Chapter 1: the air that inhabits you
"I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary."
Margaret Atwood, Variation on the Word Sleep
You shouldn't come to me for a fairytale.
You know better. But we'll start as the fairytales do, you know the old words. Once upon a time. There is a legend, deep in the south, about things you might find in the sea. You should be careful where you step. You should be careful where you look.
Keep an eye out for the Big Bad Wolf.
Aziraphale sets the teacup on the saucer. The simple click of porcelain on porcelain is one of his greatest pleasures. The galaxy spiral of milk in Earl Grey. There are other pleasures. Aziraphale gathers them up in his curator's hands. What does he love best? The smell of old paper. The first crack into creme brulee. The smell of single-malt scotch. The hush of a theatre as the lights go down and Figaro might then trouble to sing. The stillness of London deep in the night, when not a creature stirs but sleepless Heaven and idle Hell.
(Red hair, a sardonic grin.)
Aziraphale sighs, stirring his tea. It has been twelve years since he’s seen Crowley. It’s not entirely my fault, though this is quite an overreaction from you, my dear boy. I would never give you a suicide pill with my own light written into it. Giving you holy water as if I’d signed your death warrant myself. But twelve years of silence? That’s a bit much, even for you. (Even for me.)
Twelve years. It's a long time, twelve years.
He watches for signals, for lights in the sky. Tell me you’re still waiting. He will go. Aziraphale’s feet do not move, his hands twitch. This is half my fault, isn’t it? (Please half-forgive me)
“This is absurd,” Aziraphale says to nowhere and nothing. The bookshop does not answer him. “Just a foolish spat. I cannot believe he is acting like this, ridiculously childish to just completely ignore me - honestly, really. If I have to be the one to set this to rights, so be it.”
It’s with determined hands that Aziraphale pulls his overcoat on. Khaki-colored, this gabardine wool. It’s with a huffing breath that he sets his hat upon his head, pulling it snug over his pale hair. Take the umbrella and lock the door. It’s an easy walk from Soho to Crowley’s last-known whereabouts, a flat in Mayfair. About twelve minutes down Grosvenor Street, give or take. His leather brogues sound upon the pavement with his righteous step, umbrella held securely in his certain hands.
Ridiculous, this. Really. I’ll just head over there and let you know what I think of this conduct. Absolutely infuriating, how could you possibly think I would indulge such a thing? Holy water. The one thing that would destroy you. I will not put it in your hands. Utterly absurd.
The flat still exists. Aziraphale knocks upon it, finding the woodgrain to be the same, the door knocker to be the same.
He knocks again.
Perhaps you’re out. Tempting. Wiling. (Though I would certainly get wind of you, wouldn’t I? I usually do. How have you hidden from me? Are you really going to such extremes over this?)
Biting his lip and blue eyes flashing, Aziraphale knocks again. Louder and firmer than the first.
Nothing. No answer. The door withstands his assault with idle amusement.
“Fine,” Aziraphale mutters, “Have it your way.” And with a breath, the door stands miraculously open. A long hallway confronts him, endless and dark. Faint light makes promises from tall windows. Beyond this, there is only darkness and silence. Aziraphale steps inside, looking hesitantly around, something strange in his gut. The weight shifting upon his shoulders.
Dust in the afternoon light. Dust in the corners, dust in the shadowed dark. Dead plants line the walls, their leaves reaching like corpse-hands. Browned and dried, these mummy-fingered leaves. He moves cautiously through the strange room. Heavy with silence, heavy with emptiness. It has the stale air of a tomb. An unsealed sarcophagus cracked open for treasure hunters. (What will he find here? Nothing of gold.)
Nothing. (He hadn’t expected anything.) Nothing but an echo. See the sunfaded fabric of the sofa. The withered roots of the potted trees. There is a pile of mail on the sideboard table. Aziraphale trails curious fingers in the dust, leaving blazed paths in his wake. The letters are dated to 1862, abruptly stopping in April. One is torn open. The letter inside unfolded.
Blank. Nothing written on it. Only the envelope bears writing, addressed to one Anthony J. Crowley. (Aziraphale blinks, making a note to ask about the name.) The white cardstock is marred in a corner, a dark smear the color of rust. Of spilled red wine, a good burgundy or cabernet.
Aziraphale breathes shallowly, looking up again at the silence of this stock-still place. He leaves the letter where he found it, there with the others. (Twelve years gone. Nothing new to find.) Where are you? Take a breath. Take a moment. Compose yourself. I’m being foolish, of course. You must have simply left then, after our fight. Perhaps you haven’t been back. You’re off somewhere. Venice, maybe. New York, perhaps. Tempting, causing a fuss. That must be it.
The fine hairs are raised on the back of Aziraphale’s neck. He proceeds slowly down the long hallway. There is a bedroom at the end, the door slightly ajar. Aziraphale has never been here, deep in Crowley’s house. All houses are laid out in different ways but there is a theme. Our beds are found in the center, in the back, somewhere protected and far away. We sleep blindly, laid out and vulnerable. We close our eyes like baring our soft bellies to the world. We sleep as if saying I trust you.
Look, what do you see? A spill of red.
In front of Aziraphale, Crowley sleeps. His rose-red hair reaches to his waist, splashed out across the grey bedlinens. It reminds Aziraphale of Mesopotamia, watching the animals climb the plank into the Ark, two by two. It had been different then. Red hair had blown in the wind, Crowley’s face in a doubtful glance. Crowley had moved then, his skinny mouth twisting into questions.
His mouth doesn’t move here. Motionless and slack.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale breathes. “How long have you been here?”
Crowley is very still below the pale sheets. His skin terribly white, a flush in his sharp cheeks. He reminds Aziraphale of the carved effigies of saints on their tombs. A demon carved into a sarcophagus. His body like a coffin, keeping him still and silent within. Have you slept all this time? What happened? Is this because of - us? Twelve years, my dear, have you slept for twelve years?
The room is as spare as the remainder of the flat and just as dark. The same thick layer of dust lingers on each surface, the plants just as withered and dry as the rest. Without their leaves, they are reduced to wild tangles of dead roots and dead stems, booby-trap thorns, and crumbling stamens. Aziraphale swallows, sparing a miracle for the dust and sitting on the bed. He reaches for Crowley’s hand. The long fingers are cold within his own. Living, yes, but cold to the touch. The redness on his face is strange. It touches his ears, his neck. (Aziraphale tries to not imagine where else.)
There is a small oak table next to the bed. A lonely glass sits there, the contents long gone. A journal of some kind, leatherbound and tooled. An abandoned fountain pen, the ink as dried up as a riverbed.
“Wake up,” he says, prodding at Crowley’s shoulder. He expects nothing and gets nothing.
What happened? Tell me. Please. Where have you gone? Aziraphale bites his lip, pulling the sheets up higher and smoothing the wrinkles. He brushes the hair back from Crowley’s damp, fever-warm forehead. I told you not to sleep. Aziraphale has been afraid for a very long time. He never sleeps. Crowley often does. This is different.
Something has happened. Aziraphale closes his eyes, pressing his mouth very thin. Twelve years. Twelve years. How can I wake you? How much longer? He doesn’t know. Have you ever been in love? We all find places to curl up, find other hearts soft enough to be pillows. Find other ribcages to hide behind. We trade off awareness, one of us keeping an eye on the dark. Sleep now, we say in love, I’ll keep watch. I’ll keep you safe.
Here, sitting in a bedroom in Mayfair, the night trades shifts with the dawn and the shadows grow long. Aziraphale doesn’t reach for the lights. Doesn’t miracle a candle up, a spot of flame. He watches Crowley, the even breathing steady under the rise and fall of his bedsheets.
He keeps an eye on the door, watching for a wolf.
Chapter 2: what dreams may come
Sleep is a strange business.
We spend one-third of our lives in the dark. One-third blind and unconscious, left only to our own devices. Subject in the night to only ourselves. Who do you face there, written in dreams? Your own desires. Your own history.
Your own fears.
Aziraphale never sleeps.
“Still?” Crowley’s voice is incredulous against the din of the tavern. They’ve become fond of this place, crowded and dark. Here, in the timber-framed pub with the cacophony of ale-sticky tables and clinking tankards, it’s easy to slip out of view. Should they be surprised, by either side, they could feign indifference and innocence. Could say oh, I had no idea he was here, I swear it. Cross my heart. This table is squirreled away, a secret in a shadowy corner. Here, in the half-dark, Crowley is hard to see. Aziraphale leans forward, watching the way the gloom lingers over his face. Shadows graze Crowley’s nose and cheekbones like a lover might, there with a soft touch. His eyelids, his mouth. That ever-raised brow, amused and warm. Aziraphale imagines touching him as the light might, as the dark might, gentle and never turned away.
Stop. I cannot think like that. (Not about you.)
“Shit,” Crowley mutters. “All this time - “
Aziraphale sets his fork down against the plate. The grouse had been excellent, the saddle of hare divine. Rosemary on his tongue. Plenty of thyme. Crowley, as usual, eats nothing. Eats nothing and leans over, skinny and sharp, looking half-starved. This century looks good on him, draped as ever in black. See the cord-muscled calves turned out in black breeches. Try not to want to reach out and touch the night-colored cloak that Crowley has thrown across the back of his chair. The fabric looks soft and strong, something of wool. Aziraphale is an indulger, a creature of sensation and experience. His skin wants to know what the cloak would feel like against him. His nose wants to know the smell of it. How it collects the fresh air, the salt of Crowley’s sweat. The cedar from his trunk, the spilled wine too. And that something of Crowley that has never changed since the dawn of time. (Sometimes Aziraphale leans in too far, breathes in too deep. Sense it now. The hot metal, the searing scent. Apples, yes, and iron too. Crowley has worn the scent of the stars since the start.)
“I do nod off. Once every century or so.”
“And it’s like that? Always?” The voice is low. Intense. Aziraphale cannot miss the curl of Crowley’s hands around his drink. Protective, not daring to admit it.
You’d try to fix it if you could, my dear, wouldn’t you?
How do you fight a dream? You can’t take a knife to it. Can’t slit its’ throat, can’t drop strychnine in the well. Can’t throw smallpox-rotten blankets over a fortress wall, can’t fire a cannon into the white of a dream’s eye. There’s nothing for it. No, there’s nothing to be done. Aziraphale simply breathes in and focuses ever-forward, keeping a stiff upper lip and never closing his eyes. If he sleeps, he knows what dreams may come. Nightmares scratch at the door. Unwelcome and uninvited. They are always shifting. The scenes change and the story changes too. Yet, Aziraphale knows there is always someone behind him. Something behind him. Something dark and fanged, something following him. Always at the edges, always present. Watching and watching and watching, drawing ever closer.
(Sometimes Aziraphale thinks he can see a shadow out of the corner of his eye. Sometimes he thinks he can see the glint of claws, big enough to tear him apart.)
Crowley is watching him intensely. Aziraphale breathes in and holds the air in his belly as if he might swallow the moment. Keep it with him. Crowley, leaning forward like Lancelot at the table, like Galahad, declaring look, I’ll do it, I’ll fight the beast. Let me at him. (Aziraphale never tells Crowley this, keeps the paladin comparison quiet. Crowley would snap, would hiss and lash out with gentle hands. M’not nice, not good. Don’t you dare accuse me of that. ) He doesn’t understand, it doesn’t make sense, how he feels safest in the hands of a demon. He knows Crowley would cup him like the Holy Grail, hold him with reverence.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”
Crowley’s dark brow arches high. He leans back into his chair, his spine slinking into the hardwood of his seat. It’s always you. It’s always been you, steady with me. In every culture, on every continent. Aziraphale shifts, unsettled at the thought. He cannot call Crowley friend, though they trip into these drunken nights with some measure of regularity. Cannot call him friend even though they trade miracle-making and temptation too, dipping in and out of each others’ lives for the sake of The Arrangement. It is not, for Aziraphale, about convenience. He doesn’t mind traveling for a blessing. There, sometime in the 11th century, Aziraphale had given in, had said yes, yes, yes if only to tease Crowley closer. Give him a reason to turn up again on his doorstep. Humans can count on at least two things in their lives to be steady and constant. Death and taxes. Aziraphale knows no death and pays no dues but his obedience. His only constancy is Crowley, nipping in with a bottle of wine in his hands and mischief in his mouth. Crowley is the skeleton that he builds his life around, the hook he hangs his world on.
He watches Crowley. The way his hips argue with the chair, the way his slender fingers stroke at the (regrettable) beard patch on his pointed chin. He watches Crowley and he watches over his shoulder, looking for the shadow of spread wings.
“It matters, angel,” Crowley mutters, his hands restless. One runs through his bramble of red hair. (Aziraphale thinks of roses, spilled wine, open mouths on a wide white bed.) “You shouldn’t have to deal with that. Look, sleep is one of the greatest things that’s ever been invented. A nice hot bath, open window. Get the air cold. Yeah, that’s the stuff.”
“Well,” Aziraphale says, “I suppose that’s simply my lot. Really, my dear, it’s quite fine. Frees up rather a good bit of reading time, I must say.”
Behind his dark lenses, Aziraphale is certain that Crowley is rolling his eyes. There’s a quirk to his skinny mouth, as if he’d grabbed a smile and pulled it back in. As if it had been about to dart out in front of a carriage. He’d stopped it, saved it, held it back. (Aziraphale would like to see it.)
“Why do you think it exists?” Aziraphale asks. He fusses at the white ruff around his throat. The sleeves of his doublet are sky blue. Aquamarine, the color of the shallows. They are a strange contrast, he and Crowley. Look at us, he thinks, knowing what a pair they make in this oubliette of a table. A regular Snow White and Rose Red. He sips at his tankard, leaning back now in his drunkenness, resting his drink on the curvature of his stomach.
“To sleep, perchance to dream,” Crowley mutters, then shakes it off and shrugs. He throws one arm over the back of the chair, lazy and insouciant. “Dunno. Just figured She was bein’ nice to them. Giving them a break.”
“Perhaps someday,” he says. Meaning perhaps someday, the fear will stop. Perhaps someday, I might sleep and dream. Perhaps someday, the terror won’t come to my door, clinging to the back of my eyelids.
“Yeah,” Crowley says. A ditch is dug between his frowning brows, Crowley opens his mouth and hesitates. “Suppose it might help if I was - you know, there?”
“What do you mean?”
A bone-thin finger circles the top of his drink, dragging out the moment. “You know, watch you. Make sure nothin’ happens. Wake you up if - “ He leans in, yellow teasing over his glasses. “Anything were to happen.”
Angels do not shiver when demons offer to stay the night, so Aziraphale does not shiver. His heart picks up speed though, ignoring his best efforts. “My dear - “ he says, breathless. “We could be seen.”
“I’d be careful. Just - think about it. I could stay, if you like.”
Yes. “I don’t know.” He watches Crowley tilt his head, inhales the soot-black of his clothing, the cloak he would love to wear and breathe. The rosebush of wild hair that his hands are instructed to never touch. The Mephistopheles smile, bargaining sleep for a bit of time.
Aziraphale bites his lip and drinks his ale, wondering if dreams are more dangerous than nightmares.
Chapter 3: in the dark
Fairytales have familiar bones. We are well-practiced at them. We are told them each night as we are tucked into bed, the knitted blankets pulled up to our chins and our ears. Tell me about love, we say, tell me about fear. Read me a story, we beg. (A constant cry, constantly reaching out. Before we close our eyes and seep into the night, we ask for a story to take with us.) Like a fairytale. Like the poisoned apple. The cut-off toes shoved into a glass slipper, blood filling up the shoe. The witch wanting to suck the bones of Hansel and Gretel clean. The littlest mermaid and her too-sharp knife. The Snow Queen and her shattered mirror, reaching for heart-pierced children. Briar Rose and her spindle. The brambles at the castle, the blood on the wool.
Her long sleep.
This is no castle. Here, let us find ourselves in a fashionable flat in London. Here, wrapped up in dark wool trousers and worry, Crowley is pacing. Yes, pacing. Heels on the hardwood floor, round and round and round he goes. Listen to the clickity-clack of his ratatat heart. His skitter-skatter pulse drumming on his own bones, like a xylophone against a ribcage. He is furious and still seeping with it. His fury is written on his face, scrawled in between the heavy lines at his eyes, his thin mouth, his razorblade chin. It has been two weeks since he has seen Aziraphale. Two weeks since Crowley has set foot in St. James’ Park, since he had tucked bread into his pockets for the ducks and the swans. Two weeks of utter and impossible silence between Mayfair and Soho. (He has walked the path to the bookshop no less than six times. Marched up and down and back again, his cane swinging with his hips. Hat squarely on his head and tension sticking between his teeth. Each time, he had come within view of the shop and paled. Panicked. Spun around with his heart failing, his devil-tail tucked between his useless legs.)
How had it gone? Aziraphale's words echo across his skull. “I'm not an idiot, Crowley. Do you know what trouble I'd be in if - if they knew I'd been fraternizing? It's completely out of the question.”
He had stopped breathing, had clenched his cane tightly in white-knuckling fingers. “Fraternizing?”
