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Flowers for Anthony

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Crowley didn't look up immediately when he heard the shop door open; he was just in the middle of finishing off a complicated bouquet, and the blasted ribbon was being difficult about things.

"Just a sec," he said, scowling as the end slipped away from him again.

There was a pause. And then a voice, softly, "There you are."

Crowley looked up in surprise, letting the ribbon escape for the time being. There was something familiar about the voice, for all its odd non-sequitur. There was something familiar about its owner, too, about the white-blond curls and the too-blue eyes and the old-fashioned waistcoat and the ridiculous (but... somehow appropriate?) tartan bow tie. Something familiar about the emotion brimming over in his face, the faint tremble of his lower lip, the way he clasped his hands tightly in front of him as if to keep himself steady.

But Crowley had never seen him before in his life. Had he?

"Can... can I help you?" he managed finally.

The stranger tore his eyes away from Crowley, looking around the shop.

"Flowers again," he murmured, mostly to himself. "I always find you among flowers..."

Then he seemed to shake off his strange mood, and he smiled when he looked back at Crowley. It was almost genuine, except for the depth of something in his eyes.

"I don't know if you can help me, my dear, I'm looking for something quite specific."

Crowley tried not to raise an eyebrow at my dear: the stranger couldn't be more than ten years older than him. He had no call to be talking like Crowley's grandmother. Still, it suited him, just like the stupid bow tie.

"Go on, try me. I might surprise you."

The smile turned unexpectedly fond. The stranger looked him over, seeming to take in every detail: the unfashionable but necessary apron Crowley wore to protect his favourite black jeans and shirt, the way he'd bundled his hair back into a messy bun when it fell into his face one too many times, the snake tattoo he hated having to explain to people when they asked, the single hoop earring next to it.

"I expect you will." The stranger - customer, Crowley supposed - wandered further into the shop, examining some of the roses on display. "Do you know much of the language of flowers?"

Crowley rolled his eyes while the customer wasn't looking.

"Don't really go in for that sort of thing," he said. "I'd rather think about the overall look of the arrangement, the balance of colours and shapes, the scent of it. Rather than making it some sort of code puzzle to unravel."

"Can't you do both?" the customer asked, turning to raise an eyebrow in what was clearly a challenge.

Crowley had the sudden, inexplicable urge to tell the man to get out of his shop. It was something about that challenge, the familiarity of it, the way it felt like being teased by a very old friend. It was too raw, too unexpected, and it gave him the even more inexplicable urge to cry.

"I suppose I could try," Crowley said, frowning to cover up anything else his face might decide to do. "What did you have in mind?"

The stranger looked away again, looked down as if examining the row of plump succulents beside him, but Crowley had the oddest feeling he wasn't seeing them.

"Remembrance," said the stranger quietly. "Patience. Protection. And..." He took a breath. "And lost love."

His voice shook just a fraction on the last, his hands curling tight into each other. Crowley swallowed, something beating hard and fast behind his breastbone. Was it his heart, or was it something trapped there, something desperate to get free? He turned away and quickly pulled out his standard catalogue, even though he knew most of its contents by heart.

"I dunno that much about the traditional meanings," he said, eyes on the page, not on the man who'd turned to regard him again. "Although... what's that line from Hamlet? Rosemary, that's—"

"—for remembrance," finished the stranger with a strange little hitch in his voice that almost sounded like he was about to cry.

"Not the sort of thing I keep in stock here," Crowley said gruffly, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw the stranger sag slightly. "But I—" He hesitated, still pretending to study the catalogue. "I've got a bush out back. It's in flower at the moment. I could maybe use a bit from that, if you like?"

"Only— only if it's no trouble."

"It's fine, needs a prune anyway before it takes over the garden."

"You have a garden, too?" the stranger asked, with an odd sort of delight. Lots of people had gardens, didn't they? "What do you grow?"

"Nothing I sell in here," Crowley said, all too familiar with this line of thought. Customers really liked the idea that he grew his own flowers, despite the impossibilities of doing so in a small London back garden. "Herbs for cooking, some ornamentals, fruit trees..."

"Fruit trees?"

"Just put in a couple of apple trees, but I'm not sure—"

He stopped, because the stranger was laughing, quietly like they'd just shared a private joke.

"Of course," he said, and Crowley felt that prickle down his spine again, that urgency in his chest.

"Do I— do I know you?" he blurted out. "You seem—"

The stranger's face changed at once, closing off, the laughter vanishing.

