Actions

Work Header

Buy and Sell Gravity

Work Text:

The first time Aaron sees Earth, he nearly falls right into it.

He’s still young, not nearly knowledgeable enough to be off on his own.  His Keeper doesn’t pay too much attention to him though, especially when she takes him to the central plaza.  It’s busy and crowded and in the rush of chatter and rustling feathers it’s nothing for Aaron to slip away.

He’s never actually been to the edge of Heaven before but there’s a glimmer of a color he’s never seen before just there, just out of his reach, and he’s drawn to it.  It’s so much different than the pearly whites and silvers and golds he’s always known.  Darker, deeper.

Moving faster, his underdeveloped wings beating furiously, Aaron watches the dark color get closer and wider and—

The ground falls right out from under him.

For a second it’s like really flying for the first time, his too-small wings spread out to catch the wind like they’ve always known what to do.  And then the moment is over and he’s falling, breezing past wisps of white and too terrified to scream as the darkness gets closer and larger.

He doesn’t even see the net before he’s landing in it, all the breath whooshing out of him, wings getting trapped awkwardly under his back.  Aaron won’t learn until much later that it takes a lot more to Fall—capital F fall—than just stepping right off.  But for now, he keeps his head down as he’s chastised and delivered back to his Keeper, barely keeping himself from groaning aloud when her voice trembles thickly with feigned emotion.

Aaron gets assigned a new caretaker after that.  She looks horrified when Aaron excitedly recounts his trip over the edge, but she does tell him what he’s been dying to know—blue.  Everything beyond the realm of Heaven is colored deep, endless blue.

*

The first time Carson sees Earth, he’s dumped out onto a dirty street in a loud city.

One second he’s being mercilessly teased by all the imps his age and the next he’s sprawled on rough, unforgiving ground.  Carson freezes, every sensory system on edge as he tries to comprehend his surroundings.  There are noises he’s never heard, bursts of shrillness that hurt his ears and different buzzing hums that bounce around in his skull.  He can sense movement everywhere, behind him, some distance away from him, and—he looks up for the first time—right through him.  Feet clad in shiny leather swing right through his face.  Carson winces automatically, but he doesn’t feel a thing.

He scrambles to his feet, looking around desperately.  He’s heard stories of Earth, it would have been impossible not to with the way Carson was always thirsty for information.  He can put some words to images, now-- humans, cars.  He looks down ruefully.  Sidewalks.

Carson has no clue how he got here, but he’s not going back now.  He has to see everything.  It’s easy to walk right through walls, to desire to be somewhere else and then blink and be there.  He knows well enough that he can’t touch anything, but Carson spends a long time in the middle of a bakery just inhaling the sweetness and impatiently reads over the shoulder of a person tucked onto a park bench with a thick book.

The sky starts to darken and the humans around him pull their clothing closer, bodies trembling a little.  Carson watches how they slump in relief when they move indoors, how their fingers and noses return to normal color.  The weather, he realizes finally, bouncing a little on his toes.  He wishes he had his notebook to write it down.

Tiny bright electric lights wink into existence all around the city, and Carson follows the paths they carve through the streets.  He’s surprised to find a clearing between all the buildings, an expanse of green growth between all the towers.  There are trails of pretty white lights down, down, down until they border a smooth walled-off circle.

And humans are gliding on the surface, some with more skill than others, zooming around in loops.  Most of them have their teeth bared in what Carson takes a minute to realize must be an expression of enjoyment, happiness.  It's got a lilt to it that separates it from the grimaces and twisted anguish he's used to seeing on human faces, but the mechanics of it are surprisingly close.

Carson moves sideways, pressing against the round wall and straining to look closer.  There’s small humans and large humans, all different stages of development.  The small ones cling to the large ones, covered hands clutching for support.

And then—there’s two large humans holding hands, and Carson can tell in an instant that it’s not for stability at all.  Nor for warmth, as their forms are bulky with coverings and there is thick fabric between their clasped palms.  Every tooth that their taut lips can expose is bared, and they don’t take their eyes off each other, even though it’s making them falter on the slick surface.

Transfixed, Carson watches their laps around the circle, trying to understand.  Why would they be so foolish as to not look at where they were going?  Why hold hands when clearly neither could support the other in the event of a stumble?  Why participate in such a pointless recreation in the first place?

Carson doesn’t notice a clawed hand grabbing his ankle until he’s pulled straight down through the darkness and the humans vanish from view.

That way of moving between worlds is so much more unpleasant, and Carson shakes with revulsion as he’s dumped unceremoniously on the floor and then berated for going to Earth without clearance by a group of high-ranking demons.  He doesn’t even stop to argue that he hadn’t meant to go to Earth at all, that he had only wished very hard not to be cowered on the ground by imps his own size.  No, all Carson can think of is the bright, burning memory of two humans who would rather stay close despite all advantages to the contrary.

*

There’s never a certain time when an angel ranks, not a year or stage of maturity that indicates readiness.  Aaron knows he’s finished maturing, that his wings are all glossy, strong white feathers and that he has always been excellent in behavior and decorum.  The angels he came into being with are receiving rank right and left, and Aaron can’t keep himself from feeling the bitter twinge of jealousy no matter how hard he prays for peace.

It’s not a surprise, but it still startles Aaron when there’s no warning.  One second, he’s helping with the young angels grouped in the square and the next he’s in the chamber of the Archangels.

Aaron’s flat on the ground as soon as he realizes.  He knows the ritual here.

“Archangel,” he says breathlessly, feeling shaky.  “How blessed am I to be in your presence.”

“Rise, child of God.”

The voice is much deeper than he expected.  Aaron scrambles up, mouth hanging open.

“Uriel,” he says in disbelief, but the Archangel in front of him is indeed named thus.  “But I thought – Gabriel usually—”

“Indeed she does,” Uriel acknowledges.  “But your placement in the orders was a bit more… difficult than usual.”

“Difficult?” Aaron repeats, confused.  “I’ve— I’ve done everything in my power to learn what I needed to know and then some, to act in a way that gives glory to God and his creations, I’ve waited patiently for divine rank—”

Uriel’s stony silence makes any further protests die before Aaron can express them.

“I do not doubt all of this,” Uriel says, kindly if not gently.  “You are to be admired for your exemplary time as a demiangel.  It is the next step that gives us pause.”

Aaron looks away again, defeat crushing his spirit.  Of course he would never be enough.

“I am here to speak with you instead of Gabriel to give you instruction,” Uriel continues, “because the decision has not been made just yet.”

Aaron is shocked.  He has never heard of this before.

Uriel perks with something like amusement.  “Yes, Aaron, you are difficult to place indeed.”

After a moment, Uriel grows serious. “You have extensively studied Heaven’s records on humans.”

It’s not a question.

“Yes,” Aaron confirms cautiously.  “I never went beyond what can be read by anyone in the public records and scrolls, I swear.  I was just curious.”

“Curious,” Uriel echoes, “about humans.  Have you seen a human?”

“I have never been to Earth, as part of my training or otherwise,” Aaron says truthfully.  “But after I had learned everything about Heaven, I still thirsted for knowledge.  And, well, I knew next to nothing about Earth.”  That's less truthful, but close enough.

Uriel contemplates, but doesn’t ask Aaron for clarification.  “You like learning about humans?”

“I do,” Aaron agrees, faltering for a second before deciding to push forward.  “I wonder about them.  We were all made to serve God, and he thinks humans are so important that he has us divide our attention between the affairs of Heaven and the events of Earth.  It compels me.”

“You don’t want to just protect humans,” Uriel says slowly, “you want to know them.”

Aaron fidgets, but there’s nothing he could truly hide from an Archangel.  “Yes.”

Uriel is silent for so long that Aaron starts to panic.  What happens to demis that cannot be placed?  He’s certainly never heard of such an event.

“Well, Aaron,” Uriel says, finality ringing true in his tone.  “You are restless.  You search for answers that you cannot find here in Heaven.  I fear your curious mind will continue to lead you into trouble.”

Aaron keeps very still, not keen on bringing up the times that very thing has happened.

“And because your search will not end here… you cannot stay here.”

All the fragile tendrils of hope leave Aaron at once.  “What will become of me?” he asks miserably.

