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socially-approved distances

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I’m setting the alarm clock for July. Goodnight, angel. 

Aziraphale set the phone carefully back into its cradle. July. He looked at the calendar—it was only the first of May. July seemed ages away. Aziraphale could only imagine how much cake he’d have to bake to pass the time all the way until July.

Well, no matter. He’d only just made his way through his collection of Shakespeare, and he still had all of Austen and Dickens yet to go. If he nipped off the serious business of reading occasionally to refresh himself with a little Heyer or Adams, who was to know? It wasn’t like he didn’t have plenty of time. And of course it was a prime opportunity to finally go through Tolkien’s entire ouvre, now that he finally had the time to understand all the fiddly bits about simarils and talking trees. Why, he’d be lucky to get through all of it by July!

And Crowley was fine, really. Bored, of course, but only because he was being obstinate. He could very well be out and about, exercising his demonic wiles, if he wanted to; he could very well be out and about, breaking the rules, getting ominously close to people. Isn’t that what he so often said? Rules were made to be broken, angel. Aziraphale was surprised he’d been so unwilling to break these ones.

What was the difference, Aziraphale wondered, between June and July? June should’ve been just as well. Goodness, hopefully June would be just as well. But Crowley’d decided on July.

Aziraphale should have—but no. He could hardly have invited Crowley. It was against the rules.

*

Sod the rules.

Crowley was bloody sick and tired of rules. Finally get an angel free of Heaven’s thumb and the quarantine shoved itself in to make sure there were still plenty of rules to follow. He would’ve considered whether Heaven were responsible, but all told Heaven wasn’t organized enough to pull off something like this on a global scale—no, this was merely humanity, and the price of being human all together on one planet.

Sometimes, without the interference of Heaven or Hell, shit just happened.

He’d been waiting weeks now for Aziraphale to extend some kind of invitation. There was certainly no risk to quarantining together—they couldn’t get sick, or get anyone else sick. And if it was the peace and quiet Aziraphale was concerned about preserving in the shop, Crowley could be quite small, when he wanted, and very quiet, and it wasn’t as if he was going to intrude all over Aziraphale’s cakes either. It would just be nice to be in the same space as another person, to see someone in real time, to know that he wasn’t so alone in the world as these rules made it seem.

He was, though. All he had was a couple of keepsakes and an angel that suggested he get his kicks by tempting humans into endangering their lives.

He was alone.

Sod the rules, and sod waiting around for invitations that were never going to be forthcoming. Crowley would wait two days—he’d practically promised that—and then he was going to snap himself into a pair of black pyjamas, set his alarm for September, and go to sleep.

*

Aziraphale should call. 

Crowley’d said that if he didn’t find something to do in the next two days, he was going to take a nap. And that would be weeks without anyone to call, weeks without knowing whether Crowley were up to something or whether he’d finally taken off to Alpha Centauri without saying anything, weeks without knowing if he were all right. Aziraphale should call.

No, Aziraphale should sit himself down with The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and have himself a nice cup of cocoa, and perhaps later see if he could try his hand at a Victorian sponge.

He wanted to call.

Oh, but what was there to say? It was one thing if Crowley had already been out and about among the masses, doing his usual demonic mischief, and simply happened to stop by, but it was quite another for Aziraphale to ring him up and say, oh, you’re awake still, jolly good, listen, why don’t we sod the rules and hunker down together, as you say?

There were rules for a reason, after all. What if someone saw Crowley, slithering on over in the Bentley with a few cases of what would no doubt be very good wine and probably several bags of takeaway from restaurants that weren’t actually open? What if someone reported them? The rules were intended to keep them safe, after all.

Aziraphale didn’t feel very safe. Well, he did, he supposed—it’s not like those burglars gave him a scare, really, he’s made of stronger stuff than a few scrawny lads trying to ease their newfound unemployment with the meagre earnings of a run-down old bookshop—but that wasn’t the primary thing he felt.

What he felt was lonely.

*

A day passed. Aziraphale didn’t call again.

Crowley wasn’t put out. He wasn’t expecting Aziraphale to call, so there wasn’t much to be put out about.

He’d been trying to think of ways to pass the time that didn’t involve sleeping, but so many of the available options had already been done to death. He’d organized his collection of soul music three times, first by album title, then by artist’s name, and then by each album producer’s mailing address, and then he’d organized his collection of soul music, though there was really only one standard for that, which was based on a sliding scale of does this seem like it’s going to rip my spine out through my nose, or through my toes? He’d updated his recipe blog with a heinous seven-layer burrito creation intended to be put together and baked in a bundt tin, which utilized SPAM in lieu of beef mince and which was going to go viral by the end of the week. He’d even repotted a pothos that had been flourishing perfectly well right in the middle of the conservatory room just for the chaos of it.

