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on the necessity of a temptation

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It started with lunch.

Most innocent things do, after all. Just a spot of lunch—it’s practically professional. The so-called working lunch started early, but it had reached peak popularity in the 21st century, which coincided with a peak in the number of businesspeople businessing globally, since businesspeople are, generally speaking, capitalists, and therefore incapable of actually setting work down and enjoying themselves in the middle of the day for something that does not involve a profit. Aziraphale remained more hopeful for the 22nd century, personally, but he couldn’t deny that lunch was a pretty good feature of the day nonetheless.

Crowley and Aziraphale’s first lunch was not really a working lunch, nor would it have been the first working lunch, but it was in that spirit—keep your enemies close, and all that, Aziraphale had thought, teaching Crowley how to eat oysters off the half-shell—and nevertheless that was where this all started.

This went like this.

Aziraphale would make some comment that suggested, to the educated listener, that he was open to an invitation. Crowley, zeroing in on this suggestion like a sunflower tilting toward the sun, would then take a day or so, sometimes a week, sometimes a little more, and eventually makes such an invitation, which Aziraphale would protest, hem and haw over, and finally, happily accept. It had been this way for roughly two thousand years, dating back to that first lunch where Aziraphale had said, “Oh, oh, well let me tempt you to - oh, no. No, that’s—that’s your job, isn’t it?”

In complete fairness, it was actually Crowley’s job.

And Crowley excelled at it with humanity just as he excelled at it with Aziraphale: a temptation offered, a temptation accomplished. No real demonic wiles were ever put to use, but that was hardly the point—the point was the show of it all.

So the temptations started with lunch, which devolved slowly into dinner, then over the years turned to meetings at the theatre or the ballet, to seances by outrageous American frauds and to readings by pompous French authors, and eventually, slowly, to shared bottles of wine at the bookshop, for which Aziraphale technically did the inviting, but Crowley had a knack for hanging about outside the bookshop doors looking like he expected it anyway, which really just meant it was all part of the original temptation of the evening.

The structure of it was critical. Had they been caught, Crowley could have said, right well you’re interrupting my temptation of this angel of the Lord, buzz off please, and Hell would’ve done it, and sent him a commendation besides. Aziraphale, on the other hand, could have said, oh, jolly good, you’ve saved me from this tempter’s horrors, I was very nearly ensnared but you were just distracting enough to let me get away—they had once discussed the possibility of Aziraphale telling whatever agent of Heaven that he was trying to redeem Crowley, which Crowley had loudly and vehemently rejected, and then had not spoken to Aziraphale for weeks—and Heaven would have spirited him away, and they could’ve both gone off with a minimum of smiting and a suggestion, made via communicative eyebrow, to do it again sometime.

There were exceptions, of course, here and there, where Aziraphale had to do the reaching out himself, such as 1601 (which had ended rather embarrassingly for Crowley), 1020 (which had ended rather embarrassingly for Aziraphale), and 1967 (which had ended rather embarrassingly for Ligur, Duke of Hell), but by and large they had a system and the system worked.

Which was, of course, why it all fell apart a couple of months after the end of the world had been cancelled.

*

“What do you say, Aziraphale,” Crowley said one afternoon, “tickets to see Phantom of the Opera again?”

“We’ve seen it a dozen times,” Aziraphale answered, but he took the tickets and the seat next to Crowley in the Bentley, because that was what he did, and because Andrew Lloyd Webber was sort of like the Kardashians of the operatic world—not actually good, but difficult to look away from. (Aziraphale did, in fact, also watch the Kardashians, which he felt gave him the right to make such a statement. Crowley did not know this and would have been aghast if he had; he had, for his part, invented the Kardashians back in 1995, and reality television back in 1948, both to extremely unintended consequence). 

They went to the theatre, and Crowley slept through the second half, tilting gently into Aziraphale’s shoulder, and afterward, Aziraphale thought, he could’ve slept on the sofa more comfortably than here. 

But that was not the structure of this, and so he said nothing.

*

“Angel,” Crowley said, one Saturday morning. “How about a walk round the park?”

“If you like,” Aziraphale said, and he took the lead as they went around the park, because that was what he did, and because that was what parks were for. (That had not, historically speaking, been all that parks were for, but the less said about that the better, at least in polite company. Aziraphale had once thought that Crowley, being a demon, was not polite company, but had found very quickly that he either was polite company after all or just very bad at slang, and Aziraphale hadn’t wanted to parse out the differences just on the off-chance that the demon might end up being the politer company of the two. While Aziraphale suspected that that was true, and had for a long time, he preferred not to have it confirmed.)

