Crowley was awake. He hadn’t slept.
The rooster down the road crowed; it was half-past eight in Rome. Crowley had laid in bed all night, staring at the ceiling and suffocating under the crushing weight in his chest, waiting for the dawn. Sunday: a relief.
His confession from the night before was still a solid presence in the room, following Crowley as he unfolded himself from the bed, scrubbed his face with cold water, got dressed. It stood over his shoulder as he looked at himself in the mirror, sharp and angular, prickly in a way he hadn’t felt in years; it watched as he took his hair out of the half-bun, agreed with him when he thought he didn’t look any softer. That just wasn’t Crowley’s way.
I love you, he’d said, just the once. Once was enough. I love you, good night.
He nearly tripped over Bing Kittenby on the stairs, wondered if it was cheating to clean the litter box with a miracle. Watered a few of the plants. Folded the blanket left bundled on the back of the sofa and put it away. Washed the glasses left behind in the sink.
Once was enough, he told himself. Once would be enough.
He made coffee the human way, and a plate of croissants the demonic way, and practiced waiting for Aziraphale now that he understood: it wasn’t a matter of catching up. It never had been.
You go too fast for me, Crowley.
Not too fast, angel, Crowley thought, listening for the soft tread of Aziraphale’s feet on the floorboards upstairs, straightening the handle of his coffee cup into perfect studied casualness. Just not on the same track, is all.
Aziraphale folded the last of his bow-ties into his suitcase, double-checked that he had all his socks. He tugged at the bottom of the coverlet, making sure it was straight. The guitar went back into its case. Clasps were snapped shut: one, two, three. The last one struggled, but it went. Four.
Not running away. Running toward.
There was a whole future waiting for him downstairs. Back in London. Every Sunday night at seven o’clock. And it would be a good future: they would laugh and explore and learn more about this world they’d saved. They’d finish the List and they’d come up with more bloody ridiculous plans, and Aziraphale would learn to play more songs and Crowley’s garden would grow and they’d have dinner here or there and take in more sights and watch humanity go on, and they’d have forever together. In their own way, they’d have forever.
He could do this. He could.
He just needed to make it through the morning first.
The clock struck nine.
Aziraphale stopped in the doorway of the kitchen, tugging at the hem of his waistcoat. Crowley was already there, of course, looking sharp on all his edges, eyes hidden away again behind his sunglasses. The scent of coffee filled the air, deep and dark; in Crowley’s cup, Aziraphale could see that it had been cut with milk.
“Good morning,” he said, and wished he could have sounded like he meant it.
Crowley looked up.
Aziraphale seemed to have brought the dawn with him, flooding the morning with sunlight where he stood, anxious on the threshold. His bow-tie was tied a little too tight; his hands were clasped together in front of him, knuckles just this shy of white.
“Morning,” Crowley said, around the lump in his throat. He tried to smile, but even he could tell that it was too severe, serrated with uncertainty. He looked away, studying one of the croissants sternly until it followed its dream to becoming a pain au chocolat. “Coffee and croissants, if you want. Nothing too fancy.”
“You didn’t have to go to all this trouble.”
“Didn’t.” Crowley mimicked snapping his fingers. Picked his coffee up. Put it back down, before realising he hadn’t taken a sip and picking it up again. Tried not to spill his heart out right there at the table. Once was enough.
He checked the time on his mobile. 9:05.
Aziraphale sat, for lack of anything else to do; Crowley slid a mug of coffee across the table at him. It was dark, nearly black, but sweetened to perfection, and Aziraphale stared at it for a long time, not drinking it.
It was a kind of love, he knew. To remember how someone took their coffee. It was a kind of confession in its own right: I’m listening. Crowley had always listened. There had been crêpes in the meadow last night. There had been music and stars and wine, drifting close and comfortable, following each other through the dark. There had been Crowley, listening, always listening.