“Well, whatever you wish to call it. I do not think there is any point in discussing it further.”
“I have lots of other people to fraternize with, angel.”
“Of course you do,” Aziraphale had said. Had spat Crowley out like a piece of gum onto the floor.
“I don't need you.” (Later, much later, Crowley will ask have I ever lied to you and wince. Yes, yes, here. He has lied once.)
He casts a nervous eye on the mailpile, letters and envelopes piled in a tray on the front hall's sidetable. His hands linger on the black-lacquered surface of the table, idling near the bills and calling cards. There is business correspondence. A newspaper.
A letter with his name on it.
A letter on blameless cream stationery. Crowley leaves it on the table. He passes by it, taunting and unopened. One pass. Two. Three. His suspicious eyes slinging over to the envelope, mocking him with no return address. Just his own name, scribbled in bleak black ink. Something seems oddly familiar to the looping scrawl.
Is this yours? Are you apologizing here? Or to grind it in further? Which one, angel? Should he open it? Crowley hasn’t decided. Hasn’t settled. He doesn't know if he's in or out, if he wants to read his fate. It’s sometimes better to let the sword of Damocles dangle, let it scrape your scalp, cut your hair. This letter contains either fate, either reconciliation or a further break. Hope and hell all tangled up here in bonechar-black ink.
Relief could be scribbled on cardstock. Damnation could be sealed with a kiss.
Should he open it?
Crowley grimaces, hands in his pockets, grinding his indecision into the floor. “Angel,” he hisses to no one and nothing. Fine. I’ll read it. (I can’t stay away from you.) A plain cream envelope. Cream cardstock. Crowley opens it, pulls out the card.
He frowns, his brows digging deep in confusion. He flips the card over, finding the back equally bare. Crowley picks the envelope up again, peering inside. Something falls out when he tips it over into his palm. It lands in his hands, sharp and pointed, pricking him where it falls.
“Shit,” he mutters, “What the bloody hell?” Crowley peers closer. A sewing needle. Nothing more, nothing less. Thin and silver and he’d gone and introduced himself to the wrong end of it. Into every life, a little blood must fall. What a fucking mess. There, put the finger in your mouth, against the comfort of your tongue. Suck the blood off. Red against the cream envelope. The stationary claims innocence (Crowley knows otherwise).
He sucks the blood off his finger and the air leaves the room.
Crowley blinks and gasps for oxygen, his rawboned body suddenly crumpling to the floor. His skin is hot. His mouth is dry (his palms are not). His matryoshka heart. A monster pretending to be kind pretending to be a monster. Look at him, his twitching hands and the color high in his cheeks. The wanting comes in waves. Crowley thinks only of Aziraphale, hair as pale as the unwritten page. As the spaces between the letters, unmarked. A bright white beautiful heaven. Look at him, his guilty self, falling against the wall. There’s no one watching, no one to pretend for. His long hands claw at his throat, at his skin. His bones rattle in his scrap-parts body, his nerves prick. Something shifts in him, monstrous and strange. (Worse yet, more familiar than anything else.)
He cannot breathe, cannot keep his hands from rattling. The shape of his want looms darkly. His desire slams all the windows of his body open, it darkens all the doors. Crowley has never looked in the attic of his mind, he has never poked about in the cellar of his heart. What do you find in the dark places of yourself? This visceral want, this cutting violence. His teeth sharpen. He concentrates, willing them to turn back to dull human molars and incisors. His fingernails shift from claws to nails and back again. His eyes flicker, somewhere between half-human and fully serpentine.
Monsters in the dark.
Aziraphale. That plush neck, those pale curls. Soft mouth, loving voice. Crowley’s hands twitch, ever-useless things. Made for taking, for tearing. Crushing, clawing, needing, wanting. No predator asks first. No ghost waits for an invitation. We move into haunted homes, we walk into graveyards, we live in this world without ever asking what’s underneath. They were here first. Prometheus thrust fire into our hands to keep us warm, keep us safe from what walked with us. The monsters were here first, will be here always. The things in the deep. In the caves, in the shadows. They walk with us, they watch with us. When the night comes, the shadows get bolder and reach for us with their penumbral hands.
They were here first. In the dark.
(What did I tell you? Fairytales have familiar bones. Their steadily-structured skeletons. This is a fairytale, there must be a monster. There must be a curse. Keep listening for footsteps on the stones behind you. Keep watching for movement out of the corner of your eye. Keep one hand on the door and don’t go in the basement. Where the monsters are. Where the demons live. Don’t turn out the lights, don’t go to sleep. Keep an eye out for the big bad wolf.)
In the small bathroom, Crowley leans over the ceramic sink, troubling oxygen into his lungs. He stares at himself in the mirror. Leans closely in, too closely. See the jaundiced yellow of his snake-rattled eyes. See the vicious red of the rims, the fine lines digging deep in his too-pale skin. The watercolor-painted flush on his cheekbones, like blood on the edge of a knife. His hands grip the sink, desperately trying to hold onto something certain (even plumbing will do). The ceramic cracks.
“Fuck,” he hisses. His voice echoes on porcelain tile and the unrelenting glass of the mirror. He wants to punch the mirror, to shatter the image of his repellence. The monster in him lives. Crowley punches the mirror, there with his spindle-pricked hand. The glass shatters. Blood drips from his knuckles. Blood and infernal ichor. He stands there, staring at his hand, staring at the shards stuck like thorns in his torn skin.
He has never done this. Look at his ruined hand, his rapidly-fraying mind. His eyes flicker to the horror in the mirror, someone else wearing his own face. He is losing control over his thoughts, his impulses.
What was that? Why did - I wouldn’t - fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Crowley stares at his Hyde-faced self in the mirror. His Jekyll-heart still beating faintly for now, ever-quieter and quieter.
The letter. It’s the fucking letter. Something’s happening. This isn’t me. This is - something else. (They’re making a monster out of me yet.) He breathes in with raggedly-torn lungs. Breathes in the raw-edged air. His lying-yellow eyes look back at him in the puzzle pieces of his reflection. With tired fingers, Crowley rubs the ruin out from between his eyes. Aziraphale. It’s not safe. (I’m not safe. Don’t come near me.)
What are you afraid of? (He is afraid of everything.)
He stumbles into his bedroom, falling into a tangle onto his bed. His hands pulling at his war-colored hair, his teeth grinding and jaw tense. His sight flickers to the door. Over and over and over again. Don’t come here. Don’t. You can’t. I’m not safe. (What would I do to you? I wouldn’t mean it. I can’t control it. Don’t come here. I don’t know what I’ll be tonight. Tomorrow. Next week. Don’t come here.) It’s okay. It’s quiet here, in this room. Nothing in the closet, nothing under the bed. The scraping sounds only branches. Our deepest fears begin in the dark. Skinny and twisted things with clawing hands and starved wolf mouths, creeping up belly-first with jaundiced eyes. Crowley sits on the edge of the bed. He doesn’t lift his feet up, doesn’t worry about bone-thin hands grasping at his ankles, bringing him under. He doesn’t worry about what’s under the bed. He is the first horror, the dawn of fear. Look at him now, pale and shaking.
Terrified of himself.
Yes, clip the claws back. Keep the door locked. Crowley wants to offer himself like a bouquet of roses, red against a white tablecloth. (He’ll cut the thorns off first, make himself safe.) His chest is heaving. His wild eyes, a wolf at the table. The big, bad wolf with teeth to eat you up. And Crowley lays there, breathing hard, unmoving against the sheets, eyes shut to the world. I will control this. I must. (I’ll never hurt you. I swear. I swear.) In Eden, Crowley had slept under roses. They had climbed the walls like a socialite, twisting and weaving their way into well-branched arbors. He had slept on petals the color of his hair, his skin, his eyes, his blood. A technicolor pillow laid out on grass. This is not Eden. This is Mayfair. Crowley keeps a townhouse and sleeps on cotton sheets and never rose petals. A demon (though not particularly good at it). A Mephistopheles in black, deals dripping from his fingers and temptation from his hands.
Let's make a deal. Temper the curse. The wicked fairy, jealous and spurned from Briar Rose's name feast, had cursed her with a spindle, to prick her finger and die. A miracle had softened the edges of the curse. Had coated the pill, put sugar in the medicine. Made it easier to swallow. Instead of death, sleep had waited for the princess. An eternal sleep with a thrown-away key. Crowley looks at the bed, bites his lip with too-sharp teeth. Death isn't an option for us. I'd discorporate, come back upstairs. Might still be cursed. Might be worse. What if I forget you? What if I forget myself?
The only place Crowley has ever blinked out of existence is in sleep. He brushes a hand over the pillow, thinking of dreams. I won't hurt you. I'd rather just never fucking wake up again. Grit the teeth. Count the razors in your body. Catalogue the sharp bits. He’s a gun without the safety on. Crowley would rather pull out all his teeth before he’d bite Aziraphale. He would cut off his own hands at the wrists before ever reaching out with a claw. He loves Aziraphale as a rose might. As a rose reaches out with hopeful petals, warning you not to touch.
Rose-red and see him here, here he is, bent over with a pair of shears, cutting his own thorns off. One by one by one.
He lays back, folding his hands over his narrow chest like a pharoah in a sarcophagus. His hair falls across the pillow like little Red’s riding cloak. Terror comes quickly and overstays its welcome. Fear seeps from his pores, it catches in his breath. I can keep you safe. Cut the thorns off, clip my claws. Crowley swallows, yes, he swallows down the heat in his belly. Curls his thieving hands, keeping them from stealing touches. Keeping them from tearing soft skin. See him here, flushed face against a pillow, sheets pulled up to his neck. Crowley closes his eyes, praying for a miracle. Lord, are you listening? Don't let me wake up. Don't you fucking dare let him near me. Keep him safe. He's the only one worth a fucking damn and if anything happens to him, I swear I'll fucking climb the stairs up there myself. You listening? Don't fuck this up.
The monster has but one gift to give the world. Absence.
Crowley is a miracleworker. He snaps his bony fingers and there, in Mayfair, he sleeps.
Chapter 4: the mirror crack'd from side to side
Somewhere in the Lake Country
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a demon in attendance at a country dance, must be in want of a glass of wine. Or sherry. Or port. Hell, I'll guzzle whatever swill they've got. Where in the ever-blasted nine circles of Hell are the drinks? (Crowley is not terribly particular.) He slips through the ballroom, minding the dancers and the idle chatter. He slinks past the piano and slouches around the tables, ever in search of something to make the evening interesting.
“What are you doing here?”
Crowley turns around. A man stands there, turned out in the floral embroidered finery of a silk frockcoat and fussy gold buttons. The hair, pale as bone, is familiar. The upturned flip of his nose is familiar. The warmth in the eyes, a shifting kaleidoscope of blue and gold and green (every color of every garden), yes, that warmth is familiar too. He swallows, his eyes holding Aziraphale's own.
“'S'pose I might ask you the same thing.” He tries to be lazy about it. Tries to let the words trip off his tongue, as if he hadn't even realized they were there. (As if Crowley had not spent the last eight years thinking of Aziraphale with Bastille-dirt on his skin and on his satin pumps too. As if Crowley had not spent the last eight years imagining what he might say to Aziraphale next.)
“Well, just work, I'm afraid. That one,” Aziraphale gestures, “Has a minor blessing to receive. And what about you?”
“Wiling, you know. Where you bless, I wile.”
"Something wicked this way comes then," Aziraphale says, passing a miraculously-discovered glass of wine over. Crowley arches a brow, hushing up a smile like a guilty secret. You look gorgeous, angel. You gotta know that, don't you? Has anyone told you that? I'll tell you every day. I'll tell you too much. I love your hair, your mouth, your ears, your eyes. The shape of you, the cut of you. The blue looks good on you (it brings out your eyes). He drinks, trying to busy his mouth with anything but his own wretched words. His suit is dark and cut narrowly. Here, leaning against the sideboard, Crowley is a black mark on a fine establishment. He coils against the walls and furniture like a snake, curls here like an apostrophe. Like a mark of ownership and possession, unpaired and waiting to know what it might claim.
He runs a hand through hair as red as rust and shame. Are you paying attention? Watch how Crowley’s eyes move over Aziraphale. Would-be lovers are empty-stomached. Would-be lovers have hungry mouths to feed. Crowley’s eyes swallow the tip of Aziraphale’s nose, the color in his cheeks. Would-be lovers consider every place they might be allowed to love. Look at us. I would bring you a sweater in the morning for your bare shoulders. Make you coffee. Make you bread. Make you laugh. Crowley studies the light in Aziraphale’s hair and the catch at his throat. (He never says I love you. Caught in this careful balance of never-to-be. He doesn’t ask Aziraphale to give in, to suffer a change: True lovers give themselves without asking for anything in return. He watches Aziraphale and daydreams. I want to watch you sleeping. I want to wake up with you, your arms threaded in mine. I want to drink sangria in the park with you, I want to take you home. Slow dance in the kitchen. Argue over where to hang something. I’ll do the laundry and you’ll do the dishes (or vice versa) and I’ll love you in an everyday way, A quotidian way. I’ve lived every day that has existed on earth, I want to live the rest with you.)
Behind them, the dance carries on. Sometimes we stay in step, sometimes we pause. Catch our breath. Crowley watches Aziraphale’s hand on his glass, the strong and square fingers, the perfectly turned nails. He wonders what it would feel like to take Aziraphale’s hand in his own and hold it there. It would be warm. It would be soft. The music would start again. And there he would be, turning to look at the light tied like ribbons in the angel’s hair, asking may I have this dance? They have touched before and Crowley rifles through his memories, making off with them and the silver too. He clings to each moment of brief touch like a talisman, like a pearl strung upon a necklace. A prayer bead on a rosary.
Remember the brush of hands at the Baths of Caracalla, there in the caldarium. The heat from the pools had risen into the air, bouncing off the marble floor and the domed ceiling, redoubling back upon them. Crowley had been flushed then. My dear, are you alright? Aziraphale had asked. You look rather feverish. Crowley had swallowed and shaken his head. Just the heat, angel. Don't worry 'bout it.
Remember the grip on his shoulder at Camlann. The grass had been stained with blood, as red as his own self. Crowley had kicked at a tussock, grimacing. Stomach sour and turned. There had been steel and horsesweat, the sound of distant drumming. Aziraphale had laid a hand over Crowley's shoulder, turning him back. Don't watch, Aziraphale had said. Don't look, let the elder and the hawthorn bear witness instead. It's a mess, Crowley had hissed, glancing upward at the clouds and the faint sun. (Later, he had taken Arthur's body himself. Half-hidden by his long hair, half-sick of shadows. Had pulled the body onto a barge and laid the king to rest on an island of apples.)
Remember the kiss on his cheek in London. Crowley's cheek has felt warm for two-hundred years. He has not forgotten the texture of warm lips there on his switchblade cheekbones, whispering thank you for a miracle. You really owe me, angel, Crowley had laughed, ale on his breath and mirth in his face. No one wants to see the gloomy ones. Aziraphale had gleamed then and leaned over, pressing a quick kiss to Crowley's skin. (He had waited until he was alone to touch his own face. To cover the spot with his fingers, to reassure himself that he was, in fact, real. That his skin is living and had been kissed once. That it had not been a dream.)
Look away, swallow it down. Crowley covers his face with his own drink. The idea of Aziraphale is enough to fill him with helium, make him lighter than air. It’s dangerous to think about. He must consider gravity. He's always getting fucking carried away. I'll stop, angel. I'll stop thinking this way, stop being weird. Sorry for being a mess. For being such a bloody mess. (Sorry you always have to clean me up.)
Aziraphale watches him. Crowley tries not to look over while he knows his face is being considered. Yes, what does he have to offer? See the strong nose and the gaunt frame. His limbs as skinny as spiderlegs. His creased skin and hissing mouth. The foul stench of damnation clinging to him like an unpaid bill. His hair like scribbled red ink, the color of mistakes. Aziraphale looks and takes a breath. He sets his sherry down on the inlaid wood of the credenza. His eyes flicker over to a small and darkened hallway. Crowley looks over, frowning and curious. When he looks back, Aziraphale begins to move in that direction. Crowley follows the pale blue jacquard of Aziraphale’s coat, winding their way to that darkened hall.
The hall is dark. Unused. Aziraphale stands a pale surprise in a corner. It’s strange, going from the chatter of the dance and fine company to this, something like a ghostly apparition. Something like a dream. Vases and china glitter with the small light. Cut glass and crystal. Gold filigree on the clocks and etched silver trays.
Aziraphale holds out his hand. (What else can he do but take it?)
“Hey,” Crowley whispers, his hand slotting in softly to Aziraphale’s own. They have touched like this before, back when it was innocent. Kissing had been innocent once and Crowley knows the shape and weight of his friend’s kiss on his cheek, his hand. They have danced before, here in the dark where no one is watching. They have never talked about it. He closes his eyes, warmed for once by living skin. His hair catches the glitter of the lights, burnishing bright copper.
"Hello," Aziraphale says, leaning his head on Crowley's black-coated shoulder. The music is soft here, coming in through the louvered doors.
