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On the Head of a Pinfeather

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It had been 100, maybe 200 years since the garden? Crawly had tried to forget time, but he could see it in the humans, and none of the originals were still around, so… how long did humans last, anyway? The rules seemed to change around the Almighty's favorites but eventually they, too, passed.

Essentially, it had been some time since the garden, and Crawly had used approximately zero of those years productively.

Head office in Hell had been highly pleased with original sin, but that had only lasted so long, and now they were asking questions about whether they needed a new Earth agent, so Crawly had to 'make some trouble' soon to prove himself.

First, though, he needed some… assistance. The angel was still on Earth, or at least he hoped it was the same one--the Principality he had met during the invention of rain. It had been some time since the Fall, but he knew what Grace felt like, and he followed it across the continent, the trail ending at a white blond head in a nomad camp.

“Oh! I didn’t see you there, Crawly.” The blond angel beamed as he spotted the demon, pausing his assistance putting up a tent. The angel graciously thanked the teen who took over so that he could divert full attention to Crawly.

Reminder: really ought to work on the name situation.

“Can I have a word… Aziraphale, wasn’t it?” he ventured, rather too hopefully. He hadn’t spoken to the angel since the garden. He couldn’t be sure of his reception, but the angel had seemed… kind. Not in an ethereal sort of way, the kindness that followed exactingly precise rules before dropping into cruelty for ‘goodness sake,’ but an actual kind demeanor toward all. Even the serpent of the garden. Hopefully.

“It was and it is!” Aziraphale affirmed cheerfully. “Why, it must have been at least 200 years! Let’s get out of this dreadful sun,. I’ve been following these nomads across half the continent, and it just keeps getting hotter.”

Aziraphale led him to an already built tent, not ostentatiously large, but with a sitting area beside the pallet.

“Oh, do you sleep?” Crawly asked, pointing to the pallet.

“I don’t really prefer it.” Aziraphale shook his head. “I suppose I might get used to it, but it seems like a lot of wasted time personally, though I have to keep up the appearance. Do you?”

Crawly was fighting equal urges to relax into the chatty angel’s presence and also to stay wary of this being who spoke so much. But if he hadn’t struck down Crawly on the wall…

“I do, yeah, but, well, directly to the point--” Crawly took a deep breath, and then had to avert his eyes from the interested stare of the angel. “--I’m having a bit of an issue with my wings. It’s been awfully distracting, and I can’t seem to do much of anything recently. I’d ask around, but, well, we seem to be the only immortal beings who live on the planet full time.”

It was really an embarrassing predicament he was in. Crawly could hardly trust a demon to help him with his wings, and he should never trust an angel, but, well, Aziraphale had been kind, and upon parting on the wall, he'd told Crawly to seek him out if he needed help.

Aziriphale rubbed his hands together. "Oh, well! I've done some dabbling here and there with healing miracles--let's see if it's something we can figure out. I think we have just enough clearance in the tent so, out with them."

The angel stood to step behind Crawly, smiling almost gleefully. He was a shade too cheerful for Crawly to trust, but the demon really was in a bind. He took another steadying breath and called out his wings. Feathers scattered to the floor as he did, like black snow.

"Oh, my dear serpent," Aziraphale tutted as he looked over Crawly's black wings. Crawly's stomach dropped.

"What is it? Am I dying?" Crawly's voice was tight strung with irrepressible tension, embarrassing and infuriating him more, almost distracting him from the fear that his literally damned wings were going to kill him now.

"No, no, my dear. Nothing to be concerned with, you're actually completely fine," he reassured the demon. "I do believe you're molting."

"Molting?" Crawly asked, unable to keep any kind of composure; whatever it was, it sounded bad. He tucked a wing back to look at the angel, who was holding a shed primary feather up as proof.

“They’re falling out? Do they grow back?” Crawly felt rather justifiable in his abject horror.