They had just got through with feeding the ducks when it began to rain, and Crowley shivered in the Bentley the whole way back to the bookshop, where he dropped Aziraphale off and declined to come in for a cuppa, and afterward, Aziraphale thought, he would’ve been warmer here than at his empty flat.

But that was not the purpose of this, and so Aziraphale let him go.

*

“There’s a new antiques shop just opened up down the road,” Crowley said.

“Let’s do the ballet this weekend,” Crowley said.

“They’re doing a special showing of that old movie you like,” Crowley said.

Crowley said, “Let’s get lunch.”

It always did come back to lunch.

*

The thing was not that Aziraphale didn’t like doing things with Crowley, because he obviously did. He very much did. In fact, Aziraphale liked doing just about everything Crowley offered to do, and despite his hemming and hawing, he generally wanted to do whatever Crowley was offering more than he wanted to sit in his shop and reread Austen again, and Aziraphale liked Austen.

The thing was that he wanted to do more or less everything he wanted to do with Crowley along, including lunch and the theatre and antiques shopping, but also the little things, like rereading Austen and doing his taxes and binge-watching Bake Off. Things that he could do perfectly fine on his own, things that he did rather wishing there were someone nattering on next to him with dry commentary, or else filling the bookshop with the sound of bebop, or else sharing in the miracled-up version of whatever scrumptious thing was being made on telly.

This was all very much a problem for Aziraphale, because this was based in invitations to do things.

Sometimes Aziraphale wanted to just be.

To just exist together, quietly.

He wanted it to be simple. To just be around one another, without needing the excuse of a theatre ticket or a reservation at the Ritz, without having to justify it with something that would serve as a cover-up, some pretextual reason to be in the same place at the same time. He wanted to just be in the same place at the same time, for no other reason than that they were there, and they were together.

And hadn’t they won that freedom? We’re on our own side.

But Crowley didn’t stop with the invitations, and he didn’t start just hanging about the way Aziraphale had rather expected him to, and Aziraphale, well. Aziraphale wanted, and he had spent so very much time wanting. He was consumed with the wanting. He wanted the sleep-soft sound of Crowley’s breath while he dozed; he wanted the quirk of Crowley’s eyebrows from behind a particularly difficult customer; he wanted the touch of Crowley’s hand, casual and cool, to his shoulder, to his elbow, slipping between Aziraphale’s fingers to hold on.

It was rather a lot of wanting for one person, Aziraphale thought, watching Crowley wave goodbye and saunter out of the bookshop after a late dinner at Park Chinois, which was closer to Crowley’s flat than Aziraphale’s shop and after which Aziraphale tried to decide whether Crowley didn’t invite him up because he didn’t want to or because he thought Aziraphale didn’t want him to, and he was beginning to think that he’d rather know than just keep wanting.

Something had to give.

*

“Let’s get lunch,” Crowley said, sauntering into the bookshop one October afternoon, his hair a little windswept and his cheeks a little pink from the chill, “what do you think, Le Café  du Marché?”

Whatever it was that was waiting to give inside Aziraphale’s chest snapped like a twig. He didn’t even like French food.

“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, setting down his book with an argumentative slap. “You don’t even like French food.”

Crowley blinked from where he was loitering by the register, punching buttons on it at random just to point out that it didn’t actually work unless Aziraphale wanted it to, and looked more like a truant caught skipping third period than a lunch companion. “I do so,” he said.

“You don’t,” Aziraphale returned, and that was true, actually, because Crowley liked a crepe now and then, or a chocolate croissant, but he hated gourmet French cuisine, which he thought was mostly a pretentious attempt to disguise what was really just onions in broth as some sort of luxury, “and you don’t like Café  du Marché, either,” and that was also true, because he thought it was a pretentious attempt at humble French country bistro culture, which it may very well have been, “and you don’t even really like lunch,” and that was not quite true, because it wasn’t that Crowley didn’t like lunch so much as it was that Crowley was a bit apathetic toward the whole thing, unless the restaurant was terribly expensive and had appeared on a recent list of London’s most Instagrammable places, and had a good wine list to make up for it.

