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On The Matter Of Touch

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Eternity has always been a lot of time, but somehow, after the whole not-quite-end-times business, eternity seems to be more… more. More time, more space, more nothing. Only not quite that either...

There is nothing in the way of work, of course, since the magic trick — as Aziraphale insists on calling it — they played on Heaven and Hell has made the need of reporting to higher ups disappear. Not that Crowley ever really lead his life following those bureaucratic demands, but now there is this absence of pressure to do even the slightest bit of temptation, to sow even the smallest seeds of a sin he could then embellish into a perfect presentation down below. But there is no need for that anymore — or at least for a little eternity. Who knows how long they’ve got, but at the moment it seems endless.

Which leads Crowley to the following issue: It should be boring. He should be teething at the edge of his sanity, the eternity of nothing at all until something begins again should have sent him to the bottle twenty times over. It has happened before, after all.

But this time— this time eternity seems less terrifying, somehow. He sometimes even forgets they’re in an eternity at all. He barely remembers there was a time where he’d had to report to anyone. His work had never been his life, but it had always been there, and he’d never thought he’d handle early retirement well.

Though it doesn’t really feel like a proper retirement without all the torture.

If Crowley had to make a guess, he’d known exactly why this strange eternity has started to feel like well, like the Garden of Eden. There is beauty all around them in the world they have saved, there is no need to be alone when there are no forces keeping them apart, and as long as Aziraphale doesn’t mind, he’s happy to stick around. But in every garden there is a temptation— he knows, it’s all incredibly ironic — something one is not supposed to have, one that would break the eternity as it is now. All it’s beauty and stability traded for danger and coarse sand. He’d always understood why Eve took a bite from the apple; it was his job to understand, to ask questions, to give them a choice. But now, faced with his very own original sin, Crowley would rather that those same damned questions disappear in a puff of devilish smoke and let him enjoy the sights of his garden as they are.

The familiar noises of the Ritz during lunch hour. The smell of old books and vintage wine and Aziraphale without that blasted cologne. A laugh there, a joke here, an everlasting conversation that, by miracle, never once bored Crowley and never once will.

Why can’t he be content with the garden they have made for themselves? Why must he be longing— or worse pining — for the one thing he is not allowed? Why must he be tempted—

Ah, yes, that’s probably why.

The issue about this flavour of eternity is that he has not yet thought to spend it alone. It is not an idea that would come up in the flurry of Aziraphale’s outings for old music and even older books, the visits to Adam and Anathema he insists on making— for which Crowley miracles them a cottage in Tadfield, because catching the train every two weeks was truly too dreadful.

When he was alone, before, he could un-tempt himself. List all the various debilitating reasons why certain temptations are a bit too drastic, even for him. Hell would not be pleased, not that they ever were, but in that particular case, Crowley had not wanted to see what happened if they were to discover one of their demons had gone ahead and fallen in love with an angel.

But now, Hell would rather freeze over than revisit the embarrassment that was the magic trick. And without those valuable lonely moments of despair, it had become harder and harder to convince himself that these temptations did not at least bear thinking about.

So this is how Crowley comes to the matter of touch, three glasses of chardonnay deep and Arizaphale’s second rendition of Hamlet in the last two hours— or more accurately, a highlight reel of everything Aziraphale loves most about the play. The exact highlights mentioned change every two years or so, as he cannot help but love everything.

They sit across from each other, legs splayed forwards but not touching— never touching. Crowley can count the moments they have touched in these last six thousand odd years on two hands. And the ones that had been purposeful even less. Aziraphale has always kept a healthy distance from Crowley, orbiting around like a vaguely offended moon, but he’d always taken care to not let their gravities crash together except if he really couldn’t help it. Crowley had assumed that this was because he was, in fact, a demon, and perhaps an angel would quite literally get hurt if they were ever to touch his infernal skin.

But a small grouping of accidental touches had defied that theory soundly. Aziraphale did not seem pained when he caught Crowley from falling off a horse again somewhere in the 13th century. His hand had brushed Crowley’s arm and there was no hiss of hell fire, and there were no burn marks on Aziraphale’s fingers— he’d checked. Aziraphale had seemed embarrassed, but not tortured, when he’d fallen into Crowley’s lap after a drunken evening in Paris, merely sobered up immediately and excused himself. Though maybe he had been in pain, but intended to hide it, but Crowley had revisited the memory about a thousand times over the years, and he could not see a flinch in that very first expression. He did not know what it was, before it was swallowed up by Aziraphale’s flush and unnecessary fussing. But he did not think it was pain.

So instead he had concluded that Aziraphale’s aversion to touch had been a general, and expected, aversion to touching a demon. Not out of physical inability, but out of moral ones. It had shown Crowley that no matter how much they claimed to be friends, Aziraphale would always have a part of him that was disgusted by who Crowley was. And Crowley had accepted this, because it was only natural. They had the arrangement, and they were friends, and he would be a fool to think an angel would ever truly, fully, accept a demon.

But then we get back to the end times aftermath, where Aziraphale had no issue with probably the most extreme form of touching, if one were to count their corporeal forms the vehicle of touch. Aziraphale had let Crowley possess his human form-- had trusted him with it so thoroughly, and thoughtlessly, that Crowley had destroyed all his previous theories on the matter of touch.

Because how, in the name of anything and everything, could Aziraphale be fine with that, but not fine with a brush of arms, a hand in the small of his back, the pressure of ankles against ankles? It did not make sense in the slightest. So in their calm little eternity where they have no responsibility to any higher, or lower, authority, Crowley had thought that the bubble around Aziraphale’s person would pop. That it all had been posturing, unwilling to be caught red handed in the act of fraternisation with a demon. That It might have been plausible deniability all along.

