that does him in. He knows that they are hurtling toward something. What is it? Tell me, please, I need to know. Where we are going (if you will stay with me). He is not sure if he desperately needs it to happen or desperately wants to avoid it. He cannot gulp enough air, his skin is both hot and cold simultaneously, and there in the pit of his stomach is a gnawing both like and unlike hunger. Food will not sate him, nothing will, except that looming precipice. He knows, as surely as he knows anything in this world, that they will go off that cliff together.
It is only a matter of time.
He busies himself. He fills his hands and moves things back and forth. He puts them in order again and again. For this desire (he can call it that now, for that is what it is) is disorder and perhaps by controlling his things, his surroundings, he might control himself. Sometimes he thinks that he's managed it and then Crowley gives him a long searching look from hooded tawny eyes and Aziraphale feels the heat rise in his skin faster than he can catch his breath.
God, I want you. (I shouldn't. I know I shouldn't.)
He wants to know everything about Crowley. What makes you blush? What makes your toes curl? What do you think about at night? (Do you ever think of me?) Aziraphale has been tossing and turning all night, his hand twisting down through the sheets, his hot skin prickling at the blankets. It is impossible to forget that Crowley is only a mile away, staying at the local inn. Crowley there, somewhere in the night. Not far at all. You'd let me in, wouldn't you? If I came to you? You might have once. Would you still? He thinks about pulling the other man on top of him, bringing him to the edge over and over and over again until sweat drips down Crowley’s staccato back and his throat is rubbed raw. (In his mind’s eye, Crowley is on top of him, their fingers interlaced, skin melded into one flesh, head thrown back and mouth open.) The desire wells up in him white-hot as an explosion and desperate as a firecracker. He bites the inside of his cheek. Curls his fingers around his red-want cock, there pressing against himself. Easy, easy . He gives in, stroking himself in the way he likes best.
After, Aziraphale lays there, his eyes closed and heavy, listening to the winter winds batter at the manor's bricks. The air whips through the eaves and howls. He crosses his arms like a Pharaoh in his sarcophagus. Deliberately he tries to slow his breath, his pulse, to stillness. Time passes, he is not sure if it is minutes or hours. Sleep doesn't visit easily. When it does come, late at night and on the first probes of dawn, he dreams of a feast of thighs and long, arching spines. Fevered kisses. Brightspark eyes staring into his own, wild as dogs, as bony and roughshod fingers clamp into his bicep. The body shifts beneath him at once both strong and muscular and lithe and compact.
I love you. (Oh dear, oh hell. There's nothing else for it. There's nothing else to be done.)
"I can't let you go," Aziraphale whispers to his bedroom. He's a stubborn creature. "You cannot get on that train."
(Once, when Aziraphale was young, he had watched a man get caught in the riptide. He knows that it is as quick as a monster’s grasp, there one minute and gone the next. He knows to beware of those rocky inlets where you see no waves. It is the quiet surface to fear. Even the strongest swimmers get swept somewhere out to sea. This is how he was caught, brought down into the water’s depths. It only takes the right tide to bring a man down, into the dark, where light does not reach.)
The village of Tadfield is not far from the manor. It is not long before the stone-paved paths turn to dirt beneath his feet. The train station is at the far end of the main street, across from a pub with a faded wooden sign. Aziraphale crosses his arms, shivering slightly in the ice-air. Here he is. It is easy to be nameless and blameless here, just a man standing at a train station, watching for a glint of red. It will be a beautiful day. The morning's sharp light glints on the clocks. A cold breeze brushes there between the bare branches. The sun warms his back through the cream-colored greatcoat.
Are you here? Please be. Did you catch an earlier train? I hope - oh, I pray not. Please, please, please be here.
"Anthony!" he calls.
Birds scatter. There's a movement at the end of the platform. A dark and lean figure curving serpentine through crowds. He moves swiftly, in that strange sling of hips that seems to tell the world what he thinks of it, to dare them to call him on it. His gait that has no basis in gravity. Good lord, Aziraphale thinks, delightfully scandalized.
Crowley stops just before Aziraphale, hands tucked in his coat pockets. "Hey, angel."
"Hello," Aziraphale says, looking up the scarce few inches at him. God, you're beautiful. His face hurts, it feels like the sun is behind his skin and trying to break free. I want you, I want the rest of my life to be you. I want to have the rest of my life right now. (The world has narrowed to these mere inches between them. He considers the molecules, one after another, that leads from himself to this man. Skin to oxygen to hydrogen to skin.) The morning sun glints brightly off Crowley's sunglasses. It catches there on the brim of his hat. Aziraphale watches his chest puff slightly, then deflate. Deep breaths, deep breaths. Crowley furrows a dark brow.
