"And of course it was completely ridiculous. So I said-" Crowley cut himself off as he watched Aziraphale try to surreptitiously scratch his back against the doorjamb again. Normally, he would just move and help scratch the itch, but this wasn't the first time he had done that today.
He had knocked over a pile of books earlier without even touching them when he had turned around today too.
"Go on, my dear," Aziraphale called as he went back to puttering around the bookshop. "I'm listening."
"What? Oh, that." He waved his hand dismissively. "Not important, forgot all about it. Are you alright?"
Aziraphale started, taken surprise by either the question or how quickly he had shifted to it. "Of course I'm alright. Why wouldn't I be?"
Crowley pursed his lips before he decided he really didn't have the patience for this game today. "What's wrong with your wings, angel?"
See, the thing was, Crowley knew wings. He was nearly an expert on them. Most of the demons got rid of their wings when they fell, a sort of last fuck you to the Almighty. But not all of them. Crowley certainly hadn't, and he took pride in caring for them, black feathers and all.
The other demons who kept their wings... didn't take such good care of them. Most took a strange kind of pride in keeping their wings nasty and disheveled, but there was only so far that could go before it stopped being aesthetic and started being supremely painful.
And most demons had let it laps so long that they had forgotten how to care for them at all.
All of this is to say that even after the botched end of the world and his general banishment from hell, Beelzebub still showed up at his flat at least once a year for him to do up her feathers.
So he knew the signs of someone who had gone too long between preenings.
Aziraphale, for his part, didn't know about Crowley's expertise, but he wasn't arguing the point. He was just shifting self-consciously from foot to foot.
"They're just a little itchy, my dear. It's a bit hard to reach the back ones."
"You want me to help?" The question was innocent enough, but Aziraphale looked at him like he had been electrocuted. Crowley instantly realized the problem.
Just because he was used to platonic grooming, didn't mean Aziraphale was. And allopreening was, and always would be, one of the most intimate things two angels could do together.
That didn't mean they didn't share a certain intimacy. They had been together for decades, faced the end of the world together, but they were still an angel and a demon.
Wings were a part of an angel or demon's true form. They were fairly sensitive limbs- made to sense the changing winds. Exposing them to anyone, letting another person grab handfuls of feathers, it was the most vulnerable they could be.
After the apocalypse, their relationship had become more defined, but Crowley had always preened his feathers himself. His snake form gave him more joints that just happened to help him take care of his remaining angelic limbs. He had always just assumed Aziraphale had his own routine, and he didn't need any help.
Now he was thinking Aziraphale hadn't been ready for this... step in their relationship.
"I'm not trying to pressure you, angel, just... just wanna help."
Aziraphale had been avoiding his gaze, and it was actually starting to hurt Crowley's feelings a bit, but then he finally broke the silence. "I don't want you to see."
Crowley cocked his head in confusion. "What?"
"It's... it's just been a long time. I didn't... I've never been good at taking care of them myself. We used to, well, I suppose they still do, but, anyway, I used to go to the department heaven had specifically for this sort of thing. They used a sort of... comb thing. Took care of it all rather quickly, actually, but now..."
He trailed off and Crowley stared at him in shock. "Angel, are you telling me you have not had your wings properly groomed since the apocalypse?"
"Well, a few months before, technically."
"That was five years ago!"
"I am well aware," Aziraphale snapped, his voice threatening towards a whine.
"Why haven't you just asked them-"
"Don't you think I have?!"
Crowley stepped back like he had been slapped. Aziraphale crossed his arms and glared at the floor.
"You... Aziraphale, are you telling me heaven has... denied you help grooming your wings?"
Aziraphale just shrugged.
That was amazingly cruel. Not even hell would do that to a person. It was... abhorrent. He knew better than most how uncared for wings could fester, but he had no doubts that those bastards in heaven knew exactly what would happen.
"...let me help. Please."
Aziraphale wrung his hands together.
Five years. Crowley couldn't even imagine. Couldn't believe he hadn't noticed until now.
"It's... it's rather bad, my dear. I really.... I'll figure out how to take care of it."
"Angel, I've helped demons take care of their wings. I'm sure I've seen worse."
Aziraphale looked up at that, but he still seemed wary. "Did you really?"
"Well, my kind didn't exactly have a whole department for this sort of thing. Somebody had to do it."
"I suppose... if you're really sure?"
Crowley pulled Aziraphale close, cradling his face between his hands. "I would wade through holy water for you. I think I can manage a little grooming."
Aziraphale chuckled just a little and pressed his forehead against Crowley's. "Alright," he whispered.