But the careful distance persists.

It is strange, to be so close yet so far to a person. It is as tempting to cross those mere centimetres, as it was to take that apple from the tree, Crowley imagines. But then what? Crowley doesn’t quite know himself. Aziraphale must have a reason for this nonsense, and he is beginning to believe that it is not his fallen origins that are the cause.

“Where have your thoughts gone, my dear?” Aziraphale slurs. “You’ve gone all… thinky, with the brows.”

Crowley attempts to regain control of his traitorous brows but assumes he fails, as Aziraphale keeps looking at him expectantly. Crowley shrugs, waves Aziraphale’s gaze away, and says, “I have the beginnings of a thought.”

“Oh?”

“Hmmm.” Crowley puts his head on his chin, leaning forward to inspect his companion. His angel is quite drunk— his blue eyes glassy, the rounded cheeks flushed. What would it be like to put his fingers to all that red? Would it feel as warm as it looks? Would it give under the tip of his thumb?

Crowley closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “I’ll— I’ll tell you once I find the tail of it.”

“The tail?”

“The tail— the end, the end of the beginning of that thought.”

Aziraphale purses his lips, looking more thinky and frowny than Crowley ever has, the bastard.

“You mean—“ Aziraphale says, slowly. “You mean the con— conclu…”

He trails off, bemused and even thinkier.

Crowley nods vehemently, “Yes, yes. The conclus— conclusion.”

“That’s the one!” Aziraphale exclaims, shooting him a broad smile.

Crowley quickly grabs another bottle and tips it upside down into his mouth. Aziraphale’s radiant smile — with the, the damned wrinkles that almost make his eyes disappear — is burned behind his eyelids like a brand mark. The rush of wine over his tongue does nothing to drown that other beginning of a thought he’d really rather not have. Because the whole touching matter is one thing — it would be nice to get Aziraphale’s attention with a tap of his shoulder, or brush his a strand of hair away whenever he’s leaning over his books — but it is a whole other matter when Crowley’s first thought to Aziraphale’s smile was—

What would it be like to kiss him?

Which was ridiculously human of him. Really. He’s seen it happen, thousands and thousands of times. He’d might have even pushed a thought, here and there, tempted a lonely virgin who’d rather kiss the baker’s boy than save her lips for the lord’s son, or tempted a puritan priest to the lips of his mentor. He has seen the kiss of the sloppy drunk, the surge of a lover’s reunion, the biting of a couples’ quarrel.

Come to think of it, he’s seen all these same emotions, same core temptations, in the touch of a hand, a shoulder leaning to another, or in a simple embrace.

Crowley had decided long ago that curiosity should have been a sin, because it has been the one thing consistently tempting him in his existence. He’s done everything he can think of and more, just so see what it was all about. But this, with Aziraphale, feels more than just an experience he can add to his endless tally. He’s had most of these touches already over the years, just to try them out and decide that there was a bit too much fuss about it all. It could be pleasurable, of course, but there was always something missing about it.

Which is where the end of the thought Crowley would rather not have, might lead to. Maybe Aziraphale himself is this missing piece. Maybe these touches are not, in themselves, important, but it is about the person which whom they are performed.

Crowley finds this conclusion entirely too depressing to bear — as there seems to be little chance of getting Aziraphale into this touching business — so he downs another bottle, and spitefully enjoys the concerned way Aziraphale says, “Oh, dear, isn’t that quite enough?”

No, Crowley wants to tell him. No, it won’t ever be. I’m an ungrateful bastard who can’t be content with the miracles you’ve already given me, and I deserve to drown in all the wine of the world.

But he doesn’t say all that, he just laughs Aziraphale’s concern away and drawls, “Fine, fine.”

Aziraphale scrutinises him for a moment, but then smiles. He swipes the bottle from Crowley’s hand, fingers carefully not touching, and takes an liberal drink from where Crowley’s lips had just been.

“Now,” Aziraphale says, puffing out his chest. “Where— ah, yes. Act 3, scene 3, line 87—“

———

The tail of the thought still remains all slithery out of reach two weeks later, and Crowley ponders this wilily snake of insistency, sitting languid and content in the sun. He has accepted that the thought will never leave him alone. Aziraphale makes him remember every time he steps along the line of their respective spaces, that Crowley will always be exempted from touch. He could flee for a little, have some time where he won’t be confronted with what he can’t have every day, but even as the thought crosses his mind, he cannot bear it.

He finds Aziraphale feeding the ducks at the edge of the lake, standing nice and accurate with his expensive shoes in the muddy grass of autumn. A brilliantly orange leaf falls off a tree above and flutters down, pushed by a playful breeze to land on Aziraphale’s shoulder. It is a fragile touch, one Aziraphale himself has not noticed yet, and as long he does not notice, the leaf will stay.

This is the reason why Crowley cannot let himself cross these invisible lines. Not out of respect of some almighty rulings, not out of a sudden righteous seal to keep temptation at bay, but for the simple reason that Aziraphale might notice. Might find Crowley’s presence entirely too much once the boundary is breached.

And Crowley would not blame him.

He has learned through observation, that touch is not merely a source of connection, nor merely a source of pleasure — or violence if one were to count a fist to the jaw as a form of touch. Touch, primarily, is a form of communication. It is a way to say what cannot always be said in words. It is a comfort when a voice would be too loud. A confession where a verbal declaration would be too much. And this, Crowley realises, is why their distance bothers him. They have grown so close over millennia, have learn each other’s ways through the Arrangement and later the formation of Their Side. Even now, Crowley learns to listen better every day. It is more than only words. It always has been.

