Crowley hadn't known he could hurt like this. Hadn't known he could feel this wretched, this broken, this alone. When his parents had died, he'd felt a mix of bitterness, and regret, and relief, and he'd wondered at the time if there was something wrong with him, that he didn't shed a tear.
(They hadn't wanted him. Not as a child, not as an adult. They hadn't cared when he moved to London. He hadn't called. Neither had they.)
The only reason he survived this new and cataclysmic pain was that it was so shocking, so unfamiliar, so unexpected, that a part of him was fascinated by it. He watched himself fall apart, watched himself grieve for... what? Not even friendship, an... acquaintanceship? A passing encounter? A person he didn't even properly know? Something that could have been? Something that never was?
He couldn't explain it, just like he couldn't explain the intensity of all his reactions to Aziraphale, couldn't explain the pull he felt, like gravity, like grace, like words on the tip of his tongue, like a memory that wouldn't quite come into focus.
At first he went back to the bookshop every day. Then, once a week. Then, the weeks turned into months, and Crowley tried to stay away, for his own sanity, but he found his feet would take him there more often than they should. Nothing changed, except the windows became a little dirtier, and someone scrawled some graffiti on the front door.
(The next time he passed that way, it was gone, the door as unblemished as if the crude word had melted away of its own volition. He supposed the woman across the road must have taken care of it.)
Spring crawled into summer, summer dawdled drearily on. It was August before Crowley knew it, and London was unbearable in the heat. He thought about closing the shop for a week and going into the country somewhere, maybe even making a start on doing up his parents' dilapidated cottage, but what if Aziraphale came back while he was gone?
He's never coming back, Crowley told himself, trying to make his stubborn heart listen. Or if he does, he'll avoid you.
It was obvious, with hindsight, what he'd done wrong. Aziraphale had come to him talking about lost love and someone he couldn't get over after what sounded like years, and Crowley had... what? Hit on him? Asked him out? Courted him? He wasn't even sure himself what he'd been aiming for, but it was clear enough that he should have looked before he leaped, and that the consequences were all on his own head.
He ached with the thought that he'd done anything to magnify Aziraphale's pain. Then he felt guilty for being so arrogant as to assume that he could have that sort of impact. Then he wondered if he was making excuses not to take responsibility.
Mostly he missed Aziraphale, and knew it was ridiculous. He'd barely known him. Barely even spoken to him: a handful of brief interactions, some books, nothing else. It shouldn't feel like losing an old friend.
It was weird, he reminded himself, in the shower, at breakfast, in the shop, the whole thing was just plain weird, and you're better off forgetting about it.
But he dreamed of Aziraphale. Not always; it wasn't a nightly torture. Just, every so often, he'd wake in the morning with the sense of being torn away from where he was supposed to be.
Twice, he had nightmares so awful he screamed himself awake, sat shaking for hours after, waiting for the dawn. Nothing to do with Aziraphale, as far as he could remember, but he suspected they meant he needed to do something to cope better with his emotions, like go to therapy or get some pills or have a mid-life crisis and move to Alaska.
He didn't do any of those things.
What he mostly did was carry on, one day after another, waiting for time to do its job and soften the edges of the memories, and in the meantime compulsively running his mind over them to test how sharp they still were.
It had been a long, hot day, the sky dark with thunderclouds, the air humid and heavy and horrible. Crowley wanted nothing more than for it to just rain already, but as he started shutting up the shop, there was still no sign of the storm breaking.
He normally locked the door before he started tidying up, but he was tired, sticky, and miserable, and had apparently forgotten that step, because he heard someone come in while he was in the back room topping up the water for the cut flowers. Crowley stifled a wretched groan, wiped his hands on his apron, and tried to plaster on something approaching a polite expression as he walked to the doorway.
"Sorry, we're closed, actually, I just forgot—"
He stopped, because it was Aziraphale standing in the shop, and the light behind him was so strange, so coppery and dim and skewed by the clouds, that for a moment Crowley actually thought he was hallucinating, that he'd crossed some threshold into delirium.
"Hello," Aziraphale said, and then didn't seem to know what to say next.
Crowley tried to form words, but couldn't; he knew he was ridiculous, standing in the doorway staring, but he couldn't make his throat work, or take his eyes from Aziraphale's face. He was so caught between the shivering suddenness of seeing him again and the black-rot tangle of emotion from the last three months that his legs felt weak, his head felt light.
Aziraphale bit his lip and looked down at the floor.
"I'm, well, I was just— I was in the area—"
"In the area," Crowley repeated flatly.
"Yes," Aziraphale replied, studying his shoes.
"You left," Crowley said. He tried to keep the accusation out of his voice. It wasn't like he had any right to it, really. "Just... disappeared. For months."
"And now you're back."
Crowley took a deep, shaky breath, folded his arms over his chest to keep himself steady. There were too many feelings fighting for his attention. Anger, maybe, that Aziraphale could walk back into his life so easily, but it was a feeble thing, washed away almost at once by the incredible relief of seeing him there. Fear, that Aziraphale would do it again; fear, that Crowley would drive him off with a word, a glance. A longing more powerful than anything he'd ever known, to walk over there and touch Aziraphale, make sure he was real, hold tightly to him and refuse to let him go ever again.
He took another careful breath.
"What happened?" he asked.
It clearly wasn't the question Aziraphale was expecting. His eyes flew nervously to Crowley's face, then darted away.
"I can't explain," he replied, and Crowley felt a shudder of a different kind of apprehension, the hint of something dark and anguished in Aziraphale's downturned eyes. "But I'm sorry. I'm— I'm so sorry, my dear. For leaving like that, without a word."
Crowley clamped his hands tighter on his own arms, hugged himself like a boa constrictor to stay upright and in one piece and at least something approaching sane.
"Okay," he heard himself say. "Did you— did you just come back to say that? Are you going to go away again?"
