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The Other Arrangement

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Note: When I was writing this fic I was inspired by the emotion in this absolutely fantastic art by Mundyside on Tumblr (used with permission)

 

It was in Paris that they finally gave into it. There had been quite a few near-misses before that, of course. Millennia of maybes had led to centuries of almosts and then one night in 1586 Crowley had pulled the angel against him in a tavern and pressed their mouths together.

Aziraphale had thought that when it happened Crowley would be rough, needy, commanding, but the gentleness of the demon nearly made him cry. Crowley loved him. Aziraphale needed no more evidence than this, the light fluttering of the demon’s hands at the angel’s throat, his cheek, the back of his neck, touching him everywhere but not claiming him. Holding Aziraphale close, but not harshly. Wanting this so much , having wanted it for thousands of years, and still letting the angel know that it would be easy for him to escape this if he didn’t want it too, that he could simply pull back and it would be over.

It had to be over, of course, but not just yet, please God, not just yet , and Aziraphale had kissed him back, just as gently, just as sweetly, with just as much love. He had woven his fingers into Crowley’s scarlet hair and kissed his beloved demon like it was going to have to last them for thousands of years after.

The Arrangement had started in 1020. The Other Arrangement (they were bad at naming things) began in 1586, because there was only one way to go from there, from kissing, from understanding that they were in love, and that was a more dangerous road than they would ever let each other walk. In the way that forbidden lovers always learned, Aziraphale and Crowley understood that the only way to be together was to not be together. To be Thus far and no farther. To be We’re just friends. To be Really, I don’t even like you, but since you’re here, we might as well have a glass of wine and then go our separate ways.

To never be Oh, darling, just let me hold you . To not ever once be How perfect it is to wake up in your arms in the morning still a little bit sore where my body remembers yours.

The Other Arrangement had been devised stone-cold sober. We need rules , the angel had said, and they’d memorized them, putting them on like chains.

First, of course, no kissing. Not even on the hand, the cheek, the air beside the cheek, not anywhere at all.

Second rule, no touching. There opened up between them a shadowed, cold chasm they were not to cross.

Third, no discussion of sex. The angel had enumerated the types of sexual talking that should be forbidden, ignoring (because he had to now) the demon’s raised eyebrows at the fact that Aziraphale somehow had a mental list of these things ready. No saying anything untoward to each other (Crowley amended that to naughty in the very last joke of that type that they shared). No reading aloud of sensual poetry (that had happened on a couple of prior occasions and had nearly led to kissing). No talking about those other numerous maybes and almosts they’d had. No talking about love-making, past, present, or future, of themselves or other people. And that included mentioning the Other Arrangement ever again.

After they’d parted that night, Aziraphale had cried, with his own arms around himself, feeling more alone than he’d known it was possible to be. The angel and the demon saw each other again ten years after that, and the Other Arrangement had seemed to be holding nicely. It kept them safe. It kept them together. It kept them friends. And for those reasons, it became law. It became second nature. It became This is the way things will always be .

Until it wasn’t. The end of the world had threatened, Heaven and Hell had threatened, and while the wind had certainly come up, it had all ended up blowing over like a thunderstorm warning that produced not a drop of rain.

It took a while for Aziraphale to remember that the Other Arrangement was not, in fact, law. They’d been living on it as if it were the bedrock of their relationship, and it was hard to discover that the rock was sand. It made everything in Aziraphale’s life tilt sideways and tremble. So many questions. Would they really be safe without this arrangement? Were they still in love or had it become too late long ago, their feelings like a neglected garden drying up from lack of water? Could Aziraphale survive the revelation that it was too late if he allowed himself to take a step toward hope? They’d survived Armageddon, the world had not ended. Did Aziraphale really want to chance destroying their world himself?

If only, thought the angel desperately, there were a way to test it without risking everything.

oOo

Crowley had never forgotten about the Other Arrangement. It was stamped on his flesh like a tattoo across all of his exposed skin. He could never not see it. Just as he could always see Aziraphale, whether the angel was present or not. The angel lived behind Crowley’s eyelids, in a safe world. Untouchable.

