Ashes hung in the air, thick and cloying. They settled on Andre and Firmins' expensive opera dress like snowflakes, except they didn't melt, and dusted Firmin's hair, making it look as grey as Andre's.

They both stood in the square in front of the Opera Populaire, the once-grand building still smouldering gently. Its heat could be felt even from where they stood. The patrons who had run from the flames had long since departed, and the firemen who took one look at the uncontrollable blaze had prevented it from spreading and then left too. Only the opera's two managers remained, their silhouettes slumped and dejected, united in silent contemplation.

Andre couldn't say how long they'd been there. Firmin couldn't explain why they found it impossible to tear themselves away. So they simply stayed.

For a while, they had been silent. Andre decided it had been long enough.

"We almost didn't make it out."

Pain flitted across Firmin's face as he remembered their flight. Flames, heat, danger, the press of bodies, sickening fear, not only for his own life but for Andre's-

"That damn opera ghost," Firmin swore under his breath, chasing away bad memories with harsh words. "First he took our prima donna, then Buquet, and finally the Opera itself!"

"At least he didn't take our lives," Andre said softly, glancing up at his fellow manager. They had drawn close, united in their surveyal of the destruction. But Firmin tore angrily away, fists clenched at his sides, and took a few nervous steps in a small, tight circle.

"There's no justice to it!" he exclaimed mutedly, cowed into silence like a schoolboy might be in a library. The scene had that same empty feel, the same solemnity that demanded respect. "From day one he's gotten everything he wanted and then some. Where does that leave us? Opera-less! Penniless!"

"There's always the scrap metal business," Andre suggested half heartedly. Firmin looked sharply at him.

"You know as well as I why we can't go back to that," he said severely.

"I know, I know," Andre admitted exasperatedly, his partner's uneasiness catching. He took a few restless steps, swinging his arms back and forth aimlessly. It was still full night, but the light from the burning opera house cast a glow that tinged the sky in artificial dawn. He couldn't tear his gaze away from it. "We'll figure something out. We always do."

"I'm amazed at your optimism, Gilles," Firmin said, his expression softening for the first time that night. Another memory surfaced, less painful:

Sitting together in tense expectation, waiting for the opera ghost to make his move, transfixed by the opera unfurling below them. A hand resting lightly against the velvet balustrade of their box. A small movement: all he would have needed to grasp it in his own. A smaller movement put his hand next to Andre's, his ring finger brushing Andre's thumb. Electricity. Pleasant nervousness. And then-

Disaster.

Andre stopped his pacing and gazed at his friend, slightly shocked but nonetheless pleased at Firmin's use of his Christian name. Nonchalantly, he reciprocated.

"I'm simply being realistic, Richard. We've always managed in the past. We've always known when to jump ship if the going got rough. We'll weather this as we always have."

"We never got a chance to jump this time," Firmin pointed out. They had drawn close to one another again, out of residual fear and shock from the night's events- or perhaps something else.

Andre stared at his friend- his oldest, closest friend- in agony, words he had longed to say for years hovering on his lips, brought dangerously close to the surface by their shared trauma. He was scared out of his mind that somehow Firmin could read them- more scared even than he had been with fire on all sides and screams ringing in his ears. Had he finally figured it out? Had years of playful subtext finally eroded away the covering of that secret he had buried so deep?

Maybe he just didn't care anymore. He might have lost his life that night- they both might have, and the secret been taken to his grave. Andre didn't want to die like that. Firmin didn't deserve it.

He would have given everything to know that Firmin already knew.

Andre opened his mouth to finally speak. "Richard" was as far as he got before Firmin cut him off. The taller man put three fingers to Andre's lips, and he could feel warm flesh through a scorched hole in the leather.

The ashes still fell. The rubble still smouldered. The stars still moved. But for the two people standing in that courtyard, the world was suddenly still.

Andre placed his hand over Firmin's own and drew it down, entwining as they fell. There was no space between them anymore. In that moment, to simply be alive and together was enough for them.

"I was so afraid… back there," Firmin added unnecessarily. The incident he referred to was very fresh in their minds.

More screams. Screams that never faded. A fallen piece of scenery that pinned Andre beneath it. Two hearts that stood still in fear. A ridiculously convenient piece of rope Firmin tied with shaking fingers to the wooden scenery. A ridiculously convenient stage hand who helped him lift it up and pull Firmin to safety. One crisis of many narrowly averted.

"You saved me," Andre said simply, his thanks in every word. Anywhere else the message would have been cloying. There, where they shared the very air, it was anything but.

Suddenly, to be alive and together wasn't enough anymore. What little space between them was gone in an instant, warm bodies pressed together as lips met.

Firmin's lips tasted of ash, his hair rendered powdery by it. Andre had always imagined he would taste like he smelled when they would pass close by one another in a small room. He kissed him harder and it was there, underneath the ash and the bitterness of fear and loneliness, that wonderful scent that could make him heady with a single whiff.

Firmin tilted his head and leaned deep into the kiss, a hand suddenly in Andre's hair that hadn't been there before. One hand still clasped Andre's at his side.

They must have broken apart, for Andre spoke, but they were still so close that Firmin could practically feel his partner's beating heart through his opera jacket.

"How long?" he asked meaningfully. It was an important question to him.

"Oh… years," Firmin said wistfully. The image of Andre's hand resting on the balustrade of the box leapt into his mind again, and he clenched the real version he now held tighter.

"I knew there was a reason you kept following me around," Andre joked quietly. Firmin gave a slight laugh, dispelling much of the tension still leant to the air by the morbid sight of the Opera Populaire.

"I could hardly tear myself away from you," he teased lightly.

Neither could voice then what they actually felt. Years of carrying the burden of a secret that could never be revealed were suddenly lifted from their minds. It was more than anything they could have ever dreamed of to realize that they had carried it together, unknowingly.

"We'll be alright. We may have lost the opera, and the scrap metal business…"

"But we've found each other?" Firmin suggested. Andre laughed.

"Richard, I do think you've been hanging around the chorus girls too much. They've implanted their ridiculous romantic notions in your head by pure osmosis." His voice was soft, slightly above a whisper. In the dark, still night, nothing more was needed.

From the ashes of the Opera Populaire, a metaphor for what a poet would surely call burnt dreams and shattered fantasies, rose something much more poignant and real. It was not hope, for that implied a sense of ignorance of the future. It was not love, for that had always been there, simmering under the surface. What Firmin and Andre now held could more accurately be called anticipation.

A/N: This was written around midnight last night. For some reason my inspiration seems to flow more freely late at night. I wish there was more Andre/Firmin stuff here, because I think they'd make such a cute couple- they never left each other's side during the whole (2004) movie. To remedy that lack, I've written my own, and you've just read it- so review maybe?