The rain puddles on his sunglasses and gathers until it overflows in unpredictable icy rivulets down his face, so he takes them off and tosses them carelessly into the grass somewhere by his hip. Without them the sky is even greyer, hanging leaden over the long, gently sloping hills as it unleashes its seemingly unending torrent on the poor defenseless earth.
Crowley closes his eyes and turns his face up. It’s the first proper rainstorm since they moved here a few months ago and, as he’d glanced out the window to see the clouds rolling in over the horizon with a pale veil of rain following in their wake, he’d felt something that had been winding itself tighter and tighter in the dingy backstage of his mind for the last two years or so finally snap under the tension. He’d walked outside in a half-daze to feel the first chill stinging raindrops on his skin.
He’s not quite sure how long he’s been sitting here on the grass, but his hands have long since gone strangely numb from the cold and the rain shows no sign of stopping.
Behind him the cottage sits squat and cozy, as if to provide a deliberate contrast to the dark vastness of the sky. It’s a nice little place: warm and comfortable and slightly cluttered, like Aziraphale’s bookshop except that Crowley gets to stay there as long as he likes, and with plants and books occupying most available surfaces. Unlike his old apartment — which, if he’s honest with himself, had mostly been somewhere to be where no one could see him — it feels undeniably like someone’s home, and one that just so happens to be theirs.
Perhaps it’d been stupid of him to think that would be enough to keep this at bay forever, he reflects, as the distant murmurs of thunder sharpen into something closer and more threatening.
He realises he isn’t getting rained on anymore and glances up to find that it’s because Aziraphale is there, sporting a cream-coloured umbrella and a sheepish smile.
Crowley blinks at him. “Oh. Hi.”
“Hello,” Aziraphale says, proffering a folded up blanket. Crowley takes it with stiff fingers and stares uncomprehendingly down at it until Aziraphale sighs and retrieves it to shake it out one-handed and then drape it over Crowley’s shoulders. “There.”
“Cheers,” Crowley says vaguely, still not quite surfacing from the depths of his own thoughts. He shakes his head to get his hair out of his eyes, trying to pull himself together.
“I saw you from the kitchen window,” Aziraphale says by way of explanation, nodding in the direction of the cottage as he leans down to tuck the blanket a little more securely around him. “…you looked cold.”
Crowley shrugs. “I don’t have to be cold if I don’t want to.”
To Crowley’s right Aziraphale miracles himself a small bench, which is even more miraculously dry, and sits down on it close enough that the umbrella still covers both of them. Crowley blinks water from his eyelashes and feels silly, sitting there on the ground with a soft fluffy tartan blanket slung like the cape of history’s lamest king over his shoulders, but then he also feels a lot warmer already, so maybe it doesn’t matter.
“Well, this brings back memories,” Aziraphale says eventually, a chuckle warming the last of his words.
“Our first date,” Crowley agrees sarcastically, wriggling to wrap the blanket more tightly around him. It really is soft. “You wore white and a near palpable patina of nervous guilt.”
“I was giving serious consideration to the concept of ineffability for the very first time,” Aziraphale says, with dignity. “It would leave anyone a bit preoccupied. You were so curious, about everything,” he adds, a wistful lilt to his voice that Crowley doesn’t quite understand, though it makes his heart do strange things in his chest.
“Not like I had anyone else to talk to, was there,” Crowley mutters, feeling the tips of his ears grow warm. Human bodies are tricky like that. If not for the weird looks he kept getting when people brushed past him in public and noticed he was cold as a corpse, the one time he tried to experiment, he’d forego the whole traitorous circulatory system entirely.
Aziraphale calmly tips the umbrella slightly to let some of the water run off safely into the grass, away from them. “It wasn’t a criticism, dear boy. I was feeling rather discombobulated at the time; I think on some level I appreciated the distraction.”
“Oh well, then. Glad to provide a service.”
They sit among the hushed whispers of the rain for a while.
“I’m glad you were there and that you spoke to me,” Aziraphale says suddenly, with the absolute trust and sincerity that makes Crowley’s fingers want to twitch for his glasses again because Jes — well, it’s still almost too much to bear sometimes. “I’m glad it was you.”