“No demi such as yourself will be cast out of Heaven,” Uriel says fiercely, answering Aaron’s unspoken fears.  “Instead, I offer you a gift.  To be human, for a period of time.”

Aaron is at a loss.  “I—That would—”

“You find your answers,” Uriel says, kind again, “and return to Heaven with spirit ready to receive rank.”

It’s too good to be true. It’s something Aaron could never have wished for because he could not even have imagined such a gift.  He collapses in gratitude then finds his voice.  “Archangel, thank you. I accept your generous offer.”

When he opens his eyes, he’s in a world the likes of which he has never experienced, but heard much about.

The flesh-and-blood body he has now is slumped on rough ground, and the stinging in the points of contact is prompt evidence of the frailty of his form.  Aaron raises a splayed hand to inspect the rash of red blooming there.

“Wow,” Aaron says, and he can feel the words forming in his throat, the air pushed from his lungs and purse of his lips.

There’s other bodies moving around him, voices that sound distant.  There’s a sharp pain in Aaron’s left hand—someone has stepped on him, but Aaron is too busy marveling at the sensation of feeling.  He gets to his feet, cradling his left hand and cherishing every throb and sharp tingle.

He’s swept along with the crowd that fills the sidewalk, bumped along whenever he spends too long gaping at beautiful buildings or getting his fill of the smell of colorful displays of flowers, the overflowing dumpsters in a dirty alley, the stand that declares they have the best hot dogs in the city.

Aaron copies the people standing around the hot dog stand, feeling self-conscious and out of place even though no one spares him a second glance.  He watches the man in front of him retrieve a folded leather casing from his back pocket and take out several green papers.

Brow furrowed, Aaron fishes in his own back pocket and finds almost an identical leather case, green papers tucked inside.

“That’ll be $3.50,” the harassed-looking hotdog stand worker says, and the knowledge comes to Aaron instantaneously as his body moves on autopilot.  Money, to exchange for goods and services.  He knew about this, just never had been able to picture it.  Carefully he lays out four bills, looking up at the worker expectantly.

“Uh, this should cover it,” the worker says, cutting his eyes sideways at Aaron as he plucks one bill out of the four and starts to ring it up.

Aaron brings the bills closer to his face and notices that there are subtle differences in the bills even though at first glance they were nearly indiscernible.  The little numbers in the corners must correspond to dollar amounts—no wonder the man looked at him strangely, when he’d tried to give him $55 for a four-dollar hotdog.

“Sorry about that, forgot my glasses,” Aaron finds himself mumbling to cover his blunder, though he doesn’t consciously know what glasses are and the hotdog stand worker just shoves his change and Best Hotdog in the City at him with a grunt of “Next!”

Aaron manages to find a quiet curb to hunch down on and eat his meal.  He may not have any prior experience to compare it to, but in his opinion, it’s a damn good hotdog.

*

Just after nightfall, Aaron is still walking wide-eyed around the illuminated city and with only one rumble of warning—thunder, he knows immediately—the sky splits open and water pours down.  Aaron ducks into the first building that’s still lit to get away from the deluge, but his shirt is already cold and heavy and clinging to him, the rain water beading up and rolling off his skin to soak into his cloth shoes.

The door is guarded by some person with forearms as thick as Aaron’s head, gruffly demanding to see an ID.  When Aaron hesitates, he huffs, grinding out the word identification.  Timidly, Aaron fumbles at his back pocket, thinking that if he’s carrying something it’s probably in his little leather case.  Flipping it open, Aaron finds his own smile is staring back at him, a name and address and date of birth listed on the little card.

The muscled man grunts and points Aaron into the dark, loud, pulsing light depths of the club with a flick of his chin.

Aaron stares at the piece of plastic instead of watching where he’s going, dodging bodies as he stares at his own face.  Aaron Christopherson, the card reads.  He has a surname, and a birthday, and apparently an apartment as well.

Someone’s shoulder hits his, hard, and Aaron fumbles the ID to the ground.  He crouches, ignoring the startled yelps he can hear even over the music that throbs in his head like the fingers of his injured hand had.  Quickly he tucks the plastic card carefully back into leather case, and back into his pocket.  It’s one thing to be human, and it’s another thing to see proof of it—Aaron almost wants to cradle the card to his chest and protect it, like it could disappear at any minute.

It’s when he has to wipe his hand on his jeans after touching some unknown liquid on the black floor he can’t see that Aaron looks around and realizes what type of room he’s stumbled into.  It’s dark except for brightly-colored lights that swivel, illuminating the room in bursts.  There’s a section of writhing bodies pressed close together just across the room, and Aaron is inches away from a long counter with stools on one side and rows and rows of colorful half-full glass bottles on the other.  A pretty woman with her hair tied back walks by with a tray full of glasses with a sharp smell that trails after them and Aaron recalls now—a bar.  Possibly a club, based on the dancing and the music.

“What will you be having, sweetheart?”

Aaron startles at the voice right behind his ear, turning sharply to face the person manning the bar, who is of a completely indiscernible gender.

“Um,” Aaron says, knowing he’s woefully out of place and trying to cover it up, “what would you recommend?”

“Oh,” the bartender says sagely, raising a perfect eyebrow, “a young one, then.  Tell you what sweetie, I’ll get you something sweet and fruity.  You’ll love it, it’ll suit you well.”

Aaron stumbles numbly onto one of the bar stools, slouching over the counter.  The limited knowledge he has of the human world certainly didn’t prepare him for that particular kind of interaction.

Someone down the counter snorts.  “Sweet and fruity. I guess no one said shameless flirting for tips had to be original.”

“I’m sorry?” Aaron says automatically, looking sharply towards the voice.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That you aren’t the first or the last person they’ll be using that line on tonight, sweetie,” mocks the fair-skinned guy with what might be brown hair but is currently impossible to tell, sitting three bar stools away with no drink in front of him.  His sneer is pretty impressive, even in profile—until he whips his head towards Aaron, mouth open.

“What are you?” the guy asks, so soft Aaron almost misses it.

Aaron flounders for a second, sure that he knows what the guy means but also knowing there’s no way he could know.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” the same sugary voice from before says as a full glass knocks against his white knuckles.  “That’ll be $5.00.  Can I get you anything else?”

“No… no,” Aaron replies distractedly, not taking his eyes off the mysterious man three bar stools over as he reaches into his leather case and throws a twenty on the bar.  He can tell the bartender is pissed at having to make change but Aaron only takes a sip of his drink, wincing at the sharp aftertaste.

As soon as the bartender leaves, Aaron leans over the space between them.  “What are you?” he counters back.  “How do you know I’m… something else?”

“You can really understand me,” the guys says faintly, eyes round and almost frightened.  “I can’t believe it.”

“What do you mean?” Aaron insists, distracted again by the bartender returning with his change.

“Everything okay?” they say slowly, glancing between Aaron and the mysterious guy with a drawn-on eyebrow so high it might merge with their hairline.

“Just talking to someone,” Aaron says impatiently, throwing down a tip and shoving it across the bar.  She levels him with a look so unconvinced that Aaron almost feels self-conscious enough to just give up. Almost.

“I need answers,” Aaron says lowly, looking back at the guy who looks like he hasn’t moved, hasn’t even breathed.

“No one can understand what I say,” he says in a rush.  “Not for the last four years, no one—no one.”

“Well clearly I can,” Aaron says irritably.

The guy shakes his head hard.  “It’s not-- you don’t understand.  I’m human by form and function, but I can’t communicate with them.  I can barely understand myself and I can’t learn any language, not English or Spanish or sign language, just… nothing.  I haven’t been understood by a single living thing I’ve met, human or otherwise, until right now.”

Aaron sways closer, drawn to the raw brightness that’s dawned in the guy’s eyes, and their noses almost touch when the light there abruptly closes off and the guy slips right off the bar stool.

“Wait!” Aaron yells, abandoning his drink to follow the man’s retreating back as he weaves through the quickly crowding bar.  “Please wait!”

Aaron gets a hairs-breadth away from catching the hem of the guy’s shirt, but he slips away back into the night.

“Hey!” Aaron calls, the space between them wide and increasing still.  “Please, I don’t even know your name.”

The guy stops dead in his tracks, and Aaron nearly runs right into him.