And he was still. So. Bored.

A few times he did actually consider going out and feeding the ducks at St James, who were surely hard-up for their usual nibbles of Russian black bread or Dutch tiger bread, and then it would be next to nothing to pick up a few take-away containers of Chinese or roast lamb for dinner, and if he happened to be picking up his take-away in Soho it really would be safer to stop at the bookshop. Hardly be worth the risk of going all the way home.

Safer, maybe, yes. Not exactly within the rules, as they were, but if it were all accidental, if it were all coincidental, yes, that would be safe. And Aziraphale would hardly turn him away once he were already there.

Crowley knew that dance. He’d been dancing it for decades, centuries, millennia. He’d danced it in Rome, and in Paris; he’d danced it in St James' and in Soho and at the Ritz.

He was sick and tired of dancing. He was sick and tired of safer. He was sick and tired of hardly being worth the risk.

He wasn’t being entirely fair, he knew. Aziraphale was trying, and in truth he’d been doing so well, in the months following the end of the world. They’d spent more time together in six months than they had in six hundred years put together. They’d gone to dinner and to the theatre; they’d spend afternoons in the park and in the bookshop, drinking and laughing. They’d even been several times to tea at Jasmine Cottage out in Tadfield, where Anathema always referred to them as a them and which Aziraphale never corrected.

There’d been brushes of hands, even. Late nights spent sitting side-by-side on the sofa. Long looks that had practically bordered on gazes, and Aziraphale had stopped looking away as soon as Crowley’s eyes had met his.

And then: the lockdown. The rules. New excuses for Aziraphale to draw back; new reasons for Aziraphale to put a socially-approved amount of distance between them.

I’m not miserable, Aziraphale had said.

Well, Crowley was.

*

Two days, Crowley had said.

Two days, and then he’d go to sleep. July, if not longer—Aziraphale suspected it would be longer. Crowley had a knack for sleeping through his alarm, after all; it was, of course, the only demonic thing to do with an alarm, if one really thought about it. Two days, which meant that Crowley would be asleep within a few hours, if he wasn’t already, and then it would be months before Aziraphale spoke to him again.

And Aziraphale would only have himself to blame.

He’d not been able to concentrate on Douglas Adams. He’d not even been able to concentrate on his goat’s cheese and veg tarts, which had burnt nearly to charcoal in his oven before deciding, under a stern glare, that they were all right after all. Instead he’d been standing at the bookshop’s window, watching the odd delivery boy rush by, and half the time he didn’t even remember to bless their face masks.

Crowley would sleep for months, probably even past the end of the quarantine, and Aziraphale would have nothing to do about it but to wait, and no one to speak to—at least, no one to speak to about the things that mattered. No one to share a bottle of wine with; no one to split desserts with. He’d have no one to celebrate the re-opening of the Ritz with. He’d even been toying with the idea of a late summer holiday to Brighton, if things were better by then, and he’d have no one to do that with either.

He turned away from the window, and looked at the old Bakelite phone sitting at his desk, waiting.

The thing was—well, Aziraphale had never thought anything as daring as this before, but it was his own mind, and perhaps he ought to take control of the things it thought—the thing was that Aziraphale didn’t want to do any of those things with just anybody.

It wouldn’t matter if Anathema Device and her young man came down from Tadfield to celebrate the re-opening of the Ritz. It wouldn’t matter if, miraculously, the Dowlings and the Youngs ended up on holiday in Brighton the same week in late August, where two young boys might find a kindred spirit on the beach. It wouldn’t matter if there were any more damned cakes.

It wouldn’t matter if Crowley weren’t there.

Aziraphale picked up the phone, and before he could quite talk himself out of it, dialed Crowley’s number.

It rang. And rang. And rang.

But then, finally, there was a click, and the huff of a breath, and a very muzzy, “’lo?”

“Oh, Crowley,” Aziraphale nearly cried with relief. “Oh, it’s—it’s me again. Just, er, calling in to check on you again.”

“I know it’s you,” Crowley croaked. “S’going on? Something wrong?”

Oh, he had been asleep—Aziraphale could hear it in his voice. He’d been tucked up in bed already, curled around himself alone, prepared to spend the next several months without a thought in his head about Aziraphale.

What an utter fool Aziraphale was—had always been, where Crowley was concerned. Always one step behind, always one moment too late. Always with a courage too thin to hold up the feeling in his heart, always too cautious to let that heart be drawn forth and set out and named.

“I’m so sorry,” Aziraphale said, “there’s nothing wrong, I—I didn’t mean to wake you. I was only hoping to catch you before you began that nap, but I was too late, I see.”

