There were crescent-moon indentions in the heel of Aziraphale’s hand. Tiny little red marks scattered across his palm.
Not deep. Never deep. Not enough to draw blood. Not enough to injure .
Enough to remind him where he was. What he was.
The stakes .
Little tiny moons, peppered across his skin.
Don’t get too relaxed, don’t get too comfortable, don’t let your guard down .
Incessant little reminders.
A clenched fist could not reach out. A clenched fist did not tenderly caress.
The bite in his palms kept him sane, kept him safe, kept Crowley safe.
It was a learned behaviour , as Staats would say.
A behaviour that had turned into a habit, into something so routine and mindless that Aziraphale was unconscious of his actions until his hand would long to hold, to touch, and the stinging of his palms would bring him back to himself.
“Why d’you do that?” Crowley asked, gesturing to where Aziraphale’s hands were balled into tight fists in his lap.
“With your hands,” Crowley persisted. The words came casually, came easily, the way they always did after they’d each had their fair share of a bottle of—well. It varied. A bottle of something . Something alcoholic.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, looking down. “Habit, I suppose.”
“Because I did it for more than twenty-one days in a row, apparently—”
“No, not— not that ,” Crowley interrupted. “Why’d you start doing it in the first place?”
Aziraphale’s jaw clicked shut.
What to say?
I had to. It was the only way to keep myself from taking you into my arms, from holding you close, from losing myself in the weight and the simplicity of this beautiful, tragic thing between us. If I didn’t, I’d do something so rash and so foolish and so wonderful.
If I didn’t, I’d get us killed.
I had to protect you.
How much truth did he tell?
They were free, now. Free of heaven, free of hell, free of judgement and condemnation and expectations and punishment. They’d been let go , to put it mildly.
They’d even said it out loud , that thing they’d both already known.
All of me, all of you, all of this, together.
Call it love.
He’d touched Crowley—held his hands, his face, kissed his lips and his cheeks and his shoulders and his forehead and his eyelids and the tip of his nose.
The barriers were gone.
The habits were not.
There was no reason to be afraid, not anymore, but something deep in Aziraphale’s unnecessary bones held fast to the notion that it wasn’t safe .
(But then again, nothing was safe. Not anymore. Possibly not ever.)
“Angel,” Crowley said, and there he was, reaching out.
Always so brave.
Braver than Aziraphale could ever be.
“ Nothing doesn’t leave bruises, angel,” Crowley said gently.
Perhaps he was not quite so drunk as Aziraphale had thought.
“Really, dear, it’s—it really is just a silly old habit.”
“Never said it wasn’t,” Crowley argued. “Just said it wasn’t nothing . Just wondered where the habit came from, s’all.” He took another drink, looked at Aziraphale over the rim of his glass. “You know me,” he continued, and Aziraphale did , knew him like he knew the sun would rise in the east and set in the west, knew him like he knew the pattern of the tides and Oscar Wilde’s poetry. “Always curious.”
The angel bit his lip.
“You don’t have to tell me. You can if you want—you can tell me anything, angel—but you don’t have to. ‘S up to you.”
“Someday,” Aziraphale muttered. “Someday, I’ll—I’ll tell you. I swear I will. Just not—not now. I can’t—”
It was too soon.
Too fast .
“Okay,” Crowley said, moving so that he was standing behind Aziraphale’s chair, his arms wrapped around the angel’s shoulders. “That’s fine, angel. I understand. Whenever you’re ready.”
They both had things, Aziraphale thought. Things they didn’t mention. Things they didn’t talk about.
Fires and holy water and clenched fists and century-long naps and falling and thinly veiled threats and the betrayal of a Creator.
They weren’t secrets, they were—
Perhaps Aziraphale was injured, after all.
Perhaps they both were.
“Just promise me something,” Crowley insisted, his chin resting upon the angel’s head. It was an odd position, but not one Aziraphale found he necessarily minded . “Promise you’ll try and break it.”
“If it’s a habit, you can break it,” Crowley said.
“It’s hurting you, angel,” Crowley murmured. “I can see it —I wasn’t kidding about the bruises. It’s hurting you . I don’t ever want you to hurt.”
Aziraphale stared down at his hands.
After all, injuries would heal.