“Names have power,” he says slowly, looking steadily forward.  The streetlight casts an orange sort of glow, but it’s more than enough to see his face clearly for the first time.

Aaron scrambles to right his thoughts.  “In the oldest language, in curses and blessings, names have power.  But I have no idea what language we’re speaking, I just know that I understand what you’re saying.  Names only have power to harm or help, I just want to know.”

The guy scoffs, but there’s an upward quirk to the corner of his mouth.  “To know,” he repeats, only a little mocking.  “You must be some naive creature to think that knowledge is so innocent.”

Aaron smiles, relaxes just a little at the surprised almost-smile he gets in return.  “Knowledge is the most dangerous thing there is.  It’s the first story my kind are taught.  Knowledge can set you free, but what you get might not be what you bargained for.”

The guy tilts his head.  “What are…” he starts, then shakes his head.  “Fine, then.  There’s no way of knowing if you won’t screw me over, but even so.  I’m Carson.”

Aaron stops just short of a victory dance.  “Well according to my ID I’m human Aaron Christopherson, 22 Earth years old and resident of Connecticut Avenue NW, apartment 405.  But that’s the same common name I went by in Heaven, so.  Just Aaron is fine.”

Carson’s mouth falls open and Aaron can practically see every muscle tense in his bared arms.  He can feel the acid burn of dread settling in his gut.

“This was a mistake.  I have to go.”

He’s halfway down the street before Aaron gets the sense to call after him.  “Carson!”  If anything, Carson starts running faster.  “Carson, please!”

Aaron numbly notices that it’s not raining anymore, though the streets are glowing with reflected light.  He’s not sure what scared Carson off, but there’s no telling where he’s disappeared to.

His arm is up and hailing a taxi before he even registers the action, and he gratefully crawls inside the warm interior.  His shirt is mostly dry now, leaving his skin chilled.

“Address?” the driver asks, and Aaron pulls out his ID again to read off it.

The apartment building the cab stops in front of is ornate brick, and Aaron reads the front placard aloud, disbelieving.

“Cathedral Mansions.”

“Yeah, the whole Cathedral Heights area is beautiful in that hoity-toity way.”

“Cathedral Heights,” Aaron repeats faintly.  “How… fitting.”

*

The apartment is just right for one person, minimum furnishings, hot water in the shower and a closet full of clothes that Aaron gratefully puts to use as soon as he puts the key that he found in his pocket safely away.

It always seemed like such a ridiculous concept, sleep, and Aaron feels silly even as he eases down between the soft sheets on the bed.  He clicks the little button on the lamp at his bedside and the room is instantly dark.  Aaron blinks as the ambient light from the city below his window casts just enough light for the vague shapes of things to come into focus.  It’s strange, how his eyelids feel so heavy, and the bed feels so soft, and everything is just so--

 

When he wakes it takes a few long, luxuriously comfortable seconds for Aaron to remember himself in the white light washing through his apartment.  He rolls over and catches a glimpse through the window of the busy street below his building.  The lingering drowsiness in his bones starts to burn with coiled energy and his stomach jumps with excitement.  He’s human.  He’s on Earth. He has all of humanity’s knowledge out there waiting for him to take-- and all he has to do is start.

It’s easy enough to wind his way through the city streets, to go where he sees other lost looking out-of-towners walking with maps and cameras ready.  He didn’t realize that he didn’t know the name of the city until he notices it everywhere, written on t-shirts and signs and on everyone’s breath-- D.C.

Heaven couldn’t have picked a more history-rich city for Aaron.  He spends entire days inside the breathtakingly ornate Library of Congress, poring over books.  He’s struck more than once with how much there is to know, how much sheer information there is packed away here in rows of bound pages.

He finds what he’s looking for within the first day or two, a map of the city and brochures and books and websites about the monuments and museums and attractions inside it.

Aaron makes a meticulous itemized list of all the places he wants to go, and just as often as he digs through pictures and descriptions and decades of historical significance, he finds himself thinking about Carson.

Where Carson would want to go, what he might have seen already, what he would scoff at, what he would light up and smile over.  In all the people that Aaron has encountered in this city, Carson is the one he feels a constant niggling in the back of his head about.  Something unfinished, a mystery he cannot solve no matter how many books he reads.

It’s so strange, to feel tied to someone.  As a demi, Aaron had gotten the gist of how guardian angels worked, about how they basically have a constant running feed of the life of a human in parallel to their own perceptions, how they can feel their emotions and pain as if it were their own and how they can subtly influence the state of the human world with ease.  But even so, Aaron always knew there was nothing personal between angels and humans.  He knew several guardian angels that didn’t even have a thought to spare for the death of their assigned human, but merely accepted the reassignment with bored routine.

There was nothing removed or clinical about Carson; Aaron was utterly selfish in his desire to see Carson again.  In the weeks since he first stumbled upon him, Aaron had half began to write the whole thing off as a dream, just another fault in this human mind, a result of some desperation to make sense of Aaron’s past and present.

But then— he sees Carson again.

*

It never fails that every hair on Aaron’s body stands up as soon as he sets foot inside the National Cathedral.  He’s been in dozens of times now-- at least once a day, sometimes twice to light a candle and pray-- but the place always has the same affect on him.  The ceilings are so high it’s dizzying to look up, the architecture grandiose and breathtaking, the artwork and sculptures spectacular.  The place is always filled with people praying and visiting, and Aaron feels most at home there between the pews.

It’s strange, being in this form.  To pray and not know just where his prayers end up, to not have the constant comfort of the serenity and peace that flows through Heaven like water.  There’s so many people in the cathedral that clearly aren’t finding what they’re seeking, and Aaron puts them in his prayers as well.  Not that he’ll get any special treatment with God, not like this-- but it’s the thought that counts.

He dodges his way out of the cathedral and back onto the street.  And this feeble human mind that is so easily burdened by the plights of nameless humans he’ll never see again is surely what’s to blame for him nearly missing Carson perched on the curb.

“Hey,” Aaron says to Carson’s back, a little stunned.  He's wearing blue, head to toe.  Aaron would know that color even if he lost every other.  Blue, blue.

“Hi,” Carson says, quiet and low, a tilt of his head inviting Aaron to stand next to him, toes curling over the edge of the concrete.

“It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?” Aaron says, tearing his eyes away from Carson's blue hoodie long enough to follow his gaze to the cathedral laid out in front of them.  It’s hard to ignore the impressiveness of it all.

Carson makes a sort of grunt of acknowledgement.

“It’s built on the highest point in the city,” Aaron adds helpfully, swaying a little.

He’s trying to come up with something else to say when Carson finally turns his head, and the depths of his ice-blue eyes in the sunlight makes the breath actually stop in Aaron’s lungs. Blue.

“I-- can you still--” Carson says haltingly, bottom lip quivering.

“Yes,” Aaron says, exhaling in a rush.  “I can still understand you.”

Carson’s shoulders slump, all the tension draining out of him.  “Four years is a long time.”

“Four years,” Aaron says slowly, looking without seeing the crowds that swirl all around them.  “As a human?”  He glances over in time to see Carson’s mouth fall open.

“Yes,” he confirms, so quietly that his vulnerable whisper immediately dissipates in the golden air.

“Six months is such a short time,” Aaron says, unable to keep the longing out of his voice.  He’s only scratched the surface of the culture and the knowledge and the very essence of being human, and sooner rather than later he’ll be out of time.  What he could do in four years, in twenty….

He looks again at Carson, the way his whole body seems to be dragged down with more than gravity, mouth set in a lined frown.

“Let’s get coffee.”

Carson blinks at him.  “Huh?”

Aaron shrugs, smiles a little.  “It’s been weeks now and I still haven’t tried coffee.  I want to see what all the fuss is about.  I watched a coffee shop line one morning and it was just unreal.”

Carson maybe be hard to read, but he's still human, and as Aaron has seen more than enough pairs of people relaxing and coming alive over hot mugs of delicious smelling something-or-other, he knows what both of them need is some quintessential human experience.  Just to say they did.

Carson doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no.  And when Aaron pins him with a smile and turns around to find the coffee shop in question, he follows.

