Crowley had never believed in... well, in much of anything, to be honest. Certainly not in anything so woolly as destiny. Or any other force, cosmic or divine or otherwise, that could bring people together because their lives were meant to intersect.
And yet here he was, walking past the same bookshop for the third time this week, keeping to the other side of the road, glancing at it out of the corner of his eye as if he were a nervous teenager eyeing up the blacked-out windows of an adult store.
Today, he dared to drift to a stop, fumbling with his phone as if checking a message, looking at the place from under his lashes like he was afraid of facing it head-on.
He wondered what would happen if Aziraphale saw him out here, glanced out of one of those slightly-too-dusty windows at just this moment. Crowley remembered the look on his face, reflected in the glass, and his heart twisted. Suddenly ashamed, he stuffed his phone back in his pocket and hurried on, head down.
He was back two days later. Nothing had changed, except that today it was raining, and Crowley's hair was straggling into his eyes, and the cuffs of his jeans were suffering that slow wicking effect that would soon have him wet up to the knees.
The shop looked better in the rain, somehow. Not that it had looked bad before. But now there was a soft, warm glow in the windows, something homely that beckoned without words. It looked cozy. Inviting. Exactly the sort of place he'd have expected to find Aziraphale.
Crowley wondered if the bouquet he'd made was in there somewhere, and his stomach flipped like he was falling, and he made himself turn around and leave, and told himself he wouldn't come back.
He dreamed about Aziraphale again. Nothing coherent; nothing he could describe when he woke. No story, no scene, no words: just the knowledge, as he woke with his eyes wet with tears and his breath rushing out of him like he'd been about to cry out, that Aziraphale had been there, and it had been right, and that waking to find it was just a dream hurt more than anything he'd felt in his life.
He made himself coffee, showered, got dressed. Looked at himself in the mirror for a long time. His sharp edges, his too-long hair, his eyes that were such a strange shade of yellow-brown that in the right light they were almost amber. When he'd been younger he'd imagined someone might find them beautiful one day, but if anyone ever had, Crowley had made sure they never got close enough to tell him.
He didn't know why he'd spent his life alone. It hadn't been a conscious choice. More like his standards were so impossibly high, or his tastes so impossibly specific, that friendship was awkward and unsatisfying and fled as soon as the circumstances of convenience had passed.
He'd thought he understood loneliness, he'd thought it made him hard and smooth and satisfied with his life, and then the strange man with the strange name and the melancholy (beautiful) blue eyes had thanked him and walked away, and now Crowley found himself as broken open and messy and beyond repair as an egg thrust out of the nest before its time.
He scrawled a note on a piece of paper - closed until lunch - and taped it to the shop door. Then he caught a bus to Soho.
A little bell jingled when he opened the door, because of course it did. He was glad it wasn't raining today; he hated the thought of bringing his damp, bedraggled self into this place with its drifts of paper and stacks of books and its dry, warm air and its faded woven rugs. As it was, he was careful to wipe his shoes clean of whatever London had left on them before he ventured further in.
There were no other customers in the shop, and Crowley's heart leapt to his throat, expecting Aziraphale to appear in response to the bell, but he saw and heard no sound of movement. He could call out, he supposed, but his voice had tangled up into a knot and he couldn't get even a word past his dry lips.
He drifted past the shelves and stands, eyes trailing over the books on display. Old books, strange books, books with leather covers and books clad in faded brown paper. Books on high shelves with impossible price tags, books behind glass with no price tags at all, sheet music and playbills and bundled manuscripts that looked like they belonged in a museum or a private collection rather than a place where they could theoretically be sold.
There was a gramophone, not a modern turntable with affectations, but an old, worn original that was so surprising and so utterly unsurprising that a strange, soft bark of laughter escaped Crowley's traitor throat.
He heard a stirring then, saw the edge of movement beyond a doorway into some sort of back room. His voice, having done its worst, immediately deserted him again, and he could only stand tongue-tied as Aziraphale emerged from the depths, hair askew as if he'd been tugging at it absentmindedly, not quite looking at Crowley yet as he removed a pair of old-fashioned reading glasses and laid them down on the edge of the counter he was passing.
"Can I help—" he started, and then he saw who he was speaking to, and stopped as suddenly as if he'd been struck. His face paled and his eyes widened and his lip trembled and none of it spoke of pleasure or gladness. After a moment, he said, faintly, "Crowley."