But there are times when Crowley feels silenced. When he can read the language of Aziraphale's form, but is unable to respond to it the way humans have done for centuries. He feels as if he’s been stolen a form of progression — a way they could be even better, even closer, even more them. Because that is all that they are, really; the process of learning the other. An interest born out of curiosity and evolved into familiarity. Crowley feels envy for the man who can comfort his friend by an arm across his shoulder. He despises the the mother who can communicate pride with a squeeze of her hand, or the husband who can cherish his beloved by a mere touch to a hip.

At times, he feels lonely, when he wishes to speak in a way Aziraphale does not allow.

And still, he does not know why. His previous theories are in shatters, but there must be something holding Aziraphale away. Crowley feels the edge of an idea tickle him, and with a breath he pushes through, hoping he has not just taken the fruit.

He stops observing the humans, he knows their language of touch well enough now. Instead he observes Aziraphale himself, because how can he know why Aziraphale does not touch him to communicate if he does not know how Aziraphale communicates through touch? How can he learn a language if he has not heard it for himself?

The results of this experiment are mindboggeling.

Crowley watches for weeks on end. He lurks from the corner of his eye like a proper demon aught; tags along to every moment of Aziraphale’s day; even persuades him into letting him sleep on the bookshop sofa, just so he can spy on Aziraphale’s interactions with the clients coming in.

And not once, not once, has Aziraphale touched another. Not even accidentally, as he takes a lot of trouble to avoid exactly that. In a show of incompetence that matches the Antichrist swap, Crowley realises he’d never considered the possibility that Aziraphale never touches anyone, period. He’d always assumed that he’d been the outlier — that an angel of love would of course spread this kindness through any form of communication that he could, but that Crowley had simply not been worthy of it.

But instead, Aziraphale touches the whole population of the world even less than he’s done Crowley. He doesn’t do it obviously, he just side steps when he needs to, keeps his fingers away from any grabby hands, and makes sure than any interaction of the body is strictly barred by layers of fabric. Crowley realises he’d never really seen angels touch each other either. How could he have missed such a thing? How could he have expected something from Aziraphale that he has never once shown interest in?

Well, he had also not shown interest in a friendship, at the start, so that might be asking the wrong question. But this revelation does change a lot of assumptions Crowley had made over the centuries — furthermore it has shattered the primary source of Crowley’s quota of envy completely into dust.

Because that had been one of this sins’ tenants— the idea that Aziraphale was touched, by and had touched others. Days and days of agony à-la-alcohol imagining these horrible creatures who dared to step over those boundaries and be welcomed with open arms. For nothing. It seems that they have never existed.

Curiosity pushes onto Crowley with the force of a starving lion, stalking the edge of every conversation with a hunter’s intensity. It pounces in a moment of weakness, during yet another lunch at the Ritz. Because how tempting is it, to learn the answer to all his questions, if he just dared to ask?

And bravery is just really a form of stupidity, and if it concerns Aziraphale, Crowley got that in spades.

“On the matter of touch,” Crowley begins, waving his teaspoon in what he hopes passes for idle curiosity. “Thoughts?”

Aziraphale freezes with his fork half way to his mouth. “Excuse me?”

Crowley shrugs, looking just past him. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but humans are touchy all over the place — in more ways than one I have to say — but you angels don’t seem to have taught them. I can’t imagine Gabriel clapping one of his minions on their back now, can I? So, what do you think, where does it come from?”

Aziraphale tilts his head to the side and blows on his carrot soup, even though it’s probably cool now anyway. “I assumed that touch is more of a demonic business, what with the tempting and all.”

“Is it though? Isn’t it supposed to be about love and such nonsense? That’s your side all over.”

“I thought we agreed there were no sides anymore,” Aziraphale tuts, raising a bemused eyebrow.

“Sorry, sorry, figure of speech. My point is, angels should be cuddling all over the place. Would Michael be little spoon or big spoon?”

Aziraphale blinks twice, and then giggles once before covering his mouth with his hand, looking surprised at his own reaction. He grabs the edges of his napkin and straightens it perfectly on his lap. “That’s quite the image, but it is rather more of a human thing, is it not?”

Crowley leans forward, allowing himself a twitch of amusement. “Yeah, true. But why?”

“Hmmm.” Aziraphale’s face morphs from a hint of mischievousness immediately a thoughtful smile. He puts his fork on the edge of his plate and takes a deep breath, looking exactly like a professor delighted for the opportunity to lecture a student. “Well, for angels it actually is quite a bit different than humans. Humans use touch as a point of connection, but angels are already connected to all living things. We do not need that connection of touch to achieve what they are attempting to achieve with physical connection. We are attuned to the emotions around us, love in particular, but there are certain ways this sense can be turned up, so to speak, which can be rather overwhelming.”

Aziraphale pauses and purses his lips, nodding to himself. “Whenever I touch a human, or anyone for that matter, I am opening myself up not only to the emotion of this one person, but to the whole stream of emotions. It is complicated, but imagine love not to be individual pools, but an interconnected delta of rivers and lakes, the water flowing from one basin to the other, through familial connection, friendship, respect, appreciation, or any other positive emotion. When I am focused on this one individual’s pond, it is quite an exercise to not let myself be pulled in with the current. So, to extend this metaphor further, my thoughts on the matter of touch is that it quite feels like drowning in the love of all that lives, and for all that I love this love, I’d rather stay dry and breathing.”