*

So Aaron could have planned a little better with the coffee shop idea.  Namely, actually knowing something about ordering coffee so there wasn’t a huge line of angry Washingtonians (District of Columbians?  Capitolers? So much research left to do) piling up behind them.

He’s soaking up Carson’s discomfort like a sad little secondary-emotions sponge-- how the hell do humans ever get out of bed in the mornings, empathy is crippling sometimes-- and the girl working the cash register is even starting to lose her perky smile.

“Um okay, two…” Aaron says, stalling on the ooh.  He decides on the first thing his eyes land on.  “Two lattes. Uh, please,” he manages, still squinting at the menu overhead.

“Small, medium, or large?”

“Uhhh….”

Aaron can feel his face on fire as the entire line bursts into disgruntled mumbling.  He manages to confirm the order-- small is fine, thanks-- and pay the bill without incident, dropping his change into the tip jar with an apologetic wince.

Carson hovers right behind his left shoulder as Aaron moves to wait for their drinks and takes them from the harassed-looking barista.  He looks surprised when Aaron hands him the warm paper cup, like he was expecting Aaron to already be making excuses to leave.  He half-rolls his eyes, a human mannerism he’s quite enjoyed getting into the habit of using, and pinches the draping fabric at Carson’s elbow, guiding him gently to one of the small tables squeezed into the shop.

“Well look at us, doing normal hum-- uh, young people things,” Aaron comments lamely, taking a gulp of his drink to play it off and immediately startling at the searing pain on his tongue.  He swallows reflexively, the drink scalding his throat all the way down.

“Woah!” Aaron exclaims, clapping a hand to his belly.  “That was insane.”  Carson hasn’t lifted his cup to his lips at all, still clutching it tightly in one hand with the other curled into a fist on the tabletop, watching Aaron silently.

Aaron tries again, just one small sip that burns on his stripped tongue but one he can actually taste.  “I like this,” Aaron declares triumphantly.  “It’s bitter, it’s sweet, it’s earthy.  Food that comes from plants always makes me feel like I have a little connection to the Earth.”

Carson doesn’t react at all, still staring at Aaron like he’s pissed and lost for words, or trying to figure something out, or maybe both.  Aaron reaches over and nudges the cup still in Aaron’s hand with one finger.  “Hey, try it. It won’t bite.  Everyone else loves this stuff.”  He raises his eyebrows on the everyone else, darting his eyes back and forth.  Humans.

Finally, the stony facade breaks with the smallest twitch at the corner of his mouth and, with entirely overdone reluctance, Carson finally lifts the cup.

“Ugh!” he says sourly, and Aaron fights to keep from laughing at the betrayal in his eyes as he stares with bewilderment at the cup.  “People willingly drink this shit?  For what?”

Aaron does lose it then, ducking his head, shoulders shaking with laughter.  “Energy, apparently,” he manages.  Then, off Carson’s doubtful look-- “No really, it’s full of this thing… caffeine.  Coffee is like pure awakeness or something.”

“Awakeness,” Carson repeats, shaking his head.  He doesn’t laugh, but the corners of his mouth won’t stay flat and there’s wrinkles in the skin next to his eyes so Aaron fills up with warmth just the same.

“It’s true!” he says.  “Caffeine is a real thing, it’s… something.  I’ll look it up later.”

They’re quiet for a minute, looking over the crowded coffee shop.  Carson is still fumbling with the coffee cup, taking sips even though it makes him wince.

“So, what do you think?” Aaron asks, nodding towards the two friends chatting near the window, loud enough that he can hear their high-pitched, excited tone, if not their words.

Carson raises his eyebrows and says nothing.  Aaron scoffs.  “You know, people-watching.  Making up stories.  People have quite a fascination with each other.  There are millions of novels full of made-up stories.”

Carson sips his coffee and says nothing.  

“Fine, I’ll go first.”  Aaron leans over just slightly to get a better view.  “Claim to be best friends.  It’s recent, though, they’re just friends because of convenience.  Same job?  Their boyfriends are friends? Something like that.  The one closest to the door is definitely pressuring the other one into something she’s not good with doing.  A raging party, I’m sure.”

He tries to keep it light and detached, but even Aaron can hear the longing in his own voice.  There’s so much he’s read already, but so little he’s experienced.

Carson makes a noncommittal sort of hmm, sipping his coffee again with hardly a wince.  “I’ve seen more than my fair share of raging parties.  Not much to gain for the trouble.”

Aaron nearly jumps out of his seat.  “Wait, you know where parties are.  You can get into parties?!” he half-screams, grinning.

Wincing, Carson says haltingly, “You met me at a club, Aaron.  I like hanging out in big anonymous crowded places. You don't have to pretend to understand people when there's music playing.”

Feeling chastised, Aaron slumps in his seat. It’s easy to forget that not everything is a new, exciting adventure for other people.  It’s a stilted couple of minutes, Aaron sipping at his coffee and Carson’s face folded into a frown.

Just when Aaron is about to break the silence with what he learned about the Amazon River that morning, he remembers something.  “Not all people,” he says, smiling behind the rim of his cup.

“What?”

“You can talk to me,” Aaron says proudly, gesturing at himself.  “You don’t have to slink around having a human pity-party anymore, because you have me.”

Carson is silent for a long time though Aaron is smiling broadly.  He can practically see Carson turning that over in his head.

“Joy,” Carson grinds out finally, standing up to throw his empty cup away and silently holding out a hand to take Aaron’s as well.

Aaron hands it over, Carson’s forced frown only making him grin harder.

*

It happens gradually, little habits and traditions forming.  First Carson is across the street from the cathedral most days, hands in his pockets like he was waiting for him, though he never admits that he is.  Then Aaron joins the tail-end of the morning crowd rushing for coffee before work, happy to be among so much movement and life.  One morning, Carson is there, already sitting at a table.  So morning coffee becomes a tradition.

Aaron mentions museums, and two mornings later Carson is at the coffee shop first with a new glint in his eye, shoving a to-go cup into Aaron’s hand and telling him to turn right back around.  There’s so much to see in a place full of fascinating historical artifacts, Aaron staunchly insisting on reading every single placard, and it’s past 2 pm when they finally reach the exit.  Carson looks put out, but not so much that he declines when Aaron offers to buy them lunch.

One day they take a detour, Aaron directing them through the park, and he spots a dog still mostly puppy, floppy and eager with a pink tongue lolling out of his mouth.  He pulls Carson over by the elbow, collapsing right next to the puppy and pulling him into his arms.

“Carson, look at this face.  You have to pet him,” Aaron insists, cuddling the puppy right under his chin and pouting.

Aaron can totally see the resolve weakening and then falling apart all at once, Carson reaching out to scratch behind the puppy’s soft floppy ears.  Little by little, Aaron hands the dog over until it’s firmly in Carson’s arms, squirming to lick his cheeks.

There’s a smile there, a real smile, and Aaron is so pleased he almost misses the dog’s owner talking to him.

“...are too cute.  What was that language you were speaking to each other?  It was almost like Gaelic, or ancient Latin.  Elvish?”

Aaron can’t do anything but laugh.

They spend long afternoons together in the Library of Congress, Aaron pulling books and barely skimming the pages before he moves on.  He’s got a yellow pad of paper identical to the one that Carson’s hunched over, always scribbling down notes on something or other, and Aaron's fills his up fast with dates and people and places.  

After weeks of Aaron's not-so-subtle hints they go back to the club they met in, Aaron enthusiastically greeting the bartender and ignoring Carson’s sour looks.  He follows Carson right into the middle of the dancing crowd, the air stifling and the music pounding right into his bones and he gets what Carson was looking for here, how it’s so easy to get lost in the crowd.  Carson is so close in the chaos, pressed closer than he’s ever willingly gone, and Aaron has the strangest feeling prickling up behind his eyes and aching in his chest and for the first time he realizes how alone they are, the two of them. Surrounded by humans, looking and acting like humans, and yet never belonging.

Carson is saying something, face drawn and intense but Aaron can’t hear a single thing over the screeching music.  He gives up and flings his arms around Carson instead to pull him into a hug like he’s seen countless humans doing over the past months.  The relief is immediate, something so inherently comforting about another body right next to his, timid hands coming up to curl over his shoulder blades.  Carson has to basically pry Aaron off him, Aaron wiping his eyes as surreptitiously as he can.