"Er - have I forgotten something? Did you need something?"
A whistle sounds. The train is leaving in ten minutes.
"Yes," Aziraphale fumbles over his words. "No, wait. That's not - not quite it. I mean that, well, perhaps I've forgotten something."
Crowley swallows. (Aziraphale drinks up the bounce of his Adam's apple, doesn't spill a drop.) "Yeah?"
Just breathe, breathe, breathe. Say it. Go on then, get it out. He closes his eyes, pulls the world in around him. When he opens his eyes again, Crowley is still carefully watching, his glasses slid down just enough to gleam bright hazel behind them.
"Would you stay?" Aziraphale breathes out, "if I asked you to?"
There is a long pause. The space of familiar heartbeats. One heartbeat, two, three, four. "Look, you already know the answer to that. Aziraphale, don't dangle it in front of me. My - interests are - the same. 'M not trying to put pressure on you. You don't have to. Angel, I'll never talk about it again if you don't want. Swear."
"Please, Crowley," he says. "We've been on the edge of this so many times. Ask me again ."
"I've been asking you all year. Don't take me there again if you're not sure," Crowley says, though his voice is gentle. It wavers.
"I am sure," Aziraphale says, firmly caught in his mouth. "Please stay. I'll ask. It's my turn. Please."
Crowley's hand twitches. The aborted movement of a man who wants to reach out, to touch. Who cannot. Not here. Not yet. "Yeah?" Aziraphale hears layers underneath. Orange light glows from a nearby signal light, painting Crowley's skin in shades of orange and pink. Really? Are you sure? After everything you said?
There's a brief nod, a duck of the chin. Crowley exhales. "Alright." A smile starts to curl at the edge of his narrow lips. Aziraphale stands breathless here, staring at the first light of hope.
"Oh," Aziraphale breathes, unsure what to say, feeling like light might crack open his suddenly-full chest. (It is so strange that the fundamental truths of nothing and something are the opposite. When Aziraphale had held nothing between them, his shoulders had sunk with the weight of it. It had been heavy. Now, here, there is something . They bear something and it is soaring and bright, lighter than any air. Lighter than helium. Lighter than hydrogen. The heart in love is the lightest object of all.) "Thank you."
"I want to kiss you," Crowley whispers. They're standing close, perhaps too close. If anyone asks, we're just having a private conversation. It will be fine. Crowley's coat catches in the wind, flapping around him like dark wings. It is night-black and Aziraphale is close enough to pick out the smells caught on it. Books and grass, sandalwood and heavy with peaty, smoky Scotch whiskey. Irish wool too. (When the wind catches it, Aziraphale can see it is lined in white silk.)
"Please, yes, somewhere -" I've never wanted anything more. You must know that.
"Not here. Trains have ears. Well, birds have ears. Do birds have ears?" He glances around at the pigeons, turns back with a faint smile, a concealed laugh. "Must've, that's how they hear other birds."
"Where then?" Aziraphale presses.
Crowley hesitates there, sharp in the set of his shoulders. He makes a decision, carries on. "I've got a room. You don't have to come. Only if you want, angel. The Six-Legged Mare. You know, when you're ready."
"Tonight, seven o'clock," Aziraphale says. He tightens his fingers into fists, touching as much of his own skin as he can for want of touching Crowley's
"I'll wait," Crowley whispers.
"I won't be late."
Crowley laughs, "I'll wait all night, angel."
One cannot ascend to the surface too quickly. The pressures of the deepest water do peculiar things to the human body. He wants to see the sun again but the idea of freedom and lightness must be introduced slowly in order to avoid decompression sickness. Be careful of the air embolisms that form during the rapid rise, be wary of the variations in the bloodstream, changes as lethally sure as a bullet.
He thinks of slithering sea snakes, long-bodied sea organism (as long as a hunting ship, as skinny as a pole). They are made for the deep, these strange siphonophores. Their hydrostatic skeletons held together by thousands of tons of water pressure. Atmosphere is as alien as the surface of the moon, they have lived their entire lives underwater, in the deep, where there is no light. The weight of water is a part of them, knitting their bodies together, to come up for air is to die. In the light and the relief, there would be nothing to hold them, their bodies and bones would burst and demolish into transparent ooze. (He is there now, in the abyssopelagic layer. There is no light to guide him upward. He is afraid for his bones, his human body, he has never left the deep sea. Here in the starless night, he floats.)