What is a half-love? They don’t have words for what they are. They are not lovers. They are far more than friends. There are no rings between them, no committed ties, yet Crowley knows that Aziraphale takes no one back with him at the end of the night. There have been many nights. It has been six-thousand years without words and definitions, meeting in the half-dark, there in the shadows. Six-thousand liminal spaces, six-thousand unnamed years. What are you to me? What do you want to be? I’ll pick anything you like. You choose, angel. Say it first. Say it so I don’t ask for too much. (So I don’t get it wrong.) Let me tell you the uncomfortable truth. Here we are, walking this cold earth. All we ask, with wide arms and open mouths, is to be loved. Why do you hold your heart back? Why do you seal it away? Tell me who you are behind your ribcage. Tell me how to get to you.
Six-thousand years. There might be six-thousand more. Crowley does not know the expiration date of the Universe, only that all things have a shelf life and the clock is ticking down. He should say something. I should kiss the back of your hand. There on the valleys and peaks of your veins and tendons. I should kiss your wrist, the shell of your ear. Your hair, let me run my hands through it. Lay your head in my lap and let days pass. Stay with me. Tell me where you go each night. Tell me why you come back smelling of apples and violets, tell me why you come back tired. As if you had danced all night. Tell me where you go to dance in dreams. Can you disappear? Can you take me with you? We could dance all night and wear our shoes to rags. (Wherever we go, I'll keep us safe. I'll keep an eye out for anyone following. I'll get insurance, make sure nothing happens. I'll think ahead, angel. Find us somewhere to go.)
“Enjoying the party?” Crowley asks.
Aziraphale gives a small laugh. Crowley can feel it this time, the rumble laid against his own chest. “I’d enjoy it more if they had listened to my few suggestions for libations, my dear. As it stands, well - the less said, the better.”
"And yet, the one you gave me appears to be quite remarkable."
"A miracle, really," Aziraphale says, amusement in his voice. Crowley smirks. He glances up to see them reflected in the mirrored door of a far cabinet. It’s a strange moment, like looking into another world. As if he had pierced the veil and might be peeking into a dream. Look here at this left-handed version of himself, one long-fingered hand dropped gently onto the small of Aziraphale’s back. Their chests close together, heartbeats in stereo. It’s strange to consider the mirror. In the mirror, it seems like they might last forever just like this.
In the mirror, it seems as if they have always been.
He watches them. It's impossible not to. We have a difficult time looking away from mirrors, constantly checking back in, reassuring ourselves of our own reality. Our own existence. We touch the glass and watch how our other selves reach back, always doing the same. What terrifies us more than looking into a mirror and finding nothing looking back? As unreal as a vampire, as absurd as a ghost.
We check nervously, begging ourselves to be in the mirror. Begging ourselves not to be monsters. Begging to be real.
They dance and Crowley watches. Something dreamed, yet something very real.
“Will you hunt tomorrow?”
“Hmm?” Crowley asks, raising a dark brow. His hair is long and knotted at his nape in a simple dark ribbon. His thin mouth quirks. He glances down at Aziraphale, their dance reduced to a soft sway. It is, like many dances, an excuse to touch. To not be apart. They sway to the strings of a violin, touching like a lazy ocean hugs the shore.
“Evidently, there’s a wolf. It's been causing a ruckus with the hens. All the men are going out shooting tomorrow.”
Crowley grimaces. “Not me, angel.”
Aziraphale wears the fond expression of one who had already known the answer. “And what kind of demon are you that doesn’t hunt?”
Crowley tightens his grip on Aziraphale’s hand, moving gently to the faded music. “What kind of angel are you that does?” They have stopped. Aziraphale looks up, looking for all the world like a man waiting to be kissed. Bright eyes and dark lashes, a parted mouth. He licks his lower lip. Crowley troubles his lungs for air, watching Aziraphale's mouth intently.
He has worn this body for six-thousand years. In all that time, and in all the time before, he has never been kissed. Not like that.
The music stops. The song ends and the dance with it. “We should get back,” Crowley murmurs, looking away and dropping Aziraphale’s hand.
There is a pause. A clearing of the throat. In the mirror, Crowley watches Aziraphale's chin dip, watches him take a deep breath and square his shoulders. Stiffen his upper lip. “Yes," Aziraphale says, "Yes, well, rather - yes, I’m afraid we should. You're quite right, my dear.” He sets to righting his sleeves, the silk at his throat. Crowley doesn't watch but he hears Aziraphale leave, the heels are a soft clip across the room to the door.
“Crowley -“ Aziraphale says, stopping at the door and looking back.
“Yeah?” He doesn't turn. In the mirror, Aziraphale is a shadow outlined by the small ballroom's light.
There is a pause. A hesitation. “It’s good to see you.”
Crowley crosses his narrow arms. His icepick fingers dig into his bicep, white-knuckled and sharp. “Yeah, er - you too, angel. See you around." Look back at the mirror. He is alone and does not live in dreams. Crowley watches himself in the mirror, thinking of how he had watched the mirror-versions of themselves dance. He wonders if, in that dream world, they might have kissed.
He is half-sick of shadows.
Chapter 5: and all the stars were crashing 'round
Aziraphale remembers the first spindle. It had been a simple thing, back in the Beginning. The woman (her name lost now to time) had taken the fibers from flax and spun them around the small tool. The first thread. Aziraphale had watched with fascination as humans had lifted up their nervous, curious heads and ventured further out of the Fertile Crescent. They had followed the Tigris. They had followed the Euphrates. There they had wandered with apples in their hands and questions in their mouths, always curious about what comes next.
What else is out there? (Sometimes Aziraphale thinks of Crowley. Was a temptation even necessary? They would have reached for the apple themselves, wouldn’t they? They would have never been satisfied by the Garden. Never satisfied at all.)
Yes, the first fabrics had been spun and woven from flax and from wool. They had not been given to the living, these first fabrics, but to the dead instead. We had forged tools first so that we might turn to those in their long sleep, those in the dark and the cold, and cover them with shrouds in the night.
Aziraphale pulls the coverlet up around Crowley’s shoulders. He brushes the long hair, as tempting as thread (made to be woven). It falls across the sharp planes of Crowley’s face like a blanket might, like a shadow would. Crowley’s hair reaches to his waist. Yes, it always reminds Aziraphale of Mesopotamia, of watching the animals climb the narrow plank into the Ark, two by two by two. (He had wanted to reach out then the way the women had to the flax. To take the threads of Crowley, this copper-orange, this rose-red, to make himself a shroud. Bury the things he could not say.)
I barely remember your voice.
There had been a time when Aziraphale had gone centuries without hearing from Crowley. In the beginning, it had been millennia. How had it gone then? How had he borne it - this voiceless emptiness? It had been different then, before he had known what it was to make room for someone in your heart, to carve out a space for them in your bones. Crowley sleeps and Aziraphale is aimless and empty. He knocks against his chest and the echo knocks back, hollow. Empty.
He tries to fill the time. There are gentlemen's clubs. He busies his feet with the gavotte and his hands with a pen. He writes letters. Makes tea. He visits the park, always glancing to his empty left, his pockets bulging with twice the amount of his usual bread. When he crushes a dark mulberry between his hands, the juice runs red. He sucks it off his finger, staining his mouth.
Sometimes, he visits with friends in the afternoon. Just for tea, just for a few hours here and there. He never lingers past sundown. No, today he had patted his mouth with the linen napkin, had said oh dear, I should really be on my way.
“Stay,” Oscar had said (and had said often). There’s always an invitation curled up in the corners of the word. In the pale eyes and the sweep of brown hair across a wide forehead. His eyes are sharp and his wit is sharper still. Aziraphale is always careful how he handles Oscar, trying not to prick himself.
“Oh,” Aziraphale had shaken his head, setting his teacup down. The porcelain clinked on the saucer. “I’m afraid I can’t. I have - well, I have a friend. To see.”
A sly grin covered Oscar’s face. No harm, no foul. There had been no real expectation (Aziraphale has never given in). Instead, he had leaned back into his chair, crossing his legs. “So, go on, who is it that you always sneak off to?”
“No one.” (He cannot name Crowley, not even here. He does not know why. Crowley Crowley Crowley. No, he does not name Crowley out loud but keeps his secret buried safely instead, repeating the name in his thoughts like a rosary.)
“You’ve got a lover. Hidden away somewhere. How delightfully scandalous. Promise, I won’t say a word.”
“No! Not a lover,” Aziraphale had said, protesting with wide eyes. “Just a - a friend. An acquaintance.” There isn’t a word for what you are. Humans have never lived long enough to need one, long enough to invent one. I’ll make something up for you, try to give it a name. Spin meaning from syllables and six-thousand years of near misses and almosts. What are you to me? What am I to you? Tell me it’s the same. (I cannot ask. What if it isn’t?)
Oscar had studied him carefully. “You’re in love.”
“Oh, heavens no,” Aziraphale said, jumping in his seat. His foot had tapped nervously on the wooden floorboards, giving away his secrets. Sounding like a telltale heart. “Not anything like that , I assure you.”
Or, instead, just like that. (Maybe we don’t need a new word. Perhaps it’s been there all along.)
“Aziraphale. I’ve been alive on this godforsaken Earth far too long to miss the signs.”
“I wouldn’t call it love, per se. Perhaps … well, fondness. That’s right.”
“How long have you known him?”
Aziraphale had paused then, gently hesitating over tea. “Oh, well, it’s been too long to really say.” Since forever. Had there been a time when he had not known Crowley? The angels had been spun from the ether in harmony, knowing the songs of each name, the songs of each and every one. Crowley had been one among many then but Aziraphale had always stumbled over him. Had always troubled over the splash of red in the fabric of Crowley, brighter than any other. ( I remember the day you Fell. I remember the fight, I remember the censure. I knew you were going to Fall before you did. I knew from the moment Lucifer raised his voice. You’ve never been able to be quiet. I wanted to warn you then, to tell you to be careful. It was quiet after the gates shut, while you were cast out and sent below. I kept looking for you. Out of the corner of my eye, in the shadows. Behind every door. You were never there. I wanted to call out for you. To say ‘where are you, I can’t find you’.
I never did.)
“Doesn’t sound like an acquaintance,” Oscar had said, raising an eyebrow.
The chair next to Crowley’s bed is quite comfortable. Too comfortable, perhaps. Here, not long after leaving Oscar, Aziraphale runs satisfied hands over the carved wooden arms, settling back into the cushion. In the late daylight, the room turns golden, spun like straw on Rumplestiltskin’s wheel. Crowley’s breathing is steady and even, almost a lullaby in the early evening light.
Aziraphale closes his eyes. Will you ever wake up? What have you done to yourself? Where have you gone? His wide, manicured thumb finds Crowley’s cheek, brushes over the strange flush on his skin there. He is corpse-pale everywhere but here and his neck, red dripping down his chest into his bedclothes. (Aziraphale has steadfastly not investigated further.) He rubs over the too-warm skin, frowning always at the peculiar fever. Crowley murmurs and shifts. He doesn’t wake. Aziraphale had not expected him to. It has been twenty-five years since Aziraphale had first opened the door to Crowley’s flat and pierced into the twists and turns of browned, dead plants to find Crowley sleeping like an effigy in dust. Twenty-five years. Aziraphale has kept the dust clear, has kept the windows washed. He brushes Crowley’s hair, miracles fresh sheets. Aziraphale has never been a gardener, not like Crowley, but he brings roses and keeps them here, in Crowley’s bedroom. Just in case. Just in case you do wake while I’m not here. Just for a little familiarity.
Sometimes, while Crowley sleeps, Aziraphale thinks of holding his hand. Sometimes, on the coldest nights, he does. They have shared a pallet before, sleeping near each other is nothing new. The harsh winter has nosy fingers, creeping in through the panes of glass. It finds Aziraphale’s veins, his bones. Shivers play along his spine. We could share the bed. I could crawl in there with you. Yes, he thinks, could climb into that wide, plush bed (Crowley has never been one for restraint) and pull Crowley’s body heat into himself, share his own in turn. Consider it. What would it be like? I would know what the ceiling looks like from your bed in your bedroom. I would know how your body presses into your own mattress, the sound of your breathing in my ear. I would know you differently. Keep you safe, keep you warm. (It would core me to know. I would never be able to unknow, never be able to fill myself back up.)
Sleep comes in with the cold. Aziraphale’s chin meets his chest as he nods off, hands folded neatly in his lap. Safe and sound, keeping this vigil strange.
He sleeps. He dreams.
He is in a room. A room piled high with straw. An old spinning wheel sits in the center of the harsh stone floor. Stone for a floor and stone for walls too, leaving little to swallow the echo of Aziraphale’s step. He hears his own approach doubled back on him, as if it were a second set of footsteps. He knows that he must spin the straw. He must spin it all before morning, spin it all before waking. What happens if he does not? Will the sleeper ever wake? Will the story ever end? He watches the closed door, ever uncertain and ever-uneasy. It will open. That is the promise of all doors. Something will open it, there will be another side.
What waits on the other side of the door? He doesn’t know. (He isn’t sure he wants to find out.)
The spinning wheel waits.
Chapter 6: scarlet
There was once a very rich merchant who had no sons and no daughters. He gave an air of being a man of hedonism and indulgence and kept a large villa urbana in the coastal town of Baiae. The floor beneath his sharp heels was covered in mosaic tile. The walls bore frescos that would make even Petronius blush. His coveted wine was as familiar as his sly profile and as red as the hair that grew from his head (both as tempting as an apple, as a kiss). He pressed his own oil from his olive grove, always tasting as clean and pure as air. In Baiae, scandal dripped like rain from every corner. Corruption clung like a film to the water. Hedonism was the language to be learned. Yet, despite the slippery mess of salt-heavy oysters and the sweet smell of roasted pork, despite the slow drip of honey, despite the browned hearthsong of baked bread, he rarely ate.
Crowley has always liked a good party. He drinks the wine instead, offers the bread and briny garum dipping sauce to Aziraphale. The terracotta bowl is as flushed as his hair and the color high in his cheeks. Crowley is aware of Aziraphale watching him (as he is always aware of Aziraphale watching him, as he has always been).
“I’ve never seen them like this.”
“Never?” Crowley frowns, casting a yellow-bellied eye over his glasses and the party too. The guests slip in and out of shadows. Lazy hands pluck apricots and pears from the wide tables. Servants refill cups with more wine. Always more wine. The room seems to undulate. It is dark and warm. It’s thick with the smell of incense and red wine. Oil lamps light the large room, casting shadows on stone walls and tables laden with food. Crowley’s senses feast. How does it go, indulgence? The air is too damp. The floor is sticky. There is nowhere to come up for air, not when the only air is kept in someone else’s lungs. Crowley tries not to linger on Aziraphale, tries to not look too long. To want too much. (Look at him, failing again. He always fucks it up.)
“Well, not quite so,” Aziraphale pauses, looking around. His brow furrows, wrinkling his forehead. Crowley watches him hesitate, winding the white fabric of his toga between wide hands, between perfectly-tended nails. “ Enthusiastic. ”
Crowley grins. “Just a way to wile about the hours, angel.”
“Crowley!” Aziraphale’s admonishment is uncensorious and only half-meant. Well-practiced. They have slipped into this dance over the last four-thousand years. Their meetings infrequent at first, then coming more and more regularly, like a song starting to swell. There’s a bit of a thrill to pushing Aziraphale to outrage, to finding the limits of his judgment. I know where the other angels stand. I know where Heaven stands. You’re different. I want to know the shape of you. What you think, what you dream about. When you look up at the moon, as I might be at that self-same moment, what do you think of? (Is it ever me?)
Crowley collects several olives from the table, putting them on the terracotta plate. Plump green ones, soaked through with salt. Oily dark olives, soft and yielding to the tooth. There’s fresh cheese, a mild and creamy contrast to the sharp salinity of the olives. There’s honey and figs too, to offer something sweet and singing. Balance in all things. He offers the plate to Aziraphale, licking the brine from the pads of his fingers.
“You didn’t - “
A sharp brow raises, as arched as an aqueduct. “Didn’t what?”
“You know, tempt them.”
“‘Course not. Look at them, don’t need to tempt humans into overindulgence and lust, they do that to themselves,” Crowley laughs a dry laugh, “Look, all I did was have an open bar.”
Aziraphale swallows a fig. When he closes his eyes, his lashes lay like mezzaluna shadows on his skin. Crowley curls his famished hands behind him into fists, his nails digging into his own miserable flesh. (He knows that if he were to touch Aziraphale, if Aziraphale were to touch him, his nails might leave those crescent imprints on Aziraphale's own self. Don’t think about it, he lectures himself, filling up his mind and mouth with useless chatter, like a starving man might swallow stones to dull the ache.)
“I have heard there are some unpleasant … things. That your side might do. To provoke just such a reaction. Or worse.”
A dark look crosses Crowley’s shatter-shard face, as black as the clothes on his back. A bleak curl tugs his mouth downward, a flash of revulsion glints across his eyes. “Yeah. There are things. I’d never touch ‘em, you know that.”
