"I'm sorry," Aziraphale said, his voice overly polite as confusion wrinkled his brow, "I don't understand."
"What's to understand, Aziraphale?" Gabriel asked. "I believe we made it very clear that you aren't welcome here."
Aziraphale stood on the steps to heaven, just before the door, and he found his way barred by Gabriel, which was fairly surprising. Gabriel didn't normally stoop to such lowly tasks. Aziraphale fidgeted with the hem of his sweater nervously as he faced his once brother.
"No, I- I understand that, but, well-"
"Well what? Leave!"
Aziraphale resisted the urge to flinch at Gabriel's volume. "I don't want any trouble. I just need help with my wings."
Gabriel gave him a nasty smile that looked like it would be more at home on the face of a demon than an angel.
Though Crowley would never look at him like that.
"Well, that's really too bad, Aziraphale. But I don't understand why you've come here." Gabriel's voice was all false sweetness, and it left a bitterness in the back of Aziraphale's throat.
"The grooming department is here," he said simply. He felt heat rise in his neck as he stood there, shrinking under Gabriel's cold gaze. It was fairly clear that he wasn't going to be let in, but he just couldn't turn and walk away.
Where else would he go?
"Not for your lot."
Aziraphale jolted, his eyes wide. "I haven't fallen."
"Not officially, no. But we all know it's only a matter of time. We made a collective decision to keep you out. To avoid any... further corruption."
As if he was dirty. Toxic sludge that would infect their perfect little world.
As if he would want to interact with any of them longer than absolutely necessary.
"What am I expected to do, then?" he snapped. He wasn't dirty.
Being near Crowley didn't make him dirty.
"That isn't our problem." Gabriel extended his hand, and for one moment, Aziraphale thought he was going to put a comforting hand on his shoulder, just to prove that he didn't think Aziraphale was infectious, but the hand landed in the middle of Aziraphale's chest.
And then he pushed.
For one second, as he was in free fall, Aziraphale thought he really was Falling, and the fear that welled up inside him nearly made him vomit. Air sped past him, and he waited for that air to turn to fire. He clenched his jaw. He wouldn't cry out.
His back hit concrete. He was in front of his bookshop, no more Fallen than before.
He should have felt relieved, but a stone had settled in his stomach. Anger radiated from his chest out through his arms all the way down to his fingers. His face and eyes burned.
He let himself into his shop and locked the door behind him. There was absolutely no way he could deal with customers right now.
Surrounded by his reconstituted books, the knot in his chest loosened just a bit. He thought about pouring himself a glass of wine, but drinking had always been a happy, cozy thing for him. The few times he drank because he was unhappy, Crowley was there.
Without Crowley, it just didn't seem worth it.
His separation from heaven hadn't exactly been amicable, and he knew he was the one who left, but he was still an angel. He hardly deserved to be treated like scum.
He couldn't help but wonder if this is how the demons had felt. Right after.
But they had had each other. Aziraphale wasn't a demon. Apparently he wasn't quite an angel either.
He hadn't actually been there when they tried to kill him, but he had imagined that they had been upset about it. That they wished there was another way, but it was their only option after his part in botching the apocalypse.
Apparently they had actually wanted him dead.
Had they ever considered him a brother? How could people who had claimed to love him hate him so much?
He wanted to call Crowley. He wanted to curl up under a blanket and reassure himself that he was still worth something, even if his family didn't seem to think so.
But Crowley would ask what happened. He didn't think he could talk about it. Wasn't even sure if he had the words.
So he did the next best thing and went to bed. Maybe the world would seem less awful tomorrow.
At one point in his life, Aziraphale had grown out his hair. He wasn't as prone to experimentation as Crowley was, and he didn't care about the fashion of the day, but he had thought that it might look nice that way.
He blamed Renaissance paintings, really. All the angels had such lovely flowing locks, he'd wanted to try it out.
What they didn't tell you was taking care of long hair was hard. You had to brush it, wash it, and, on fancy occasions, you were expected to style it. After experiencing it himself, Aziraphale wasn't surprised Crowley had cut his hair. Though he had worn his long hair beautifully.
Aziraphale hadn't been able to take care of his hair nearly as well. He went just a couple of days without brushing it and the next thing he knew his hair had turned into mats. It felt gross and greasy and leaning his head against anything created an ache in his skull that he could feel down his spine. Trying to brush the mats out was painful and difficult, and ultimately, Aziraphale had decided that it wasn't worth it, and cut his hair short then and there.
