Chapter 1: into the spaces we breathe
[Prompt: Red thread of fate]
Quotes and references have been taken from and made to Rainer Maria Rilke's The Duino Elegies.
Crowley has a habit, developed over centuries, of what he does after leaving Aziraphale. He wanders first. Now, these days, he drops his lead foot on the gas pedal, lets the wind tear at the black gloss of the Bentley. Sometimes, he takes it out past London, past anything, out on country roads where speed is no limit. Pushes the pedal, lets something rush out of him.
After some time, he finds himself back at his flat, leaning uneasily against the back of his front door. Locked. Loaded. Full up with too much and not sure how to let it go. He wraps one long skinny-fingered hand around the top of the scotch. Pours a tumbler. Drinks. Digs at his red-dirt hair, trying to rub the tension out from between his eyes. Fingers in rough circles there at the bridge of his aquiline nose. Eventually (always), Crowley finds himself here. Standing in front of a mirror, glaring at it. His dark brows furrowed as low as a storm cloud, hissing a warning like the crack of early lightning. Don't, his face seems to say. (Doesn't matter. He never listens.)
Every angel is terrifying, and yet, alas, I invoke you.
Demons and angels have more in common with each other than with any passing human. Made of the same original stock, as they so frequently mention, no demon's body is entirely new. You are never reborn from the ashes of Falling. It's just your same old form, your same old self. Just dyed dark, scuffed up. It's still you. (It would have been nice to start over, to burn everything out, Crowley thinks. It would have been nice to let go of any reminder that, once upon a time, he had been an angel. Had walked on clouds and had nectar-flavored ichor flowing through his veins. Once, he had been loved and had loved, there up in the firmament. Make the stars for me, my shining child, his Creator had said (his hands in Hers, her fingers brushing back his red-warning hair). You've always been so imaginative, why don’t you show me what you're dreaming up, She'd said. So Crowley, long before he was Crowley, had painted the stars. Polished them up with a bit of spit, hung them there. In the corner, he'd written his name. A curving, serpentine line skating from top to bottom, left to right. A straight line down through the heart of it.
(He had been created at the start of things, as all angels were. God had called him forth from nothing, a vast incomprehensible time of Before, and had named him. My shining one, She had called him, painting gold freckles across his skin. There had been a time of gold.)
He still has the same form. The same shape of himself, the same feel. He is still made of the same starstuff. It's impossible to forget. This human version parallels his true form. Sharp and made of strange planes and unexpected dips and valleys. Razor-edged. His true-form is filled with red, flaming like anything. Here, the inferno contents itself with his red red hair.
Mostly. There is more of red. Secret scrawl, quiet ink. The mark on his chest has not always been this color. Crowley breathes in, reaching up to unbutton his soil-black shirt, pulling the collar to the side. There, just under the collarbone, just over the heart, he can see the flowing lines of the scribble there on his chest. They are red now, nearly black. The misery-red of dried, dense blood. Clotted and ruined, left out to rot. He frowns at the black-red lines, touching his finger gently to them. (His eyes are as yellow as jaundice. His chin lifts, tense and tight.) The lines had been colorless once, only slightly raised. Nothing much to notice.
They haven't been colorless in six-thousand years.
This is still his same form. These curling lines have been with Crowley since the Beginning, since the first song of his name. In the Beginning, Crowley had glanced down, seeing the confession written on his chest. It is a sigil. Syllables and song, carved into his very being. Into his genetic makeup, his star-signature self. Crowley, since the dawn of time, has never existed without knowing that Aziraphale was written into him. That the song of his name is interwoven with the echoes of Aziraphale. That the silences between his heartbeat are made up with the beats of Aziraphale's own. In Heaven, the lines on his skin kept to themselves, never even threatened of pink. It's impossible to slip and fall in love when you've never met.
The first time Crowley noticed them coloring was at the Euphrates. Leaning over into the river, there under a bright and drying sun. He had cupped his hands, bringing them up to wash the dirt from his face, wash the sand from his sun-squinting eyes. His collar had been hanging low, half-undone in the heat.
Is that - ? He had wondered, pulling it further from his narrow neck. The sigil had stared back, blunt and obvious. A tangle of blush-painted lines. Fuck, he had whispered. (It had been the first use of the word on Earth.) That had been millennia ago, back in the desert, on his long stumble out of Eden. Crowley has only been falling further since. Each time he comes back from seeing Aziraphale, he peels his shirt off, peers closer. Marks his progress by the shade of the line. He measures intensity by depth. Yes, a confession here, scrawled in stygian-dark red. Shattering under the iron-heavy weight of his piled-up heart.
Crowley drops his chin, closing his eyes and breathing out. He leans against the bathroom counter. Drums his fingers on the granite surface. Fuck fuck fuck motherfuck, why? Why do I just keep on doing this? He knows that he should limit contact, shouldn't surface over at the bookshop quite so often. That he shouldn't measure the lumps in the sofa each time, seeing that they are still his own. Should bite his lip, steel his heart. Should ignore the soft pleading of Aziraphale's blue-vase eyes, that quiet invitation to their forever-dance. They have always danced like this, Crowley remembers them all. Every outstretched hand, every veiled invitation. "I've kept this coat in tip-top position. It would take a miracle to get anyone to see Hamlet. I was feeling a bit peckish."
Yeah, sure, I'll do that one. My treat. I'll do them all, everything you want. Everything you need. I can't say I love you, I can't tell you. But I can do these. I can give you things. (You never say no. Sometimes, I think you are saying 'please.')
Curling his hands into miserable fists, he remembers a moment very long ago. (This is another part of his habit, remembering a coming storm. The start of rain. Crowley hates rain.)
"They're taking the animals two by two then?" Crawly had asked, squinting at the quite-diverse line.
"Good thing they don't have to match the names. Free will and all, everything on Earth, yeah? They can just hope any two work out."
Aziraphale nods, scanning the crowds absently. His hands knotting together in worry. "It would be a tad trickier with soulmates, yes."
"Especially if they were on opposite sides. You know, like a demon. And an angel," Crawly had bit his lip then, one anxious hand in his hair, brushing it out of his face. (The wind had picked up, the black clouds were spitting rain.) He'd shrugged, looking over and watching Aziraphale very closely. "Could happen, yeah?"
Aziraphale had frowned, a heavy frown. A black mark between his brows, drawn together tensely. "It could, yes," he'd murmured.
"Yeah?" Crawly asked, swallowing. I'll show you mine if you show me yours. "Know of something like that then?"
"If you must know," Aziraphale spoke shortly, his words clipped. "Mine is one of the Fallen."
Tell me. Crawly had not moved, had held himself still, let the wind have its way with his long hair, red and wild and tangled as the lines on his chest.
"I've never met him," Aziraphale said then. Soft and faraway, looking over at the ship and the horizon. Aziraphale had looked away, never seeing how Crawly had blinked, half-stumbled. Reached up to pull his black cloak higher over his shoulder. "Not yet."
"I'm sure you will someday, angel," Crawly had said.
In the mirror, Crowley traces the sigil. Moves his skin through the stations of the name. Aziraphale Aziraphale Aziraphale, his heart scolds him, his skin reminds him. His love spelled out in the flesh.
No knot is easily undone, no tangle of threads is simple. Not all things match, few fit perfectly. Here he is, getting it wrong from the start. Made for someone who has nothing of Crowley on him, in him. An angel with different spaces in his heartbeats, different silences for a name with different syllables (someone Aziraphale has never met).
Not Crowley. (He should have known, shouldn't have hoped.) Should have known better. An old poem sounds across his mind. "And yet, when you have survived the terror of the first glances, the longing at the window, and the first walk together, once only, through the garden: lovers, are you the same?"
I've never met him, Aziraphale had said, not yet.
No, they are not the same. (He really should know better by now.)
Chapter 2: a star was waiting for you to notice it
[Prompt: "Some words are stones set to sink you." - Jen Town, from “Telephone, 1988.”]
The hall looks like it could go on forever. It echoes into itself, sounds bouncing from floor to wall. Mirrors showing endless other versions of this same night. Aziraphale can see himself reflected over and over and over again. He sees the pale hair. Sees the troubled sandy blue of his eyes. The rest is concealed by a silver mask, fitted with porcelain and well-painted.
No faces. No real names. Come in, the night says, let’s play a game.
No names, no real faces, yet he’d know that red hair anywhere. Would know Crowley in his black bad habit, no matter how many masks he might wear. Breathe in. (The night feels strange. He is out of space and out of time. Tonight, nothing is real.) Crowley stands against a long window, a dark figure hardly interrupting the late-night navy sky. The hall’s candlelight catches on him. The gold of his mask, the intricate carvings, the glint on the dark lenses. His hair pulled back, curled and set, left long. (Aziraphale remembers a wall of roses in a garden once. He remembers how they had hung in Babylon, climbed the walls. A fall of red.)
“Angel?” Crowley asks, dark brow as arched as an aqueduct.
“What the devil are you supposed to be?”
“Can’t you guess, my dear?”
“You look like a satin-covered Bacchus.”
“Christ. you are. You’re a lace-dripping Dionysus.”
Aziraphale beams, adjusting the false grapes pinned to his curls. “So good of you to notice.”
“You do know that everything’s supposed to be topsy turvy right now,” Crowley says. “You’re practically playing to type.” Topsy turvy. Inside out and upside down. Nothing is as it is, today everything is shifted. Inverted. They are talking in circles (have always been). Aziraphale watches Crowley’s shadowed face, lingering over the barest peek of gold shimmering past the mask. Past the dark lenses. Dance with me? I think we’re getting warmer. Are we? (Does it feel that way to you too?)
“So I should do what I’m not supposed to?” Aziraphale repeats, watching Crowley’s skinny-lipped mouth.
“Well, you old serpent, tell me why you’re here then? Sounds like they’re doing all the tempting for you.”
“Open bar,” Crowley grins. (A devil grin, charming. Teeth seeming pointed in this corner, the light catching on them. Some things ache to be bitten, to be held still. To be caught.) Bite me. Kiss me, is that wrong enough that it might be right today? Don’t tease me here, telling me that there might be a moment when no one is watching.
The trouble is the weight of knots. There’s a tangle of threads there over his chest. Aziraphale never looks at them. He changes his clothing as quickly as possible. If he can, he miracles clothes on and miracles them off again. Don’t let the measure of yourself out. If you don’t look too close, if you don’t talk about it, we might be okay.
His redthread tangle, scattered over his heart, scribbling out a name. Aziraphale knows the cords of himself. They are dark red, miserably red.
They have been for millennia. Long before he stumbled into Eden, brushing burrs from white linen, leaves from his dandelion-spit hair. He’d glanced over the green, seen the red of the roses and the apple too, had seen a red echoed there. You can fall in love with someone you’ve never met. Aziraphale had never met the angel who’d scribbled his name all over his chest. Not properly. Instead, he had loved him like all strangers do. From across a hall, from the other side of the room. Aziraphale had heard his Promised Land’s name called and snapped his head up, watching the other man gather himself up, cross the room.
I’ll introduce myself tomorrow. Tomorrow will be best, yes. I’ll do it tomorrow. Aziraphale told himself that. A day had passed. A week, a month. A year. Years. So on, so forth. Aziraphale watched and colored in the mess on his rib cage. One day, the chair was empty. One day, Aziraphale listened and heard nothing of the familiar voice (warm against him, taking up space in his ears, in his inward breath).
“We’re missing a few today -“ Aziraphale had said. One-third. He turns and scans the choir, dotted with interruptions. Absences. Empty spaces. Nothing of that well-remembered face.
Oh, them. Don’t you know? They’re the ones who Fell.
“Angel?” Crowley says, leaning closer. The music picks up. There is a hum of laughter echoing against the marble tile, the columns. Aziraphale sees himself reflected in a thousand glittering wine glasses, in a thousand bodice-sewn diamonds. He looks at the sea of dancers, moving forward, yes, and back again too. Closes his eyes, breathes in. If he ran forward, he could collapse in a sea of deep blue silk, French lace. Could be caught softly, at least for a little while. At least until the dance ends, at least until the end of the night. Until the lights go out, the floor is swept. Until the glasses are cleared and the music ends.
“Just the wine, dear,” Aziraphale murmurs. “I’m afraid it’s rather gone to my head.”
“Want me to walk you back?” Crowley asks, his dark brow dipping. “Let’s blow this joint.”
“Oh, you don’t have to. You can stay, don’t leave on my account, my dear boy -“
“Aziraphale, this party is dreadful. You’re the only bastard even remotely interesting.”
“What high praise,” Aziraphale says, a faint smile on his face.
Crowley laughs, tossing his head back a little. A bit of hair gone wild, caught in the movement. Falling like stars over his brow. Red threads. Red, a pool of red ink. Ready to be dipped into, ready to be drawn up the pen, written all over.
I love you. (Aziraphale thinks it and feels his chest pulse. The raised skin of the sigilmark tightening, complaining, saying don’t forget about me. I was here first. I laid claim, put my flag here. I smashed your windows, crawled inside. The first love. Don’t find another love.)
Can you love twice? Aziraphale doesn’t know. He hears the old promise of his blood. It has been thousands of years. Perhaps there is a hole in his heart. Where did the love go? Faded, dripping out. Now here he is, filling himself back up again. It’s different this time.
They walk back to Aziraphale’s house along cobblestone roads. Under the watchful eaves of whispering houses, leaning across the road to tell their secrets. They walk back and hear their boots click on the stone paths, echo from wooden boards, picked up by rats and doves. Pigeons. The odd magpie.
Aziraphale pauses at the door, turns back. “Come in for a drink?”
“Since when have I ever said no?” (Never. You haven’t. Not to me.)
“It is a Carnival day, after all. Do as you shouldn’t and all that.”
Crowley grins, “That’s the spirit.”
“I’ll get the glasses,” Aziraphale says. He moves to the side table. The bottle of red there. The cups. This is a familiar habit. Part of the dance. How do we open a story? With a bottle of wine, of which there were many before, of which there will be many after. He pours the glasses, turns around.
Crowley is there, close behind him. His mask off and laid on the table. Golden eyes watching Aziraphale, strangely lit. I could kiss you. I could, right now. It would hardly be a stretch. You’re scarce inches from me, It’d be so simple, so easy. Would you let me? If I slipped and fell, would you catch me?
“Here,” Aziraphale says, offering a glass. He pushes it forward, making space between their bodies with the drink.
“Thanks,” Crowley murmurs. “Cheers, angel.”
“What are we toasting?”
Crowley shrugs. “Whatever we like, I guess.”
“What would that be?”
(See the hand still on the glass. See the ground-out tension of Crowley’s sharp-edged jaw. The vein beating at the temple, reminding him of their human hearts.)
“What do you want it to be?”
Sometimes lying is a virtue. Aziraphale can feel the words in his pockets, words sewn into him, each with their own weight. Be careful how close you get to the deep end, the words will drag you right down with them. Best keep to the shallows. Aziraphale lies because the truth is a brick. He’s not ready to shatter their glass-house friendship. The truth, to lovers, is a luxury. Would-be lovers live on budgets, parcel out their income of kind words and brushed hands. Plan out how to spend their next wordless confession.
“I don’t suppose I want anything really.” (That’s not true. I want you. I love you in a way I should not. It’s never felt like this before. I shouldn’t. I spend centuries away from you, trying to pick it out. Then you’re there again and I’m like Prometheus on his rock, staring at his new liver. Grown back again, ready to be plucked out.)
Crowley shifts on the sofa, dropping one angled arm against it. One lazy finger wet and drawing circles around the rim of the glass, making it sing. Aziraphale watches the hands, the long line of his dark-jacket arm. The black blouse. Wildfire hair.
Who do you belong to? He wants to ask, he never asks. Crowley’s never spoken of his own mark. Never breathed a word. Sometimes, it is easy to forget, to assume that there’s nothing there below his night-painted fabric. Only skin like pale fire and nothing more. Wide open and ready to be marked. (Aziraphale thinks of pulling Crowley on top of him, pulling his nails down the length of Crowley’s back until there were long lines of red raised skin left. New red threads, ready to be tangled up. made shapes out of. Red threads to do anything with that he likes.)
“Nothing?” Crowley asks. Teasing through the space between them. He leans forward, his voice like spider-silk between them. Closer, closer still. “You’re full of it. You want everything! Look, if I rolled up here with a full opera cake, you’d want it. Never seen you turn down a croquembouche.”
“Yes, well, I can have those things, Crowley.”
The clock is very loud sometimes, daring to tick away and measure uneasy silences.
“So - something you can’t have.”
“That is the general principle, yes.” (Careful of the water, careful of the deep end. Love is heavy. Don’t skip, don’t fall in. You know better.)
“Sounds like a miracle, you know, getting everything you want,” Crowley laughs. Aziraphale laughs. (See Crowley, see the laugh. How it doesn’t quite reach the eyes. See Crowley, with long spiderleg fingers, pulling Aziraphale away from the deep water.)
“Crowley,” Aziraphale admonishes. Feet once more on familiar ground. This is the familiar part of the dance. One teases, the other scolds.
“If I remember right,” Crowley drawls, “You said you might want to open a bookshop.”
“Well,” Aziraphale lets his vision of old books and dusty shelves settle once more over him. A goosedown blanket of a dream, wrapping him up with it. “I have rather been thinking about it.”
