The woodpecker has come back to haunt them again.
Crowley screws his eyes shut further and wills the infernal bird to go away. It doesn’t; the knocking sounds again, twice in a row, impatient.
“Angel, would you go and…”
His throat is on fire. It hurt to speak.
Crowley blindly pats the space on the bed next to him, but his fingers only encounter cool sheets. His head is spinning. Either a cold, or a hangover. Both is equally plausible – and undesirable.
If it’s the latter, however –
He opens his eyes and the afterimages of the dream dissipates. A coolly beige hotel room stares back at him. The generic electric clock on the bedside table read 11:48 in red, shivering numbers.
The room is dark; the light through the curtains might either be from a shadowed midday sun, or the virulent streetlights at midnight. In the City of Angels, there is no easy way to tell.
“Crowley,” the person outside the door says, muffled.
He wants to get up, but his limbs have turned to jelly, or lead. When he moves an arm experimentally, dull pain registers at his joints.
Oops, Crowley thinks to himself, and stumbles out of bed – hissing at the sharp spikes in his knees - to the en suite bathroom.
Cool tiles. Cold, buzzing white light. Two splashes of water later, he’s feeling marginally more awake, but not more human for it. His throat still scrapes like he spent last night doing nothing but swallowing broken glass. Which might not be far from the truth – three encores had perhaps been a tad overeager of him.
He tries his voice, and immediately regrets it. Spotting the mini-bar, he somehow makes it across the room, and downs half a bottle of Evian in one go. It’s one of the most painful things he’s ever done in his entire life.
Crowley wrenches the door open before the person can knock again, and croaks,
Hastur groans at him, deeply harried. Crowley examines him through blurry eyes, and is about to offer some advice regarding that eye-searing, neon green pair of leggings, because really, when his overbearing bassist explodes,
“This is the last day of the tour! Have you any clue how pissed Beelzebub is going to be – ”
“I have, in fact,” Crowley says in his mangled voice, and Hatur winces. Crowley raises an eyebrow. “I’ll deal with her if you want. Unless you want me to go on stage like this?” He opens his mouth as wide as can be – which is very wide, incidentally, a quirk of his fault-ridden anatomy – and offers Hastur a view of his presumably very inflamed larynx.
The last word drags into an ugly hiss and a hacking fit; Hastur throws up his hands in defeat.
“I’m not executing your will if she decides to have you murdered, mate!”
“Don’t worry, Aziraphale has that covered,” says Crowley, and tries to slam the door in his face. He’s not fast enough, however, and Hastur has jammed a foot by the doorframe. Crowley resists the urge to back into the room.
“Have you phoned him, then?”
“No,” says Crowley, trying in vain to close the door despite Hastur’s arm holding it open. He’s no match for Hastur’s strength on a normal day, never mind when he’s sick like this. “Why don’t you be a dear and do that. Now fuck off and let me sleep.”
“You want me to pick something up from CVS?” Hastur frets. Fretting is something Hastur does very well.
Crowley sighs internally. On some days, Hastur is a bit like a mother hen. It’s a blessing when he’s wrangling them all into recording shape after a long hiatus; on Crowley’s sick days like this, however, it can get a bit…much.
Maybe this is how normal friends care for each other, but Crowley, who’d essentially brought himself up since the age of fourteen, has never known how to react to it except raising his hackles.
Unless it’s from Aziraphale. Which is probably why Hastur used him as an opening. Sometimes, Crowley muses, he really underestimates Hastur’s intellect.
“Yeah,” Crowley makes himself say. “Whatever you think might help. You know the drill.”
Hastur eyes his knees.
“Are you in pain?”
Crowley works his jaw a little, but forces himself to nod. Not admitting weakness in times like these serves to do nothing but come back to bite him in the arse, especially if Aziraphale gets wind of it.
And his angel always gets wind. Somehow. Crowley suspects he’s bribed the entirety of their band but him – which consists of Hastur and Ligur, their drummer. Crowley is definitely outnumbered one to two.
“Alright,” says Hastur, no doubt already composing a To-Do list in his head. Too tired to guess at the contents of said list, Crowley merely saunters – or stumbles, same difference to him, really – back to the double bed, and collapses onto it face-first. Hastur has seen him do worse things in his life.
“I’ll ask Beelzebub to reschedule the flight to tonight,” says his loyal, wonderful, overstrung bassist, and Crowley flaps an assent with his hand. “Let me get one of your keycards,” says Hastur again, and this time Crowley can’t respond even if he wants to. It would take too much effort, for one thing; he’s already drifting under. He merely listens to the sound of Hastur rooting around in his bedside drawer, then the quiet whoosh of the door shutting. Then he’s gone to the world.