Aziraphale nods. There is trust there, a reassured trust in the lines of the eyes of a man who eats everything Crowley gives to him. Who drinks his wine without end.
“Asmodeus invented it,” Crowley continues. “It’s a sort of poison.”
“What does it do?”
“Makes you a beast.”
“How so?” Aziraphale blinks. He looks back at the humid room and serpentine shadows. The glimmer of laughter from dark corners. There’s little beastly here, only mild embarrassment in the morning.
Crowley shrugs. “Haven’t seen it. Heard of it. I understand it takes away all higher functions. Leaves you violent. Impulsive. Especially to those you love.”
“How do you cure it?”
“Well,” Crowley grimaces, his face darker still. He pauses, sipping from his wine and shifting his insufficient weight from hip to narrow hip. “That’s the wicked part, yeah?”
“So you’re forever a beast -“
“Not exactly. Someone has to fall in love with you.”
“While you’re -“
Who could ever love a beast?
“Who would love someone - like that?”
Crowley shrugs. “That’s the evil bit. My side’s specialty, at your service.” (He doesn’t sound pleased.)
Yes, you can be made a monster. A beast. Crowley hesitates, his skinnyboned fingers tight on his wine cup. Was anyone born a beast? The first demons were angels once. They had not had sharp claws then. Had not had teeth to bite you with. It was only after the door had been locked behind them that the fur had grown in. He is not certain where demon stops and beast begins, if there even is such a distinction. There, staring into his cup, the lights glimmer on the surface of the dark ruby-red liquid. His own reflection looks back, as steady as it has ever been. As expected. His bent nose, his too-strong chin, the jut of his cheekbones. Crowley watches himself in the wine. He sees nothing as it should not be. Steady on, steady as ever.
He looks up and Aziraphale has the wine stained across his own cheeks. His upturned nose, the tips of his well-shaped ears. There’s an oyster in his hand, open on the half shell. A bit of the sea in a shell cup.
“Would you like one?”
Yes. Crowley nods, giving his oysters and his wine. His cheese and his bread, his nights and his home too. Take it all, take everything. His eyes are bright and he lifts his head so that the glasses might hide his greedy stare, his growling stomach. Take it all, take everything you wish. Anything you want, it’s all for you, angel.
There is always an exception. Heed the warnings. If you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, listen to the cautionary tales. The palace always gives. The laden tables, the warm fires. The unseen host (unspoken love). Don’t pick the roses from the garden, thorned and precious. Don’t reach for what you cannot have.
Crowley loves like a rose, sharp to the touch and just as forbidden. He reaches for the oyster with a touch just this side of legality, taking it with careful reach. The shell fragile and still warm from Aziraphale’s skin.
Chapter 7: to the dark tower came
The Kingdom of Wessex
Let me tell you about a lie we’ve woven. Look at me. Look at yourself. Look around. We believe in stories. In damsels and princes, heroes and villains. We glance about, calculate and consider, assign categories. I am this and you are that. But I am you, in my story. You are me in mine. Tat tvam asi. We are all the heroes of our own tales. We are all the main characters. There are no disposable villains. There are no faintly-damned damsels.
There is no Prince Charming in this tale.
There is, however, a golden-haired angel and his story too. Let us look. Wessex, perhaps. Most fairytales have a hero in his armor, riding under a good king’s banner. Aziraphale has pushed the visor of his helmet up, taking in the misty river and the rolling hills. Damp, Crowley had said, and Aziraphale cannot unthink it. Yes, everything is damp. The air and the ground, the sweat runs in gentle twists down his wide back.
We can work together, Crowley had also said, his eyes very wide, all good humor in his brows and mouth. Nothing of tempting, nothing of artifice. (Aziraphale knows him too well by now, all these thousands and thousands of years.) They had found themselves in a tavern later, their helmets both placed to the side. Crowley had grown his hair long again and Aziraphale ached to touch it, as proud and as red as the dragon of Wales, locked in constant combat there in Cornwall. The way Crowley had laughed then still sounds in his ears, as rich as bells.
You’re so beautiful, Aziraphale thinks, catching his own want in his held breath.
Can demons love? It’s a question that has troubled at the back of Aziraphale’s throat since Babylon. It’s the persistent cough, the nightly indigestion.
Can demons love? Can angels?
For that matter, what exactly is love? He looks with doubtful eye over the groves and tussocks of grass. Each variety different. Categorized. Seen and named too. We know the names of the ash and alder. the holly and hawthorn. We name every shade of color that passes our eyes. Sapphire and cerulean, aquamarine and periwinkle. Names are not hard to come by, we name everything we find. And yet, we have more names for colors than we do for that old one-word heartbeat, love.
Love is a grab bag. I say I love you. You say you love me. Reach in, neither of us know what we might find. Red love or blue love. Sky love or sea love. In the north, there are twenty-seven names for snow. Not here. Love is a Swiss Army knife of a word, a jack of all trades and master of none. It does all our dirty work, the complicated mess, and it asks for none of the details. Love doesn’t want to hear the story. It’s a simple closet we shove our own stories in when someone looks, when someone asks, hoping they might not see. That we won’t have to explain ourselves.
Can demons love? Aziraphale isn’t sure what he is asking.
Look at love. Let us name the shades. What is love? What does he mean by that? Aziraphale sighs. The damp is noticeable. It creeps in the bones, knocks about the joints. It settles in the bags under his eyes. I’m getting tired again, aren’t I? Oh dear. He looks anxiously over his shoulder, back again to Caerleon. There is a room there for him. A warm bed, piled high with soft linens. A bearskin on the stone floor and a chair by the hearth. He could go in and Lancelot would clap him on the back, offer a glass of wine. Arthur would sit with his redbeaked crows and old Taliesin would stumble yet backward through time. He could drink his fill and chew the mutton too. He could wash it down with a good night’s sleep.
Sleep. The memory of sleep chills his bones, icing over his blood.
Nightmares again. Nightmares always. Aziraphale does not remember a time without the nightmares. At first, he had assumed all sleepers suffered. That all sleeping souls dreamt of twisting dark corridors and the sound of footsteps too. It was only after language had grown and shifted did he learn that dreams were to be desired. Not this.
Aziraphale always has had terrors. The last time he had slept had been in Constantinople, sometime in the spring. He’d left the window open, left his hopes on the stove. He had dreamt of a house. Large and rambling, nothing had made sense from side to side, from turret to widow’s walk. He had walked the unknown house and found no one. No pulse, no hint of heartbeat. Still, he had felt watched. Unseen eyes had laid upon him. The paintings watched him. The mirrors showed things he did not expect. Did not understand. The plants turn toward him as he moves, their leaves and vines reaching for him with limpid pale-green arms.
Something is watching him, following him. Something with an open mouth and saliva dripping from its gums. Something with sharp teeth, terror-grasping hands. Clawed. Scaled, maybe. Only dreams. None of it is real, of course. I don’t need to be irrational, it cannot actually hurt me. Yet, there’s still that strange feeling that something about it is too real. That the monster exists in some way, that if Aziraphale might let himself be caught, he might never wake up again.
He wonders what is more real, this earth or the dream world within. Reality can shift in an instant, there at Her whim. She could snap her fingers, flip the stories. Aziraphale looks at his reflection on the river water. His boots soundly stuck in the grass and the mud. What if I’m the dream? What if you’re the real one, out there in the reflection? In the water? What if all the things I think about you are things you are thinking about me? Is this a dream world you visit at night? Am I your nightmare?
It’s reality. (Reality, noun: A figment of God’s imagination. Maybe it makes more sense that this is a dream. That I am sleeping there, up in Heaven. That this never happened at all. This is one of Her tests, to see how it might go. What I would do. This Earth is a shadow of Heaven and I am merely sleepwalking.)
He is tired of this. He breathes in, the realness and soundness of the wet dirt. The silt smell of the river, the chlorophyll of the grasses, the wide-leaved trees. He is tired of not knowing, of being tested. Aziraphale stands on the shore of the river, his gunmetal-grey armor built like a wall around him. He will not fail. Will not bend. No, he is being watched. He must always and ever be careful. He walks the earth while still held in a tower, safe and sound behind stone walls. The lazy smile of a demon is a chisel in the mortar, he must be vigilant. The gold eyes (as seductive as butter, as indulgent as wine pressed without the tannic peels, yellow and rich).
Yes, he must be careful. Stay in the tower, don’t look down. Don’t grow your hair long and invite someone in. Don’t climb anyone else’s rose-red locks down. It’s dangerous out there, past the walls. If you stay in the tower, you shall not want. If you look only through the mirror and never through the window, you’ll always be safe. No, stay here, where the food is good. The wine flows and you’re served rapini with sausages. Browned onions, garlic too. Red pepper flakes and lemon zest. Don’t think about what you might find at someone else’s place, if you open the door, if you look and see what you might find.
Aziraphale finds himself knocking on Crowley’s door later that night, finding it unlatched. He lets himself in, thinking of a warm fire and half of a discussion about this whole Arrangement business that Crowley had proposed. Our lot have better things to do than verifying compliance reports from Earth. It’s something to consider. Something that would be easier, certainly, for the both of them. Something that would bring the two of them back into each others’ circles more regularly, more constantly. They could orbit each other, dance around the Arrangement like a binary star circles its gravitational center.
He is thinking about it. Walking toward Crowley feels like a promise. The door leans open and Aziraphale hears faint breathing. The serpent’s arms are flung out across a straw bed, his legs a windmill. That long hair a spill across the blankets like blood. Like a crime scene and roses too. For a moment, with the pale moonlight looking in on Crowley’s fine-boned face and well-bent nose, Aziraphale feels like time is paused. That he will stand here forever. That Crowley will never wake up and see him there, standing awkwardly in the door. Shining armor and all that. (Mud-caked boots.)
That he might sleep forever.
“Angel?” Crowley drawls, half-asleep, blinking his eyes open. “What are you doing here?”
Aziraphale shakes himself, sets his helmet down. He breathes courage in, fortifying himself with oxygen and the fire in his belly too. His chin dips, his brow set. “Tell me about this … this … “ He fishes for the words. “This Arrangement you’re proposing.”
Reader, I have asked you about fairytales. Tell me what a fairytale is. Define it. Consider it. Lay out the structure, the bones of the thing. Once upon a time, there was a hero who was warned. Once upon a time, they didn’t listen and were punished. Cursed. Once upon a time, someone came to save them. No one in fairytales ever saves themselves. We always know who is right and who is wrong. Who is good and who is evil.
I ask you, tell me, do fairytales truly exist?
Chapter 8: selva oscura
In a dream darkly
Time period unknown
He had thought that the mirror had shattered. Crowley moves into the small bathroom with hesitant steps. There is no glass on the floor. No slivers nor shards, nothing there to pierce him. Nothing there to draw blood. The mirror hangs as it always has, securely there on the wall. Unshattered. Unpunched.
Hadn’t he ruined it? Hadn’t he made a mess of things? (Had he imagined it? Made it up? Dreamt it? Is it real?)
It is hard to tell. His memories feel strange, off-kilter. It’s as if he is standing and watching them flow like a river. Everything looks different underwater. There are rules in the water that do not apply in air. Vice versa. So on and so forth. He moves to the sink, glancing up to look at himself.
Nothing stares back. The mirror is empty. Wait, hold on. That’s not right. He frowns, scowls. His hands curl around the sink as he leans over, pressing his bent nose up to the glass, the humid puff of his breath forming condensation on the glass. He should be reflected, shouldn’t he? (He cannot remember.)
Crowley looks away, his long hair tangled and wild. His eyes brightly digging, trying to shine a light on wherever he has found himself. When he looks back, he is no longer in a bathroom but a wide banquet hall. He is dressed finely, his heels clicking on the parquet floor, his hair suddenly neatly tied back. He flexes his hands, looking down and finding them steady as ever, always himself. Long-fingered still, his nails shined to perfection. His skin pale as milk. The banquet chatter rises up in a cacophony, wine and boar scent the room. The hall stretches on for aeons, a long and uninterrupted table dominating the center. On one end of the hall, Crowley can see a gate made of horn. On the other, a gate of ivory. He walks forward. Shadowy guests cross his path and he winds through them like a pilgrim in a dark wood.
Where am I going? Crowley looks back, his doubtful glance caught in well-dug eyebrows and a sharp chin. The way toward the gate of ivory looks easier. Fewer interruptions, far better lit. He hesitates. Three gargoyles block the path toward the gate of horn. They sneer and snarl, drool leaking from lazy lips, their fangs curling like apostrophes. They are parodies of living things, a she-wolf, a lion, and a leopard.
Perhaps he should not try this way. Perhaps he should go right? (He spies the wine, the silver-rimmed porcelain plates dripping with venison medallions and pomegranate seeds. Perhaps, perhaps, he should stay. Crowley breathes in, his narrow chest expanding. There is a reason he should move on, something about a mirror. He can hardly remember.)
“Don’t panic, my friend,” a voice says. Crowley looks back, blinking. A steady and wizened hand rests on the acute dark angle of his shoulder. The man has pale blue eyes and a heavily-lined face. His eyebrows are grey brushstrokes, his hair is steel wool.
“Of course,” the man says, mild as ever. His eyes glimmer with kindness and gentle mirth. “You should go west.” He points to the horn gate, past the gargoyles and their blood-drawing teeth.
“Sure, yeah, past the slobbering things. Course. Why wouldn’t it be?”
The man laughs. “I can take you.”
Crowley raises a dark brow. “Where are we going, Mr… - “
“Leonardo. Leonardo da Vinci.”
Something familiar runs through his veins. A memory of a distant friend, as lost as a message in a bottle, thrown to the sea. As distant as a message held up to a mirror, backwards and inverted. He cannot quite remember, cannot quite make it out. There is something there, warm and safe. Crowley nods.
“I’ve been sent to find you,” the old master continues, cheerfully sipping his wine.
“Sent?" Crowley frowns, slinking back. "By who?”
“A being of Divine love. The Principality Aziraphale. Also known as the Guardian of the Eastern Gate.” Leonardo laughs a little, plucking a grape from a passing plate. "Nice chap."
The name is an appetizer. Crowley feels his eyes heat, his nails lengthen. His tongue grows wetter, his fangs grow sharp in his mouth. Crowley spares no look of desire at the tables of food. Not at the apples and quinces, the lemons and oranges. Not at the plump unpeck’d cherries, the melons and raspberries. Not at the bloom-down-cheek’d peaches, no. He doesn’t want the wine, the well-laid table. His hunger is a thieving thing, a pickpocket, a five-finger discount. He doesn’t trust his hands to keep themselves from Aziraphale. He doesn’t trust his mouth to not steal bites from the cream-skinned feast, the soft and red mouth. Aziraphale’s hair is spun gold and Crowley would take it, take it, take it and keep him there, locked in a dark room and spinning spinning spinning. Lay him out and lay him down on a bed of straw, a bed of thorny roses. They would bleed and in his hunger, Crowley would not notice, would not care, he would reach for gold like a dragon and blame the blood on love. His skin already hums, hot and sticky. His eyes dilated, desire like syrup in his veins.
Yes, he would take without asking. Yes, he is not to be trusted. Not with the poison in his veins.
He swallows, something of the past half-remembered through a glass darkly. Bright eyes, pale blue dot eyes. The scent of tooled leather bindings and sewn parchment, dusty old books and dusty old booksellers too. Peat-heavy scotch. Tannin-thick wine. Through it all, a smile always shining. Crowley curls his hands into tight, tense fists, his sharp nails cutting into his palms. Blood in his hands.
I won’t hurt you. I’ll cut my hands off first. Cut my feet off so that I can’t go to you. I’ll make myself fit, a wolf in a glass slipper. I’ll dull everything I need to until I am nothing harmful and only dust.
“No,” he says, looking up. Leonardo waits, his clothing dark and voluminous, catching shadows in the folds. “Not there. S’not safe. I’ll go the other way. Or just - stay here, I suppose.” He blinks, “Seems alright. Got a case of wine over there. Not sure what that bright green drink is, the one with the funny umbrella in it, seems like something I should find out - “
“Anthony J. Crowley.”
Crowley pauses, his mouth hanging open.
“Do you love him?”
“Well, that’s a bit of a tricky question, right? I mean, what’s love? We’re friends, of course - “
Leonardo holds Crowley’s eye contact without blinking. He isn’t used to it, to having his snake eyes seen without being dropped in terror. “You perform entire dances trying to get around it, my good friend. But love, real love, will always rise to the top.” He waves a hand toward the gate of horn. “Come.”
And Crowley follows. They move through the dark hall, the two of them surprising the gargoyles, driving them back. It takes a full hour to walk to pass through the hall and to approach the gate. Crowley swings his hips and legs, pretending to know where he is going. At the gate, he finds a narrow path plunging into a steep and dark descent. Abandon all hope, he thinks with a grim mind and clenched jaw.
“Shall we?” Leonardo asks, gesturing to the path.
Crowley glances over. “Is this gonna work?” Will this fix me? Fix this, make me safe again? Bring me back? Will I be able to lance the wound, suck the poison out? Is there an antivenin? An antidote? Throw me into charcoal, neutralize me. Can you fix me? Make me good? Blank and pale, unwritten and with no mistakes. No fuck ups. Where are we going? Is it what I wish?