“Go on then,” Crowley says, settling his tangle-bones self against the seat cushion. “Tell me everything.”
Not everything, not everything. I won’t lay that on you, I won’t pack my love up and balance it on your shoulders. There’s nothing I can offer you. I cannot love you (I do).
Some words are stones sent to sink you. Aziraphale knows this. He knows the weight of this tangled red thread on his skin, tied to a name like a stone to drag him down.
Chapter 3: we breathe ourselves out and away
[Prompt: "Perfume is a form of writing, an ink, a choice made in the first person, the dot on the i, a weapon, a courteous gesture, part of the instant, a consequence. " -S. Lutens.]
“Please say hello to your husband for me,” Aziraphale’s neighbor calls. She is standing outside of her shop (specializing in adult wares and books, videos too), washing the windows.
Aziraphale blinks. Once, twice. “I beg your pardon?”
The woman frowns at him. “Oh, partner? Boyfriend? Sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed. The chap in the dark glasses that’s always at your place. You two are quite adorable together.”
Oh. Oh. “Adorable?” Aziraphale repeats, the words faint to his own ears.
She grins. “You can always tell when someone’s shit up a creek without a paddle about their partner. In my line of work, you get good at knowing.” His neighbor spares a wink. “Plus, you know, you can’t get within two feet of either of you without noticing that you wear the same cologne. Bit strong, you might want to dial that down.”
“Oh, quite,” Aziraphale nods, dazed. In love? Both of us? (He forgets entirely to correct her, to say no, we’re not together. No, we hardly know each other. No, we’re not even friends.)
Aziraphale walks back to his shop. Shuts the door behind him, flips the sign to closed. Wanders upstairs, into his little bathroom. See the mismatched tile floor, the ancient towels. This white ceramic sink. There is a little glass shelf over it with a small dish of shell-shaped French lavender soaps. There is a glass jar stuffed with cotton balls. There is a bottle of cologne. Aziraphale picks up the bottle of cologne. Turns it over in his careful hands, his fingers leaving small prints on the dark glass. He uncaps it. Turns the bottle over, pressing his finger to the top. Smells the vetiver and cedar, the cypress and the sandalwood too.
Crowley had recommended the cologne. Decades ago, sometime in the mid-seventies. Aziraphale has worn it daily since then. He dots it on his wrists, there at the hollow of his throat. He cannot smell it without thinking of Crowley, without that scent-memory washing over him of when Crowley leans in too close, lingers a little too long. He wears the cologne like he is pilfering something in the night, stealing pieces of Crowley. Pickpocketing them, shoplifting them. Keeping them for himself.
Say hello to your husband for me, his neighbor had said. Aziraphale had never thought that sharing Crowley’s smell might leave the wrong impression. He wants to steal these words too. Like blankets in the night, curl up with them around himself. Keep himself warm and safe in the wool of them, the softness. Aziraphale has very carefully never combined the two concepts, Crowley and husband. Crowley and partner. The space on his chest throbs as he thinks of it. The weight of the name (not-Crowley) on his chest. The heart-in-love beneath it.
Aziraphale is in love with Crowley. That’s the trouble. He sighs. Frowns. Catches his own eyes in the mirror, the reflection admonishing him for his utter foolishness. His magpie tendency to collect little treasures, to shepherd sensations and memories. He holds the bottle over the sink, tilting it.
God, it smells like Crowley.
I can’t. I’m soft. I’m weak. I can’t. No, he’ll never be able to pour out the cologne, never be able to pour Crowley down the drain and wash him away with a bit of water. He raises his own eyebrows at himself as he recaps the bottle. He’s still scolding himself as he pulls the old trunk out from beneath his bed, secreting the bottle away somewhere safe. (A trunk, centuries old. There are other treasures in there. Aziraphale is a tactile creature. A sensualist. He aches to touch, to smell, to taste. This is as close as he might get. See the letters here, written for the past four-hundred years, never addressed and never sent. No names, couched in plausible deniability. There is a lock of firefly-red hair, taken once by miracle and in secret, stolen from a barbershop floor. There is, most damning of all, a black feather. It’s long lost its owner’s scent but Aziraphale picks it up and runs the feather over the planes of his linen-lined face, down his neck, his forearms. He brushes the lock of hair against his lips. Against his eyelids. If this were different, if it were you and you were here, I could rest my head against your hair like this and this is what it would feel like.
Aziraphale is a thief of sensation. He locks the trunk again, shoves it under the bed. Good riddance and all that, he thinks, really it’s too foolish to think about. I should get rid of it, the whole trunk. I’ll just leave it alone. For now. Until I can dispose of it properly, of course. (We always know when we’re lying to ourselves. It’s never much more than a week or two until Aziraphale gives in again, drags the trunk back out, pretends to live another life. Not this one. Not his own. No, another life, one in which he can give himself freely. One where he is left unclaimed and blank, the space over his heart empty, to be filled in by his own hand.)
He’ll buy a new cologne tomorrow. Something different. Something not remotely the same. Keep the distance, keep it safe. He’ll be careful this time. He knows better.
A month later, Crowley frowns suddenly, sniffing the air. Aziraphale’s skin prickles, the Antichrist long forgotten.
“Something’s changed,” Crowley says, hand still gripping the bottle of whiskey.
“Oh,” Aziraphale says, fretting. You’ve noticed. “It’s a new cologne. My barber suggested it.”
Crowley scowls at him. “Not you. I know what you smell like.“
I know what you smell like. It echoes around in Aziraphale’s ribcage, leaving him off-center. Later in the evening, the taste of those words still lingering on his tongue, Aziraphale ventures forward. "Do you like it?”
“What?” Crowley asks.
“My cologne. The new one, my dear.”
“Sure, yeah. S'good, angel,” Crowley says, pausing. He toys with his glass, letting the wheat-colored liquid slide to and fro. His brow dips, dark and furrowed. “Why’d you change it? Figured it’d take you at least another century to make another change.” (His head tips rather pointedly towards Aziraphale’s outfit. The well-worn waistcoat, the fading velvet of him.)
“Oh,” Aziraphale says, forcing lightness into his tone. “Keeping up with the times and all that. Getting on the program."
"Getting with the program,” Crowley mutters. There’s a curl to his mouth that Aziraphale never misses. A choked-off smile.
“Quite right, dear,” Aziraphale says, leaning back into his chair. He runs a nervous fingertip over the brocade of the wingback. Pushes slightly into the cushion. Pilfering touch. Substitutions for what he wants. Crowley is not on the menu, no, so he reaches for the cushion of his chair instead. “Besides, it’s really your signature scent, isn’t it?"
Crowley stares at him. After two-thousand years of his cordoned-off eyes, Aziraphale has gotten rather good at knowing when Crowley is watching him. He can read the direction of his glance by the minute strains of his cheek, his eyebrows. When he cannot see Crowley’s eyes, he learns other tells instead. Crowley is staring at him.
"I don’t mind,” Crowley says, picking slowly over his words. Carefully tasting them. “If we wear the same one. Besides, it’s probably less noticeable when I’m here, yeah? With nosy Gabriel and his lackeys sniffin’ around.”
Aziraphale blinks. He had not considered that. The protection that might come in walking single-file, hiding themselves in each other. Layering pieces of themselves to pretend to be one or other, never the two together. Oh, that - that makes sense. (But I don’t know if I can bear it. Being mistaken for being half of you.)
“That’s - that’s a fair point,” Aziraphale murmurs.
Crowley shrugs. “No big, angel. Anyway, you’re empty. Pass me your glass.”
Aziraphale leans forward as Crowley does. Passing the crystal tumbler into Crowley’s care, his safekeeping-fingers. They do not brush (Aziraphale is too careful). Instead, he breathes in. Pulls the air into his lungs and fills himself with the faded smell of cologne applied hours ago. There’s the vetiver. There’s the cedar. The cypress. The sandalwood. Other things, a bit of smoke and apples. Something of seared skin, the metallic burn of iron or blood. Cologne wears differently on all skin, we mix our own selves with it. Our oils and skin cells. This is Crowley’s smell.
Aziraphale inhales, always stealing senses. Pilfering this bit of Crowley from the air, winding it down, deep within his lungs. Stolen and safe.
This is enough. This is enough. It must be enough. If this is all I get to keep of you, your shed skin cells, the smell of you on the back of the air, a lost feather (millennia-old, miracle-preserved), then I can make do. A meager meal of you is better than any feast of anyone else. I love you. It will be enough.
It has to be.
Chapter 4: red sky at night
[Prompt: After the storm.]
Somewhere in the English countryside
There is a bus.
There is a bus and there is the oldest song in the world. How does it go? You know it already. Go on then. Clear your throat, raise your voice. Sing it with me.
His fingers are twitching. Tightening and releasing. Nothing for it, really. Crowley tries to will his palms to stay dry, his fingers to relax. He could, theoretically, pull his hand back and wipe his sweat-damp hands on his dark jeans. He could, yes. But that would mean removing his hand from where Aziraphale holds it.
They have been on this bus for an hour. Aziraphale had taken his hand at the start and has not let go.
It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t. I promise you I won’t be a fucking idiot. I promise you that I won’t read too much into this. I get it, it’s been a real long day. We need a drink. I need to sleep for a thousand years. It’s not over, is it? You know that. I know that. They still want their war. They’ll grind us to dust to get it. (I won’t let them touch you.)
“You sleep at night, don’t you, my dear?” Aziraphale says. His voice shakes as much as Crowley’s fingers. Shake, rattle, and roll. Aziraphale hasn’t really turned from where he’d been staring straight ahead, aimless and thought-veiled.
“Yeah,” Crowley says. “Usually. But I don’t have to. Wasn’t planning on it while you’re there."
"Oh,” he whispers. “Thank you. I’d like - well, I don’t - It’s just that I suppose I’d appreciate the company."
Crowley squeezes his hand. "I’ve got you, angel.”
His shirt is damp. The miserable wet of it all, insult to injury. Salt in the wound. The world had nearly ended and had been reborn and, just like the first time the Earth had been called forth from the primordial dark, there had been a spot of rain. He could miracle it away. He doesn’t. Some miserable things prefer to let their aches air out. Leave the paracetamol on the counter, let the leg throb. If you can feel everything, you always know the size of it. The weight of it. To miracle the rain away, to take the medicine, is to turn a blind eye. Eventually, the drug will wear off. The rain will come. The misery returns. It’s worse when you can see the sun in the middle. Get a breath of fresh air.
Better to let it stay. Let it fester. Let it rot.
I told you this was an old story. Let’s look back. Somewhere back in time, back in Mesopotamia. It had rained then too. The somber sky had gathered with Old Testament clouds and the storm had started to spit. Crowley had been there, Aziraphale at his side. Crowley had covered his eyes with his hands, trying to keep the rain out. Trying not to get too wet.
“Guess the big storm is here, eh?” Crowley had said, nudging Aziraphale. Thinking of getting his raven wings out, taking to the sky. Go on, get yours out too, angel. There’s nothing for us here. Not if this is God’s plan. God’s brilliant fucking ineffable plan, drowning the lot of them. All of them together. Except them all up there on the boat. Escaping. Running away. Two by two.
He’d watched the last animals be hurried onto the ark, two by two. At the end, Noah had stroked his grey beard and cast an uneasy look at the heavens. (I’m counting on you, it had seemed to say.) He’d stretched out his wide, creased hand and taken his wife’s in his own. Had walked with her up and into the ark.
Two by two. Out from the storm.
Thousands of years later, Crowley is holding Aziraphale’s hand. Led up into a bus after a spot of rain. After a world-ending storm. They’d gone up together, found their seats. Sat down. Hand in hand.
Two by two. Out from the storm.
Crowley bites the inside of his cheek. There’s blood in his mouth. Salt and iron, like sucking on a coin. Our side. It’s just us. You and me, me and you. There’s no one else like us in the world. In the Universe. Heaven and Hell and humanity too and we’re not really any of them. There’s a whole storm out there, a red-sky warning, and I’m sorry that at the end of everything, all you have is me. I tried. I promise. I did.
I wanted it to be okay. (I didn’t know what it would look like.)
“Can we talk? At your place, I mean. It might help to clear my head.”
“Yeah,” Crowley drawls, pulling the last dregs of confidence from the wine bottle. He licks his lips. “We need a plan anyway.”
“I have a plan.”
“Huh?” Crowley blinks.
Aziraphale hesitates, looking at him. “Oh, well, I don’t think you’ll like it. Don’t get excited.”
Crowley arches a brow. “Look, I really don’t have a lot of standards right now, you know? I’m gonna love anything that keeps us alive and in one piece.”
(I tried to keep us together. Alive. In one piece. I know it was a cock-up idea, running off to the stars. I know, I know, I know. Couldn’t think of anything else. When the storm is coming and the world is drowning, where else is there to go but the sky?
So I asked you to come. Two by two.)
Aziraphale smiles. It’s small but it’s there, as sure as anything, folded up in the quirk of his lip. Crowley feels like dawn is in his chest, like his heart might have been replaced with a bit of sun when he wasn’t looking. Fuck, I’m completely stupid for you. It’s that terrible pull of love, that spiderweb, that marionette string. We are tied to our love, to our love’s smiles and frowns. When you droop, I will try to pull, try to raise you back up. I love you, we say, offering ourselves, our bit of buoyancy. We offer love like it might be helium, as if it might bear you back up to the sky.
I love you, he thinks. But his love doesn’t float, so he doesn’t say it.
“There are things I should, well, rather tell you first,” Aziraphale goes on, that old determined look in his eye. His steel-spine straight in his chair, his shoulders square. Crowley swallows, nodding a bit. (He minds his own lazy spine. In his seat, his own body is a pile of skin and bones, dark denim and designer cologne.)
“Alright. What sort of things?”
“Not here,” Aziraphale whispers. “Later. With privacy."
Crowley’s dark eyebrow does a high jump. "Privacy,” he repeats flatly. He looks down suddenly. Aziraphale’s thumb has started gently moving over his knuckles, soothing the tension. The little aches, the little pains. Healing them. They won’t come back, not like this, the ache torn out at the root, gentled at the source. (Crowley wants to take those healer’s hands and peel his skin back, his ribcage too, put them directly on his heart.)
He looks up, Aziraphale is still holding him there with his gaze. In the low light of the bus, his eyes seem navy and endless. Deep as the wine-dark sea. (Crowley imagines drowning. Imagines descending. Taking a bathyscape and counting the hours as he sinks to the sand-bottom ocean floor, there with a lead line. There with a long measuring tape. You could get lost here.)
“You said you’d give me a lift once. Anywhere I wanted to go.”
Crowley nods again. His mouth dry. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “I did that.”
The hand on his tightens. “Would you - ever ask anyone else to go?”
He shakes his head. His other hand nervously fiddles with the folds on his jeans, rises up to run through his wreck of flare-red hair. No, never. You’re the only one on the invitation. It’s always been you. Never anyone else. I’ll go anywhere you like, any speed you like. Promise. Promise.
Aziraphale opens his mouth. Closes it. Looks away, smoothing out a slight crease in his trousers. The terrible light catches on his hair. Doesn’t matter. It’s still like creamline milk. Honey-dipped. They have the wine, they can get a rose. Crowley isn’t breathing.
“We have a lot to discuss,” Aziraphale says finally. He loosens his grip on Crowley’s hand but only to bring his touch higher, to turn Crowley’s hand around to face palm up. He threads their fingers together now in the way Noah had taken the hand of his wife. Not as they had been, a casual mess of uncertain fingers artlessly placed.
Each finger finds a home in the spaces of the other. Fitted as if bespoke. Crowley stares at them, the two hands together.
“I think the rain’s stopped,” Aziraphale says, glancing out the window.
Crowley blinks. Blinks again. His heart is a ruin in his chest, aching beautifully. It hurts when you pull a splinter out, it’s painful to pick glass out of your skin. His heart thumps, wild and running, losing its splinters as it goes.
“Yeah,” he says, “guess it has.”
It’s an old story about a storm. It’s a love song. (It might, Crowley thinks, even be a happy song.) Once upon a time, there was an ark. Noah kept birds, petted their wings with his wide hands. When the raven flew, it found only water, only floods, only rain.
It was the dove that found dry land.
They left the ark then, two by two.
Chapter 5: where are the days of tobias
“Look at you, you’re pissed,” Crowley says, laughing about it. His voice bounces off the walls, the hardwood table. The wine glass. The door to the pub is left wide open, the windows too. The sounds and smells of the city roll in. The cobblestone and asphalt shit-stink of summer. A scent of flowers too, drifting over from a table nearby where a woman is tying wildflowers into bouquets to be hung upside down to dry. Meadowsweet and marsh marigolds, thrift and burnet rose.
There’s a gleam in Aziraphale’s cornflower eyes. “Yes, well, and so what if I am?” He purses his lips, a bit of a smile in the corners. “So are you, my dear.”
“Well, yeah, I am, ‘course I am,” Crowley grins. “Just sayin’, ’S not often you wax philosophical at me while sober, angel. You really think there’s a plan? A real, proper plan that God’s still keepin’ an eye on? All this?”