It was easy to mistake that, Aziraphale thought, for the kind of love one wanted it to be. And it was easy to dismiss it when it wasn’t. When someone listened, but didn’t quite hear all the words being said.
He didn’t want to dismiss it. He wanted to want it. He wanted to want nothing else.
“The taxi will be here within the hour,” Aziraphale said, the taste of sugar still in his mouth.
“Oh,” Crowley answered. “You called already, then?”
“Well, I didn’t call so much as—“ he waved a hand ambiguously— “Got on the list.”
The clock in the hall rang once: quarter after.
Crowley took a croissant. Aziraphale took the pain au chocolat.
Neither of them ate.
“You’ll be all right, yeah?” Crowley asked. “Back to London on your own?”
Aziraphale looked over; Crowley was looking studiously away, watching Bing Kittenby play with some sort of feathered toy Aziraphale had most definitely not brought with him. Her clumsy paws batted at it, then clutched it and held it close to her little chest.
He wondered what would happen if he said no. If he said no, of course not, the noise of London hurt his ears without Crowley to ease the racket. If he said no, of course not, the streets are too twisted and too impassable without Crowley there to navigate them. If he said no, of course not, the restaurants are too crowded without Crowley there to reserve their tables, the food too bland without Crowley there to order the perfect drink, to encourage him to the perfect dessert.
None of that was true, obviously. London without Crowley would still be London, and Aziraphale had been alone there before.
Still, he wondered.
“Oh, yes, of course,” Aziraphale said, remembering to flash a smile. “Always something going on in London, after all. And you? With Bing Kittenby? You’ll be all right out here, won’t you?”
The clock struck again, twice. Half-past.
“Yeah, ‘course,” Crowley answered, daring a glance at Aziraphale out of the corner of his eye, the lenses of his sunglasses faced firmly forward. “We’re always all right. Always land on our feet, us, don’t we, Bing?”
He would be. He would get up in the mornings. He would putter around the cottage, fill the shelves in the library, paint the upstairs bath. Fill the bare spaces of the conservatory. He would drive into town, teach the ducks at the pond what to expect when he came ‘round. Spend Thursday nights down the local just like any regular, and on Sundays let the waitresses at the bistro fuss over him while he pretended to be grouchy. He would watch the storms roll in over the hills and the sun rise in the valleys, and he would dig into the good, dark earth, find solace in among the roots and green things, set himself down among them.
And then, Sunday nights at seven, he would have Aziraphale.
Beneath the table, Bing Kittenby wound her way around their feet, trailing her ginger tail against their ankles as if she meant to tie them together.
His mobile read 9:42, and a taxi pulled up into the drive.
There was something wrong with Aziraphale, Crowley thought.
It wasn’t just the quiet. It wasn’t just the awkward wait at the breakfast table, the both of them failing to come up with anything to say. It wasn’t just that Aziraphale had his bags already packed, his guitar case snapped shut, the music silent.
The anxiety that ran along Aziraphale’s bones was an ancient, hardened thing, laid in under the pressure of Heaven’s expectations. Aziraphale trembled under the weight of it, sometimes, skittish and volatile as a wild animal, hiding behind walls in an effort to shore up the places he felt unsafe, always afraid of what might happen if he pushed too hard at too many of the rules; afraid of what might happen if Heaven found out.
Crowley had always understood that. He’d Fallen, after all: he knew what there was to be afraid of.
That same anxiety was here, now, the two of them standing across from one another in Crowley’s drive, saying goodbye. That sense of uncertainty, moving underneath the skin. That fear of being discovered, reborn from something Crowley couldn’t see.
Crowley used to think that he knew how to soothe this anxiety. That he knew what to say, how to say it, what to do. The ritual calm of a busy restaurant where they could disappear among the crowds for a while; the routine circles of St James’s park. Drinks and armchairs and something to argue about.
He looked at Aziraphale now, and all that seemed too much like a confession. He looked at Aziraphale now, and he’d run out of time. I love you, I love you, goodnight.
