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Easier Than Air

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Since the End of the World, the sun had shone every day. It was really lovely for the first week, and then it turned worrisome. October wasn’t meant for this—the Edenic blue of the sky, the tropical softness in the air. The endless birdsong. Aziraphale found himself hoping that Adam would forget about keeping it up quite soon. He hadn’t settled in England for the weather.

It was a relief when dark clouds began to move in from the west, six weeks after the End didn’t happen. The wind grew chilly. Seabirds flew inland, crying out the coming rain, and Aziraphale sighed in relief. The city could use a good downpour. 

When the storm broke, he was washing up a teacup at the sink—a little porcelain Regency-era washbasin he’d set up at the back. The basin sat unused for months at a time, till he got in the mood to make himself something the mortal way, and clean it up after. There was something soul-satisfying about putting a pretty piece of dishware into steaming water and slowly, gently wiping it clean again. 

The rain began, drenching the roof, dripping off the eaves, engulfing the stillness inside the shop. He'd go stand beneath the skylight, watch it running down the glass. Water, rebirth, rain—the blessed signs of life on Planet Earth. Crowley hated grey weather; Crowley loved the sun. But Aziraphale loved storms. 

It didn't rain in Heaven, that great glass box beyond the clouds. He’d never go back there. He wouldn't ever have to hear that great eternal emptiness echoing around his voice, making him sound silly and strange, and so small. They all talked too loud in Heaven, to cover up the quiet. He could never get a word in. They never liked what he had to say, anyway.

The sound of the rain on the roof was loud, and an odd feeling was creeping up in his chest—had been for some time now, hadn't it? He set the cup down carefully in the basin. Stepped back, and placed a hand over his heart.

It wasn't meant to beat so fast.

He could stop it and restart it; he didn't remember how slowly it ought to beat, but surely his subconscious could manage that much. But at the thought of stopping, his heart gave a horrid thud, strong enough to make him gasp. He pressed both hands to it, now, more urgently. A slow nausea rose in his throat.

What if he stopped his heart, and it didn't start again? What if this body Adam had given him was mortal now? Or if it wasn’t, then—

Aziraphale made his way over to his softest chair; sank into it, and rubbed at his aching chest. His corporation's rhythms felt so very wrong.

Crowley had taken this body. Could the exchange have weakened it? Could it be letting him know now—now that he'd finally felt safe? Now that he'd let his guard down—now that they both had.

"Crowley," he said aloud, and stood up again suddenly, despite the lack of feeling in his legs. Because if this was happening to him, it might happen to Crowley too.

"Please be all right," he pleaded aloud, and reached with cold fingers for the phone.

It took him three tries to dial the number. "'Lo," said Crowley's voice, sudden in his ear, "how's tricks, Angel?" and he smiled at the century-old phrase, as though Crowley might be able to see him down the line. As though he wasn't entirely alone.

"Aziraphale?" said Crowley, and Aziraphale tightened his trembling grip on the receiver.

"Crowley," he said, firmly, through the haze around his thinking. "How's your heart?"

There was a silence. Then, "You mean—the corporeal organ? The meat muscle?"

"Yes, of course." He was pleased at how calm he sounded. Anyone listening wouldn't know that he couldn't quite breathe.

"Fine, 's fine. Same as ever." After another, more suspicious silence, "Why?" And then more quickly, "Are you—I mean, is yours all right?"

"It should be." He even laughed a little, meaning to acknowledge the absurdity of all this, of him, thinking something could be wrong with his heart. With him, an angel. "It's beating—it's beating quite a lot."

"Beating a lot? What does that mean? Can't you stop it?"

And that was the trouble, wasn't it? He didn't know. He hadn't known his heart could do this, and he might be able to figure it out on his own, except that he really couldn't think. That had happened a lot, since coming to Earth—finding himself fuddled by some idea he hadn’t the strength to follow through. Crowley had always been good with that. He’d been frightened by Crowley’s thoughts; they all seemed to run along forbidden lines; but Crowley was quite good at making sense of what he couldn’t. 

He stared at the telephone and considered his confession.

"Angel," said the gentle voice at the other end of the line, "is something wrong?"

"Yes," said Aziraphale, through the ache in his throat. "I'm afraid so."

"Can I come?"

"Yes." Almost nothing, the word, but Crowley heard it anyway.

"Five minutes," he promised, and then the line went dead.

Aziraphale stood and blinked and blinked at the unreal world, and tried to imagine where an angel might go, if he were to be discorporated suddenly, and Heaven didn't want him.

And then Crowley was there in the shop, with a rush of wind and the scent of the rain. Crowley wasn’t wearing his glasses. Crowley was looking him over, bright-eyed, and touching one cold finger to his pulse, briefly and barely. Crowley was telling him to sit down. 

