Mantle (‘mant(ə)l): verb: (of a bird of prey on the ground or on a perch) spread the wings and tail so as to cover captured prey.
The first time Aziraphale spreads a wing over the Serpent, he hardly notices it. His wing extends and his mind doesn’t register anything but the rain— rain which would have fallen on his feathers no matter who was under them.
The Serpent, then known as Crawley, notices.
He blinks his serpentine eyes, scoots closer, and stares at the holy being. Aziraphale sighs and watches Adam the First and Eve until they disappear over the horizon.
Then he turns and smiles at Crawley, both wings coming up to cover the Serpent’s head and shoulders. Yellow-gold eyes stare back at him, and the warm color seems to reflect off the angel’s pristine white feathers.
“I don’t suppose there’s a way to track a— a lead balloon?” the angel smiles.
Crawley snorts. “Well, uh…”
“Aziraphale,” he nods, tongue flicking out, and the aforementioned angel’s wings twitch, “that would mean leaving the Garden.”
“Hmm.” He considers the Serpent for a moment, who’s own wings have folded almost submissively. “Perhaps on the dawn.”
It takes a long time for either being to understand what had happened that day— five thousand years, give or take a few hundred years.
Aziraphale finds out when he is in high society, a ruffled collar solidly around his neck, watching a trainer hired for one of his fellow “royals” fly a falcon. It lands on a rabbit, and when Aziraphale looks back after giving the bird time to kill, he’s astonished to find it’s wings extended and curved slightly down.
“What is she doing?” Aziraphale asks, horror and curiosity mixed together.
The falconer smiles brightly. “Good sire,” he says, bowing just a tad, “she’s mantling!” Azirphale tilts his head and he continues. “When she captures her prey, she must protect it from other birds, or foxes, the like. See how she spreads her wings? Her tail?” Aziraphale nods in response. “Then, you see, sire, the rabbit is almost covered! She has quite hidden her prize. She’s free to enjoy the rabbit at her own pace, in safety.”
“Could we not just…collect it for her?”
“Oh, goodness, sire, no,” the falconer says, mildly alarmed, “that would be terribly dangerous. She is a trained killer, and to threaten her prize could cause the disturber great harm.”
Aziraphale can’t explain the heat that comes to his cheeks. “I…I see.”
The Serpent finally has a name for that covered-desired-known-safe feeling when he himself is training falcons. He feels a kinship with these birds; trapped, allowed tiny moments of freedom, only to be reeled back in and used for their master’s pleasure. He strokes their feathers and hisses stories of the sky, of wind in feathers, of scenery whipping by so fast you hardly care what the scene is. They preen, and he’s reminded of white feathers.
“Never approach a falcon when she’s mantling,” a master tells him one day as he strides towards the bird he’d just released.
The trainer points to his bird, who’s beak is now open and talons dug sharply into his mouse’s side. “Mantling. Looks li’ tha’. Wings all spread, see the distance between the primaries? Yeah, tha’. His tail all fluffed? All that’s mantling.”
“He’s protecting his kill,” the master says, almost annoyed at Crowley. “From birds and things tha’ might think they can take it.” He shrugs, then huffs when the falcon grabs the mouse and proudly drops it in Crowley’s hand, screeching before rubbing his beak against Crowley’s cheek. “Ya know, makin’ sure everyone knows it’s his.”
Crowley grunts and thinks of rain and feathers over his head and shoulders. His falcon screeches again, impatient for Crowley to approve. He pretends to examine the mouse and then lifts it to him.
“Chow down,” he half-hisses.
It’s almost a thousand years before Crowley sees this behavior again.
They’re standing on the tarmac of Tadfield Air Base— well, Aziraphale is standing, and Crowley has sunk to his knees. He’s barely able to keep himself upright at this level, after bearing the horror of losing his angel and bearing the weight of Lucifer Morningstar and stopping time. He’s exhausted, and a little scared, but Aziraphale is there—
His wings are out (glorious, clean, blinding) and spread wide. He’s behind Crowley, close enough that his shins are almost touching the Serpent’s back, angelic warmth seeping into his skin and calling to him like the sun on a cold day. He wants to lean back into it.
And the angel’s wings are curved over his head and shoulders, and he feels safe. For the first time in eleven years, he feels really safe.
Aziraphale stays there, wings hovering over the demon, until the air base is empty of humans. His head swivels, watching and waiting for a challenge.
The challenge doesn’t come, but eventually he reaches down and wraps his hands around Crowley’s shoulders. “Dear boy, can you move?”
“Oh,” Aziraphale breathes, realizing where they are, and pulls them back. “I’m— ah, my apologies—“
Crowley reaches up as best he can, knuckles brushing against the angel’s primaries. Aziraphale shivers. “No, felt good.”
It isn’t another thousand years before Aziraphale mantles over Crowley. It’s hardly even a day later— they’re walking through the dining room of the Ritz when someone shoots a predatory look at Crowley, causing Aziraphale to wrap an arm around the Serpent’s waist and tug him close. Crowley feels, rather than sees, the giant and strong wing that wraps around his exposed shoulder. He sees, rather than feels, the murderous look Aziraphale starts shooting around.