In the progression of this monologue, Crowley has slid further and further down his seat, his knees weak at the overwhelming sensation of getting a six thousand year old burning question answered. He supposes that this what those scientists felt like when they found that Higgs boson particle— the rare experience of discovering something that has been there all along; something that you hoped would be there, and tried to find so badly.

He’s got his answer. It’s not him. It really isn’t him.

“So you’d never be able to—“ Crowley interrupts himself, feeling vaguely out of breath. “Ever?”

“No, no not quite.” Aziraphale doesn’t seem to notice Crowley’s collapsed state, eyes trained on his vanilla cake like it’s got the commandments encoded in the streaks of buttercream. “Everyone can learn to swim, I suppose. It is a matter of practice, some say; strengthening yourself to let the love flow around you without it touching you, like the clatter of rain or the sound of a spring. It should be possible to just let it be, but I suppose simply no one has touched me for long enough to get proficient in this art.”

“Do you wish to be?”

The words fall off Crowley’s tongue without permission.

Aziraphale’s head snaps up, his eyes wide. “What do you mean?”

In for a pound, so they say. “Do you want to be able to touch without drowning?”

“I mean, yes, of course,” Aziraphale blusters, his cheeks flush red and he’s tugging nervously on the table cloth. “It can be quite debilitating whenever I can’t avoid it, and it is of course such a human experience I cannot partake in, which is quite—”

Crowley leans forward, puts his elbow on the table and holds out his hand. “Would this work?”

“I, uhm, I don’t see why not.” Aziraphale staring at Crowley’s hand like he’s never seen it before. “You might be, not human, but you clearly have a love for the world as you helped to save it so—“

“Angel—“

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but—“ Aziraphale presses his lips together, shaking his head. “But why? I don’t know how long it would take, and I don’t know how it would quite work, I’ve only heard rumours. Why would you want to—“

“Why would I want to help you?” Crowley interrupts incredulously. “Why wouldn’t I? I’m not going to withhold you from experiencing something you want to experience, Angel. Hell, I’m the one tempting you into experience you did not want but turn out to appreciate. Drawing the line here is about the opposite of what I do. Besides, I’m curious.”

Aziraphale's eyes go from Crowley’s face, to his hand, to no point in particular, and back again. Crowley’s heart is racing in his ears and his hands feel clammy— which should be impossible, thank you very much. But despite the chaotic responses his own body seems to be having, he still got enough of a mind to recognize the expression Aziraphale is sporting. He’s seen it so many times as they have learned each other— this is Aziraphale who wants something very badly, but is desperately trying to find a reason not to.

Like hell Crowley is going to let him get away with that. “Aziraphale, do you trust me?”

“Well that is just unfair—“

Crowley grabs his hand.

There is a moment, a single split second, where Crowley thinks he’s done the entirely wrong thing. Every sin, every bad thing he’s done in the name of Hell, himself, or in the name of Whatever there is, does not and will not ever compete with the horrifying possibility that he’s done Aziraphale harm. Because the moment he clasps his hand around Aziraphale’s, surprise morphs into betrayal, and then, worse— agony. It seems to last eons, but it really couldn’t have been more than half a breath. Crowley tries to let go on reflex but Aziraphale’s hand has gone like a vice around his fingers, holding on for dear fucking life.

Crowley can’t look away, eyes on every nanometer of Aziraphale’s expression. The pain — the pain that is his doing — falls away and Aziraphale closes his eyes with a shuddering breath. His cheeks flush even brighter, and his lips slowly go slack.

Crowley quickly miracles them a distraction; the dining crowd suddenly preoccupied by the tripping of a waitress. Because the expression Aziraphale is making now, that is something to keep private, protected. The sheer and utter overwhelming— Crowley doesn’t know how to describe it. It is like he’s staring into a sun, or listening to all the classical masterpieces of the 17th century at once, or feeling every tear of happiness shed on a wedding day since the dawn of time.

It isn’t ecstasy, as Crowley would’ve expected to see. It’s more like, like— like the way he feels after a long and exhausting day, looking upon Aziraphale and knowing that there would be another for just the two of them. It is all that warmth and choking worry and adoration and love— externalised, right there, on Aziraphale’s face.

Only it is not for Crowley, not for one person at all. It’s for everything that lives and breathes, with no discrimination between them all. Ironic, then, that Aziraphale is experiencing that all through Crowley’s touch. It’s almost enough to make himself believe, for just a second of indulgence, that he could be the catalyst of all that love someday.

“Crowley, dear,” Aziraphale chokes out, eyes still closed. “I need you to think about something else. Whatever you’re thinking about now is drowning me.”

Panic shoots through Crowley’s mind— that would be one hell of a way to spill his own secrets. “Sorry, sorry.”

“It’s—” Aziraphale pauses for a breath, “Quite alright.”

“If you want to stop—”

Definitely not. Now be quiet and think about something less intense. You’re being so loud that I don’t even know what you’re feeling. Think about something you’re vaguely annoyed about, like horses.”

“No, definitely hate those beasts too much.”

“Hmm, my magic tricks?”

“Not going to work either,” Crowley is quick to say, before Aziraphale notices that the primary emotion upon that subject has come to be a long-suffering form of fondness.

“Think of something then,” Aziraphale orders, opening one eye and seeming slightly bit more himself. “I can’t remember anything that you less than hate but also less than love.”

“I don’t love anything, I’m a demon. That’s your job.”

Aziraphale opens another eye and huffs. “Now you’re just vaguely annoying me.”

Crowley grins. “I know, is it working?”

“By the heavens,” Aziraphale exclaims, but then begrudgingly adds, “Yes, actually, it seems to.”