“Of course,” Aziraphale says. He takes the fourth bottle, sticking his tongue out of his wine-drunk mouth slightly, concentrating on popping the cork. “We cannot know God’s plan though. It’s -”
“Ineffable,” Crowley grouses, dragging his icepick-fingers through his mess of hair. It scatters everywhere. Tossed and turned and thrown about like a sleepless night. Short and sea-waved, red as Phlegethon, the river of blood. Red as the lake of fire. “Yeah, yeah. I know."
The question of God is strychnine-flavored. It catches in his throat. Is there a plan? Has there ever been? Feels like a mess to me. Feels like God just threw the damn ball of thread down here, told us to untangle it ourselves. We might not be able to without a knife. You might have to cut it apart. Tie it back together. Crowley carries his doubt in his mouth. He always has. The trouble with the plan is that he’s blind to it. It’s laid there invisibly against his life and Crowley cannot tell if he is following the pattern or moving away from it. He knows the measure of Heaven, yes, and the word of Hell too. But God is something else. You’re not part of it anymore, are you? Just fucked on off all those thousands of years ago, haven’t even looked back once. Kicked me out, locked the door, washed your hands. Didn’t even stick around to make sure I hit the ground. You left the light on, yeah, but there’s no one there to answer the door. When did you stop listening? (How dare you let anyone think there’s a plan. A map. That you’re even still looking.)
"Do you ever want it?” Crowley asks. He says the words carefully. Picks the question up out of nowhere, dusting it off with his curious tongue. “Free will, I mean.”
He watches Aziraphale without breathing. See how Aziraphale is pressed there into his chair. The ramrod-straight spine, firm lean of wool-trousered thighs into the wood seat, grounding himself. Where there is no plan to cling to, Aziraphale hangs onto the earth instead. He stares at his cup. Runs a thumb up and down the side. There’s a slight catch of breath.
“It’s not how I’m made.”
“Didn’t ask that.”
There’s a pause. Aziraphale looks up, light tangling in his pale hair. “I know.”
Crowley nods. It’s bitter, this slow drag of his sharp chin upward and down again. The taste of his breathed-in air, heavy with wine and want. He should know better. (He doesn’t.) Once again, this ancient ache. What he wants, what he cannot have. What he’ll never dare ask for. The storm that batters at him, this bit of rain from the beginning of the world. Once, once, long ago, Aziraphale had covered him with a wing. Had given him shade from the damp of God’s plan. (Please let me come in from the storm.)
Doesn’t matter. It’s not to be. Not part of the plan. (Tell me about us. About what we both want. I think I know what you want. Doesn’t what we want matter? Don’t we both matter?)
Aziraphale clears his throat. “Yes,” he says then. “I do. Want that.” He dips his chin to his chest, brings it up again. Crowley knows all his habits, his physical tells. This is how Aziraphale draws courage into his heart, his lungs, his veins. Courage like oxygen, pulled from the air. “I want to do as I like."
"How can you - how can you tell you don’t have it? Free will and all that? I mean, angel,” Crowley asks. His questions come out a little too fast, a little too harsh. If his knuckles are white on his glass, who can blame him? (It’s been so long.) “What’s stopping you?”
“Crowley!” Aziraphale says, looking up. Scandal in his wide eyes. “You cannot seriously be suggesting - ”
“What am I suggesting, Aziraphale?” Crowley asks, staring at him directly.
Aziraphale flushes. His Adam’s apple dances. “Please, my dear. Be reasonable -”
Crowley closes his eyes, hidden there behind dark lenses. “Look, ’m not, ’m not suggesting anything. Honest. I’m really not, angel. Whatever you like,” he says. (His heart doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Let it go. Let the thread spin out, let it go. Keep hanging onto the end of it. This labyrinth is long and twisted, let the thread spin. Follow it back. Walk it back.) “Seriously. I just - I’m curious, yeah? How can you tell?”
“Well, my dear, there are the obviously right things - ”
“Angel. Look at me. I Fell. A lot of us did. One-third, yeah? Either God wanted me to Fall. Planned the whole thing, even. Or we have free will. It’s one or the other.”
Aziraphale shifts uneasily. His hand reflexively moves over his chest, rubbing blindly at the skin beneath his worn velvet waistcoat. Crowley tries not to watch. Is there a plan? A rubric, a set of directions, a guiding path? Theseus had once found his way through the planned labyrinth by a ball of red twine, unrolling it as he had gone, winding it back up to return. Crowley thinks of the tangled thread on both of their chests.
“That too,” Crowley mutters darkly, staring at Aziraphale’s hand over his heart.
"You mentioned yours is a demon,” Crowley says, gesturing without explanation. (None is needed. This topic is never far from their minds. This conversation is endless and ever-present.) “If there’s a plan and no free will, then the Almighty planned to make him Fall too. And to put you together. Bit absurd if you ask me.” And cruel. Real fucking cruel. You can’t forbid something and then force it. You can’t just test someone to destruction. It’s not fair. It’s ludicrous. We’re not mice. You’re kinder to mice.
“You don’t think they matter then? The marks?” Aziraphale asks.
Crowley drains his glass, drops the empty thing on the table. Reaches for the bottle. Aziraphale passes it over. Their fingers graze each other, sparks of warmth. Skin loves skin, life rejoices in life. Crowley pulls his magnet fingers back, cursing the laws of attraction. He looks up at Aziraphale, catching his sight. He holds the pale eyes with his own.
“I’d burn the marks out, if I could."
"Have you met yours?”
“Oh,” Aziraphale says, his brow furrowing. “And you’re not - ”
"Oh,” Aziraphale nods. “I thought you had to - you didn’t have a choice - "
I love you. I don’t love you because I should or because I shouldn’t. I love you because you swallowed the sun. I love you because you try to bite back your smiles and your worry too, it makes your mouth wobble. I love you because I know you keep your tension in the small of your back and the nape of your neck and I want to rub it out. That’s the thing about free will, you know. It doesn’t just mean that you do what you’re not supposed to, love who you shouldn’t. Sometimes, worst of all, you realize they were right all along.
I hate that. Doing what I’m told. (It doesn’t matter. You hear that? I love you. That’s the important bit. I’d cut this soul mark off of me, burn it out, sear it off. I’d still love you without it. I will follow you anywhere, lead by a red thread or no.)
"Do you believe in love?” Aziraphale asks, strange and faraway. “Despite that?”
Crowley wants to explain. To tell a story. He wants to say let me tell you about something terrible I did, thousands of years ago in Media. It hadn’t started with love, that hadn’t been the point of the whole thing. It had, quite simply, started with a grudge and a desire to shove Asmodeus’ unfortunate face in the mud. Crowley had heard that Asmodeus had been killing the husbands of a kind woman every night, right before the marriage could be consummated. So, Crowley had gone to the next one, lying all the way. He’d told Tobias that he was his kinsman, that he’d walk with him to Media. Just the three of them, Crowley and Tobias, the little dog too.
I just wanted to cause some trouble.
When Tobias and Sarah met, Crowley had seen love. It had leveled mountains, it had turned over the tables in the temple of his heart. So, yes, he believes in love. The brightness is searing, as ruinous as staring at the sun. It had burned holes in his retinas, left him scarred by the warmth.
(“Who are you?” Tobias had asked his matchmaking friend. The question had come much later, as he’d cottoned onto the lie.
So Crowley had fibbed again. This one had been a little closer to the truth. Merely a matter of timelines and tenses. “I am an angel of the Lord,” he had said. Once upon a time, that is. Once upon a time. That was a very long time ago.)
Instead of telling Aziraphale this, he just shrugs strangely in his black suit.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sure I do. I mean they fall in love.” He jerks his head toward the others in the bar, loud in their human voices, human heartbeats. Human wants. “Why should it be different for us? Don’t think it’s got fuck all to do with any kind of plan.” If anything it’s probably the opposite. Love’s probably what happens where the plan gets dicey. Weak. This long red thread leading through God’s labyrinth. It’s broken, isn’t it? We’re each a thread, a piece of it. Knotted together. Love is where the knots are.
“Humans. Like humans."
Crowley shrugs. Swallows. He watches that worrywobble mouth, the way Aziraphale licks his lip. Follows Aziraphale’s line of sight to his own hand, nervously drumming on the table.
He stops moving. What if I reached for you right now? What would you do? Would you turn away? Tell us not to? Would you tell me the name on your chest, say that you’re sorry, you’ve been put on layaway for someone else? (I love you despite that I’m supposed to. Could you love me even though you should not? Tell me what the difference is. Meet me in the middle. I’ve been building a home for us in the middle. In the eye of the storm.
"Don’t think we’re all that different, angel,” Crowley says. “More in common than different, really."
"Yes,” Aziraphale says, absent and faded, as if lost in a memory. “We have a lot in common."
Crowley doesn’t know what to say to that. So he does what he always does. Shrugs and lets his sunglasses hide his confusion. Hides his question-mark mouth behind a glass of wine.
Aziraphale glances to the leather satchel beside him. "Thank you,” he says, looking up. His eyes have an odd shine to them, something Crowley has seen thousands and thousands of times. Something he brings out to remember on cold nights. Something he tries to never read much into. It’s stronger than usual, a look in his eyes as sweeping as violins. “Thank you for saving the books."
"Don’t mention it. S’ nothing."
Aziraphale parts his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again. Pink and warm, soft as anything. Crowley throws the threads in the fire. His own and the ones on Aziraphale’s heart too. Whoever that bastard on your chest is, he can’t love you like I love you. He doesn’t know you like I know you.
Let us go.
"Do you think the war will be over soon?” Aziraphale asks.
"Oh, I hope so,” Aziraphale offers a hesitant smile. A twitch in his fingers on the table. His other hand strokes the leather of the satchel’s handle. It’s an absentminded petting, a sought-out comfort.
Crowley wants to reach for his hand. He doesn’t. No, instead he digs a bit of hope out from the black soil of himself. “All wars have to eventually, angel,” he says, his voice soft. Gentle as a blackout curtain. “Everything does.”
Eventually, all wars end. Nations rise and fall, statues are born and eroded away by wind and rain and their greedy fingers. Eventually, we reach the end of the thread. Crowley wonders how knotted it is, how long it might take to untangle. If it will ever untangle.
I’m still holding on, angel. Promise. (Will I find you at the other end?)
Chapter 6: in the night air
The bus comes to a stop. Crowley nods at Aziraphale.
“Last stop,” he says.
“After you, dear."
He likes it best when Crowley leads. It’s easier that way, caught in that bit of drag. You can relax the gas pedal a bit, rest your foot, let physics do what it will to drag your boat across the water. So Aziraphale stands up and waits, lets Crowley pass by. He drops a little miracle into the bus driver’s subconscious. A restful night and welcome dreams, a lucky lottery ticket too.
You can stay at my place, if you like. It’s still ringing there in Aziraphale’s hollow ears. He swallows and tightens his fists, relaxes them again. The gold ring cuts into his small finger, threatening his circulation. He shifts, squares his shoulders, lets them down again. He has no idea what to do with himself.
"Alright there?” Crowley asks, latching the door behind them, quirking a brow up past the dark lenses.
“Yes, I’m - I’m quite fine.”
“You’re looking kinda green for fine.”
“It’s been rather a long day, my dear.”
Crowley nods. “Yeah, sure has. Want a - ”
Aziraphale looks around the flat. It’s dark, grey-walled and nearly like a cave. He shivers slightly, a spike up the spine. It’s not unpleasant. Some caves are shelters, taking you in, keeping the rain off your face. Some give you relief from the hot desert, the relentless sun. Aziraphale looks back to Crowley (creatively swearing at the champagne bottle, the stubborn cork). Warmth there in his fingertips, across his chest. Tightness in his breath. He might rattle apart.
“Your flat is - ” Aziraphale fumbles on words to describe the vast, empty space. Safe. A sanctuary. Quiet. A cave to block out the sun and the rain too.
Crowley glances up at the half-finished sentence, hearing the something left dangling.
“Modern, angel. It’s modern.”
“Quite. Of course,” Aziraphale nods as he takes the glass. The bubbles sparkle up at the top. Crowley always fills it too full. He can feel little spatters of jumping champagne on his hand, like stars falling on the skin. (Like a third of the choir of angels, pitching forth from the sky. Don’t think about it. Shake it out.) “Could do with a few throw pillows. A bit of art, warm up these walls.”
Crowley is staring at him. There’s a curl to the corner of his mouth, a quip barely held back. His brand of ever-indulgent humor. “Are you redecorating already?”
Aziraphale flushes. How long do you want me to stay? You didn’t put a period on it, the other end of a parenthesis. Do you mean forever?
It smells like Eden here. A symphony of dark earth and verdant leaves. There is the creep of ivy, there is the soft balm of clover. Aziraphale runs his fingers over the blanket-soft spread of dusty miller, wondering why Crowley has chosen this unassuming plant to line the wall. Grey and quiet, soft and unimposing. Senecio cineraria.
“This is lovely,” he murmurs.
“Silverdust,” Crowley says, not looking at him. He’s fussing. Clattering about in the kitchen, opening drawers and closing them again. Cursing wooden spoons for daring to get stuck just so.
“The cultivar,” Crowley says, finally glancing over. “Won a couple of awards from the Royal Horticultural Society. S'nice, easy to grow.”
I didn’t realize, Aziraphale thinks, something too big in his throat. I knew you liked plants. I knew you grew them, I didn’t realize you’d regrown Eden. In another life, my dear, who might you have been? A gardener? A horticulturalist? If we had been human, would I have been a bookshop owner and met you in a botanical garden? It might have started to rain, I would have offered you my umbrella. I would have tripped over your red-rose hair, your silver birch skin. What color would your eyes have been if we had been given different lives? (What were they before? Before you Fell? What were you like in Heaven? What did you look like?)
Suddenly, colors seem terribly important. He tries to shake it off. Don’t think about up there. The light of Heaven, trying to get in everywhere. Trying to see everything. Tonight isn’t for them. Not now, this is our first night here. Here, in the shade of the flat, Aziraphale wants to wrap the quiet grey around him like a knitted blanket. The quiet hum of our side, our side, our side.
Aziraphale blinks. He isn’t. Not truly. But it’s the dance of the thing, it’s what they do. See how Crowley’s hands grip the dark granite of the countertop. His gaunt knuckles paling in the tension. Aziraphale swallows, counting the seconds of his indecision. One two three four.
“Yes, I suppose I’m a bit peckish.” (He isn’t. Not at all. But the ritual buys time. The dance keeps going. He’s not quite ready to come off the dance floor, not quite ready to be seen. Once they stop moving, circling each other, they will have to talk.)
There is so much to say.
Aziraphale is terrified. He doesn’t know how to start. Someone must go first. Strike the first note, write the first word. We have so much to talk about. There’s a mess over my heart and it isn’t you. It’s not your name. I want to kiss you. I want you bare and disheveled and my hands in that gorgeous hair and I want you to see me. Can you love me like this? Leftovers? Second-day bread? With another name on me, scribbled out?
If I come to you in the dark, with no light at all, you won’t see what’s written on me. I won’t see what’s written on you. It won’t matter, will it? (Has it ever mattered?)
"Got some cheese and stuff. I can make a board - ”
“Yes,” Aziraphale says, quicker than he means. He tilts his chin, his nervous neck. He worries about his shoulders, soft and sloped. “Yes, quite. That would - that would be lovely. I’ll just go and freshen up then?”
“Bathroom’s that way,” Crowley says, his forehead wrinkling with the rise of his brow. He points with a knife.
Aziraphale nods. He straightens his waistcoat, brushes the wrinkles from his sleeves. It has been such a long day. It will be a long night too, he thinks, running his puzzled fingers over the folded note in his pocket. A little prophecy tucked away. Yes, a splash of water will do nicely. Wake his corporation right up. Tip-top shape.
He stops just before the end of the hall.
There is an eagle. A lectern. Wings spread, looking up toward the Anglican sun. For a moment, Aziraphale isn’t in Crowley’s flat. He is not surrounded by concrete-gray walls, he cannot smell the seep of chlorophyll from the next room, the quiet rush of automated sprays and watering systems. For a moment, he cannot smell the hint of petals that roll out from behind a closed door to his left (roses, his angelic nose tells him, roses and aster). No, he is not in Crowley’s flat at all. There is no pushed-back throne, there is no starlight falling in through ultra-modern floor-to-ceiling windows. Aziraphale’s blood rolls back in time, back in space. Above him is a bonfire sky of burning things, whistling bombs meant for the East End. A London in tatters, smashed like a glass thrown to the floor. The pieces to be later picked up by the survivors. The night as dark as a blackout curtain, his mouth dry. There had been rubble around him, there under his feet. The sickcreep sense of how desperately wrong he had been, how completely and utterly fucked.
Aziraphale reaches out to touch the wings of the lectern. I remember this. You went back for it, didn’t you? You went back and took this from the fallen house of cards of that night. That church. You took this from the shattered remnants of a broken church and you took me too. You saved the books. (You didn’t have to.) I know your feet were sore, they blistered. I could see how you shifted and winced in the car. I invited you in that night.
You didn’t come in. ( I wanted you to.)
There’s the sound of footsteps behind him, the weight of a presence just over his shoulder. If Aziraphale steps back, even a half-foot, he knows his back will come flush with Crowley’s chest. He considers Crowley’s long arms, his rawboned body. Arms that might curl around him, keep him safe as a ribcage covers over a heart.