"No," Aziraphale said, and it was like a promise, or like the answer to a promise made long ago. "I'm— I'm back now. I'm staying. I won't—"
He stopped himself, fidgeted with the ring on his right hand, darted another glance at Crowley like he couldn't bring himself to look directly at him.
"I'll be at the bookshop," Aziraphale continued after a moment, and his shoulders hunched, like someone bracing for rejection. "If you— that is to say, if you want— well, if you wanted—"
He stuttered into silence, took a deep breath, stole one more look - lingered, this time, as if afraid it would be the last - then turned away.
"I'll— I'll leave it up to you," he said, starting for the door.
Crowley was moving before he could even think, almost falling, hardly keeping his feet. He grabbed Aziraphale's arm before he could reach for the door handle, felt the warmth of him under his fingertips, heard the startled inhalation.
"Don't go," he said, rough and wretched and God, he was pathetic, he was losing his mind... "Please."
But the words hit Aziraphale like a blow, tore something out of him, laid bare a raw and terrible seam of grief that was like looking into an open wound - or a mirror. He shuddered under Crowley's hand, leaned into it like his legs were unsteady, then turned so suddenly that Crowley almost fell against him. Aziraphale put a hand against his chest, gave him back his balance, and Crowley could feel his fingers trembling.
They stood there like that, Aziraphale's palm flat over Crowley's heart, Crowley's hand tight on Aziraphale's arm, both of them with their heads bowed, and slowly, slowly, Crowley felt the black, tangled mess in his gut begin to uncoil, and slowly, the trembling of Aziraphale's fingers stilled.
They raised their heads at almost the same moment, eyes meeting like stars colliding, and Crowley knew two things with absolute certainty: that he wanted to kiss Aziraphale, and that it would be a huge mistake.
He let go of Aziraphale's arm, moved back just a fraction, not even enough to be called a step, but enough for Aziraphale's hand to fall away from his chest. They both took a breath, as if they'd been underwater for too long.
"You really won't leave again?" Crowley whispered.
"Oh, my dearest, I swear."
Crowley nodded, swallowed around the lump in his throat and the tremor of tears and confusion that answered the word dearest, looked anywhere but Aziraphale.
"I should— I should give you my number then," he said, striving for off-handed, as if there were any way to return this conversation to the realm of normality. "If— if that's—"
"Yes," Aziraphale replied softly. "Please."
Walking away from Aziraphale, even just across the room, was the hardest thing he'd ever done. In just those few steps, panic seized him, convinced him that he'd turn and Aziraphale would be gone—
He looked back; he couldn't help himself. Aziraphale was still there. Crowley ducked his head, reached the counter, grabbed pen and paper to scribble his mobile number and the shop landline. After a second, he added his email too. He barely stopped himself writing his address and postcode, realising at the last moment that Aziraphale knew where he lived, being as he was standing there right now.
He offered the paper to Aziraphale, who took it as carefully as if it were one of his books, folded it and slipped it into his inside jacket pocket.
"I thought— well, I was thinking—" Aziraphale fluttered his fingers over his lapels, smoothing them unnecessarily. "I thought I might see if— if they're still performing Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe. Or, well, somewhere else, it's always playing somewhere. That is, if you're— if you'd like—"
"Okay," Crowley said, pulse thrumming wildly in his throat. "Yeah. Let's do that."
Aziraphale nodded, and looked at Crowley with that same lingering intensity, like he was memorising - or savouring - Crowley's face.
"I'll call you, then. If I can get hold of some tickets. Or, I—" Aziraphale blushed, just the faintest tinge. "I mean, I'll call you either way."
It was enough, enough for Crowley to say, "Yeah, okay," and not chase after him again when he turned to leave. Even so, he had to grip the countertop tightly when Aziraphale shut the door behind him, cast one last look over his shoulder, and disappeared into the crowd..
He wasn't sure how long he stood there. A crash of thunder broke him from his daze, the first hard drops of rain scattering themselves across the window. Crowley walked to the door, locked it, pulled down the blind. He flicked off the lights, passed through the back room, stepped out into his small garden.
The rain was intensifying, fat globs of water that hurled themselves from the sky, which lit up with a bright white flash, followed seconds later by a long, low rumble. Crowley stood by his apple saplings and tilted his face up towards it, closed his eyes, breathed in the heady scent of the earth softening beneath the downpour. His hair was already bedraggled, his shirt becoming sodden; he'd start to shiver with it soon, but he needed it, needed the cold for his overheated skin, needed the water for his parched soul, needed the rain to wash away his helpless, grateful, ridiculous tears.
Crowley didn't know what people wore to the theatre (he assumed it didn't involve top hats and monocles, which was the only image his mind conjured up when he thought about it) so he played it safe, went a little smarter than his day-to-day wear but stopped short of anything too formal, swapped jeans for black trousers and a leather jacket, chose a slightly nicer shirt in patterned crimson.
As he fussed with his collar while waiting for Aziraphale he realised he was performing the age-old pre-date ritual of trying to look good without looking like he'd put too much effort in, and grimaced at himself in the mirror. Too fast, he thought accusingly, don't you ever learn?
He wanted Aziraphale in his life, wanted it desperately, wanted his friendship, his companionship, his presence. He wasn't going to risk that by pushing any other unwanted feelings onto him.
Even so, he took the time to tie his hair back neatly at the nape of his neck and dig out the gold and garnet earring he hadn't worn in years. The gemstone matched his shirt perfectly.
Aziraphale had offered to pick him up, which was just as well, since Crowley neither wanted to drive Aziraphale around in the battered van he used for deliveries, nor could quite see him on the back of the motorbike he rode the rest of the time. If he'd spared a thought for it at all, Crowley supposed he'd expected Aziraphale to turn up in something compact and comfortable: a Mini, perhaps, or a nice little Ford Fiesta.
His jaw almost hit the floor when the classic Bentley pulled up outside his shop.
