The city Nevaeh, white towered by the sea.
You can picture it, I’m sure, there in your mind’s eye. See the banners flying from the towers? The birds rising up to greet the clamor of the bells? Hear the trumpets sounding the dawning of a bright new day? There, as the sun makes its way over the horizon, watch there as it burns away the last of the fog which had crept around the city through the night. Now the streets around the towers can be seen, the fine cobblestones gleaming in the - No, those were not the clouds, not at all. Why would you think Nevaeh should be in the clouds? It is as real as you or I, though you may have seen it before, in your dreams.
The council of four, those shining beacons of judgement and decorum, they meet in their chambers, confirm that all is well, because all is always well, here in Nevaeh. There is another, the High Minister, who sits above them, though she has not had much to say in a long while, and what cause would she have to speak up? Never has there been a curious plague come knocking on the city gates, no famine to spoil the crops, no war against a neighboring nation, for who would stand up against the might and fortune of this city that must surely be blessed by the gods themselves?
It would be folly to even try.
There are verdant gardens, crowded squares, marketplaces teeming with goods from all across the land, for all merchants should be as lucky to be able to trade in Neveah, from whose citizens the gold flows forth like rain from the sky.
There are no soldiers that walk the streets, no agents of the peace, with pithy declarations of protection and service. To have such would imply that there is crime, crime to imply want, and there is no want here in Nevaeh, not for as long as the records have been kept, and they have been kept a very long time indeed. The wheel was broken long ago, if ever it was there at all.
Do you understand? Watch as they awake, as they move about their day, tending to their chores, their children, their jobs. Do you see the joy in their faces? The innocence of disease, of poverty, of untimely death, of the harsh clang of an army at the city gates?
It’s alright. I didn’t believe it at first either. But I’ll tell you one more thing, and then it will become clear.
Somewhere in Nevaeh, in the basement, perhaps, of one of those looming white towers, there is a room. It has one locked door, and a small window set high into the wall, though the window is a recent addition, as far as those in Nevaeh are concerned. It is rather too small to even be called such, and yet it was a great controversy among those in the know, There was almost a very public row about the whole thing. Two ministers practically came to blows over a single sliver of light, hardly big enough for a small row of plants that sit upon the sill. But then they remembered that this is Nevaeh, and such emotions are unbecoming, and a compromise was reached.
The plants are also rather new.
The room was not always how it is today. After all, depriving a stranger is one thing, but someone that was - Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself again. To tell how it is now, one must understand what it has been.
In the room, which once was pitch dark, with a damp floor and large spiders weaving gruesome webs in the corner, there was a child. The child looked six, but was closer to nine or ten. The door was always locked then, as it is almost always locked now, except that, sometimes, it would burst open and several people would swarm in, in the dark, with the damp, and the spiders. The people would never say anything to the child, but the child, who did not always live in the little room, would beg to be let out, would promise to be good, would scream for help or cry. The people did not listen to the child, for they had not come to hear the strange, staccato speech or see the clean rivulets of tears in a filthy, unwashed face. They had come to gawk, to bear witness.
Sometimes to kick and prod, if I must be honest. To use cruelty against one without the power to fight back. Then they would go away, and the door would be locked behind them, and the child would be left in darkness again.
All the people of Neveah knew the child was there. They were whispered the secret when they turned seven or eight, and they played cruel games where one must be the child and the others must torment it. But it was not until their sixteenth birthday that they were bade to look upon the child in its misery. They were made to understand that all the glory of Neveah, all its splendor and bounty and brightness, was dependent on this child, on its squalor, on its cries that went unheeded. All were shocked, or sickened, or railed against it. They demanded the child be let out, that it live in the wonder of Nevaeh, that it be granted a respite for only a day, an hour, five minutes, anything to quiet its strange and terrible cries. They would go home, and the cries would follow them in their dreams, and they would ask those who cared for them if please, they might do something.
At least, this is what they wanted when first they bore witness.
They wanted to help the child, but there was nothing to be done, they were told. It is but one child, against all the splendor of Nevaeh. One must suffer unimaginable torment, so that the rest might know nothing but joy and beauty all their days. And they, these children on the cusp of adulthood, tried to find solace in these words their elders spoke. Perhaps there was nothing to be done. Who were they to destroy the easy luxury of so many, for no reason other than to ease their own conscience. Did not all the citizens of Nevaeh live as thus? The guilt could be managed. It could be borne. All before them had done the same, and the children, most of them, at least, would rest easier and easier, until one day, they did not think about the child at all.