Leonardo bears a strange look. Something considering and thoughtful. He reaches a hand out and squeezes Crowley’s forearm.
“That, my friend, depends on you.”
Chapter 9: in search of lost time
Crowley buys the madeleines himself.
He does not like to arrive empty-handed, caught in the act of being useless and offering nothing. So it is his habit to stop along the way from Mayfair to Soho and to duck into a little patisserie or wine shop. Or, sometimes, perhaps both. Today, a bright August day with skies bluer than an aristocrat's blood, he brings a bottle of sherry and a box of madeleines, freshly baked that very same morning. They are a dream. Soft sponge cakes in the shape of elegant seashells. A hint of almond, a touch of lemon zest.
He has purchased two boxes. One he will give to Aziraphale, pretending to have to come into the possession of the cakes by mere accident and that Aziraphale would be doing him a great favor to take them off of his hands. "Nah, not into sweets, " Crowley will drawl. Which is true enough, though not ever the real reason. Aziraphale won't protest, will not argue. It is these little fictions which grease the wheels of their mutual society, this millennia-long game of chicken, wondering who will break first. Who will throw their cards down, their dice away. Who will finally give in.
The second box of madeleines he slips into his inner breast pocket. Crowley bites his lower lip, breathing in through flared nostrils, his brow furrowing. God, I'm fucking pathetic. Look at me, literally licking the crumbs up of what you've given me. If you spilled, I'd lick it up from the floor. If you threw something away, I'd pick it out of the trash. You don't want this. (You shouldn't.)
A breadcrumb trail. It is all he has, so he follows it back and back again, picking the memory out from the trash. Crowley buys the second box of madeleines and will take them home with him. He will set them square on the kitchen table and will avoid them for an hour or two. Drink the wine, drink the whiskey. Talk and walk in circles again and again and again. His feet will argue with the floor, his hips will surrender to the chair. He will find himself here again, caught with the madeleines and memory. Red-handed and red-haired. He will go slowly (for once you have given into a bad idea, you may as well savor it). Put the kettle on, brew a cup of Earl Grey tea. Bergamot in the air. A hint of citrus. Crowley will sit at the kitchen table, his elbows digging into the wood and hands steepled before him. He will breathe in deeply, scowling at his own weakness. Then he will reach for the cake. Dip it into the tea. And he will take a bite.
Memory is strange, the way it ties itself to sense and sensation. Crowley tastes tea and cake and he closes his eyes to find himself not here in Mayfair at all, but instead sitting on a sofa in a bookshop, his elbows not on the smooth oak surface of his polished table but instead on the cloth cover of Candide . There, in his memory, his eyes shut tightly like drawing down a curtain, he is back in 1820.
In the bookshop, Aziraphale had sat across from him. It had been a day like this, blue and bright, thick with the summer. The white box of cakes had been open on the table, the tissue paper rustling with each reach of the angel's hand in for another.
Crowley had arched a brow, sharp and pointed and as dark as a grave.
"There's one left, I'm afraid I've - well," Aziraphale had colored slightly. "I've eaten them all."
"Hey, go for it, angel," Crowley says, lifting his glass of port wine, draining the last of it. "Got 'em for you. Not my sort of thing. This wine though, that's got my name written all over it. Got more of it around, do you?"
Aziraphale had looked at him then, a strange sort of soft expression in his eyes. Crowley remembers them now, as he had noticed them then, as being that strange shifting color of a riverbed. A kaleidoscope of unpinnable blue and gold, a bit of green. The square fingers and their manicured nails had paused, holding the last madeleine in the tea. Aziraphale has eaten them all this way, dipped in Earl Grey and licking the crumbs off his skin.
"That's very generous of you."
Crowley had started, sitting up straight on the sofa. His boots, which had been draped off the arm, now hitting the floor. "Don't say that." Someone could hear you.
"Don't say thank you ?"
"Aziraphale." Crowley's voice had been a warning. Don't push it. This is the game. The dance. The give and take, the up and down. The yes and no. "Don't say - "
"Then I won't," Aziraphale said, swallowing the cake and brushing his hands off.
"Good. Not very demonic, is it, going around being generous and - "
Aziraphale had leaned forward and closed the space between them. The leather of the sofa had been smooth beneath Crowley's panicking fingers and the breath had caught in Crowley's rapidly closing throat and Aziraphale had leaned in and kissed him with an open mouth and soft lips. Offering himself like the Host, offering communion. There had been rapture on his tongue, yes, rapture and salvation too.
Crowley had gasped and stuttered into the kiss. Had pulled away, blinking and tasting cake and tea in his bewildered mouth.
"Angel," he'd choked, breathing harsh and strange. His eyes had been bright and wild, his eyes as yellow as a warning. "We can't - " We can't do this. Not like this. It's not safe. I'll ruin you, stain you. Pull you down into the muck with me. I'm the tar and oil on your feathers, you'll never fly with my touch on you. You'll Fall. You know how the stories go (monsters never win).
Aziraphale had closed his eyes, pulled back and away. He had put the correct distance between them again. Had wiped his mouth with a linen napkin. "Yes, I know," Aziraphale had said, opening his eyes again. "Forgive me, my dear. I'm afraid I got - " He paused, doubt scribbled all over his face. "Carried away."
The labyrinth of Crowley's ancient heart had ached. His blood pumped through, carrying this same millennia-old love on the backs of his red blood cells. Crowley is a demon. He knows what he is. There is no kiss that will wipe him clean, there is no kiss that will give him salvation. His sins cannot be absolved. They have gone too far (he has fucked up too much). No kiss is a ladder to pull him out of the Pit. In another lifetime, it could have gone differently. Let’s think about it. Turn options over in our minds.
“Hello,” Crowley could have said, there in a story that will never be told. “I’m Anthony. Nice day, isn’t it?”
He would have stuck out his hand and Aziraphale would have smiled and shaken it. And Crowley, speck of dust that he is, would have caught a draft and flown higher again. In this unwritten story, they could have turned to the second chapter, for no one was watching. No one would have minded. No one would have seen. They would have burnt all the wood in the forest and only they would have heard the sound.
But we only get one story to tell. His is not that. We have seen Beauty in her sleep. We have seen the Beast walk at night. Let’s skip ahead. This is not the ending, not yet. They have miles to go before they wake. But for a moment, let us look at the future.
It is April in 1941 and the bombs are screaming. Crowley will stand out on the pavement, wiping his sweaty palms on dark, pinstriped trousers. There is always a time to run, there is always a time to stay. The planes will be on their way (he will have made certain of that). His throat will be long and dry as he looks upward, toward where the church’s cross pierces the dark sky. He will swallow then, there in his own future, his spit like ichor. Bitter, yes, and foul too. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, angel. Wish I could go back, change the past. Rip out the pages. Rearrange our lives. I’d sew us together like chapters in a book. No author would dare take us apart.
And when he walks forth, the door to the church will be heavy. The ground will be scorching beneath his boots, searing the skin of his feet. It won’t matter, not to him. He will grit his teeth against the pain and pass through the little vestibule with its images of Christ on the cross, that spear dug into the meat of his side. He will round the corner too quickly, bumping into the sharp corner of a table, pain blooming there. He will ignore it. Ignore the prayer books. Ignore the Bibles.
Lord, are you watching? He will wonder and hesitate, listening to the voices carrying from the other end of the long nave. The figures will turn silent as he walks in, hopping from side to side on the too-hot earth. Here, someday, he will come down the aisle to an Aziraphale in white. (A mockery. The Blitz sounding like a wedding march.)
But he does not know this yet.
It is not time.
Instead, for now, Crowley will eat the madeleines and remember the one and only time he has been kissed, by an angel who had tasted of cake and tea. Instead, for now, he will follow the breadcrumb trail through a dark wood, not knowing what might lie at the end.
Chapter 10: till human voices wake us
Aziraphale has fallen asleep.
We won’t linger here. Not on the wingback chair, the book now fallen from his fingers and lap. Not on the curls pressed into the jacquard fabric where his head has lolled. No. Not there. Let’s knock and look inside.
He is dreaming of a large manor. The light is low and insufficient for the surroundings. The little candles and oil lamps show something of tapestries and paintings too. There are tables that appear empty at first but then, on closer inspection, are laden down with an unimaginable feast.
Move on, move along. He keeps his eyes wide in the strange house.
He has dreamt of this house before. Hundreds of times. Thousands. Always appearing in different rooms, always staying close to his bed or his spinning wheel, keeping an eye on the door. There might be something there to bite him, consume him, take him in their mouth and spit out the bones after. Clean as a whistle. But he feels peculiar tonight, lonely for seventy long years. Crowley kept there, in the Babylon of sleep, and Aziraphale has lingered with humans. Lingered with sea waves. No one sings quite the right song.
Through the room then, to this empty landing. There is a door. He turns the handle, carved from horn, and finds himself first in a comfortable library. The shadows seem menacing. The eyes of paintings and tapestries seem to follow him. Aziraphale glances upward with doubtful eyes, breathing in quickly. He frets at the look of Julius Caesar. At the glance of Socrates. At the heavy stare of Ovid. No, don’t panic. Nothing to worry about, of course. They’re only paintings. Tapestries. Oh, what am I even thinking about, this foolish mess of mine. This is a dream. Nothing is real, even if they should look.
A dream. He must remember this. (It slides through his fingers always, as slippery as water. As insubstantial as air. When he focuses, he can grasp onto this again, this truth of a dream. But the moment he looks away, he is lost, in a grey room without hope.)
The shelves of the library seem to go on endlessly, the ceiling lost to the clouds and the books too. Is everything ever written here? It might be, this treasure trove of knowledge. (He looks upward, pursing his mouth, worrying about the clouds. Oh, I do hope they don’t get the books wet. )
The room is a long rectangle. There, directly at the other end, is a door.
There is a light on behind it. It creeps out from underneath. From the sides. Aziraphale holds his breath, as if his little breath is the only giveaway. As if his intrusion must not be found. Still, his curiosity gets the better of him. It has been seventy long years since Crowley had first slept. Seventy long years since the mirror had cracked from side to side, had shattered upon the floor. Perhaps a shard of the mirror has slipped into Crowley, pierced his eye, his very heart, twisting the reality of their lives. Something has forced this slumber. Aziraphale has waited and worried. He has come every week at first. Now every night. These seventy years, the full span of a single human life. Aziraphale has held Crowley’s hand through the death of Victoria. Had brushed his hair while reading of the blood spilled at the Somme. The Civil War in America had ended. The war to end everything had begun.
“You missed so much,” he whispers to himself. “You would have loved the Weimar Republic, my dear. Berlin in the '30s, would have absolutely suited you.” He pauses, trailing his hand along the tables, the covers of teasing books. “I’ll tell you all about it when you wake.” Yes, he thinks, squaring his chin. When you wake. And you will wake, come Hell or high water.
The door has a rose relief carved into it. The thorns look sharp enough to cut.
He doesn’t touch them. Instead, he whispers a prayer in a low voice, trying to center himself. The light flickers behind the door, promising a fire. He pushes and the door opens without complaint.
The room is not overly large. The light comes from a hearth, as he had expected. It is not enough to illuminate the corners. The floor is covered in thick, lush carpets. The walls with their same paintings and tapestries. He looks up, half-reluctantly, to find himself spied upon by Cleopatra and Achilles, Dido and Paris. There are well-stuffed chairs and seductively broad footstools. There is a chaise lounge draped with blankets of velvet and silk. At the center of it all, dominating the room, is a four-poster bed draped in scarlet.
The room is very cold. Oh, these damn fools, they’ve left the window open. He reaches for the sash of the window, drawing it down. His fingers are ice, his breath a cloud. The winter carries still, lingering like an unwelcome guest. Aziraphale moves forward, hands outstretched, drawn toward the flickering warmth of the fireplace. It is there, cast perfectly against the firelight, that he realizes how perfectly visible he is.
And that he is not alone.
“Well?” He asks, his nerves tearing his voice to bits. The firelight is warm on him, casting his pale waistcoat in shades of red and orange. “Come on out then. Let’s have it.” Whatever it is.
The shadows cling to the edges of the room. Aziraphale stands in the center, like a morsel within a mouth, waiting to be consumed.
“I haven’t got all day, you know,” he says, trying again.
A flicker of movement comes from somewhere near the bed. A hiss. “Get out.” The voice strikes like flint and tinder in Aziraphale’s blood, his terror rising, flooding his lungs. He has never seen the monster that has lurked at the edges of his nightmares, yet suddenly, he knows the beast here instantly. See the shadows that cluster around the fiend, as unique as a fingerprint. Hear the heavy breathing, the slow, drawn-out beat of footsteps, like a wolf toying with its prey.
He should run. The door stands open. There is a flash of white teeth. A pale-fanged mouth, a half-starved tongue. The crimson duvet of the bed crumples as it is dragged across, toward the darkness, as if clawed hands had grasped at it for want of something to crush. Aziraphale gasps, breathing heavily. Sweat drips from his brow. Down his back. His too-available neck.
“I said get out.”
He is paralyzed. Ruined by his lead-line feet, dropped here in the water. Undone by his curiosity, trying to measure the shape of a nightmare. Aziraphale frowns and swallows, his brow deeply furrowed. “Why? What will you do?” I should run. Why am I not running?
The creature hisses. It is a terrifying, miserable sound. Light is hard to calculate. Difficult to expect where it might trouble, where it might land. What it might bounce off of and suddenly bring into view. Light is the sudden surprise in the night, over the hill. The beast moves, perhaps without thinking, perhaps unaware of how the light might bend. There is little shown but just this, just enough.
Just enough to see burnished yellow eyes, as gold as a censer, as bright as a star.
The light and shadow drapes over Crowley’s sharp features. His nose and cheekbones bright, the shadows keeping to his deep eyes, the hollows of his cheeks. Crowley swallows and Aziraphale watches every moment, as hungry as the gallows holding out a noose.
“You can’t be here.”
He should be horrified. There’s something gaunt about Crowley’s body. There’s something wild in his too-bright eyes. Yet the fear is gone, sublimating in an instant to relief. “I’m not going anywhere, Crowley. Where have you - Why - Oh, my dear. ”
He moves forward, reaching out. Crowley flinches.
“Don’t,” Crowley says, something strange in the choked tone of his voice. “I can’t - look, you can’t be here, angel.”
“Will you wake up?”
Crowley blinks. “Can’t do that-“
“You most certainly can. I’m not going anywhere unless you come with me. Or,” he says, pulling his coat around him, suddenly feeling on more certain ground. He sits on the bed. “Or until I understand what the sheer devil is going on.”
Half in shadow, Aziraphale can now see Crowley more clearly. Crowley is staring intensely at him, mouth half-open. His icepick fingers stroke that long line of his neck. A shade of beard covers the lower half of his face. His hair is long. It had been this long in Mesopotamia, watching Hammurabi write his laws, watching the Hittites borrow cuneiform. Now, in the dark, in a place nowhere in heaven nor on earth, it is long again.
Aziraphale wants to touch it.
“I told you to go.”
“And I told you no.”
“You’re the most bloody stubborn - “
“Dear,” Aziraphale sighs, breathing in deeply, giving off the air of the long-suffering. “You might as well tell me. I’m not leaving you. That’s a fact.”
Crowley groans. He drags a hand through his hair, twitching in the red cape of it. He paces to and fro, nearly tripping on the carpet, his nervous energy spilling over. Aziraphale watches with an uneasy boil beneath his skin. What happened to you? Tell me. Let me figure it out, help you. We can fix this.
Finally, Crowley stops and looks over. “Tie me up.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’m serious, angel. You can’t trust me. I’m barely holding onto myself. I can’t keep this - “ He grits his teeth. Desperation threads through his words. “ Please. I’m gonna lose control.”
Aziraphale stares. Then, gathering himself together, he nods and carefully, with a very furrowed brow, he snaps his fingers. Gold cords appear, tying Crowley’s wrists together before him. Tying his body to one of the posters of the sturdy bed. Bound now, Crowley sags against the cords, as grateful as Odysseus upon his mast.
“Hey,” he manages, weak and odd. “Thankssss.”
“Now. You will tell me what is going on.”
“Do you remember Baiae?”
Aziraphale raises a brow. “Of course. Lovely town, why -“
Crowley licks his lips. Aziraphale is reminded of a wolf eyeing a meal, readying its fangs like a fork. The hunger reaches out to him. Desire, thick and heady. A maelstrom of want and ache, hidden away thousands of years ago and allowed to replicate like a virus. To multiply. The pressure is heavy in the room. Aziraphale breathes deeply, feeling his own skin flush. The drowning wave of desire met only by his own.
“The poison. Asmodeus’ fucking rot. That's what happened.” Crowley grumbles, unconsciously pressing against the cords, testing the tensile strength.
“They will hold,” Aziraphale says, somewhat absentmindedly. “So you’re - “
Crowley's upper lip curls. “A monster.”