"Holy shit," he said aloud, as Aziraphale leaned over from the driver's seat and waved self-consciously through the passenger window.
"Where on Earth did you get a car like this?" Crowley demanded as he carefully opened the door, making sure not to scrape it on the pavement, and slid into the leather seat that smelled so good and so familiar it gave him deja vu. "This is— I'd swear you couldn't find one outside a private collection, let alone drive it around London—"
"It was, ah... it was a bequest," Aziraphale replied, watching Crowley taking in the details of the car, an avid sort of anticipation in his eyes. "From an old friend. I think he would have wanted me to make use of it, not shut it up somewhere. I had to learn to drive specially."
"It's gorgeous," Crowley breathed, running an appreciative hand over the walnut veneer, marvelling at the uncracked varnish. He'd always liked old cars, used to collect little models of them as a kid, still dared to dream that he could save up for one of his own - though not this, he could never afford this. "The insurance must be astronomical."
"Worth every penny," Aziraphale replied softly, and Crowley realised he was still being watched, Aziraphale's eyes soft with something Crowley couldn't name. He glanced away as soon as he realised Crowley was looking, laid his hands almost reverently on the steering wheel. "Shall we?"
Crowley reached automatically over his left shoulder, before realising that a car this old wouldn't have seatbelts. It felt surprisingly transgressive to sit there without that restraint, as Aziraphale carefully put the Bentley into gear, checked his blind spot three times, and pulled out onto the road.
It was no surprise that Aziraphale was a cautious driver, doing everything by the book and just a little more timidly than was really appropriate for London traffic, but then, Crowley would drive a car like this carefully, too. Not a scratch on the paintwork, not a dent that he'd seen, every sign that it had been loved and cared for since the moment it had rolled off the factory line. He caught himself rubbing his thumb gently over the leather seat by his knee, forced himself to stop. It was probably rude to feel up someone else's car.
They weren't going to the Globe, in the end, but that was probably a good thing, given that the initial downpour had given way to a heavy, sullen drizzle that would have made an open-air experience less than pleasant. The performance was a modern interpretation, Aziraphale told him as they queued to get in, explaining details of setting that meant little to Crowley since he had no familiarity with the original text.
Understanding was less important to him than just listening to Aziraphale talk, anyway, drinking in the way he kept veering off on tangents of his own devising, like there was too much to say and he couldn't decide where to start.
He'd expected the actual experience of watching the play to be a bit of a drag, something to put up with for the sake of spending time in Aziraphale's company. He didn't expect to find himself laughing so hard he had to wipe tears from his eyes, nor for the time to fly so swiftly that the interval took him by surprise.
Aziraphale beamed at him like his laughter was a gift he treasured, and swept him away to the bar to buy them both a glass of wine, while Crowley marvelled aloud that the humour and humanity of the play came through so strongly even without following all the details of Shakespeare's language.
"Reading them just isn't the same," Aziraphale said, and Crowley shot him a sideways glance, catching his faint expression of satisfaction.
"No-one likes an 'I told you so'," he teased. Aziraphale flashed him a wounded look. "But okay, yeah, you did tell me so, and you were right."
The smile he got for that was... breathtaking, or at least, more than enough to take Crowley's breath away. Aziraphale looked almost happy for the first time since they'd met, and Crowley was already determined to make it happen again and again and again.
Laughter was supposed to be good for the soul, wasn't it? By the time they left the theatre, Crowley felt half-healed, and not just because of the play. Aziraphale was almost glowing with pleasure, hardly able to contain his anticipation of taking Crowley to see another. So I didn't mess it up this time? Crowley didn't say, biting his tongue against delight and relief. You really do want to stick around?
He got his answer when Aziraphale dropped him off outside the flower shop and said, almost shyly, "Perhaps we could do this again? At the weekend, maybe?"
"I'm all yours," Crowley replied without thinking, then could have kicked himself.
But Aziraphale just blushed and smiled like he didn't even mind, and Crowley didn't know what that meant, but he thought about it for a long, long time before he finally fell asleep.
Crowley was surprised how long it took him to notice the piano in Aziraphale's bookshop, although in his defence, it was swathed in thick velvet coverings and had been so thoroughly buried under books that it was easy to mistake for just another table. He'd fallen into the habit of wandering over after he'd closed up his own shop (on the occasions when Aziraphale didn't pick him up for dinner, or a theatre trip, or both) and he often found himself idly exploring the shelves while he waited for Aziraphale to finish up for the day.
"Look around all you like," Aziraphale had said early on, though there had been an odd, anxious hesitation in his face. "Just... I'd ask you not to, well, poke into anything that's obviously private. You know, if it's locked or put away—"
"'Course not," Crowley had replied, even as he felt a prickle of irrepressible curiosity. "I'll just browse, shall I?"
There was certainly plenty to keep his attention. Aziraphale's collection could generously be described as eclectic, though it would be more accurate to say it was mindbogglingly random. It was impossible to work out what the thread of commonality was, what drew Aziraphale to hoard these particular works. At first Crowley thought it was just that he loved old books, but there were plenty of modern volumes sprinkled throughout the shelves. First editions? Lots of those, but also nondescript mass-market paperbacks and seventh printings of obscure Biblical analysis. Was it religion, then? There certainly was a tendency in that direction, but even Crowley, who hadn't set foot in a church since he was old enough to refuse, could see that it wasn't a selection any priest would approve of. And besides, it was all intermixed with Shakespeare's folios and classic literature and an entire colourful series of modern fantasy novels.
In the end, all Crowley could say for certain was that Aziraphale loved books, and while some metric was clearly being applied (there were no blockbuster thrillers or political diaries, for example) the best Crowley could come up with was that Aziraphale really had been telling the truth when he said everything in the place was a favourite.