But I do not speak for all adolescents. For there were those who, upon seeing the child, went through all the motions of the rest, and heard the platitudes of their elders, and picked up their things and headed for the city gates. No one raised a hand to stop them. There had always been those who walked away, the fallen , that was the fashionable term, always spoken in a whisper which followed a furtive glance. There were a few fallen in every generation, with every new child, but never enough to upset the balance, not enough to break the city. Nevaeh would continue on in its grandeur, and the adolescents who were once horrified would soothe their own children in turn, and so a new wheel was forged, and on and on it turned, and the blessed citizens of Nevaeh continued, and no one really minded how, every once in a very long while, an old body was removed from a dark cellar, and a new mother mysteriously lost her beloved child.
These were private griefs, and were not worth the city.
But this was the past.
One day, oh, I think perhaps it was twenty years or so ago, there was someone, a young man, or an old child, or however you might wish to describe it. He was loved, one would presume, by his parents. He was taught by the same teachers as his peers. When he played in the fields and the squares, the sun glinted off his hair the same as it did for any other. There was nothing extraordinary about him at all that might signify he would be any different, except, maybe, the way he would ask a few too many questions, or the way he would stare with those golden eyes of his when he did not receive answers to his satisfaction. He was handsome, and strong, and charismatic, and had all the markings of a future minister or administrator.
If he made it through.
He was brought to the child in the basement, as all those before him had been. There was some chatter about that, as people thought he might be one of those who left the city. Walked away. One who fell . But when the door in that basement room was unlocked, when the halo glow from a single candle fell upon a dirty and gaunt face, when the cries that no longer resembled speech at all anymore began, the boy did not he did not weep or scream or flee, as his elders had expected. He watched as the child threw themselves upon the ground and beat at the damp stone with their fists, he watched as the guard kicked the child away from the boy with stern appeals for quiet, and he did not ask a single question, not even his favorite.
No frantic “why?” escaped his lips that day, or the day after that.
Those who understood were delighted. He is made of sterner stuff than we realized, they said to themselves. He knows what is best for Nevaeh. He will put the city first.
He will be a fine choice for a future minister.
But on the dawn of the third day, he returned to the miserable little door, to the old man outside who guarded it, the one who had kicked the child. The boy was carrying a small box, almost too small to carry even a pair of shoes, under his right arm, and a bedroll under his left. He commanded the man to open the door. The guard was used to this sort of thing, and tried to explain that it was not permitted to bring the child comforts, that Nevaeh depended on -
“It’s not for them,” the young man said. “They’re for me.”
Baffled at this cryptic statement, and more than a little afraid at the look in the young man’s eye, the guard opened the door. The young man stepped inside, and, without touching the child, without laying a single comforting hand on a bony shoulder, bade them leave.
The child stumbled out of the door, scared, confused, and fascinated by a warm glow on the floor ahead of them.
It was the sunlight. They cried.
There must always be a locked room. It must always be miserable, and damp, and there must always be someone inside.
But the child had not been granted a choice. The young man did.
The young man pulled the door closed behind him, and heard the tumblers click into place.
He ignored all the shouting that came after, all the furtive pleas. He had a choice.
This was his choice.
And that is where he has been for twenty years.
It’s here our story begins.
Aziraphale is not built for administration.
He is informed of this in clever language in the letter he received this morning, although he has known it for years. He is only surprised the bureaucracy of the city has taken so long to catch up to him.
The letter was the result of a meeting the day before. Not a hearing, he had been told. The ministers were no tribunal . Such things didn’t happen in Nevaeh as they did in other places. This was merely a discussion of where Aziraphale fit.
“What did you do with the supplies you were tasked with, Aziraphale?” he had been asked. He did not have an answer that would please them, and so he said he didn’t know what they were talking about, that the supplies must be around here somewhere.
“Why have you let so many travellers into the city?” This was also, unanswerable. To say, because they needed aid, because their children were crying, because they were hungry, these would not have been answers that the ministers would have understood. Better to let them believe that he is stupid, that all these missteps were from ignorance than from wilful disobedience. He knows the price to pay to live in Nevaeh, he has accepted it.