“Got everything?” he said instead, because there was something wrong with Aziraphale, and Crowley suspected it might be himself.
“I believe so, yes,” Aziraphale answered quickly, wringing his hands. “I’ll, erm, call you? Seven o’clock tonight?”
It would be terrible. It would be short, and heavy, and weighted, closer than they were now, pressed against each other’s ears. The sound of Aziraphale breathing down the line, waiting for him to say something. I love you, I’m sorry, good night.
Crowley would answer anyway. “Yeah, ‘course. I’ll be there.”
A breeze filled the air between them. The taxi idled heavily in the drive, its presence looming. Bing Kittenby watched them from a window, her little tuft of orange fur reflecting bright in the morning sun.
Aziraphale held out his hand; Crowley took it before he could think not to. “Thanks for coming,” he said, and meant, please don’t leave me.
There was a pause, and for a brief, horrible, electrifying moment, Crowley thought he’d said it out loud, but then Aziraphale gave a tug on his hand and pulled him forward one more step, wrapping him up. Arms came around him. Aziraphale’s breath sounded in his ear, as close as he always sounded on the phone.
Crowley was still for a moment, unsure what to do, before feeling himself sort of—crumple. The feeling of Aziraphale against him, the heat of his embrace, the beat of his heart in sync with Crowley’s heart: he clutched at Aziraphale’s shoulder, and didn’t ever want to let him go.
He let go.
Stepped back. Blinked his eyes hard against the bright, impossible sun, took a shaky breath, and let go.
Crowley had promised himself, when he’d agreed to Aziraphale’s visit, that he wouldn’t do this again. That he wouldn’t turn his back on Aziraphale with a false smile and a casual goodbye that meant less than half of everything Crowley wanted to say; that he wouldn’t leave him standing in the drive and watching as Crowley walked away.
He’d promised himself he wouldn’t walk away again. Not from this. Not anymore.
He did it anyway.
The cottage was quiet again.
Crowley felt the panic welling up again in his chest, making his hands shake and the insides of his elbows weak and tight all at the same time as he wandered through the rooms, and it was so much worse now, with the ghost of Aziraphale in all these corners: bleary-eyed and sleepy at the kitchen table, eating the terrible, lumpy eggs Crowley had made; laughing and half-drunk on the sofa, down to his shirtsleeves, only inches away; climbing the stairs in the dark, standing in the blue moonlight at the top with Crowley, looking at Crowley until Crowley looked away.
His breath in Crowley’s ear, shuddering and warm. Letting go.
The door to the second bedroom stood open; the late-morning light poured in. The bed was made, with a knit blanket thrown across the foot of it, and Crowley wondered if Aziraphale had slept at all the night before. He hadn’t really looked like it.
It was strange, the way a place could look exactly the same after someone came and went. As if they had never really been there—as if they hadn’t ever really even existed.
Wait—not entirely the same.
The List was set out on the antique desk in the corner, unearthed from its drawers and lined up in the middle in front of the chair. Crowley had nearly forgotten it.
Aziraphale had tried to smooth out some of the wrinkles in the newspaper, but he hadn’t used a miracle to neaten it up; it was still worn, still smudged, still soft and nearly falling apart in places. Do something magnificently reckless had been crossed out.
Underneath, something else had been written in: a new command, a new directive. Something Aziraphale apparently wanted Crowley to achieve here in the cottage, all on his own.
Be magnificently, recklessly happy.
Crowley touched two fingers to the bottom left corner of the List, and slowly walked them forward, crumpling the page up into his fist. Some things, he thought, just weren’t things a demon could do.
It had been a beautiful morning: bright blue and brilliant, not a cloud in the sky.
The clouds moved in fast now. The raindrops began, cold and sparse, as soon as Aziraphale slid into the back seat of the cab. Lightning cracked across the sky as they pulled away; by the time they’d reached the top of the hill, where Crowley had once sat and asked Aziraphale about the garden, it had become a downpour, black and thunderous.
