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Bower Birds (or: things that NEST)

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NESTS

 

"They make nests, you know, gorillas," said the angel, pouring another drink and managing to hit the glass on the third go.

"Nah."

"God's truth. Saw a film. Nests."

"That's birds," said Crowley.

"Nests," insisted Aziraphale.

 

Crowley decided not to argue the point.

--From GOOD OMENS

 

Crowley turned off the flat screen with a snap. Animal channel thing—that Attenborough fellow that the angel liked so much. And damned if Aziraphale wasn’t right after all: gorillas did make nests. Hnuh. Of course, they weren’t like bird nests. Not even close. No eggs, for one thing. The demon slid his feet off the desk and landed them against the slate floor with a resonant thud and stabbed a long finger at his phone; what else made nests?

 

***

“Aziraphale, you won’t believe this—” Crowley said as he walked through the doors of the bookshop. He had planned to say that crocodiles make nests and turtles, and that some stupid cliff bird did not. But he didn’t say any of those things because he’d just tripped over a box and it jangled like hell’s bells. He caught himself in time to avoid face-planting into an armchair that hadn’t been there last week, but his phone hit the floor with a decided cracking sound.

“God’s bollocks,” Crowley cursed, righting himself and dusting the fracture out of the glass. “Aziraphale? What in hell’s name are you doing in here?”

A muffled sound echoed from the back room, and Crowley followed it through a maze of similarly disordered spaces. Granted, the bookshop was always a bit disorderly, with reading chairs snugged in all corners and every surface covered in books or odd curios the angel had collected over time. This, however—this was a whole new level of mess.

“Ah, Crowley,” Aziraphale said it as if he’d been expecting the demon, and that the demon was late. “Excellent, good. Hurry, please.”

Crowley shimmied past a tower of books and into the alcove to find the angel in shirt sleeves and suspenders, both cuffs rolled to the elbow, and covered in dust from trousers to cotton-white hair. It had been so long since he’d seen him in anything less formal than at least waistcoat and tie that for a moment Crowley just stood gaping. Aziraphale looked at him crossly and waved his hands at the enormous box he was attempting to coax off the shelf.

“A little help, my dear?” he huffed.

“What are you—why are you?” Crowley asked, reaching over the angel’s head to steady his burden. “Can’t you just miracle this down?”

 “A rare case of Château La Fleur Petrus? I think not. What if I sent it somewhere else by mistake? Just—give it a heft, would you?” Aziraphale tugged and Crowley shouldered the rest of it; between them they managed to set it on the table usually reserved for late night back-room drinking.

“You’re what, housekeeping?” Crowley asked, sweeping his arms toward the disaster in the front room. Aziraphale had gone pink with exertion. He dabbed his handkerchief against his forehead, smearing dust that crusted there.

“It’s in a terrible state, isn’t it?” He smiled weakly.

 “A bit, angel,” Crowley admitted. From the sag of his shoulders to the dust-smudged collar, Aziraphale was the picture of defeat.

“It’s not my fault, though!” he moaned. “I just—I have been trying to organize it all week, and I can’t do a thing with it!”

It sounded as though the angel thought the book shop sentient and recalcitrant. And perhaps it was, at that; Crowley had a few houseplants like that.

“Shout at it. Works.”

 “No, it doesn’t,” Aziraphale insisted. Then his eyes averted, circled in worry. “I—tried that already. Just in case.”

“Oh-ho? I’m sorry I missed that.” Crowley backed up, toppled a book stack, and just managed to stop time before they cascaded everywhere. He plucked them from mid-air one by one. “What do you want the shop to look like anyway?”

“I don’t know! That’s the wicket I’m sticky in!” Aziraphale moaned.

“Sticky wickets—and no one says that—and that’s besides the point. What are you changing it for? You’re not…,” An idea just took shape in Crowley’s mind, and it sent an unpleasant sizzle down his spine. “You’re not moving, are you?”

“Of course not! Unless you think it would help?”

 “It would not help,” Crowley said immediately. Followed by: “What are we even talking about?”

Aziraphale pursed his lips.

“Nonsense. It’s nonsense, I tell you,” he said, with an effort to look cheerful. A snap of his fingers, and he was once more spotlessly clothed. “Silly, really. Everything perfectly sunny. Iridescent, even. Gleaming.”

 “Tickety-boo?” Crowley asked, the corner of his mouth twitching into half-smile.