Armageddon had gone down like a lead balloon but the Other Arrangement was still in effect. Crowley wanted to tear it down, burn it up, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it. Would it shock the angel if Crowley kissed him again? It had gone well the first time, but there’d been a lot of water under the bridge since then. Would Aziraphale be angry? Would he be cold? Had the Other Arrangement become a comfortable place for the angel, an armchair with a pleasant book that contained no drama?

Meanwhile Crowley was about as far from cold as he could get. Since the abotchalypse, old fantasies were being updated in living color every night that he spent alone, pretending he was not alone. The tavern kiss, that walk by the ocean that had led to them holding hands for the first time, and the fantasies had quickly gone far beyond that. Aziraphale in the bookshop, alone for the night, welcoming Crowley’s visit and before long moaning encouragements loud enough to be heard on the street outside. Aziraphale in Crowley’s flat, properly scandalizing the plants with his whispered requests. The angel had a gift for words of love and Crowley hadn’t heard a single one directed his way, loud or soft, since 1586. No teasing, no calling him my dear , no poetry read aloud anymore (apparently in Aziraphale’s opinion, all poetry could be considered sensual). Not a single murmur of the love that had once and only once dared speak its name.

Sometimes Crowley’s fantasies were tiny, delicate wishes inspired by everyday near-misses. Crowley would hold the door open for Aziraphale, and be so close to putting a gentle hand on his back as the angel moved by. They would sit in Aziraphale’s back room facing each other, their knees occasionally passing near as they shifted in their chairs. Crowley fantasized about the brush of hands as he handed Aziraphale a glass of wine, a smoothed away lock of hair, the trace of fingers over Aziraphale’s shoulder when Crowley helped the angel into his coat. Just one single second of physical contact.

Crowley was in love, in lust, and lost. And not just for the last 400 years, but for thousands of years before that. Which is no doubt why it took something so small to set him off.

oOo

It was unfortunate that when Crowley came into the bookshop to collect Aziraphale for dinner that the demon was carrying a cup of coffee. It was more unfortunate that he actually had a mouth full of coffee. The coffee from both sources ended up on the floor, because Aziraphale was walking about the bookshop half naked.

Okay, not exactly half , Crowley’s poor brain amended as he somehow managed to miracle away the coffee mess. His feet. The angel’s feet were naked. Aziraphale wore no shoes or socks. There was almost half an angelic foot visible beneath each pant leg, and ten completely uncovered pink toes. As Crowley’s eyes dragged up the rest of the angel’s form, he noted that there were a couple of other things missing. Aziraphale’s coat. His vest. His bowtie. The angel wore only a dress shirt, with the top button undone, and the sleeves rolled up.

Crowley wasn’t sure where the coffee from the floor ended up. It didn’t appear to go back into his cup. Hopefully he’d never have to find out.

Aziraphale was looking at Crowley curiously, and Crowley was actually changing back to his initial assessment, because if you counted by layers of missing clothing, Aziraphale technically was, in fact, more than half naked.

“Are you all right?” the angel asked.

Crowley was not all right. “You,” he said.

Aziraphale raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”

“You—shoes.”

“Oh. It’s such a nice day. I thought I’d be a little more comfortable this way.” Aziraphale smiled at him, and the expression, as always, formed little crow’s feet on the corners of the angel’s eyes. After millennia of knowing the angel, Crowley had finally decided that the his eyes were the exact color of the sky on the first sunny day after a winter storm. It was a blue that felt both warm and cold mixed together, the shade of a sky so powerful that it had chased all the clouds down to the earth and let them fall as snow.

Crowley continued his brilliant conversational performance. “But you like shoes."

The angel narrowed his eyes as if he were concerned that Crowley might need medical assistance. Crowley finally managed to get his brain to reboot a little bit. “Never mind. Ready for dinner?” Please say yes because going to dinner will require you to put your clothes back on.