“Oh.” Crowley pushes his wet hair out of his face with a clumsy hand and doesn’t know how to follow that up. Aziraphale has started saying stuff like that after the non-apocalypse; it’s as if he’s been saving them up over centuries like wild strawberries threaded on a straw and is releasing them one by one in sweet startling bursts. Having lost the credibility to be able to play it any kind of cool and pretend it doesn’t matter to him approximately the moment he begged Aziraphale to go off to Alpha Centauri with him in broad, public daylight, or maybe with the way his voice had broken on ‘I lost my best friend’ — and definitely by the time he’d managed to demon up after a three day panic attack to ask the angel if he’d ever considered moving out of London and if he’d like some company and fallen apart when Aziraphale said yes — Crowley says: “Uh. Cool. I mean. Same.”
His voice is faint, but Aziraphale shoots him a small yet all but literally radiant smile anyway, so he’s pretty sure that whatever he meant was heard, if not exactly said.
Crowley smiles back a little — always finds it almost impossible not to, when Aziraphale looks at him like that — but his mood has a gravity of its own, shackled to his feet like a block of cement and bringing him back down into its depths.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Aziraphale says, and for one moment Crowley is terrified that he’s about to be subjected to some mangled human magic trick with coins again, but the angel seems to draw on some previously unimagined reserve of self restraint and refrains; it fortunately remains a figurative penny.
Turning back to the horizon Crowley wonders how much is safe to say.
He remembers that first rain over Eden, which hadn’t seemed to wash anything clean no matter how long and hard it came beating down — remembers rain that fell later and the silence after it finally drowned out the voices of the children. It had all been so very long ago now.
“I’m tired,” Crowley says, surprising himself. It feels like it turns into some sort of confession on his tongue, the clean unfamiliar taste of complete honesty in his mouth like chill clear water. He barely recognizes his voice as his own.
There are a few moments of hesitation before Aziraphale offers: “It has been a busy few centuries, hasn’t it, what with two world wars and revolutions industrial, digital, postmodern and I don’t know what and — well, that whole near miss apocalypse, a couple of years ago.”
Wondering if he really ought to try the truth again so soon Crowley says: “That’s not what I meant.”
He can’t bring himself to glance over, but Aziraphale sounds like he understands when he says, in much soberer tones: “No. No, I suppose not.”
“Did you really mean what you told the boy back in Tadfield?” Crowley asks, looking over at him now that it’s safer.
The angel blinks. “Adam? I certainly never set out to deliberately lie to him, if that’s what you mean.”
Crowley rolls his eyes. “Perish the thought.”
“For one I’m not very good at it,” Aziraphale says, sounding faintly amused. “Why?”
“D’you really think that’s what the whole thing’s been about all along, then? The whole ‘don’t eat the apple’ business was a long con and it’s been about the freedom to make the choice this entire time?”
Aziraphale blows out a contemplative breath and wrinkles his forehead. “Who can say, really? That’s the trouble with ineffability, of course. But it seems as good an explanation as any other. I’ve given it a lot of thought,” he adds, almost apologetically, as if half-convinced he might have been too presumptuous in daring to put together his own theory while the rest of Heaven waddles around in circles within its own stagnant pool of pointless dogma.
“Funny thing —I’ve been doing some thinking of my own.”
“Oh dear,” Aziraphale deadpans, because he really is a bit of a bastard sometimes. It continues to be one of the many reasons Crowley likes him, along with his dogged sense of innocence and insistence on always staying at least half a century behind on fashion trends.
“I know, I know, quick, someone pinch me, is the world about to end again, har har.”
There’s nothing nasty or mocking in Aziraphale’s laugh, only an unobtrusive commiseration. “Now, then,” he says. “Don’t leave me in suspense.”
Crowley takes a deep breath and speaks from that empty hollow ache in his soul he’s been trying to pretend doesn’t exist since the days when the world was new. The relief of the world failing to end had done nothing to ease it.
“Aziraphale — what if there is no plan and never was? No great plan, no ineffable plan, just — nothing. What if… what if God just got bored of it,” he waves his hand to include everything and nothing, “all of this, the galaxies and the atoms and the people and the dolphins, of all of us — and left, long ago, and no one even noticed?”
“Surely not,” Aziraphale says, that small worried wrinkle appearing between his brows. “She wouldn’t — I mean, we would have noticed something like that.”
He’s quiet for a while, the only sound the rain drumming against the umbrella.
“Wouldn’t we?” he says finally, twin threads of plaintiveness and resignation in his tone; he isn’t expecting an answer. He is very clever.
“You tell me. I’ve heard bugger all from that direction since… well. Last time. And that wasn’t exactly a social call.”