“Oh, yes. Birds do it all the time. I’ve never heard of an angel or a demon molting but, well, like you were saying, the others mostly don’t keep corporeal forms, so--”

“Oh, goodie, I’m unprecedented.” Crawly sulked.

“It’s just a bit of a shed. You lose hairs, don’t you?” Aziraphale helpfully pointed at his head to show what he meant.

“I mostly just kind of intervene on my hair and it cooperates. Besides all that, losing hairs doesn’t itch.”

“You can’t affect your wings with miracles?” Aziraphale looked puzzled.

“Well I wouldn’t call what my lot can do miracles, but no. Can you?” Crawly wasn’t sure what to hope the answer was.

“Well, to be truthful, once I managed to get them tucked back it made it ever so much easier to keep a low profile with the humans, so I haven’t really thought of them much…” The angel shrugged. Crawly had much the same experience, except that when the angel’s wings came out, they’d be angel wings still, glowing with grace and miracles and such. Crawly’s wings had burned to black during the Fall; he could still feel the searing pain as they turned, first burning and then growing back wrong. He avoided thinking of his wings while they were tucked away.

Aziraphale had apparently been speaking while Crawly’s damned wings had him distracted. “That’s okay, though. Lie on your stomach on the pallet, I’ll get a comb, and we can work on getting the extra feathers out,” he caught the angel saying at the end.

“You’re going to help me?” Crawly hated how happy his voice sounded. It was entirely without permission; he was really going to have to work on subterfuge.

“I don’t see any reason why not--all God’s creatures and all that. You need help, and I can do it. I hardly think helping a serpent in a bind will count negatively in my books.” Aziraphale nodded, cementing the decision. “Now, on the pallet. It’ll be dark soon, and it would look ever so suspicious if my tent were glowing in the night.”

Crawly wasn’t sure how he had gotten into this position, but he pulled himself up from the chair and transferred to the low pallet, spreading his right wing as far as it would go while he hugged the clean pillow. It barely had the smell of its owner, disused for so long as it had been, but it somehow calmed Crawly’s nerves to hold it.

“I’ll have to have you turn around to do the other side, but this will do quite nicely,” the angel said happily, pulling one of the stools closer to sit and worry out the fine, itching down feathers near the wing joint.

As the angel worked, humming tunelessly (angels were really rubbish at holding a tune, no matter what the phrase choirs of angels would have one believe), Crawly began to feel… something. Something warm and crawling in his belly. He’d only had this human body for a few hundred years. He wasn’t very good at it yet, and he had yet to really integrate into humanity the way that his superiors had asked, but he thought he had an idea what was happening.

Suddenly Crawly felt a direct, specific kind of compassion for every teenaged boy he had ever silently mocked after an especially pointed temptation had left them… embarrassed. It had taken a while, but now that the itching was dying down and the angel was carding through the feathers, Crawly realized how little his wings were touched, and how intense the sensation was. What he hadn’t realized was how his corporeal body would react so very much like a human’s.

“It’s interesting--I’ve never gotten to look at your feathers closely. I had always kind of assumed there’d be soot, or that they’d smell of brimstone,” Aziraphale hummed behind him.

“Oh no, they’re just… feathers…” Crawly replied with a miserable kind of effort.

Through a serious force of will and focusing on the itching in his left wing, he kept the situation more or less under control. Being at the end of an angel’s arm was a terribly awkward place to have this kind of issue, and so he tried, like most of his issues, to simply pretend he wasn’t having it.

His imagination began quickly to betray him as he tried to imagine how the angel might react to this discovery. Would he be horrified? Understanding? Crawly felt reasonably safe since the flaming sword wasn't in the picture any longer, but that wasn't the only way to smite a demon, if it came down to it.

Would the angel even understand? Probably an angel who had remained in Heaven, who hadn’t Fallen or been relegated to surface duty for… for what, acting compassionately? Probably that angel would have no idea what Crawly’s corporeal form was doing. What had Crawly himself even thought of, as an angel?