True to his word, Hastur comes to wake him again at seven p.m. All of Crowley’s things are miraculously packed when he comes out of the shower (by the miracle called Hastur; Crowley will owe him three dozen beers by the end of this). In the driver’s seat of the rented SUV, Beelzebub takes one look at him and doesn’t even tut.
“Just don’t tell Aziraphale we’ve overwork you,” Beelzebub says, giving him an evil eye. “In fact, do tell him the exact opposite. I don’t want a repeat of the last – incident.”
“What,” Crowley hisses, moving his vocal cords as little as possible. He smiles at Beelzebub, unrepentant; their manager merely narrows her eyes. “You mean when my harmless husband stormed your headquarters demanding divine retribution?”
Shit, too much talking, Crowley thinks, too late, as he starts coughing into the scarf around his neck. Which is tartan, he notices belatedly; Hastur wrapped this around his neck before they left his room. Aziraphale must have stuffed it somewhere in his luggage, just in case. A very Aziraphale-like thing to do.
Ligur hands him a pack of tissues and a thermos full of Lipton wordlessly. The scent of lemon wafts out of the bottle and fills the car as soon as he unscrews the cap.
The thermos is also tartan, and has been part of their touring kit for going on – oh, has it been ten years already? Crowley hugs it to his chest, hit by an unexpected wave of homesickness.
“How much shit are we in for this?” Crowley tries again, mindful of Beelzebub’s temper, once he’s gulped down some tea and doesn’t feel like dying any time soon again.
“Forget it,” Beelzebub rolls her eyes and starts the car. “Just try not to keel over on the way back please. And go on Twitter.”
“Right,” says Crowley, fishing out his phone and starting on his part of handling the PR nightmare, while Sonic Youth starts blasting on the stereo.
Two fans catch up to them in the airport; Crowley smiles at them nervously, but they only coo over his dreadful appearance and stuff him full of cough drops, herbal tea packets, and Theraflu. Crowley offers to sign their entire vinyl collection, but gets dragged away halfway through by Beelzebub, for fear of missing the flight.
He sees their tweet (overrun with exclamation points and emojis) while sat in front of the gate, and pastes an emoji of his own onto his retweet. After a bit of thinking, he adds several more (at the risk of seeming forward, that is).
Crowley wakes up enough to get off the plane at Heathrow and pour himself into a rental car; then again when it stops in front of their tiny cottage in Hampstead.
He stumbles out into the open, blinking, wondering at the soft morning light and the blooming hydrangeas in their front garden. There’s not even need for sunglasses. Birds are chirping in the oaks and cypresses, and a light mist is retreating into the barks and leaves.
Aziraphale is leaning against the doorframe, still in pajamas. The ones with swans on them. He has the usual weekend cuppa in hand, spaced out in typical Aziraphale fashion.
“I thought I’d never see anything green again,” says Crowley as he heads up the stone path, dragging his luggage.
Aziraphale startles, and immediately slams down the cup and saucer by the little moss-eaten stone bust of Aeschylus by the door (a joke gift Crowley got him for their first anniversary), running down the patio and enveloping him in a hug.
Crowley lets go of the luggage handle to wrap his arms around Aziraphale’s soft, broad back.
Sometimes, he feels like he can simply sink into Aziraphale when they’re locked in each other’s arms, just like this, and never be apart from him again. They needn’t be two. Sometimes he loathes their physical bodies for keeping them apart.
There will be more time to cuddle later, hopefully. He tries to surreptitiously inhale Aziraphale’s usual mix of tea, tweed, and ginger biscuits, but only makes a stuffy noise with his nose and smells nothing.
Azirpahale beams up at him, all grey curls and pale lashes and gentle, overbrimming blue eyes, and Crowley feels himself melting.
Halfway down for a kiss, his damnable throat decides to act up, and Crowley has to double over and try to contain the violent coughs that rip out of his chest.
He can almost feel Aziraphale’s worry physically.
“Right, in you get,” says his husband, wrangling the handle of his luggage from him. “It’s still early in the day yet. I’ve lit the woodstove.”
“Fancy,” Crowley tries to say, but ends up garbling a string of unintelligible hisses.
Admitting defeat under Aziraphale’s stern gaze, Crowley drags himself up the stairs and through the door, almost dropping into the sofa as soon as he lays eyes on it. Instead he turns to the kitchen, intending to look in the fridge and decide what to make for lunch, when Aziraphale takes hold of his arm and marches him back to the sofa.
“I can make lunch, thank you very much,” says Aziraphale, glaring at him over the rim of his decorative reading glasses. “You,” pointing an imperious finger, “- lay down and rest. I said lay down, Anthony.”
“Bossy bastard,” Crowley mutters, trying not to smile. Aziraphale huffs and bustles into the kitchen, tying a tartan apron on the way.