He sat. “What were you doing?” Crowley was asking, prowling around the silent shop, examining the shadowed corners of it, peering into the abandoned basin. “Washing up? And then what?”

“Then this,” Aziraphale managed. It was growing difficult to focus. “I think they hurt my corporation.” He’d known they would want to. They were angry. Something in him drove them mad. They’d wanted him away—far away from their bright clean world. Down in the twilight of Earth. Earthlight was so different from Heaven’s unending brightness, shifting from dawn to day to dusk, casting new shadows on everything, every hour.

“Who’d hurt you?” Back by his side, crouching down, a careful hand holding to the edge of the chair that was currently keeping Aziraphale from sinking to the floor.

“Heaven,” said Aziraphale, struggling. “At first I thought it was—both of us. That we’d hurt ourselves somehow, switching, but—you’re fine. And I’m not. I think Heaven’s hurt me.”

“Have they been here?” He was reaching for him, drawing back, reaching again. Aziraphale reached back, let his hand be caught and held.

“No, I was alone. Your fingers are cold.”

“It’s raining out.”

“I saw.” Crowley’s hand was cold and firm and real. He held tighter to it, slid down into the chair, pressed all the force of his will against the tide of discomfort rushing through him. It really was becoming unbearable.

“Angel, tell me.” For the first time, cracks appeared in Crowley’s calm. “What’s happening?”

“I can’t breathe,” said Aziraphale, “and my heart is all wrong, and I can’t make it stop.”

"Of course you can. You don't need that old heart," said Crowley, infuriatingly.

He groaned. "How do you know?"

"You're an angel."

"Am I?" whispered Aziraphale. "Still?"

"Still," said Crowley, "I'm quite sure. They can't take that from you; it’s not theirs to take.” One slow blink, at last. "What were you thinking about when it began?"

It seemed ages ago. "I was remembering Heaven. How—how silent it was all the time. No rain. No growing things. I was thinking—when I talked they never heard me. Don't know why I went on trying."

"Mm-hm." Crowley nodded slowly; dropped into a boneless sprawl below him on the floor, without letting go of Aziraphale's hand. Aziraphale felt him rubbing and stroking it, distantly. Everything outside the rushing horror under his skin felt quite unreal. But Crowley was there. "I think I know what's happening."

His voice felt far away, too. "Am I falling now?"

"No!" Then, milder, "No, you're all right. You're only—panicking. It's a panic attack." And then, "Do you know what that is?"

"I—yes." Something human. "More or less. Shouldn't happen to us. Not—mortal. We control our corporations, don't we?"

"Naw. You ever cry? 'S just the same. Too much feeling. Takes you over." Crowley was holding both his hands, now, peering up at him, earnest. "Angel, you're shaking."

He was. He was freezing. It had been a long time since he'd felt that bone-deep cold; long since he'd learned to control his body's sense of heat. He didn't seem to be in control of anything anymore.

"Will you—?" His tongue was clumsy in his mouth. "Will you help me?"

Another slow blink; a nod. Then he was being helped to his feet, and led to the sofa; laid down with infinite care. Something warm was laid over him; a pillow pushed beneath his head. He curled onto his side, and closed his eyes, and shook.

A dip of the sofa beside him. A careful hand in his hair, smoothing, certain. The sound of the rain on the roof washing over the night. The breath seizing and stuttering in his freezing throat.

 

Crowley stayed—made tea, and found the biscuit tin and a book, and read steadily into the wee hours, till his voice blended together with the bruised and bloodied blur of Aziraphale's mind. For the first time in six thousand years, Aziraphale wanted sleep.

"That does help," Crowley had said immediately, when he'd voiced his exhaustion, and had patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. "All right, then. I'll take myself off, Angel. Don't dream. I'll be—I'll be around."

Well, he should have listened to Crowley, but he had dreamed. Of war; of someone weeping; of trying and failing to say something terribly important, only he couldn’t force the words out; of a flaming sword in his hands, but the flames wouldn’t stay on the blade; they were creeping up his arms, his wings, and through the smoke and the pain he couldn't get enough breath to make a sound.

He woke in the chill and the grey of the shop, helpless under the pounding weight of his heart.

"Hold on, Angel," said Crowley down the phone when he had mustered up the will to call. Aziraphale stood helpless, holding onto himself, and waited. He couldn't even miracle his hands steady.

He could feel Crowley approaching the shop—the first bright brush of Crowley’s aura against his. A steadily encroaching warmth, an urgency, and a goodness. How had he ever missed that? Had he missed that? Hadn’t he known in his heart that Crowley was good?

The door opened; the sound of the rain broke into the quiet, and over it a voice, harsh with worry and reproach and clear with affection. “Angel—”

“Crowley,” he breathed. 