“This damn human empathy!” Aaron yells over the noise, smiling as best he can.  Carson still looks concerned, but he doesn’t ask.  And when Aaron starts moving with the music, probably making a fool of himself at his first human attempt at something like dancing, Carson joins in. There's too much hip action and neither of them have any idea what to do with their arms.  Aaron’s laughter gets lost in the music and Carson looks like he’s swallowed a lemon, the corners of his mouth twitching.  They may not fit into the world, but God, at least they have each other.

*

It's a perfect, sunny afternoon when Aaron convinces Carson to visit the National Archives with him (seriously-- these pieces of paper are what holds a country of millions of people together, and they're right in front of his face. Mind blown.)  But when they emerge from the darkened building, the rain is coming down so thick that the buildings right across the street are hard to see.

"Run for the Metro!" Aaron screams, launching into the downpour without waiting to see if Carson will follow.  He ends up at the bottom of the Metro stairs scrubbing his hair so that water droplets fly everywhere, catching his breath.  Carson plods down the stairs soon after, brushing his soaked bangs out of his face.

Aaron laughs.  "We look ridiculous.  Is it true or a myth that wearing wet clothes can make you sick?  Either way, we're going to my apartment to get dry."

He turns around before Carson can comment, already rolling his eyes.  He scans his Metrocard and makes it through the turnstile so Carson is forced to follow.

"Really it's fine," Carson protests as the train rolls up to the platform.

"The rain will stop and then I'll dry.  It's just water," Carson says as the train jolts down the tracks, arms wrapped around himself as the water cools on his skin.

"It's not that big of a deal!" Aaron can just make out what Carson’s saying over the rain as he jogs, leading the way to his apartment building.

Aaron sighs, holding open the lobby door for a frowning Carson.  "It's not fine, the rain obviously hasn't stopped yet, and it doesn't have to be a big deal. Just go up to my apartment, Carson."

Carson pulls his shoulder bag closer-- the beat-up leather one that Aaron already knows holds everything Carson owns and is probably ruined with the way it's darkened where the wet seeped in-- and slowly, begrudgingly, follows Aaron up the four-story walk up.

*

"Sorry about the mess," Aaron calls over his shoulder as Carson cautiously follows him into the apartment, overcast sky leaving the windows dark and the entire apartment washed in flat gray.

Carson just catches himself from tripping over a book splayed face-down on the floor.  "Is there no electricity in this apartment?"

"Oh, sorry!"

Carson squints against the sudden flood of white light, blinking away the afterimage of the overhead bulbs.  There's not just a book on the floor, there's books everywhere, stacked on every surface in toppling heights.

"How can anyone read this many books at once?" Carson mutters, looking over the spines on an end table.  He'd joined Aaron in the Library of Congress originally for the peace and quiet, a place where there was truly no pressure to talk.  Once he actually opened a book and found he couldn't read any human language, it was Aaron who shoved a notebook and pen into his hand and told him to make his own.  The pages and pages of yellow paper are full of what looks like perfectly understandable language to both of them, but Carson has seen the confused and impressed looks from one of the college students who always sits near them in the Library.  The reason he stays in the library, though, is to see Aaron's utter fascination with every single title he gets his hands on, from the most bland of reference books to children's novels. He doesn't know what reading is like, but it can't be better than Aaron excitedly filling him in on every detail of what he learned that day.

"Here."  Carson looks up just in time to have a fluffy piece of cloth thrown at his face.  He immediately starts scrubbing down his hair, pushing it away from his face.

"Thanks," Carson mumbles, and the lights flicker once and go out again.

"Shit," Aaron says from somewhere Carson can't see, "we must have lost power."

It takes a second, but he can make Aaron out across the room in the almost darkness.  "Humans and their faulty inventions."

Aaron laughs. "I think I have some candles somewhere?  Humans have back ups for their shortcomings, generally speaking."

Carson stands stock-still, towel still clutched in his hand, afraid to move in the cluttered room where he can barely see the outline of Aaron digging through drawers, pulling out supplies.

"There we go!" Aaron says as a soft, golden light appearing beneath his fingers and spreading to light the room in flickering warmth.

"Fire," Carson says absently, moving closer.  It looks and moves like the flames he's always known, but the heat that scorches his fingertips isn't something he was prepared for.

"Shit!" Carson exclaims, pulling his hand back before the pain even fully registers.  He cradles his fingers in his other hand like the touch itself can stop the sting.

"Oh, yeah," Aaron says, moving closer in the circle of light until he's sitting on the sofa with him, right within arms reach.  "I learned about burns the hard way too. Thank God for human reflexes, otherwise I don't know how they would have ever stayed alive."

Carson just resists sucking his sore finger into his mouth.  "Is that really how it is?  God gave humans everything they needed to survive?"

Aaron shrugs.  "He gave me everything I needed to survive, and I wasn't much of anything in Heav-- before I came here.  I wasn't destined for any kind of greatness, and yet He saw it fit to give me time on Earth because it's what I wanted."

It's exactly what Carson always feared and what he had foolishly hoped wasn't true.  He looks away.  "How lucky to have someone all-powerful looking out for you."

Aaron frowns, probably at Carson's harsh tone, but he barely even cares.  "Don't we all?" Aaron asks, innocent.

The answering laugh is bitter even to Carson's own tongue.  "No. Some of us were dumped unceremoniously into a world we knew next to nothing about, and given absolutely nothing to help them survive other than determination and chance."  That's far more than Carson wanted to give away, especially since....  He consciously shuts his mouth.

Aaron looks startled, then his face falls all at once into sympathy-- no, pity.  Hate bubbles up in Carson like bile.

"And what is knowledge anyway, then?" Carson blurts acidly.  "If God provides you and everyone on this planet every single thing they need to survive, why question anything at all?"

He half-expects Aaron to yell, or at least get angry, but he just looks thoughtful.  Methodical and curious, like always.  "I don't know why," he says quietly, "other than I feel like I have to.  Even as an-- even before this life, I always had this drive to discover.  It comes from inside me, and God must have put it there.  God wouldn't create anything that wasn't good."

That last sentence sounds like it has meaning but Carson doesn't get it, mouth already opening in a returning argument when all of a sudden Aaron's thick, dark eyelashes are so, so close.

"Aar--?" the question gets lost because between one breath and the next there are warm lips on his and holy shit, this is kissing.  A warm hand settles tentatively on the line of Carson's jaw and holy fucking shit he's kissing Aaron.  

Carson's too shocked to do anything but sit there, hands clutching uselessly at the fabric of the couch.  His heart is tripping double-time and his thoughts are muffled by blank surprise.

Aaron pulls back and Carson realizes way too late that he never did anything with his lips, let alone his hands.  There's this moment where everything kind of stops, where Aaron is looking straight at him and Carson feels caught in the freezing rain all over again.  Aaron looks so unsure like Carson has never seen him, biting his lip and face soft in the candlelight even as his eyes are intense. They're both holding their breath.

"Why did you do that."  If his voice slipped one iota from control, it would crack.

"It's what humans do when they like each other," Aaron says breathlessly, half-smiling.  Like it's so fucking easy.

Humans.  "Do you know why I can't go into the cathedral?"

Aaron looks startled.  "What do you... what?"

"The cathedral."  There's that burning hatred in the back of Carson's throat again, the one that Aaron's presence has made so much easier over the last few weeks, like it never left at all. "It's not that I don't want to go inside. I can't."

Aaron puts his hands up, shrugs.  Still not understanding why this was always just the most fragile of balances, the thinnest of threads. It was always going to come to this.

"The gargoyles," Carson says bluntly.  "There's hundreds of them, all around the cathedral.  They keep evil spirits out.  I can't even walk on the same side of the street."

The total bewilderment on Aaron's face is enough to pull deeply on Carson, to remind him just how much Aaron has wheedled his way into his life. How much he'll feel Aaron when he's gone.  "But you're not evil.  You're not evil at all."

He's so sure and Carson can't believe he hasn't figured it out.  He was made for evil, for chaos and destruction.  He laughs bitterly.  "It seems gargoyles don't discriminate when it comes to demons."

The confused little half-smile melts right off Aaron's face.  Something hardens further in Carson's gut.  He never understood human dependency until now, and he wishes he never had.  He's looking right at a person who can destroy him.