Crowley sits on the sofa, for lack of anything else to do. He’s been ordered to, at any rate. He considers fiddling with his phone for a bit, but aborts the idea at the thought of what he might find on twitter or in his band-related email.
Instead he turns attention to the tea table by the settee. Dirtied mugs scatter amidst towers of medieval anthologies, sewing baskets, and tea lights. Exactly the same state of organized chaos as when he’d left three months ago, plus a few extra dirtied mugs.
There’s always a brief period after arriving home from a lengthy tour, when everything around the house feels nostalgic and surreal all at once, like a distant dream, before he’s capable of grounding himself in the moment and falling back into old, dear routines. Before he can make it real.
He’s not a fan of the feeling. He’d felt this way about his and Aziraphale’s relationship for way too long, even years after they’d started semi-dating.
Like every minute together was stolen.
Jittery and woozy from the long flight, Crowley picks through the table for things to occupy himself with. Finally settling on an anthology at the top of the pile, he opens to where Aziraphale has marked his (probably third or fourth) progress with a piece of yarn, and starts in the middle of Endymion.
He wakes up to the sound of bubbling soup from the kitchen, and stumbles over to find Aziraphale collecting leaves from the herbs Crowley keeps on the windowsill. Annoyingly enough, they’re looking loads livelier than when he left, despite his daily threats and cajoling.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” says Aziraphale when he sees Crowley, thrusting a mug at him. “Drink this.”
Crowley does, obediently. Warm ginger lemonade with honey overwhelms his senses; the honey in it fresh and crisp, smoothing the sharp aches in his throat like butter. Probably from that farm they go on idle weekends, not far out of London.
“I’m teaching Shakespeare next semester,” says Aziraphale, checking the contents on the stove. “I can’t decide on the last play to do. Hamlet or Macbeth?”
“Much Ado About Nothing.”
“Tragedies only, Crowley.”
Crowley sighs. “Hamlet, then. You can even put on a student production of that final scene to cap the whole thing off. Would be fitting.”
Aziraphale mock glares at him before turning to taste the soup from the ladle. “Here,” he scoops up some more and offers Crowley a taste.
“Oh, God,” says Crowley after a cautious sip, grabbing a bowl and helping himself.
They sit around the kitchen table – the living room is too cluttered to be of use – eating soup with buttered bread, while Aziraphale shares the latest departmental gossip.
“- and then,” says Azirpahale in a dramatic stage-whisper as Crowley is lapping up the remains of his second bowl with a chunk of bread. “Do you know what Dorothy said? She said, she overheard Oliver say he saw Martin snogging Eloise at the pub the week before, just one day after he broke up with Sebastian -”
Crowley struggles not to spit out his mouthful of water. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m not! That’s what she said.”
“But they’ve been together for so long?” says Crowley, aghast. “They’ve been through it all, bought a house, legally married - they’ve been together for years and years, longer than us, even!”
“I know,” says Azirpahale, melancholy, spooning cocoa powder messily into his tea. Crowley is too shocked to accuse him of the food crime. “It really makes you think about things, and treasure what you have, doesn’t it?”
Crowley stares at the bits and blobs of spilled cocoa on the tabletop, the butter dish, Aziraphale’s soft, white hands and the silver band around his left index finger, shaped like the Ouroboros. It mirrors the band hanging around Crowley’s neck beneath his clothes.
He remembers accompanying Aziraphale to the Lit department movie night after they got those rings, oh so many years ago. He’d felt ill at ease the whole night, from entering the movie-café to the casual dinner afterwards, misfitting by Aziraphale’s side amidst old, smiling heterosexual couples.
There were no questions aimed at them about the nature of their relationship or Crowley’s presence there, but he’d still felt more than a few questioning looks: at his sunglasses, tattoo, and leather jacket, he guessed, or at the blatant difference in age between them. Or at the way he was floundering in a conversation about Ben Johnson’s The Masque of Queens. It could’ve been any number of things, and they all would’ve been absolutely right to wonder.
And then Marty and Seb waded through the room to greet them, and he’d taken one look at their matching, weathered smiles, the traces of gray in their hair and their linking hands, and felt himself breath out, long and slow.
He looks up when Aziraphale lays a soft-palmed hand on his arm, heat permeating through thin cloth easily. The smell of herbs and burning logs in the kitchen is overpowering, so familiar it almost ached.
“Yes, it does,” he says.
Aziraphale smiles at him, and even after all these years, Crowley’s heart leaps to see it every time. For a moment or two they are lost in each other’s eyes, and then the oven beeps, loud.