He shouldn't have come, Crowley thought, heart turning to lead and sinking into his shoes. He should have respected Aziraphale's clear intention that they shouldn't meet again. He should have got some damn sleeping pills and turned his mirror to the wall.
"Hi," he managed. "I. Uh."
"How did you—" Aziraphale didn't finish the question, but it was clear enough: how did you find me?
Crowley almost laughed at how perplexed he seemed, but his throat was still too strangled by nerves and need and a kind of nostalgia that had no obvious cause.
"Internet," Crowley said. "Looked up your number. There was a listing for the shop."
"Ah. I see." Aziraphale took a deep breath and then sighed heavily. "And... why are you here?"
Because now I've seen you once I need to see you again. Because I miss you like you were always supposed to be here. Because I can't bear how sad you are, you were never meant to be this sad.
"Looking for a book," Crowley said.
Aziraphale gave him a look of such flat disbelief that he almost flinched, but there was the faintest flicker of humour in it, the faintest stirring from the quiet sorrow.
"A book? You?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You don't read."
Crowley stared at him, mouth agape.
"I do read," he protested. "Why would you think I didn't?"
Aziraphale started to answer, tripped over his own words, turned away in a hurry as if to hide the blush that rose to his face.
"No-one reads anymore," he complained, doing a good enough impression of a fussy old professor that Crowley almost believed it. "All you young people on your phones, I just tend to assume—"
Crowley's eyebrows made a bid for the ceiling.
"Young people?" he repeated. "How old do you think I am?"
"I'm told it's impolite to guess," Aziraphale replied primly. "I, however, am positively ancient. You all look young to me."
Crowley shook his head, bewildered and unsure of the joke. Aziraphale didn't look old, despite his outdated wardrobe. Certainly not old enough to be calling Crowley young.
"I read books," he insisted, clinging to something that might let him talk to Aziraphale like a normal person. "Got anything good?"
"I don't stock books that aren't good." Aziraphale still wouldn't look at him. "But they may not be to your taste, I'm afraid. I'm rather old-fashioned."
"No, really?" Crowley said dryly before he could stop himself. To his surprise and secret delight, Aziraphale shot him the kind of look you give a friend who's teasing you. "What's your favourite book, then?"
"You can't possibly expect me to pick just one."
"How about top five?"
Crowley laughed, unable to contain the thing that was bubbling up in his chest, the aching sense of familiarity and fondness.
"How many favourite books do you have?" he asked.
Wordlessly, Aziraphale gestured to the entire shop. Crowley's laughter turned into a sweet sort of pain beneath his breastbone.
"Doesn't that make it hard to sell them?"
"Oh, that very rarely happens, believe me. I'm quite an expert on not selling books."
There was the slightest sparkle in his eyes, the smallest curve to his lips, and it couldn't dispel the sorrow that clung to him, but it caught Crowley's breath and begged him to keep talking, keep coaxing that light out from the shadows.
"So what you're saying," he said, "is that if I want to buy a book I've actually come to completely the wrong place?"
"Now you're catching on."
"What about borrow? Can I borrow a book?"
"I am not a library." Aziraphale huffed, but now he'd let himself look at Crowley again, he couldn't seem to quite drag his eyes away. Crowley could almost feel it, the way they explored his face, the way they lingered as if everything they beheld was impossibly precious. "But I suppose I... I might have something. That would interest you."
He turned and moved purposefully down one of the rows of shelves, as if he knew exactly where he was going and had no need even to glance at the titles to orient himself. Crowley found he'd hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans and was hanging on for dear life, as if he'd been balanced on the very edge of something for the last few minutes. He took a careful breath, forced his hands to relax, as Aziraphale plucked a book from the shelf like a falcon stooping on its prey and began to make his way back to Crowley.
He was so... ordinary-looking, Crowley supposed, apart from that impossibly white-blond hair that showed no sign of dark roots. He seemed like someone that Crowley shouldn't even have noticed in a crowd. Nothing especially striking or fascinating about him, and yet Crowley found himself greedy for the sight of him, taking in the way he moved and the curl of his hands around the book and the softness of his face.
"Here." Aziraphale held out the book, which wasn't as old as some, but still dusty and worn enough that Crowley took it gingerly, afraid to hurt it. "Try this."
He peered at the title and sounded it out in his head before he tried it.