“Well,” Crowley spluttered indignantly, punching two buttons in quick succession on the register just to hear it ding-ding in protest, “who cares if I like it? You like it,” and that, at least, was true.

I care,” Aziraphale said. “Listen, Crowley, what if. What if we don’t go to lunch?”

Crowley gave him a look like he was being particularly thick. The register dinged again. “If we don’t go to lunch, what do you want to do?”

“Do we need to do anything?”

Crowley’s look deepened, and was now accompanied by a frown. “If you’re not in the mood, I can take a rain check.”

“No, no,” Aziraphale said, and he stood, going to stand at the counter across from Crowley and putting a hand on the register to stop another impending ding. “What if we just stay here? And—and we can each do a thing we like to do. Without any pressure. I can do some light reading, perhaps, and you can take a nap, or yell at the succulent you put in my window last week. Whatever you like. And when we’re good and ready, we can go out, and do anything we like, and then come back here and do some more of what we like. Whatever we like.”

Crowley squinted at him. He said, slowly, as if sounding around the words, “You mean, we’re not going to do anything, and then we’ll do the thing, and then we’ll not do anything some more.” He struggled a moment or two, and actually took a step back before saying, as if he were trying to seem incredibly nonchalant, “But doing things is what we do. Why would—what would be the point of me being here otherwise?”

If he had looked nonchalant, it might have come across as petulant, as whiny, even, as if Aziraphale were contemplating wasting a whole lot of his time for no good reason. If he had looked nonchalant, it might have come across as flippant, as if he didn’t care whether he stayed or went. If he had looked nonchalant, it might have come across as if he weren’t the least bit terrified.

He did not look at all nonchalant.

Aziraphale stepped around the counter, stepping toward him. Crowley, panicking, reached out to the register and dinged it again.

“Crowley,” Aziraphale said very gently, over the ding-ding-ding of the register, which suddenly went silent despite Crowley continuing to punch at the little keys. “The point of you being here is you.”

And Aziraphale reached out, putting his hand on Crowley’s to lift his hand away; Crowley jumped, as if he’d been zapped by an electric shock, but his hand closed tight around Aziraphale’s and, oh, Aziraphale wanted that, Aziraphale had wanted that for such a long time. The warmth of his palm, the strength of his fingers: to be held onto, to not be let go.

Crowley didn’t even seem to notice he’d done it. Instead he started to breath, which only highlighted the fact that he’d stopped, and the breathing got faster and faster as Aziraphale stepped closer, as if approaching overwhelmed.

Aziraphale had only ever seen Crowley really, properly overwhelmed twice before, and both of those times had been on the day the world was supposed to end; he wasn’t sure whether seeing it now was encouraging or not, but he was this close to the wanting, up to his elbows in it, and he wasn’t going to back out now.

He was full up of wanting, brimming with it, and he thought maybe Crowley was too.

“We don’t need to do things, we don’t need the excuses,” Aziraphale told him, and though he’d thought about it dozens of times, he was never as sure of it as he was then. “You don’t need to bait me into spending time with you. This isn’t a temptation, and it isn’t a cover-up. We’re free agents. We can do what we like, and what I would like, very much, is to be with you. All the time. Even when we aren’t doing anything.”

Crowley was staring at their joined hands. “Oh,” he said, a bit faintly. He did not say anything else.

Aziraphale waited. Patiently. Very patiently. For eleven whole seconds, and he prided himself on all eleven of them because bugger if they weren’t the longest, most difficult eleven seconds of his life, and he’d once had to share an elevator in Heaven with the Archangel Michael for seventeen interminable floors.

This can’t be worse that that, he thought, so Aziraphale took a deep breath and said, “Well. Considering that, I mean. What do you—what would you like?”

Crowley’s jaw worked for a moment. “I dunno,” he managed, and he really did look like he didn’t quite know. “I don’t think about it like that. It was all—you know, trying to find something.” He gulped, turned faintly pink, and looked away. “Some reason. That’s what I wanted, the reason.”

He wanted, he’d said. He wanted a reason to see Aziraphale. He wanted.

Aziraphale stepped in, closer, closer. “And what I said, about all the time, without needing something to do—is that?”

“Yeah,” Crowley said. His hand was still holding onto Aziraphale’s very tightly. “That is.”