That was what his wings felt like. Except he couldn't just cut them off.
Though he was starting to want to.
Something had to be done. He couldn't just leave them this way.
Crowley might be able to help him. He was always well dressed, and surely he kept his wings just as well as he kept his hair. Unless hell had a grooming department the same as heaven, but he couldn't imagine demons taking care of each other like that.
Would Crowley even want to help him? He couldn't pretend that the thought of Crowley's hands in his wings didn't send a shiver up his spine, but it wasn't something he could just ask for casually.
If he did ask to take that step, he wanted it to be special, and not because he couldn't even take care of his own wings.
It was just better to try and take care of it himself. Then he could think about asking Crowley about grooming. Maybe over a nice dinner and a bottle of Chateau Lafite.
And he had tried to take care of it. It wasn't best to let these things sit for too long, and it was clear that he had already let it sit for too long, but every time he tried, he could barely unfurl the damned things.
They reminded him too much of what happened. Every time he looked at them, it felt like ripping open a barely healed wound.
It wasn't even like his life had really changed after heaven's rejection. Heaven had never been particularly involved in his life.
But it had always been there, and now that his fellow angels had cut him out he felt... untethered. He had always had a place in the Great Plan, and now he didn't. It was the most alone he had ever felt in his entire existence.
Being with Crowley helped, but how could be with Crowley -- really be with Crowley -- If he couldn't sort out his wings first?
So he had to get over this. Sooner rather than later.
Which is how he found himself seated in the middle of his bed with his wings unfurled around him with only an hour before he and Crowley had dinner reservations. He doubted he would be able to fix everything, but he hoped he could take care of some of the worst of it.
It couldn't really be that hard. He just had to pull out the broken feathers, and smooth them down so they weren't split anymore.
He shook his wings out and was met with a cascade of feathers, more than he thought there would be. He tried to see if he was getting a bald spot, but he couldn't turn around far enough to see.
The shaking hadn't even gotten out all the broken feathers. Would he even have any left after this?
Aziraphale started pulling out the kinked feathers that hadn't fallen. They felt strange under his fingers. Dry, and almost gritty. He had never felt like feathers like that and he didn't know how to fix it. Certainly it would need to be fixed, but that seemed like one too many problems for today.
He pulled out an errant feather and yelped when it ripped his skin. He glared at the feather, and the small bloody spot it had left behind. "Why were you sticking out like that if you weren't broken?" He snapped.
The feather didn't respond.
Aziraphale sighed explosively. There were still several feathers sticking out at odd angles, but apparently not all of them were broken. He didn't want to go pulling out any more perfectly good feathers, and without a way to tell the difference, he was nervous to even try.
This was too much. He didn't have forever to try and figure out all this nonsense. He still needed to get ready for his date with Crowley.
Best to leave it for tomorrow, then.
He left it for a lot longer than tomorrow. But in his defense, he had gotten busy. There had been several rare book fairs he had to go to, and then there was the regular maintenance of his shop, and Crowley was redecorating his flat, so of course Aziraphale had to help. He just didn't have time to think about his wings.
Though he did think about them. Every second they ached or itched, he thought about them. And they itched every second of the day and ached almost as much.
Maybe he was making this harder than it had to be. If he cleaned them the way a human would, he might be able to fix most of his problems. A shower might be just the thing to knock the dead feathers out of place while leaving the good feathers. Plus, it should be able to make the feathers feel less dry.
It was really the only idea he had, so he headed into his never used bathroom and clambered into the shower. Pulling his wings out stung as the kinked feathers pulled on his skin, but it was a temporary pain. Easily ignored at the thought of imminent relief.
He positioned his wings so they would be under the shower and turned on the water.
The noise that came out of his mouth was not human. The mirror over the sink cracked into a thousand spiderweb fractures, and he jumped out of the infernal tub like it was spitting hellfire at him.
Slimy. Everything felt slimy.
He tried to shake the feeling out of his abused feathers, but they all stuck together.
Stuck to each other. Stuck to his skin. It felt like spiders under his skin, nails on a chalkboard. He needed this feeling to stop. He needed it to stop now. Every inch of his skin was crawling and he couldn't get away.
This may have been the worst idea he had ever had.
He grabbed the towel and rubbed at his wings but it wasn't enough. They wouldn't dry.