"Written in the fourteenth century. The only good thing to come out of it, someone once told me," Aziraphale replied, brushing the dust off his fingers with a wistful smile that didn't reach his eyes. "It'll make you laugh."
"Yes, it will," Aziraphale said softly, with a certainty that left Crowley momentarily stricken into silence. Aziraphale kept his eyes fixed on the book now in Crowley's hands, refusing to look up. He worried at his lower lip for a moment, and Crowley's heart stuttered, sure he was going to say... something. Something that would...
Aziraphale turned abruptly towards the back room.
"Please return it when you're finished," he said, making his way over to where he'd left his reading glasses. "And do look after it. If you spill red wine or something on it I'll— well, I shall be very displeased."
"I'll guard it with my life," Crowley replied, trying for humour and missing by a mile as the words came out low and urgent and honest.
Aziraphale stopped at the counter, picking up his glasses and fiddling with them nervously.
"No need for that," he said. "Please do... look after yourself, too, my dear."
Crowley's knees went watery and he took a step forward, but Aziraphale was putting on the glasses like armour, turning away with a finality that would not be gainsaid.
"I'm afraid I have to get back to my work now. It was... it was good to see you. Take as long as you like with the book. You can always just pop it through the letterbox when you're done, if... if I should happen to be closed."
"Right," Crowley said, already determined to memorise the opening times of the shop to ensure that wouldn't happen. "Okay. I'll just... well. I'll be back when I've read it, then. To tell you what I think."
Aziraphale turned like he couldn't stop himself, eyes flying to Crowley's with a depth of loss and longing as full-fathom as the ocean. He smiled, a fragile thing.
"I'll look forward to it."
It took longer than Crowley expected to read the book: the translation was itself more than a hundred years old, its language dense and detailed and slow to unravel. And, as it turned out, utterly filthy in a lot of places. He was shocked, on some level, that Aziraphale had handed the book to him so readily, with no hesitation or embarrassment. On some other level, he was as unsurprised as he was that Aziraphale had been right about it making him laugh. He kept the book well away from all beverages, and wondered how Aziraphale had known that he rarely kept any wine in his cupboard other than red.
Aziraphale's opening hours were a mystery wrapped in an enigma written out in purposefully cramped handwriting but he somehow managed to get it right, arriving at the end of the day when there were again no customers in the shop but the sign was still flipped to open. Crowley thought of Aziraphale's joke about trying not to sell books, and smiled, and then smiled even more when he spotted Aziraphale almost completely tucked behind a shelf and as absorbed in reading as if he were a customer himself.
"Didn't take you for a pedlar of pornography," he said by way of greeting.
Aziraphale's head popped up over the shelf like an indignant dandelion. "I beg your pardon?"
Crowley held up The Decameron, waggling it gently from side to side.
"Absolutely x-rated," he said with glee. "Putting the Devil in hell? Really? You were right, it made me laugh."
Crowley had hoped to get a laugh in return, hoped to see his eyes light up. Instead, Aziraphale just said, "Oh," and then didn't say anything at all for a moment. Finally, he closed the book he'd been reading, reshelved it, and stepped out from his hidey-hole, tugging at his waistcoat and avoiding Crowley's eyes.
"You enjoyed it, then?"
"Not so much the bits about plague." It had given him unaccountably vivid nightmares, that remorseless description of the pestilence that consumed all in its path. He'd skipped ahead. "The rest was pretty good. Funny how modern it feels, even with the big words and run-on sentences."
"I find that humans, as a whole, don't change nearly as much as they think they do."
"Someone studied anthropology, did they?"
"In a manner of speaking."
Aziraphale held out his hand for the copy of the Decameron. Crowley tried not to try to brush their fingers together, but failed on both counts: Aziraphale skillfully took the book while avoiding contact.
"I'm glad you liked it," Aziraphale went on, smoothing his hand over the cover with a gentleness that made something in Crowley ache. "And I see you've taken care of it. Thank you."
"No, I mean— thank you. For lending it." Crowley took a breath and a chance. "What next?"
Aziraphale looked at him then with a helplessness that almost stopped his heart, like someone already falling but still frantically trying to regain their balance, like someone kneeling parched at the lip of an oasis and trying to will themselves not to drink.
"You might like the Canterbury Tales," Aziraphale said after a moment, like a sigh, like a sip of water. "They were somewhat inspired by the Decameron, and they're certainly, well. What was your phrase?" He smiled. "Absolutely x-rated. Some of them, at least."