Our lives are marked by epochs. Periods of time parceled out. As Aziraphale walks down the path, taking him away from the manor and toward town, he pauses and looks back, feeling on the edge of something. The house is framed through the dusk, through the trees. This old mansion. Pillared and strong, the long balcony wrapping the edges like a shawl. See the interruptions of the stone exterior by large windows, the perfectly centered front door. This house on a hill, looking down over the river, the winding creeks like capillaries from an artery. Out there, somewhere past the trees, is the sea.
Ever onward, Aziraphale thinks. Be steady.
The inn is on the west side of the village. He knocks on the door to Crowley's room.
Crowley opens it slowly. Still fully dressed, down to the shoes. Still in the damnable glasses. Aziraphale takes in Crowley's disheveled appearance. The hell-colored hair stands up unruly on all ends, as if he had run his fingers through it repeatedly. His tie hangs loose around his neck. The sleeves of his shirt pushed up there over his elbows, showing strong and tanned vascular arms. The veins lay blue and green just under the skin. Aziraphale thinks of kissing them, touching the tip of his tongue to taste, tracing them back to the heart. His mouth runs dry.
They stand silent for a moment, awkward and uncertain. Aziraphale watches Crowley shift artlessly under his jacket. "Erm, do you want a drink?" His long fingers gesture to the sidebar, to the half-empty bottle of scotch. His expression uncertain, biting his lip until the corner is ragged and dusky pink with blood.
"My dear," Aziraphale says, ignoring the sidebar. Damn the drink. It's my turn to cross this. To make an effort. You've asked so many times. " Would you kiss me? If you still - "
Crowley lets out a long, slow hiss. Aziraphale watches him pause, his shoulders and chest rising and falling with his breathing. After a moment, one hand comes up, reaching for the sunglasses. He pulls them off, sets them on the table. Turns around. Those too-too-too amber eyes, flecked with hazel. With gold like a censer, with green like ivy. Eden must have been as green as these freckles in your eyes. Aziraphale realizes now that what he's always taken for cockiness, for insouciance, is instead very simple fear.
Crowley bites his lower lip, wetting it. Doesn't break eye contact. "Yeah, I bloody well still -"
Neither of them know how to cross this boundary, three feet of a wooden floor and empty air. Damn it all , Aziraphale thinks, pressing forward. He pushes himself against Crowley's statue-self, his too-still body. Breathes in, closes his eyes. There it is, skin to skin, flesh to flesh. Hot and warm and this is it, this is God made flesh, this is the Rapture, the Divine, the purest of things. He covers Crowley's mouth with his hungry own. He closes his eyes. Here they are, chest to chest, their hearts lined up and beating in parallel. His square fingers wrapping around Crowley's arms, finding the only soft place on Crowley's body. His mouth there, pliant and warm, half-open already, as if he's been waiting for this for thousands of years. (From the beginning.)
Salt. You taste like salt. Aziraphale can taste the earth and the salt of it, the lick of the ocean, of the sweat from Crowley's top lip. His hands rise, brush across Crowley's shoulders, converge on the lapels to pull him closer. A moan spills out into the room and Aziraphale doesn't know which throat it rose up from. Cannot tell. It doesn't matter, they're sharing the same air. Don’t speak. Don't step away. Don't leave. Please. Let me stay here. He wants to stay here in this long measure. (Forever, perhaps, if it's on the table.)
They break slightly. Crowley's eyes are glazed and half-lidded. Unfocused. "Christ," he whispers. "Jesus fucking Christ. "
Aziraphale laughs slightly, the smell of Crowley's aftershave licking up into him. There's vetiver, yes, and cedar too. Tobacco and sandalwood. Something of citrus. The barest hint of metal and fire. "My sentiments exactly," he says, his voice a shaking mess. He watches how Crowley looks at him. Feels his own gaze finally able to be laid bare in hunger, to look as long as he likes, to take bites out of the slitherspine man here, still held between his own two hands. I've got you. You're mine, I'm yours. I'm sorry this took so long. (I love you.)
