“I’m going to discorporate.”
Each breath he needlessly drew was like hellfire, consuming everything from the tiniest capillaries in his alveoli to entire swathes of fascia, and there was an odd sort of static rumbling in his ears, like radio interference or the sound he heard whenever the sidewalk preacher that hung around St. James’s Park told passersby with visible tattoos they were going to hell. Clutching his belly, he moaned. “You must help me.”
Crowley didn’t so much as glance his way. Well, he might’ve. Not that Aziraphale could tell through the sunglasses. “How am I meant to do that, exactly?”
“Fix it or I’m going to die, Crowley!“
With a sigh, Crowley reached over. But instead of placing a hand over Aziraphale’s distended belly and granting the gift of bone-melting relief by miracling away the bloat, he flicked the radio on.
Aziraphale groaned. "Are you honestly going to make me listen to bebop in my last moments?”
“No one actually forced you to eat a fourth helping of bread pudding, you know,” Crowley said in what was probably meant to be a reasonable tone, but the distinct lack of sympathy in his voice and the accompanying eye roll undercut it entirely. “You always do this, and then I have to listen to you moan about it the whole way home.”
His poor heart, already working overtime to keep up with the thankless task of digestion, gave a traitorous thud. But much like the aforementioned bowls of bread pudding that Aziraphale packed away, he did the same with the implication of Crowley calling the bookshop home.
“I can’t help it,” Aziraphale lied. “Can’t you do this for me?”
“You do it.”
“No, it looks bad if I, you know, overindulge and then miracle it away. That’s not proper. Please? Just this once?”
Crowley snorted. “Nope. That’s how habits form. You say it’s just this once, but I already know the next time we pass a new cupcake bakery or frozen yogurt pop-up, it’s gonna be all, ‘Oh, I think I’ll just have a little taste, won’t spoil my dinner, I promise,’ and then you end the evening by putting me off my nightcap with your whining.”
“That was a terrible impression of me.” It wasn’t. “Fine, but the next time you’re in a similar position I’m going to remember your heartlessness.”
“Remember all you like, angel, because I’ll not be the one in a situation like this, ever. Overindulgence isn’t my sin of choice.”
Blast it all but he was right, and Crowley settled back in his seat with a smirk pulled at the corner of his mouth until it was sharp enough to cut through Aziraphale’s sullen silence. “Let the bebop take your mind off your gluttonous ways.”
After the debut of Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered in 1941, all other music became bebop.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just that nothing else could possibly compare to the sheer emotion, relief, and love in the lyrics; the syrupy and wistful thrum of the base; the trickling of piano keys like tears in a spring rain.
“You’re a beast,” Aziraphale muttered and, with a grumble, began scrolling through stations until he landed on one at random.
He closed his eyes and let the frenetic tension of the violins scrape down the back of his neck. It took a few moments, but they slipped into the background and he relaxed into hi-hats and the oddly familiar plucking of the guitar. For reasons he couldn’t quite name, he tasted cardamom and cumin on the back of his tongue, felt the distinctive syncopation in his bones that should have been jarring but somehow wasn’t, which was by and large a new feeling and one he delighted in. But it was the words that struck a golden cord within him.
A stone’s throw from Jerusalem,
I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight.
And though a million stars were shining,
My heart was lost on a distant planet
That whirls around the April moon
Whirling in an arc of sadness.
I’m lost without you.
I’m lost without you.
It was like hearing Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered for the first time again. Despite the rumble of the Bentley beneath him, he was sitting in row 12, seat 8 in the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, but instead of Vera’s sheer, unabashed joy over her new relationship with Joey, the man singing poured a tale of longing and loneliness out of Crowley’s radio. He pleaded with Aziraphale to end his suffering and reunite him with the one he would have given entire kingdoms for, would have challenged the stars for, if only for a moment’s peace.
Aziraphale sighed with a lovely ache that soothed his belly, even as the words opened chasms in his heart. How awful, to wander so far and for so long, searching, and be thwarted at every turn. It was devastatingly beautiful.
He snuck a glance at Crowley, whose fingers were so white on the wheel they looked like bone. He didn’t want to say anything, but on principle he had to give credit where it was due. Grudgingly, and so low as to hopefully not be heard over the music because he honestly couldn’t take the crowing, Aziraphale said, “This is actually quite good.”
“Of course it’s good,” Crowley agreed. His frown softened, just a very little. “It’s one of mine.”
Aziraphale blinked. “How do you tempt a musician into making music?”