If the cabbie failed to point out that it wasn’t raining anywhere but directly on top of them, well. That was just good manners.
Aziraphale knew he was doing it, but he couldn’t bring himself to be arsed about it. He wasn’t an agent of Heaven any longer; if he wanted to indulge in a little moping, he would. He already knew he’d never go back to the cottage. He already knew he’d make the call at seven o’clock tonight, and he already knew it would be short and perfunctory, and he already knew it would be the last.
If Crowley deserves anything, after all this time, it’s to be let go. To be allowed his home and his garden, and his future without any more shadows in it.
It turns out, angel, it just turns out, that all this time you never thought about the garden because you ’re still bloody well sitting in it.
Crowley’s garden was worlds away from Eden. God’s garden had been made: miracled into existence, expected to be and so was. Dictated into being, without allowing for things like curiosity and questions, without an understanding of hard work, of hard decisions. It was made for life without knowing what it was to need, to want. Singular, and so without a sense of home. Static, and so without a sense of hope.
The story went that Adam and Eve had been tempted into disobeying God, had forgotten gratitude and fell into wanting more from life than God had given them, and so God had cast them out: an eye for an eye, a rejection of them for their rejection of Her gift. But that was never right, was it? God had needed Adam and Eve to disobey Her in order to become what they could truly be—to break through that illusion of paradise and step blinking into the light, to step forward and shelter one another from the storm. To leave behind the sanctuary of never asking for more and instead seeking out what else there could be.
They’d been looking for curiosity, for questions. For hard work and hard decisions. For what it could be like, to need and to want. For a sense of home. A sense of hope.
Not running away. Running toward.
Toward a future, toward a change, toward making things different and in making things different making them better. Toward invention and answers, trying and failing and getting back up to try again, refusing to believe in dead ends, refusing to believe in impossible. Building the world up with clay bricks and steel girders; writing the world down into story and song. And reaching, always reaching, always stretching out past the way things are and the way things could be.
You go too fast for me, Crowley.
And suddenly, Aziraphale could see.
Crowley, sitting quiet in the front seat of his car, holding his own death in his hands; Crowley, eyes wide on his knees, looking up at Aziraphale’s hands wrapped around the hilt of a flaming sword; Crowley with his head thrown back as laughter spilled forth, with his shoulders shrugging as he asked question after question, with his brow furrowed around the taste of an oyster, a crêpe, a swallow of wine, a swallow of words. Crowley with his eyes half-closed, yellow and warm, humming along to a song on the radio; Crowley with his arms around Aziraphale, his breath shaky and hot, before he pulled away again.
Aziraphale could see, and all he could see was Crowley, turning away from him at the cliffs with the salt in both their eyes, you never think about the garden because you’re still sitting in it. I’ve been waiting. I can’t sit still any longer.
“Stop the car,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley had always been full of curiosity and questions. He’d always done the hard work and made the hard decisions, not letting Aziraphale push him away, not letting Aziraphale turn his back, trailing after him in orbit as if he’d found his gravitational sun. He’d left the garden ages ago, but he’d spent all this time looking over his shoulder: needing and wanting and trying to pull Aziraphale along with him, offering up his sense of home and his sense of hope and waiting for Aziraphale to just reach back.
Aziraphale was out of the cab in an instant, the rain lashing down cold and harsh against his wings, half-running, half-flying, entirely ignoring the calls and shouts of the cabbie about luggage. He’d only been gone twenty minutes, but it was twenty minutes too long and the cottage was just back over that rise and Aziraphale could hardly breathe and—
He was the Angel of the Eastern Gate, and he’d just found his way out of the illusion and into the light.
I love you, I need you, I want you. You ’re home. I hope you love me too.
There was rain on the horizon.