"Good lord," Aziraphale whispers. Crowley shakes his head slightly, eyes still nearly crossed, leans sharply back in. Crowley's unsteady hands move over him, pressing into his chest, scattering over his shoulders, all the while his mouth is kissing fierce psalms into his skin and Aziraphale can hear the holy holy holy in his touch.
"I never," Crowley says, in between his mouth finding spaces to slot in. "Want to. Stop. Kissing you."
“Then don’t.” Don’t stop, don’t ever stop. You can live here forever, right inside my arms, your tongue here in my mouth. I can live in you. When I’m asked where home is, I’ll give your name. His mouth slips past Crowley's. He finds himself in neighboring states. Crowley's cheekbones, the wide planes of his forehead, his aquiline nose. His sharp jaw, that long and damnable neck. Your hair, god, your hair. The auburn strands here, soft to the touch. Crowley's hair is fine and thick. Aziraphale runs his hand up the back of Crowley's neck, across the nape, sinks his hand in the hair like pushing it into the sand. His head dips. He's wanted to taste Crowley's neck and here it is, laid out like a feast on a long table. Aziraphale has always loved to eat. He dips in, kissing the cord of the throat, his tongue keeping pace with Crowley's pulse. The carotid there, pounding against his tongue like a drumbeat.
"God, I want you," Crowley whispers. Aziraphale realizes that his hands are there, digging into Aziraphale's sides, pressing in at his hips. Oh, yes. Yes, please. There's no one here. We're alone, yes. There's a bed right there and there's no one to stop us. He's hot and wanting, this flamelick of desire traveling up his spine, dizzying him.
"Tell me how," Aziraphale says. And it's so easy to watch Crowley's eyes flare at this, so easy to feel how he leans into the touch, how he presses back like a wave making love to the shore. Aziraphale keeps pressing in, chest to chest, beating heart to beating heart lined up like syzygy. It's nothing then to find that they keep pressing closer, that his thigh slots between Crowley's slightly parted legs.
Oh, he thinks. Oh, his brain scatters over. Oh, Christ. Crowley hisses again as Aziraphale pushes further, putting pressure on his hard and heated cock. Aziraphale tilts his hips a little, answers back in turn. His fingers twist in that burning bush of hair, pulling Crowley's head back just a little, laying his throat out more for the taking. Crowley moans, pliant and giving, impulsively fucking forward for a moment with his scattershot hips. Aziraphale shudders, keenly aware that this is a preview of something he can have. A first taste. The rest of the courses are coming and he can take his time, feast on each one. Can lick his fingers after (and Crowley's too.) He leans in and sucks a bruise in there, right at the divot of Crowley's neck. Those long, icepick fingers twitch in their grip on his hips, trying to burrow into him. As if they might press close enough to muddle the skin, smash atoms and molecules together, become one and the same. Never parted.
"There's a bed," Crowley whispers, pulling back slightly. Bottom lip split and swollen, desperately trying to catch his breath.
"Then take me to it."
Crowley's breath stutters in his throat, he coughs slightly. Squeezes Aziraphale's sides. Bramble-hazel eyes close, press tight, reopen. Aziraphale has never been looked at like this before. There's been desire, of course. There have been other men in his bed, there have been furtive fumblings in empty halls. But this is different. Crowley looks at him and the world hushes, time drops away. He catches Aziraphale's hand, brings it up for a kiss. There on each of the knuckles. None of them left out, none forgotten.
"Alright," Crowley whispers, tugging him toward the bed. He pushes Aziraphale against it, always carefully, always gently. His brows forming a question as Aziraphale backs into the bed.
"Yes, yes, please ," Aziraphale whispers, writing yes over Crowley's mouth, his neck, tangling it up in his hair. Aziraphale closes his eyes as Crowley kisses him, fingers there pulling up his shirt, reaching underneath.
"I never dreamt you'd -"
"That I would?" Aziraphale asks.
"Want this. Want me like this," Crowley murmurs, tucking it between kisses to Aziraphale's soft shoulders.
"You have no idea."
"Then show me."
Aziraphale closes his eyes and erases the boundaries. The edges of himself. He gets out a broom and sweeps the cobwebs from the corners of his mind. The I shouldn't want you like this dusts off to only become I want you . The thing is, when we look at something dark and messy, caked with mud and crawling with worms, we're not seeing it for what it is. You have to knock the earth off, have to wash it off, polish it up, look at what you hold in your hand. It's love, always love.
Very simple love.
