His wings looked awful. What were once lovely, pristine white feathers too blinding for a mortal to behold were now streaked with a shade of gray that made them appear dirty. In some places, the edges of the feathers were blackened, visibly charred by an unseen flame. The kind of charring that could not be removed by any mortal or miraculous means.
“Just pull them out.”
Aziraphale drew a shaky breath. He darted a quick, nervous look around the room, at the pair of half-drunk wine glasses on the end table, at the chaise lounge he had abandoned in a hurry. At the window, where the light from the setting sun was fading and festive music could be heard in the castle courtyard, the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve in full swing. Sir Aziraphale of the Round Table had excused himself early to his bedchamber, but his evening had taken quite a different turn than he expected.
“Are you certain?”
Kneeling before him, tainted wings outspread, arms braced on the edge of the bed, Gabriel nodded tersely as Aziraphale stepped up behind him. “Don’t miss a single one. You know the drill.”
Aziraphale nodded, more to himself than to Gabriel, and deliberately did not look at the wardrobe in the corner, the door of which had not been latched properly. He worried that if he looked, he might see a single yellow eye peering curiously through the narrow gap.
“Very well. Please just... hold still as best you can.”
Gabriel gusted out an irritated sigh, but said nothing. Quite a difference from the usual. Aziraphale wished he could find it in him to relish the lack of mockery and passive aggressive putdowns, but well... it didn’t feel very sporting at the moment. Given what he was about to do.
Fisting his hand in the first clump of gray-black tertiaries, Aziraphale braced his other hand between Gabriel’s shoulder blades and ripped out the feathers.
Gabriel gasped, voice edging up into a shout. His fingers dug into the blankets on the bed, eyes flying wide open at the sudden pain before he mastered himself and buried his face in the mattress, groaning.
Letting the first clump of bloody feathers fall to the rug, Aziraphale grimly set to work plucking out the mismatched feathers by the handful. Each hard yank brought with it a fresh flow of blood, another shout of pain, the cries edging up until Gabriel was full-on screaming from it, arching his back and writhing. Until Aziraphale had to use a hasty miracle to pin down the thrashing wings, for fear that he would be struck.
Under normal circumstances, Gabriel would have been more than strong enough to cancel out his miracle. It was more than a little frightening to see an Archangel so feeble and powerless against a mere Principality.
“Nearly there,” Aziraphale promised after nearly an hour, arms aching from this grisly work. And yet only one wing was finished. The second had yet to even be touched.
“I can’t, I can’t,” Gabriel sobbed, but Aziraphale knew better than to listen. He had tried to be merciful in the past, but all it accomplished was to draw out the torture. Swallowing back nausea, he switched to the other wing and began again. The pile of broken, ruined feathers at his feet grew. His hands were drenched red nearly to the wrist. In time, Gabriel’s cries began to weaken, petering into silent weeping and blabbered prayers to an absent god. Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong?
Aziraphale jerked out the last feather and with some difficulty manhandled Gabriel up onto the bed. The blankets would be ruined, he thought a little sadly, then quietly scolded himself for such a selfish thought. With a last, disturbed look at Gabriel’s poor, mangled wings, Aziraphale draped a quilt over his superior. The new feathers would grow in white, as they always did, but he had a terrible feeling it wouldn’t be long before they gradually began to blacken and Gabriel came to him again. It had only been a century since the last time.
“It’s over now, you can rest here,” Aziraphale said, pity stirring him when Gabriel only curled around a pillow and wept messily. But he knew from experience that Gabriel preferred not to be comforted in these moments. What he wanted, the only thing he wanted, was for Aziraphale to quietly leave and pretend this whole thing had never happened. “I’ll make sure you remain undisturbed.”
“Don’t tell them,” Gabriel whispered. The muscles in his back spasmed, featherless wings twitching, and he couldn’t seem to gather breath for full sentences. “Don’t...”
“I won’t tell Michael. Or Uriel or Sandalphon. You know you have my word.”
Aziraphale retreated from the room as unobtrusively as he could, shutting the door behind him. The moment he reached the corridor, he darted into the neighboring bedchamber, invisible to the sleeping human inhabitants, and yanked open the wardrobe door.
The clothes were swept aside, and a shellshocked Crowley wiggled through the tunnel connecting Aziraphale’s wardrobe to this one. “Thank Satan for extramarital affairs,” he said. “Secret passage in every bloody room in the place, all so lusty humans can sneak into each other’s beds and—” He tumbled out of the wardrobe. “Ow!”
“Be quiet!” Aziraphale tugged him to his feet. “You need to leave!”
“No, really?” Crowley retorted. “Thought I might hang around for a bit, have a drink with your boss...”
“Hush! He could notice your presence at any moment!”
“He’s not in any state to notice anything.” Crowley grabbed his elbow when Aziraphale made to turn away. “Aziraphale! How many times has this happened?”
Aziraphale stared at him. He let his gaze fall to his own hands. Gabriel’s blood was becoming tacky, crusting under his fingernails. And now Crowley had smeary handprints on his beautiful silk tunic where Aziraphale had touched him. He snatched his hands back, noticing for the first time how they trembled.
“I don’t know. I haven’t kept count.”
Crowley let out a horrified hiss. “You need to tell somebody up there. Michael or...”
“He specifically told me not to do that.”
“The Heaven with what he wants! He’s Falling out of Grace!”
Aziraphale stiffened. “And that means I shouldn’t give some consideration to his feelings?” he said hotly.
“I’m saying you shouldn’t have to deal with this—” Crowley waved at the blood, at the tufts of down clinging to his shoes, all of it. “—just because he’s ashamed and in denial! He shouldn’t make you part of his dirty little secret!”
“Well, it’s hardly the only dirty secret I’m carrying around at the moment!”
Crowley’s expression hardened, and Aziraphale knew he had, once again, put his foot in it. And right on the heels of their last argument only a few months ago. He had hoped to make amends tonight, but there was precious little hope of salvaging things now.
“Forgive me.” Aziraphale turned away with every intention of fleeing, but Crowley stopped him with a soft grip on his shoulder.
“Wait, just... come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Aziraphale couldn’t muster anything more than dull surprise at the suggestion, nor at the steaming bathtub he was miraculously met with when Crowley steered him into the next room. It was very dark in here and very quiet, the outside world muffled and distant, so there was no hiding the hitch in his breath as Crowley peeled off his stained clothes, tossed them aside and guided him into the water. Aziraphale let him, for some odd reason, he let Crowley scrub his hands clean and dab at his face with a damp cloth, both of them trying to pretend the intimacy of the act was purely perfunctory when it was anything but. Aziraphale gripped his own knees while Crowley washed and combed his hair (unnecessary, there was no blood in it) and tried not to remember the sight of his own hands cruelly, methodically ripping out black feathers one by one...
Crowley started and dropped the comb in the water. “Yeah, angel?” he said.
“That... arrangement you spoke of. Could we perhaps revisit it?”
This time, it was Crowley whose breath hitched. “Course. We can do that. Tomorrow, yeah?”
“Tomorrow,” Aziraphale agreed, the word coming out as a sigh. And for a time at least, his hands no longer trembled.