"No," he said, "not at all. What about pink carnations?"

Crowley had to blink a few times to get his train of thought back onto flowers.

"Yeah, I usually have some of those. Do they mean something in particular?"

"They mean I'll never forget you," the stranger replied quietly. "At least, they did, the last time I... the last time I looked into it."

"I'll look it up," Crowley promised. He pulled out a notepad and scribbled down what he had so far, a handful of symbolism and a couple of flowers. His hand shook when he got to lost love. He concentrated on practical details instead. "Anything else you particularly want? Or are you happy to let me use my own judgement?"

"Always," the stranger murmured. Then, hastily, "I mean, please, you're the expert. I'm sure it will be lovely."

"When's it for?" Crowley asked around the lump in his throat. "Do you have a deadline?"

"No, no deadline. Whenever you can manage."

"And is it a gift? Will you want it boxed or delivered—?"

"No, I'll come and collect them."

"Okay, and your budget?"

"Effectively unlimited."

Crowley had to look up then to give him an incredulous once-over. He did not look like the type to be throwing money around. The stranger smiled like he knew exactly what Crowley was thinking.

"Well, within reason," he amended. "If you try to charge me a thousand pounds for a single-stem rose I might balk."

"That'd be some rose," Crowley muttered. "Oh, wait, do you want roses?"

The stranger's face did something complicated and painful. He looked away.

"Best not."

"Right. Okay. Well, then I just... I'll need to take some contact details so I can let you know when it's ready—"

"Of course." The stranger started fumbling at his pockets. "I have a business card here somewhere—"

Crowley gave a snort of amusement before he could stop himself.

"Just name and number's fine."

"Oh. I—" For some reason that seemed to throw him off, make him nervous. "Of course. Well. My telephone number—"

He gave a London area number, rather than a mobile. Crowley wrote it down and looked at him expectantly. When the stranger remained silent, he prompted, "Name?"

The pause was so long that Crowley started to wonder what the hell was going on. It was a simple enough question—

"It's, ah..." The stranger seemed to lose some inner struggle. "Aziraphale."

Both of Crowley's eyebrows went up to his hairline.

"Beg your pardon?"

The stranger with the strange name sighed.

"Yes, well. Do you need me to spell it for you?"

Oddly enough, Crowley didn't think he did. When he went to make his best attempt on the piece of paper, his pen flowed through the letters as easily and automatically as if he were writing his own name. He stared at the result for a moment, then pushed it across the counter. Aziraphale looked at it, and nodded, a small smile creeping onto his face.

"Right first time," he said softly.

"Okay, well then, that's— that's everything," Crowley said. "It shouldn't take more than a week. I'll call you if there are any problems. And when it's done, obviously."

"Thank you," Aziraphale replied, with a gratitude that seemed excessive for a simple flower order. "I'll see you in a week, then, my dear."

Crowley watched him turn to leave, and was seized by the almost uncontrollable urge to rush after him, seize him by the sleeve, and tell him not to go. Aziraphale glanced back just once as he reached the door, smiling when their eyes met. Then he was gone.

Crowley stood for a long time staring at the door before he fumbled under the counter for his laptop, opened up a search engine, and started looking up the meanings of flowers.

*

It took less than a week, mostly because Crowley found himself obsessed with it, with fulfilling that deep and yearning need that had been in Aziraphale's every word and glance. He gave serious consideration to a trip out of the city to see if he could find some forget-me-nots, but decided in the end that they didn't fit the theme of the rest of the bouquet. Pink carnations, rosemary - he'd never used rosemary in a bouquet before but the smell would be heavenly - white heather for protection (he had to call in a favour to get hold of it), a lovely pale allium for patience. He couldn't find anything specifically described as meaning lost love, but daisies were apparently for loyalty and faithful love, and from everything Aziraphale had said...

He thought about Aziraphale almost as much as about the flowers. Wondered about him. About the sadness that clung to him and the way he'd nonetheless smiled at Crowley as if he couldn't help himself. His laughter, and the soft, worn-in way he looked, comfortable, familiar, dear...

He almost wished there were problems assembling the bouquet, just so he'd have an excuse to pick up the phone, but it all went without a hitch, and the finished result had a frowsy, homely sweetness to it that was quite different from Crowley's normal bold and flashy style. Perfect for Aziraphale, though. He could picture it in those carefully manicured hands, imagine it on a shelf in some cluttered study or cozy sitting room.