The piano, though, was so incongruous Crowley thought at first he was mistaken. He circled it, gently nudging aside the piles of books until he was sure of its outlines. He thought the thing he'd taken for a side-table must be the stool to go with it. Cautiously, curiously, he found the edge of the velvet drape, tweaked it up until he could catch a glimpse of the glossy wood beneath, the brass pedals surprisingly bright and well-polished given they'd clearly been disused for so long.
He realised belatedly that perhaps this qualified as obviously private, and dropped the fabric rather than pry further, but he couldn't seem to let go of the thread of it. To have a piano in a bookshop was an odd choice in any case, but to have one that was never used, buried under books as if better forgotten... it gnawed at him until he had to ask Aziraphale about it one night over dinner.
Aziraphale flinched as if Crowley had hurt him, and Crowley's heart stopped dead in his chest, panic surging in his stomach.
"Never mind," he said, too quickly, "sorry, didn't mean to—"
"Do you play?" Aziraphale asked unexpectedly, pushing a forkful of perfectly seared rare steak around like he no longer had the appetite for it.
"Me? No, not much talent for music, me—"
And for some reason that seemed to hurt Aziraphale too, enough that he swallowed hard and Crowley had the terrible premonition that he was about to make an excuse and leave.
"Oh," Aziraphale said, and then he made some conscious and herculean effort, pushed away whatever was weighing him down so painfully, reached for his wine glass. "It's just a... keepsake, I suppose. I'd almost forgotten it was there."
And then he took a breath and a careful sip of wine, smiled in a way that didn't reach his eyes but was sincere all the same, and changed the subject.
Crowley supposed the lack of any real answer was what bothered him enough to dream about it that night, to dream of his own hands gliding with practised ease over the ivories, drawing forth a lilting sonata, alone with only the candlelight and the silent books for company.
August wore into September, which went so fast Crowley barely even realised it had arrived before it was almost over. He wondered sometimes what he'd done with himself before meeting Aziraphale, how he could possibly have filled up his time. He tried not to wonder what he would do with himself if Aziraphale... stopped being in his life again. The terror that came with the thought was so all-encompassing and paralysing that it was like being seized in the claws of a remorseless creature.
Most of the time he didn't think about it. Most of the time he learned not to worry about it. But there were moments. There were always moments. Things he said that made Aziraphale's face fall, brought all that pain and misery back into his eyes. Times when Azirapahle seemed distant and awkward with him. And of course, the things Crowley wanted that he couldn't have, that he didn't dare ask for.
One of his saplings produced a single red apple the size of a golf ball, much to Crowley's surprise and delight, since he hadn't expected any fruit until at least next year. He called Aziraphale up in the middle of the day, as excited as if he'd found buried treasure, and only realised how ridiculous he was being when Aziraphale started to laugh gently down the phone at him.
"May I come and see?" Aziraphale asked, before Crowley could even try to regain what little cool he possessed.
"I— yes— of course."
Oddly enough, for all the times Aziraphale had met him outside the shop, he hadn't been in again since that day when he'd reappeared out of nowhere. They never went back to Crowley's flat; somehow, if they were going to sit and talk (and drink excellent wine) it was always in the bookshop. Crowley didn't even know where Aziraphale lived. Except that wasn't true: it was clear enough that he lived in the bookshop, and wherever he slept and ate and changed clothes, he didn't seem to consider it home. Crowley went back and forth between imagining a tiny flat like his own, or some kind of gargantuan townhouse with big empty rooms full of sheet-covered furniture. Or maybe just a rented room in someone else's house, like an old-fashioned lodger? Regardless, asking to go back to Aziraphale's place was very firmly on Crowley's list of forbidden questions, and so he had no way of resolving the mystery.
It made Crowley's stomach flutter in a not quite pleasant way to see Aziraphale step through the shop door again, but at least this time, he was smiling, and for a moment Crowley caught his breath, so mesmerised by the gentle affection on Aziraphale's face that he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do.
Aziraphale blinked and raised an eyebrow at him, blushing faintly, and Crowley shook himself.
"This way," he said, more than a bit self-conscious as he headed through the back room and out into the garden. "I mean, it's not much of an apple, you understand, it's pretty wimpy really, probably tastes terrible—"
"It's perfectly lovely," Aziraphale replied as they reached the small tree and its single fruit, and he was so sincere in his praise that Crowley felt a wobble of something almost like paternal pride. Later, when Aziraphale wasn't there to hear, he'd come back and tell the sapling that it was a Good Tree. "What are you going to do with it?"
Crowley hadn't really thought about it, but as soon as Aziraphale asked, the answer was obvious. He reached out, carefully plucked the apple from its stem, and offered it up.
He'd thought Aziraphale might laugh; he wasn't prepared for Aziraphale's stunned expression, eyes suddenly wide and dark with emotion. But then before Crowley could panic, Aziraphale did start to laugh after all, eyes glittering, hand pressed to his mouth, shaking his head hard enough that his curls flew back and forth and caught the late-morning sun.
"Why don't we share it?" Aziraphale suggested, the smile now settled on his mouth as if sharing a private joke, though it was one Crowley couldn't fathom. "It seems only fair."
And these were the moments that pushed Crowley to his limits, because what he wanted to do was bite into the apple himself, then hold it out to Aziraphale. What he wanted was for Aziraphale to take it without hesitating, to put his mouth right where Crowley's had been, to keep their gazes locked as he licked the juice from his lips.
Crowley wavered, and then he swallowed hard, and said, "Okay, come up to the kitchen, then," and headed back inside.
Was there a flicker of something on Aziraphale's face that might have been disappointment? No, of course not. He followed Crowley upstairs, and the next time Crowley looked at him, he was surveying the flat with bright and undisguised interest.
"I haven't been in here before," he said, stating the obvious as if it had only just occurred to him. "How nice! I do like those curtains."