"I was an angel."

"I know."

"That's why I can understand you, I--  ...You know?"

"We're both angel-made.  Everything else here is God-made.  If there was another banished demon here I would have been able to understand them as well."

Aaron puts a hand on his shoulder, and the touch makes Carson recoil.  "What else do you know?  What else have you guessed?"

Carson shrugs him off and looks away from the hurt in Aaron's eyes.  "I should go. The rain has probably stopped."  And in a few more weeks, Aaron will go, and Carson will be alone again.

"Carson, you don't have to go."  He's just so earnest, so fucking patient even now with no idea what he's promising.

"That's not even a little bit true.  In the end, neither of us get to stay."  God, his voice is so weak.

Carson stands up.  He doesn't look at Aaron.

He calmly picks up his bag, still soaked through.  He folds the towel Aaron gave him, drapes it over a chair.

He doesn't look at Aaron until he's halfway out the door and then he does, and Aaron is standing, moving towards him with his hands out, always open and patient and fuck. Just, fuck.

Carson hesitates for just a fraction of a second, and his chest feels like it's collapsing and he says something he's never said before, didn't even have a concept of before Aaron.

"Sorry."

And he closes the door.

*

When Carson came into being in a place of flame and suffering, it was with countless other imps like himself, made to do the work the demons considered beneath them.  He swept ashes before they could choke the eternal fires and wished he didn't have to go to the communal torturings everyone else enjoyed so much.  He put wax in his ears against the endless screams when he had to mop the tears from the floor of the gallows, and wished he had just a minute of silence.  He kicked the hands trying in vain to pull their own charred bodies out of the lake of fire and wished for more than anything, a minute alone away from this place.  He shrugged off the reprimands from the demons and wished with everything in him to be alone.

The rain stops and there's a chill that Carson feels like it's coming from inside him instead of from the sky.  It's dark and his bench in the park is still there, still hidden from most of the world.  He has never known sleep, never felt the irresistible droop of eyelids, but night has never held fear or misery for him.  At first it was a time to disappear in places usually teeming with people and noise that made talking impossible and a shaking in his bones that almost felt like language.  Then it was a time to relive everything Aaron told him that day, to hold onto words and companionship until they became branded under his skin.  But now--

Now, for the first time, Carson knows what it is like to be well and truly alone.

The park is different at night, all shadows and rustles that make his heart beat fast where it's pressed against his knees.  Carson draws himself tighter in until he can feel every muscle in his body clenching, can feel the pain and the cold and the rush of blood, and accepts his tentative grip on humanity.

*

The study table at the Library of Congress is too wide.  The well-meaning clerk at the coffee shop asks where "your cute friend" is.  The couch hasn't been touched.  None of the movies Aaron watched prepared him for this, the way his rib cage feels too small for his heart and everything seems different, duller.

Miranda's voice is in his head telling him that he needs to get a grip, and Aaron wonders how Carrie would narrate his life and turn it into some lesson for other people to learn from.  Don't let a demon get under your skin, and if you do, make sure you figure it out before he does and save yourself the embarrassment.  Humanity is oh so fleeting, especially when you're literally on a deadline.

The bookshelves seem to be taller than ever, full of books that Aaron can't possibly read, not even touch, before his time runs out.  The stacks he leaves at the end of the day start to triple in size, Aaron just skimming through everything before tossing it aside and frantically moving on.  There's so much and no time.

He hadn’t taken any special notice of his interactions with others before.  But now there's a boy in the middle of the nonfiction section that offers to help carry Aaron's stack of books, and walks away as soon as he puts them down.  The girl behind him in line for coffee strikes up a conversation about the cover story displayed on the newspaper rack, but she takes her latte to-go.  Aaron's neighbor knocks on his door explaining about a small party she's having on Friday, but doesn’t extend an invitation.  Pigeons flock to the stale croissant he breaks, but the woman sitting on the other end of the bench only has a close-lipped smile.  Aaron begins to see for the first time that his humanity also came with limitations to what he was put on Earth to do: observation and research. He slowly realizes that his lack of relationships isn’t from of a lack of trying, because he is desperately trying, so it must be a stipulation of his time on Earth. Humans are to look at, not to touch.  No one's humanity is perfect, his own almost least of all.  Almost.

Aaron stops at a pet store just to play with the puppies he sees falling over themselves in the window, and finds himself drawn to the small grey dog in the corner, half watching and half keeping to himself.  He only struggles until he's tucked securely in Aaron's arms, fuzzy puppy fur tickling his cheek.  It's easy to run his fingers over the silky ears, scratch under his chin.  The puppy licks Aaron's cheek like he's exasperated to do so, and Aaron laughs loud enough to turn heads in the pet store.

He misses Carson.  God, he misses Carson, the conversation and the companionship and the kindred spirit (and he hadn't even known just how kindred).  He tears up when he has to leave the puppy behind, scratching his ears again and putting him down right into the puppy-nap pile just starting to form.  He swears that the puppy rolls his eyes at him before settling down to sleep all the same.

The next morning, Aaron buys two coffees to-go, placing one on the edge of the planter across the street from the cathedral where Carson was always waiting for him.  He ducks into the antique shop just in view, and waits.

It takes twenty minutes, ticking away on the grandfather clock that keeps perfect time but reads two and a half hours ahead, and between one blink and the next, the coffee is gone.  Aaron smiles.

*

The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.

Carson turns the cup over in his hands again, face still hot.  There's clearly an author credited at the bottom, but there's also clearly his own name written on the sleeve.  Maybe it wasn't written about him, but... undoubtedly, it was scrawled in black marker for him.

He presses back against the brick wall, breathing out slowly.  There's only one person on this planet who could write his name, and he's hardly let himself think the name-- Aaron.

*

There's a sign at the door that proclaims the labyrinth a place of meditation and prayer, that walking the carpet maze will bring clarity of mind.  Aaron's walked it twice now.

He can tell the priest at the center of the room is watching him curiously.  With measured breaths, Aaron makes another attempt to focus and to give himself over to God and to his thoughts.  Having thoughts as a conduit is so unlike how Aaron has always known. How can any person feel a real connection when there's flesh and blood and responsibilities and preoccupation and obligations in the way?

He counts his steps.

1, 2, 3, 4. Carson was a demon.

18, 19, 20.  More importantly, he's currently a human who can't communicate with anyone except Aaron.

33, 34.  And also had a massive freak out when Aaron tried to kiss him.

45.  Hopefully the freak out and the kiss weren't directly related.

69, 70, 71.  Aaron would do anything to see him again.

85, 86.  You know, just for purely ethical reasons, to make sure he's doing okay.

99,100. That's a lie.  He doesn't know much of anything about ethics and that's probably the exact wrong word.

145, 146, 147, 148, 149.

The center of the labyrinth is just like the last two times he found it, though the path was different each time.  There is one bit of clarity now, though: he can't leave this Earth without talking to Carson one more time. He won't.

Aaron walks back to the beginning of the labyrinth.

*

If Carson makes enough excuses, it's almost like he can trick himself into ignoring what he's doing.  The shops in front of the Library of Congress have the best people-watching spots in the afternoons.  The cafe just down from Aaron's apartment building has the patient owner that doesn't roll her eyes when Carson has to point at the menu to order.  The cathedral is the most beautiful structure in the city, aesthetically speaking.  It's just practical.

...There's nothing practical about the way he ducks around corners and sits three tables away and sifts through the particular left behind pile of books.  In the end, Carson can't lie to himself anymore.

Instead of walking by the apartment building for the fourth time, Carson walks up to it.  There's A. Christopherson on the list and a round white buzzer next to it.  He should press it, just to see.  There's no guarantee that anyone will be there anyways, it won't mean anything.  It's just...

Carson presses the buzzer, jumping at the harsh sound.  He holds his breath.  Silence, a crackle, and--

"Hello?"

Carson's heart picks up double-time, tongue heavy in his mouth.  He hadn't thought this through.

"Hellooo? Anyone there?"

"H-hey," Carson says roughly.  "Hi."

"....Carson?"

It's a terrible, scratchy rendition, but it's him.  Carson shoves his hands in his pockets.  "Yeah, it's me."