“Oh, not yet, I’m afraid. Got a little more work to do here. If you don’t mind?”

Crowley found the couch completely by accident but fortunately remembered what sitting was. “Course not.”

“Oh, good.”

It was not good. It was, in fact, extremely irresponsible of the angel to go about showing people that he had feet, not to mention arms and a collarbone.

Crowley fluctuated between watching Aziraphale work—he was rearranging books and making notes with pencil and paper—and staring at his coffee cup like there were a novel’s worth of words to read on it. Crowley was doing fine. He really was. Keeping himself in check, controlling his desires.

Until Aziraphale abandoned his work and came close. And then closer. And then sat down in the armchair facing the couch, in all his mostly-naked glory, smiling at Crowley with one of those you-light-up-the-world looks. 

Those looks were not forbidden by the Other Arrangement, and Crowley went back and forth sometimes on whether they should have been. It was a fairly simple thing for them to avoid touching. Trying to stop giving your soul mate a look of love would have been a much dicier endeavor. But it while it was a pleasure to see those looks from Aziraphale, it was also a very heavy reminder of what existed but could not be possessed.

“Could we,” Aziraphale asked, “get something delivered? Rather than go out? We could maybe play a game of chess?”

NO , said Crowley inwardly.  Outwardly he said, “Of course.”

Aziraphale beamed at him and while the angel called in the dinner order, Crowley went on a mostly unnecessary search through the bookshop for the chess board. Unnecessary because Crowley could have used a miracle to find it. But he wanted the distraction, the few moments of distance from the angel in the armchair.

When he got back, Aziraphale was reading a book. Except now when he said, “Oh, lovely, thank you,” his voice sounded a little husky.

Crowley gave him a quick once-over. Could Aziraphale be getting sick? It was rare for them to catch cold, but it could happen. Maybe that was the real reason behind the missing clothes. Aziraphale could have a fever. “Would you like some tea?” Crowley asked. It might soothe the angel’s throat.

Aziraphale looked surprised, but he nodded. “Yes, thank you. That would be lovely.”

Crowley smiled back at him, no doubt in that same you-are-my-reason-for-living way, and started toward the kitchen. It was unfortunate (once again) that the route from the sitting area to the kitchen took him past Aziraphale’s chair, and even more unfortunate (again again) that while passing, Crowley happened to glance down in mild curiosity as to what book Aziraphale was reading. It was a near thing that Crowley made it to the kitchen without collapsing on the floor.

Poetry. Sure, fine, the angel liked to read poetry. Couldn’t read it aloud per the Other Arrangement, but Aziraphale still liked to read it to himself.

But that kind of poetry—while Crowley didn’t share Aziraphale’s view that all poems were about romantic love in some way, there were some poems that anyone in their right mind knew were erotic, and one of them was Come Slowly - Eden! by Emily Dickinson. She was a favorite of Aziraphale’s, and Crowley had many of her poems memorized, especially short ones like that.

Come slowly - Eden!

lips unused to thee,

Bashful, sip thy jasmines,

As the fainting bee,

 

Reaching late his flower,

Round her chamber hums,

Counts his nectars —enters,

And is lost in balms!

Aziraphale was reading a poem in which a young lady tempted her lover to approach her, promising love returned. That fact probably would have unsettled Crowley anyway, but Aziraphale was reading this book half-naked .

But Crowley was going to be strong. What was his other choice, to leave? The Other Arrangement had bought them precious time together, and at such a terrible price, it would be senseless to waste it. So the demon willed ice water into his veins and created boiling water for the angel. When he brought out the tea, Aziraphale had fortunately put the book aside.

Crowley spread himself over the couch opposite the armchair and smiled, hopefully in some sort of imitation of his usual mentally sound manner. “So, felt like a game of chess, angel?”

Aziraphale smiled over his mug of tea. “I rather did. Even though you always win. You can see too many moves ahead.”

“Nonsense. You’ve won games.”

Aziraphale raised his eyebrows gently. “When you’ve let me.”