I love you. It aches through the cavern of his body. Echoes within his skin, the rivers and rivulets of his blood. Love lives on the backs of his blood cells. Love lives in the marrow of his bones. If you held out his heart, took a look inside (the aorta, perhaps), you would find love.
"I'll show you," Aziraphale says, his mouth right up against Crowley's shivering ear. He tucks the words right into his ear, where they can never get lost. I'll show you meaning I love you, I've got you, I'm with you (always). "What would you like?"
"Anything you want."
"Tell me what you think about."
"Just get on top of me, angel."
Fuck. He traces the outline of Crowley's cock in his dark wool trousers. Gentle and light, nothing more than a feather might offer. A gust of wind. Crowley groans, jumps at the touch.
“Can I?” Aziraphale whispers, voice thick as molasses. He can hardly get the words out.
"I'll send you a bloody invitation if I have to, Aziraphale - "
His hand disappears into the dark fabric and there there there, finally there is the hot spread of searing skin. Aziraphale is good at worrying, at overthinking, but for once his brain is silent, for once he can forget and exist. His thumb encircling the head with a slow movement, he swipes the wet down along the heavy-veined underside. Crowley arches beneath him. Cries out. Aziraphale's hands nest in his hair, pull at the flames. I want to press into you, inside you. Feel your body. I do not understand how our flesh can rub together, layered, down at the cellular, the molecular level, and not interlock. How can my skin not be yours. Yours mine. His other hand presses against the narrow chest, counting the ribs with teasing fingers.
"Take your goddamn clothes off, angel, I need to feel you."
He smiles, indulges Crowley button by button by button. Does the same in return, peeling away the shirt and trousers like removing the soft fruit from an orange, ready to be swallowed.
There is a long scar down Crowley's side, curving serpent-like along his skin, curling around his ribs like a quotation mark. Aziraphale pauses, tracing it with one curious finger. "What happened? If I might ask, of - " Aziraphale asks before he has the decency to stop himself. That is the indulgence of bed, of lying in with a lover. We drop the veil, tear down the wall. Sometimes things spill out.
Crowley shifts, looking over. He doesn't seem to mind. His fingers rest on Aziraphale's, moving with him as he traces the ribbon scar. "Principles, I guess," he shrugs. "That's what happened."
"What do you mean?"
"Took a trench knife to the side. At the Somme."
"Oh," Aziraphale whispers. His heart scatters like a shattered glass over a stone floor. ( I never considered you in uniform, I should have, I should have. I should have known. Thank god, you lived. You still live .) He traces his thumb compulsively over Crowley's wrist, there at the heartbeat, over and over and over again, looking for the constant proof of his life.
"Yeah. I mean, it probably saved my life. Ironically. Got sent home."
“I heard it was hell. The Somme. The war.”
“It was,” Crowley mutters, “There are some things worth goin' to hell for.” He looks at Aziraphale, something banked in his expression. "Anyway, it's over. Don't think about it. Just gonna keep on. Filing paperwork for lawsuits and kissing you and maybe planting a garden someday."
"A garden?" Aziraphale asks. He is lying there, the sheets half over him. His body has cooled down, the lingering sweat on his forehead and spine giving shivers. Crowley has given one arm, wrapped it around him, pulled Aziraphale close into his skinnybone chest. Aziraphale runs idle fingers in lazy patterns on his skin, ruffles the slight bit of auburn hair there. Writes words that no one will ever read, sinks them into Crowley's body. ( I love you. )
" Temenos ," Crowley says. His voice distant in time, sounding as if it might be an echo from years past. "It's just this old Greek idea. Just something separate. Build a couple of walls around it. The gist of it is that it's a sanctuary."
"And what would you grow?"
Crowley shrugs a little. It's difficult while leaning on a headboard, Aziraphale's body half upon him. But you like this, don't you? You don't seem to mind. I keep waiting for you to expect something of me, to tell me to move, to go here, to get in line. And you don't. You just let me be wherever, do whatever.
"Dunno. Always liked apples," he says. "Apple trees. Ivy. Aster. Roses." He pauses, leans his head against Aziraphale's own. Aziraphale can feel the bump of his nose in his hair, a nestling of his mouth, the press of a blameless kiss against his curls. "You could stay there with me, if you like."
"Oh," he frowns. He looks up into Crowley's gentle face. Eyes the color of amber, of dirty rainwater, the sand at the bottom of the lake. Rimmed there with evergreen moss. "There'll be talk. I don't think my lot would like that."