“Well, that’s a bit strong -“
“ Aziraphale, ” Crowley says, exasperated. “Don't you get it? Don't you see? I have no filter. No self-control. I could do things to you - anything - I wouldn’t be able to stop. I wouldn’t want to.”
A heat curls in Aziraphale’s stomach, keeping him warm.
“And to cure you -“
“Something about love, I don’t know. He's a prat, Asmodeus is. Look, I didn’t stick around to learn the bloody details. ”
“Of course.” Aziraphale shifts on the bed. He wets his lip. Crowley watches intensely. Aziraphale watches him watching. (The winter of the room is long gone and Aziraphale is scorching.) “You said things. That you might -“
Crowley closes his eyes. His hands wrestle with the cords, trying to pull his condemned arms free. “You don’t wanna know.”
“I’m rather afraid that I do.”
“Angel,” Crowley begs, looking up, holding eye contact. There is something pleading in his eyes.
“Right,” Aziraphale says, “that’s enough of that.” He won’t make Crowley say it. Won’t drag the confession out from between clenched teeth. From behind a jailcell jaw. His body has said enough, writhing there against the bindings and spelling it out. His hips a slamming scattershot. His spine seducing the bedpost.
In the dark, Aziraphale can still see where Crowley is hard in his woolen trousers. He can see the blackness of Crowley’s pupils, a drowning pool of need. I should look away. (He wants to. Wants to afford Crowley some privacy. Yet he cannot, for there is a wolf in the room and one should never turn their back on a wolf.) Aziraphale is no fool, he knows precisely what Crowley does not say. The poison courses through, infecting Crowley's hell-ichor veins with something still more fiendish. A poison like a funhouse mirror, taking love and joy into its infernal hands, twisting them into something cruel.
And yet, Aziraphale's skin burns. How did Sappho put it? You burn me. Yes, his breath is quick and shallow and oh - I want it. You. Please. Please. Please. Press me into the mattress, let the bed frame crack. I would spend years between your thighs, lick you stern to bow. Suck you down and bring you off and swallow it all. I would bury myself inside of you, crack you open like an oyster, get to the soft within. I would make you come on my hand, my mouth, my cock, my breath. Every part of me. Every bit of you.
But not like this.
Aziraphale shudders. He presses a firm palm to the front of his trousers, buying himself time. (Not yet. Not now. Not like this.) He stands from the bed, righting his jacket and rounding the corner until he is standing just in front of Crowley's twisting body, his wrists trying to negotiate with the relentless rope. Crowley looks at him, wide-eyed and wanting. The way his neck stretches lingers on Aziraphale's palate. A pale road out of his dark collar, unmarked and unclaimed. Aziraphale finds himself running his tongue along his own teeth, wanting to sign his own name on Crowley's skin like a signature in bruise and blood and bite.
(Tell me, then, who is the wolf at the door? Little Red had beckoned the Big Bad Wolf in, stretched out her throat, said bite me, please. He had hesitated then. Had said I'll ruin you.
She had opened her eyes, kissing each claw. No one lives on a pedestal. Look around us, there are only trees. This little house. The two of us together. You can't ruin me. I can't ruin you. When she kissed him, she did not ask do you love me? No, she had simply confessed I love you. For one must always go first.)
"If it helps," Aziraphale whispers, pressing his palm to the side of Crowley's feverish face. "You're not - alone. In this." In loving. In loving and wanting too.
Crowley makes a noise somewhere between a sob and a moan, turning his face to bury his expression in Aziraphale's outstretched hand. A kiss is pressed to the warm palm. When Aziraphale pulls his hand away, he can still feel it.
"Are you going?" Crowley asks, his breath coming sharply. His rose-red hair falling into his eyes. Aziraphale brushes it out of his face with a gentle touch. (He wants to kiss that temple, to kiss that mouth. Suck Crowley's lower lip in, trace it with his tongue.)
"I'll be back." He moves toward the door, following a breadcrumb trail back out again. "Or you will be."
"Angel," Crowley calls, anxiety engraved on his face. "How will you - "
"There's an old saying," Aziraphale says, "About curses and a kiss." He gives a half-raised smile. It is sad. "I'm inclined to trust the classics. Goodnight, my dear."
He shuts the door behind him. Turns the key in the lock and allows the ropes to fall free.
What have I told you?
You shouldn't come to me for a fairytale. But you have. And in a fairytale, there must be a kiss.
It is 1941. April. German planes have been bombing London since the previous September. Aziraphale holds his hat squarely upon his head, glancing upward at the clear night sky. Rubble clutters a corner here and a corner there. Aziraphale passes little shops, all closed now for the evening. The tailor and the milliner, the butcher and the patisserie. (He is quite fond of the patisserie's lemon madeleines, though Aziraphale has not had them in seventy years. He never eats them without Crowley. They don't taste the same unless they had come in Crowley's pocket, tucked away carefully. Not a single one damaged.)
It is a twelve-minute walk from Soho to Mayfair. He makes it in nine. He is here often. There are no brambles to cut, no thorns to avoid. The roses are in full bloom. The ivy and the aster too. The wide leaves of the Senecio candicans (angels' wings, as some might call them). The apple tree in the main sitting room.
In full bloom.
Aziraphale walks into Crowley's bedroom and finds him just as he had left him. Prone and still as death, pale as winter. His cheeks an unnatural red. His throat flushed. His riverbloom-red hair long and tangled against white sheets. With the large windows and the nosy neighbor of night peering in, there is the odd sensation of walking into a glass tomb. That Crowley himself is merely an effigy in skin and bone.
There have been a great many kisses in stories. Across time and space, every flavor and variety, tasting of ache and terror, love and warmth. Consider a man. An angel, yes, but also simply a middle-aged man with sweat on his brow and his upper lip. With dust in his hair and the war in his bones. With his cream-colored hat crushed (as he never does) between two steel-strong hands. Standing at the edge of a wide bed, big enough for two.
"Breathe," Aziraphale tells himself, looking down at Crowley's splayed out limbs and closed eyes.
Chapter 11: we came forth and once more saw the stars
Not this time
Not this place
Crowley is a demon, is a monster, is a cursed beast, and everything about him is red. There is red in his hair. Red on his lips where he has dug his sharp teeth into the meat of it. There is red on his hands where he has wiped his mouth. Crowley breathes in and the winter air is sharp in his lungs.
The lake is frozen and he is out on the ice. His hands pale and bloodless, the circulation long stopped. His pointed knees ache from where he kneels. The lake is small and still. The stars are fixed above him. A castle surrounds this courtyard on all four sides, its crenellated walls framing the firmament.
The monster claws inside of his bones, inside of his skin. Let me speak, the beast within clamors. Let it out, let me out.
He tries to breathe. It aches. How did he get here? He doesn't know.
He had been walking through the castle. Led by Leonardo and his walking stick, which had been a gently constant presence at his elbow.
"For Satan's sake, this is more complicated than the Queen's bloodline. Are we nearly out of here?" Crowley had groaned. He could not tell if they had been walking for an hour or a year. Time moved strangely here, marked only by a massive ebony clock that dominates the grand staircase. He had been watching and wondering. The pendulum seemed to move quickly at times and slowly others, always ticking toward midnight and never never never getting there.
"No," Leonardo had said, shaking his head and pushing on. Always and ever west. "Keep walking."
Crowley had rolled his eyes and kept the pace. "You say that like I have a choice."
They had moved through the dark corridors together, looking into ballroom upon ballroom, all filled with ghostly dancers and their tired feet. The nature of their descent is built in concentric circles. The first ballroom had been pale but lush. The food plentiful and the goblets full. Someone quoted Ovid. Someone spoke of Homer. Leonardo had looked over at Crowley and Crowley had found that they were both dressed in finery and wearing Carnivale masks. He had touched where it sat on his nose with nervous-knock fingers, uncertain of the rules of this place. Uncertain where he was being led. The castle follows no layout he is familiar with. It twists and curves strangely, takes sharp rights and lefts, surprising him from time to time with a sudden wall. There are tall, skinny windows that look out from each room, yet as Crowley walks and peers through their glass panes, he sees only more rooms and only more of the masquerade.
"Do any of these look out?" He asked. Leonardo had shaken his head. No, here, wherever might be here, does not look upon anything but itself.
I have been sent by the Principality Aziraphale, Leonardo had said (and so Crowley will go anywhere, do anything).
You are no fool, dear Reader. You will already know what Crowley had slowly come to realize.
There are nine ballrooms. Nine ballrooms, one on each level of the spiraling castle. The corridors spread out like a spiderweb from each one, knocking in upon kitchens and bedrooms. Sometimes empty, sometimes filled with ghostly dancers. Crowley was silent as he sliced through the crowds, red in his hair and in the lining of his black jacket too. He passed the buffoons and the ballet-dancers, the musicians and the wine. The masks distorted them into grotesque beings. Some seductive and others horrifying. Gold dripped from brows and lace hung from cheekbones. When Crowley passed a glittering mirror, he saw his own mask of simple velvet. Dark as charcoal. His thin face nearly spectral beneath it. His hair, red as death, pulled back. His bleak-colored clothing like vestments of the grave.
Whose dance is this? He had wondered and reached for a dancer to ask. She was stretched out in a twisted arabesque and he gently tapped her forearm.
Red comes quickly. Red spread from where he had touched. Bright red. Like a prayer book, like blood. "Oh god," she said, her eyes widening as she sees him. She gasped and fell against the wall, clutching at the curtain. Yes, red is fast. It blooms and multiplies. Within seconds, it had covered her mouth and blotted out her eyes. Crowley backed away in horror from the fallen dancer.
Tell someone, get someone. Anyone. Quick.
"Please, someone - " He had cried, turning to point at the corpse.
But she was gone. Instead, there were dancers, as if they had always been there.
Perhaps they had been. (In impossible places, it's impossible to tell.) So, Crowley had frowned and moved to find Leonardo. He kept his red-handed touch to himself and his fists in his pockets and never reached out again.
He knows what he is. Don't. Don't touch me. Be careful, keep away. I'll ruin you, stain you with red.
He cannot get away from Aziraphale. This monstrous lust rattles inside of him, in his ruining skin and rotten fingers. Crowley has found Aziraphale behind each and every door. A different Aziraphale always. An Aziraphale dressed in his robes from Eden had sat in a conservatory. Crowley had peeked in, careful not to startle him. In a parlor, Crowley had spied on an Aziraphale with pale satin pumps, just like those he had worn once on an ill-conceived jaunt to Paris. In one long corridor, Crowley had peered beyond a door and found yet another Aziraphale, this time seated at a spinning wheel and surrounded with hills of straw. He had wanted to reach out. To take. Look at the soft skin, the neck like an invitation. He wanted to feast, to throw the angel on the piles of straw and to bury himself between Aziraphale's thighs.
But Crowley is a creature of denial. He knows how to live on only scraps from the table and the ends of stolen bread. So he had swallowed and backed away from the door, clenching his teeth and keeping the evil inside.
His steps had echoed on the ashlar masonry and Aziraphale startled, looking up nervously from his spinning. "Who's there?"
No. Nothing. I won't give in. I'll conquer this, I swear.
Crowley had said nothing. Instead, his mouth sewn shut, he had turned and hurried down the hall until he had found himself suddenly within a dark bedroom. A four-poster bed filled the center of the room, carved from mahogany. Its dark spindles reached for the high, impossible ceilings, each draped with hangings of red velvet. The sharply pointed Gothic window had scarlet panes and Crowley threw it open, finding the air to be desperately cold. It looked, as all windows do, back in upon the castle. To a courtyard in the center of the crenellated walls of the castle, all radiating outward from a frozen lake. More masked dancers moved through the icy garden, swans nipping at their toes.
A sound had come from another door to the bedroom, footsteps down a hall. A hand upon a doorknob. Crowley startled and dropped back into the shadows, pulling the dark around him like a coat.
White hair, a curious expression in riverwater eyes.
Aziraphale. Another Aziraphale. Yet, this one looked different. Crowley had never seen these clothes before. See the cream-colored suit, the overcoat. Crowley had gripped one of the posters of the bed, his fingers turning white and desperate. Touch him. Take him, his body begged. There was heat in his spine and there were fangs in his mouth and Crowley clung to the bed and the miserable scraps of himself. His chest heaved. His treacherous cock hard in his trousers.
Aziraphale had stopped in front of the fire, hesitant and increasingly aware that he might not, in fact, be alone.
"Well?" Aziraphale had said, ruining everything. "Come on out then. Let's have it. I haven't got all day, you know."
Look at him, the wreck of Crowley before soft white hair. He had crumbled at the sound of that cultivated voice. Fingers twitched on the wood and his incorrect heart lurched within his wretched ribs. He bit his own hand back. He wants to reach for Aziraphale; he doesn't reach for Aziraphale. He had dropped his miserable head against the bedpost. Breath on the polished wood. His knuckles corpse-white. "Get out," he had hissed, meaning come here.
"Crowley?" Aziraphale had asked, blinking and stepping forward. It had been no good. Aziraphale had seen through him in an instant. Had nearly touched him. Nearly ruined everything.
With a kiss, we both would have been undone. Red, don't forget about red. I would stain you. Now, Crowley looks at his own spindly hands, spread out before him, palms spread upward to the sky.
These hands. What I could have done to you with these hands. I have skin to touch yours, fingers to reach for your own. I would have laid you out upon that bed and fucked into you, taken you apart piece by piece by piece. Found your veins, your arteries, tied them in a knot, tied them up in a bow with mine. Stained you. Ruined you with my red. My not-good red. Heart attack red. Red like hellfire, damnation and confession. Red is heavy. Red doesn’t let you fly, float. You would never find your way back if I tarred you with red. Don’t touch me. Don’t let me touch you. Heed the warning. Watch the walls. (I would fuck you if you let me. Lick up into you, suck you into my mouth and make you come by hand. I'd bring you off over and over and over again. Would never let you out of bed. You would be my temple and I would enter you slowly, burning all the while like an offering. I would spill in you like a prayer. It's not right the way I want you. Remember that.)
Keep an eye out for the Big Bad Wolf.
He looks around. From the center of the lake, the castle seems very far away. No light spills out. The dancers have faded from the courtyard. Only the swans remain.
There is also a mirror. It is half-sunk into the ice and frozen into place. Crowley gets up, the ice hard on his knees, and moves toward it. In the center of the lake, Crowley finds only himself. He has been given no sunglasses here, only a mask and the mask does little to hide his features. The thin face and his spidery limbs. The black fabric of his jacket, his wool trousers. The saturnine set of his scowl. His dark brows dig a grave between them and he leans in closer to the mirror, reaching one hand out to touch himself. The other pulls the mask from his face.
Look at yourself. It's still you, the same you that had woken up on a brimstone floor with jaundice-yellow eyes. The mirror should always show us as we are, shouldn't it? Should show the truth and never a lie. He unties the leather throng from his hair and it falls over his shoulders, curling waves nearly to his waist. Red, red everywhere, and not a mouth to kiss. It covers his head and his back like a hooded cape.
Something moves in the mirror. Something not himself. The scene shifts. Crowley still stands, just as he is, in the center of the mirror. But the mirror shows now his bedroom in Mayfair. Starlight comes through the long windows. There are fresh roses on the table. There is a man next to him, a very familiar man, with an upturned nose and flour-white hair, dressed just as Crowley had seen him in the black-velveted bedroom.
Aziraphale is looking at Crowley's mirror self and gasping deeply. Did you run? Why are you out of breath?
"Breathe," the mirror Aziraphale says and licks his lips. Crowley watches his mouth, terrified on the ice and stiff as stone.
Tell me who is the wolf? Tell me who has come to dinner and who wants to eat? We always know when we're about to be kissed.
Consider a history of kissing.
Have we kissed? We have not. I have meant to, have meant it. Have meant to close that little interruption of space between us, press my mouth to yours, offer you the air in my lungs. I'm not using it, here, take this. The first kiss was in Eden. The rest have filtered down throughout history, replications and improvements. But the first was in a garden with apple still on their tongues. The Sumerians kissed too, lying side by side, calling it tonguemaking. We have written of kissing in Sanskrit and Ancient Egyptian, in Coptic and in Greek. Tell me of kissing. This kiss of ritual. A cross my mouth must bear. I am no saint but I kiss the saints and love them. I am no good child but I kiss my father and love him. What do I give you? Myself, sealed with a kiss. What are you afraid of? What am I? Everything and nothing, all at once. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
He is terrified. (Crowley is a demon, is a monster, is a devil. Everything about him is red.) When Aziraphale reaches for him, Crowley holds himself very still. He is very pale. As white as a frightened swan out on a lake. What can he do but stand still, watching with wide, terrified eyes as Aziraphale leans in? Nothing. What does he feel as he watches Aziraphale's mouth close over his own, gentle and questioning?
Crowley touches his hand to his mouth and feels nothing but his own skin.
"Nothing happened," he whispers, frowning at the mirror. He is relieved. (He is disappointed.)
"You cannot leave everything to Fate, boy." A voice comes from over Crowley's left shoulder. He turns around to find Leonardo and his white beard walking toward him across the ice.