“Quite. Lunch?”

“It’s eight in the evening,” Crowley gestured toward the darkening windows.

  “Really! I missed lunch? Shame, you know they have those bento boxes... Ah well—” Aziraphale was backing Crowley up as he spoke, semi-shooing him from the back room. “Mind the bookcase. And chair. There’s a chap. Anyway—dinner, you were saying? We could, do, yes.”

They were standing on the street, the shop locked behind them. Crowley lifted one perfectly trained eyebrow, but what was the point, now? Aziraphale seemed right enough, babbling on about a customer he hadn’t served. Despite being a demon, and inclined toward suspicion, Crowley was also rather lazy when it came to being on guard. By the time they finished off a dry sake, he’d forgotten the incident. He did remember the nests, though.

  “Crocodiles,” he said. “Big nests. Big lizard.”

“Snakes make nests, too,” Aziraphale said, one finger tracing the rim of his cup. Crowley barked a laugh.

“They do not!” He said, snapping for the waiter and another bottle. “I would know.

 

***

“Well, fuck.” Crowley lay sprawled on his stomach, both arms slung over the edge of his bed as he scrolled idly through Wikipedia.  The King Cobra, it seemed, did make a nest and even laid eggs in it like a bird. Now he was hunting through images trying to find a picture of one, not because he didn’t have an imagination—but because he did. He was trying to get the image of a large black snake curled round its babies in a treetop out of his head. Seems they nested on the ground, using their coils to scoop leaf litter into a warm cave to nestle in.

“Didn’t see that coming.” Crowley tossed the phone onto an ebony bedside table and slithered under the sheets. And the comforters. And among six satin covered, down stuffed pillows. Half a minute of wrestling and he managed to be under the lot and fast asleep.

And Anthony J. Crowley did not see the irony in this at all.

He’d forgotten all about snake nests by the next day. There were minor catastrophes to oversee, after all, and it was just about time for another tub line to go down. He’d been so caught up with disabling ticket machines at Bakerloo that he nearly missed his dinner appointment. Crowley had agreed to an evening in; maybe the angel wanted to show off the newly organized/disorganized shop.

“You were right about the snakes—” Crowley said, sauntering in with slightly more care than the last time. He need not have bothered; no boxes cluttered the way, but things were far from normal. He gaped in disbelief.

For starters, the shop was neat and dust-free in a way only miracles could create  amongst so many dusty first editions. But that wasn’t what Crowley was staring at. Aziraphale’s desk and the reading chairs had been moved further back, along neatly organized shelves, to reveal an open space like a stage. The rug was gone, but so were the chalk runes under it; just a swept clean space of highly varnished floor. And it was flanked on both sides by an almost irresponsible number of plants.

“Azira--?”

“Right here!” sang the angel, who had appeared just behind Crowley—and Crowley had enough lived experience not to take that well. He leapt like a cucumber-surprised cat, and hissed just as loudly.

“I’m SO sorry, my dear!” Aziraphale cooed. Crowley was about to snap at him; of all people, the angel (who had so recently been to hell in Crowley’s place) ought to know you DON’T sneak up behind a demon. But he’d just noticed the bottle of Chateau la Fleur Petru in Aziraphale’s left hand, and two glasses dangling from his right.

And a sequined jacket.

“Er, all right, angel?” he asked.  Not just a sequined jacket, Crowley corrected internally. A sparkly tuxedo-style jacket straight out of Rocketman. With a red rose tucked into the breast pocket.

“Drinks?” Aziraphale asked.

“Plants?” Crowley asked. The angel did a bizarre little wiggle, a sort of oh-I-musn’t-I’m-too-modest-to-say shimmy. Then he led the way into the bizarre little bower.

“Well, you know. They grow so beautifully at your flat. And you do like them, don’t you? I’ve just been restless. Like having a feather out of place.”

“Annoying,” Crowley agreed. He didn’t know what else to do since Aziraphale seemed determined to make no two sentences hang together. Aziraphale walked him to a single chair just beyond the little stage, as it were, and placed the glasses on the curio table, edging away what appeared to be dried flower petals and little blue stones.

“Ever so much so! Just couldn’t sit quiet. Thought I could throw a few things away, but one thing just led to the next.” He coughed; not a real one. A sort of polite thing Crowley remembered from sometimes in the 1840s.

“And all that led to…?” he asked, treading carefully for once.