Aziraphale turns. There’s a complicated look on Crowley’s face. A mess of decisions and indecisions. Here, now, his hair is wild and short, standing up on all ends and smelling like smoke and motor oil. Aziraphale remembers decades ago, nearly eighty years ago, this same man walking him up to his bookshop door. A sharp suit the color of coal and his hat tipped, showing just a hint of red-lines, red-threaded Brylcreemed hair.
Same man, same red strands, piled in a mess on his scalp and writing nothing of a name.
Crowley stares at him, lips parted and chapped. Desperately dry. See his impassive face. Aziraphale has known the lines and shapes of him for six-thousand years. (Perhaps more, perhaps before, he has never asked, doesn’t know what Crowley looks like bodiless, doesn’t know the shape of him without skin. How many wheels of fire, how many mouths, how many eyes? What did you look like on your first day? If we had left the earth for the stars, what shape would you have been in?)
“What is this?” Aziraphale whispers.
Crowley is very still. “What’s what, angel?”
“What we are, what we’re doing?” He swallows, “Our side.”
There’s a beat, a gentle second. Crowley is almost impossible to read behind the dark glasses. Aziraphale goes by landmarks. The twitch in the throat, the rise of the brow. The lines at the eyes, the slight hitch to the breath. “It’s whatever you want. I mean, whatever we want, yeah? No one to answer to.”
“What do you want?” Aziraphale asks. I know you don’t belong to me. I don’t belong to you. Would you come to me freely? (I’ve already given myself to you. I poured myself into a thermos like an IOU, like a vow, handed it over into your two hands. You held my heart carefully then, didn’t spill a drop.)
See how Crowley hesitates. His spine like a sail in the wind, twisted and sly. A black mark against a dark flat. Spiny-boned and skinny, half-desolate with a twitching jaw. His hair gleams in the low light through the windows. Rich as Roman wine, bright as German bombs. A church on fire. In the sprawl of the night, the black jacket and the dark denim could have been a suit. The uncertain fingers clutching the glass of wine could have held a hat.
There is little light here. Not all nights are cold, not all winters are endless. This cave of quiet, where hellfire eyes and heavenlit spies cannot see, cannot look, cannot glance. Strange things can happen in the dark, in the totality of the eclipse, in the moments when no one is watching.
“Aziraphale,” Crowley says, there in a hushed whisper. A confession and a plea all at once. Tonight, they are hidden. The light cannot break through. The night marches on, silent and obscuring, turning a blind eye. Leaving all things nameless and free.
Go on, go on. Take a chance. Come and put out the light.
Chapter 7: as only saints have listened
[No, no. It’s not time yet. There’s still so far to go, still so much to tell. Let’s look back in time.]
St. James Park
A wind comes and sweeps through the trees. A gold leaf falls in Aziraphale’s eyes. He brushes it away from himself, chuckling all the while. It’s broad and red-veined. A bit of green still hiding in the stem, tucked away all this time. He spins it by the stem, there in his square fingers.
Autumn in St. James Park. The sky is clear and crisp. White cirrus clouds reflect in the duck pond, interrupted by dry crusts of bread and the occasional pelican. A black swan drifts past, ever-unconcerned. The sun drifts lower, lower still. Night is falling. The day shifts into that cerulean promise of the favorite hour of the artists, l'heure bleue. Light comes around, brightening the streetlamps.
It gets cold quickly now, in November as the sun goes down. But out of the corner of his eye, Aziraphale can see the black-denim bend of a sharp knee and the drumming of ever-moving dark-gloved fingers. If he keeps looking (if he allows it), there would be a well-fitted coat and a silver-tangled tie. A shovel of a chin, that well-remembered aquiline nose. Sunglasses too, even now as the night comes down around them.
If I reached out further, looked up higher, I would find red. Copper-red. Like coins and dusty riverbeds. Red like autumn and mulberries. Roman wine. Do you remember that night, there at Petronius’ place? You were drunk. I was drunk. Aziraphale allows his eyes to drift shut. The memory floats to the surface like bread on water. Remember how the oyster shells had glittered on the table. Aziraphale had felt breathless there, watching how the wine had stained Crowley’s lower lip, his tongue. The tight spaces between his teeth. Had clung to his mouth, this measure of red. Their table had lain in ruins like Carthage had once. There had been little left of meat and nothing of olives. There had been only the oil in the terracotta dish, clinging to their fingers.
Crowley had been drunk, wine-warmed and laughing at something Aziraphale had said. Had brought his oil-dipped fingers to his wine-colored mouth, absently licked the remainder off of each of them.
Oh. Aziraphale had blinked, tried to scramble up in his seat. Tried to pull the world into focus. But the world had stayed just as it was. They were here at a little table, there were oil lamps lit to brighten the night. The walls were stone and mosaic tiles were laid into the floor at their feet. Aziraphale had hovered here on a night in Rome, looking around and desperately trying to find purchase. To dig his hands into the stone, his heels into the floor.
We often know when we are about to fall. We cannot always stop ourselves.
We were strangers once, long ago. At the Beginning. We’ll never be strangers again, no matter how many Beginnings might come. I know this, I can feel it. (Do you feel the same? Please, tell me it’s the same.)
“Would you do anything differently?” Aziraphale asks. He is not sure why he is asking. Perhaps it’s the color of the twilight, the leftover sun’s warmth. Perhaps it’s the small smile on Crowley’s mouth, the one seen there in his periphery.
“What do you mean?”
“Any of it.” He waves his hand out to the park, indicating the world. Everything that has ever been and ever will be.
Crowley drops his brow. Aziraphale turns, trying to see him better. His hand twitches, curled around a sourdough bread crust. Let me. Let me touch you. He wants to brush the nightfall from Crowley’s forehead, the ripples of doubtful skin. The shadows from under his eyes, below the razor cheekbones. To soften the sharp parts with his own softness.
“No,” Crowley says. It’s firm. Decided.
“Even the Fall?” Aziraphale asks, “You wouldn’t -” You would still Fall? If you could do it all again, you would still let that happen? You’d go into it knowing what you would find? It had to have hurt. You would do it again? (I don’t know if I could manage it.)
“Yeah, even that.”
Aziraphale doesn’t look away. “Why?”
Crowley shrugs. “Had a lot of questions. I mean, they’re full of shit up there, yeah? Sold me a barrel of lies. Got sick of it.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale admonishes. (There’s no heat in it. An old habit.)
“Hey, s’just the truth,” Crowley says. His shoulders sling about in his black jacket, his spine forgets itself on the bench, as he slithers further against the wood. “I mean, my lot’s also full of shit but, hey, with them at least you know they’re lying.”
Aziraphale nods. Crowley’s hand starts the incessant drumming again, there along the bench. He wants to take his hand, to curl his own fingers around it. Quiet the nerves, still the anxious energy. Perhaps someday.
"Did you know?” Aziraphale asks, “Did you know what would happen? When you were asking questions up there?” That you would Fall? Hit the ground. I saw the march of the damned as they went to the tribunal. Did you pass me?
There is a long pause. A hesitation. “I did. Sure did. Yeah."
"And you did it anyway?”
“Yep,” Crowley drawls, popping the p.
“But, Crowley - weren’t you terrified?” His own chest throbs, a scribbled mess of a sigil. A would-be lover who had also Fallen, who had pitched forth from the cloud cover for daring too much. Aziraphale had not watched him be cast out, had not been there to see the Fall, but he remembers others of the choir being marched through Heaven’s marblewhite halls. Their battered faces and swollen lips, their bruised cheeks. Split skin. Some angels had been made of bent wheels and some had their fire blown out. Some had thousands of eyes, all put out by hot pokers. One by one by one.
“Yeah,” Crowley says. Quiet and soft. “Yeah. Sure was. But you know, doesn’t matter. It happened.”
Aziraphale nods. Stiff upper lip, don’t spill a drop. Keep it together. The sky is an array of blues and purples, as dark and varied as a mottled plum. Lantern-light glints from Crowley’s lenses, catches in Aziraphale’s lungs.
He wonders about falling in love. How long is the dive, how far can you fall? How deep is the water when you go under, how long can you hold your breath? If you open your eyes underwater, can you see? If you try to breathe, impossible thing of all impossible things, will you find that water can be as kind as air? That your body has adapted to love, grown gills with which to breathe?
Aziraphale has been diving since a day in Rome, oyster shells at his elbow and a laughing man across the table. Demon-eyed and nervous-footed, a mess of silver laurels set on his red clay hair. I love you, he had thought then. The surprise of it splashing Aziraphale in the face like cool water. He had stopped breathing. The diving instinct. Hold your breath, close your eyes. Head deeper still. I love you, he thinks now. There’s no surprise, not all this time later. This wide water of love has become a home.
You did it anyway. You knew it would hurt and you did it anyway. Because it was you and because you had to. (My lot won’t be kind. Not about us. What we’re doing, what I want from you. What you might, if I am not reading you wrong, my dear, what you might want from me?)
“I don’t want you to be - well, in that position again,” Aziraphale says. Cautious and uncertain, not knowing where to put his words.
A dark brow furrows.“What the Heaven are you on about?”
“Well,” Aziraphale swallows. He gestures between them with his hands, the leaf still in his fingers. “You and me. This. The Arrangement.” (It isn’t about The Arrangement at all. They both know that. It never has been.) Crowley’s mouth opens. His pale skin glints in the falling night, the growing dark. Aziraphale feels drawn to it. A magnet to steel. A moth to a bright flame.
“Told you,” Crowley says, “I wouldn’t do anything differently. Besides,” he quirks a brow, his mouth. Tries to weave some humor in. “S'not like there’s anywhere else to Fall.”
“Hell would destroy you,” Aziraphale murmurs. He has not looked away from Crowley’s mouth. Perhaps if those damnable lenses came off, if Crowley offered his eyes instead. Perhaps then he could get a grip on himself, his feet would find level ground, he’d stop falling. But Crowley does not offer his eyes. Only soft words, a gentle voice.
“What do I always tell you?” Crowley asks. His voice is impossibly gentle. Tender as velvet, tender as a bruised peach. Something offered up, ready to be bitten. “No one ever has to know."
Aziraphale turns back. Closes his grip around the green stem. Closes his eyes too. His heart is too full. How can I love you like this? How can I love you this much? I thought I was earmarked for someone else. Intended for them, set aside for them. He’s written into my DNA but there’s nothing in my blood but you. I tried to be good, I tried to love as I was supposed to, to do the things laid out for me, to do as I was told. You cannot tell a heart, can you?
I met you instead. We were strangers. But you were never a stranger to me. You smiled at me, told me everything would be okay. I loved you at once, I think. Sometimes you don’t even realize there’s nothing beneath you, that you’re tumbling in.
Aziraphale tries to brush the wrinkles from his gabardine coat. He pretends to soothe folds when really his hand presses against the beat of his heart, trying to ground himself in it. A name there. Millennia since last voiced, last truly remembered. An angel never spoken to. Seen across a hall, listened to from around corners. Across gardens and cloisters. Aziraphale had watched, always hesitating and never quite sure what to say. What would a Principality ever say to an Archangel?
So Aziraphale had kept quiet and said nothing. Always hesitating, always biting it back. One day there had been nothing to say. No one to say it to.
Millennia ago. Dust now and long-forgotten.
It’s a different kind of love to choose it. The archangel might sit on his skin, there on the top layers of Aziraphale. There in the surface of the water. But love moves deeper, shifts at the bottom of the ocean. In Aziraphale’s heart, there’s only redshift-hair and long, narrow-knuckle fingers. The glimmer of serpentine eyes, gold as a burnished censer. The smell of apples and smoke on the wind, there with searing hot metal. There with cedar and vetiver too.
It is different to love by choice. Aziraphale had started to fall in love once, centuries ago. In another time and another place. He breathes in and looks up again. Crowley is still watching him, the faintest curl to his mouth.
"I am listening to you, my dear,” Aziraphale says. “It just takes time for me to -”
“S'alright, angel,” Crowley says, quiet in the night. “No rush.”
Crowley’s fingers keep drumming there on the bench. Aziraphale watches. Perhaps, someday, he will reach over and still them. Take them in his own. (I can’t offer you something easy. I can’t offer you a blank slate, only my recycled skin. Scribbled-over and crossed-out. But does that matter? What about my heart? That was yours from the beginning, I think.)
Not tonight, not quite yet. Instead, the night is falling, the hour grows longer. Aziraphale breathes out. He holds the red and gold leaf up to the gentle breeze. Spins it between his boxcar-fingers once and then lets go, lets it fall.
To the earth or to the water. Wherever the wind might take it, wherever it may wish to land.
No one can tell it where to go.
Chapter 8: then I shall have to make you wings
[Prompt: "Hallelujah" by Patty Larkin. "They told me they could save me / they told me in so many words / they told me they didn't blame me / with my face lying there in the dirt / We start out paint by numbers / we start out by the book / we end up in a world of wonder / wondering why everything looks so good / Hallelujah, baby / I'm falling for you / Hallelujah it's a long way down / Hallelujah, baby / I'm falling for you / I'll see you 'round, in the downtown"]
Note: This scene is inspired by and borrows several quotes from Ever After
(Just outside of) Florence
See how the Arno river splashes at its banks, the water moving leisurely in the afternoon light. How Crowley ambles over the shore, dropping his bags with a melodramatic sigh and begins fishing the wine from the satchels. He crosses the little clearing, fetching the cups from another bag. Comes back to the start. Then returns again. Over and over.
A man in dark clothes and a lined face watches him, long-suffering humor in his expression. He has seated himself on a felled log and fiddles with his smoke-grey beard for a few long minutes before interrupting the black-clad pinball before him. “Anthony, stop pacing.”
“You are,” Leonardo da Vinci says, raising his brow. “Make yourself useful and bring the wine over or knock it off.”
Crowley gathers a few bottles, lopes over to the artist on his log. “Your highness,” Crowley says, bowing deeply but grinning all the same. It’s an old friendship, an ancient friendship. Built on teasing and repartee.
“You’re a right devil, you are.”
“Should I say thank you for the compliment?” Crowley laughs, popping the bottle open. He breathes in the wine. The trees too, the field maple and juniper. Manna ash and cypress.
“Yes, you should,” Da Vinci grumbles. “At least your friend has better manners. He even thanked me for the portraits. You, Anthony J. Crowley, drank up half my damn wine.”
“I was testing it. Wanted to make sure it hadn’t gone to vinegar.”
Da Vinci raises a wild brow, smirking. “My point remains. He was very lovely. Had a wonderful chat about optics.”
“‘Course you did,” Crowley rolls his eyes. “Optics. I was trying to tell you a story about the time I got stuck in a vicar’s wardrobe and he was off on optics. An’ it’s a good one too! The story, I mean. Not the optics. Anyway, he’s infuriating. Stuck in another century, I swear.”
“The heart is a difficult thing, isn’t it?"
Crowley grimaces, pausing as he fumbles for the cups. He glances up at the other man, that irritatingly too-aware look on his face. "The heart? Come on. What did I say about hearts? Nah, it’s just - you know, he’s an acquaintance. Coworker. Bit of water-cooler chat, that’s all.”
“Besides,” Crowley goes on, “I told you. M'not his ….you know….thing.”
Crowley pours his cup very full. Shoves one over to Da Vinci with his narrow fingers, grimacing all the while. “Satan, I hate that word.”
“Love isn’t a bottle of wine, my friend. Once you pour it out, it isn’t gone forever.” Leonardo strokes his greybeard, the shadows from the summer leaves dappling over his face.
“That’s not how it works. For us.”
Isn’t it? Isn’t it just the one and done? Written in the stars, on your skin, what you see is what you get and you don’t have a say in it? Crowley shrugs. His bones a jangle in his clothing, half a collapse in the Tuscan countryside.
"I don’t want to be told what to do.”
“My dear friend, you will find that deliberately avoiding what you’re told will keep you as bound as if you were to follow. It’s your own heart and you must only follow that path.” Da Vinci sighs, leaning over and resting his own gnarled hand over Crowley’s. Crowley glances over, into bright eyes that are very blue and very kind. He swallows. Thanks for putting up with me. I don’t have many friends like you. (I don’t have many friends. Period. Full stop. End of story.)
“Do you love him?” Da Vinci asks. It’s a straight question, shot right to the heart.
“Well, I mean love’s a strong word,” Crowley mutters, running his hands like a bone-pick comb through his tangled mess of hair. Long and red, like carmine. Like madder lake. “Lots of meanings there, you know, with love. Interpretations. I mean, I guess in a way you might say that -”
“I’m not asking for me,” Da Vinci says, though he’s gentle. “My friend, I already know the answer. Answer that one on your own, whenever you’re ready.”
“Why don’t they match?” He asks, wine-drunk from their journey and more than a bit miserable. If anyone might have an answer to the mysteries of God, it might be a painter daring construct wings. An artist with the audacity to walk on water without a single miracle on hand.
“You cannot leave everything to fate, boy,” da Vinci admonishes him, laughing a little. “She’s got a lot to do, sometimes you must give her a hand.”
Crowley laughs, shadowed by a frown that lingers after. He drags his hands along his sharp jaw, bites his lower lip. “If - if I do. Love him, all that rot. Theoretically, right? It’s not like it matters. He’s up there. I’m, you know, this.”