He wanted to rip his wings off and cast them as far away from himself as possible.
Out of desperation he shoved his wings back into the interdimensional space they were kept in. It wasn't perfect. He could still feel them, but it was muted. It wasn't as much a part of him.
With trembling hands, he dried the rest of his body and put his clothes back on. He had gotten his wings a little bit wet before, and it had never felt like that. The water had just slid off them.
Well, he sure wasn't going to try and fix it right now. They could dry first, and then he would try to waterproof them. He would figure this out.
He had to.
Aziraphale set his jaw as he climbed the last steps up toward heaven. He hated that he was crawling back to their door, but he didn't know what else to do. He couldn't wash his wings, he couldn't reach them properly to try and clean them with his hands, and the dull ache that had become a constant in his life had turned into a lightning bolt of pain whenever he shifted his wings the wrong way.
"Aziraphale," Gabriel said, bored surprise coloring his voice. "Back so soon?"
"Gabriel, I know you don't want me here. I don't want to be here either, but we were family once. I would be in and out. I wouldn't talk to anyone." It was too close to begging for his liking, but he couldn't seem to stop. He just wanted this fixed.
"Were we? Family? You were always odd, Aziraphale. Who knows how long you've been fraternizing with the enemy."
Aziraphale stiffened at the word fraternizing, lost for a moment back in that awful fight back at the pond, back at the beginning of the Arrangement, back all the way to that day in the Garden.
He wondered what Gabriel would do if he knew his fraternizing had started all the way back then.
"If you need help so much, why don't you go crying to your demon boyfriend?" Gabriel didn't wait for an answer, just turned and slammed the door to heaven in Aziraphale's face.
Aziraphale felt very small all alone on those stairs.
He waited longer this time. A year, maybe, before trying again.
Every time he thought about his wings, the urge to ask Crowley for help got stronger. Even if he didn't know how to actually preen feathers properly, he could reach better, and Aziraphale wanted him there. He wanted Crowley's help.
But still, it was an important question to ask. A big deal. He couldn't just do it casually. It had to be special.
He invited Crowley over for dinner. Which sounded simple enough, but the knowledge of what he was going to do sent him into a tizzy. Dinner had to be perfect, the wine had to be perfect. If he could make everything just so, then asking should be easier.
He just had to figure out how to ask. Which was why he was pacing the flat above his shop, just minutes before Crowley was supposed to arrive.
Everything he tried out sounded stupid. It was too sappy, or too clinical, or just plain awkward. Crowley was sure to reject him at this rate.
He would probably need to prep Crowley for how bad his wings were going to be. This really wasn't a casual 'let's groom each other's wings for pleasure' request. It would probably take quite a bit of work. He should let Crowley know exactly what he was asking.
He hadn't looked at his wings in so long, maybe cataloging everything that needed to be done would give him an idea of how to phrase this request.
He pulled his wings out for the first time since his disastrous attempt at a shower and the smell hit Aziraphale so hard he nearly curled into a ball.
They hadn't dried.
His wings hadn't dried and the stench coming off them was horrendous. He twisted his wing and his neck and looked at the feathers. Kinked and broken as they were before, now there was a strange speckling of green against the once white feathers.
Was it mold?
He couldn't show Crowley this! It was absolutely disgusting. Forget wing grooming- why would Crowley even want to be with someone who kept their wings in such a state?
Aziraphale snapped his wings back where they belonged and hurried out of his room. "U-up here, my dear."
He heard Crowley clomp up the stairs the way he always did, and Aziraphale focused on smiling. Smiling was very important.
Crowley couldn't know anything was wrong.
The demon bound into the room, all long legs and flailing arms, and the smile became a little more natural. Crowley noticed the wine, and the table set for two, and gave a smile of his own.
"What's the occasion?" he asked, turning to Aziraphale and pulling his glasses off. His eyes were crinkled at the sides.
"Nothing particular," he said airily. "Just thought we could spend a nice evening in."
Crowley reached out and took his hand. It was the most brilliant comfort, and the sharpest pain.
He couldn't let Crowley see this mess. Aziraphale had already lost the people he had called family, he wouldn't survive if Crowley rejected him too.
He had to fix this. Once he fixed it, then he could ask Crowley for help.
He couldn't risk losing him.
The first thing he had to do was get rid of the mold. He could try and figure out how to deal with everything else later, but the mold had to go.