The trouble with grooming angel wings was that they couldn't just be miracled clean. The wings were themselves made of a kind of miracle, so they resisted any miracle-ing. You needed to care for them the old fashioned way or not at all.
And, as with all things, the old fashioned way took a lot of time.
So they closed the shop and moved upstairs. Crowley brought a chair from the kitchen and set it up in the middle of the room.
It wouldn't be the most comfortable situation, but it was the most practical. If Aziraphale laid down on the bed, he wouldn't be able to easily reach the underside of his feathers, and an actual armchair wouldn't work at all.
Aziraphale didn't fuss about the seating arrangement, just sat backwards on the chair and leaned his forehead against the back of it. He took a deep breath and then he unfurled his wings.
"O-oh," Crowley gasped before he could stop himself.
Aziraphale sat straight up and drew his wings in close to his body. "Oh, I told you this was a bad idea!"
"No, no!" Crowley nearly tripped over himself to place a comforting hand on his angel. "I just realized I forgot some stuff we'll need. I've seen way worse."
Aziraphale's once pristine, white wings were now a dingy gray. Crowley might have been worried about the state of his lover's soul, but he was pretty sure it was dirt, and not an indication that he was falling from grace. Nearly every feather was split and kinked out of place, or just plain broken, and there was... there was a smell. He had seen all of these things at one point or another, but never all on the same set of wings.
He had worked in hell for six thousand years, and he had never seen torture like this.
But he could hardly say that. Aziraphale was clearly embarrassed, but Crowley could not stand by now that he knew about this. So he miracled himself a chair, a warm bowl of water, a towel, and sat down to work.
"Is that a bowl of water?" Aziraphale asked, craning his neck to try and see behind him properly.
"Yes of course it's a bowl of water, what else would it be?"
Aziraphale pouted, his wings drawing up close to his back. "Crowley, I hate getting my wings wet!"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Crowley sighed and ran a hand experimentally through Aziraphale's feathers. "Angel, a lot of this could be fixed with a bath."
"...I tried a dust bath."
Well that would explain the grayness. He dislodged a few broken feathers absentmindedly as he tried to figure out the best way to fix this mess. He didn't want to make the angel more uncomfortable than he already was, but there was really no way around it. "I need to use at least a little water, angel. Can't clean 'em properly if I don't."
"It just feels so... icky."
The demon fought to think of a solution that would let him fix Aziraphale's wings without making him upset. "Well, maybe I can waterproof them first and then-"
"No!" Aziraphale jumped from the chair as Crowley's hands got close to his oil glands. Crowley snatched his hands away like he had been burned and looked up at the skittish angel.
He wouldn't say anything, but this constant rejection hurt more than a little bit. He didn't understand why he was having to work so hard just to take care of Aziraphale. He didn't understand why Aziraphale wouldn't let Crowley touch him.
Clearly the angel didn't trust him as much as he thought.
The hurt must have shown, because Aziraphale's face crumpled.
"I didn't mean... Oh, Crowley, I'm sorry, I... it just hurts so much! Please don't try to use any oil. I can't..."
Crowley frowned so hard he was a bit worried he might get wrinkles. "Your oil glands hurt?"
"Horrendously. But only if they're touched," he said softly, as if that made everything better.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. He needed to stay calm. "Alright. Angel, I need you to go lie down on the bed so I can look at them."
"Do you really have to?"
"Now, Assssiraphale," Crowley snapped. Aziraphale startled, but shuffled over to the bed, his damaged wings twitching nervously.
Crowley didn't want to be mean, but that wasn't something he could just ignore.
There were few things in the universe that could actually cause an angel or demon to become sick. Really, properly sick. Wasting away, rotting from the inside out, sick.
An infected oil gland was one of those things.
Crowley knelt next to Aziraphale on the bed and gingerly pushed away the feathers to look. He wanted to comfort the angel, but he couldn't find the words. All he could do was hold his breath.
He knew how to groom wings but that didn't make him a doctor. There was only so much he could do if it had gone past a certain point.
He didn't know what they would do if it was bad.
The feathers parted and Crowley let out the breath he had been holding. It was bad. It was still really bad. But it didn't look infected.
Crowley gently pressed a finger against the swollen gland to gauge the reaction. Aziraphale yelped and arched off the bed. The sound felt like a punch to the gut, but Crowley had to ignore the feeling. He was going to have to cause Aziraphale pain to help him, no matter how much the very thought of hurting the angel hurt Crowley.
Making soothing noises, Crowley brought his fingers up to eye level and rubbed them together. There wasn't a drop of oil on them.
"They're impacted," he said softly, rubbing at the space between Aziraphale's wings. "But I don't think they're infected."