"What are you on about?" Crowley frowns, crossing his arms.
"My dear friend. Even you cannot be so thick."
"M'not thick. "
Leonardo smiles, impossible patience sewn up in the quirk of his lips.
"You saw it, he bloody kissed me," Crowley says, turning back to look at the scene. The kiss remains impossibly slow, A moment in time, strung out forever. Crowley looks back and Aziraphale's kiss is still upon his mouth. He swallows, the want still hot in his body. His monstrous want still in his claw-tipped hands. Grit the teeth, hide the fangs. Red looks at the bed in the mirror. Terror in his heart. Don't touch me, I'll tear your flesh. Don't. You can't. Don't touch me. I'll ruin you. What warm skin you have (all the better to touch me with). What a soft mouth you have (all the better to kiss me with). What a big heart you have (all the better to love me with).
"Indeed he did."
"He can't do that. I told him not to - "
Crowley stops. Blinks. "What?"
"What are you afraid of?"
There is a long pause and the night moves in a circle about them. The castle remains dark and silent. "He'll - You know what I am. He'll Fall. If we - " If we touch. Like that. If I let myself touch you the way that I want you, beastly and strange. I'm sorry for what I want. For how I want you. I'm sorry for wanting your mouth open and myself within you. I'm sorry for wanting you within me, splitting me. How can it be right, to want you like this, in such a filthy way? You're radiant, angel. Pure light. I know light when I see it. How can light ask to be blotted out and covered up?
Why have we always been told that desire is wrong? What about this is impure? What about this is incorrect? We do not live upon pedestals, we can't be knocked off. We live as dust in the dirt, flint striking tinder and making light and love.
"Nothing of you would make him Fall, Crowley. He is not yours to knock over." Leonardo leans on his cane. "Go to him. Go on. What is it they say? Oh yes, be not afraid."
It is a terrible thing to be loved by something so unfamiliar with love. When love is stored up, stoppered up. Look how much of it is held within Crowley, how much he has to give. His own terrified eyes begging for a border, begging for instruction. Be careful with me, I'll spill. Run over. Get all over your shoes and the floor. What a mess. This fear of the already-cut-off. Crowley cannot parcel out his love, cannot give a little at a time. He has already been cast out and had his heart divvied up. He can't cut it down further, like a piece of bread to share among thousands. All or nothing at all. One love, undivided under God.
Why is love a lighthouse? Look at it, the way it beams into us, showing all the empty places, all the dark closets, the dust we've swept under rugs. What if we hadn't met? Could we have gone along without each other, happy enough? Are we only aware of the empty spaces of ourselves once we meet each other? Aziraphale's voice had looked into Crowley like a blacklight, finding all the red. It doesn't matter if they go their separate ways now, if nothing comes of this, Crowley will never not be aware of the parts of himself that Aziraphale had lit up.
Will never not be aware of how they have gone dark again.
"You can," Leonardo nods. His beard nods with him. "I know you. You walked with Tobias to make sure he got to Sarah safely. You walked all the way from Nineveh to Media. And you did it because you believed in love. You're a soft touch, Anthony."
"Just wanted to fuck with Asmodeus," Crowley grumbles, rolling his neck.
"No. I know you, my friend. And I know why you went with them."
" Lied to 'em."
Leonardo smiles a sad smile. "Not entirely. You were an angel once."
Crowley grimaces. One hand brushes the terror-red hair away from his creased forehead. When he speaks again, it's quiet. "Why didn't it work before? If he loved me. As you say." Crowley pauses. The wind tears at his jacket, his trousers, fanning the fabric out like great dark wings. "It's not real, is it? If he loved me, this couldn't have happened."
Leonardo's hand is warm and heavy when it finds his shoulder. Crowley watches his hand, his wrist. Nothing comes of red. "Come now, Anthony. True love must go both ways. If love knocks at your door, you must let it in."
Crowley frowns, furrowing a brow.
"Let yourself be loved, my friend. Your heart will hurt nothing. Go on then, before I turn into a pumpkin. It's getting rather late," Leonardo continues, more gently now.
He swallows. His shoulders tense. The wind comes louder. "How?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Leonardo says, smiling a warm smile. "Kiss him back ."
Crowley nods and turns to the mirror, bringing his shaking body close. See him here, a ghost of a man. A joke of a demon. His skin is as pale as a blank letter. His nose as sharp as a spindle. Terrified of nothingness, terrified of red and ruin.
Please let this work (please don't let me hurt you).
I love you. (I'm sorry, I can't hold it off any longer. Please forgive me.)
He presses his mouth to the looking glass. Beneath his kiss, he finds only warm breath and soft skin.
Chapter 12: all starbright and tongue-tied
"For small creatures such as we,
the vastness is bearable only through love."
All tales, even fairytales, must someday find their final chapters. Their last sentences. I have told you that the only difference between a fairytale and ghost story is this, the happy ending. The winding somewhere safe to sea. How do we start when we're uncertain? How do we go?
We ask the way.
Come, now, walk with me. We will start with the end.
A flat in Mayfair
The silence shrieks.
The night is long and the shadows are hovering. Two men sit in a living room that seems to have been pulled from the pages of Architectural Digest. Untouched. Pristine. Cold. Glass windows show the city below and the sky above, the stars peering within like they might be curiosities in a museum.
Perhaps they are.
Come, let us talk of ancient things. Old gossip. Wives' tales. Of man's first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree, which had brought death into the world. All our woe. The loss of Eden too.
We must always have someone to blame. So we yell at the snake, say it wasn’t our fault, we swear.
Goodbye, Eden. Close the door, throw away the key. This is not Eden. Crowley knows that all too well. No, this is a modern city in a modern world. This is another time, another millennia, another century, another year. His home is a cave of empty spaces and loud echoes. After all this time, Crowley still wears black. He hides his eyes now. Buries his face in his hand. His little finger drums along the edge of the tumbler, the ice clinking as he tips the glass to and fro.
Do you realize? Do you? We're floating in space? Who are we but brief interruptions? Look, pinch your arm. Atoms only. Nitrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen. We are made of the same bricks as apple pies and shining stars. You were born in the Beginning, as I was, as the stars were and the angels too. This moment, this is only a fleeting blink here with a voice to speak and with eyes to see. If we loved before as voiceless stars, here we are given the briefest miracle to touch and to whisper it. For a moment, we live to be quick and tender.
Let me tell you a story. It goes like this: Fuck, I love you.
The glass is very still in Crowley's hand. He watches how the light shifts, at times bright with reflection. Other times left to the dark. Exhaustion drums upon his shoulders. The curve of his tired spine. His eyes ache. That old migraine tapping at his skull, Here now, see here. Bent over upon a sofa, elbows splayed out over his sharp knees, whiskey in hand. He is too tired to think of his body, so it is left to its own devices. His heart beats because it thinks it should. His blood flows as it expects to. The black denim of his jeans feels damp with unchecked sweat. He doesn't bother to clean it up. To miracle it away.
"So," Aziraphale says, perched carefully on the opposing chair. Framed by dark green leaves.
"Bit of a long day."
"Yeah," Crowley snorts. "You can say that again."
A faint corner of Aziraphale's mouth curls up. Crowley holds a hand up. "Please," he says, "don't actually say it again. I'm actually begging you."
There's a faint, dry laugh from the angel. After a pause, Aziraphale tries again. His voice, when it comes, is soft. In the vast grey cavern of Crowley's flat, it echoes. On the concrete walls. On the black granite counters. On the stainless steel appliances, on the sleek leather sofa. There is no softness in the flat for the sound to find purchase. As the starlight looms in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, as they speak within the grey walls, Crowley is uncomfortably reminded of a monastery. Look at him, as severe as a Benedictine. (What comfort does he give himself but wine? Nothing. Nothing and never. He is a hellthing, belonging nowhere soft. He knows what he is.)
What he can have. What he cannot.
Breathe in, breathe out. (Crowley thinks of the ocean, the white shoreline of the Seven Sisters. He has a vision of himself walking along the brackish edge, there where the sea meets the river. His long-fingered hands shoved in his pockets, his boots damp with water. There might be a cottage then, there might be somewhere safe to go.)
And now, look up. The room is quiet and Aziraphale wears that damnable old soft smile. Crowley's immortal hand twitches, still damp and still lonely, remembering the shape of Aziraphale's own. They had held tight together on the long bus ride home, slouched in bucket seats and not speaking. An unbroken and comfortable silence. The English countryside had passed by the window, laid in the blanket of night. Yet Crowley had still picked out the grasses and the trees. Had named the wildflowers and the bushes. Ash and hawthorn, alder and oak. See the soft blue petals of the forget-me-nots, the white intricacies of the Queen Anne’s Lace. All the while, Crowley had held Aziraphale’s hand.
At the end of the world, at least he had been given this.
Crowley stares hard at Aziraphale's mouth. He swallows, his long neck nervous. I thought we'd never get here. Figured it wasn't meant for us. Doesn't feel real, angel, doesn't feel real yet. Thought I'd chase you forever. Stand by you forever, never talking about it. You gave me the once, woke me up, told me you loved me in a bed. Seventy-eight years ago. Just because you're loved doesn't mean you get a happy ending, does it? (It aches more when you love me back. When I can't tell you. Can't touch you.)
But now - I'm wrong about everything. Aren't I? Tell me I am. Tell me I'm wrong. I'll take it. I don't mind being wrong, not when it brings you closer.
Tell me I'm wrong.
The shadows cast a grey cover over Aziraphale’s face. They have not bothered with the lights. They have not spoken. Here they sit, two men with the dust of the End Times on their shoes, quietly staring at each other in the dark.
Crowley clears his throat. “You can take the bed. I can, you know, on the sofa.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale says.
“Done it before. Loads of times.”
“ Do be serious,” Aziraphale says and hesitates. “We’ve shared a bed before.”
Crowley is red on his cheeks. His neck is blotchy. Blood always betrays us in the end. “Yeah,” he says. “We sure did.”
Yes, they had shared a bed once. Remember now. Let’s go back to 1941. A demon laid out like a corpse, his bedshirt creased and hair as long as Ophelia's in the water. A golden-haired angel bent over him. The kiss had been long. Aziraphale held Crowley’s mouth crushed to his own. If he doesn’t stop kissing, he doesn’t let go, then there might be a chance. But the endless moments had stretched on into endless minutes and Crowley remained as pliant as a corpse. His lips warm yet unmoving. His hands did not reach for Aziraphale. Still, Aziraphale had all night and and hope enough to match, so he kissed on, holding the demon to him, burying his needing hands in hair as red as a burning bush.
Crowley had stepped up to the mirror and leaned in. For love, Dear Reader, goes both ways. He had kissed back. He closed his yellow eyes in the center of a frozen lake under a fixed sky; he opened his yellow eyes in the center of a wide bed of a shadowy flat. Held in hands of loving grace.
“Is it - is it you?” Aziraphale had whispered, his eyes wide.
“It’s me, yeah. Here I am.”
“ Crowley .”
"Angel.” He reached for Aziraphale’s solid arm. A live power wire begging to be grounded. The taste of Aziraphale's kiss still lingered in his mouth (like black tea and madeleines).
"Oh my - my dear," Aziraphale had gasped, leaning back. His eyes like blueshift, searching Crowley's face intensely. "You're awake."
Crowley's mouth had been very dry. His eyes were very wide. He nodded slowly, one hand reaching up and hesitating, coming then to cup the side of Aziraphale's face.
"You kis - You shouldn't've, look, you know - " He was shaking. His hand was rattling. Useless bones in his bag of skin. Is the heat on? Is something burning? In an instant, he felt very warm. Aziraphale again. Aziraphale always. There is no center of Crowley's Universe but Aziraphale. Never has been. See how his thumb had stroked over the soft skin of his cheek, plump as a plum, there to be tasted. I want you. (I shouldn't. I'll ruin everything. Fuck it up.)
Then silence as his words were cut off, another kiss pressed to his mouth.
“I know,” Aziraphale said. Their foreheads tipped together, their hands tied in a knot. “I know I shouldn’t -“
“A night. Just once. Please,” Crowley begged. Just a night. Please, can we have that? I’ll never ask again. (I shouldn’t ask now.) All I want is you, all I have ever wanted is you. I can make miracles happen just for a little while, build you a bed from a pumpkin, give you the world in my palm. If I slide into you, into your body, would you fit me as well as a glass slipper? In the morning, the magic will end. Back to yours and back to mine. I promise I won’t come around asking to fit you again. I won’t ask twice. Please. Tonight. Let me love you tonight.
They have kissed before. But it’s different here. Before, it had been brief and apologetic. Tea-stained and madeleine-flavored. This time, in Crowley’s bed, they find themselves pressed together, chest to warm chest. Only a few layers of fabric between their bodies.
“Tonight,” Aziraphale agreed, resting one hand on Crowley’s chest. “And in the morning -“
“It’ll never have happened. We’ll go on as we have been.”
“Come here," Crowley said, reaching out with an uncursed hand.
And Aziraphale went.
“It was - No one was hurt - “
“Do you remember?”
“Yeah, I bloody remember," Crowley snaps. "I think about it every day. Do I remember - "
“My dear,” Aziraphale holds out his hand. Palm up. “Do come to bed.”
Crowley stares at the outstretched hand. He is a hellthing, a damned thing, he knows not to touch. (Fallen creatures know to keep their hands back, that to reach out is to be struck. To be burnt. Don't reach. Don't presume. Don't take. Not for you.)
"I love you," Aziraphale says.
"But I do."
"I'm a demon. A snake. Look, don't - don't let me drag you down with me."
Aziraphale is thoughtful. He turns his ring on his small finger, an old nervous habit from the dawn of time. "Are snakes so bad?"
The night is long, yes, but it ends. Tomorrow, what do you hold? Crowley swallows. He's always trusted tomorrow, yet tomorrow seems to hold thirty pieces of silver. What have you held in your hands? What rests in the promised land of the future? A bit of slight of hand. A lie tied around a little finger.
"Crowley - "
"Don't." Don't talk to me about faith. Don't talk to me about God. My eyes are as good as yours, I know what I've seen. What's there to believe in but the dirt?
"No," Aziraphale says, bringing Crowley's fingers to his mouth. Pressing a kiss to his fingers, the skin of his useless body. I don't deserve you. I'm sorry I'm not there enough. I'm sorry to be hard for you.
"What - "
"Don't think about that."
"Anything. Just -" Aziraphale whispers. What? Just what? "Just here. Focus on me. Believe in this. Can you?"
Yes. But he doesn't say it. (Sometimes it's too much.) He takes Aziraphale's outstretched hand and allows himself to be led to his own bedroom. At the end of the world, there is a bed and it's big enough for two. The sheets are grey Egyptian cotton. 450-count thread. There's no princess. There's no prince. What wolf do you find when we have mouths on each other, begging for touch? Bite me. Touch me. Put your mouth on me please. Where is Beauty when we chose to wake and walk? When we kissed back?
You love me. I love you. What else has ever mattered? It's the end of the world. Terminus est. Finis terre. The world torn open and sewn back up. Here, take this poultice. Here, let's stitch ourselves back up. The end will come, for it must. But not yet, not quite yet. Kiss me instead, back away from this edge. Not yet, not yet. I haven't had time to love you yet. Not properly. We'll figure it out. Not yet. I won't let it.
There is a kiss and it's made of true love. Crowley's eyes are hot. Aziraphale is shadowy and soft against him. There are pretty words and metaphors but the truth is this: they are no different from us, temporary and beautiful things fumbling gently in the dark. Crowley has been promised eternity, yet he feels an ending in his bones, in the nebula he once was. In the song he was born into being. There was a Beginning and there must someday be an End.
What sort of ending? He closes his eyes. Let me tell you what he finds.
There is a frozen lake and there is a sliver of mirror slipping from his wet face. Someone hugging him. Their hearts are beating and warm.
There is a shoe that fits perfectly.
There is a beast with a pulse, a kiss upon his mouth. The rose petals upon the ground.
There is a knife thrown to the floor, clattering upon the tile. Seafoam on the waves and a promise of someday, maybe.
And, yes, as always - Dear Reader, there is a kiss.
"Angel," he whispers, pushed down into the pillows. Into the mattress. It had started here, in his tomb of a bedroom. Look now at the brambleless path. Walk it now. There are no thorns to tear your jacket (they have all been pruned). There is no dust (it has all been cleaned). There are no teeth to eat you with (not unless you ask). Is this it? He doesn't know. But there are soft lips on his sternum and warm hands on his narrow hips. His joints ache. His brows are heavy. But his heart still scatters, still jitters. Hope can be heavy. Love can be quietly triumphant. We can make love in sober joy. Not all miracles are bathed in light. The most important happen in the dark.
Light the candle. Keep the oil burning. Keep it on, in case someone needs to find it. Crowley has kept his heart burning like a lighthouse. He kisses and is kissed, finally calling love like a ship home.