He thought there was nothing worse that could be done to him than to have that knowledge.
But the letter tells rather a different story. This, then, is the price for his mercy. This is the price of compassion.
The guard has died, the letter reads. He does not need to ask which guard, for there is only one place that exists in the whole of Nevaeh that has cause to be guarded. We believe it would develop your strength of character, were you to replace him . There it is. Phrased like a choice. Other places did not have choices. Nevaeh does, see the wording of the letter? He can chose to follow the recommendation, or not.
It is not really a choice.
Aziraphale does not want to go, to sit in the chair next to the wooden door. He has never seen the one inside. The requirement, the demand that all must see the child upon their sixteenth birthday was amended twenty years ago, one year before he would have been forced to see. Now only the elders and the ministers are permitted there, though there is always talk of reinstating the trial.
The elders and the ministers do not go as much as they used to, these days. But no one in the city knows that. Aziraphale does not know this, but, rest assured, if he did , he would not ask “why?”
He might think it. But the word would not cross his lips.
The ministers of Nevaeh are wise. There must always be a person there, in the dark and damp, with the spiders and the dirt. See the person as the Other. Look on it with pity and fascination and revulsion, and try and forget it when there is nothing to be done. The city must stand, and there must be a room and there must be a person, an Other, who is deprived of all that the citizens enjoy. This has been the way of the city for as long as there have been records.
But it is very hard to see an ‘other’ in the face of the person that is down there now.
Better to forgo the trial completely.
Aziraphale does not know this either, of course. He does not know who is down there, in the dark. He only knows what he had been told, what he had accepted as the truth.
And he does not want this job.
He cannot refuse.
The guard who he comes to relieve on his first morning greets Aziraphale with a firm handshake.
“You’ll have no trouble,” he says. “It sleeps, mostly.” Aziraphale twists his face into the best approximation of a smile he can manage.
“O-of course,” he mumbles, and takes the keys from the outstretched hand.
“I’ll be back tonight. You stay out of trouble, now.” It’s supposed to be a joke, Aziraphale thinks, although it’s a poor imitation of one. What trouble could Aziraphale get into, down here? There are no supplies to give away, no travelers to allow into the city, no ministers to appease with the correct turn of phrase or decorum.
There is just the dark, and a door, and the person beyond it.
Aziraphale does not think of them as an “it,” although he would be in the minority in that regard. When the… situation is discussed, almost everyone refers to the person in the room as an “it.” They do this because its easier for them, but Aziraphale cannot. It’s them, in his head, and he doesn’t mention these things in public.
Now he is here, where there is no public.
He’s brought a book to read, of course, hidden under his robes. No one told him he couldn’t, but this is , he supposes, meant as a punishment, although there are no punishments in Nevaeh. Best not to risk it, in any case. It’s a proper book, one on the history of Nevaeh, the lineage of its ministers. The prose is dreadful, and the author (a minister himself) uses a tone which implies that the reader should be grateful each time a sentence has less than six commas and a colon, for he is a great and loquacious writer, aren’t you glad to be reading his magnificent words?
(You’ve read a book just like it. You hated it. You and Aziraphale are not so different.)
The day goes as well as can be expected. None come down to bid him open the door, no cry or scream echoes from beyond it. And so it goes for the next six days: there is none to keep Aziraphale company but the text on the page and the oppressive silence. Sometimes there is a small noise from behind the door: shifting of limbs, a snore, a sigh that belies sleep. But nothing more. For six days Aziraphale reads and eats his midday meal and is encapsulated in this strange and silent sphere.
On the seventh day, he brings a different kind of book.
The book is one he has read before: an old friend, an old comfort, for a trying day, for all the days have been trying despite the shining sun which greets him every morning on his walk to work. Imagine the book you would have chosen, the one you would have taken above all others, to distract from your tedious but difficult task. It is one like this: there are trials, and tribulations, and a happy ending.
There is always a happy ending.
He reads for as long as it takes to become lost in the text, to feel the words roll upon him like waves from the warm ocean which sparkles outside. If he strains he can hear the crash of the surf, can smell the clean salt air. Or maybe he only imagines it. Maybe there are no joys, no comforts, to be had, here in this hallway, next to tall wooden door that is almost always locked. He thinks about the lunch, sitting in the pack at his feet. His favorite cheese, a skin of wine, a loaf of crisp bread the baker handed to him not three hours before, how he felt the heat of the oven through the thin paper. Small joys, sitting there under his chair. Tempting him.
