It starts small.
Maybe it's just the lighting.
Maybe it's chalk.
Maybe it's a figment of his imagination.
He tells himself this as he finally lets himself acknowledge the single grey feather slipped in amongst the usual black. It's been three months since he and Aziraphale circumvented The Plan, and one week since this little physical anomaly showed up to put a kink in his usual tomfoolery. He just thought it would fall out, maybe go away on its own. After all, he's kept up with his usual work. He summoned some pineapple onto random pizzas going to unsuspecting college students. He was his usual dastardly self. Nothing had changed, so why would his feathers?
But something had changed, hadn't it? He wouldn't admit it to himself, not now and likely not ever, but something about losing humanity as a whole and the general injustice of it had triggered something in him that he hadn't felt since Eden. Pity.
Pity, empathy, compassion. All of these were rooted in an acknowledgement of the murkiness between good and bad. For humanity to have understood the nuances of who was deserving of empathy they required him. Crowley's temptation. A Pandora's box of what makes human beings humans. He'd sort of patted himself on the back for this fact once, then promptly forgotten it (or, as promptly as a 6000+ year old occult figure can). Hell seemed to have forgotten said mistake too.
"Funny if I did the good thing and you did the bad one, eh?" Crowley'd said. Funny indeed.
What was not funny was that the grey of the feather was not rubbing off. Nor was it washing out. So Crowley plucked it out and went on with his day, awash in a sort of strange nostalgia he couldn't quite pin down.
It's while drunk with Aziraphale that he notices the next one.
"All 'm sayin' is that yanno it wasn't even that bad like eternal damnation is a bit rough yeah?"
Crowley's not even sure what the conversation is about anymore, but judging from Aziraphale's expression, he's either said the right thing or his companion is too drunk to notice. It's likely the latter, since his companion is also too drunk to notice Crowley's legs thrown over the armrest of his chair, shoes scuffing the corner of a rather nice looking table. In his defense, the table is covered in bottles and therefore any attempt at scuffing the top of the table is ill advised.
Aziraphale, in his own defense, is not so much too drunk as he is too distracted. Crowley is positively sprawled out on his couch. God Herself is likely angry at him. This is how things start. One bad decision (okay, perhaps a series of them, but who’s counting other than the Almighty) and that could be it for him. It is not so much the being damned portion that scares him as it is the fear of the unknown. He’s very well established here in his role as an angel on earth and it would be a shame to throw that all away. And, thus, Aziraphale finds himself nodding along to the conversation but participating very little. Crowley, who has known him for thousands of years, is very very aware of this abnormality in reaction.
"Shits wrong. What is it?" He asks, narrowing his eyes in Aziraphale's direction as he stands to get another bottle of wine from the cupboard.
Aziraphale blinks at this, provides a polite smile with the faintest of a blush, and is about to go off about how "no no, he's fine, truly" when suddenly he sees it.
One grey feather poking out through Crowley's black wings.
“A-actually, look at the time. 10 at night already. What a shame, the passage of time.” He’s fumbling over his words, knows Crowley will pick up on it the moment they’ve passed his lips, but he really doesn’t know what to do. Despite his earlier insistence, he’s too drunk to really process what he’s just seen, regardless of how many times he’d replayed it in his head in years past.
Can you reverse fall?
No, it's never been done before.
There’s a first for everything.
Crowley raises a brow, turning on the ball of his foot with a sort of suavity that Aziraphale has learned to ignore for his own health over the last 6000 years. His long fingers are still wrapped around the neck of the bottle. Aziraphale is very grateful for the fact that angels, unlike humans, are not so easily tempted.
“10 at night, is it? The night the antichrist was delivered, we drank till dawn,” he says, slower than before, as if he were focusing very hard on not slurring his words. Aziraphale feels cornered, jittery, the way he felt when they went searching for the antichrist’s records at the nunnery and he’d been pinned to the wall.
Must be the alcohol.
“W-well that was quite a night for actions regretted later, might I remind you,” Aziraphale insists. He knows this is no argument, that Crowley sees right through it to the general confusion and worry simmering in his gut. He just chooses not to acknowledge these things. For his health.
Crowley snorts and Aziraphale is suddenly acutely aware of the secondary meaning those words could hold. Confronting the issue of the feather might be less mortifying.
“If you must know, it's your wing,” Aziraphale says suddenly.
Crowley’s brows furrow in confusion and he’s about to ask Aziraphale to be a tinge more specific when suddenly he’s reminded of the strange little grey feather from a few days earlier.
“It’s a good look for you, I must say."
But it's too late. Crowley is in a frenzy of trying to find the godforsaken (blessed, perhaps?) feather in amongst the other, darker ones. All of a sudden his eyes land on it, and Crowley lets out a breath he didn't realize he was holding as he confirms that, yes, the feather is indeed much lighter than the others.
Crowley plucks it out immediately and, despite miracling the bleeding away, Aziraphale winces visibly.
"Crowley, you mustn't. Pulling them out won't stop the problem, nor will denying their presence," Aziraphale insists matter-of-factly. He's sobered up a little (stress will do that to you) but the slightly drunk concern still seeps into his words. "If I'm quite honest, I barely see this as a problem. Perhaps it's forgiveness or an understanding of your intentions."
"After six thousand years?" Crowley snorts, sitting back on the couch with his feet on the table. He's trying to appear nonchalant about the whole thing, but his posture is rigid and he looks like he might get up and run off at a moment's notice. "Besides, your lot aren't much of the forgiving type for bigger offenses."
Crowley, even after literally god only knows how much wine, is acutely aware of how Aziraphale's eyes turn down towards his lap. No loose string has ever been as interesting to Aziraphale as the one he’s currently picking at to avoid Crowley's gaze. And there it is again, filling the air in a way that makes Crowley feel stifled despite being its creator - pity.
But this time it's mixed with a million other emotions, muddying its usual sharpness. While humans are extremely emotionally intricate, they are inherently predictable in some ways. Aziraphale, meanwhile, is inherently predictable only to Crowley but even then there are times like this when Crowley is not able to perfectly decipher what is going on behind the angel’s eyes. Times like this where something deep in his gut worries that he never will.
“I’m going to sober up. I need to think about this,” Aziraphale says, his tone soft as he finally looks up. He aches for Crowley, really, and knowing that this is tearing Crowley apart makes Aziraphale forget the years of hoping this might happen. He sits up then, prim as the day he was created, and sobers up with little more than a grimace. Setting aside the now full bottle he’d been nursing a few moments earlier, he gives Crowley a bit of a sad look and offers him a hand in reassurance.
Crowley doesn’t take it. He won't meet Aziraphale’s eyes. They barely made it out alive the last time they defied convention. For the first time in a long time, Crowley actively worries for himself, for his safety, for Aziraphale’s safety if heaven and hell realize who’s to blame for this fiasco. His existence in this sort of limbo is a threat to both sides and he knows it, has known it since the first feather came in. He just hasn’t acknowledged it until now.
“I’ll be doing a bit of shelving, but you’re very welcome to sleep on the couch if you wish.”