"My dear - "
"Plenty of, well, friends live together, it's certainly large enough. You could just be there, you know, with me." Then he winces a little. Eyes narrowing as if they're unused to being seen. "Sorry, that was probably a little fast. My fault, that."
Aziraphale shakes his head. "No, I - I don't think so."
A quirk of a dark brow. Sharp as a razor. There's a gold glint to his eyes, a curl upward of the mouth. "Yeah?"
"I'm rather afraid I'm yours for the long haul."
Crowley's hand around him goes very still. "What does that mean?" he whispers. It echoes in the small, spare room. "Tell me exactly. "
Aziraphale lifts his hand from Crowley's chest, cups the trowel of a jaw, turning Crowley to face him. There's a strange expression in his eyes and Aziraphale wants to stay here for a heartbeat, to memorize it all and lay it out again later to study and pore over. To learn and dive deep. See all of this laid before him, Crowley so still against him that he might be even shaking slightly with the effort of it. The mouth slightly parted, something cavernous in his eyes.
"I love you," Aziraphale says. "That's what it means." Love given with a kiss. He presses himself there to Crowley, stifling the strange keening noise with his own throat. Whatever you have, pour it into me. I'm yours, my love. Please. There had been desperation before but it had been careful. Crowley pulls at him, his fingers like a rake digging into soil, trying to turn over the top layer of him and see what's underneath. He sinks frantic kisses onto Aziraphale's mouth, his chin, his forehead and eyelids too. It's not enough, Aziraphale can feel that Crowley needs all of him. I want all of you back.
"Fuck, fuck, angel, do you really -" (A constant hiss against his skin punctuated by kisses. A rosary of relief and disbelief.) Aziraphale catches Crowley where he can. Finds a shoulder to pour his love into, bruises a path across Crowley's chest. He feels the bones scatter, feels Crowley shaking, coming apart in his own arms. "I love you," Crowley whispers, "I love you, I love you, I love you."
You're shivering, let me cover you. He grips Crowley's nervous shoulders in his steady grip, presses him against the pillows and the mattress too. Leans in to kiss him. Where Crowley tries to accelerate, he leans in further, gentles him with the familiar weight of himself. Crowley here, these pages scattered to the wind. I can be your paperweight. Keep you steady. Let me hold you. Let me. (Keep me in turn.)
"I love you," Aziraphale says, running his tongue along an earlobe. Nosing the red-clay hair out of his path. "Let me show you." His hips press against Crowley's thigh. The cadence of his blood humming Crowley Crowley Crowley . (Love has a way of leaving its mark.)
"Ngk," Crowley cries out. "God, yes. If you don't, I swear to God, I'll -"
Aziraphale pulls back with a faint and self-satisfied smile. "You'll do what, darling?"
Crowley closes his eyes, pushes his head back into the pillow. "Call me that again."
"I want you, I want to be inside you," he breathes, his hands moving of their own mind. Crowley's knee slips between his thighs. Aziraphale presses into it, a shudder-spark of arousal spiking through his spine. "Tell me now," he says, his mouth moving against a sweat-soaked temple, "tell me now that you want this because I don't know how to -."
"Fuck me, please, " Crowley grips at him. Panting, wild-haired and wild-breathed. Aziraphale's breath hitches. Crowley wraps his long fingers around the other's bicep, his eyes piercing. Flaying. It feels like he is trying to hold Aziraphale in place, trying desperately to memorize the moment. His hands run over Aziraphale's shoulders, down his chest, his stomach, his solar plexus, his living skin.
" Crowley ," Aziraphale whispers reverently, the word rolling off his tongue holy as a sacrament. Glory, glory, hallelujah. He cannot remember how they got here, he is holding onto Crowley for dear life. Crowley who is rocking against him, his eyes dark and wide and whispering oh my god, oh my god, oh my fucking god over and over like it might be a rosary. Making love starts with the hands. Kneading into each other, learning the textures and temperatures of our skin. Where you are one and I am other. Where we are the same. Aziraphale and his hands make love to Crowley, within and without. Pulling moans from Crowley's throat like playing a piano, learning the scales, memorizing the keys.
When he sinks within, Crowley whines, moans, pulls at him to come closer. His wrapped legs and canted hips make demands that are never voiced but Aziraphale hears them all the same. Fuck me, harder, faster. Like that, god, please. I want you so much, I love you, I love you, I love you.