“So what have we learned?” Crowley drawls, enjoying himself now that the danger of his exposure doesn’t seem as imminent and Aziraphale has lost that soul-destroying expression. He’s never going to get that out of his head. Ever.

Aziraphale huffs. “I suppose you’ve got a clever answer for that rhetorical question, so have at it.”

“We’ve learned that to counteract the firehose of love-dovey stuff, you just need a bit of annoyance with the world to keep yourself afloat.” Crowley gestures to himself dramatically with his free hand. “Luckily, you’ve got the perfect candidate to frustrate you whenever you need it. You could even say it is a talent of mine.”

Aziraphale looks at him for a moment, eyebrow raised, and then chuckles. “That is truly not a solution an angel would have thought of.”

“I will take that as the compliment it is.”

Aziraphale chuckles again, his eyes too bright even looked upon through sunglasses. They are still — torturously — holding hands.

Aziraphale seems to notice about the same moment, and he releases the vice with a contrite look on his face. Crowley stretches his fingers to make the blood flow once more and distract himself from everything that had just conspired. He shall need a lot of alcohol to sort through all this mess.

Aziraphale clears his throat. “Well then— thank you for providing assistance.”

“Hmm?” Crowley gazes just over his sunglasses and shrugs as laconically as he can. “Of course, Angel. Whenever you need.”

Ah, there it is. One of those promises he very much means but Aziraphale will never take him up on. A vow of a sort, where there are many more words under the surface than what was said. What Crowley actually meant was this: Whenever you want to touch me, I will say yes, because, I have always wanted to, and shall never stop wanting to.

But that isn’t what he said, because for all his bravery, he sometimes just isn’t stupid enough.

 

———

The change is immediate and all encompassing. The bubble around Aziraphale lessens and lessens until he’s holding a lost child’s hand while finding their parent in the festival crowd, or helping a little old lady over the streets with her arm in his, chuckling about ‘the youths these days.’ Crowley is gifted the luxury of watching Aziraphale rediscover the world with effusive joy and curiosity, participating in a language he’s kept himself away from but observed so studiously.

It’s beautiful, and even more so when Aziraphale walks away from the lady and sends Crowley an expression that can only mean ‘Thank you so much,’ in that wordless way he’s mastered over the centuries— or maybe he always could, but Crowley had been slow to learn it.

There is one minute, apocalyptic problem, however.

Aziraphale has fit himself enthusiastically in the close presence of the people around him. All, except for Crowley. That bubble that once was so constant around him, has shifted to fit around Crowley alone. Aziraphale reaches for people, shakes hands, straightens Adam’s collar and fixes up Anathema’s scarf, but still keeps himself carefully away from Crowley’s person. It hurts. Crowley never expected that it would hurt this much, to be the exception, even when he’s had millennia of practice thinking the exact same thing. But somehow, having the conformation that he’s the issue in this equation almost makes him want to take the Bentley and never stop driving.

Crowley doesn’t do that, though. It’s probably the masochism; it is said that demons are predestined to it, or at least that’s what he convinces himself. This doesn’t mean the situation doesn’t grate on him. And it doesn’t mean that he finds other means to escape it, whenever he can.

In this case, it’s alcohol.

Sadly, the tactic of wine as distraction for his tragic situation isn’t really working as Aziraphale has joined him in drink. His warm presence on the other side of the sofa, close enough that Crowley would merely need to lean to the side and he’d be draped over a very drunk angel. His alcohol-muddled mind finds it to be a very good idea right up to the moment it sends him the horrified face Aziraphale would give him.

Crowley shudders, trying to shake off the pain that the fucking image causes him. In the movement, his ambitiously filled wine-glass slips out of his hand and spills all over his lap.

Aziraphale sits up, his hand reflexively going for the glass’s trajectory towards the floor, at the same time Crowley does. The moment their hands would cross, Aziraphale jerks his hand back.

Crowley freezes. The glass shatters on the floor, forgotten crystalline pieces sparkling among the blood red wine.

“Am I really that disgusting to you?" rasps Crowley, flicking his eyes towards Aziraphale.

Aziraphale, who’d begun to frown at the mess on the floor, frowns at Crowley instead. "What are you talking about?”

"This!" Crowley hisses, and snaps forward, touching Aziraphale’s hand with the speed and surety of a snake. Aziraphale flinches away, as if he’d really been one. It hurts like seeing the Bentley explode hurt, that strange kind of pain of something you’d seen coming but hoped wouldn’t happen. Something roars inside Crowley’s chest, and he turns it into anger.

"That!” he yells, “We solved it! You touch the whole wide world now, everyone, except for me!"

Aziraphale’s eyes are wide and he’s got himself folded against the edge of the sofa, as far away from Crowley as he can manage, with Crowley leaning towards him.

"Is it because I’m a demon?” Crowley shouts in his face, and feels sick when Aziraphale flinches once more. It’s almost enough to make him shut down, but this has been a long time coming and Crowley doesn’t have the power to stop it now. “Don’t you want to touch this infernal— infernal— flesh?"

Aziraphale gasps, shakes his head frantically. "No, no!”

"What then?" Crowley snaps, his hands moving emphatically, stuttering through his vision as his wine-addled mind is too slow to keep up with them. ”Is it just me? I'm not— not worth it to be on that list of close proxi— proximity?"

"No, Crowley,” Aziraphale says softly, sounding almost mournful. “You're just a bit much for me."

Crowley flinches back, almost sliding off the edge before catching himself and shooting up instead. The glass crunches under his feet.

“I’m what?"