Why do the stars have to be bound to this ‘physics’ idea if you don’t plan for the humans to even make it out this far?

Do be a dear and stop asking Questions... A name, what was that name, what had She called him?

Crawly was pulled from his own distraction as Aziraphale had him turn around on the bed to brush out the other wing, and Crawly got himself situated in a better position, unfortunately, so that a few teasing comb strokes through the joint between skin and feather had him whimpering slightly, grinding with a horrifying instinct into the pallet again, to much greater effect now that everything was properly situated.

Crawly was half convinced that Aziraphale not only knew what he was doing to him but was doing it maliciously as the angel ran perfectly shaped fingernails along the skin of his wing to get some particularly reticent little feathers out from against the skin. Heat suffused Crawly’s body, which was doing its absolute level best to betray him as he focused all his energy on not thrusting against the pallet. Instead he had a bit of a serpentine wiggle motion happening, which was both exceptionally effective and impossible to stop himself from doing.

“Oh, dear. This one must have been a terrible bother, you poor serpent,” Aziraphale tutted, and his tone was so concerned, so completely clear of even well-intentioned malice that Crawly felt bad for even mentally accusing him. The angel pulled back and began again at the joint, worrying out the down feathers more carefully, more slowly. Agonizingly slowly.

Crawly tried to distract himself again, to imagine that Aziraphale would smite him if he noticed the effect the ministrations were having, but every time Crawly just about had the shape of his enraged face figured out, another soft platitude and apology would remind him that this possibly wasn’t the best bad option Crawly had had, but was, in fact, a rather good one. He then pushed that thought away again, and tried again to find the righteous dressing down he would be given, surely, were the angel to discover his situation.

The angel had his hand buried in the minor feathers on the front of his left wing and was praising his patience when it all became too much, coalescing into touch on oversensitive skin and a soothing patient voice that had never forgotten how to love all the things She made, even, somehow the serpent of the garden. Crawly cried out, biting the pillow to silence himself as he gave another snakelike wriggle against the mattress. He panted on the pallet, unsure of what to do, unsure of anything, the body’s human shaped heart pounding in his ears.

“Oh there, there, my dear boy, we’re almost done.” The angel patted his heaving, oversensitive back, then began combing through the secondaries again to look for any newly loosened feathers.

By the time the angel proclaimed him done, there was a huge pile of feathers on the floor, and Crawly had to intervene on his garment to prevent the telltale stain. Thankfully, unlike his wings, the intervention worked, leaving him in clean linen as he turned to face the angel who looked confounded by the intervention but far too polite to mention it. Instead, Aziraphale miracled a flat linen bag into existence and began gathering the soot black feathers.

“What shall we do with these?” asked Aziraphale.

“I could burn them for causing such trouble,” Crawly sighed, tucking his wings back out of existence with a relieved sigh. He felt blissed out and utterly peeved by it.

“I’d be interested to see how they differ from angel feathers and bird feathers, if you don’t mind my keeping them?” The angel looked so ridiculously hopeful that Crawly almost just agreed immediately.

“Payment for services rendered, then?” Crawly asked instead, solidifying that this wasn’t a favor.

“Oh, yes, that would be lovely. Thank you,” the angel agreed cheerfully, unconsciously hugging the flat bag to his chest.

“I’ll see you around, then.” Crawly smiled, finally feeling on the forward foot in this exchange.

“Yes, we’ll have to try what the humans have been doing with barley, I hear it’s a delicious drink,” the angel agreed. It was a bit too solid of a next time plan for Crawly, but he let it happen. The angel hadn’t had to help; there was no reason to be an ass about it now.

“Sounds like a plan, angel,” Crawly agreed, sauntering out of the camp and, hopefully, forever out of the angel’s life.