How long will I have to go before I can steal a night with you again? When can I be with you next? Things are changing, changing, changing, tell me when. He pushes harder, feeling the push of Crowley's wiresnap body beneath him. Rapturous hands making pilgrimages across his own soft stomach, the curve of his own hips, gentleslope shoulders. I was worried you might not think much of me like this, bare. Once you saw the truth of the matter. I'm soft. (But you love this, don't you? I can see you devour me. All of me. You skip over nothing, take second helpings of it all. Your eyes never lie, my dear. Not to me.)
Crowley's hand fumbles between them, reaching for his cock trapped between their slipslide bellies, slippery with the wet of himself. Aziraphale wraps one hand around Crowley's own, both fisting his ache-heavy dick, fucking it in a fury.
"Come for me, my dear, please," Aziraphale whispers, hot against Crowley's ear.
"Ngk, fuck, angel - "
"My love, please, I want -"
Crowley hisses, groans. His back arches, his head presses furiously back into the mattress, shattering apart in their cupped hands. His cock pulses as he comes, soursalt smell licking up into the air. His breath a beautiful ruin. Aziraphale slams his eyes shut, a shudder slamming through his spine, his back. He pushes deeper, harder, sinks his head down into that space between neck and shoulder, sucking a purple bruise onto Crowley's neck.
When he comes, it's with Crowley's name in his lungs and the taste of him on his tongue (never on Earth again forgotten). The white white white world behind his eyes, bright as an explosion. Bright as the burn of the sun in his eyes.
Everything goes white.
He slumps slightly, resting his head on Crowley's shoulder. He can feel the languid heartbeat against his back beating a slow and steady promise. Tell me about change, tell me about the future. You said there might be a world for us someday. Tell me about that . He does not know where they will go. How they will get there. It does not matter. Not if Crowley is there, whole and sound, holding out his patient hand.
“When will I see you next?” Aziraphale asks. (It is the question they have danced around, the question left unanswered. They touch each other for long minutes, stretching out every kiss, every brush of hands. Aziraphale had sunk himself into Crowley, had wanted to lose the thread he had carried to show him the way back out. Let me be lost. I want to be lost with you. )
“You could come to London,” Crowley says, his nervous-scatter eyes look off toward the corner of the room, full of galaxies. Aziraphale picks a point somewhere in his left iris, the North Star, (Polaris, his polestar, guiding him all this time.) and focuses on it. “Or, you know, anything you want. Doesn't matter. Pick a place. I'll come to you.” There is a sort of relaxed set to Crowley’s jaw that Aziraphale has never seen. See the light here in the star-bright eyes. (Those eyes that he had imagined so many times, how had he always gotten them wrong? They are warmer than he had imagined. He wonders if the flecks of green had always been there. Green as ivy, green as growth. Green as Eden.)
He rubs his thumb over the skinny wrist. Aziraphale has never been thin, not like this. He can count the veins, the tendons. It is strange and not strange, he thinks, these odd bedfellows finding comfort in each other, each wearing their fathers’ names as middle names and uncomfortably bearing their legacies. His flour-white hair falls into his face. He pushes Crowley's own sweat-soaked locks from his brow. Is it any wonder that you were born in the fall to earth? You and your gardener-hands, full of soil. Is it any wonder that I was born in the winter to the sky? Earth and the sky, never mixed. But I can lie here on top of you, next to you always. I can cover you with air to breathe (you can catch me with your bedrock hands, give me somewhere safe to land).
(Aziraphale can see the glimmer of light appear in the blue. The shades are different here in the epipelagic layer and he trails teal and azure and turquoise through his fingers. Sound breaks through to him like waves and he can reach for Crowley's hand, there standing on the shore. The riptide has gone. He holds his breath, kicks against the ocean floor, and surfaces.)
Consider change. Evolution. Go on, then, go on down the road, down the years, into the past. Into the light, stretch out your arms. Once upon a time, at the beginning of the world, we were unicellar and eyeless. Brainless, formless, floating in the primordial nothing. In the act of becoming, we have taken on two eyes (with which to see the world), two legs (to travel the world), two arms (to hold the world, to hold each other).
A heart, right here between the ribs, to love each other.
Crowley kisses Aziraphale, leaning over with a bright smile rising. It looks like the sun. Aziraphale buries his face in Crowley's shoulder, his amphora-red hair, bearing only the impossible light of falling in love.
Outside, it is a new year. Things are changing. Outside, it is a different world, laid clean and bare under the winter snow. They will go out then together. To the world.