He waited until there were no customers in the shop before he dialled the number Aziraphale had given him. He told himself it was just polite to minimise the background noise, and it definitely had nothing to do with the way his heart sped up as he tapped in the appropriate digits.

It took some time for Aziraphale to answer, and when he did, he had the slightly breathless sound of someone who has just rushed up or down a flight of stairs to get to the phone.

"Hi there, it's, uh, Crowley—" Wait, had he given Aziraphale his name? He couldn't remember. "I mean, I'm calling from—"

"Yes, of course, Crowley, from the flower shop," Aziraphale replied, and Crowley felt a rush of warmth that was dizzying. People often pronounced his name wrong, or said it awkwardly, like they hoped he'd just let them call him Anthony if they made it clear how weird they found it to call him by his surname. Aziraphale spoke his name like he'd said it a thousand times, and like the weight of it was joyful in his mouth. "How's the bouquet coming along?"

"It's, it's finished," Crowley replied. "When would you like to pick it up?"

"Oh! Well, I... I suppose I could come over right away, if that isn't inconvenient for you?"

"No, that's— that would be fine, that's perfect," Crowley said. "I'll be here."

"Then I'll come at once."

"Okay," Crowley said, and heard the phone click off at the other end.

He put his mobile down on the counter, noticing with surprise that his hand was shaking very slightly. It was the eagerness in Aziraphale's voice, the way he'd said I'll come at once. Like he'd drop everything without a second thought to come when Crowley called.

Crowley shook his head. He didn't know what had got into him this last week. Aziraphale no doubt had some free time this afternoon and would find it easiest to collect his flowers immediately. Nothing more to it than that.

When Aziraphale arrived, barely half an hour later - he must live or work not far away - Crowley was watering the potted plants he kept on the display outside the shop. Just because it was a good time of day for it, and not because he was hoping to catch sight of Aziraphale coming down the street, maybe even see him before he saw Crowley.

He was denied the pleasure: Aziraphale appeared almost out of nowhere, stepping out from behind a small gaggle of other pedestrians just as they passed the shop. Crowley almost dropped his watering can, and ended up clutching it to his chest in surprise.

"Sorry, did I startle you?"

"No, it's nothing, uh— come in, then."

It felt strangely intimate, as if he were inviting Aziraphale into his flat, not the shop, which was after all open to anyone who wanted to step inside. Crowley put the watering can down and went to fetch the bouquet from the back room. He didn't realise Aziraphale had followed him until he turned to bring it into the shop.

"Oh." Aziraphale's eyes were fixed on the flowers in Crowley's hands, his face gone still as if there were too many feelings beneath his skin to express any of them at all. "It's... Crowley, that's beautiful."

Crowley could feel the blush rising to his face, the unexpected weight of the praise slamming into him, the way Aziraphale looked at the bouquet - and then, for just a moment, the way Aziraphale looked at him as he glanced up, then glanced away.

"It's perfect," he said, before Crowley could find his voice. "Absolutely perfect."

"Oh," said Crowley, hearing his own voice come out quiet and fragile. "I'm... I'm glad you like it."

There was a moment that stretched on too long, a moment where they both seemed to be trying to look at each other and not look at each other at the same time, and Aziraphale's eyes kept going back to the bouquet, and Crowley thought, with a lurch of his heart, that he could see the sheen of tears in them.

"Well," Aziraphale said at last. "I suppose I'd better..."

He got out of Crowley's way, but he didn't fully step aside, so that Crowley brushed past him as he went back into the shop. Just close enough that he caught the faint scent of Aziraphale, even over the heady perfumes of the back room: a smell like old books and tea and the tiniest hint of lavender. The shop blurred around him; he blinked fiercely to clear his eyes, at a loss as to why they suddenly wanted to overflow.

"Would you like a vase for them?" he asked as he reached the counter. "Or shall I just wrap them up?"

"Just wrap them, please." Aziraphale drifted around to opposite side. "I already have a vase ready at home."

Another jolt in Crowley's chest, the quiet tenderness in Aziraphale's voice reaching straight into his heart and pulling. He busied himself with doing his best wrapping job, trying not to feel Aziraphale's eyes on him, and then all at once, he found himself asking, "Who are they for?"

Aziraphale caught his breath.

"Just... just for me," he replied after a moment.

Crowley looked up at him with a frown. "Really?"

Aziraphale studied his face, as if mapping every line and angle, before he looked away again.