Crowley stopped at an arm's length: stood wide-eyed and lovely, taking Aziraphale in. Then, “Angel, I told you not to dream. Sleep won’t settle you if you dream.”

“I couldn’t very well help it,” Aziraphale gasped.

“What do you need? What can I do?”

They’d held hands on the bus. He’d reached for Crowley, without thought, and Crowley had clung to him. He hadn’t been alone. “Would you hold me?”

Crowley let out a laugh, a startled little sound, and opened up his arms. Aziraphale went into them. Laid his head down, heavy over Crowley’s heart. Crowley’s hands stroked his back up and down, and the light of his warm worry shone incandescent round them.

“Can we sit?” murmured Aziraphale. They sat, Crowley piling himself into the corner of the sofa, Aziraphale following, half falling, clinging to his jacket, settling close enough to feel Crowley’s warm breath on his ear. They were quiet.

“Stay awhile,” Aziraphale said finally, “please.”

“Long as you like.” Crowley sounded funny—tender as a bruise. “However you want me.”

He wanted him. He wanted him ordinary, grumbly, kind. He wanted him to never leave. (We could go off together.)

“Maybe we could read some more,” he said, and saw Crowley’s satisfaction at having something to do. Crowley was always satisfied to be with him. It had always meant the world.

“I’m so—very glad you’re here,” he added, and watched the way Crowley straightened up, startled. Blushing a little. Had he ever made Crowley blush before? Hadn’t he been watching well enough to see it?

The trouble was that the end of the world had made everything new, even the oldest things. He felt like a little child learning to walk. He felt like a fool. He felt giddy.

 

He got better. It was good doing nothing together, dawdling away the hours in Crowley’s company. They read, and debated, and drank buckets of cocoa, and played rummy and whist—they both liked cards. Crowley probably imagined they were spies gambling in some den of danger; Aziraphale remembered long nights at the club in Portland Place, the laughter there, the music. He’d been happy there. He was nearly happy now.

But dusk began to deepen over the shop, and he really ought to let Crowley go home. Surely he’d asked enough of him. Surely he could manage alone.

And yet that word—alone—settled into his chest uncomfortably. Alone sounded—so sad. It was silly. The bookshop sat in the midst of the never-sleeping city, of millions of souls. Their lights shone through his window, smoothed by the wet panes. Their vehicles rushed past, bringing the people home, taking them out to their friends, carrying the tide of life. The walls stood between him and the rest of them, of course, but he’d liked that. He’d always liked that, being a little apart, unobserved. It had felt like peace. As long as Crowley might come by, sometime—he hadn't liked it when Crowley was sleeping. He hadn't liked being left on his own.

“Angel,” said Crowley, and set down his cards. “What’s wrong?”

“I—” He set down his cards, too, carefully; standing, stumbling a little. “I’m all right. Just—need some air. I’ll open a window.” He swayed.

“Sit down,” Crowley ordered him. Aziraphale didn’t have the breath to bristle at him. He sank back down.

“It’s coming back,” he admitted, and felt the world falling away under his feet.

Distantly, he watched as Crowley walked deliberately to a window; opened it wide, letting in the sounds of the storm, the scent of the drowning streets. Swung by the desk to pick up a paperweight, a little mille fleurs blue glass globe from Paris. He’d loved Paris. He’d have regretted it burning. No other angel would have minded at all.

The weight of the glass globe settling into his hands startled him; the weight of Crowley’s arm sliding round his shoulder less so. He let himself collapse over into Crowley’s slender chest; he felt the way Crowley’s breath caught and held as Aziraphale curled up against him. Then Crowley breathed out again, slow and deliberate. 

“With me,” he said, “breathe with me, Angel. I’m right here. You’re safe.” 

Crowley’s hand on his arm burned, the warmth of it against the ice in his veins. He clutched at the solidity of the paperweight, held hard to its tangibility, while Crowley held to him. 

“Never felt safe.”

“With—with me?”

“They might have been watching.”

“Well, you were right,” said Crowley, after a cautious pause. “You weren’t safe. They’re dangerous. Could have done anything to you.”

“Didn’t bear thinking about.”

“So you didn’t. So ’s all coming up now.”

It was. He was suffocating in it. “Don’t want to be—to be—to be alone.” 

“Not alone,” Crowley said roughly. “I’m here.”

“Should be fine. An angel. Should be fine on my own. They left me here—all alone.”

“Not alone,” Crowley said again, insistent. “I was here too.”

“Please don’t go.”

“‘Course I won't. Not if you want me.”

“I always want you,” he whispered; shuddered at the aftertaste of that, the starving bile in it. He wanted, he wanted, he wanted. “Wish you’d just stay.”