Chapter Text

Not being able to fly really made the problem Aziraphale was having much worse. He was already frustrated and distracted, and now he was lost. Just as he thought he’d be stuck spending the night in this forsaken forest again, he saw a sign of what he was searching for.

There was a snake carved into the tree to the right of the main trail, the head facing toward what Aziraphale had assumed was a game trail.

Well, he thought with a wry grin, he was certainly game to try anything.

Even Aziraphale cringed at the pun, but he stored it away to annoy Gabriel with later, a secret and highly immoral pastime that he indulged in whenever the archangel was particularly insufferable.

The settlement wasn’t far from the main trail, just deep enough in the trees to be invisible from the plain and from the main trail. It was a small encampment, two dozen or so huts around a central square with a raised dais holding a large bowl, perhaps even a small tub. Suddenly he was bombarded by two children, each of them grabbing one of his hands.

“Come and see! Come and see!” they cajoled, pulling him toward the dais. Then Aziraphale noticed the adults, who had paused in the middle of their evening duties to watch the proceedings. As the three of them reached the dais, the children pulled him closer, and Aziraphale saw indeed.

Crawly wasn’t a small snake; he barely fit into the bowl, which would have been more than large enough for both of the children to bathe in. He reared up, glossy and black, and flicked a casual, sniffing tongue at Aziraphale before doing the snakeish equivalent of rolling his eyes-- a kind of half head toss with his nictitating membrane sliding halfway over his eye.

“He likes you! Welcome!” the children cheered, running off to the huts to tell the adults. Crawly reared up out of the bowl, clearly meaning to climb onto Aziraphale’s shoulders. He understood now how Crawly had integrated into the village, understood the need for it, and allowed the oversized, damp reptile to drape himself over Aziraphale’s shoulders.

“This is an unexpected visit,” Crawly’s voice came from just behind Aziraphale’s ear.

“I’m in a bit of a… situation, and I came to request some assistance. Though I was hoping you’d have hands,” Aziraphale snarked under the sheer weight of the serpent. “I think you weigh more now than you do when you look human,” he complained.

“Probably so. Turn to your right-- my hut is in the back, with the little flap.” Crawly casually flicked his tail in the right direction to avoid pointing directly. When Aziraphale looked up, he had the attention of the whole village, though not one of them was moving to intercept him. The snake deity, indeed.

“Why on earth do you have a hut?” Aziraphale asked. “And I do hope you’re not expecting me to crawl through a flap.”

“No, no, there’s a door,” Crawly assured him. “And I didn’t actually have anything to do with the hut, the snake I ate had it before I got here.”

“Oh, Crawly, you ate their idol?” Aziraphale stage-whispered in horror. He couldn’t figure out why it bothered him so much; they shouldn’t have even had an idol, after all, but it felt wrong.

“It’s a long story. I was in a bit of a bind.” Crawly didn’t elaborate.

Aziraphale got the door open and, as soon as they were inside, he was a few hundred pounds lighter as Crawly changed right off of his back. Aziraphale had a half a second’s temptation to pick him up again and see if he really was lighter, but as the pins and needles sensation turned back to feeling in his shoulders, Aziraphale noticed the nagging irritation that had sent him into the woods looking for the familiar sense of subverted grace in the first place.

“Oh, that’s much better.” Crawly stretched his arms above his head, revelling in having limbs again. “Now, how can I help you?”

He snapped his fingers, and the banked fire in the middle of the hut sprang to life. It lit the space a little too clearly for the size of the flame, but Aziraphale wasn’t going to argue.

Aziraphale opened his wings when he realized there wasn’t an easy way to put words to the situation.

Crawly gave a low whistle. “I had wondered if it was a side effect of damnation, but clearly I was wrong.”

“Clearly,” Aziraphale agreed miserably, looking around the hut. He noticed how clean it was with some surprise. “You inherited this from a snake?”