“You don’t. It’s not quite what I envisioned when I wrote it, especially with the drums and the little tinkling sounds in the background. Still don’t know what those are called. But it didn’t turn out half bad.”
He sat up so fast that he was almost certain he ripped a seam in his trousers. “You wrote this. You, Crowley—did you really?”
Crowley shrugged, but there was an affectation of pride in his voice, a little hiss of sin as he said, “Was in a hall, looking for some people to tempt with a little bit of the snowy stuff—”
Temptation was one thing, but doing it to get them hooked on something as devastating as drugs was a little beyond the pale. “You didn’t!”
“It was 1991, angel, of course I did. Anyway, they were playing a song that reminded me of some…thing, and I was a bit, uh—”
Crowley ignored him, which meant yes. “Wrote it down on a napkin, then next thing I know it’s on every radio station that year.”
“Crowley!” Aziraphale laughed, delighted. “I had no idea you were so—”
“Finish that sentence and I will kick you out of this car. I won’t even slow down.” Crowley’s mouth twitched, but it wasn’t in good humor, and it may have been a trick of the streetlamps on the dark road but it almost looked as if his cheeks were flushed. “Change the channel. We’ll listen to something better.”
“Are you embarrassed, Crowley? You are! Whatever for? It’s a beautiful song! It reminds me of walking through Noricum in its heyday.”
Crowley sunk a little in his seat, teeth bared. His knuckles were white on the wheel. “You’re tucking and rolling out of here, Aziraphale, I swear to Go–Sat–someone.”
“Hush now,” he said, then reached over and turned the volume knob up until the singer’s bombast and odd vocality stuffed the Bentley full of high C’s. “I’m basking in your talent.”
And from the dark secluded valleys
I heard the ancient songs of sadness
But every step I thought of you
Every footstep only you
And every star a grain of sand
The leavings of a dried up ocean
Tell me, how much longer?
How much longer?
“Oh, Crowley, one would almost think you were utterly heartsick when you wrote this.” Goodness, the man wasn’t begging for Aziraphale’s help in finding his lost love—Aziraphale was the lost love. It was somehow so much more than Vera’s springtime fancy with Joey; it was the kind of love for which epic tales were written and entire kingdoms shaken to ruin. Crowley had such a way with words if he could make Aziraphale feel like this. “It’s as though he’s singing to me and me alone.”
Whatever Crowley said in response was mostly drowned out by the music, but it sounded almost like “That a fact?”
The volume lowered slightly without either one of them reaching out to touch the knob, and it allowed him to hear Crowley say, “Do you remember the day Claudius came to rule? The party they threw? Way less crazy than some emperors I could name, but still a bit out of control. Found you on the outskirts, eating lokma as if someone were going to take it from you.”
They’d been delicious little daydreams soaked in honey, probably one of the best desserts he’d had that year, but he stood at the kiosk and watched the festivities alone. Hadn’t he?
“I don't… You were there?”
“And the dancing, of course, can’t forget that. They loved dancing. Everyone got in on it, and the square was so full you could barely move without elbowing someone in the gut.”
A vague wash of color and a sound like laughter flared brightly for a moment and then went dark, a firework fizzling in his mind. And, oh, there was the fuzzy sensation of an arm slung around the small of his back to draw him close, and he’d never felt so cherished, and then it whirled away on the wings of a lyre. He reached for it again, but couldn’t quite grasp it, no matter how many times he tried. His fingers kept sliding off.
“Crowley, I don't remember… I can’t grab hold of it,” he said. Something swelled and contracted, and it was worse than ingesting every bowl of pudding in London because he didn’t feel full at all. Instead, it flew back in the opposite direction, leaving him heaving, completely empty, hollowed out, devoid.
“There was… we… Crowley, what did we—”
They say a city in the desert lies,
The vanity of an ancient king,
But the city lies in broken pieces,
Where the wind howls and the vultures sing.
“I’d never seen you laugh so hard,” Crowley mused, and though he faced forward and was hopefully watching the road, he was also twenty-three hundred miles and years away. An odd smile curled his mouth. It drew all the light in the car to it, consumed it whole. The inverse of a star. “I thought you might lose all the lokma you’d eaten, but I couldn’t stop trying to make you laugh. It was the most obscene thing I’d ever seen.”
These are the works of man;
This is the sum of our ambition.
Underneath them, the Bentley jumped from its sedate speed of 80mph to what felt like just this side of the speed of sound. Aziraphale’s heart rattled the bars of its cage, but not from fear. At least, not from fear of the car.