“Not all birds prefer the sky,” Da Vinci smiles. “You’ll figure it out.”
“Prat,” Crowley mutters under his breath.
“I heard that,” the old man says, putting his hands on his thighs. Crowley helps him stand up.
“Good,” Crowley says. The teasing tone returning. He kicks at a rock, knocking it into the water. “You were supposed to.” He looks at the strange mess strapped to the artist’s feet. A mess of boards and ropes. Crowley quirks a brow.
“What’s this contraption?"
"Care to see if it works?”
He laughs. It’s a bright day, good enough to try walking on water. So let’s laugh. It spills out of his skinny throat. “Go on with you,” Crowley says, shaking his head. “You’re going to fall in and m’not gonna save you. It’s your own damn fault."
"Good. Don’t you dare cast your magic,” Da Vinci says, moving toward the river. “I rather think I’m onto something here.”
“Yeah, you’re about to be flat on your arse in the river, that’s what.”
So Crowley watches Da Vinci push out, one foot on the water, one after another. Working human miracles from earthly things. Look at you, walking on water. Look at you all, creating everything you’ve ever wanted from fire and air, stone and grass. Now water. Someday, you’ll fly. I saw the sketches in your book, I know you’ll get there. You won’t even need magic.
He watches the water. The clouds and leaves reflecting on the surface, the interruptions of light. Occasionally he looks up, up there at the firmament. Blind now in daylight, obscured by atmosphere. In the dark, when the sun sinks, we can look further. Past ourselves, our suspended rock spinning steadily and endlessly. See the far-flung reaches of space with our naked eyes, see the past laid out in points of light.
One of those points of light had been him. A falling star, a meteor from thousands of years ago. Somewhere that light is still traveling, still reaching.
He had been an angel once. (That was a very long time ago.)
“You will do great things,” they had said to him. They had sung songs of his name. The Shining One, the Starmaker. “You will hang the stars,” they told him.
One day, Not-Yet-Crowley had turned and frowned. “Why?”
“Why me? Why do I get to make stars?”
“Because that’s what you do. You were born to it.”
But Not-Yet-Crowley had scowled, pointed out across a long hall. His moss-green eyes sharp and narrowed. “What about them? What were they born to? Just to fight? Why are they soldiers? For what army?”
“Don’t ask questions.”
“Don’t ask questions and get back to work. Look, you have a gift. Look at the glory you can create.”
“Anyone could make these.”
“It’s different. You were born to it. You were born to your role and with it comes certain privileges and obligations.”
“But why? How am I different?” He had asked, the gold in his skin turning to ash in his mouth. (He’d Fallen. He’d known he would Fall, he’d known the consequences. There had always been too many questions in his mouth, on his tongue, strung up inside of him. He’d burned with the questions, as flushed as iodine in the blood. That flaming sword nicking his heart, same as any other heart. He had crashed to the sulfur pools below. Same velocity, same trajectory, same crunch of bone and wing. Everyone falls the same. Everyone hits the ground in the same way. We are all damned equally. No, Crowley had never been different. No, not at all.)
A loud splash brings Crowley back to himself. Back to the sixteenth century. Back to Earth. Back to the grass and the leaves, this swell of hill. Back to the way his fingers drape lazily around the neck of the wine bottle. To the hot sun on his black doublet, piercing through the woven fabric, warming his skin.
“Told you so!” Crowley yells out to the river, rolling his eyes and not looking up. He laughs a little, chuckling until there’s a steady drip of water near his feet. His line of sight comes up from the black dirt, up the artist’s soaked legs and torso, there to the arm thrown across a pair of sloped and sturdy shoulders. A face like the sun, brighter than anything in existence.
“Aziraphale,” he breathes. His heart stops and Aziraphale is there, golden and shivering.
“I should leave walking on water to the Son of God,” says Da Vinci, laughing and squeezing the river from his beard. “Fortunately, I tripped over an angel.”
Yeah, you really bloody did.
Aziraphale is biting back a smile in that too-familiar way. Stripped down to his underclothes and soaked. His parchment-pale hair in wet ringlets upon his forehead. Water dripping from his nose, his chin. Crowley stands up in a hurry, knocking over the wine bottle and several books with his unchecked hips.
“Here,” he says, handing a wool blanket to Aziraphale.
“Thank you, my dear,” Aziraphale says. Not ever looking away, not ever glancing past. It’s just this, it’s just them. Aziraphale in his white chemise, soaked through and waterlogged. His damp breeches. His bare feet. His eyes glimmer like the river does, blue and flecked with sand. Bits of grass green. Unpredictable. Unexpected. Crowley always forgets them after a few years. When it happens, just like this, these eyes out of nowhere, he feels pinned to a board. A long stab right through the carapace, there to be studied.
He forgets to breathe.
The white shirt is half-undone. Left a bit untied there at Aziraphale’s throat, showing soft skin and gently-hatched lines at his throat. Sun-coaxed freckles and unfamiliar dark moles. The barest hint of a curve of red peeks just up over the collar. Just a hint. A syllable.
“Wine?” Crowley croaks.
“Oh, please, that would be splendid,” Aziraphale says, pulling the blanket tight around himself.
Da Vinci nods toward a sudden bonfire that has appeared, his hands on both of their shoulders, pushing them toward the fire. “Since I’m already wet, might as well give it another go,” he says, a mischievous look in his eye (one Crowley notes to remember later). “Why don’t you both catch up.”
There is a bonfire and the heat climbs Crowley’s legs, spreads into his ever-cold hands. Something seems to melt here. Here you are, an angel who took to the water. I found you in the river, your wings put away. Nothing of fire and earth, nothing of air. Just water, that one place of neither of us. I would grow gills for you. Learn to swim. If that’s what we needed. Anything for you, anything you like. I’ll find somewhere unmarked, a margin of error. Negative space. Hide us there, build us a home.
“Hey, angel,” Crowley says. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale smiles, warm as a bonfire in the open air. “Oh, my dear, I missed you.”
He had Fallen. (Has been falling all this time. Not all landings must ache, not all impacts hurt. Sometimes we are caught by a pile of feathers and open hands. Sometimes there is somewhere soft to land.)
Maybe this one is different.
Chapter 9: just once through the garden
[Prompt: La niña imantada, by Love of Lesbian, that says "en descuidos crearemos universos", which roughly translated means "we will build universes out of their carelessness"]
Aziraphale stands on the dais, holding his hands at his sides. Crowley has commandeered a chair in the room, his spine taking cues from the curved back and plush arms as he drapes himself over it. His brow raises over his dark glasses.
“Take it in a little,” he says, watching the tailor measure Aziraphale’s back, the length of his arms, the width of his neck. A collection of measurements of Aziraphale. (Crowley wants to steal these measurements, collect them all and make a recipe book of him. Insurance. Protection. If you ever leave, if I ever lose you, if something happens, I’d know you from scratch. I’d know how you’re made, the very dimensions of you.)
“Do you think?” Aziraphale asks, looking up with doubt in his eyes.
“It’s a bloody tent,” Crowley drawls. “Why’d you want a new coat anyway?”
“New queen, new coat, I suppose. Besides, won’t you just look at this material, Crowley? Isn’t this just lovely?"
He holds out a corner of the worsted wool pinned to his body. Crowley runs his thumb over the fabric, feeling the weave there, laid out soft and strong under his skin. He lingers over the touch as he always does, storing up little touches and little memories like stockpiling food and ammunition. Preparing, if you will, for the end of the world.
Crowley swallows. "S'nice, angel.” He looks up, ears burning with blood, hidden in the burning bush of his hair. Long fingers move up the wool, smoothing small wrinkles, resettling lapels. Pulling at sleeves. Aziraphale follows his every move, still as stone, as frozen as Medusa’s lover. Only his half-parted mouth and the quick breath, his eyes as wide as a hungry, gaping jaw ready to swallow everything whole.
“The color’s nice,” Crowley murmurs.
“What do you know about color, my dear?” Aziraphale teases (breathless, smiling).
Crowley quirks his lip. Warmth spreads through him as it always does at Aziraphale’s teasing.
“Loads. You could try a bit of green. What about red? Rather liked that number you picked up at the Bastille, angel. Revolutionary looked good on you.”
See how the pink spreads to Aziraphale’s cheeks, the bitten-back grin. “Oh, you foul fiend. Don’t you start with your tempting.”
“M'not.” I wouldn’t.
“You’re a demon, that’s what you do. Even the apple that started all this - ” But something shifts in the air. Crowley swallows, his Adam’s apple like a buoy in his long throat. He can hear a question in Aziraphale’s voice. He can hear the are you doing this, are you tempting me? (Would you? You wouldn’t, I don’t think, but I have to ask.)
Crowley knows all about Heaven’s lies. They’d sold a pack of them to him upstairs, a buy-one-get-one-free sale of lies. I don’t fault you. Never will, angel. You can ask. It’s okay.
“I didn’t,” Crowley says, laid bitter-bare at last.
Aziraphale frowns. “The apple, you mean?”
Yes, that, and you too. “Oh, right. The apple, yeah. All that rot. But I didn’t tempt, not like you’re thinking.”
"I gave options,” Crowley says. It’s softer than he meant to be, the rot of his betraying voice. “I just told her what would happen if she went for it. Had a go, you know? Told her what would happen if she didn’t. There was a walled garden - ”
"Sanctuary or prison, angel?"
"It was safe, Crowley,” Aziraphale says.
Crowley shrugs. “A gilded cage is still a cage, yeah?” He remembers the Garden. Walled and safe, nothing getting in and nothing getting out. A quiet sea of a place. No wild storms with deep drops and high waves. No breaks of bright sun. He remembers the Garden, standing there at the starting point, knowing every direction it could go. I saw everything in the garden. All of it laid out, every option, every direction. I still fell in love with you. (I choose it, you know that? Do you know that? I choose to love you more every day. I love loving you. I’ll never stop. Promise. I swear.)
“You told her … everything?”
“Yeah, the whole dirty lot of it. Death, disease, pain, loss. That if she ate it, there’d be days she wished she hadn’t.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale says. “But?”
“The thing is, angel, I told her that if she ate the apple, there’d be knowledge. That was the point of the apple, yeah? Knowing? I was just there, like Eris did her thing, just to cause trouble. I never tempted, I just told her about, er, love and stuff. They had that blind love, you know, the innocent kind. Never too warm, not too hot. Safe and everything. All that junk. I told her that there was a lot more that’s walled off, out past the garden. Things she’ll never see or experience, feelings she’d never get to touch. That’s not tempting. That’s options.”
“Come on. How is it temptation to lay out the truth? I didn’t push. I just listed it off. Specials of the day: Knowledge. Pain. All the - you know, soft stuff. Human stuff.”
Aziraphale looks away. He fiddles with a loose string at the end of the coat sleeve. His pale brow furrows in thought. “I believe you,” he murmurs. “But look at their punishment.”
“Is being human a punishment?” Crowley asks quietly. Look, I’m just saying that Pandora knew what was in the box before she touched it.
Aziraphale is quiet for a moment, his teeth fiddling with his lip. “I can’t - go against the Almighty’s plan."
"It’s just options, angel,” Crowley says, backing away. “You don’t have to do anything at all.”
We can build our own Universe. Start over. Nameless and blank. I’ll introduce myself. Pick a name out of the stars instead of off the ground. You can tell me who you want to be this time. I’ll love you under any name. (He thinks of the names he’s worn, the syllable once revealed under Aziraphale’s soaked shirt, there at the Arno. Doesn’t matter. Every angel bears that syllable, El, every rotten angel giving glory to God. He wants to erase every name from the world. To start over. To give out blank sheets and markers too. Yes, give me a pen, give me the choices. Let me write your name in there myself.)
“Why do you think she ate it?"
He closes his yellow-bellied eyes. Remembers a woman with curled fingers around an apple. It had been flushed red and painted in stripes of yellow and green. Michaelmas red, as it came to be called. (Much, much later. This was in the Beginning, in the dawn of things. In that first opening of eyes to light, before there were names.) The crunch of teeth into the flesh of the fruit, the run of juice down her chin. The sunrise of comprehension, looking around at the trees and the leaves, the rivers and the rocks. At Adam, who had asked to try it after, who set up shop in her heart, her very bones. She had known then and wanted to know. Let me know you, they had whispered. Crowley had heard it, that desperate cry of incompleteness, trying to set themselves back to rights. The spark of joy we make with the tinder and flint of ourselves, our bodies, fumbling back towards the Beginning.
Crowley is an apple-bearer. He’d taken a bite of it himself. Now here he stands, brushing his hands over Aziraphale’s coat, wanting to know.
Let me know you. (He drops his hands quickly, too aware of their burn.)
Aziraphale’s breath scatters in the room, echoing like marbles falling to the floor. One breath after another after another. "I should - I should settle up with my tailor,” he murmurs, “then we can be off for lunch? I think that would be, well, I would quite like - ”
“Course, yeah,” Crowley says. He nods, curls his half-starved hands into fists. Shoves them into his useless pockets, picks at the lint there, his cuticles too. “Whatever you like.”
After Aziraphale disappears to the front, Crowley circles the desk that the coat is laid out upon. Here it is, a measure of wool draped in cream. He shuffles his shoulders in his own black coat, wondering how Atlas manages the weight of the world. All he carries is an apple. It’s such a heavy thing.
He pulls a pen from his pocket. Black ink, flowing and soft. Bends over the inner lining of the coat, putting the tip to the fabric. This part will be sewn up and kept inside. Not for eyes, not for seeing. Kept in, safe and sound, walled up in worsted wool.
We can make up our own rules, if you like. If you ever want an apple, you know where to find me. I love you. Without a body and name, without anything out there. I love you and you make the Universe not matter. It can just be us. If you want. If you ever want to leave the garden.
I love you. (From the start, to the end.)
Crowley bites his lip, ragged and dusky with a sudden rise of blood. Thinks about signing it and gives up, recapping the pen. There’s no point.
You’ll know. If you ever see it (I hope you don’t), you’ll know.
He stands up from his bend over the desk, collects the shattered glass of himself. Pulls himself together. Takes a deep breath, rubs a hand over his pointed chin, the rough stubble of his own skin. Squares the dark glasses on his nose, sets his hat there, squarely on his hell-colored hair. Apple-colored. Michaelmas red.
Steady on, he tells himself, pulling his cocksure smile on like a jacket. Crowley heads out into the front of the shop, his deliberate heart beating soundly in his chest. Beating on endlessly into the future.
Chapter 10: namelessly (I have been truly yours from the first)
There is fire on the back of the air. Crowley’s nose twitches, the stink of it still in his nostrils. Smoke still caught in his hair.
It has not even been twelve hours. He remembers the bookshop in a conflagration. The large front room had been choked with smoke and a considerable beam had fallen across the floor. Crowley had fallen to his knees, ash covering his hands and his skin noticeably pink. Sick with fear, sick with dread. He had felt his stomach clench and his breath accelerate. He had wiped at his face. Shaking hands to soot-stained skin and praying a profane supplication. Crowley is an outcast and there had been no one to beg but God.
(There are no atheists in foxholes.)
Aziraphale, where are you! I can’t find you! Aziraphale! He had called it out then and it echoes here in his mind, just hours later. Now, there is nothing of fire yet his hands are still shaking and his cheeks are still pink. Look here at Aziraphale, wide-eyed and shallow-breathed. They are standing before a lectern pilfered from a church. A souvenir. Sorry, yeah, I took that. You weren’t supposed to see it. And now you’re asking me what it means?
There are more souvenirs in the flat. Little treasures here and there. A cardboard box on the top shelf of one of Crowley’s kitchen cupboards hides a place setting from the first time they’d dined at the Ritz. Crowley had shoved it in his pocket, kept a memory for the road. There is a statue of a demon and angel locked in an eternal wrestle too, somewhere in the hall. (He is not entirely sure they’re wrestling, thus the appeal.) His bedroom is lined with dusty miller, though Aziraphale would not know that Crowley has chosen it because they are pale and soft to the touch. To rub a thumb over the velvet leaves is to imagine angel hair instead. The would-be lover is an improviser, making do with substitutions. Crowley cannot have Aziraphale but he can make do with dusty miller leaves and a tartan bathrobe that he wraps himself with. (Tightly, so tightly, as if it might be arms to hold him.)
He is burning up. Aziraphale is still standing there, hardly moving. He has asked Crowley a question. What do you want?
Crowley has spilled it all, all in just a name. The same mess he’d has borne for millennia, a confession in red on his chest. You. I want you. It’s always been you even before I knew you. Before I knew what I wanted or how to love. I learned how to love by seeing you. By trying to be better for you.
The wine still burns in his belly. He doesn’t want to sober up. (Leave it, let it burn. Let me have a little fire.)
I love you. I love you. I love you. Why do we need to hear it? It doesn’t matter. These words have been in every mouth. Picked up from the ground and polished off. He wants to slap it out of his mouth like a child might have picked up a rock, tried to eat it. Put that down, he tells himself, you don’t know where that’s been. Three words, as common as gum stuck to the underside of a shoe. As common as broken promises and books never read. I could piece them together for you, if you like. We’ve had all of time and space in our throats. I know every syllable of your larynx, the way your tongue carves every word. I know all the syllables you have to work with and I can take the base parts like Lego, piece them together myself.
It’s not the same.