Crowley fought a wave of self-consciousness, wondering what the place looked like to Aziraphale's eyes. It was as tidy as a small flat could be, clean enough not to be embarrassing, but it struck Crowley as he followed Aziraphale's gaze that although there were plenty of things on the shelves and in the cupboards, they were all things that served specific purposes in his day-to-day life. He hadn't amassed any collection of meaningful objects or sentimental artworks. The books were the ones he liked to read, and the DVDs were the ones he liked to watch, not a signed copy or a special edition among them. Even the shelves and shelves of CDs were simply there so he could listen to the music he liked, and these days he had most of them ripped to his laptop.
He found himself wondering for a moment what had happened to those miniature cars he'd loved when he was a child. They might still be in a box somewhere, he thought, in some corner of his parents' cottage. He really should grit his teeth and sort the place out.
"How long have you lived here?" Aziraphale asked, wandering over to examine the CDs.
"Oh... eight years or so?" Crowley had to think for a moment, go back over dates in his head. "Yeah. Started the shop with my inheritance. Before that I was just, you know, wherever."
"Have you always lived in London?"
"No, came up for uni, never left." Crowley crossed the sitting room to the kitchenette set into its alcove, pulled out a knife and a chopping board. He washed the miniature apple, then carefully sliced it into quarters. "I had a go at working for those big white collar companies, you know, couple of investment bankers, a law firm, but I..."
He trailed off, grabbed a plate, arranged the apple quarters on it with far too much care given how briefly they were going to be in that position, then stepped out of the kitchenette.
"This was what you always wanted to do?" Aziraphale asked with a quirk of his eyebrow and something that wasn't quite a smile.
Crowley snorted with laughter.
"Not exactly," he admitted. "I just hate taking orders from other people. Running my own business seemed like the best option, but I'm not, y'know, one of those people with a passion for things..."
"I like gardening, I like plants, I'm pretty good with them, and flowers are... I dunno, they make people happy. Unlike insurance claims. So this is where I ended up."
He held out the plate. Aziraphale was looking at him the way he sometimes did, as if he were... disappointed? No, more like dismayed, like he could see potential in Crowley that Crowley had never seen for himself. It should have made him angry and resentful, the way his father's snide comments always had, but instead, it just left him feeling oddly sad, uneasy in his own skin.
"It's probably going to be bitter as anything," Crowley went on, nodding at the plate. "Too small to get properly sweet."
"Well, I'll take my chances."
Aziraphale came to his side and took one of the slices delicately between thumb and forefinger. He paused, and Crowley realised he was waiting. Feeling slightly ridiculous, he grabbed a slice for himself. They looked at each other, and then both took a bite at the same time.
It wasn't all that bitter, to Crowley's surprise. It had a tartness that was rather pleasant, and the promise that future fruit from the same tree would be full of all the crisp sweetness summer had to offer.
"How lovely," Aziraphale murmured, and smiled, and took a second bite.
Autumn rolled on with its reds and golds and yellows, its squalls of sullen rain, and its distressingly early onset of Christmas advertising, and Crowley was happier than he could ever remember being, except for the doubt that gnawed away in the pit of his soul.
He didn't know where this thing with Aziraphale was going, didn't know what to expect. He still wanted to kiss him, still didn't dare. Were they friends? Crowley thought they were, even thought maybe this was a kind of friendship he'd never experienced, something deep and lasting. If he could have this for - forever, if he were honest with himself - then God knew, he would accept it gratefully.
He'd had... hook-ups, he supposed was the right word for them. While he was in university, and for a while afterwards, as a young, broke person with nothing in London to occupy his time except clubs and alcohol and other young, broke people. It was sort of just what you did, and it wasn't like he didn't like sex or anything.
But it had just never really... been more than scratching an itch, and over time he'd found that it wasn't really worth it, not for him, not when there was something lacking, something that simple physical pleasure couldn't compensate for. And if he found himself wondering if it would be different with Aziraphale, if his heart raced over the slightest, silliest thing, a flutter of his eyelashes or the way he licked his lips, well, it just wasn't worth the terrifying possibility of losing him altogether.
And yet sometimes Aziraphale looked at him like... like he was waiting. Like he was expecting Crowley to - what? Take his hand? Kiss him? Formally request the honour of wooing him?
But every time Crowley started to think maybe it wasn't just wishful thinking, every time he allowed himself to consider that such a move might not be unwelcome, there'd be one of those other kinds of moments.
Like just last week, when he'd pinned a poppy to his coat in the run-up to Remembrance Day, and Aziraphale had gone sheet-white and looked at him as if he'd cut his own throat. He'd been shaken and too-quiet for so long afterwards that Crowley had made sure not to wear the flower again, dropping a big handful of change into a collection bucket out of a vague sense of compensation.
Or before that, when Crowley had asked about all those books in Danish on that one slightly awkward shelf in the back corner of the bookshop, and Aziraphale had snapped at him to leave them alone, as if they'd been pornographic or something.
(He'd been annoyed by that, had waited until a day when Aziraphale was absorbed in a particularly musty leather-bound volume and slunk over to take a peek anyway, but there'd been no dirty woodcuts or obvious indications that they were anything other than dry textbooks. He'd copied down a phrase or two and put it into Google translate when he got home, but it had returned something baffling about two-headed goats and shooting stars.)
He'd assumed from the start that all those moments when Aziraphale seemed so shaken he was almost distraught were due to bad memories of The Ex - and if Crowley ever met that bastard, he was going to throw punches first and ask questions later - but lately he was starting to question his own conclusions. It was the way Aziraphale would look into his eyes, stricken, like it was somehow Crowley who'd left him and broken his heart.
He often found himself dreaming of those moments later, with an odd clarity and detail, full of things that dreams usually failed to have, like smells, and tastes, and changes in temperature. He dreamed of reading those weird Danish books, dreamed he understood them perfectly. Dreamed of drinking wine with Aziraphale by candlelight, by lamplight, by gaslight, under drooping leaves and smoke-stained timbers and the skylight of the bookshop.