“The townsfolk clean it daily. I’ve been trying to get them a new snake, but they keep smelling the big scary snake and staying away. I’m going to have to wait until mating season.” The demon spoke with distaste, and Aziraphale almost completely smothered his chuckle. Crawly either had the good grace or the bad manners to ignore him, and continued on with his original thought, “Stretch this one out, let’s get a good look at you.”

He lightly pushed at the primaries on Aziraphale’s right wing, and two of them fell out into his hand as he did, floating down out of the corner of Aziraphale’s vision.

He huffed and held his wing open so that the demon could get a good view of the feathers. It was an awkward, embarrassing situation to be in, but he had helped Crawly before, so this ought to be at least a little bit of a fair trade.

“You might as well have a seat,” Crawly intoned gravely, pushing a stool that hadn’t existed before into the back of Aziraphale’s knees. “You clearly haven’t been preening these regularly, and the molt is only making it worse.”

“I keep meaning to, but then I forget. It’s been a busy time-- lots of sin, not a lot of repenting…” Aziraphale felt the strain of his recent work and knew that sometime soon there was going to be more demands on his time. “I barely got the time to out here on weak excuses, they really don’t want to send anyone else to Earth.”

Crawly seemed to be making a point of avoiding eye contact as he began grooming the wing, his face gravely serious as he worked. He worked first in wide swaths down the coverts, then teasing through the lesser coverts, ridding the overstuffed sections of their excess plumage with delicate fingers, careful not to snag the skin below with his nails.

Aziraphale felt the feathers falling loose with relief. The itching of the overstuffed feathers had been, for lack of a better term, infernally frustrating, and though he had tried to brush them himself a week ago, he simply lacked the angle of approach or the practice to do it correctly. He really ought to take better care of his wings, but they were just another reminder that he wasn’t like the humans that surrounded him-- the very humans he was supposed to be blending in with.

Aziraphale sneaked glances at Crawly’s face as he worked, his eyes focused solely on the task at hand. Aziraphale tried to remember a time when he’d met up with the demon and Crawly hadn’t been talking. It probably hadn’t been since the tent where he’d asked Aziraphale for help.

Relief from the itching, overheavy weight of the feathers set Aziraphale’s whole body tingling, but as the fronts of his wings drew nearer to completion, he began to notice a different sort of heat suffusing him more thoroughly than that of the fire. He let it be for a moment, imagining that he could ignore the coiling warmth.

As though prompted by some kind of unspoken cue, Crawly ducked under the wing he was working on in a sinuous way that proved he wasn’t entirely used to having hips or shoulders, and started in on the tiny down feathers at the wing joint. Aziraphale studiously went back to ignoring his current predicament and wondering at the cold professionalism of the generally gregarious demon.

When Crawly finished with the joint and moved to his rear lesser coverts, Aziraphale heard more than felt the soft rush of air that escaped him-- half gasp and half stifled groan. There was no way to imagine that Crawly hadn’t heard it, and Aziraphale felt his face heating in the overbrightness of the small warm hut. Shame was apparently the impetus his corporeal form needed to solidify the warmth in his belly into a burning insistence.

Aziraphale found that, much like his wings molting, he had no control over this reaction of his body, and even the tried and true method of ignoring a situation until it stopped simply wasn’t going to work. He briefly entertained the idea of leaving, of maybe figuring it all out later by himself, but he could feel by the weight in his wings that he was still grounded. He wouldn’t be able to travel quickly or well, and he hadn’t brought a horse out here to the middle of the wilderness when he’d left the city for vague half-reasons.

“You know, I’m beginning to think--” Aziraphale was cut off by a hand placed against his mouth, not quite pressing down. It was a mere suggestion that maybe he oughtn’t speak, instead of an actual prevention.

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? Thinking. Knowing,” Crawly began conversationally, moving his attention to the least sensitive primary flight feathers while he spoke. “It wasn’t until they ate the apple and realized what sin was that She cast them out. They had all the ability to sin before that, but they wouldn’t have known.”