Another loud buzz, and the door to the lobby unlocks.  Carson opens it, because he has permission.  He passes the second floor, the third, and gets out of the stairwell on the fourth.

The door marked 405 opens before Carson can knock.  "You're here."

It's nearly breathless with something-- disbelief, anger, happiness?  And Carson just nods, looking and looking.

"I--" he tries, and fails.

"You..." Aaron says patiently, ducking his head to get Carson to look him in the eye.  "Are you okay?  No injuries, no trouble?"

Aaron's been reading books on human law, Carson remembers from his innocent perusals of Library of Congress return carts yesterday.  He shakes his head.  "No, I.. I don't know why I..."

Aaron's face visibly falls from tentative hope to polite disinterest.  Fuck.  Carson shakes his head like that'll erase what he said.  "No, no. Let me... Can I come in?"

Silently Aaron moves aside so Carson can enter the apartment.  There's still books everywhere, new stacks, and a tower of old magazines near the window.  Carson doesn't sit.

"I'm sorry," he says, the words still feeling new on his tongue but firm in resolve.  "I shouldn't have hid what I knew from you, and I shouldn't have been so short with you."  He's practiced the words in his head, and he's relieved they sound right now.  He keeps the I miss you that curls around his heart and crawls up his throat clamped down.

Aaron's arms are crossed, his expression mostly blank.  He nods.  "How have you survived on Earth this long?"

Carson frowns, taken aback by the blunt question.  He's shocked into answering, "I almost didn't.  There's a widow that met me on the street one day.  She's not... like us, she can't understand what I say.  But she still understands me, I think.  She expects me every week for Friday dinner, at least, and washes my clothes."

Aaron nods again, but slowly, like he's figuring something out.  "Why are you on Earth to begin with?"

That question's a little more difficult.  Carson shifts his weight, fights to keep from crossing his arms, grips the back of the armchair instead.  "When I was an imp I wasn't... I wasn't like the rest of them.  I didn't take any pleasure in it.  The older demons thought I must have had compassion for the humans, that I didn't want them to suffer.  Which isn't true-- I didn't care anything about demons or humans, I just wanted to be alone.  I finally pissed off the right demon and they sent me here to live until I hated humans enough that I would want to come back and do the job I was created for."

Aaron's face is still impassive, and Carson grips the chair harder, willing him to understand. "It's been two years and I still don't hate them, by the way.  I've never talked to a human, but I can recognize their emotions just like I could in Hell."  There's more he wants to say, right on the tip of his tongue, and it makes Carson's heart thud so loud in his ears he's sure Aaron can hear it.  "I don't think that demon thought it through about the angel-made beings, though," he adds, his voice sounding hollow underneath his pulse.

"What makes you say that?" Aaron asks, more relaxed now, moving around the armchair so Carson is left without his last defense.

Carson takes a deep breath.  "I can't connect with humans, but you're not human, not totally.  They wanted me to be separated from everything good about humanity, but I found you.  And you... angel or not, you are everything good that there is."

This time when Aaron leans in, Carson is ready.  He turns his head and settles his hands on Aaron's shoulders and lets him lead.

It makes him lightheaded, the feeling in the push and pull of lips, the sweetness of scraping teeth and the soft touch of tongue on his own.  He didn't know a kiss could have so much meaning, would never have known without Aaron.  It's easy to pick up how to open his mouth just so, to squeeze the curve of Aaron's shoulder and arch his back at the hands settling on his hips, to give just as good as he takes because he feel what's flowing between them, right under his skin and standing his hair on end.  It's everything he couldn't say, everything he thought he couldn't have, it's--

"I missed you," Aaron whispers, resting their foreheads together.  Carson breathes out shakily.  It's exactly what he wants.

"I missed you too," Carson replies, so quietly.  Aaron's answering smile is devastating to see so close.

"Stay here tonight," Aaron says, determination in his grip on the curve of Carson's side.  Carson could never say no to that.

*

It's strange, peeling back covers and folding himself in next to Aaron.  Strangely good, though, sheets soft on his skin and feet nudging and the dim glow of just the bedside lamp.

Aaron rolls over to face him and his smile makes Carson warm down to his toes.  "Thank you for coming back to me," Aaron says, face just across the pillow from Carson's.  

"I'm glad I did," Carson replies, heart thumping hard as he brings a hand up to cup Aaron's jaw, thumb stroking his cheek.  Aaron's eyes close and Carson's breath catches in his throat, this new hunger settling in the pit of his stomach.  He leans forward and Aaron's eyes flutter open, smile playing on his lips before Carson captures them between his own, exploring how Aaron's lips can make him feel like he's content but also needs more all at once.

They kiss and Aaron moves closer, hitching a leg over Carson's hip, making him gasp.  He gets his other hand in Aaron's hair, pulling him, breathing in his hot, shaky exhales greedily.  Firmly Aaron pushes on his shoulder, and Carson goes with him, rolling onto his back and trying to catch his breath as Aaron looms over him, lips red and hair wild.  He throws the sheets and comforter off the end of the bed.

"Is this okay?" Aaron breathes, and Carson can only nod, reaching up to pull him down with a hand on the back of his neck.  He feels so desperate for it, like Aaron is the only thing that matters and his lips are the only thing sustaining him.  Aaron sighs through his nose and Carson arches up without thinking, groaning at the feeling of Aaron's body holding him down.

Aaron breaks the kiss and moves to Carson's neck, pressing his lips behind the line of his jaw.  "You know how humans kiss when they like each other?"

Carson pushes his head back into the pillows, tries to reassemble his thoughts.  "Yes," he grinds out, fingers threading through the damp roots of Aaron's hair at the base of his neck.

Aaron leans back so Carson can see his face, smiling widely.  "There's another thing that humans do when they really, really like each other."

His hips grind down and oh, oh, Carson can feel him hot and hard right next to where he's been aching the most.  Sex, he knows sex, but never like this.  He wants it.

"I want you," Carson says dumbly, feet scrambling on the sheets to plant firmly and arch his hips up in return, to show Aaron just how much.  Aaron groans, forearms on either side of Carson's ears and hands under the pillow, and as his hips rock forward he catches Carson's moan in his mouth.

The spark he felt before is a fucking fire now, Aaron all around him and the friction between them so incredibly good it's almost unbearable.  His t-shirt is bunched up under his back and his boxers are damp with sweat and precome and Carson arches up for more, chases the heat again and again.

"Aaron, fuck," he moans, tipping his chin back and seizing up as he comes, pleasure ripping its way up his spine.  He clutches at Aaron's thighs, his hips, his ass as Aaron pushes forward roughly, moaning into the hollow of Carson's throat as he comes too, Carson shaking like he's falling apart.

Aaron wraps him up tight, presses kisses to his jaw and runs hands over his skin, chases the shivery feeling away.  Carson relaxes, finally, and pulls Aaron up to kiss him properly, smiling into his lips.

"Let's get cleaned up," Aaron says softly, eyes bright.  "You can wear some of my clothes."

Changed and perfectly content, Carson falls back onto the pillow.  Aaron rearranges the covers over them, smiling as he presses kisses into Carson's cooling skin, ending at his shoulder before snuggling in.  His eyelids are drooping.  "Sleep," Aaron says softly.

"I don't," Carson whispers back, smiling sadly.  "I can't," he clarifies, wrapping Aaron up and running a hand through his tousled hair.  His eyes close immediately.  "But I'll try, for you."

"That's all I ask," Aaron says, half-slurred as he curls his arm around Carson's stomach and his breaths even out.  Carson runs his hand through his hair, over and over and over until the sky lightens outside the window.

*

"Are you sure?" Carson asks for the twelfth time, smoothing over his shirt again.  It's not every day a former demon meets an Archangel.

“Of course,” Aaron says, leaning in and pecking Carson on the lips.  It’s getting easier, the touching and the kissing.  The knowing that Aaron is doing it just because he really, sincerely wants to.

“This is what I’ve always wanted,” Aaron continues, running his hand over Carson’s hair.  “I just didn’t know how to ask for it.  And you, of course, are a huge perk.”

Carson rolls his eyes, knowing the smile on his face is negating any kind of retort he could have tried to make anyways.  “So is there like, a time frame on this, or do we just…?”