There is fire on the back of the air. There is a voice from the burning bush, telling him how to leave Egypt. Say it, the voice in Crowley’s mind says. Intones. Commands. Say it and be free. Say it and it will lead you out of Egypt, into the land of milk and honey.
Say it. (Say what? The only thing left to say. I love you.)
Crowley closes his eyes and tries to breathe. The moonlight through the long windows lays on him steadily, burnishing the backs of his eyelids dark red. The capillaries snake through like rivers of blood. He opens them to this hall, spare and dark. The concrete-grey walls and bleak hardwood floors. A backlit eagle lectern staring up, directly up into God’s revealed Word. And Aziraphale, standing here in his waistcoat with the pocketwatch clattering against his buttons, wearing the fabric away. Aziraphale with his wild cotton-pale hair and his riverbed eyes and that worry curving his narrow mouth. There is the start of a beard, there are heavy lines under his eyes. His hands, his square and steady hands, are anxiously twisting in front of him.
Crowley frowns, digging his bayonet-fingers into his eyes, trying to rub the exhaustion out. Runs his hand through his hair, red as a forest fire. “Look, Aziraphale, that’s not - We’ve gotta get through tomorrow first. Wonder what that old witch meant with the faces and the choosing.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” (Aziraphale has not moved, has not given an inch. I’m glad I never met you on a battlefield. Fuck.)
“No, I didn’t,” Crowley agrees. “But it won’t matter anyway. Not if we don’t figure this prophecy out.”
“Crowley - ”
“What do you think she’s on about anyway? Bit mad if you ask me, the old witch. Choose your faces. What’s that, are we supposed to just put on some bloody masks and - “
“Aziraphale. Please. Don’t.” His face is already pale. This is the trouble with boundaries, with marking ourselves on a map. Crowley might have liked to leave himself in the dark, unmarked and nameless. But once boundaries are marked, approached from the outside in, we learn the shape of things anyway. It has been six-thousand years. There are only so many words in the languages of the world, only so many things to talk about. They’ve crossed so many off the list and now, the shape of it becomes clear by an inadvertent process of elimination.
They both know what is left unsaid.
I’m in love with you wells up in Crowley, knocking on his ribcage, sounding the beat of his heart. It keeps on there, choking at the back of his throat like a chickenbone. I’m in love with you. (His heart doesn’t sound like him. It sounds like an unburnt bush in the desert, telling a man that a staff might become a serpent. That he might cast miracles with it. Crowley shifts his shoulders, his uncertain hips. Who am I to tell an angel I love him?)
“The world nearly ended today,” Crowley mutters finally. “All of it.” I thought I’d lost you forever. He remembers the first time they had seen death. Aziraphale’s white wing still over Crowley’s rust-haired head, the banks of the rivers of Eden emptied. How long did we stand on that wall before we left? You watched the lion rot, the sun eating away the skin. The sand doing what it wants. You asked me if it would always be like that. I said yeah, I think so. His hair had caught in the wind. It was long then and had stuck to his lips, had wrapped around his skinny neck. That was the first death. You picked your robe up, held it in your fingers. There was nothing out there but sand and wind, so you asked me to come with you. You dug your shovel hands into the earth and found somewhere quiet for the dead beast to land. “Now it can rest,” you said, inventing the burial. Keeping the peace.
That was when I loved you first. (The first death. A lion struck down by your flaming sword. You brought fire into this world. Today, hours ago, I thought it had taken you back out.)
Aziraphale moves slightly closer. One shaking hand comes to rest on Crowley’s arm. Crowley doesn’t let himself look up. Not all the way (it’s too revealing, too much to look in Aziraphale’s eyes). He stops at Aziraphale’s shoulders, the soft cream slope of them. The antiquated tartan bowtie. The promise of a throat.
Crowley licks his lips. He feels small and strange, his clothes draped on his jangling body. “I’m going to say something. If you don’t want me to say it, just - I don’t know. Interrupt. Stop me. Whatever. And I’m sorry, angel. You gotta know that. I’m sorry for this - that it got here and that there’s this thing and there are rules and I know you want to follow them.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale whispers.
His heart flares more. Brighter. It burns the walls, scorches the pages. Whatever has been written is left unwritten. Words in scattered ash on the floor. All forests must burn themselves clean. Not all fires destroy.
I burn but am not consumed.
“Just let me - look, I know - it’s not fair to tell you, I’m not on you. You know, the whole mark thing. I know it’s not me. You told me that, seven-hundred bloody years ago. I haven’t forgotten or anything. But you need to know that, fuck - ”
“My dear,” Aziraphale says, eyes still bright and wide. Crowley doesn’t know when he had caught them, started staring into them. Maybe it’s been six-thousand years. (We had a once upon a time. I met you in a garden in the rain. Gave you my name without pause. I could have been anyone. It would have been easy to lie to you then. Your eyes looked like river water and you had doubt in you already. I never lie to you. Never have. Never will.)
“I love you,” Crowley whispers. “You’re mine. I mean, you’re on me. And that’s not - what matters. I’d love you if you weren’t. I’d love you in any universe and any world, any name or sigil. I loved you from the start. Six-thousand years, angel. I know I’m not on you but - "
He closes his jaundice-yellow eyes, trying to draw a breath in. Trying to fill his punched-out self with something, anything. Air will do, here and smelling of Aziraphale. Yes, he fills himself with air.
"I won’t ask you to love me. Aziraphale, I know I’m not written on you. But I just needed you to know, yeah?"
Crowley stands there, eyes shut and neck bent like a ram on the stone. His Pandora’s box of a heart torn open, fear and terror flying out. There is anxiousness and ache. And in the bottom, quiet and small, that hope he has never been able to burn out. A prayer trying to be heard. A confession in a dark flat, standing before an eagle lectern on the day of the end of the world. Crowley is holding his heart out to be judged by Anubis’ scales, asking if the weight of an angel’s feather is the same.
Chapter 11: and the rain came down (like a lover comes to a bed)
[Prompt: Rain by Carol Ann Duffy]
New York City
The East River glitters in the dark. Crowley kicks along the way, dragging his long-fingered hand on the metal balustrade. He’s not sure why he’s here, why he’s come all this way. (Aziraphale had lost the coin toss this morning and had popped across the Atlantic, tempting a rather unbalanced development deal.)
It’s this or his flat. His dark and empty flat. The half-swallowed glasses of water on his side table, the upside-down copy of Breakfast of Champions too. Crowley shifts in his night-black suit jacket, his shoulders doing the explaining. He doesn’t want to be alone. He likes New York (it’s a native land to a demon). New York belongs to the rudderless. It is like a drain catch, collecting everyone who has nowhere else to go. If you cannot claim anywhere as home, then the city waits; be patient, you’ll find your way there eventually. Flotsam und jetsam.
(He doesn’t want to go back to his place. Not to the dark bedroom, that wall of roses across from his bed. Bright orange-red roses, the first to grow in Eden. Crowley is a gardener. He cultivates roses in his bedroom. These are his own cultivar, seeds he’d taken from the Garden long ago, grown for millennia. He calls them Angel Red.)
The itch to explore digs at him, somewhere deep between the shoulder blades. Where does it lead? Where are we going (where have we been)? He aches with the need to get on with it already, that strange sticky feeling that destiny is just around the next corner waiting. It is so hard, so much, wanting to swallow down the moon, filled to the brim and antsy with the promise of his own future.
There, sitting on a bench facing the river, there’s a pale-haired man quietly inhabiting a cream coat. His hands folded in his lap, fiddling with his buttons and a touch-worn pocketwatch.
“Hey there, Ponyboy.”
Aziraphale blinks, looking surprised at finding Crowley. His vellum-pale brow furrows. A question settling into the lines of his beloved face. “Crowley? What are you doing here?”
Crowley shrugs. His body a bundle of stripped wires and electrical tape. “Thought I might take you to dinner. Tempt you to a spot?”
“You’re incorrigible, you foul fiend."
"You like it,” Crowley grins.
Aziraphale’s mouth twitches. He stands up from the bench, moving over toward Crowley and the river. “And just where, pray tell, do you suggest?”
“Well, I believe a table just miraculously became free at Le Bernardin. Just the sort of fussy French stuff you like, yeah?”
“It’s not fussy, it’s art.” He sniffs, “And, anyway, they do wonders with mussels there.” His breath puffs in the night air, leaving grey clouds like bonfire smoke. Aziraphale shivers a little in the November chill. A cold drizzle starts to fall, dampening their coats, leaving droplets stuck to their noses, their eyelashes. Small worlds of water, crystal balls hung like ornaments. Crowley wants to brush the drops from Aziraphale’s lashes. He doesn’t. Instead, he opens his black umbrella, holding it high above the both of them. Aziraphale moves in closer. Nearly chest to chest. He looks up at Crowley, something wide and unnamed in his pale eyes. Warm and terrifying.
I know there’s something here. I know there is. I don’t know what it is. I never had faith before I met you. Whatever you can give me, even if it’s nothing at all, it’s everything to me. I’ll meet you anywhere. In the water or the sky. I feel like I’m flying when I’m with you, I feel like I’m the sun about to rise. (Why do they fall it falling in love? I’ve Fallen. This is nothing like that. I think you’ll find me on the ceiling if I keep being borne up by you. This is flying.)
“Thank you,” Aziraphale says.
“You got me last time,” Crowley murmurs, something warm climbing the stairs of his slitherspine vertebrae. “Figured it’s high time to return the favor.”
“Six-thousand years?” Aziraphale asks, smiling.
“Mmm, give or take."
"We should get going. The table - ” Aziraphale makes no move to go. No move from here under the umbrella, standing in a watery world of their own. He watches Crowley’s face. It is a moment out of the world and out of time. A moment when no rules apply. We know when we’ve found ourselves in them, spinning out endlessly. We try to find our feet, touch the walls, to right ourselves again. In these moments, anything seems possible. Anything, yes, and everything too.
We never know how long they’ll last. Keep your eyes open. Keep your heart at the ready, there on your sleeve. One day, someone will reach out and cup it with both hands.
Crowley isn’t breathing. They haven’t looked away.
I met you in a garden in the rain. You opened your wing without question, offered me shelter from the storm. No one had ever done that for me before. (No one has ever done that since.) Yes, that first rain in Eden. It had been the first time Crowley had ever since something fall from the sky other than stars. The first time he had ever seen something Fall other than the cast-out choir.
“You know, you’re not what I thought a demon would be,” Aziraphale whispers, reading his mind.
“Worse then?” Crowley grins, arching a dark brow past his black lenses.
“No, you’re far too - ”
“Aziraphale,” Crowley says with a warning growl. Playful, a bit affectionate. “Shut it.”
I don’t know if I’m a much of a demon anymore. Don’t know if I ever was. Or an angel. I only ever asked questions. That’s all it took to be a demon in the old days. They just threw it at you, threw anything at you. Threw you in the Pit. Crowley remembers Heaven. He remembers marble columns with gilded acacia leaves. Gossamer fabric and endless endless songs. The angels had been divided by rank and hierarchy. Not-Yet-Crowley had wandered further and further from the First Sphere, finding himself in narrower and darker hallways, cramped rooms. He’d watched from the edges as the angels and Principalities drilled in formation. Preparing for an unknown war, an unnamed enemy. (They all know that the first firing upon the fort is coming. Everyone has heard Lucifer’s raised voice, the questions echoing in the room.)
“What were you doing down there?” Gabriel had said, “They’re not your kind. That kind of fraternizing’s not appropriate. I’ll have to write you up."
"What, put a note in my permanent record? Sure, yeah, go for it. Be my guest. That’s not the point. They’re drilling. For war,” Not-Yet-Crowley had said, standing across the room, his shoulders and jaw both set. (Later, much later, he would stand exactly the same way in a bandstand, hearing there is no our side, Crowley. Not anymore. It’s over.)
“Yes. They’re angels, that’s what they do.”
“Fight?” Not-Yet-Crowley asked. “And die?”
“Yes. That’s their job.”
“What about us?”
“You’re an Archangel. You’re made to lead,” Michael had said, her voice dry and dull. As if this were all perfectly obvious.
“So? M'not any different from them,” Not-Yet-Crowley had said. He had looked at his hands. Five-fingered, like an angel’s. Hair dusted on the knuckles, like a Principality’s. Nothing different at all. You’re all so fucking full of shit. “None of this bloody means anything, you know that? You can’t just let them fight your stupid war while you sit back on some heated ergonomic chair.”
“Someone has to lead. And that sounds like treason,” Gabriel had said. His tone sharp-edged.
“Yeah, well,” Not-Yet-Crowley had hissed, “It really fucking does, doesn’t it?”
“What’s it to you? You’ve never been in a war.”
“You don’t have to have fought to know that war is hell. There’s no balance where slavery exists.”
“It has nothing to do with you.”
“It has everything to do with everyone.” (Do you think any man has the right to strip you bare? To tell you where to go and who to shoot? To own you because you have nowhere else to go? Do you think you get to because you were made here, in this First Sphere? You’re not different. You giant fucking prick.)
“Careful, you’re sounding like a bit of a fallen angel.”
Not-Yet-Crowley had snapped his head around, glaring from lichen-green eyes, hair red as rust. His face flaring red. “Go on, push me then. I really triple dog bloody dare you. I’d rather Fall.”
It’s a quick thrust through the heart, Falling.
The sword had run through him, cut a straight line there under his collarbone. He’d been shoved over, shoved back. Down through the floor, down like a meteor, catching fire through the whipping air. A falling star, a burning thing. Scorched and ruined. His name had burned up in the atmosphere, the syllables tearing from his throat as he’d pitched over and over and over again. Every revolution must start somewhere, every rebellion must start somewhere.
(That was how Raphael had Fallen. That is how Crawly was born.)
Doesn’t matter. Long time ago.
Instead, it is 2017 and the sky is dark. The city glitters behind them, the rain and lights scattered like hiccups and nervous-lipped kisses. Crowley smiles a bit, standing with one hand on a black umbrella and his coat indistinguishable from the night. He holds out a pale hand.
“Here?” Aziraphale asks, glancing around. “In the rain?” (It sounds like where we can be seen?)
“In the rain.” (No one’s looking right now, angel.)
“Angels don’t dance,” Aziraphale says, fidgeting with his gold ring. “We weren’t made for it.”
“Does that matter?” Crowley asks. “Do you want to?” (Does it matter what you’re made for? Does it matter where you came from? Does it matter where I came from? I think you’re going my way. I don’t even know who I am anymore. Doesn’t matter. I like who I am with you. I love you.)
Aziraphale worries his lip, dips his chin. He straightens his sleeve, runs his square fingers over his waistcoat. When he looks up, there’s something light in his eyes. See the gentle jaw, the blond beard starting at the edges. See the eyes like lapis lazuli, like twilight on the river too. The straight nose, the upturn at the end of it. You’re so fucking beautiful. You’re so much more than an angel. You’re just Aziraphale. You’re a man in a stupid tartan bowtie that still uses a bloody gramophone. I love you so goddamn much.
Crowley’s eyes are wide behind his glasses, his breath shallow. His hand still outstretched. His old Judas Iscariot heart there, beating on and on and on. Maybe it’s not a traitor at all. Maybe it’s the dove, finding dry land. (What do we know? Hope is the thing with feathers.)
“Yes,” Aziraphale says. He takes Crowley’s hand, leans in closer. Chest to chest, their hearts lined up and beating in parallel. Two messes of red, two tangled threads, separated by only fabric. By only wool and gabardine too. For this moment, here they are in this world out of time where anything is possible. Anything, yes, and everything too.
In this moment, even angels dance.
In this moment, even fallen angels fly.
Chapter 12: build me a garden and call it eden
[Prompt: Smudged heart.]
Note: I've made use of Richard Siken's poem Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out
The bedroom door is locked. Aziraphale has made quite certain of that. He shifts in his chair, boots still on his feet and half-untied. A dark crucifix hangs over the door, looking down on him.
This is an old tale. Aziraphale runs his hands over the tooled leather spines of his bookshelves. Dips his fingers into the engraved authors, their names and stories written down. There to be kept forever. Stories upon stories upon stories told and retold throughout the years. The oldest ones are love stories. This one is so simple.
It’s a love story. It has always been a love story.
Who are you meant for? He’s quietly jealous. That’s not quite fair, is it? Jealousy? He’s jealous even of miserable men. At least Tristan got to kill King Mark, to run him through with a rust-covered blade. All’s fair in love and war and this is always war. I’ll come to you. Tonight. Where are you staying? You gave me this gift, this miraclework of Hamlet. You didn’t let me say thank you after. He drums his square fingers along the wood of the desk. The oak echoing under his nervousknock touch. Crowley had sat next to him tonight at Hamlet’s opening. There in the gallery of the Globe Theatre. The performance had been packed and extra chairs brought in. Their seats wedged tightly, their thighs pressed into each other like sardines in a tin.
Crowley had been close enough to touch. Close enough to smell the lick of vetiver rolling off him. Vetiver, yes, and cedar too. Salt air and searing hot metal, apples and black soil. Touch me. You’re right there. Let me touch you. You don’t belong to me (my name isn’t on you), but you could be loved like a stolen thing. Pilfered treasure. I’d kiss you reverently, as gentle as a thief steals a painting from a wall. I’d wrap you in velvet and my arms too. I’d know the exact worth of you, the risk of you. Let me take you, steal you from your destination. I’ll wrap my fingers around you and put my lips on your mouth and love you like a five-finger discount.