It was a really bad sign that Crawly was making sense. Aziraphale was sure of it.

“So maybe you don’t know what that reaction is, maybe you’re not having one at all-- I certainly wouldn’t know if you were or not. I’m all the way back here.” Crawly took Aziraphale’s hands and placed them neatly on his lap. Aziraphale fretfully plucked at the white fabric while he tried to process the demon’s words.

Crawly moved back to the coverts, carefully brushing and tugging and removing the extra feathers and leaving the sensitive bloodfeathers tingling in his wake. Aziraphale tried not to remember the sounds Crawly had made during his own molt, tried not to imagine what it must have been like, being at the mercy of the enemy-- but wasn’t Aziraphale in that position as well?

The soft words the serpent of the garden had whispered in his ear burned as they worked through his mind. Was it a trick, a temptation? His memory dragged back the helpless, panting form of Crawly under his hands, twitching every time Aziraphale grazed skin through the sleek black feathers with even just a fingertip. Aziraphale had imagined that it was pain, that maybe the demon’s form was reacting negatively to his own grace. How naive he had been.

But hadn’t his form been designed to molt like this, to react this way to the molting? Hadn’t She put him on Earth with only one other being who could be expected to be here long enough to molt as well? Other angels came earthside yes, but they popped in and out as quickly as whims, and only the yellow glinting serpent eyes seen from a few market stalls away or the red glint of curled hair among so many other bowed heads proved to be reliable in this mercurial, short lived world. He could easily imagine a hundred hundred years from now, looking up at the marketplace and seeing those yellow eyes and wry smile, carefully avoiding him as they danced their eternal dance of temptation and blessing.

It was with that mental image and the overwhelming sensation of two hands pulling through the mostly-cleared coverts on his left wing that his own hand-- having moved of its own accord-- reflexively closed, and Aziraphale understood the phrase seeing stars.

Aziraphale had no idea if he’d made a sound, or if Crawly simply knew from experience, but the demon backed off for a moment, not touching at all while Aziraphale panted and cast around for some excuse, any excuse, any dithering observation to fill the emptiness.

“Did you know that birds don’t molt all at once? The feathers go in phases so they can continue to fly,” Crawly offered into the silence, tentatively pulling a hand along the last straggling feathers to be pulled free.

“That sounds much more reasonable.”

Think of another topic…

“I do believe you’re done,” Crawly finally announced a short time and one small, hopefully discreet miracle of fresh clothing later. “What should I do with the feathers?”

Aziraphale turned and saw a tight roll of black cloth, stuffed to the brim, presumably, with white feathers. His mind flashed to the small white sachet of black feathers that he had kept, unsure of how to dispose of them or perhaps unsure of if he wanted to.

“I suppose I could keep them with the rest,” Aziraphale offered.

“You still have the others?” Crawly almost seemed… touched.

 

“Yes, they’re tucked with some of my other belongings,” Aziraphale admitted.

“Well, then I wouldn’t want to burden you with two sets. I’ll keep track of these ones.” The demon nodded, tucking the roll under his arm with some finality. “Now I just have to figure out how to get these people a new snake deity.”

“Yes, and I’m expected some miles away next week for some sort of boat… event. A christening? Can they call it that yet?” Every word having been invented already and used in common parlance in Heaven didn’t make it easy to blend in on Earth.

“Nah, that’s like balloons-- not yet unfortunately.” Crawly shrugged. “I think it’s just a dedication, still.”

“Well, I’ll be off. My dear, why don’t you simply remove the smell of another snake from the area? You certainly don’t have to smell unless you choose to, and the old snake is deceased. You could call one into the area and have it smell like nothing but the best place to live.”

Crawly looked equal parts relieved and annoyed as Aziraphale popped out of the hut in a flutter of wingbeats. Aziraphale had some research to do before the next time Crowley molted, but first he just had to get through this Noah thing that Gabriel kept going on about.