“It led—to this!” Aziraphale said with a grandiose wave, the sort he might have used while trying to magic rabbits out of hats. As if on cue, Aziraphale’s gramophone leapt into action. “The Gavotte!”

Oh God—oh, Satan—oh, anybody-- Crowley thought as Aziraphale poured the wine. He’s not going to dance? He clearly was. And Crowley had the sinking terror he was about to be forced to dance as well—but instead the angel wanted him to sit. And watch. Which was, in some very hard to explain ways, worse.

 

And why should it be worse? Why should sitting still and quiet, in the dark of a bookshop, while your closest companion does a one-man-Gavotte on a shiny jacket be the most painful thing Crowley had experienced in the last several thousand years? Contact embarrassment, he would call it; he wanted to laugh at Aziraphale. To poke fun. To do something so the awful aching sensation would quit threatening to tear him open. But he couldn’t do that. Not after seeing the way Gabriel and Michael treated Aziraphale. And Crowley had never been like the archangels, above watching the joyful, giddy leaping of a foolish human dance. No, it wasn’t embarrassment on Aziraphale’s behalf, but his own. He did not deserve Aziraphale’s bizarre, vulnerable, and utterly enraptured display. Don’t. he thought. Don’t do this for me. Don’t be foolish for me. But he didn’t say those things. He sat perfectly still, though his body, in his mind’s eye, wrapped a tight coil of muscle around his chair.

 

“Ta-DA!” Aziraphale, shining faintly, ethereal in corporeal sweat. His face had flushed, but though he switched off the music, he did not immediately look in the demon’s direction. “It was always so good for restlessness. Back then. A way of, how should I say it? Exorcising something.”

“Exorcising your demons,” Crowley said faintly. Aziraphale bobbled slightly on his way to the wine glass, as though the words physically tripped him up.

“I wouldn’t ever do that, Crowley, dear.” He dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief, and reached for his wine. Crowley reached, too, and caught his fingers before they touched the glass.

“Oh—Oh?” Blue eyes, still shining from exertion, made their way to Crowley’s own. Crowley nodded slowly. His voice had gone a bit dry and hoarse and he figured that was for the best since he’ll curse himself for speaking later.

“Ah, I got a question t’ask. I don’t think you’ll like it,” he said. The angel’s mouth twitched into the faintest smile.

“Can you ask without your glasses, then?”

Reasonable, Crowley thought. Though he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He just nodded instead, and released Aziraphale’s hand. Warm fingers brushed his temples and removed the lenses, leaving his snake eyes naked.

“Go on,” Aziraphale encouraged.

“Bower birds. That—whatsit, Atten-something. I was trying to prove you wrong about gorillas, but there were birds. I just want to know. Are you?”

“Am I—a bird?” Aziraphale asked helplessly, and Crowley laughed in spite of himself.

Nesting.”

Aziraphale looked on a moment without comprehending. Then his face opened in sudden surprise, almost glowing as the lights came on.

“Crowley!”

“M’wrong—never mind. Forget it.” Crowley attempted to get up but Aziraphale was in the way. He was also bouncing on his toes and looking around him as though seeing the shop afresh.

“No, my dear boy, you are right! Oh, my! Well, that explains everything!” He turned back to the demon, beaming. “Heavens, I have seen that episode myself! Little birds, dancing—Oh! Oh, I’m the bird!” He made two little hops, and laughed at himself, and Crowley laughed because crying was his only other option.

“It’s a very strange nest,” Aziraphale said, coming up for air.

“You are a very strange bird,” Crowley agreed, and clinked his glass with his own. “Bird of paradise, I am guessing, given your—eh—plumage this evening.”

Aziraphale blushed slightly, but then tapped his chin thoughtfully.

“You said snakes didn’t make nests.”

Crowley swallowed slow, down the length of the body he still remembered, one constricted coil after the other, a sensation that rolled.

“Um.”

 

There are times when revelation is a gift from God. There are times when it is a punishment. And there are times when it’s just the realization that you have purchased three comforters, two sets of black silk sheets, and six new pillows since the moment you knew no one was really keeping score anymore. Crowley was having all three. And to his credit, he took a deep breath, shelved the snarky remonstrance he’d been planning to deliver and said, very simply:

 

 “Snake make nests.”

 

And though neither of them had quite worked out why they were nesting, they had a reasonable idea of for whom, and plenty of time to work out the rest.