Uneasy at the memory he shifts under the blanket; a gust of cold air gets in and makes him shiver involuntarily. He still doesn’t know what would be worse — that the sinners and rebelling angels have been uniquely deemed worthy of abandonment forever, or that God’s indifference is universal and impersonal. Either choice makes him want to drive his fist into a brick wall repeatedly or, alternatively, drink himself into oblivion.
Aziraphale gives a wince in sympathy and lets the water trickle off the umbrella again with a precise twitch of his wrist. “Have you ever tried to directly reach out to…?”
Deciding to go for an inadvisable hat trick despite the way his heart is hammering against the walls of his ribcage to get out, Crowley is honest again. “Yeah. Kind of. A couple of times. Not what you’d call politely, though. You?”
“Apart from right before Armageddon, when I got the Metatron on the line? Not since my gate duty days, no, back when management was a bit more… hands-on. I always considered it above my pay grade, so to speak.”
“And that silence doesn’t make you wonder?”
It’s bordering on a rhetorical question, but Aziraphale considers it anyway, blinking equably at the horizon. Then he says: “If She didn’t mean for us to wonder, She wouldn’t have given us minds to do it with. But I have to believe that should the Almighty ever become absent, for whatever reason, She would have left us with everything we need to continue on our own until She returns.”
Crowley, whose own talents seem to only run in the direction of accumulating doubts like a ship does barnacles and asking the wrong kinds of questions, is forever in awe at how Aziraphale manages to anchor himself in this basic faith in goodness. In anyone else he’d call it naivety, or perhaps even willful stupidity if he was feeling tetchy, but he’s witnessed firsthand the sort of dedication and intelligence it takes to consistently believe that, despite the odds and all evidence to the contrary, the universe is ultimately kind.
Some days it’s all he can do to stand close enough to Aziraphale to borrow enough of that glow to keep going.
“Huh. That seems…heedlessly optimistic.”
“When one is taking something somewhat on faith anyway, it seems wasteful not to believe for the best.”
“And here I was thinking gambling was a sin.”
With a mournful smile Aziraphale says: “It does seem a fine line sometimes, I’ll admit.”
Aziraphale is calmer, these days, less jittery and ready to second-guess himself at every turn. It’s like he can finally take back all that faith he’d invested in Heaven and put it to better use. When the two of them talk now, he stays where he used to pull away. Crowley’s still not quite sure what to do with it; having wanted it for so long he doesn’t always know how to reach out for it now that it is so freely given.
Crowley drawls: “Well, it’s nice to know there’s been a policy change on wondering, then. Though I guess a retroactive pardon would be too much to ask for, huh.”
He remembers the look on Eve’s face, after that first bite, and how she’d reached out for Adam for him to share it too, never once thinking to keep the apple for herself, to hide any part of herself from the person she loved. Crowley had always felt a peculiar kind of kinship with her, for all he’d been the catalyst of so much of her suffering; they’d both gotten into the sinning business when sinning was new, and neither of them seemed to be able to bring themselves to entirely regret it. He still can’t see how that bright childlike curiosity in her eyes could have been so unforgiveable. Mysterious fucking ways, all right.
Aziraphale watches him sideways, sympathy crinkling the corners of his eyes. “You are still allowed to be angry, you know. There are days I find myself less than sanguine about,” he gestures as if to indicate the entirety of the known universe, “the whole business myself. If I should ever have the honour of being in the Almighty’s presence again I definitely have a lot of questions and — and some strongly worded suggestions for future improvements.”
“I mean, you could talk. She won’t answer.”
“You don’t think?”
“I don’t see why She’d start now,” Crowley says, and he means for it only to be bitter but his voice hitches. He presses the base of his palms against his eyes for a second, letting his shoulders slump as they fall away again.
After a moment Aziraphale moves the umbrella to his right hand so he can reach down and put his left on Crowley’s shoulder, sliding it up to rest gently against the nape of his neck when he leans into the touch. His fingers seem very warm against Crowley’s bare skin when they dip under the collar of his sodden-through jacket. “…I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s. Y’know.” Crowley shrugs, carefully so as to not dislodge Aziraphale’s hand. “Fine. Old news. It’s not like She’s taking anyone’s call anymore.”
“It is not,” Aziraphale says sternly, “as you say, ‘fine’. Not if it still pains you.”
Crowley glowers mulishly at the horizon, which has grown marginally brighter during their conversation though the rain hasn’t eased a bit. “I don’t want it to. I don’t want it to matter anymore. Everything’s already happened; nothing is going to change. Don’t think anything could change it anymore.”