He dreamed of playing the piano so often that one day, on a sudden whim, he moved enough books out of the way to open up the lid. It should have been horribly out of tune after who-knew-how-many years of neglect, but it sounded fine when he cautiously pressed a key, sending a clear, sonorous note through the shop.
He hadn't expected it to be so loud. He winced, hearing Aziraphale drop something in the back room, and then hurried steps across the shop floor.
"Sorry," Crowley said without looking round, braced for anger or that awful, hollow pain. "I was just— I was curious."
A pause, and then Aziraphale said, "Go on, then."
Crowley cast him a surprised glance, found Aziraphale lingering by the end of the nearest shelf, shoulder pressed against it as if in support, face tight with sorrow but eyes deep with something more like longing.
"Not like I know what to do with it," Crowley muttered, pressing the same key again, then the one to its right. It sounded pleasant enough, at least. "Might be able to manage Three Blind Mice if you give me a few minutes to work it out..."
And then his fingers did something without his permission, moved to one of the black notes instead of the next white one, because that was right, that was the next sound in the sequence, then back to white, white again, then on to two more blacks. Crowley stopped, startled, and heard a soft intake of breath from Aziraphale.
"You know some scales, at least, then?" Aziraphale said after a moment.
"How'd you mean?"
"That was C Minor, I think." Aziraphale's voice was odd and distant. "Are you sure you've never learned?"
"I— I think so." Crowley ran his fingertips over the smooth keys, not hard enough to sound them. He could almost feel the shape of a melody under them, the urge to reach for particular notes. "I just, sometimes I feel like I could..."
"Try," Aziraphale murmured.
Crowley tried. He tried to hold one of those candlelit dreams in his mind, reached for the sense-memory of the keys under his fingers. It was far from perfect - he stumbled and missed notes, particularly when he started to think too hard about what he was doing - but for as long as he could keep himself from questioning, he was playing, and it was the melody from the dream, and now he heard it in waking life, he realised it was a real piece of music, one he'd heard before.
Aziraphale made a noise like something wounded. Crowley snatched his hands back from the keys, spun around, to find him standing with one hand wrapped tightly across his stomach, the other pressed to his mouth as if to keep himself silent. His eyes were as wide as if he'd seen a ghost.
"I—" Crowley didn't know what to say, wanted to apologise, had no idea what for. "Do you— recognise it?"
Aziraphale nodded. He pulled his hand away from his mouth, and Crowley saw the brief wobble of his lip before he spoke.
"Beethoven. The Moonlight Sonata," Aziraphale replied, voice wavering. "Well, I mean, it wasn't called that at the time, but that's what— that's what they call it now..."
"How the hell do I know how to do that?" Crowley whispered to himself, staring at his own fingers like they belonged to someone else. "I swear I've never touched a piano before today..."
"What was going through your mind?" Aziraphale asked, and now there was an urgency in him, his hands twisting together as his eyes flicked between Crowley and the piano. "What made you think you could?"
Crowley shrugged awkwardly, knowing how bizarre it was going to sound, but having no other answer.
"I keep dreaming about it. Playing the piano, playing that bit of music."
Aziraphale inhaled sharply.
"Anything... anything else?"
Crowley turned to stare at the keys for a long moment.
"It's this piano, I think," he found himself saying. "Here, in the bookshop, only... everything is lit by candles. There aren't as many books. I'm alone and I've lost something and I don't know how to get it back..."
He frowned as a detail he hadn't remembered before came suddenly into his consciousness.
"There are roses."
Aziraphale made a choked, anguished sound. Crowley jerked around to look at him, but he was already gone, all but stumbling away as if running for his life.
"Aziraphale?" Crowley went after him. He found him in the back room, sitting in his wing-backed armchair, head in his hands. "Look, I'm sorry, forget it— it's too weird— just a dream, dreams are stupid—"
"Not always," Aziraphale whispered, and Crowley's blood ran cold at the stark despair in his voice. "Oh, what have I done?"
Aziraphale stood abruptly, avoiding Crowley's eyes, moved past him with a frenzied urgency, came to a halt at the entrance to the back room, staring at that odd shelf at the back of the shop.
"My dear," he said, and his voice was calm now, but it was the kind of calm that was pulled tight over sharp edges and deep chasms, "I'm terribly sorry, but could I ask you to go? I need— I need to think—"
The world splintered and fragmented around Crowley, his stomach twisting sickly.
Aziraphale didn't look at him, seeming deep in some painful train of thought, twisting his fingers into the hem of the warm, soft jumper that had taken the place of his waistcoat now the weather was colder.
"I'll call you," he said. "When I'm done."
Crowley thrust his hands into his pockets and clenched them into fists, stared at Aziraphale's profile, the way he'd closed his mouth tightly, the way his skin was too pale. Opened his mouth to ask for an explanation. Closed it again, feeling like he'd stepped off a cliff and fallen up instead of down. Why had he even messed around with the piano? Why hadn't he left well enough alone? Nothing made sense except that he'd hurt Aziraphale again (again) and now Aziraphale wanted him to leave.
"Okay," he said hoarsely.
"Thank you," Aziraphale replied, moving towards the front door as if Crowley needed to be shown out. Crowley followed in a haze of misery. "I'll— well, I'll call you."
"Right," Crowley said, letting himself be hustled out of the shop like an unwanted customer. "I—"
The door closed behind him, the lock clicked, and Aziraphale yanked the blind down and hurried away.
Crowley waited three days. Aziraphale didn't call.
The first night, he barely slept, he was so afraid of his dreams. He tossed and turned, got up for a while and tried to watch a film, went back to bed, tossed and turned some more. The next day was hell, especially with a large party order to fill, but at least it kept his mind off things until the evening.
On his lunch break, he dodged out to the shops and bought a packet of over-the-counter sleeping pills. He stayed up as long as he could, checking his phone every five minutes, before giving up and swallowing one of the pills around midnight.
He had the nightmare again, but this time, he couldn't wake up. He dreamed that it was dark and he was dying, and it wouldn't end, but even though all he wanted was release, he kept fighting to take another breath, to keep from slipping away, because he'd promised, he'd promised...