He was never putting water on his wings ever again, but he needed a way to clean the damned things.
Birds cleaned their feathers with dirt, he knew. Or, at least he had seen birds rolling around in the dirt. He had no idea how dirt cleaned wings, but to be honest he didn't know much about his wings at all. But it seemed to reason that feathers were feathers, so if it worked for birds, it should work for him. If he sprinkled a little mold killer through some dirt, he may be able to kill off the mold without having to touch any water at all.
And it shouldn't take too long, anyway. He would just need to miracle the dirt onto his wings and he could add mold killer as needed.
He concentrated and willed dirt to coat his wings, but nothing happened.
Panic slammed into him like a tidal wave. Why couldn't he miracle his wings? Was he losing his grace?
With shaking hands, he tried to miracle himself a cup of tea. Something small. Something he did almost every day.
A warm, familiar cup appeared in his hands and he gripped it tighter than he should have, his hands shaking. It hadn't felt any different than it usually did. He was fine. He was fine. He still had his grace.
But why couldn't he get dirt on his wings? What if he couldn't get them dirty? What if angel wings were too pure to get dirty with actual dirt and the wings repelled it? He didn't have any kind of back up plan.
He would have to take drastic measures. If he couldn't use miracles to get the dirt into his wings, he would just miracle dirt and do it the old fashioned way.
The thought of wiggling around in the dirt made his cheeks burn, but what other choice did he have?
He cleared a spot in his flat above the bookstore, made sure there were no errant books that could get dirty near, and created a dust pile mixed with mold killer that seemed large enough for him to easily coat his wings. He laid back and pressed his wings into the dirt, moving until he had created a cloud of dust. He did his best to move individual feathers so the dirt could get between them, but the feathers tugged at each other with every shift, and felt like they would be pulled out, so he wasn't sure how well he managed it.
His hands were coated in dirt. Dust was in his hair, in his eyes. This was all he was, nothing but a pile of filthy dirt. Tossed aside like trash.
It was too much. He couldn't do this.
His wings were coated in dirt, and the smell seemed to be fading, but Aziraphale couldn't be happy about it.
What did it matter if he got rid of the mold? He was still useless, still unwanted. His feathers were still broken and tangled. He was still broken. It was no wonder heaven had abandoned him. Who wouldn't, really?
He laid in the dirt and sobbed until he had nothing left in him.
"I don't understand why we keep needing to have this conversation, Aziraphale."
Aziraphale was at the top of the stairs again, but this time he was on his knees, clutching at Gabriel's pants. "Please, please Gabriel, it hurts."
"Does it?" Gabriel sounded like he didn't care at all.
"Please," he said again, his voice cracking, "I can't reach the back. I... I can't even brush them against anything anymore. It hurts so much."
"Of course it hurts, Aziraphale. Dying always does." He kicked Aziraphale away and he didn't have the strength to resist. Aziraphale fell hard on his back, but managed to stop himself from tumbling down the stairs.
"I-I don't understand."
"Well, no one accused you of being very smart." He sighed, looking impossibly bored. "You were scheduled to be executed, and you are going to be, whether or not you're immune to Hellfire. It'll be a slow death, much more painful than what was originally planned, but it will be just. And, seeing as how your pet demon didn't do anything to help, it will be carried out."
His face was cold, but what cut the worst was the joy he could see dancing behind Gabriel's eyes.
Aziraphale didn't wait to be pushed down the stairs this time, didn't wait for that door, that damned door, to slam in his face. He turned and ran as fast as he could.
He just wanted to go home.
He just wanted Crowley.
Dying. He was dying and he didn't know what to do. He wanted to tell Crowley, to cry and hold on to the one steady thing in his life, but he didn't want to upset him.
Crowley could deny it all he wanted, but he was a fixer. He found a problem and then he tried to fix it. Even his plan to run away was just plan b to fix the apocalypse. Problem: we are going to die. Solution: leave so we do not die.
It was how he worked, and Aziraphale loved that about him. But Gabriel had made it clear that this wasn't something that could be fixed. And even if it could, how would Crowley figure out what needed to be done in time? No, if he told Crowley, the demon would waste all the time they had left trying to fix it.
He'd rather have the time than the false hope.