It’s sweet, really.
Aziraphale is embarrassed later. But it’s less than twelve hours before a child trips in front of Crowley and the angel’s wings shoot out again. “Oh, dear,” Aziraphale says as he bends to help the small one up, but his wing hovers over Crowley and his eyes stay pointed up.
Crowley feels very secure, and he can’t help but reach up to pet the primaries with a smile.
Aziraphale pretends not to shiver; Crowley pretends not to be disappointed when the angel’s wings recede.
It’s about four hours, after that, before the wings come back out. Crowley’s stuck in the sad-desperate-angry place, sprawled over a couch in Aziraphale’s bookshop, and Aziraphale comes up behind him to offer him a glass of wine.
“Alright, dear boy?”
“Not really,” Crowley mutters, and then everything is much warmer and his soul feels a bit lighter. A look up confirms that the angel’s wings have come out.
“Would you like to talk about it?” he asks as they stretch out and over Crowley’s body.
Crowley blinks. He almost thinks he sees a warm golden-yellow reflected in those brilliant white feathers. He reaches up to touch, then hesitates. “Nah,” he says finally. “Just. Tired?”
Aziraphale nods sympathetically and pats Crowley’s shoulder. “You can rest. I’ll be here.”
He rests. He wakes to find himself in Aziraphale’s lap, the angel’s wing spread over and lightly resting on his thin form.
He hums. Aziraphale barely seems to notice. “Ssssss— you’re sssuch a possessive angel.”
Aziraphale’s head snaps up. “I beg your pardon.”
Crowley chuckles. “You’ve been mantling me.”
“I have not!”
The Serpent glances up and laughs at the affronted expression on Aziraphale’s face. “Oh, angel, you have.”
Aziraphale sputters. Crowley pushes himself to sitting, as tired as he still is after everything, and holds the angel’s wing to him with gentle hands. “I mean, it’s sweet. Guarding me like that. Like your kill— I guess I am, huh? A demon working to stop Armageddon, proper job you did on me there—“
“You’re not my kill,” Aziraphale interrupts him, loud enough to almost be shouting, and it halfway startles Crowley. The wing at his side twitches in response.
“Er, that is, you’re— you’re not a kill, that’s not—“ Aziraphale is sputtering again, and it dies as his hands start to windmill about.
Crowley reaches out and captures his hands. His free wing— the one that isn’t twitching to resist pulling Crowley closer— flares out for a moment. “Angel, I was teasing.”
Aziraphale spends a few moments searching Crowley’s eyes. The Serpent wishes he still had his sunglasses on, but they’d been removed long ago. It’s painful, to wait, but the feathers that surround him make it a little easier.
And then Aziraphale’s hands are framing Crowley’s face, and his brain shorts with just enough time to recover to hear “You’re not my prey, but you are mine.”
Crowley freezes. His mouth drops open slightly. His pupils have nearly disappeared into the yellow-gold of his irises.
Aziraphale hesitates, eyebrows coming together in concern, doubt crossing his face.
Crowley wishes he had the courage to kiss it away, but instead he reaches for the angel’s free wing, pulls it around him, and buries his face in the angel’s neck.
Aziraphale sighs and wraps his arms around Crowley’s waist, leaning his head against Crowley’s. He relaxes for the first time in eleven years, perhaps longer, thumbs brushing over Crowley’s back in soothing circles.
When Crowley remembers language again, he murmurs into Aziraphale’s skin. “Yessss, yoursssssss,” he hisses, nuzzling and relishing in the shiver it evokes, “wanna be, cover me up, I’ll be ssssso good, promissssse—“
“Crowley,” Aziraphale breathes, pulls him back by the shoulders until they can rest their foreheads together. “My dear, sweet serpent, I do love you so.”
Crowley whimpers, and Aziraphale nuzzles against him. “Love you, want you to keep me,” he murmurs back, scrunching himself up smaller into the angel’s lap.
He holds Crowley closer, his wings folding around the two of them like a protective cocoon. “You’re mine, Crowley,” he utters, and it’s soft and strong and resonates with Crowley in a way that shakes him to his marrow, “I’ll keep you safe, right here, right with me.”
Crowley gasps, and his fingers clutch at the angel’s shirt, crumpling the fine fabric beneath it. Aziraphale slides a hand around the front of the Serpent, cups Crowley’s jaw, and kisses him.
A rush of feelings washes over Crowley: safe, covered, known, desired, loved, protected, home.
Aziraphale’s lips are soft, almost softer than Crowley had imagined. But the angel is insistent. His fingers push against Crowley’s spine and into his hair; his mouth is a gentle pressure against Crowley’s, his breath puffing gently against Crowley’s skin. He parts for a moment only to duck back in and massage the back of Crowley’s skull as he nips lightly at the Serpent’s lip.
Crowley opens willingly, sliding his arms around the angel’s shoulders, pulling him closer. Aziraphale’s wings are a constant presence, surrounding them and blocking out the rest of the world.
Aziraphale mantles over Crowley, and Crowley snuggles into it, relishes in the distant words of a falconer—
“Ya know, makin’ sure everyone knows it’s his.”