And then Crowley’s eyes darted up, as if to check that that was all right, and they both smiled at the exact same time, in the exact same way. It was the sort of smile a person gets when they’re watching a cute dog video on the internet, thinking, “hmm cute dog,” and then the video gets to its end and the dog does something absolutely adorable unexpectedly, and the person, who was probably trying to watch the video discreetly in an office meeting about financial accounts, has that surprised, unexpected smile, which they must try to tamp down before anyone notices and thinks they’re not taking this seriously, which is to say: uncontrollable, unstoppable, and faintly panicky about it.

“Good,” Aziraphale said. “That’s—good.”

“Yeah,” Crowley agreed. “I think, though, that. That.” He stopped.

Aziraphale nodded encouragingly. “Go on. You think?”

“I think there’s something else I maybe want,” Crowley said, all in a rush. He sounded a bit strangled, like he were saying the words through the vice grip of an ancient will that had previously stopped them in his throat, but had, in the last five to fifteen seconds, gone weak, and he was trying to get them out before it tightened again.

“Instead of the, erm—?”

“No. In addition to.”

Crowley had gone even pinker around the cheeks, and his palm, still held tightly to Aziraphale’s, had started to sweat. Aziraphale stepped in a little closer, putting his other hand to Crowley’s elbow, cupping it, holding him. Holding him. “Yes?”

“You understand, of course, that this is all—well, optional. Not required. I’m not asking, per se, I’m more like—just putting it out there, you know, just since we’re talking about things, and stuff, and I thought—well, I’ve thought it for a really long time, if you must know—thought about it a lot actually, probably much more than I ought to have thought about it—and it’s all right if you don’t think much about it, because, well, as you know, from previous experience, from our past, er, relationship, such as it was, that I don’t need it or anything. Really I don’t. So, if that’s your preference, that’s all, you know, very well and good, and you don’t need to consider at all of course my preference, because it’s not really a preference per se such as it is as it is more like a, well.”

He said all of this very fast, and then stopped again, as if struggling for the next word.

“It’s more like,” Crowley said, after a very long pause, “more like a dream. No, I mean, a request. No, I mean, it’s more like a, a, an inclination, a vague inclination, just a wondering sort of really, nothing too—too serious—fuck.”

Aziraphale had taken another step in, and put his hand to Crowley’s cheek. “Crowley,” he said, enunciating very calmly, even though he did not feel calm at all, even though he felt like there was a thunderstorm raging beneath his ribs, even though he felt like he was going to shake right out of this body in anticipation because he suspected, really he did, but he needed Crowley to say it to be sure, good Lord, would one of them finally say it, “please just tell me what it is.”

Crowley looked at him, blinking with wide, yellow eyes, and said, quietly, “I want to kiss you,” and then looked very surprised at himself for having said it, as if he hadn’t really meant to. “Or for you to kiss me,” he added, with the expression of someone who hadn’t meant to say that either, and then he said, with the expression of someone who hadn’t meant to say anything but who had, and now had nothing left to lose anyway, “just so long as there’s kissing.”

And then he closed his eyes, now with the expression of someone who was hoping either to be struck dead immediately by a bolt of lightning, or to be kissed.

Aziraphale kissed him.

It was a quiet thing, a little bit of an uncertain thing. The sharp intake of Crowley’s breath, the movement of his jaw, the clutch of his hands: he was hesitant, as if he couldn’t quite believe it was happening, and Aziraphale pressed a little closer, pressed a little deeper, meeting all of Crowley’s questions and giving him the answer, it is, it is. Aziraphale pressed, and Crowley responded, and they moved and moved together, slowly, testing, tasting, trying.  

Crowley was quiet when Aziraphale drew back, his eyes still closed behind his sunglasses. Aziraphale couldn’t see, in the low light of the shop, but he knew. He always knew, with Crowley.

“Is that,” Aziraphale said, and good grief, they were pressed against one another, pressed so tight he could feel all of Crowley’s angles and curves, all of the long stretch of his body, the quick breath in his chest, the burning pulse of his heart, and Aziraphale laughed, giddy and little unsteady, “is that what you had in mind?” 

“Uh,” Crowley said, “just about, yeah,” and he kissed Aziraphale again. 