So his goal from that point was to ignore it. Throw his whole self into his relationship with Crowley, and ignore any pain he was feeling. Crowley wouldn't have to know. He wouldn't ever have to see Aziraphale like this, and when he was gone, at least Crowley would remember him the way he had been. Happy. Healthy. Not rotting from the inside out. He couldn't let that be the last memory Crowley had of him.
But the itching was unbearable.
It had turned to a burn. A sharp stabbing pain up and down his back. It wouldn't be ignored. It was all he could think about. He couldn't focus on Crowley telling him about his day, and that was the whole point.
So he tried to scratch.
It couldn't fix the itch, but it could give him some relief. He just had to do it without Crowley seeing.
He gently rubbed his back against the doorjamb, careful not to jar his oil glands. Even outside of this dimension, the pain of bumping them could send him to the floor. Attempting to scratch was dangerous, but the relief he got was well worth it. He knew the itching would return nearly as soon as he stopped, but for one moment it was gone.
Crowley had stopped telling his story.
"Go on, my dear," he called, "I'm listening." He hadn't been. He couldn't. But hopefully Crowley hadn't noticed.
Any hope of that fell away as Crowley waved away his suggestion and asked if he was alright.
Aziraphale's stomach dropped, and he swallowed down a nervous laugh. "Of course I'm alright. Why wouldn't I be?" The lie felt like ash on his tongue, but he was committed at this point.
And he was alright, technically. He wouldn't be later, but right now, this second, he was just itchy and sore. Compared to the way he usually felt, that was alright.
"What's wrong with your wings, angel?" Crowley was frowning, his tone offered no room for argument. But Aziraphale was in too deep.
"They're just a little itchy, my dear. It's a bit hard to reach the back ones." Not a lie. Not really.
Just not the truth. Never the truth.
"You want me to help?"
Yes. God, he wanted that. He wanted nothing more. But he couldn't have it. He couldn't lose what little time he may have left with Crowley.
The silence must have stretched on too long, because Crowley continued on.
"I'm not trying to pressure you, angel, just... just wanna help."
Aziraphale felt like he had been doused in ice cold water. He should have seen this coming, that Crowley would think it was a personal rejection. He wanted to pull Crowley into his arms, and never let him go.
He loved everything that Crowley was. He loved how kind he was, and how he never admitted to that kindness. He loved his silliness and how sweet he could be. He even loved his posturing. Loved the way he tried to intimidate his plants, but couldn't ever actually kill the sick ones.
Crowley thought he didn't know about his little 'bad plant' garden deep in Battersea Park, but he did.
He would be with Crowley in every possible way if he could, but he had missed his chance. It was gone.
But he couldn't let Crowley think it was his fault.
"I don't want you to see," he whispered, his voice thready. It was as close to the whole truth as he could get, and even that felt too close.
Crowley looked at him in confusion, his head tipping and his nose doing that scrunchy thing it did and Aziraphale just wanted to cry, he loved him so much. "What?"
"It's... it's just been a long time." He couldn't get out of this explanation. Not now. Best just to get it over with. "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..."
Now his family wanted him dead. How did you tell someone that? You couldn't. Not really.
Crowley's voice brought him back to the present. "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," he snapped. Did Crowley think he didn't know how long it had been? Did he think he didn't feel every second pulling at his back, stabbing at him every second of the day?
"Why haven't you just asked them-"
"Don't you think I have?!" His voice broke as he screamed, his pain bleeding out through the words. All he could see were hands pushing him away, Gabriel's vicious smirk, a door closed in his face.
He was shaking. He crossed his arms so Crowley couldn't see. He couldn't answer questions about that. He couldn't talk about it, could barely even think about it.
That wound was too raw to touch.
"You... Aziraphale, are you telling me heaven has... denied you help grooming your wings?"
Well, that was the short of it, wasn't it? He just shrugged in response, not trusting his voice to answer, and not trusting himself not to cry if he nodded.
Crowley was quite, and Aziraphale was terrified he would press the issue. If he dug, Aziraphale would break, and he had no idea if he could pull himself together again.
"...let me help. Please." Crowley's voice was so soft, Aziraphale wanted nothing more than to sink into it and forget about heaven, hell, anything that wasn't Crowley.
He uncrossed his arms, fidgeting. "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."
He looked up at that, a small spark of hope blooming in his chest for the first time in so long. "Did you really?"
Crowley's response was flippant, an easy, almost teasing smile crossing his face. "Well, my kind didn't exactly have a whole department for this sort of thing. Somebody had to do it."