"I'll give it a try," Crowley said, drinking in that smile and the way Aziraphale had forgotten to avoid his eyes. "Assuming you've got a copy."
"My dear, I have seven." Aziraphale slipped past him, their shoulders not quite brushing, and Crowley closed his eyes for a split second as he caught the scent of him again. "I'll try to find you one that's in contemporary English, shall I?"
Crowley was almost starting to understand Aziraphale's distaste for customers. Business in the flower shop ebbed and flowed, and normally he'd be grateful to be busy, but every new order that came in kept him from finishing the Tales, kept him from going back to the bookshop. He was often too tired to read much in the evenings, and he didn't dare bring the book into the shop where it might get wet or dirty. Its leather binding was worn smooth with much handling, and its pages smelled like Aziraphale - or Aziraphale smelled like them, would perhaps be more accurate.
Someone asked him for marigolds for a lover, and he almost asked them, are you sure, do you know what those mean? He glanced at the book about the language of flowers, stuffed under the counter: marigolds for grief, for despair. Strange, that a bloom so redolent with reds and golds and sunset shades should have such a dour meaning. They'd always made him think of red velvet and gilded wings.
He found himself wanting to take more than the book with him when he returned. He hovered in the back room, eyes roving restlessly along the shelves. For a second he lingered on a long-stemmed rose, but no: too much, too soon, too honest. The whole room was a mass of hidden meaning now, flowers he'd thought of only as colours and scents transformed into fragments of code, requiring him to think carefully about the message they would send.
Finally, he picked up a sturdy potted fern, one that didn't need much attention. Ferns for fascination. I want to learn you like a new language.
To his dismay, the bookshop was closed. He could see a light on, though, and so he hesitated, and tapped on the door, fingertips dancing a little rhythm like a song stuck in his head. Almost to his surprise, he heard footsteps at once, and a moment later, Aziraphale opened the door.
"I thought it might be you," he said, voice soft as a breaking wave, eyes tender and mournful and haunted. "Come in, then."
Crowley followed him inside with a feeling like a sigh trapped in his chest, an easing of something, an uncoiling. He handed Aziraphale back the book, and then offered him the fern as well.
"That's... for me?" Aziraphale asked, as if Crowley were in the habit of wandering around clutching random potted plants.
"Little gift. To say thank you for the reading material."
"I'm not terribly good with these things," Aziraphale fretted, but he set the book down and reached out for the fern anyway. "How do I—"
"Just put it somewhere warm and not too bright, and keep the soil damp."
He wasn't trying, this time, but their hands touched anyway, meeting around the curve of the pot. Aziraphale's fingers were warm and soft and sent a shiver through Crowley that seemed out of proportion to the lightness of the touch. He thought he heard an intake of breath from Aziraphale, but then he was turning away with the fern in his hands, carrying it over to the counter and placing it down with great care.
"I— I won't leave it here, of course," he said, words tumbling over each other, almost babbling. "I'll take it upstairs - there's a corner that will suit it very well, I think - and I'll see it every day so I shouldn't forget to water it—"
He took a steadying breath and turned back to Crowley with his eyes all crinkled with fondness and his mouth turned up at the corners and the shadows almost banished for just this single moment.
"Thank you," Aziraphale said, warm with it, aglow. "So, how was the book?"
"I had no idea such a famous work of literature was built on jokes about arses."
"Oh, you'd be surprised how much English culture has sprung from that particular font of humour. Shakespeare's nearly as bad, though people tend to miss the references these days—"
"Shakespeare?" Crowley frowned. "Wasn't he, y'know— more of a gloomy sort? All those dramatic speeches and horrible murders?"
Aziraphale's mouth dropped open with a look of such genuine horror that Crowley almost started apologising for whatever he'd said wrong.
"You haven't read Shakespeare?"
"Well, I mean— did Hamlet in school. Macbeth too, I think. Saw that film of Romeo and Juliet, you know, the modern one—"
Aziraphale made a soft, distressed sound.
"You mean you've never— you don't know any of the funny ones?"
"There are funny ones?"
It was like he'd kicked a puppy off a bridge into a pit of spikes. Crowley thought there were actual tears welling up in Aziraphale's eyes.