When his alarm finally ripped him out of it, he sobbed into the pillow for almost twenty minutes, sick to his stomach and doubting his sanity and desperate to hear Aziraphale's voice.
There were no missed calls or messages on his phone. He scrawled a closed note and pinned it to the shop door, spent most of the day lying on the sofa under a blanket, watching old TV shows whose jokes and plot twists he knew by heart. He dozed, but jolted awake every time he might have sunk deeper, feeling the fever-heat and the fear creep back into his chest.
When he went to the shops later, he bought a bottle of whiskey that was a couple of steps above bearable, but not such good quality that he'd feel bad about what he was about to do to it. He ate oven pizza and drank most of the bottle and staggered off to bed when he couldn't focus on the TV anymore. He didn't dream, or didn't remember dreaming, and although he felt wretched the next morning, the hangover was almost comforting in its familiarity.
He struggled through a quiet morning where not a single customer seemed to want to trudge through the rain, except one who walked in and asked for pink carnations and nearly sent him into a nervous breakdown. Somehow, he sold the flowers without screaming, but as soon as the customer was gone, he knew he couldn't do this anymore.
He left another note on the door (he was going to be in trouble if he did too much of this sort of thing) and headed to Soho.
The bookshop was locked, the blind down, and for a moment it was spring again, and Crowley was standing there listening to the lady who ran the bakery tell him about strange Mr Fell and his habit of leaving for months or years. There was no notice this time, no indication that Aziraphale hadn't simply stepped out to run an errand, or decided on a late opening, except that Crowley had a conviction bordering on terror that the door had been locked since he'd left three days ago.
Panic made him hammer on it, made him shout Aziraphale's name, and he was already spiralling, already sure there would be no reply—
He didn't hear footsteps, but perhaps that was because his heart was pounding so loudly in his ears. It took him by surprise when the door suddenly opened; he almost fell forward into Aziraphale, whose expression of irritation flashed instantly into alarm.
"Crowley? What is it, what's wrong?"
"You said you'd call," Crowley blurted out.
"Well, yes, I—"
Aziraphale stopped, staring at him, and a stricken look took hold of his face.
"Crowley," he said urgently. "How— how long has it been?"
Crowley gaped at him in disbelief. He was wearing the same clothes as the last time Crowley had seen him, but that didn't necessarily mean anything, his entire wardrobe seemed to be comprised of nearly-identical outfits—
"Three days," he finally answered.
Aziraphale's face crumpled.
"Oh, my dear," he said, reaching out and taking hold of Crowley's hands. "I'm sorry— I never meant— it's just that when I get absorbed in something, I lose track of time—"
"For three days?" Crowley demanded, halfway between anger and incredulity. The half-hearted rain was working its way under his collar. "Didn't you— didn't you notice how many meals you got through, how many times you slept—?"
Aziraphale's eyes darted guiltily away from his, and Crowley's mouth dropped open.
"Did you sleep? Or eat? You must have— you can't have been holed up in here for three days without—"
"I— well I mean I suppose I— I'd just sort of stop for a bit and then carry on—"
There was a lie in there but Crowley couldn't make sense of it, not when he was sure Aziraphale was telling the truth about the time he'd spent doing— whatever he'd—
"What were you doing all that time?"
"Ah— reading, researching—" Aziraphale bit his lip, and peered at Crowley's face with a whole new wave of concern. "Are you all right? You don't look— I mean to say—"
He was still holding Crowley's hands in his, Crowley realised, and it was enough to drain away his maelstrom of emotion into exhaustion.
"Can I come in?" he managed, suddenly conscious of how cold he was.
A nervous look crossed Aziraphale's face, another flash of guilt.
"Not— not just at the moment," he said. "The shop's a bit— I'll need to clean up—"
A weary ache settled in Crowley's chest.
"Right," he said. "Okay then."
He pulled his hands away from Aziraphale's, shoved them into his pockets, and turned to go.
"Wait—" He heard Aziraphale pull the door shut, then there was a hand on his arm, tugging him to a standstill before he could get up any speed. "Crowley. Look at me. Please."
He was too tired not to obey. Aziraphale searched his eyes for a long moment, and whatever he saw there brought such self-recrimination into his face that Crowley flinched with the need to ease it away.
"Look," he said desperately, "it doesn't matter, I'm just— I just need to get some sleep, I'll—"
"Crowley. I'm so sorry."
To his shock, Aziraphale stepped forward and embraced him, wrapping his arms around him, pressing him close. Crowley stood stiffly for the length of one breath in and one breath out, and then sagged into it, pressing his face helplessly into Aziraphale's shoulder. He was so warm; Crowley wanted to wrap himself around him.
"Let me take you home," Aziraphale murmured, holding him tightly, cheek pressed to his damp hair. "Back to your flat. Let me— you look exhausted. Have you been eating?"
Crowley made a noise that was supposed to be affirmative, but came out more like a verbal shrug, which was more honest than he'd intended.
"Come on, then," Aziraphale said. He brought one hand up, stroked the back of Crowley's neck gently, just once. His fingers felt hot on the chilled skin. "I'll drive. Did you open your shop today?"
"Yeah, for the morning..." Crowley reluctantly drew back, tried not to think about how close Aziraphale's face was, how Aziraphale didn't seem to want to let him go. "What about your— your research?"
"Never mind that," Aziraphale said. His hand was still on the back of Crowley's neck; he ran his thumb up and down briefly, let go even as Crowley shivered under the touch. "I had my priorities all wrong."
When Crowley woke up, he was so confused that for a moment he thought he hadn't woken up, that this was one of those strange dreams-within-a-dream. The light was wrong, the covers were wrong, the bed was wrong...
He started to roll over, and realised that he was on his sofa, not in his bed. The throw blanket had been tucked carefully around him. And it was early evening, the room dim with twilight.