“Well, would you like me to let you win today?” Crowley took off his sunglasses and soaked up the tiny widening of Aziraphale’s eyes as he looked on what the angel considered to be beautiful serpentine eyes. Crowley didn’t agree that they were all that attractive, but he loved to watch Aziraphale think they were.

“No,” said the angel, with a bit of a smile. “I think I’d like to try to win on my own.”

That rather unexpected reply made Crowley grin as he set it the chess board on the coffee table. Naturally, Aziraphale played the white side and Crowley the black.

It was true that Crowley was good at chess. He was good at games, at competitions. As long as he was aware that he was playing.

It was taking Crowley a really rather embarrassingly long time to realize that chess was not the first game that Aziraphale had started playing today.

The first clue—all right, the latest clue in the series—was that while Crowley was taking a moment to ponder a move with his knight, the angel got bored and opened his poetry book again. Crowley paid no attention to this, and was even quite proud of it.

The next clue was the angel making a little husky noise in his throat, a noise that caused Crowley’s hand to spasm around the knight he was holding. He managed not to drop the piece. He did not, however, manage to keep ignoring Aziraphale now that he had made that noise . For fuck’s sake. The angel didn’t have a cold. He was sitting over there in the armchair, as polite as you please, mentally pleasuring himself by silently reading seductive poetry, so much that his voice went all dark and come-hither .

But even with that, Crowley (who was supposed to be clever , for Hell’s sake, two steps ahead , his arse) still didn’t grasp what was going on until the angel practically hit him over the head with it.

Aziraphale stood up, picking up his tea cup and heading to the kitchen to refill it, padding along in his unfairly delectable bare feet. But as he did so, the angel leaned down and put his book onto the table next to the chess board.

It was a perfectly natural thing to do, to set down a book on a table, but the book fell open to another poem, right there in front of Crowley’s face, and as Aziraphale disappeared in the direction of the kitchen, Crowley couldn’t help but read it. And that was when the world finally dropped out from underneath him.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

 

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

 

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

The world falling away was a wondrously, terribly frightening feeling, but also more joy than Crowley had possibly ever experienced.

Come Slowly -Eden!

The angel was doing it on purpose. He was—Aziraphale was still in love. Crowley’s hands scrabbled against the coffee table, his fingers against the book, needing to touch the words.

Hope.

Aziraphale loved him.

And damn the angel, he was playing a game .

And damn him even more, Crowley should have had that idea first!

Because of course, now that Crowley had caught on to what was happening, he understood why Aziraphale was doing it this way. The fear and longing and uncertainty in the angel’s heart were the same that Crowley felt. And honestly, it was perfectly natural that it become a game. How many games had he and the angel played over the years? They loved to compete. Even their discussions were often contests, trying (not unkindly) to score imaginary points by being right about whatever topic they were on.

However, at the moment, Crowley was losing this particular game, and he knew he would not be able to regain the clarity of thought required to play until he’d managed to undo what the angel’s poetry and lack of footwear had done to him.

Crowley proceeded to eat a few bites of dinner and then purposefully let the angel win the chess game, but when he’d gotten home, the world had changed. His fantasies had changed.

Now he had hope .

oOo

It was possible, Aziraphale thought, that he had been successful, that his bare feet and poetry were the cause of the demon’s discomfort: the coffee, the lost chess game, the abrupt dash out the door. Maybe it meant that Crowley wanted the Other Arrangement gone as much as the angel did. But Aziraphale wasn’t certain. Maybe Crowley had been feeling ill. Maybe—and this was a terrifying thought—maybe seeing Aziraphale’s body had made Crowley uncomfortable, but not in a good way. Perhaps Crowley found Aziraphale unattractive physically. He hadn’t before, of course, not in 1586. But that might have changed. After all, between them, Crowley was clearly the more attractive one.

In any case, Aziraphale’s efforts hadn’t led to any declarations of love or even a single brush of Crowley’s skin against his, and now Aziraphale sat on his couch in his bare feet, the poetry book abandoned on the table. He was alone again, and feeling quite hopeless indeed.