Aziraphale runs a hand along the pale blue of his doublet.
Go on, then. Unbutton the shirt. Drag your fingers over the mess on your chest, the love shot through your heart. Fired like a gun, smoking and tasting like iron and blood. Aziraphale fingers the sigilmark and picks at the bullethole of his love, wincing as he goes. (He knows what he wants it to say. He knows what it does not say.)
I had hoped for awhile that it might be you. (It wasn’t. I know that now. I know that too well, my dear.) They had been eating oysters when the question of sigils had bubbled up. The ocean of his worry, always giving up its secrets. Crowley, I’ve never - but, well, who were you up there? I’m afraid I don’t remember, Aziraphale had asked. (The salty caviar-wet of the oyster had spilled on his hand. He’d licked it up, tongue dragging on his knuckles, looking up at Crowley after.)
Crowley had stared. His jaw banging open like a screen door battered in the wind. No one important, Crowley had muttered then, reaching quickly for his cup. No one that mattered.
Oh, Aziraphale had thought. He had been uncomfortably aware of the Archangel’s sigil scrawled across him. No one important. No one I’d recognize. It doesn’t matter then, does it? No, it doesn’t matter. (Not him then. Ignore it. Cross it out.)
What’s in a name? It’s just syllables. Just lines. We don’t get to pick them out, given to us at birth. Sometimes they don’t fit. We shed them like snakeskin. Peel them off like an old sweater. Yes, we can put on something new. Who are you? Who am I? I don’t have to wear this name for you. You don’t have to use the one you’re given. (Let’s pick different names. You can be Isolde and I’ll be Tristan. Come on, let’s try it. Later on, we’ll switch.)
Tell me about white. (We talk always of red, always of black. Never of white.) The walls are Prussian blue. There is a fire in the grate, a bit of orange licking the walls. The leather of his books done always in browns and golds. Sepias and ochre. Aziraphale sits at his desk, fingers hovering over blank paper. A ruff at his neck, pale as creamline milk. The hair on his head like whale tallow, yellow-white. Things to be drank, eaten, burned. To be consumed. Aziraphale is a study in white, waiting for the ink to cover him in red and black. No story can be written without white. Without a blank page. No story can be written without ink.
Aziraphale pulls the doublet off. He removes the undershirt carefully, folding it over the back of his chair. See him there, standing reflected in a mirror. The blank page of his untouched body. The empty parchment of his unkissed mouth, his unparted thighs. I want to start. I want this story to start. Please. His hands shake. See them, wide and strong. The middle-aged skin showing etches and markings of the past. His blond-hair dusted knuckles, his soft palms and his perfectly clipped nails. He hasn’t drawn the curtains. Behind him, a starry sky peers in, as nosy as a neighbor.
When he walks closer to the mirror, his breeches brush against each other, sounding like the slip of scissors.
He drinks from his glass of wine. Swishes it around in the mouth, swallows the tannic wave down. When he licks his lips after, looking in the mirror, they’re as glossy as verglas. As red as a mistake. He studies his chest. Soft. If you press on it, the skin and fat give way under your hands. Yielding and gentle. He is tender with himself, touching his body with his soft-fingered care. A bit of yellow hair there on the chest, golden waves of grain. Somewhere in the sarcophagus of his ribs is his running heart. Running like a car being warmed in the winter, hot to the touch and empty. Ready to go.
Look at the sigil. Red lines over the heart are a warning sign in humans. They spell infection, they warn of ruin. He thinks about making a poultice from boiled saltwater and applying it to the sigil, drawing out the red lines of the name.
You can’t poultice a name. Don’t be foolish.
Dogs bark outside, somewhere in the street. Woof woof woof woof. Their barks echo on the stone floors, the plaster walls. There are hooves too, that clip-clop of travel. Some indistinct voices of other men and women, living on without interference. (Doesn’t matter. Not right now. Ignore it. Cross it out.)
There is a bottle of ink. A quill pen. Aziraphale leans forward over the desk, the soft slope of his shoulders echoing in the mirror. Sheen on his brow, his nervous forehead. Take the quill, dip it in the ink. Knock the excess off. He stands up again, looking at himself backward in the mirror. His reflected self looks back. Here is the image of the would-be lover repeated. He lifts the quill, the black-inked tip. Strikes a thick line across his heart.
The cave-dark ink stays firm across his chest, like an arrow well-fired.
Here is the name he belongs to. (A mess. Incorrect. Crossed out.) Look, he thinks. Here he is, a bound book with empty pages and the wrong cover. When he cuts himself, he bleeds red. Apple-red, rose-red. (Red as your hair.) You’re in my veins, you sail along my arteries. You’re the constant rush in my ears, the warmth down my neck. I could write your name in. (Should I?)
He is a man in love, standing shirtless before a mirror. One black strike over his heart. A redacted word. Pale-skinned and pale-haired, a study in white with a smudge over his heart. Is this alright? Isolde was marked and Tristan loved her all the same. We don’t always stay with first loves, do we? Take my recycled heart, love me even with this pale stripe here on my finger, where I’ve pulled the wedding band off. The first love is not always the deepest. I didn’t know who I was then. I didn’t know him.
I know myself now. (I know you.)
Aziraphale closes his eyes and thinks of stars and nebulas. The wide expanse of space, the endless march of the Universe. He knows every star, even out where no living man has seen them. Wild and nameless, blind and free. Not like this earth under his feet, held under the dominion of names.
I love you. Will there ever be a world for me to say it? Consider a world restarted. Jumper cables applied on mountaintops, the engine turned over. Picture a world washed clean. Forgiven. Rules washed off like a Dry-Erase board. Build me a garden and call it Eden. Build me another and call it Eden.
Give us a new world. (Not this one. Ignore this one. Take it back, cross it out.)
Chapter 13: do you not know yet? (throw the emptiness out of your arms)
[Prompt: 'In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood like a hundred golden urns pouring out of the sun.' - From Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.]
You asked me to tell you a love story. I have never told you anything else.
Aziraphale’s eyes are wide. His hands open, one resting on Crowley’s tense arm. See how Crowley’s head is dipped, his neck bent and stretched out like a sacrifice. Stretched out as Abraham had asked Isaac once, here, turn your head a little. Yes, yes, just like that. His devil-red hair glimmers in the bit of peering starlight, creeping in through the long floor-to-ceiling windows, looking around the corners. The starlight watches with bated breath, covering its mouth with a hand, trying not to make a sound.
I love you, Crowley had said. I won’t ask you to love me back. He had apologized for it, here with shaking shoulders, saying an apology like a misfit puzzle piece not knowing where to go.
Crowley is made of clay. Yes, he is an urn shaped by sculptor’s hands, shattering apart in his own flat.
Let me tell you a love story. Let me tell you about an angel with a very warm face and this dull throb of his still-beating heart, a mess on his soft chest (crossed out). Aziraphale knows that this is the difference of our making, the difference of our bodies, the pottery of our hearts and strings. We were made and shaped, yes, we were meant to be. In kindness, God never put us in the kiln. Never fired us into breakable things, into shapes that cannot be changed, formed, crushed and remade.
Build me a love and give it your name. Build yourself one and call it by mine.
He is a mass of shapable clay, filled with light. We are so more than we inhabit. More than our atoms, more than our covalent bonds. Look at us, more than nitrogen and oxygen, hydrogen and carbon too. We are light and love given language to tell each other. Hands to touch each other.
Aziraphale reaches up with one hand, laying it along the side of Crowley’s sharp face. Let me cover you. I am soft where you are sharp. Look at you, the light rattling around inside of you. (You have always been the brightest spot in the room, the warmest fire. Let me put my hands over you, let me open the door, let your light into me. Let me spill into you, fill you up with the light of me. You’ll give it back, over and over. Endlessly. Infinity times infinity.)
I love you, he had thought once, looking into a mirror, wondering if there might be a world in which to say it. It’s centuries later. Same city, same heartbeat. Different wind. The air smells like chlorophyll and rose petals. The soft mist of the expensive watering system. There is a dark floor under his feet like black soil, the heels of his leather brogues clicking on it as he comes closer to Crowley. One of Crowley’s long-fingered hands rises, covering over Aziraphale’s touch to his cheek. He still has not looked up, still has not opened his eyes. Crowley’s chest is heaving almost silently, his breath torn and desperate as the rough-thread edges of raw silk.
Aziraphale is closer still. Feel him, the love and light of him spilling out. Wrapping around the two of them like a golden thread tightening an endless knot. Like a spiderweb and its happy prey. You’re blinding, you’re so beautiful.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale whispers. His other hand on the other side of Crowley’s face. Crowley’s shoulders rising and falling like the tides.
(Once upon a time, Aziraphale had prayed for a new world. To say it. To say it. To finally say it.)
“I love you,” he says. “I love you, I love you, I love you, you must know that. Darling, please, look at - ”
Crowley moves first, pulling Aziraphale to him. The light of him breaking through from a hundred-thousand small cracks and fissures, too much to be contained. Yes, yes, yes, yes, please. Aziraphale pushes up into Crowley’s mouth. Into the gently-parted lips, still damp with the confession of his love. Into this living and openmouthed kiss, desperate and wanting, terrified and kind. Their noses and teeth knock together. Doesn’t matter, they try again, fitting and refitting themselves into each other. Nothing is set in stone, in fired clay. Nothing has to be perfect. It’s already perfect. It’s just right, you taste like this, like salt and dust. Like spit and stars. I could kiss you forever. I could come apart in your hands. We could be fused together, one mouth with two backs, and I would never want to leave. I love you. I love you. I will always love you like this.
When Aziraphale pulls back, resting his head on Crowley’s forehead, his swollen lips burning with stubble and memory, Crowley is looking at him.
There you are.
“Hey,” Crowley says. He is smiling. Shaking and smiling, his nervous energy spilling out. Aziraphale is smiling back, his heart a drum, hands on Crowley’s shoulders and one square thumb running over the moth-wing pale skin of that long neck, feeling an answering heartbeat. Love like a call and answer.
(Marco, I call out. Polo, you cry. Here, look, I have found you. Don’t go far off again. Please. I have looked for you for so long.)
“Hello, my dear,” Aziraphale says, swallowing and blinking. Once, twice even. Breathe, just breathe.
“You really? Er -”
“Yes,” Aziraphale says. “I love you, Anthony J. Crowley. Just you.” I’ll tell you as many times as you need to hear it. (Please tell me too.)
There’s nothing more, just those syllables that fall from his tongue. They both sense the fragility, the name fraught with meaning. Aziraphale’s blood rushes with that old familiar battlecry, Crowley Crowley Crowley. He tenses, afraid to speak further and break the cast spell. His hand travels from Crowley’s dark-jacketed shoulder down one long arm, fingers knotting together as they had clung to each other not even an hour ago on the bus. He brings their hands up, presses his lips to the mountain range of Crowley’s jagged knuckles.
Crowley doesn’t say anything. Breathing hard, those butterfat-yellow eyes very bright.
Bright as found light.
“I’m yours,” he whispers into the warm skin beneath his lips. “I want to stay. If I can.” The serpentine-slitted eyes widen. Aziraphale knows instinctively that Crowley understands everything unsaid, everything hidden behind that syllable. Stay means stay forever. Stay means I love you and because Aziraphale does not know how to love in measure, it is for the bones in Crowley’s ears and for the ghastly bebop, it is for the smell of his sweat and the morning breath and his lead-foot on the gas pedal too.
Crowley is watching him intently, his fingers gripping tightly at Aziraphale’s own. “Anything you want, angel.”
“What do you want?”
“I - It’s better if you pick.”
Crowley shrugs. He licks his lips, the spit shining there in the little light. When he speaks, it’s half-breathless. “Speed demon, remember?”
“No rules here,” Aziraphale says, his eyes crinkling. His hair like cumulus clouds, tousled now and sweat-damp. “Not anymore.”
Crowley swallows and nods gingerly. He kisses Aziraphale again, falling into his mouth like a magnet giving up the fight. Deeper this time, knocking and finding. Wanting to find the ocean floor, the depths of where he can go. Aziraphale seeks in turn. Wanderers both. Strange pilgrims in loving arms.
“Is that your bedroom?” He asks, nodding at the room behind them, the petal-scent rolling out like a carpet from under the closed door.
“Yeah,” Crowley breathes, ragged still. “It is. Do you - ”
“Please,” Aziraphale whispers. His hand moves down from Crowley’s shoulder, over his wildly-beating heart in its bone cage. Over the space of Crowley’s chest where he knows his own name is written in heavenly sigil. Embossed. Engraved. “I know that - mine isn’t - if you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to, of course -”
“Angel,” Crowley pulls him closer, kissing his jaw, his cheek, his eyelids, his nose. “I want all of you. Just the way you are. Wouldn’t change a thing. Got that?”
Yes. “I love you."
Build me a garden in a Mayfair flat. Grow roses in a bedroom. Yes, please, find me in the dark. Our fingers running along the bricks in the shadowy walls, looking for a door, a secret passage. A way out into the sun. Break the urns, spill out the light. We were never meant to keep ourselves in forever. See here, these ten-fingered beings made of reshapable clay, remaking themselves into something new.
(There had been two birds in the flood. The raven had been sick of rain, tired of drowned things. He had flown on for days, for weeks, the water under him relentless and endlessly repeating. His wings exhausted and finding nowhere safe to land. The dove had come later. He had reached out his white wing to the raven, pointed to the horizon. That bit of rising sun. Come, the dove had said, for I have found us a new and Promised Land.)
You see, you asked me for a love story. You asked me for a world to tell it in.
This has always been a love story. And today the world is new.
Chapter 14: from eden
[Prompt: From Hadestown - "in the garden where we met / nothing was between us yet".]
A note: I've made some reference/allusions here to Mary Oliver's The Summer Day.
"Are you sure?" Crowley rasps, his voice dragged over broken glass. Aziraphale has taken a step closer. Crowley's blood counts out his fear. Claustrophobia. Philophobia. Phasmophobia. These phobias are one and the same; do not come close. Do not, no, do not dare come any closer. (Not unless you can wring it out.)
He frowns and laces his hands, long-fingered, over and over together. Aziraphale is right in front of him. Pressed against him. He places his cool fingertips on the too-too-warm planes of Crowley's face. His heartbeat pulses, held in Aziraphale's wide hands. Maybe this is the way the universe works. Maybe it’s this simple. Their pupils lock, dark to dark, endlessly repeating. Aziraphale leans in, tracing the roadmap of veins and arteries on the back of Crowley's hand.
“Take me there.”
He nods. It's such a simple thing, turning to open his bedroom door. It feels like too much, too baring, to open his bedroom to Aziraphale's eyes. No one else has ever been in here. There is a word in ancient Greek that fits better than bedroom. No, call it temenos. Somewhere private and walled off, set aside for worship. A sanctuary. Let me show you my sanctuary, let me lay you down on the altar of my bed, let me worship you here, next to the roses and the ivy too.
Aziraphale gasps as he walks in, eyes wide and looking around. There is, on the far wall, a long window with no curtains. This high up, they are only open to the night sky, only open to the gossiping stars. On another wall is a spill of roses. Red, yes, and white too. Ivy curls around edges. A row of dusty miller lives in pots on a shelf over the bed. Agrimony and globe amaranth. Pansy and primrose.
"Oh, Crowley ," Aziraphale says, his voice a hush. "You have a garden."
He shrugs. Jangle-bones. (Hear them in there, knocking about in his bag of skin. A pile of wire hangers in a black jacket. His stripped-wire nerves.) "No big, just a thing. Anyway."
Crowley swallows. I can touch you? Can I? God, let me drink of you. I want to worship you, I want to make psalms of your thighs. Wrap your legs around me, keep me there. (I’m always all over, spilling over, spilling out. Keep me steady. Find us dry land.)
"How do I start?" Crowley asks, looking at Aziraphale. They are standing together in the dark room.
Yes, I can do that. He comes closer. Hands to Aziraphale's hips, leaning down the faint few inches. He has known Aziraphale for so long from a distance. Now he memorizes proximity. Crowley hesitates before he tilts his head and inhales a deep breath, his chest rising like a tide. He leans in further to close the space between them, pulling at the lapels of Aziraphale's ancient cream coat. For an instant, he feels nothing but chapped skin on his own and the warmth of Aziraphale's body heat slipping through the tartan bowtie, that velvet waistcoat. Then the world tilts on its own axis and Atlas kneels. Aziraphale surges forward, knotting his gnarl-knuckled hands into Crowley’s buttoned shirt (left deliberately and carefully undone). He opens his mouth at the knocking of Aziraphale's tongue.
Aziraphale gently pushes and Crowley falls back against the bedframe. A tongue licks at Crowley's soft palate and Crowley aches, suddenly aware of the incompleteness of his body. This is it, no, this is the way the world ends. He doesn’t know how to do this so he gives in to every impulse. He cannot cover enough skin with his mouth, cannot cover enough of Aziraphale with his mapping fingers. He wants to mark Aziraphale up like an archeological dig site and to methodically cover every inch of him (his living, breathing body) with his own skin, his own mouth, his own tongue. I will leave no part of you unturned.