“A— a bit loud," clarifies Aziraphale, biting his lip. His eyes keep flicking away from Crowley, his shoulders hunched.

Crowley gapes for a single second before shaking his head and yelling, "I am loud! I’ve been loud! I've been yelling at you for millennia and you’ve never had a problem with that—” He takes a breath, realisation coming like a sledgehammer, and he stumbles over his own words to add, quieter this time “Or do you have a problem with that? I’ll stop it if you do—“

"No, Crowley not like that,” Aziraphale says, all earnest and lovely and— Crowley closes his eyes.

“I like your yelling. Or — I like you, the way you are, loud or not. But I meant loud in the way of— you have a lot of love, Crowley, and I’m having trouble tuning it out."

What Crowley wouldn’t give for his sunglasses right now. He can’t remember where he put them, but he suddenly feels stripped naked, completely and utterly vulnerable, showing his heart when he can’t fucking control his stupid mouth.

His internal despair makes Aziraphale’s admission slow to process, until all of a sudden it clicks in Crowley’s mind, and opens his eyes in a flash.

“You said what?” Crowley doesn’t let Aziraphale respond, continuing without the ability to find the words to say anything. “You— I— My— Love— Tuning?? What— Why?”

The blush on Aziraphale’s cheeks darken and he fusses with his jacket, looking down again.

“I— I don't know. I cannot actually sense the origin of all that emotion, you know. That’s a myth, one heaven doesn’t really mind has made the rounds. It makes us more, all knowing, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean we actually know why anyone is feeling what they feel. It’s more the totality of one's capacity of love, present in that moment. It could be your love of the whole world combined with the love of your car and the music you’re listening to right now—“

Crowley feels like he’s about to pass out. It’s a peculiar feeling.“So— You don't know. You really don't know."

Aziraphale frowns and wrings his hands. "I don't know what you're referring to in particular, so no, I suppose I don't."

“You really don’t— You couldn’t— Even when you touch me you can’t—” Crowley continues mindlessly, his voice becoming more and more slurred as he speaks. Somehow he’d assumed that Aziraphale must know, at some level, must be able to feel the fucking beam of emotion he consistently and frustratingly causes inside of Crowley. That he’d maybe have a long list of excuses to deny it, or that he’s convinced himself in some way that Crowley’s infernal wiles are the origin of all that emotion, or whatever other bullshit Aziraphale is so practiced to make up, what with routinely trying to excuse God’s damned ineffable actions.

But he doesn’t know. He really fucking doesn’t. What an idiot.

Crowley shakes his head, unsure how he feels about this revelation, and tries to find some thread in the discussion to hold on to.

“You learned to tune it down with others, why am I the problem?" he asks, Maybe a little more honest than he intended to be. A little too pouty. Fuck, he sounds pathetic. He reaches for the familiar frustration before Aziraphale dropped the bombshell on him and turns it into a nice and nasty sneer. That will do.

Aziraphale pauses, and then sighs. "You're not the problem, Crowley."

"Explain it, then you blasted angel!”

Aziraphale’s eyes widen again, but this time instead of embarrassed down-ward glances or ashamed fussing, Aziraphale purses his lips and meets Crowley head on, finally giving into the temptation to fight.

“I'm sorry, but I’m terribly confused why you even care!"

"What?"

“You've helped me, you've given me this connection with the world, and I am sorry that I could not live to your expectations and be rid of everything perfectly, but why is this so important to you?” Aziraphale rants profusely, his voice becoming higher and louder with every sentence, ending with that smug self righteousness, like he’d found the hole in Crowley’s plan and is very proud of himself of doing so.

"Because I want to, you idiot!” Crowley bellows, and he snaps into motion, ending up close — closer than allowed — leaning over Aziraphale. His heart is beating like a racehorse in his chest, and though he continues to hiss his words fueled by centuries of frustration, his breathing suddenly stops as his hand lowers of his own accord, heading to Aziraphale’s face. "Touch is a form of communication, and sometimes—“ Crowley slowly puts hand on Aziraphale’s jaw, breath hitching as he feels the warm skin underneath his finger tips. All fight leaves him at once. He wets his lips and continues softly, too earnestly: "Sometimes I just want to speak to my best friend, alright?"

There is a moment that Crowley knows Aziraphale will give in. His eyes, his beautiful eyes, go from staring into Crowley’s, to Crowley’s lips, to the hand connecting them both. Crowley almost feels Aziraphale leaning imperceptibly into the touch, his cheeks blazing and a hint of that very same expression he wore at The Ritz. The one of overwhelming love and happiness and oh god Crowley is giving that to him, he can feel it, he can—

Aziraphale puts one hand to Crowley’s chest and pushes. “I— I’m sorry."

Crowley flinches back as if burned. He feels burned. He feels like he’s been thrown in the bath of Holy Water after all, and his very essence is melting away; left to mingle with the wine and glass underneath his feet.

Aziraphale’s gaze is still on him, cataloging whatever expression might be on Crowley’s face right now, and Aziraphale responds to it with a face filled with regret; sad eyes and downturned lips. Yet he does not take his actions back. Yet he does not apologize.

And yet, there is still an unbridgeable rift between the two of them, and Crowley can feel it with every damn breath.

"You know what,” Crowley coughs out. His voice is a ruin and his throat feels sealed shut. He swallows a few times, trying to get any words out. He ends up saying, way too soft and stuttering over the syllables, “I’m— I’m going ho— home”

Crowley shambles away from the sofa, fully prepared to dive head first in the back of the Bentley and have a very evil cry about the whole thing.