“We just wait,” Aaron confirms, sighing.  “I’m not sure how to make sure you come with me except to stay touching, so sorry about all the hand-holding.”

“Such a burden,” Carson deadpans, “holding hands, being in close proximity to you...”

Aaron opens his mouth to say something but never gets to as the world around them falls away.

“Kneel!” Aaron hisses, and Carson nearly bashes his nose falling to the floor.  He’s blinded by the pure white, everything glowing red behind his closed eyelids.

“Archangel, how blessed I am to be in your presence,” Aaron says reverently, and Carson says it as well, trying his best to copy his tone.

“Rise, child of God,” a deep voice commands, and Carson scrambles to obey.  “And… well, this is a surprise.”

“Uriel,” Aaron says, half-bending into a bow again.  “This is Carson.  He was indispensable in my time on Earth.”

“Carson,” the Archangel says appraisingly, and Carson fights to keep his eyes from lowering automatically under his scrutiny.  “Only you would find such a being out of all the people on Earth, Aaron.”

The familiarity takes Carson aback, and the booming laughter makes him turn to Aaron in disbelief.  Angels are supposed to be terrifying to behold, Archangels are supposed to be nearly impossible to bear witness to-- this is not what he expected at all.

“Yes, Carson, I’m surprised by you as well,” Uriel says, and Carson is mortified.  “I would have thought I’d be shut out to your thoughts, seeing as what you were and still are, at least in part.”

“Angel-made,” Carson says quietly.  “They never told us we were in such explicit terms, there would be riots.  But demons come from Lucifer, and fallen or not, he has Angels’ powers.”

“Smart too,” Uriel says approvingly.  “You’ve done well for yourself, Aaron.”

“Yes, Archangel,” Aaron says eagerly.  “I spent my time on Earth immersing myself in human culture and traditions.  I read books and met people and tried new things.  Coffee is just as awesome as they say it is.”

“Picking up slang too, I see,” Uriel laughs.  “And that’s not the only thing you picked up.”

Aaron’s hand nudges Carson’s and Carson immediately clasps their palms together again.

“I know it seems crazy, and I know the consequences,” Aaron says, strength and determination filling his voice.  “But I love Earth, and I love what I found there.  I want to stay.”

“As a human?” Uriel asks.

“Both of us as humans,” Carson says, gripping Aaron’s hand tighter.

Uriel pauses for a few long seconds. “Now, summoning a demon is something I wouldn’t recommend anyone to do, not even another demon,” his voice is so light and conversational that Carson is even more confused at his words.  “They aren’t very happy when they’re told where to go, let alone being forced to go somewhere.  But if we just make a really compelling offer…”

Carson closes his eyes against the rush of light and winces at the screeching as the demon materializes in front of him.  That sound seems worlds away now to Carson, but the memories are still there.

“Belphegor, how nice to have you,” Uriel offers generously, and Aaron squeezes Carson’s hand so hard it starts to feel numb.  Whether it was to keep himself steady or to comfort Carson, he isn’t sure, but he squeezes back all the same.

The grotesquely twisted facial features, rows of sharpened teeth, and huge pair of horns on the demon’s head are even worse when put next to such a perfect beauty as an Archangel.  “How did you get your hands on this one?” Belphegor leers.  Carson closes his eyes and breathes steadily in and out.

Belphegor wasn’t the worst of the demons in Hell, not by far.  Uriel seems like he wants to help, but he could have just as easily summoned fucking Lamashtu if he really wanted to mess with Carson.  It’s just that it’s must be ingrained in his very cells to submit to that voice, to that imagery.  It’s making him feel sick.

Aaron reaches over and holds Carson’s wrist, too.  He focuses on the feeling of warm skin on his. Human, human, Aaron’s human.

“I was the imp Carson,” he says shakily.  “I was banished to Earth two years ago, prohibited from communicating with humans and taunted with inability to sleep.  I want to be human.”

Belphegor’s laugh is like cold dread in his veins.  “Imps don’t get banished to Earth unless they do something so shitty even the demons don’t wanna deal with ‘em.  Now you want to be a human?  Go join the insolent masses, then, good riddance.  May your hellish past wreak a little more havoc on Earth.”

Carson looks at Aaron and fights the urge to shrug.  That was the most backhanded permission he’s ever heard.

“Thank you for your assessment, Balphegor,” Uriel says crisply, and with a wave of his hand, the demon disappears.

Carson can feel the weight of Uriel’s scrutiny.  “You know I can’t do the granting, Aaron,” he says gravely.

“I know,” Aaron says confidently.  “I trust Gabriel to be fair.”

“As you should,” a new, female voice says, and Aaron yanks Carson down to the ground again.

Carson and Aaron greet her and she tells them to stand, waving off their exultations.  “Thank you.  Now, I’ve heard a lot about you, Aaron.  What have you to say to influence my decision?”

Aaron stands up straighter and Carson can practically feel his chest swell with pride.  “All my existence I’ve felt like there was something I was missing, some misfitting of my desires and my role.  Uriel so graciously offered me an interim of research, and I am completely confident that there on Earth I found my corner of the universe.  I want to be human because I want to be with the person that belongs in that corner with me.”

Carson ducks his head, smiling at his feet as Aaron nudges their shoulders together.

“Love, then,” Gabriel says thoughtfully, and the word settles in Carson like rain on parched ground.  “Of Earth, of humans, of this human in particular.  A courageous emotion, I’ve always thought.”

She deliberates with Uriel in a language unknowable to him, and Carson tries to keep himself calm.  He has no idea what to expect from Gabriel, and even Aaron didn’t have much to offer except to grovel and hope for the best.

“What a curious case,” she says finally.  “I believe you’ll do great things as a human.  My only stipulation is that you will lose all your memories of Heaven’s wonders, and Carson lose his of Hell's woes, as no human can truly know what the afterlife will hold.”

Aaron sucks in a breath.  “I’ll still remember Carson and everything from my first time on Earth?”

Gabriel almost smiles.  It’s radiant.  “Yes, child, you will know where you came from and everything that transpired from the time you first set foot on Earth.  Your memories of this, of angels and Heaven, will merely be so far out of reach that the details are indiscernible.”

Aaron looks at Carson, grinning.  “I think I can live with that.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Carson sees a sweep of wings and when he blinks, they’re back in Aaron’s apartment.

Carson is still standing but Aaron is half-sprawled on the floor, rubbing his temple.

“Are you okay?” Carson says, reaching down to help pick him up.

Aaron considers, letting Carson haul him off the floor.  “The first time I kissed you, you left.”

Carson huffs.  “Yeah, so?”

“And then I wooed you back with quotes on coffee cups.”

“Yes.”

“And then we bartered for our humanity from two Archangels and a demon?”

“What’s the point of this?”

“I remember,” Aaron announces, beaming.  “I don’t remember having wings or living in Heaven, but I remember you.”

Carson leans in to kiss him soundly but barely lands one quick kiss before Aaron slides away, stacking books in his arms.

“What are you doing?” Carson asks, trying not to sound put-out. He was hoping to celebrate their humanity in a very human way.

Aaron yells triumphantly as he pulls the remote out from between the couch cushions, shoving the stack into Carson's arms.  “What do you hear?”

The TV whines to life.  “I don’t…”

...Reports are indicating that the assailant was armed…

Carson’s mouth falls open.  Aaron changes the channel.

...You’re going to want to reserve two tablespoons of that lemon juice…

“Oh my God.”

...For only 3 easy payments of $24.99!

“What do you hear?” Aaron asks again, his slow smile so devastatingly beautiful.

Carson smiles in return.  “I can hear everything.”  Aaron takes a book off the stack, opening it at random and holding it up while Carson just nods, mouthing the words, reading sentences and paragraphs until he’s laughing so hard there’s tears in his eyes.

He pulls Aaron into his arms, hugging him close before finally kissing his mouth, cradling his jaw tenderly.

Later, eyelids so curiously heavy with the temptation to slip into unconsciousness, humanity pulsing in every fiber of his being, Carson has one last sleep-addled thought.

“Hey God, thanks for everything.  But especially Aaron,” Carson says around a yawn.  When Aaron smacks him with a lazy hand he just tucks him in right under his chin, kissing his knuckles.