“You kept kicking your legs and knocking into people. I think you started a fight and I’m almost certain I finished it. We danced until we could barely stand. And then we kept going until someone said something about rites and rituals and broke out the wine.”
Yes, the wine. Of course.
It had been red, undiluted, thick enough to be suffocating, and he had coughed himself drunk. It clung to his teeth, left them as fuzzy as the memory he was trying to make come into focus, and he closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the Bentley’s headrest to chase the feeling of sticky fingers rubbing his lips, dipping in to press to his tongue, followed by the soft, panting catch of a mouth against his. Those hands, stained crimson, had clutched at his cheeks, his arms, his thighs, and he’d opened for every touch, every murmured word, exultant and blasphemous, but what had been said and why couldn’t he remember—
And I have never in my life
Felt more alone than I do now
Although I claim dominions over all I see
It means nothing to me
He shuddered in the seat and opened his eyes to find they were idling outside the bookshop, the radio gone silent. The only sound was Aziraphale’s labored breathing, wrecked as if he had just been kissed within an inch of his existence.
But Crowley still sat unruffled, unmoved, in the driver’s seat. The only thing that gave him away was his grip on the wheel—so tight his hands were shaking.
“That wasn’t… it wasn’t the kind of wine just anyone would have drunk. They would have cut it with water. That they didn’t… it was special wine. Ceremonial,” Aziraphale whispered, and the truth of it slid out from the shadows.
The smile on Crowley’s face looked like an open wound, but he said nothing.
In the hollows of his eyelids, tears pricked hot. “What happened?”
“Sandalphon,” Crowley said, uncharacteristically gentle. “A few hours later, Sandalphon happened.”
Aziraphale closed his eyes, just to feel the scorched trails on his cheeks, to savor the exquisite pain at the thought of Sandalphon’s sanctimonious grin upon finding them. He’d always been the worst of the lot. Of course they sent him.
“I was given until daybreak to leave. And the next time I saw you, you offered to split oysters with me.” Crowley tilted his head back against his seat and sighed. “And that was all.”
They didn’t even do that much. Crowley had been in a rotten mood, would barely look at him save for his little slip-up about temptation, and eventually Aziraphale had taken the hint (and his wine) and gone elsewhere. Ate the oysters alone. They’d tasted like ash. He didn’t try them again until almost eight hundred years later when he was sure he could stomach them.
He had so many experiences tucked away from his time on the Mortal Plane, but it never occurred to him that he might be missing one. That it might have been taken from him entirely.
That he was the root cause of someone’s suffering. Not just someone. The one.
Aziraphale nearly jumped out of his seat at the snap of Crowley’s fingers and the resulting click of the doors unlocking. He stared blankly at the little metal tee of the lock standing at attention. It took his addled brain a moment to realize what it meant.
“Last stop,” Crowley said, and the door swung open.
It was an out. A giant glob of Tipp-Ex to wipe it all away. If Aziraphale got out of the car now, they would never speak of this again. Certainly it would be tense and awkward for the first few decades, with the inconvenient knowledge of the night and its confession fresh in their minds, but time had a way of pushing forward and smoothing old bumps down. After all, Noricum was ancient history, and their union would have been annulled when the province was divvied up. There was absolutely nothing tying them to what happened at Claudius’s ascension celebration. Eventually, they would claw their way back from this.
Eventually, it would all be just fine.
“The song,” he blurted. A bit of spittle flew from between his teeth on the sibilant.
Crowley didn’t even look at him, just kept staring straight ahead. “Seemed to be a safe bet you’d never hear it. Sorry about that.”
“I-I think I have a wireless somewhere. The bits of the song I got to hear were astonishing, and I’d like to hear the whole thing,” Aziraphale said softly. “All of it, Crowley.”
He was bored with being just fine. He wanted the words knitted into his bones, the melody forever in his head. He wanted those hot, sticky hands on him. He wanted the overindulgences, discomfort and all.
“That is, if you're… amenable.”
The silence yawned between them, and for a fraught moment it seemed as though Crowley would simply look away and bid him goodnight, but then something sparked slow and bright in the corners of Crowley’s lips. For all the world it looked like hope.
“This may not be shocking to hear, all considered, but I am.”
And though you hold the keys to ruin
Of everything I see,
With every prison blown to dust,
My enemies walk free.
Though all my kingdoms turn to sand
And fall into the sea,
I’m mad about you.
I’m mad about you.