But— he’s stuck. Suddenly. One foot is half way through the ground but something is holding him back to continue. Something tugging around his wrist. Crowley turns around, determined not to look upon Aziraphale’s regretful face, and then he notices—

Aziraphale has grabbed his arm.

Aziraphale is off the sofa, his proper expensive shoes in the middle of a pool of wine and he’s got his fingers twisted into the fabric of Crowley’s jacket, and Crowley has absolutely no idea what to do with this.

“Crowley, stay,” Aziraphale pleads. And oh, maybe walking away was the stupidest idea Crowley has ever had. Worse than even starting this conversation, or the whole M25 debacle, because Aziraphale is making the same face he made when Crowley asked for the Holy Water, and Crowley had promised himself that he’d never let that face happen again.

He failed. Another one to the tally.

“Let me explain,” Aziraphale adds, when he seems to register that Crowley has stopped trying to walk away. “It is not you. It’s not you, Crowley. Please believe me. Your love is loud and beautiful. Like— like crepes: sweet soft and light and all I ever want and— That is the problem here, you see, I don't want to tune it out. I don't want to push it to the background like I do with everyone else, and that is just— that is just so selfish and inconsiderate of me I can't believe it."

Aziraphale drops his hand and it feels like the shifting of the earth. Like a slow earthquake just happened to come along very locally and pushed the ground just so that Crowley is shoved toward Aziraphale without his consent.

Or it might be the fact that Crowley’s feet have declared mutiny and brought him right in front of a very embarrassed looking angel.

"You're not touching me, to preserve my privacy," Crowley says very slowly, trying to make sense of it as the words leave his mouth.

"Yes,” Aziraphale says promptly, nodding. “I suppose you could put it that way."

“Angel, for fuck’s sake,” Crowley exclaims, wishing he could take Aziraphale by the shoulders and shake him. “I don't care. I don't fucking care if you feel all that shit, because you already know I do. You know me, even when I pretend you don't. I've accepted that a long time ago. So stop worrying, take a swim as much as you like, okay. Just don't shut me out. Don't avoid me. Please?"

Aziraphale’s eyes snap to his, boring through his skull like he can see the very self beneath the brainmatter. His reddish cheeks are suddenly broken up with a radiant smile, and he raises up on his toes, swaying another inch closer towards Crowley. "Alright, if you're sure."

Crowley suppresses a gasp and swallows instead. Slowly, so incredibly slowly, he holds up his hand and brings it to Aziraphale’s shoulder, sliding from cloth to skin in small increments, watching for any hint of resistance, ready to pull back at even the smallest of flinches.

Aziraphale’s smile turns soft and he lets out a huff that sounds almost fond. His hand catches Crowley’s, but he doesn’t push it away. He twines their fingers together and squeezes.

“Thank you, Crowley,” he says, closing his eyes, his face falling in pure contentment, making Crowley’s knees weak.

“What do you feel?” Crowley whispers, barely daring to speak out of fear to break the fragile moment.

“You—” Aziraphale thinks for a moment, an adorable little frown on his forehead. “You feel happy, I think."

"Got it in one, angel, got it in one."

 

—————

Aziraphale is everywhere. Crowley muses that all the distance that has ever been between them gets completely erased within the week. With the same obsessive curiosity he put into sushi and theatre, it seems like Crowley had gifted him yet another avenue of new experiences. Crowley thought he’d have a heart attack when Aziraphale slid his legs over Crowley’s on one of their late chatty nights, or every time their feet brush during dinner at the Ritz. There is a certain tension around Aziraphale that has suddenly disappeared, like he’d had to work so hard to keep the distance between them and now that he doesn’t have to anymore, everything about him feels a little more free. His smiles are a little wider, his talking a little more effusive, and his affection is—

Is almost more than Crowley can handle.

There are not merely the accidental touches, the one that are a side effect to being in the presence of someone you trust. There are the touches that Crowley had been advocating for, the exchange of communication that Crowley had been fucking gasping for. The temptation to guide Aziraphale along with a hand on the small of his back and then the utter delight to remember that he’s allowed to. The way Aziraphale asks his attention with the brush of a hand or the poke of a finger. They intertwine closer and closer together to a point where Crowley feels like he can live like this for eternity, and never be ungrateful. Because his angel might not love him the same way he has longed for, but this— this is all worth it.

Or at least, that’s what he convinces himself most days.

In truth, Crowley made the grave mistake of picking the apple he’s not supposed to bite, and every time Aziraphale reaches for him, it becomes harder and harder not to.

He would have been able to bare it, if it wasn’t for the wretched ‘experiments’.

Aziraphale comes to him, every once in a while, with those puppy dog eyes Crowley is certain he’s doing on purpose. He’d be a little bashful, wringing his hands together in a strange mix of hesitance and excitement, and Crowley would be doing everything in his power not to take them in his and hold them still — he doesn’t out of fear that Aziraphale won’t voice the reasons he started this little dance once more.

It started small— a request to help him close the strap of his watch, something Crowley's been confused about until Aziraphale had smiled and murmured to himself, ‘ah, I always wondered what that felt like.’

That phrase turns out to be the key to the following weeks. After the watch, Aziraphale had come to him with a tie, after the tie, it he’d requested a braid in his hair. After the braid, he’d asked to hold his hand during a speeding drive through the city center— “It is supposed to help with fear, you know?”

Crowley had known this would be the death of him when Aziraphale had asked him to put sunscreen on his neck because he couldn’t reach— which was ridiculous, he is a literal angel of radiance, the sun wouldn’t dare to turn him into a lobster. With his hands still tingling from the intimate touch, Crowley’s tongue had run away with him and he’d said,

“Angel, you can stop with the excuses, if you want to try something, ask.”