Aziraphale still didn't want Crowley to see the state of his wings, but if he had experience grooming, and grooming worse than this, maybe the pain could finally stop. Maybe they could thwart heaven's plans one more time. "I suppose... if you're really sure?"
Crowley crossed the space between them and took Aziraphale's face in his hands. He couldn't help but lean into the touch. "I would wade through holy water for you. I think I can manage a little grooming."
The laugh that bubbled out of him at Crowley's dramatics was small, but it felt so incredibly good. He was tired of being sad. "Alright."
Crowley wasted no time in moving them upstairs, setting up a chair for Aziraphale to sit in while he tried to groom his wings. Aziraphale, for his part, felt like he might be sick.
Nobody had seen his wings but him in years, and no matter what Crowley said, he couldn't shake the fear that this would be too much for him. That it would be too gross or too difficult.
But he had to trust Crowley. So he sat down backwards in the chair provided so he could lean against the back, took a deep breath, and unfurled his wings.
They nearly got stuck in the space between existing and not, and Aziraphale almost panicked. He hadn't even taken them out in so long, what if they wouldn't go? What if he ripped all of his feathers off trying to get them out?
But then they were through, and everything was out in the open.
"O-oh." That one small word carried so much shock and disgust, it couldn't have hurt more if Crowley had punched him.
He pulled his wings back defensively, trying to hide them even though he knew it was impossible. He had already seen everything anyway.
"Oh, I told you this was a bad idea!"
"No!" Their was a clattering noise behind him, and then Crowley's hand was tangled in his hair, gentle and soothing. "I just realized I forgot some stuff we'll need. I've seen way worse."
For a demon, Crowley was an awful liar, but it wasn't something Aziraphale wanted to fight about right now.
Crowley sat down on a chair that wasn't there before, and set a bowl down on the ground. He tried to twist around to see what it was. He needed to know what was happening.
"Is that a bowl of water?"
"Yes of course it's a bowl of water, what else would it be?"
Memories of slime and mold and wrong wrong wrong assaulted him and he instinctively pulled his wings close to his body. It was too much to remember, and he had no idea how to explain it, so he schooled his face into something more casual. "Crowley, I hate getting my wings wet!"
It was mostly the truth, and saying 'getting my feathers wet makes me want to rip my skin off' would bring up questions he really didn't want to answer.
"Clearly," Crowley muttered under his breath.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Angel, a lot of this could be fixed with a bath." A hand ran down his wings and Aziraphale fought a full body shiver. He wished Crowley would use his nails, it itched so bad.
"...I tried a dust bath," he said under his breath. That was yet another thing he didn't want to talk about, but he didn't want Crowley to think he hadn't done anything. And the dust bath had been successful. Technically.
His wings were many things. But they weren't moldy.
Crowley continued to try and convince him to let him wash his wings, but then he was reaching towards Aziraphale's oil glands, and he couldn't do it.
He leapt from the chair and put as much distance between himself and Crowley as possible. He should have know Crowley would try to touch them, should have warned him he couldn't bear it.
Crowley's face crumpled and Aziraphale felt like the worst creature in existence. He had hurt Crowley. He hadn't meant to, but he had hurt him.
"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..." Touching them felt like fire. A lightning strike to the center of his soul that burned every good thing away.
Maybe that was how he would die. He would bump his oil glands and die from the shock of it.
"Your oil glands hurt?" Cowley asked, his voice cold, nearly dangerous.
"Horrendously," he said, his lips twitching up in a sardonic smile. "but only if they're touched."
Crowley pressed his hands to his face for just a moment before taking a deep breath. "Alright. Angel, I need you to go lie down on the bed so I can look at them."
"Do you really have to?" he asked, feeling just a little bit petulant. He hurt, and he had hurt for so long that he really couldn't imagine not hurting anymore. As much as he wanted to believe Crowley, there was still so much of him that doubted anything could change.
He jumped at the hiss, and moved to obey. He didn't know much about wing grooming, but he could tell this wasn't normal. Crowley was scared. Sometimes his fear looked like anger, and it seemed like he was angry now, but Aziraphale knew the difference. His demon was scared and that was never a good thing.
He could feel his feathers being parted, and then there was a finger at his gland.
A sound he didn't recognize exploded from him. He felt his ribs creak. They felt like they would break from the pain alone.