"What do you want?" Aziraphale whispers. Crowley rattles, shivering in strong hands and a thick-fingered hold. He has had so much time to want. Too much time to imagine. He wants to be bent backward over his bed and to come down Aziraphale's throat and to tell the angel about making the stars. He wants to trace his first name on Aziraphale's back, find his name and eyes returned to him in a cottage mirror. He wants to bake bread for the angel in a cottage of their own, laughing and gripping Aziraphale with white-floured hands. He wants to promise forever in St James Park, matching rings and their bowties as green as the garden they met in. He wants to kiss Aziraphale before the lectern he'd stolen in 1941, the same night he'd been kissed once. He wants to confess with a glass of wine in his hand and be taken apart in his bedroom. To call their wings out and wrap rings around each other so that there might never be a question of love again.
He has had time to think. He has had time to dream. But dreams are fleeting things and this moment, strangely enough, seems both frail and real.
"... whatever you want."
Crowley flushes. He's not accustomed to words. Not out loud. They stay in his journal, an avalanche of confessions. He hands the leatherbound journal to Aziraphale without a word.
You asked me once what the journal might contain. Let me tell you.
I have been writing to you all this time. This is everything I've ever wanted. You don't have to do all of it. You don't have to do any of it. Just let me hold your hand sometimes. Let me love you. Let me stand next to you. Let me be yours. I don't even need to claim you. Just reach for me sometimes. Indulge me sometimes. I know what I am. I don't deserve you. I'll go my whole life trying though. I'll try to make myself good enough. I'll love you as best I can. You've made me better by loving you. I'm more myself when I love you. The world is clearer. The Universe is brighter. And if you don't love me, that's alright. I'll keep on loving you through it all. I don't need you to love me back. Consider me given freely. Whether a gift or a weight, I don't know.
Be careful before you say yes. Before you accept. (I don't know if I can handle it if you leave.)
Aziraphale takes the journal with careful hands. He turns each page carefully, licking his fingers to wet the tips as he goes. Crowley watches his tongue, his open mouth.
"You never read it?" Crowley says, furrowing a brow.
"No," Aziraphale says. "It would have been an invasion of your privacy, my dear." The pale eyes flicker up and hold his own. Watch the solid neck, the bounce of the Adam's apple as Aziraphale swallows. "Do you mean this?" His voice is very quiet. "This?"
All the words. I love you.
The journal drops to the floor and Aziraphale kisses Crowley again, pushing him back into the bed. A human mouth to a human mouth. He tastes like dust and sweat. Tongue to tongue, teeth to teeth. Crowley holds Aziraphale's bottom lip between his teeth carefully, plump with blood. He never bites down, never tears the skin.
"You haven't finished," Crowley whispers.
"No," Aziraphale says. "Just tell me the story now. Together." His hands run down Crowley's single-barrel chest, dipping into his waistband. "How does it go, Crowley? You and me?"
It goes like this. His jeans are undone and lost to history. Aziraphale holds him in place with a firm palm on his breastbone and his mouth sinking lower and lower. Crowley cries out as Aziraphale hovers between his thighs, breathing hotly on his inner thighs, running reverent fingers through copper curls.
"Angel," he whispers. And he is begging. God, how he is begging. "Please. Please - I'm sorr -"
"Don't," Aziraphale murmurs, holding Crowley's hips down and sucking him into that forbidden mouth. Crowley shoves a fist between his own teeth, trying not to cry out. He has never been touched but by his own hand, never never never. It's almost too much. What if I'm not doing this right? What if I don't taste right? Am I awful, angel? What if I come too soon? What if I let you down? The wide fingers spread out on his chest, petting the downy red there, saying with gentle touch I love you, don't worry. He bites his lip and keeps the ruin in. His cock in an angel's mouth, a hot tongue slipping up the underside, a steady hand cupping him. Pleasure locked away. The thing we hold back the most, our own joy. Look now, the black dawn of an unknown tomorrow. A miracle in his bed.
Careful, Crowley wants to say. I'm red, I'll get red all over you.
Aziraphale reaches for him as if to say red is beautiful, red is you. Let me have red. Every heart is red.
(Here he comes, red as a warning. Red as a prayer book. They will fuck here, upon a bed and leave red. Here in the white sheets, leaving the confession spread out. They will fuck against the earth, the stone floor of a cavern, the concrete walls of his heartless flat. Their red like fingerpaints, like the first paintings on the walls of the cave, fingers dipped in red ochre. The end is coming, the end is gone. Start again, start over in the dark. Tomorrow the dawn will come and it will begin with a story written in red, their radiance scrawled against their belonging earth.)
Aziraphale touches him. His hands trail down Crowley’s chest, his stomach, lower still. Crowley bites off a moan. Every time is the first time. Every time is Eden. I will climb the palm tree and take hold of its fruit. If the world ends, then Crowley has loved once. He has been loved back. It's all we've ever asked for. Find us in our beds. Our glass coffins. Offering out our hearts, offering ourselves as half-wounded and vulnerable creatures. What have we ever asked for in fairytales but a happy ending? What have we ever asked for in fairytales but to love and be loved back? Yes, yes, yes, he is loved. How does it go? The end? We've dipped in and out. Let's wake up. Please, look. Look at me. Listen. There is a love in me raging. And I'm going to love you darkly and love you brightly. I will love you through every station of the sun. Don't say goodbye. Say hello instead. Come here and kiss me. And Aziraphale does.
(For in happy endings we are always kissed. In happy endings, we are never alone.)
Aziraphale is solid between his thighs and hot to the touch. One burner, set to high. Boiling over. Scalding. The press of their mouths is soft and gorgeously furious. God, it's been so long. I thought it'd be different. Violent. Strange. Desperate. It is not desperate. They move curiously, asking questions with fingers knocking upon skin. Touch not with the boundaries of no but on a rolling explosion of yes yes yes touch me please yes.
Can I touch you here?
Is this okay?
Can I come in?
Yes, yes, yes, please.
"I would have - even then - " Aziraphale gasps, Crowley sucking a violent and violet bruise into the tender flesh of his neck. "In the bedroom."
He pauses, his teeth scraping and hovering over skin. "Why didn't you?"
Aziraphale is quiet. His chest heaves with rough breath. His words are quiet, yet Crowley hears them without question. "I wanted you to reach back. And didn't want to question it."
"Do you trust me now?" Crowley asks.
"Yes. I trusted you then."
"It wasn't you."
Crowley is silent. He doesn't trust himself even now. The curse had been invisible. Now he looks at his own splayed and spindly fingers on the bedsheets, wondering if it still lingers in his cells. Locked away. When he looks at Aziraphale, his irises shake in fear. What if I hurt you? What if I hurt you and I don't even realize I'm doing it? How can you trust me? How can you know it's safe?
"I don't know how to touch you without - " He says. "What if - " I don't know how to touch you without hurting you. What if I'm too much? Too rough? What if the wolf is there in me still?
"Come here," Aziraphale says, smiling in the moonlight. And Crowley loves him, so Crowley does.
"Are you sure - about tomorrow?" I can find a way to make it my fault. I can tell them I convinced you. Tempted you. It was all my fault. I can hand you a bar of soap, a bottle of bleach. Look, you've got a spot of red on you. I can get it out.
You can wash yourself of me. (Take it. Take me off.)
"Yes," Aziraphale says. His hands find their way within Crowley's body, slow and quiet. A quiet wave within him, rocking back and forth. Crowley's hands grip at Aziraphale's broad shoulders, a flush on his face, mortified at exposure. He's never been seen so bare, never been laid so open. But here he is naked in his own bed, pale as a snowstorm on grey shale sheets. There's a quiet ocean of an angel rocking his hand into him, Aziraphale's own furiously red cock pressed heavy and wanting against his inner thigh. Crowley's spine shivers at the feel of it against him, the knocking upon his own skin, the asking and the wanting. This enter me please, you will, I'll let you in and I'll come apart on you inside of me (and I'll never let you go). There is a moment before the singularity, looking down upon your body and knowing it for the last time as half-empty and incomplete. Crowley is aware of the empty spaces of his miserable skin and bones. He knows how much space is in his open mouth (big enough to kiss you with).
Please fuck me. Please, I'm begging you. It hurts without you. The wolf has always known the terror of his wants. He's never asked if he was welcome. He circles the house, blows upon the straw, the sticks, the stone. He crawls into the bed and pulls the covers tight. No beast thinks to ask on the door. No wolf thinks to ask if anyone wants to join him.
"Can I?" Aziraphale asks, hard and pressing in. Crowley nods. Silent and overwhelmed and desperately clinging on. Yes, yes, yes, please, don't you dare leave me here.
Tell me you love me. It hurts like a hunger, gnawing. Crowley cups his hands, holding them out, hoping to receive the words. It is surreal, these words, the least original combination of human language. When it is said, breathed into the spaces between us, I love you is always a quotation. It has always been borrowed from another person’s lips. I love you. I am out of air. Fuck, I need you. Sparks, a vandalism of light. His head pushes back, back into the sweat-soaked pillow (dripping down his back, behind his ears, Aziraphale licks it away). A careful tongue traces the lines of his throat. Crowley's wretched hands are desperate for something, fumbling gracelessly at Aziraphale’s bicep, his forearms, around his waist. At this beautiful creature flung out of the sky, this being of light. Crowley swallows the light, bearing down upon Aziraphale, where the angel is hard and he is soft. Aziraphale cries out with a shout. The wolf is starving. I did this to him. I’m doing this to him. You're so bloody gorgeous. Aziraphale, beautiful and as dangerous as lightning. (Crowley is transfixed, he cannot look away.)
"I love you," Aziraphale whispers into his ear. "So much. I love you so much." Crowley gasps, lightning in his nerves, realizing that he's been repeating a broken rosary of I love yous over and over and over again. His thighs spread open wider, his muscles tense and head pushed back into the pillow. His body pushed into the mattress, Aziraphale's hands wrapping around his wrists like cords upon a kitchen chair.
"Angel," he cries out. Aziraphale pushes in, moving within him like a holy dove across the sky, soaring over a flood and looking for dry land. His eyes are tightly closed, keeping his damnation to himself. But across the screen of his eyelids, there are explosions of bright matter and gas giants. A nebula, a supernova. Every story is the same, the only difference is the ending. Tell me a fairytale, give me a happy ending. Once upon a time, there were two boys upon a garden wall. Rival families, rival names, yes, but they've got their hearts in common. Once upon a time, Rose Red offered an apple to Snow White, said leave your evil stepmother, come with me.
Aziraphale holds him steady, holds him safe. Fucking into him with a desperately hard cock. Crowley's own dick is furious and red, leaking with everything faintly human. Look at him, at ourselves, beautiful and radiant messes. Shuddering heaps of muscle and bone, his sweat is sour, his skin is salty. Still, Aziraphale keeps a hand wrapped tight around him, their bellies shifting against each other, rubbing one out to the end of the world. He's going to come. He can't get away from the mouth on himself. He can't get away from the cock inside, an axis upon which he revolves. He can't get away from the constant brilliance of the hand upon him, coaxing some sort of white heat from himself. He doesn't want to. With a cry, Crowley gives over. Spills and comes with a silent scream. The act of Creation, a bang, a brightness, a bit of wonder. Aziraphale follows him to his own end of the line, his own completion, coming inside of Crowley's temple of a body, spilling out an offering.
I love you. I love you. I love you. Everything else is a lie. Crowley shivers and shudders around Aziraphale. His fingers dig graves into Aziraphale's upper arms.
They lie there in the bleak night, heaving under the watchful stars. Crowley chokes on Revelations, on the End of the World. It presses in, the dark outside his door. Aziraphale tight against him. Bare chest to bare chest, hearts in parallel. Lined up in syzygy. Fear in his throat, dangerous as a chickenbone. Anxiety stuck beneath his fingernails. His forehead feels damp with terror. Don't think about that. Think about the solidity under his arm, the fingers tracing circles around his navel. Think about the warm breath on his stomach, where Aziraphale's head rests.
Their sweat cools. His forehead is damp, his belly chilled. Aziraphale moves to pull out. Crowley holds him.
"Not yet," he whispers. "Please." Stay with me.
The light is faint. The dawn is there, pressing in and knocking on the window. Knocking on the door. He lifts his head from the pillow, watching the movement through the stations of the day. Light again, light always. It has never faltered. Never failed. We can count upon looking to the sky. We can count upon the sun. Crowley waits for the star to visit, knowing the exact shape of it, the exact measure of its brilliance. He had hung the sun and the stars too, had lit the candles for a rainy day. Now, when all but hope has fled, they still burn. Follow the shepherds. Follow the sun. We know our way, even in the dark.
What will tomorrow bring? His nervous heart doesn't know. See his twisted mouth set in a grim line, his hands tightening around Aziraphale's shoulders. Tomorrow will bring the war again. Tomorrow will bring the battle again, the soldiers once more in the reeds and the bushes too. Here the rebels camp in a soft bed, always outnumbered, waiting for the drums of war.
"Are you ready?" Crowley asks, pressing a kiss to Aziraphale's soft hair.
"No. Are you?"
"No. But - "
"Tomorrow," Aziraphale whispers.
"Always," Crowley promises. Always. There's no life without loving you.
"What will that be like?" Aziraphale asks. There are many answers and Crowley is silent. He doesn't need to answer, they are woven from the same cloth. Tomorrow is a coat of many colors. Tomorrow, if they get through tomorrow, then what will it look like after?
"I don't know."
Consider dinner at the Ritz. A picnic in the South Downs. A drunken stumble through Devil's Dyke, the taste of red wine still on their tongues. They'll kiss and build a cottage there and no one will blow it down. There will be miracles there. The centuries will come. The millennia will go. Someday, Crowley knows, this world will turn to ash and rock. In 7.9 billion years, the world will be swallowed by a red sun and Crowley will reach out a hand, take them both to the stars. Beyond that, around a trillion years, the Universe will someday end, pulling everything along with it, the planets and the firmament too. There, crushed into another Beginning, they will be together still. Once more, as always, one again. We will be there too. You and me and the angels.
"Are you scared?" Aziraphale asks.
Yes. Crowley leans over and kisses him. Mouth to mouth, tongue to tongue, sharing the oxygen in their lungs. Holding on to each other, rafts each in this storm-tossed sea. For where did we begin? A prick of the finger. A curse and blood spilled. A long sleep. It is not over, not when the dragons stir, rolling over in their underground caves. Draw your sword, draw your weapon. Keep bare your unquiet heart. This is what we came for. Every word I have given you is the same. I love you. Goodbye. Hello. It's been a long story but it's this, always. Tomorrow, the sun will rise and here you are, watching it here with me. Is this a happy ending? If there's a tomorrow, is it an ending at all? Come now. It is time for the shepherds. After, we will pray for after. After, find me in a bedroom. There will be light. There will be gentle days again and we will sleep in halcyon hands.
“I love you,” Crowley whispers, swallowing hard. I love you. We can make no promises. Tomorrow never shows its hand. Heaven will come for us and Hell too. We won’t go silently into that good night, angel, I promise you. I’ll do everything. Anything. Promise that we’ll make it back here. Promise that if we get separated, I’ll find you again at the first rendezvous point, there on a bench in the park. I’ll wait for days, weeks, years. I’ll find you again.
Aziraphale closes his eyes. Crowley watches the slight movement beneath the eyelids. He has learned Aziraphale for six-thousand years. He knows the little tells, little movements, he knows them all. Aziraphale closes his eyes to right himself and gather strength. Now, with Crowley in his arms, he will be strong again, strong always.
“I love you too,” he breathes. Crowley's chest rocks like a wave. This is the only thing that has mattered. This and the light left on. The burning candle in a theatre, the lighthouse over the storm-rattled sea. Here we go again against the dark, carrying torches long after the wicks were burnt down. Our love, our light, a miracle always. Aziraphale shines into Crowley’s dark places, scaring away the shadows.
(The strangest word in the English language is syzygy. It is the direct, straight-line configuration of celestial bodies. Aziraphale moves to lay over Crowley, each waiting for their breath to even, their pulses to stabilize. Their hearts lined up in something like syzygy, ready to be read like the stars.)
“Do you ever wonder if we didn't come first?" Aziraphale asks, an echo in the unlit room. "If they invented us like one of their myths. Their fairytales. Stories? A boy recreated the world today. Do you think they - well, could have started it?"
"It's a possibility, angel." Crowley arches one cast-iron eyebrow, the ghost of a smile on his mouth. When he speaks, his voice is as rich and dark as the soil, as the ocean, and crowded with red rust. "If they did, then there's a fighting chance. If they put their minds to it. And they will." They always do. Do fairytales exist? If we write them. If we make them. We are the authors, we tell the stories. The happy endings held in the palms of our outstretched hands.
Hope (that awful, unbearable promise, that thing with feathers) fills his chest. They have time enough for now. Crowley closes his eyes and floats off in the wine-deep. Whether it is space or the ocean dark, he does not know. I love you. I love you. I love you. I will love you tomorrow. Tomorrow comes, the dawn will come. Carry this torch, carry this milk, carry this bread. Tell me, what will you take with you into the long night? Here, come. There's enough to share. Take this, this little bit of burning hope. There will be light tomorrow. It will come with the dawn.
Find me tomorrow. When we might kiss and wake up.