"Can you fix it?"
"Yeah, I should be able to..." Crowley's eyes snapped towards movement, and he parted some errant feathers to confirm his suspicions. "Sssson of a bitch."
"What? What's wrong?"
"You have mitessss." He should have suspected at least that part. For whatever reason, the space where wings were kept when not in use was also home to itty bitty bugs. And as annoying as it was, interdimensional mites were a common affliction.
He had thought it was the out of place feathers that had been causing the itching, but it had probably been these bastards.
"Oh good lord!" Aziraphale slammed his face into the mattress and covered his head with his hands.
"It'sss fine, angel. Juss-" he stopped and took a deep breath, trying to reign in his hiss. "Just another thing. I can fix it. It'll just... take a while."
He made the water he had miracled much, much hotter and dipped the cloth into the water. The first thing he had to deal with was the impacted glands. Those were causing Aziraphale actual pain. Everything else was just discomfort.
He placed the damp cloth over the left wing gland and ran his fingers through Aziraphale's hair.
"Ah, hot," Aziraphale muttered, but he didn't arch away in pain again, so Crowley counted that a win. He looked over his shoulder and glared at the damp cloth. "My sweater's going to get wet."
Crowley rolled his eyes and miracled the garment away, ignoring Aziraphale's resulting squeak.
They sat that way in silence for a while as Crowley waited for the impacted oil in the gland to soften from the heat.
Aziraphale peeked at him over his shoulder again. "I'm sorry, my dear," he murmured "I should have asked for help sooner, and now everything's... well, I've made quite the mess of my wings."
"You didn't know I groomed wings," he replied, just as softly.
"It's not about that. We... we've been together for a long time. I should have asked you for help. As my partner."
Crowley pursed his lips. He couldn't really argue that. He couldn't pretend that he hadn't been hurt that Aziraphale hadn't even considered him with things this bad. But he still understood. A bit.
"Well, I could have brought it up. Asked you for help, too, instead of just taking care of it myself." He took Aziraphale's hand and squeezed. "We could make this a regular thing. If you wanted."
Aziraphale chuckled and squeezed Crowley's hand back. "That sounds nice." He shifted his wing and winced. "Fixing this is going to hurt, isn't it?"
"Probably." Crowley lifted the cloth and prodded at the gland. Aziraphale squeezed his eyes shut, but he didn't jump, so it seemed like it had softened up as much as it was going to. "Ok, angel, I'm gonna try and clear this one out. I need you to not move, ok?"
The angel nodded and took two fistfuls of the bedding under him. Crowley took a deep breath, and then squeezed.
Aziraphale screamed, but the blockage was coming out.
The glands were up near the joint where the wing met the back, and they were hard to reach. Since Aziraphale hadn't been grooming his wings, the oil the gland had produced hadn't had anywhere to go. Trapped in the gland, the oil had solidified and gone bad.
A nasty, yellow sludge crept out of the gland and smelled like the depths of hell, but it was coming out. Crowley grit his teeth and kept pressing until his fingers were coated in clear, clean oil.
He pulled away and miracled the soiled cloth to the farthest point away from them as he could think of. That point being a particularly nasty pit of hell. They probably wouldn't even notice, really.
Aziraphale had done his best not to move, but at some point he had half curled into a fetal position. Crowley murmured comforting nonsense as he rubbed the tight muscles of Aziraphale's back, trying to ease the pain he had caused.
"I can't do it again, Crowley, I can't. Please don't do that again. Please don't."
Crowley was surprised he didn't break right in half at the sound of the angel's broken pleas. "It's almost done, love. Just one more."
"I can't, I can't, I can't."
"We can take a little break," he soothed. "We don't need to go again right away. But we have to take care of it. You know that. We're lucky they're not infected already."
Aziraphale didn't respond, he was shaking and Crowley wasn't sure he even could respond at this point.
It wasn't the best angle, but Crowley started to do some standard grooming, pulling out the broken feathers and straightening the crooked ones.
It didn't really count, since he still needed to deal with the mites before he could actually put the feathers in place, but it would feel good, and he needed something to draw Aziraphale out of the memory of pain.
He was a demon, pain was kind of their thing, and for all that Crowley had worked to avoid that part of the job, he still knew how to cause it. And to cause pain properly, you needed to know what things made pain a distant memory.
Crowley ran his fingers down individual feathers, occasionally reuniting barbules to smooth down a feather and fix a split, but mostly he was just... petting. He watched Aziraphale's body language carefully, waiting for him to uncurl and for his muscles to relax.