"There was someone I loved," he said. "The flowers are... in a way, they're for him. But it would be terribly unfair to give them to him now, you see. It was a long time ago. He's not the same person he used to be. He... wouldn't even recognise me these days."

"Oh," Crowley said, awash with the hurt in Aziraphale's voice, the longing, the grief.

"I try not to dwell on it," Aziraphale went on, with an attempt at briskness that fell rather flat given how tightly he was clasping his hands together. "Get on with things, you know. Plenty to do, after all. But sometimes I... get sentimental. And sometimes I..."

His voice wavered and his eyes flicked to Crowley for the merest second before he looked away as if ashamed.

"Sometimes I just miss him so terribly much."

Crowley had never been good with his own emotions, let alone other people's. He wanted to say... something, anything, anything that might soften the sharpness of Aziraphale's sorrow. All he could come up with, out of some deep and yawning pit in his stomach, was, "Would he want this? Wouldn't he want you to move on?"

Aziraphale huffed an almost-laugh, turning as if to inspect the greetings cards on the rack by the till.

"I appreciate the thought," he said, "but it is a little more complicated than that."

"Is it? 'Cos I... I mean, I'm just saying, if it were me, I wouldn't want you to spend the rest of your life—"

He stopped, because Aziraphale's eyes had flown to him, and this time there was no mistaking the tears.

"I know," Aziraphale said, very soft, and very sad. "I know you wouldn't, my dear. But it's my choice."

He reached into a pocket and took out an old, battered wallet that looked exactly the way Crowley would expect it to look.

"How much do I owe you?" Aziraphale asked lightly, opening the wallet and fiddling with its contents, keeping his eyes down.

Crowley swallowed the lump in his throat and quoted a price that was considerably under what he ought to be charging. Aziraphale immediately glared at him, a mixture of affection and exasperation that felt so familiar it ached.

"I know enough about the cost of flowers to know that can't possibly be right. Try again."

Crowley reluctantly gave a rather higher number - though one that was still rather underpricing his own labour. Aziraphale gave him a look as if he knew full well what Crowley was doing, but apparently he decided to let it slide. He paid with cash, and when Crowley reached out to take the notes from him, their fingers brushed for a fleeting second, and it was all he could do not to reach out and clasp Aziraphale's hand.

He had to recount the change three times before he got it right. When he went to drop the coins into Aziraphale's waiting palm, he tried to let his fingertips touch skin again, but Aziraphale twitched away from the contact, catching the coins and hurriedly moving to put them away in his wallet.

"Right," Crowley said. He was suddenly, terribly aware that there was nothing left to keep Aziraphale here, nothing to bring him back again. "So."

"Yes." Aziraphale reached for the bouquet, took it tenderly in both hands as though holding a child. "Really, I can't... I can't thank you enough. It's everything I wanted."

There was a lie in there, Crowley could hear it, though not about the flowers. Whatever Aziraphale wanted, it could never be his just through the purchase of an oddly specific bouquet.

"Well," Aziraphale said after a moment, looking into the flowers, raising one hand to gently bruise a sprig of rosemary so the scent drifted over them both. "I'll just be... well. Thank you, Crowley."

"Come back anytime," Crowley blurted out, desperate and aching and feeling like he was teetering on the edge of a very tall cliff. "I mean, I— I do discounts, for regulars, you know, and we have special offers—"

Aziraphale's eyes flew to his, held his gaze for what felt like several thousand seconds. He took a deep breath, then turned away and started for the door.

"No, I— thank you, but I shan't darken your door again," he said, with what was perhaps supposed to be humour, but came out more like guilt. "This was all I came for."

"You can," Crowley stumbled on, hands clenched on the counter. "Darken my door, I mean, I— even if you don't want to buy anything—"

Aziraphale stopped with his hand on the door. His back was still to Crowley, but Crowley could see his reflection in the glass. He was biting his lip, eyes downcast, a torment in his face like someone resisting the ultimate temptation.

"Best not," he said, without turning around. "It never ends well."

"Wh— what do you mean?"

"I've tried before, you see," Aziraphale went on, so low Crowley could barely hear the words. "The first few times... but in the end, all I do is bring you pain, one way or another."

"I—"

"Good bye, my dear. Live well."

The door closed behind him. Crowley stood frozen, until a splash of something landed on his hand, still curled into the counter as if he were trying to carve it out with his fingertips. He touched his own cheeks, felt the wetness of tears there, streaming like they'd never stop.

"I don't understand," he said, aloud to the empty shop. His heart felt broken inside him. "I don't... I don't understand."