And Aziraphale had smiled, like he’d been waiting for Crowley to break, and had touched Crowley’s shoulder and squeezed. “I will take that in consideration, thank you.”

That interaction had been two days ago, and Crowley has been as jumpy as a kitten since, watching with unnecessary vigilance for Aziraphale’s first explicit request. And judging by the way Aziraphale’s eyes twinkle with mischief, the bastard is very conscious of the effect he’s having and enjoying it greatly.

What a bastard. Fuck, Crowley loves him.

It all falls together, or rather vaguely slaunters towards a happy ending, on a silent Saturday morning, nothing but the muffled sounds of the cars below on the streets and the fearful shaking of Crowley’s plants, to disturb him as he wakes luxuriously in the first sun rays.

When he finally deigns to slide out of bed, he notices that his flat isn’t as quiet as he previously thought. There is a subtle hint of activity overlaying the peaceful calm, but instead of disturbing it, it mixes into the fabric of his contentment seamlessly. Because Crowley recognizes that shuffling; the tinkle of porcelain, the bubble of boiling water, and the positively angelic humming of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Crowley breathes in the smell of roasted beans and honeyed tea, and opens the door to his kitchen, were he catches Aziraphale putting a hint of sugar in a cup of coffee.

Crowley,” Aziraphale says warmly, almost with a hint of surprise delight, like he’s caught off guard by Crowley’s sudden presence, despite being literally in his home. “I hope I didn’t wake you up?”

“No,” Crowley says. He leans against the doorway, keeping a distance himself now. Somehow, he knows that it won’t last long, and withholding himself while knowing it’s temporary almost feels delicious in a strange and satisfying way. “What brings you here, Angel?”

Aziraphale fusses with the glasses, but his warm smile doesn’t dim one bit. “I have been thinking,” he begins softly, “and there has been one thing I have been wanting to try but never thought of a way to— to—”

“To trick me into it?” Crowley offers, and barks a laugh when Aziraphale shoots him a look. “No, no, I’m proud of you for it, but did you really think I wouldn’t catch on?”

Aziraphale huffs and mumbles something under his breath that suspiciously sounds like, “You hadn’t caught on for 6,000 years so forgive me for assuming.”

Crowley raises his eyebrows at him for that, his heart racing at what that implies. “Are you saying I’m oblivious?”

Aziraphale turns away from the glasses and faces him. “I’m saying that we both might have been.”

It is such a weirdly silent Saturday. The world seems miles and miles away. Crowley fancies that Aziraphale can hear his breath stuttering from over there. He’s suddenly entirely too far away. Time seems to slow down, and they’re standing on a precipice. A precipice — a fall — they won’t come back from the same. Crowley smiles, and as always, takes the first step.

“Whatever you want from me,” he says, breaching the distance between them. “I’ll give it to you.”

Aziraphale doesn’t hide a gasp, and the smile he unleashes seems entirely too surprised, like he can’t believe his luck; like he wasn’t quite sure if he was right. It belies a hint of doubt beneath all of his open affection that Crowley is desperate to extinguish for eternity.

Crowley reaches out, gently taking his arm and guiding him closer. Aziraphale goes, no hesitation, swaying forward far enough for the edge of his jacket to brush Crowley’s hip.

Like gravity pulling, they meet in the middle, and then further still. Crowley feels Aziraphale’s breath on his face and is suddenly enveloped in his own hesitance— the knowing that he fucks this up their friendship will be forever broken.

Aziraphale doesn’t let him doubt either. His hand find Crowley’s, and his fingers brush over the top of Crowley’s hand, bringing an intense sense of calm— of certainty. They are going to be fine. They’ve always been, together.

“What do you want, Aziraphale,” Crowley whispers. “What do you want?”

“I—,” Aziraphale swallows. His eyes seem wet, and Crowley finally understands how one can drown in love. “I—”

“Just pick something,” Crowley says. “Anything. There are no wrong answers, not with this.”

Aziraphale’s expression blooms with affection and a small tear spills over his cheek. “All right then, I want an embrace.”

Crowley doesn’t need to hear that twice. He folds his arms around Aziraphale and the breath in his lungs is punched out with force when Aziraphale does the same, tightening like he’s afraid Crowley will step away any moment.

“I won’t, I won’t leave, I promise,” Crowley murmurs, distractedly pressing a kiss on top of Aziraphale’s head. He feels a tear of his own forming when the action makes Aziraphale melt completely into the embrace.

Crowley doesn’t know how long they stand there, enveloped by the love they hold for one another and the warm sun rays of a morning he’ll never forget. Crowley doesn’t care about their drinks that are cooling on the counter. He doesn’t feel any shame for the silent sobs that release from his chest, caused by the ineffable feeling of having Aziraphale in his arms, doing the exact same.

The morning sun has turned away from the kitchen window by the time Aziraphale leans away from Crowley’s chest— barely, just enough to tilt his face up and dry his cheeks with his jacket sleeves.

“I think I have figured it out,” Aziraphale says, his eyes almost disappearing in his laugh lines. “I— I know what I want now.”

Crowley smiles back at him, overwhelmed with more emotions than he can count, but he cannot help to feel calm with Aziraphale so close to him. “And what is that then?”

Aziraphale smiles wider and grabs Crowley by the collar. His smile sharpens with that bastardly hint that makes Crowley shiver to his core.

“You,” Aziraphale says simply, and then pushes Crowley up against the fridge and kisses him like he’s never wanted anything else as much in his life.

Crowley relates very much to the feeling, and makes sure to communicate that— entirely through touch.