"Oh, my dear—" Aziraphale wrung his hands like something out of a Victorian tragedy. "You must— I have the complete works somewhere, you must read the comedies—" Aziraphale started towards one of the shelves, then stopped, so agitated he didn't seem to know what to do with himself. "No, no, you must see them, you can't— they're meant to be performed, you can't just read them if you've never—"
"I feel like I've insulted your honour or something," Crowley said lightly, trying to find it funny, failing. Aziraphale seemed so genuinely stricken. "Take a breath."
"Yes. Of course. I— I'm sorry." Aziraphale pulled himself together. "But you really must— they have Much Ado on at the Globe this month, you always loved—"
He seemed to trip on his own words, suddenly pale, suddenly hesitant.
"You'd love it. It's a wonderful cast," Aziraphale finished quietly. "You should— you should go."
"Not really much for going to the theatre," Crowley replied, folding his arms across his chest to hide the tremor in his hands. "Not on my own, anyway."
It hung there between them for a moment, like a warm breeze, like the scent of rosemary, and Crowley found he was cracked open and desperate again, almost holding his breath as Aziraphale looked at him like he was cool blue water in the desert sands.
And then something shattered in his eyes, something went out of him like life departing an exhausted creature, something closed off in his face and drew his body up straight and tense, and Crowley knew he'd somehow made a terrible mistake.
"I'm sure you can find someone to accompany you," Aziraphale said with brittle politeness. "Now, if you'll excuse me—"
"Wait—" Crowley scrambled desperately for something to fix it, anything to wipe away the vice gripping his heart, the same pain he saw in Aziraphale's taut expression. "I, uh, I need another book—"
"Try your local library." Aziraphale moved towards him, but with a determination and defensiveness that made Crowley give ground. "Now, I really must be closing up, if you don't mind—"
Crowley let himself be herded towards the door.
"I'm sorry," he blurted out as Aziraphale flipped the latch and pulled it open for him. He didn't even know what he was apologising for. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
Aziraphale's expression crumbled just for a moment, his eyes too bright, his lip wobbling dangerously.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," he said, brokenly. "It isn't your fault. Goodnight, Crowley."
The name splashed agonisingly against the door that had been shut in his face. Crowley heard the lock click, then quick footsteps walking away. After a few moments, the light went out. His fists were clenched so tight that his fingernails were cutting into his palms. His heart was beating like frantic wings. His face was wet, he realised, his vision blurry.
He stood outside the door so long that someone stopped to ask if he was all right. He lied, and turned away, and went home.
He tried to stay away. He couldn't.
He thought he might be angry, once he'd soothed his heart with wine and hours of meaningless television, but he couldn't find it in him. Aziraphale's pain was too obvious and too bitter. Whyever he'd sent Crowley away, it wasn't his fault, either. Crowley thought maybe he should tell him that. And so he found himself back at the bookshop a few days later.
It was closed again. He knocked, but this time there was no reply. He realised belatedly that the windows were dark, that there was a chain on the door that hadn't been there before. A new notice, posted in place of Aziraphale's chaotic opening hours.
Closed Until Further Notice.
Crowley hammered on the door, frantic and freefalling.
"Aziraphale! Aziraphale, are you in there?"
Someone approached from the other side of the street, an older woman with flour in her hair.
"Are you looking for Mr Fell?" she asked.
"I— suppose I am," he mumbled, glancing at the name emblazoned on the bookshop.
"He's gone away," the woman told him, with none of the solemnity such a terrible pronouncement deserved.
"For— for how long?"
"Actually, he didn't say, but he seemed to think it would be for a while."
"Sometimes he goes away for a few months," she said. "Sometimes a year or two. He's a funny one, to be completely honest with you—"
Crowley didn't hear anything else she had to say. At some point, he must have found a way to end the conversation. At some point, he must have walked away. At some point, he must have let his feet carry him to the park he found himself drifting through.
It was a sunny day, but he felt cold. There were people laughing and tossing bread to the ducks, but the noise rose and fell around him like the swells of an unkind sea. There were flowers blazing bright along the borders of the path, marigolds in all the colours of a dying day.
He sat on a bench and stared at nothing for a long, long time.
Ungrateful he, who pluck'd thee from thy stalk,
Poor faded flow'ret! on his careless way;
Inhal'd awhile thy odours on his walk,
Then onward pass'd and left thee to decay.
- The Faded Flower, Samuel Taylor Coleridge