Crowley muttered nonsense to him, rubbing his back as the pain receded.
"They're impacted, but I don't think they're infected."
Words, just words he didn't understand. There weren't many words Aziraphale didn't understand, but he had never liked medical books. Their descriptions were too dry, too... clinical. He couldn't enjoy them.
Impacted. Infected. He didn't know the difference. Frankly, he didn't care.
"Can you fix it?"
"Yeah, I should be able to... Sssson of a bitch."
"What? What's wrong?" He tried to twist around again to see what had happened, but he couldn't see anything.
"You have mitessss."
"Oh good lord!" He buried his head back in the bed, burning shame crawling up his neck. He felt dirty. He hadn't even noticed.
He couldn't believe Crowley was seeing him like this.
"It'sss fine, angel. Juss-" he paused, breathing hard through his nose. "Just another thing. I can fix it. It'll just... take a while."
Crowley pressed a hot cloth against the painful gland. The cloth wasn't heavy enough to hurt, at least, not a lot. All he could feel was the heat. He couldn't feel the damp feathers, either, which was a blessing. Still, he glared at the cloth, certain it was going to cause him soggy problems soon.
"My sweater's going to get wet," he pouted, and the next moment his sweater was gone. The sudden change was jarring, but the sentiment was sweet.
Crowley cared so much. He cared about every little thing, even when he didn't have to. Crowley accepted everything that Aziraphale was, even when Aziraphale had nothing to give in return.
That kind of love... it was amazing. It was more than he had felt from heaven in a millennia.
Crowley had given everything he was to Aziraphale, and how had he repaid that love? By hiding his hurt as if Crowley was somehow untrustworthy. As if Crowley hadn't proved himself a thousand times over.
He looked at Crowley, at the softness in his eyes. Crowley deserved so much. Aziraphale wanted to give him the world. "I'm sorry, my dear," he said, though it did nothing to convey the sea of emotion threatening to overwhelm him. "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," Crowley murmured.
And that. That easy, effortless forgiveness was so beautiful, and so Crowley. But he was trying to say so much more than sorry.
"It's not about that. We... we've been together for a long time. I should have asked you for help. As my partner." I love you. I want you to know me.
"Well, I could have brought it up. Asked you for help, too, instead of just taking care of it myself." Crowley took his hand and Aziraphale felt... blessed. Forgiven. Accepted. "We could make this a regular thing. If you wanted."
Joy bubbled up in Aziraphale like a fountain, and he had to let some out or burst and a laugh slipped out. He tamped it down before it could overpower him and turn him into a giggling mess. "That sounds nice," He said, as if it wasn't everything he had ever wanted. He moved and jolted his wings, the flash of pain grounding him back to reality. "Fixing this is going to hurt, isn't it?"
Crowley really was so bad at lying.
Aziraphale tensed and waited for the pain, but he wasn't worried. He knew Crowley would take care of him.
"Ok, angel, I'm gonna try and clear this one out. I need you to not move, ok?"
He nodded and braced himself against the bed.
Fire exploded in Aziraphale's body. It was everywhere. Blood and bone. Nothing was left unscorched. He was burning and falling and every moment was agony.
He couldn't see. Couldn't hear. Couldn't speak. He was falling though blackness, his entire back on fire and there was nothing he could do.
Then the lightning in his back was gone. All that was left was the fire.
The darkness didn't leave. He could feel his mouth moving, but he couldn't hear any sound.
Where had Crowley gone? Why was he alone in the dark?
Panic welled up inside him, but there was nothing he could do. He couldn't move. He wanted to call out to Crowley, maybe the demon had gotten lost in the dark. But he was scared Crowley wouldn't answer.
Slowly, the fire died down, and Aziraphale realized he could hear again. Not much, just a soft rustling, but it was something.
His eyes creaked open and suddenly he could see again, and he realized Crowley was grooming his wings.
He wasn't alone. He wasn't lost. He was safe. Crowley was here.
He let himself relax under Crowley's hands, let them put out every remaining fire until pain was nothing but a memory. It was easy to focus on the tingling sensation as Crowley's hands made their way through his wings.
"Does that feel better, angel?"
"Hmm?" Aziraphale turned his head to try and understand what Crowley had said. Crowley's voice sounded like he was far away, and maybe underwater, but eventually, Crowley's words made it through to Aziraphale's fuzzy brain. "Oh, yes, it feels... quite nice, really. I might fall asleep."