He heard the sound of a page turning. He lifted his head, and saw Aziraphale sitting quietly in the nearby armchair, reading one of Crowley's spy thrillers. From the faint furrow in his brow, Crowley had the sudden certainty that he was assembling a list of questions starting with why the villains had decided to blow up the moon and ending with some acid remarks about the hero's choice of catchphrase. He laughed before he could stop himself. Aziraphale immediately looked up, and his expression softened into affection and concern.
"How do you feel?"
"Better. Thanks." Crowley sat up and rubbed his eyes. "How long—?"
"A few hours. You seemed to need it. Are you hungry?"
He was, for the first time in days. Also more than a little embarrassed, now his brain was working more clearly again.
"Yeah, but I can— I can sort something out for myself. You don't have to—"
"Don't be silly." Aziraphale set the book aside. "I'll order something for us, or— or I suppose I could cook, if you like?"
He extended the offer with an overtone of worry that made Crowley smile despite himself. For all Aziraphale's taste for good food, Crowley wouldn't be surprised at all if his culinary skills extended to boiling the occasional egg. He almost wanted to accept, just to see what would happen.
But he was also very hungry and still felt as fragile as a pile of broken glass wrapped up in human skin, and Aziraphale had said order for us, and that meant he was going to stay regardless.
"There's a good curry place," Crowley said. "Menu's on the fridge."
Aziraphale stood up and disappeared into the kitchenette, returning triumphantly with the takeaway menu like it was a rare manuscript he'd unearthed in some library. Crowley realised he was smiling again, too wrung-out to hold it back when everything about Aziraphale was so dear to him.
Aziraphale caught the expression and paused mid-step, and Crowley looked away quickly, occupying himself with folding up the blanket that he'd been sleeping under.
"Sorry for— freaking out," Crowley said, taking more care than was necessary to line up the edges of the blanket before each fold. "I'll— it won't happen again."
"No, it won't," Aziraphale replied quietly, an ache in his voice. "Because I won't be so careless with you. It's easy to forget sometimes how... human you are."
Crowley stared at him, confused and slightly offended, but Aziraphale was moving again, and to Crowley's surprise, he came to sit on the sofa instead of returning to the armchair. Not at the far end, either; he sat down right next to Crowley, so close Crowley could feel the warmth of him all along his right side.
"You haven't kissed me," Aziraphale said out of nowhere. Crowley's brain stopped functioning in a cascade of error messages as he stared at Aziraphale's profile. Aziraphale glanced sideways, bit his lip. "And it's because I've made you afraid, isn't it? Afraid that if you put a foot wrong, I'll leave."
Crowley looked away, swallowing hard against his suddenly pounding heart.
"Something like that," he muttered, clutching the folded blanket tightly like a talisman. "Didn't— know if you wanted—"
Aziraphale reached out and took the blanket away from him, which was just rude, what was he supposed to do with his hands now—
Gentle fingertips on his cheek, turning his head towards Aziraphale, and then Crowley was being kissed, and despite the fact that they'd just been talking about it, he was completely unprepared. Aziraphale seemed to understand, though, didn't seem to take offence or take his stillness as a rejection, just kissed him softly and sweetly, ran his hand up into Crowley's hair and curled his fingers just enough to send a shudder down Crowley's spine.
He was suddenly glad his hands were free, because he needed to wrap his arms around Aziraphale and grab handfuls of his warm, soft jumper and pull him closer. Aziraphale went so willingly that he almost ended up in Crowley's lap, both hands in his hair now, kissing him and kissing him and murmuring wordless reassurances in between.
It had been a long time since Crowley had kissed anyone, and he'd never considered himself much good at it, if he were quite honest, but with Aziraphale it was so easy, as if his body already knew what do, as if Aziraphale already knew how to respond. So easy to flick his tongue tentatively against Aziraphale's lips, and for Aziraphale to open his mouth eagerly and make a soft noise that went straight to Crowley's libido. So desperately, helplessly easy for Crowley to close his eyes and hold on like he was drowning, like Aziraphale was the only solid thing in the world.
Crowley felt like he could do this forever, and he wasn't sure why they stopped, in the end, except it seemed to happen naturally, the kisses gentling until their lips barely brushed, until they were leaning their foreheads together, eyes closed, breathing in sync.
"I'm sorry I waited so long," Aziraphale whispered. "I'm just... not well-practised at taking the initiative. In general, if I'm honest, but particularly in... this."
Crowley nodded. He felt like something that had been clamped around his heart had suddenly released, and like a weight he'd been dragging behind him had suddenly vanished, and like he might start laughing, the kind of bubbling, helpless laughter that came with sudden safety after too long under fire.
"Can I stay tonight?" Aziraphale went on, heartbreakingly hesitant and breathtakingly bold at the same time. "I want to look after you. I don't think you've been looked after enough in your life."
Crowley opened his eyes then, frowning in automatic deflection, but Aziraphale was so close, his own eyes so soft and blue and full of love, his voice came out half-hearted when he spoke.
"I've always got along all right by myself—"
"That was rather my point," Aziraphale replied, and kissed him again, feather-soft and light as summer rain, drawing back before Crowley could deepen it. "You don't have to anymore."
Everything in Crowley should have rejected that, reached for the armour of sarcasm and dismissal, but at this moment he was cracked open and helpless to hide the tender heart of himself. He buried his face in Aziraphale's shoulder, held onto him so tightly his arms ached, and let out a long, ragged breath as if he'd been holding it half his life.
"Stay," he mumbled into the wool that smelled so wonderfully of Aziraphale. "Please."
"Until the end of the world," Aziraphale murmured, and if that was an odd turn of phrase, Crowley didn't care, not when Aziraphale was stroking his hair like that. "I promise."
Herein a Blossom lies—
A Sepulchre, between—
Cross it, and overcome the Bee—
Remain—'tis but a Rind.
- Emily Dickinson