Aziraphale had taken all the air in the cottage out of it with him, so Crowley had escaped into the garden, where the lingering ghost of him could be shattered by the call of birds, the rustle of leaves, the burn of muscles at work. He stopped on the patio, looking up at the sky and wondering if it hadn’t been sunny just a half an hour ago.
There would be no white wing against this storm. Crowley put on his gloves anyway, and slipped into the garden.
Everything seemed lush and fresh, extravagant even, as if it sensed the oncoming rain and was flourishing in anticipation. The roses, with their dark heavy heads, and the wisteria, dripping off the arbor, and the half-wild beds of white sprawling flowers, hemmed in by boxwoods and ferns, thick and darkly green: it was saturated with colour, with scent, with life. It had only been six months since Crowley had first put his hands to this forgotten plot of earth, but look how it had grown.
He couldn’t save everything, though. The apple tree, still bare and austere at the back, stood waiting for him. As if to ask, What will you do now?
The only thing he could do, he thought in answer, peering up at the branches where the trembled in the growing wind: wait for it to decide whether to die or to bloom.
Underneath it, though, there were primroses and astilbes, planted with the hope that they’d thrive in the shade. He would need to move them somewhere safer, before the springtime sun burnt up their delicate leaves, before the exposure shriveled them down to their roots, and they were lost, and he supposed now was as good a time as any.
It was easy, steady work. Crowley had already cleared a rough and tumble patch of ground on the other side of the garden the weekend before, nearer to the birch trees, pulling up the handful of weedy daisies that had tried their luck and raking it clear. All he had to do now was to fetch up his spade and lose himself in the steady push of the blade into the dirt, in the focus of navigating around roots with his fingers and leveraging the floors up. In the clean, stark scent of the dirt under the gathering clouds and the strain of his hands against the soil.
He’d managed to get up about half of the astibles without thinking about anything else, and was just going over the freshly turned bed with a spade on his hands and knees, evening things out in his wake, when he heard the door to the cottage slam open and shut. He looked up.
Aziraphale was coming across the patio, wings out, cheeks flushed, coming straight toward him.
Crowley sat back on his heels. “Aziraphale? What the Heaven are you doing here? Forget something?”
But Aziraphale didn’t answer. He came through the garden, quick and determined, not even stopping to pause when the rain caught up with him, scattering sharp and cold across the roses and the ferns. His eyes were steady, serious: fixed on Crowley.
Crowley stood, something dark and fearful swooping through his belly, and used the back of his hand to wipe the rain away from his brow. “Aziraphale? What’s going on?”
But Aziraphale didn’t stop, still didn’t stop—he kept coming and coming and coming, something fierce behind his eyes, something unflinching and purposeful where he’d been hesitant and quiet not half an hour before. He came fast across the distance and didn’t stop, crowding right into Crowley’s space and taking the spade from his hand, dropping it carelessly back into the dirt.
“Angel,” Crowley said, but Aziraphale was there already, reaching and reaching until he was cradling Crowley’s face in both hands, firm but gentle—so entirely, impossibly gentle.
His eyes were bright, and decisive, and terrified, searching Crowley’s.
Crowley’s hands closed around Aziraphale’s elbows on instinct, holding onto him instead of pushing him away; he was so close that Crowley could see the lines around his eyes, around his mouth, could count the lashes and see every feathery layer of his irises. The rain had started in earnest now, and those huge white wings were there once more, raising up to shelter the both of them together.
“What are you doing?” Crowley breathed, scarcely able to pronounce the words over the hook beneath his ribs, pulling and pulling, nearly tearing through his breastbone, threatening to spill him open right there among the primroses. “Aziraphale, what are you doing?”
Aziraphale looked at him. Crowley looked back.
“Something magnificently reckless,” Aziraphale finally said, and kissed him.
For one perfect, silent moment, everything was still.
When Crowley opened his eyes again, the apple tree had bloomed.