It was different this time, deeper this time, half-full of laughter that dissipated into something vivid and profound, and this, Aziraphale thought distractedly, this, at the meeting, at the movement, at the grasp of Crowley’s hands, this, he thought, pulling Crowley closer, listening to the soft sound in the back of his throat and the pounding sound under his breastbone, reveling in the way Crowley sank in, the way he clung on, the way he opened, the way he gave, pouring himself down into Aziraphale as if he’d been waiting for years and years just on the other side of a dam and now it had broken, now it had crumbled, this, he thought, with the way he gasped against Aziraphale’s mouth and the way he pressed close, with the way he tasted sharp like salt water and the way he smelled rough like tree bark, with the curl of his hands into the back of Aziraphale’s jacket Aziraphale like seafoam, milk-sweet and endless, this is what kissing was intended for.

He was just as surprised to have reached the end of the thought as he was to reach the end of the kiss, but Crowley was pulling away, taking his sunglasses off and tossing them onto the counter. His eyes were brilliant and shining, gone yellow from edge to edge the way they’d been that first day, on the gates of Eden, the way they’d been before he’d learned to pull them back, to restrict them, to hide.

They were full up of wanting. 

“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, cupping his face, and it was almost like laughing, that feeling in Aziraphale’s chest, pressing on him from the inside out, expanding underneath his ribs, and it was almost like crying, too, like caving in. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted you? How long I’ve loved you?”

“Always,” Crowley told him, already pulling him in again, an answer and a confession both given against his mouth, “since the very first—I never knew how—” the rest of it was lost but Aziraphale knew it was true, it was true for him and for Crowley and for both of them, that they’d wanted and didn’t know how to say, that they’d wanted and didn’t know how to give or to take or to ask because if it were lost, if it had been lost before now, before this, all this love, because how could it ever have been anything else, it had been love long before he’d known the word for it, long before he even wanted to know the word for it, and it was bright and it was beautiful and Crowley was kissing him again, Crowley was here and Crowley was wanting and Crowley was offering and it finally, finally, finally, had absolutely nothing to do with lunch. 

The kissing didn’t stop.

God, it was like drowning, it was like burning, it was like learning to breathe for the very first time in this body, like learning to touch for the very first time, as if he’d never touched anything before, and who cared if that was blasphemy, who cared at a moment like this. Crowley was alive against him, sharp edges and soft skin, hands seeking and teeth nipping, pushing and pulling until Aziraphale had him crowded up against the counter, holding him as closely as he could, and there was so much of him, the stubble on his cheeks and the curve of his eyebrows and the notch at the base of his neck, and he was warm and he was safe and he was there, fumbling with Aziraphale’s bow tie as if it had personally offended him, his head tilted back as Aziraphale discovered his collarbones, his chest, the planes of his stomach, and the kissing didn’t stop.

“Aziraphale,” Crowley said, or maybe he didn’t say, maybe Aziraphale only heard it on some other plane, who could tell, who could tell where one of them ended and the other began anymore, he wasn’t even sure they did end and begin anymore, “Aziraphale, please.” 

“Tell me,” Aziraphale answered, hands on Crowley’s ribs, mouth tracing some line where his shoulder met his chest, and it was always this, wasn’t it, ever since the beginning, ever since they’d started, an invitation that hid the deeper plea inside it, a prayer disguised as a temptation, “tell me what you want, Crowley.”

Crowley told him, and Aziraphale gave it to him, gave everything to him, gave every piece of himself over and held Crowley tight as he did, the flex and the thrust, the exploration and the discovery, the gasp and the breath, and Crowley whispered to him every temptation he’d wanted but never made, and Aziraphale did not feel tempted so much as he did saved.

When they slowed, after the desperation and the recklessness had faded, Crowley rested his forehead against Aziraphale’s, and the laughter was there again, shaky and trembling but true. “I have to say, angel,” he grinned. “That was an awful lot of doing for someone who’d just been talking about not doing anything.”

Aziraphale laughed too. “I didn’t say we shouldn’t do anything, I said we should do as we liked.”

Crowley reached over and pressed another key on Aziraphale’s register, which dinged obligingly, if a little scandalisedly. “You said we should do whatever we liked, and then go do something we liked, and then come back and do some more of whatever we liked.” 

Ding, the register went again, and Aziraphale’s hand smoothed its way down Crowley’s arm, covering his, stilling it on the keys. “I said you should stay,” he said, kissing the corner of Crowley’s mouth. “If you liked.” 

“As long as there’s kissing,” Crowley agreed. “But for now, I think—well.”

“Well?” 

“I think I’m in the mood for some lunch, actually.” 

*