His fingers are curled like a question mark into Aziraphale's coat. One thumb moving over the fabric, feeling the weave of it reassure him. He looks up into Aziraphale's skylit eyes.
“Take it off, angel. Let me see you.”
Aziraphale’s fingers hesitate on his buttons. It won’t matter, angel. Show me all of you. There’s nothing of you I won’t love. All of you is starstuff, from your teeth to your throat, to your thighs, your soft stomach. All of you, you’re a revelation, an invocation, a benediction.
"I love you," Aziraphale says. (It is the raft they both cling to, lost on this ocean, unsure where to go. I love you. I love you. I love you. The simplest three words. Everyone has said them. Why do they never get dirty in all those mouths? Scuffed up, lost or stolen? Three words. The only ones that matter.)
His dry throat, his shaking hands, reaching up. Crowley has sunk to his knees. Heaven here, unbuttoning its shirt. Heaven here, with I love you on the tongue. A Heaven brighter than any other, Aziraphale is the only blessing Crowley has ever wanted. The only ecstasy he’s ever needed. Let me worship the light of you. (I have loved you for so long.)
Pull the bowtie off, undo the long row of buttons. Shrug off the sleeves, the shoulders. There Aziraphale stands without a stitch on his chest, bare to the world, covered only with starlight. Crowley sucks in a breath, his long fingers making their way to the space of Aziraphale’s heart. A pilgrimage of his hands, there to ask questions.
He looks. Wide, snake-rattle eyes there on the bared skin. His hands and fingers touching finally. Skin and bone, bone and skin.
“I’m sorry, my dear, I wish it was you and -“
“ Angel, ” Crowley says, his sunrise-yellow eyes snapping up to hold Aziraphale’s. He can feel his brows arched high on his own face, his mouth dropped open. “There’s nothing there.”
There’s a pause, a beat of a moment. The space between song and chorus. Aziraphale blinks.
“Go look,” Crowley says, gesturing to the long mirror on his closet door.
Aziraphale stands before his reflection, Crowley just behind him. Aziraphale's hand repeating over his own chest in circles. Over and over and over again. Empty as the earth before they had come. Empty as the garden before we met. Empty as the bodies of men, nameless and unclaimed, blank and unpromised. To be given as you wish. Nameless, yes.
Nameless and free.
Aziraphale turns around. “It’s gone," he says, hand hovering over his heart. "It was there this morning.”
“What about yours, is it -“
Crowley doesn’t know. His hands shake as he pulls his own shirt up over his shoulders, throws his jacket over the back of a chair. He hears Aziraphale’s heavy breathing, sees his wide-eyed stare. He looks up to meet himself in the mirror.
His skin looks back at him, unwritten and unmarked. Clean slate. Tabula rasa. (They had asked for a new world. One in which they could say I love you and hear it in return. This world is reborn, remade, brand new.)
They say nothing for a long moment. The silence is deafening.
“Crowley.” Aziraphale says, quiet and soft. “It’s gone.”
Cut off, cut out. Not part of them anymore. Their rules, their expectations.
“Yeah,” Crowley reaches out. It’s the most natural thing in the new world, reaching for Aziraphale’s hand, curling an arm around his waist. Dipping his head down, into this living kiss.
“We’re free,” Aziraphale says, there in the stubble of his narrow neck. Free. Free to do as we like, to fraternize as we wish. To choose each other (I’ve already chosen you. I would choose you, love, in a thousand universes. In every story. Imagine there were thousands of stories of us, imagine all the ways we might have gone. In each of them, I have loved you.)
“Yeah, angel,” Crowley says into Aziraphale’s mouth, down the side of his throat. Into the hallway of his ear, into the cloud-pale curls too. “Fuck, I love you.”
Aziraphale touches his chest. His wide hands spread over the skinny ribs, the strange angles of him. Crowley knows he isn’t much. Skinny and odd, as unnerving as shadows in a dark room and sounds in the attic. But Aziraphale is touching him like he might be the relic of a saint. Aziraphale bows his head to suck psalms into Crowley’s chest, his empty skin, writing himself in by dental records and bruises. Bows his head against him as if he is offering a prayer in a cathedral. Crowley moans, his hands clenching on Aziraphale’s arms. (It’s okay, It’s okay. Let go, say it. Make all the sounds you like. Let go. You’re free.)
“You’re gorgeous," Aziraphale says. (Crowley is stroking his soft jaw, the roughness of the beardstart. I love you. I love your skin, warm as fire, pale as sand. I love how you feel to the touch, how your skin shivers under my fingers. How you respond to me.)
“Nah, you’re mad. You’re the beautiful one -“
“ Crowley- “
“You’re beautiful, my dear, and I love you. And, mark my words, I will tell you over and over and over again until you understand that. Don't you dare fuss and try to squirm out of it, you old snake.” (Aziraphale is smiling, it looks like the sun.)
Crowley flushes. (He hopes that this is the beginning of the rest of his life. A bed, perhaps this. Chopping vegetables, stories about printer's mistakes. They can light a fire in the grate, share a bottle of wine. No one will have to leave in the end. Part thighs like a sea, kiss again. Kiss always. Make love. Sleep. Wake up. Do it again. He could be happy. Yes, he could be happy just like this.)
“What do you want from me?” He murmurs. Don't go too fast, don't dive too deep. Don't ask for too much too soon. Don't fuck it up.
“Darling, I want everything you’ll give me.”
“You have me. All of me,” he swallows. “You always have.”
Aziraphale sits on the bed. An interruption of white on grey sheets. He pats the spot next to him. Crowley's eyes cross for a moment. Aziraphale here, shirtless and inviting him into his own bed.
"Yes, indeed," Aziraphale smirks.
"Oh, hell," Crowley mutters, covering his own face. (Hiding the smile.)
“Just, look, seeing this - you - do you know how long - do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to see you in my bed? Shit.”
“I'm having an inkling.”
Crowley sinks against him, there into the wide bed. A kiss. Their chests pressed together, skin and bone in a handmade garden, nothing between them. Nothing of red, no strings attached. Cut it out and restart.
"Adam remade the world," Aziraphale murmurs in between their kisses, the stolen moments to pull away, to run fingers over their faces, the rest of their bodies. To remind themselves yes yes yes this is real. You are here, I have you. (Can I keep you?)
The beginning again.
"Yeah, I guess he just kinda restarted it after, you know, that whole apocalypse -thing went down like a lead balloon.”
"He made it the way it should have been," Aziraphale says. "With love. All those flashes of love."
"Yeah, probably a good thing he'd never met us before today. Really bungled that whole thing up."
"He chose goodness and kindness. He chose the world and love. Humans, they're capable of so much, aren't they? Given that choice?"
"Yeah," Crowley says, moving the pad of his thumb over Aziraphale's lower lip. His eyes flick up to look into Aziraphale's own. (It has been forty-five seconds since they have kissed. It has been far too impossibly long.) "I think - this means we have that too. Now, I mean. I think that's why the marks are gone."
"I choose you and I always will. I always have," Aziraphale murmurs. "Come here."
He kisses Crowley again. On the first night of a new world. See the roses on the wall. The wood floor like dark soil. Rich and black. Plant me a tree, grow me a garden. Eat of my red mouth, held out to you like an apple. Don’t tell me of sin. Don’t tell me that what we do here, laid out on sheets as soft as lichen and moss, is wrong. There can be nothing with the way I love you, the way you bear my heart up, keep it above water, hold it up to the light. I tell you, careful of my sharp bones, my dark spots. Careful of the unholy thing I am. (Your touch is an inferno, sharp as a scalpel, burning me clean. Get it out, their words, the world they built without asking us. Burn it down with our gentle and pale fire, build me a garden and call it love.)
Crowley lays Aziraphale out in his bed, kissing him there for all the times he had imagined it and had not been able to.
“Make love to me," Aziraphale says.
“Okay.” God, yes.
A hand on the cord of a throat, the constant pressure of a heartbeat, this measure of life. His fingers learning Aziraphale with a cartographer’s touch. “I love you,” Crowley whispers. “I’m gonna … I’m gonna tell you all the time. Cause when you love someone you should say it.”
Because I cannot not say it anymore.
“Tell me always,” Aziraphale gasps, Crowley leaning down to bite at his clavicle. He kisses Crowley, hard and pulling, his own lips swelling as Crowley darkens the door of his mouth.
I’ll tell you in words. I’ll tell you with my mouth. My tongue, my arms, my back and my shoulders too. I’ll bend to you and go on then, roll this world on my back. I can bear it for the both of us, here on my shoulders. I’ll be careful. I won’t stumble. I won’t fall. (There’s nowhere to fall with you but here, into your arms.)
Take your time. There's no rush. For long moments they simply lie here, in this wide and open bed, Crowley layered over Aziraphale, pushed up on one arm. The two of them stroking along bare skin. Across bare shoulders and unwritten chests. Up into a spill of hair (red, the color once of fate). Across the brow bone and zygomatic arch, across the gentle eyelids. The spiderweb-kiss of eyelashes too. They have known by sight and sound. Now, let the private senses come to the surface. Taste. Put your mouth there, at the divot of the throat where the sweat catches. Salt-lick and damp. Rockpools.
Aziraphale lets his finger trail over Crowley's cliff-edged nose, trouble over his open mouth. He sucks it in. Warm-skinned and perfectly manicured, welcome on his tongue. When Crowley's hand makes it down between them, finding Aziraphale hot and stiff to the touch, it might have been years. He takes them both in hand. Feels the heat, fire against fire. Aziraphale cries out at the touch.
“I want -“
“Tell me,” Crowley whispers, his pointed nose deep in Aziraphale’s neck. “I only want what you want.” (I'm hungry, I'm starving. I don't know the right table manners, what I should order. This is new, I've never been here before. I don't want to startle you. I don't want to scare you away.)
“I want you inside me. I’ve thought about it -“
“ Christ. You have?”
Aziraphale nods, breathless against 400-count Egyptian cotton. “Every night.”
Crowley shudders. He looks up at Aziraphale, back down to his hand curled around their shatter-hard cocks. Yes, yes, yes please. He can be a miracle-worker. He has always wanted this, a baptism of wet mouths, the font of Aziraphale’s soft body. He finds himself deep in Aziraphale and his words deep in his own throat. Aziraphale has his arms wrapped tightly around Crowley’s neck and shoulders, pulling him in tighter and tighter and tighter still. Their eyes both wide, unblinking. Shaking and held, swallowing the measure of each other.
I love you.
Crowley’s eyes take in Aziraphale’s face. The damp sweat, the sheen on his nose, his open mouth. That hot breath against his own. Playing with fire. Aziraphale’s eyes rake over his own, swallowing up the look of him here, sheathed and deep in Aziraphale’s body, wordless and tense, aching and undone.
“Oh,” Aziraphale whispers, “Oh god.”
Crowley nods, his hair falling across his face, words lost.
“Please, please, please, I need you.”
Go slow. Be careful. Make it last and do it again. (Don’t worry, you can’t do love wrong. If it doesn’t work then cross it out, start over, do it again.) He lets his hips do as they like. In and out, over and over. Song and chorus too. Sing a song, tell a poem. It’s love, it has always been love. He moans, kissing Aziraphale, pushing his tongue in, finding warm welcome.
I didn’t know it would be like this. I didn’t know that pure joy existed. I didn’t know it was the friction burn between us. I didn’t know it was this, that you’d build me a home and take me in and my life would be you. I was afraid of loving you. There’s nothing here but the universe. (It doesn’t have a name. We weren’t born with them. Here it’s only you. Only me. I’d love you under any name.)
" Yes," Aziraphale says, his face buried in Crowley's neck. His fingers digging into Crowley's pale skin. (Or perhaps Crowley had said it. He doesn't know. The sound had come up from their shared body, fumbling together toward the dawn. Perhaps Aziraphale's throat, perhaps his. Doesn't matter. Shared. The same.) He runs his hands over Aziraphale's chest, his arms. No one has been so gentle, not even Percival with the grail. Not even Mary, pulling a man down from a cross.
They move together. Pushing forth, looking for light. This sweat dripping from their brows, along their noses, falling like oceanwater on their upper lips. Lick it off. Keep going. Keep following. God, I love the shape of you. The way you fit around me. Under me, over me. The weight of you as the countermeasure of the mess of me. I might fly off the handle, shatter apart. But you, the way you set up shop in my heart like loving ballast. You keep me steady.
"You're gorgeous," Crowley says into Aziraphale's ear, hissing a little of the sibilance. God made shapes so that you could be built. The rectangles and circles of you, the perfect ovals, the triangle between your thighs where I've buried myself. I'll never leave your body. I want to keep you like this always, just us. Where I can worship at your holy touch, where you will never go unkissed.
They fuck slowly. Deliberate and gentle, this fusion of atoms, this remaking of bodies. Molding their clay into one beast with two backs and two hearts. Same blood, same ache. Down between them, in the damp of Aziraphale's curls, Crowley wraps one hand around Aziraphale's cock and pulls at it with the same rhythm of his slithersnap spine. The bed is unsteady. The edges of his vision are white. It's a miracle that he hasn't come.
Not yet, not yet, not yet. You first. I'll take care of you, angel. Always. I'll make it good for you always. I'll worship at you, write songs for you. Carve you into every piece of me. Let me give you light. Let me make you happy. Let me make you sing.
"Oh," Aziraphale gasps. How long have they been like this? Crowley buried into Aziraphale's body? The sheets are soaked. The constellations have changed. Aziraphale's fingers curl deep into the skin of Crowley's back like half-moon shovels. "Oh, Crowley. "
Crowley kisses Aziraphale's ear, his jaw, his neck. Licks a stripe along the carotid, loving the pulse he finds there with his tongue. "Come for me, angel, please ."
There's a stutter, a drag of twitching nails. Aziraphale's eyes flutter and slam shut, his mouth open and wide, head flung back into the pillow. Aziraphale comes in Crowley's fist, gripping at Crowley's body, his legs pulling him in tighter and deeper. He fumbles for Crowley's jaw, pulling at the unforgiving bones, the severe profile, with a kiss-seeking mouth.
"Please, I need you," Aziraphale whispers. Crowley closes his eyes and savors the words. He feels his chest swell, spikes of pleasure cresting from his belly. (He has wanted for so long.) He has never expected to hear such words from that mouth. How long have I wanted you. He shudders under Aziraphale's touch, his welcoming body. I love you. He feels it fire in all synapses. It pours from him, from his sweat, his saliva, his blood.
"Can I - in you - "
It's the permission that does him in. Everything ever wanted, untied and unwrapped, left bare and given freely. He is held like he is wanted, wrapped in loving arms and gentle grace. Come in me, Aziraphale had said and so Crowley does. His eyes slammed shut and he comes with a silent and shaking scream. Ache and white-hot fire racing up his spine, taking the vertebrae two at a time, dazzling around his crown. He grips at Aziraphale's arms, his shoulders, gasping and begging with the world for none of this to have been a dream.
It's not a dream. Just a new world (to love and to say it). He finds himself in a slithering collapse next to Aziraphale. Fingers trace through his hair, move along the dark road of his cheekbone tattoo. He shivers and burrows deeper into Aziraphale. His head resting on Aziraphale's chest, right over his blank heart.
“Angel?” Crowley asks, turning his head against the slate-grey pillow to look at Aziraphale. To find him still there, warm and undisappeared. “Out of just, let’s call it some very stupid morbid curiosity - can I ask who the bastard on your chest was?”
Aziraphale smiles, runs a hand along Crowley’s arm, over his shoulder (warm, still shaking). “Oh, my dear. Of course. I suppose it doesn’t matter now then, does it?”
Crowley shakes his head. It doesn’t matter. We’re here now.
“I never actually spoke to him, you know.”
“Are you sure you want to know?” Aziraphale asks, looking at him with considering eyes. (Knowing him better than he knows himself. Nothing new, nothing new.)
Crowley kisses Aziraphale. (No longer unkissed, no longer unstarted.) Doesn’t matter. We’re here now. You’re in my arms, you picked me out of the gutter. You were at my side when the world was born and born again. I’ll find you in any world, any universe. Everything else pales against that. The sun is coming up outside. (I’ll tell you a secret. The sun rises for all of us. No matter who we are, what gutter we find ourselves in, what threads and webs we’ve caught ourselves in. The sun always rises.)
“No,” he says, bringing another kiss to Aziraphale's lips. “Guess not. Not really. Doesn’t matter, angel.”
They tangle together, wrapped only in each other and wrinkled sheets. Hands tied together by no thread but fingers alone. Hearts beating on into the dawn. At times, the tension seems unbearable, Crowley feels the tide of worry. Aziraphale is there, watching him. He squeezes Crowley's hand. I've got you, it seems to say.
This is the end of this story. One of many, one of thousands. Love never ends, it is told and told and retold again. You asked me for a love story. But, listen, look around you, at this universe born into light. At our hands made to fit into each other.
They’re all love stories.
This story is ending, yes, but let us tell another. Look at your blank skin, your unwritten chest. Your heart, beating wildly, nameless and free. The sun will rise and tell me, tell me now, what will you do with your one free and untangled life? Tell me, tell me now, who will you give your one blank and sovereign heart?
Sing us a love song and give it your name. Sing the chorus up into the wide-open air, where the birds have wings to live fiercely and endlessly free.