There was a grunt, and the soft susurrus of sheets moving around a body. “Answered the phone though, didn’t I?” Crowley said. He sounded as if he were already drifting off again.

“Yes, I suppose you did.”

There was a long pause, and then Crowley asked, “So? What did you want?”

Aziraphale huffed a nervous laugh. “The million dollar question, isn’t it?” he said, more to himself than anything. “What do I want?”

Another pause, and another sound of moving sheets, and then Crowley suddenly sounded much more awake, as if he’d sat upright in bed. “Aziraphale?”

“It’s a very good question,” Aziraphale went on. “Not one I’ve asked myself very often over the years.”

“Are you kidding? You’re the most hedonistic person I know. You always get what you want. Books and tailored clothes, fine foods and finer wines—”

“None of that matters, though, does it? That’s all—” he waved a hand, though Crowley couldn’t see it— “That’s all nonsense, really. Details meant to cushion the rough edges of something else, as if it could possibly do well enough as a substitute. But it doesn’t, Crowley. It doesn’t substitute at all, and I couldn’t—I can’t possibly—”

He cut himself off, fighting every word as it tried to come out, feeling very like an entire dictionary’s worth of confession was trying to make its way up and out his throat.

“Hey,” Crowley said, softer now, “You’re all right, Aziraphale. Everything you are, everything you want, it does matter. That’s what makes you the angel you are, that’s what makes you, you know, the kind of angel who could step up to protect the Earth and all the humans and everything. It’s not that you want all that stuff, it’s just that you love it. Very angelic of you, not that Heaven’d know that if it stepped off the escalator wearing nothing but a tea cosy—”

“I’m trying to say,” Aziraphale tried to say, “that I know what I want.”

Crowley blinked. Aziraphale couldn’t see it, but he knew it just the same, because he knew Crowley, and he knew that that was the sort of silence Crowley made when he blinked, because he didn’t do it very often and sometimes needed a little extra concentration to pull it off.

“All right,” Crowley said slowly, when he was done blinking.

“Yes,” Aziraphale went on. “I know what I want, and you’re right, you know, it is because it’s what I love. And I want it very badly, because I love it very much, and I think I’ve had quite enough of pretending like that doesn’t matter. It’s the only thing that matters. It’s everything.”

Crowley had stopped breathing down the line. “What’s that?” he asked, and he was bracing himself, Aziraphale just knew it; he was bracing himself for the answer to be something about books or scallops or perfectly aged cabernet sauvignons, and it was hateful that Crowley didn’t already know the answer, and it was Aziraphale’s fault entirely.

Aziraphale straightened himself up, fixed the phone a little more firmly to his ear, and said, “You.”

There was that blinking silence again. 

“Me?” Crowley repeated.

“You,” Aziraphale confirmed. It was easier to say the second time around. “I love you, and I’m sick and tired of all these rules saying I can’t love you the way I want to go about loving you, which is to say—well, in person.”

Crowley was quiet for a moment, and then said, very slowly, with the barest hint of a smile beginning somewhere in it, “Angel, are you asking me to come over?”

“I am.”

“You’re asking me to break the rules?”

That one was harder, but Aziraphale managed it. “Break all the rules.”

“You want to hunker down through lockdown with me?”

That one, actually, was easy. “Crowley,” Aziraphale said, “I want to hunker down through the rest of forever with you.”

*

It took Crowley all of twenty minutes to make his way to the bookshop in Soho. “Traffic,” he said as he sauntered in, snapping a case of wine into the cellar and the door shut and locked behind him, “was terrific. Took me barely half-a-minute to get here, once I’d packed.”

Aziraphale was standing in the doorway to the back room, twisting his hands together, and Crowley’s heart was making an honest effort to escape through his chest, his stomach roiling. It was one thing, after all, to say something over the phone, where no one could see anyone’s faces, but it was quite another to say it face to face, and he could hardly blame Aziraphale if it were too much of another.

He knew, after all, that speed was never really Aziraphale’s forte, and this really was happening all rather fast.

Crowley stopped the socially-approved six feet away, and shoved his own hands into his pockets.

“Hi, angel,” he said, and then, before Aziraphale could take it back, just in case, “I love you too.”

“Oh, Crowley,” Aziraphale said, and then he rushed forward, crossing that space—one two three four five six—and then Aziraphale kissed him.

And kissed him.

Really kissed him. Rather thoroughly.

“Oh,” Crowley said, dazed, when they finally parted, but Aziraphale was holding him, smiling up at him, and Crowley couldn’t help but smile back. “That’s one way to break quarantine.”

“The most nice and accurate way,” Aziraphale agreed, and then he did it again.