“Do you?” murmured Crowley, and held him tighter.

Crowley should be upset by that; should accuse him of nonsense. He’d told Crowley it was all over. He’d said he didn’t like him. He'd tried to forgive him for telling the truth. He’d let him walk away.

Crowley only sat there, slow heartbeat unshaken beneath Aziraphale’s tremors, breathing steady little hisses into the quiet, and accused him of nothing.

 

So Crowley was staying. They didn’t discuss it, really; only when he’d calmed, his eyes had begun to droop, and Crowley had tucked the sofa pillow into his lap and gestured to it.

“Sssleep,” he’d invited him. Aziraphale couldn’t look at him, with that sibilant sincerity in his voice. He’d laid himself down with his face turned into Crowley’s shirt, and sunk into the safety there, the promise of rest, of feeling nothing, thinking nothing—

When he woke in the last of the night, Crowley’s hand was in his hair, a gentle weight, and Crowley’s aura around them was rosy with gladness. It was like waking up in the dawn of the world—like Eden had grown up around him under the endless rainfall—like being born into light.

Crowley was watching him. His eyes gleamed, stars in the shadows above him.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Crowley said, softly wry. “Sssleep well?”

“Yes,” he managed, and watch the roseate happiness around them shimmer at the sound of his voice. Reached out a hand to Crowley’s face; felt the delicate shape of it with just his fingertips. Crowley blinked down at him.

“You’re beautiful,” he added, after a moment, feeling as though his dreams had woken with him. He had dreamed of starfall, of worlds taking shape; of war, and peace falling, and angels singing together.

He was stroking Crowley’s cheek, and it was wet. Crowley's aura trembled with something strong enough to shake the intangible plane.

“Kiss me,” said Aziraphale. Crowley breathed out, and bent to him.

 

“It’s pissing down again,” Crowley said after a long, quiet while, when the rest of the world had begun to take shape again. “Really rubbish weather.”

“I sheltered you,” Aziraphale answered into his chest. “That first rainfall.”

“You did.”

“I was meant to be a guardian. A defender.”

“You are. Aziraphale—”

“I liked to think I’d done my part, but really I’ve neglected you. I've done you wrong. And here you are protecting me.”

“Angel—”

“I’ve lectured you, and badgered you, and refused you—”

“And asked me to your home, and let me argue my complaints, and taken my side when it counted, and hoped in my decency. Stood by me at the End when I asked you to. Aziraphale, you’ve done enough.”

”Still. I hurt you badly. It was so wrong of me.”

”Well.” Crowley was fidgeting, low-voiced. “Well, then—I forgive you.”

The sobs took him unexpectedly. They seemed to surprise Crowley too. He shuddered; his arms tightened around him almost painfully. But, “That’s it,” he muttered, gruff, “that’ll help,” and he swayed, serpentine in his tenderness. Aziraphale couldn’t bear it.

“I love you. Oh, God forgive me, I love you.”

Crowley gasped and choked above him. Sputtered, incoherent, then: “God—God forgive you! You don’t need—forgiveness—for that! For love!”

He looked up, in spite of his tears and his abashment. Met the full force of Crowley’s attention. Crowley needed to see him say this. “Not for that. For not telling you sooner. It should have been said. I adore you.”

“I—ha. Hm. I love you,” said Crowley, radiating it. Clearly taken aback, but not at all unsure. “I love you too.”

“Oh, my dear. I know.”

“You’re not afraid of it now? Of what I am?”

“I think—” Under the beautiful, terrible gaze of Crowley's eyes, Aziraphale pushed himself up to sitting properly. Some things had to be said face to face. “I think whatever you are, I’m the same.”

Crowley’s lips parted, soundless. He blinked.

“On our own side—you said. You knew already. You told me. We’ll be two of a kind.”

“You—” Crowley was flushing up, slowly, like the sunrise. Glowing at him. “You—Angel. You really mean it.”

“If I’m meant to guard the world, I want to do it with you. I learned to love it with you, Crowley.”

On another plane, Crowley’s wings unfurled, slowly; deep colors glimmering in the black depths of them, strength and triumph in their length. Crowley, on both planes, smiled. Crowley, in both worlds, reached for him.

On the sofa in a bookshop in the heart of Soho, two corporeal beings held each other on the shabby old sofa in the pale new day. London stirred and woke around them; lorries honked their horns, cabs flicked on their lights, kettles boiled and life stepped out into the morning. On another plane, two eternal beings shone and spun into orbit around one another. Fire flowed between their hearts, caught in the gravity of their joy. Two sets of wings brushed and beat and spread rampant. 

Amidst the Milky Way, Alpha Centauri roared with light; and out at the edges of reality, the Universe spun and glowed and expanded ever brighter, broader, farther into the dark.