“Oh, let me take the bread out to cool,” Aziraphale says. “And then what do you say to some wine? I got this rare disk of a Soviet recording of Schubert Quintet from one of my students, not sure it’s entirely legally made, but -”
“Angel,” Crowley interrupts, amused. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to have any wine while this -” he gestures at the general area of his nose and throat “- is going on.”
“Oh, that is – quite right,” Aziraphale says, blinking. “Let me make you some more lemonade then.”
They do retire to Aziraphale’s study later, wine and lemonade in hand, respectively.
The study is the part of the house that Aziraphale spends most of his time in, and when Crowley isn’t working on new album material in the basement, he also likes to lounge there, while Aziraphale grades papers or works on conference speeches. There is a beat-up sofa positioned in a low-lightning area specifically for Crowley’s use. It’s also not really an office; if Crowley had to term it more accurately, he’d call it Aziraphale’s lair, except Aziraphale took such offense to the term the one time Crowley suggested it that he’d immediately retracted the statement and stuffed it in the back of his mind, to never see the light of day again.
Most of the wall in the two-story, spherical room is taken up with books, many of which Crowley has been told is quite rare. If so, Aziraphale never designated any special area for them; all books, rare or otherwise, are arranged in an egalitarian manner according to the Dewy Decimal. Except for when Aziraphale leaves them randomly around on different tables, and then they’re not.
Maps, potted plants, and planetary models hang from the spiral staircase and second-floor railing – Crowley’s handiwork. A corner of the bookcase near the door is stuffed full of big, glossy astronomical indexes, the type with extra-large characters and pictures of galaxies taking up entire pages, which Aziraphale likes to side-eye, but which Crowley has refused to remove. Sometimes he randomly sticks one into the middle of Aziraphale’s work pile for him to discover at exhausted 3 a.m., and presumably blink confusedly at for several seconds. Crowley is rarely there to witness it, but the few times he did is reward enough.
Another section on the second floor is taken up with Crowley’s music awards. Not the NMEs, however; those are stuffed out of sight in the basement.
The Schubert is very pleasant; two cups of warm lemonade down, wrapped in the wool blanket always draped over the couch, Crowley finally braves his laptop and reads the inevitable email from the Boss.
From Lucius. M.
To: Crowley darling
Shuddering at the title, Crowley screws his eyes shut and clicks on it with the air of a French noble marching to the guillotine in the 18th century.
Make-up concert scheduled for start of next tour. Travel fare deducted from bonus. Don’t let me down again.
Drink lots of water and eat salads!
p.s. what if we moved the new album deadline a month earlier?
Crowley breathes out and closes the window. Well, today is not the day he gets murdered by Pandemonium’s psycho CEO. Sometimes he does regret signing up with them in his early 20s before he knew any better.
“Email from Lucifer?” Azirpahale says sympathetically.
“Yeah,” Crowley breathes, unable to keep the shiver out of his voice. “I’m in the clear. For now. Need to get a move on the new tracks, though.”
Aziraphale hums and turns another page in his Compendium of English Medieval Female Writers. “I could…talk to them again, if you want.”
Crowley laughs, imagining the scene, feeling gleeful and somewhat lighter. “Nah. Save that for something more substantial down the road. The opportunity will present itself, I’m certain.”
“If you say so.”
Outside, the sun has moved over the midpoint in the sky, and is slanting at an angle, shining through the skylights and the floor-to-ceiling windows in front of Aziraphale’s antique secretary, falling on the bookshelves, lighting up the room up like an aviary.
The ache in his joints has subsided to a barely-there itch; his head is clearing. It hurt less to talk.
They sit like that, for hours, while the sun makes its slow and leisurely journey across the sky; Aziraphale selecting poems for his grad students to consider, while Crowley puts on headphones and tweaks material for the next single on his laptop, glancing at Twitter and Instagram occasionally.
Before he knows it, the air has turned liquid gold, splashing extravagantly all through the circular room. The birds are coming home to roost. Crowley stares at the deepening shadows of tree outside the tall windows. When he takes off his headphones, he can hear the birdsong, amidst susurrus murmur of leaves and branches whispering in the wind.
It sounds like home.
Aziraphale has fallen asleep at his desk; Crowley realizes he must have stayed up ever since he got news of Crowley’s early return.
He drapes the blanket warm from his body heat over Aziraphale’s shoulders; plucks the glasses off his nose. Then he creeps out of the room, intending on fixing dinner.
Halfway through the long hallway to the kitchen, Crowley glances out the windows, and spots the bird. Black-and-white checkered wings, spot of red on its devious little head. Crowley narrows his eyes at it.
“Don’t think you can get away with this forever,” he tells it. “I’m going to catch you, one day, and drive you up to Edinburgh. How’ll you get back here, hm?”
It cocks its head at him, beady eyes calculating, and flies off into the impending sunset.