Crowley chuckled and the hand in Aziraphale's wings disappeared. Aziraphale wanted to chase after it, but then Crowley moved to look at his other gland. "Not just yet, angel."
Aziraphale tensed, the memory of pain still so fresh he could almost feel it without even being touched. He couldn't do that again. He couldn't fall back into that dark place.
"I won't start until you say," Crowley said softly.
He took a breath, clinging to those words. Crowley wouldn't hurt him, physically or emotionally. He was the one person he could trust. The pain would be over soon, and then it would be done. He wouldn't hurt anymore.
True to his word, Crowley didn't so much as brush up against him as he waited for Aziraphale to be ready. He was trying to talk himself into it, but he just couldn't. He was sure that fire would consume him if he went through it again.
He wouldn't live through another round of that.
But he couldn't avoid it forever.
"Alright, I'm ready."
Lightning shot through him, and then the whole world went black and he didn't feel anything at all.
When Aziraphale came to, he was laying in a new chair that Crowley must have made. It was much more comfortable than where he had been before.
And his back didn't hurt. He'd been in constant pain for years and now it was gone.
He could almost cry.
When Crowley saw he was awake, he ran and got one of Aziraphale's favorite books, but he couldn't focus. The pain was gone and now Crowley's hands in his feathers felt like too much. He couldn't stop a few full body shivers. Crowley swore every time Aziraphale ruffled his feathers, but he just couldn't help it.
Still, while sitting in silence was one of his strong suits, it wasn't what he wanted to do right now. He wanted to hear Crowley's voice.
He tried to start conversations, but they all felt so trivial, and Crowley was so focused that each conversation he tried to start faded away. And these little small talk conversations weren't what he wanted either.
"So how often do you... do this? For other demons?"
"Hmm?" Crowley looked over at him for a moment before his attention snapped back to Aziraphale's wings. "Fuck. Bastard, get back here," he muttered, ruffling through the feathers. ""Usually at least once a year. Most demons like the disheveled look, so they don't ask too often."
"No, I can understand," he said quietly. "It certainly takes a long time."
It wasn't that he was upset at the idea of Crowley doing something so intimate with his fellow demons. There were different kinds of intimacy, and he didn't begrudge Crowley any kind of love.
But familial intimacy was something that he hadn't had in so long. Possibly ever, really. He would be lying to say he wasn't jealous.
Crowley snorted, frowning in concentration at his wings. "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." Aziraphale's throat felt tight, and he turned away to try and force the feeling away.
Crowley had a connection with the other demons. One that he may not like, but one that was there just the same. They were a family. They probably knew more about Crowley than he did, and Crowley knew more about them, just by nature of grooming their wings once a year.
Could Aziraphale ever compete with that kind of relationship?
"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!" Maybe he was overestimating the relationship Crowley had with the other demons. Maybe they liked him just enough that they could be like a regular family, not too much contact, but they could still have awkward visits on holidays or other important events. "It would be okay if it was more, of course. I know it's purely a professional courtesy." He wouldn't be jealous of Crowley's family. If Crowley could manage to have an actual, good relationship with his family, he wouldn't begrudge him that happiness.
Crowley kissed the back of Aziraphale's neck, and it seemed like a good place for that conversation to end. Aziraphale leaned against the chair and tried to let all thoughts of heaven and hell go. He was here with Crowley. Really, that's all that mattered.
Eventually, the repetitive motion of Crowley mending his feathers lulled him into a light sleep, and every kind of hurt and pain he had suffered in the past years melted into nothing but a bad dream.
"There," Crowley said, his voice calling Aziraphale back from that warm, floating place. "Good as new."
Aziraphale blinked away sleep and flexed his wings experimentally. There was no uncomfortable pull, no shock of pain. He had almost forgotten what that this felt like.
He spun around in the chair, the biggest smile on his face. "Thank you, my dear. That feels so much better."
Crowley grinned back at him. "Let's not wait five years to to it again."
He couldn't not kiss Crowley. It was physically impossible.
His lips tasted sweet. Aziraphale never wanted to let go. But he did, if only because it was hard to kiss when you were smiling. "No, I don't think we will.... I could do up yours tomorrow, if you wanted."
Crowley pulled him impossibly closer. "I think I could clear a place in my schedule."
Aziraphale laughed and pulled Crowley in for another kiss.
For the first time in his life, he was home.