It felt like an eternity, but eventually the angel did uncurl, turning boneless under Crowley's ministrations.
"Does that feel better, angel?"
"Hmm," he blinked up at him, dazed. "Oh, yes, it feels... quite nice, really. I might fall asleep."
He chuckled and stopped going through the feathers. "Not just yet, angel." He had put another hot cloth over his other wing when Aziraphale had started to relax, and he removed that now so he could look at the impacted gland.
Aziraphale stiffened up again, and Crowley waited for him to relax against the bed again.
"I won't start until you say," he said softly.
The angel took a shuddering breath, but he didn't give Crowley the go ahead, so he still waited. He could have been worried that Aziraphale would never be ready; that he would try and avoid fixing his other oil gland because he knew how much it would hurt, but Crowley knew he wasn't stupid. It was a problem that needed to be taken care of, and they would take care of it.
Just as soon as Aziraphale was ready.
"Alright," he said, with only a slight tremor to his voice. "I'm ready."
The second time went better than the first, if only because Aziraphale passed out. It took a lot to make an angel or demon pass out, but extreme pain in a sensitive part of their true body would do it pretty good.
Crowley was just glad Aziraphale wouldn't have to feel the pain anymore.
He cleaned out the gland, thinking murderous thoughts about heaven. He didn't want another apocalypse; humans didn't deserve to die over a fight between heaven and hell, but if he got the chance to storm heaven's gates, he wouldn't exactly say no.
This was cruel. This was a death sentence that was so much worse than hellfire or holy water. A slow and rotting death that no one ever deserved.
But it was over now. They had dealt with it in time and Crowley would never let Aziraphale get to this point again. He would never hurt like this again.
With both glands cleaned out, Crowley arranged Aziraphale's wings and covered him with his favorite blanket. They still had a lot of work to do, but they both needed a break.
Crowley didn't care how long it took, he was going to make sure his angel was happy and healthy.
Crowley had miracled Aziraphale a more comfortable chair. Something that was more like a massage chair, but with a place for him to set a book. Crowley was currently bug hunting, and he couldn't tell you how long he had been doing it. It was monotonous work, but he was determined to win the war.
Aziraphale had one of his favorite books, but he would stop reading every once in a while to talk to Crowley.
"So how often do you... do this? For other demons?"
"Hmm?" Crowley looked away from the mite he was chasing and swore under his breath as it escaped. "Usually at least once a year. Most demons like the disheveled look, so they don't ask too often."
"No, I can understand. It certainly takes a long time."
Crowley snorted. "It doesn't normally take this long, angel. I just can't get rid of the mites the way I normally do."
"How do you normally do it?"
"Burn 'em off with hellfire."
"Ah. Well, yes, that wouldn't work here, I suppose." He turned back to his book, but Crowley could tell he was still feeling tense. It was all through his wings.
"I actually haven't ever fully groomed wings that aren't mine. They just ask me to fix, like, you know, a few broken feathers or something and then leave."
"Oh," Aziraphale said brightly. He twisted his head to look at Crowley. "It would be okay if it was more, of course. I know it's purely a professional courtesy."
Crowley pressed a kiss to the nape of Aziraphale's neck as a response and they lapsed back into a more comfortable silence.
Once he was sure he had crushed every last damned bug that had the misfortune to think it could make Aziraphale's wings its home, he moved to the actual preening.
He trailed his hands through the feathers, seeking anything out of place. He ran his fingers along every barb on every feather, from the primaries to the coverts, going back and coating them in oil once they were in their proper place.
Aziraphale sighed and melted into the chair. Crowley was sure the pain and itching was taken care of, and for the first time in who knows how long, the angel could finally, truly relax.
Crowley wanted to catalog every spot that made Aziraphale sigh, every ticklish and sensitive spot, but he knew that his wings must be getting oversensitive. He couldn't give an exact number, but he knew this process had taken at least a couple of days. Having anyone's hands in your wings for days, no matter how gentle, would get to be too much. So he did his best not to linger.
"There," he said, finally. "Good as new." He sat back to admire his handiwork. Aziraphale's wings had been restored to their white, shining glory, not a pinion out of place. It was his best work yet, if he did say so himself.
Aziraphale pulled them close to his back and they winked out of existence. He rolled his shoulders experimentally, a grin spreading across his face.
"Thank you, my dear. That feels so much better."
"Let's not wait five years to to it again."
Aziraphale pulled him close and pressed a chaste kiss to his lips. "No, I don't think we will.... I could do up yours tomorrow, if you wanted."
Crowley smiled and wrapped his arms around his angel, a coy smile playing on his lips. "I think I could clear a place in my schedule."