“Well, in a, hm, professional capacity I feel obliged to point out that forgiveness is, of course, always the optimal outcome.” Crowley groans and rolls his eyes again, more comprehensively this time. Aziraphale continues, undaunted and soft as a kiss: “As your friend I wish to point out that forgiving yourself is enough.”
Crowley doesn’t trust himself to say anything, all of a sudden. Aziraphale’s thumb brushes over the back of his neck, once, twice, as if in a simple reminder that he’s there.
Fuck, this is like the day Aziraphale finally got the metaphor of the plants all over again.
(Which is to say that one day Crowley had been mid-way through making an example of a snake plant who had, for some inexplicable reason, insisted on defying him by letting itself develop a small leaf spot.
Aziraphale had caught his hands before he could snatch the pot and carefully pulled them away, holding them between both of his as he looked Crowley in the eyes and Crowley realised that the angel had seen more than he had ever meant to let show.
With his fingers pressed to Crowley’s heartbeat Aziraphale had said: “Don’t be so hard on it, my dear — it’s not its fault that it’s been hurt.”
The subsequent hour Crowley had spent sitting on the kitchen floor weeping over a houseplant while Aziraphale stroked his back and made comforting noises might not have been his proudest, but there had been an indelible shift inside him after that. For one he couldn’t even raise his voice to a plant without feeling the ghost of Aziraphale’s earnest, concerned gaze on the side of his face, or feel again the gentleness with which he’d held his wrists. So he’d switched to murmuring vague and not particularly heartfelt words of encouragement instead while he watered them, for lack of anything better, and whether in spite of this or because Aziraphale went around blessing them behind his back despite his earnest protestations to the contrary, they seemed to flourish in their new home. Go figure.)
After a few minutes Crowley wipes at his eyes with his sleeve, completely ineffectually since his jacket is as wet as the rest of him. Aziraphale is nice enough not to comment.
“For what it’s worth,” the angel says instead, “the way you never stop asking questions is part of why I love you so much. I cannot imagine how it could ever have been a sin.”
“Noooo, stoppit,” Crowley moans thickly, letting his head fall back in despair as the tears well up in his eyes once more. “I only just managed to stop, don’t you get me going again.”
Aziraphale laughs. “Well, since you’re asking so nicely I will postpone it to some later date. I regret to inform you that I physically cannot be stopped, though.”
“A regular love machine,” Crowley murmurs sourly, the blush hot in his cheeks. Circulatory systems. They rat you out every damn time.
“I realise that is likely one of your incomprehensible modern pop culture references, but from a certain point of view that’s not entirely inaccurate. It’s what angels are supposed to be, anyway,” he adds, conscientiously. “And I don’t think you are so very different, at the end of the day, fallen or no.”
“Tell the whole blessed world, why don’t you.” Crowley sniffles and tries his best with the sleeve again, but Aziraphale produces a dry handkerchief from thin air with a flourish and hands him that instead. “Thanks.”
It stings now, worse than anything, that part of the reason he’d been asking the questions he Fell for was that he had wanted to make sure he got things right. He had wanted Her to love him. He had wanted to be good.
He’d never really stopped, no matter how much he’d wanted to.
Aziraphale rests his hand on Crowley’s neck again, fingers stroking idly through the hair at the nape.
When he’s finally managed to compose himself again Crowley says: “So the idea that God might have just left one night without bothering to turn the lights out doesn’t freak you out, then?”
“Does it really matter?” Aziraphale asks. “What’s been created is already here. The universe remains. The Earth is still here, as is humanity, if only by a hair and the grace of — well. Some kind of grace, anyway, we may reasonably extrapolate.”
Crowley grunts in lexical sympathy. It’s a theological minefield out there some days.
After a moment Aziraphale adds: “We are still here,” and when Crowley turns his face to him Aziraphale is looking at him, smiling so tentatively, like a nervous invitation to take part in a joke, or a promise.
Aziraphale, who'd given his sword away, who’d sheltered a demon from the first rain without ever even seeming to think about it — who had chosen, right at the beginning of the world, to be gentle.
It’s enough to make a person remember why it’s worth sticking around.
Crowley smiles, and sighs, laboriously getting to his feet and gently nudging Aziraphale’s knee with his own. Aziraphale obligingly scoots along a little on the bench, making room for him. After sitting down he lets his head rest against Aziraphale’s shoulder, making a small sound when Aziraphale wraps his arm around him to tuck him close along his side.
“We’re still here,” Crowley agrees, and they watch the rain together, the sky ancient and young and open overhead.