Aziraphale reaches down, to examine his lunch, make sure it is all there. Sample a bit, if he must , to make sure it hasn’t gone off. But as he leans forward, as his fingers brush the linen of his bag, he heard something that is not the crinkle of turned pages, or the imagined roar of the sea.
He hears a voice.
“You’re not Zadkiel.” Aziraphale sits up straight at once. Who would - there wasn’t supposed to be anyone, not here - But there’s no one in the hallway. He looks again, harder, as if flesh and blood might materialize out of the ether if only he could wish it into being. The other option would be -
“Who are you?”
There can be no mistaking where the voice comes from, and the skin prickles on the back of Aziraphale’s neck. Zadkiel was the name of the guard who passed - the guard Aziraphale has replaced.
The voice is coming from inside the room.
“Can you hear me? Zadkiel could hear me, the bastard, though he always pretended he couldn’t. Never said anything back, but he did like to shout nonsense over me, especially towards the end. Not good for that cough of his. Was it the cough that got him?” A pause, as if the person inside was waiting for an answer. Aziraphale busied himself with examining the words of his book, seeing them without reading. They hadn’t told him - the person inside wasn’t supposed to talk . Wasn’t… wasn’t supposed to be able to.
“Always got the sense he wanted to open the door himself - never would though, too much of a stickler for that. He enjoyed it when they did though, always made sure he was on duty when it happened. Did they send me another one like him, then? Although you’re a reader , aren’t you? What are you reading today? That’s no dreadful government treatise you’re flipping through, not like that.” Aziraphale screwed his resolve to the sticking place: the words on the page. This was his job, what if one of the ministers should come down to check on him, what if -
"What kind of book is it, then? Never read much, me. I remember the stories though, the ones we used to hear in school. I can tell you one if you like." Another pause. "Right. If you want me to tell it, don't say anything." There’s a smile at the corner of the phrase, the shadow of a joke, and Aziraphale catches himself smirking. No! That would never do! He opens his mouth to tell the person to stop, to keep him out of trouble, but - well, that would be talking to them, wouldn't it? He chews his lip, wondering what he should do, should he hum, or shout, as Zadkiel seemed to have done? Should he ignore entirely, go to the great chambers as soon as the day is done and tell the ministers what -
But then the story begins.
"Once upon a time," the teller starts, and Aziraphale is lost. He could never resist a story, especially one well spun, and whoever is behind that door, whatever mysteries they contain, they are a master weaver. It is a fairy tale, or as close an approximation as one could come to in Nevaeh, and Aziraphale can feel the air on his face as the soldiers ride out of the castle, the acute dismay of the prince, the pain of the dragon as she fights for her freedom. His own book lies upon the floor, forgotten, as the story continues, as the prince rescues his love from the tower, and they and the dragon fly off for places unknown, never to be seen by the greedy king or his willowy queen ever again.
Do you remember, the first time? When you were so distracted by another that you tore your eyes away from the page? How betrayed you felt by your own body as it flitted away from the task at hand to be consumed by a supple limb, the shine in a pair of clever eyes, the sound of a laugh that struck at your core?
Aziraphale has never felt it before.
Aziraphale is mortified.
He is supposed to be good. He is meant to be good. Listening, approving, of the story from the one behind the door, that's practically offering comfort, even within his own head! He knows the price, knows that Nevaeh depends on him not to succumb, lest in a moment of weakness he should cause one of the towers to crumble away into the sea, a sudden illness to spring up that cannot be quelled.
"How was that?" the voice asks, when the telling is done and the image of freedom has faded away into Aziraphale's imagination. "I've had many audiences over the years, though none so quiet as you. I wonder if you're still out there?" There is a trill at the end of the question, a crack, perhaps, if one happens to be listening very closely. Aziraphale thinks about what it would be like, to never really know if someone is listening, if someone is on the other side of the door.
He picks up his book, and flips very loudly through the pages.
"Oh, is that how it is?" But there is a smile now, unmistakable in between the words. There. He’s not intentionally provided comfort. He’s just - he lost his place in his book. That’s all.
Aziraphale eats his midday meal in the ensuing silence, and yet how quickly his ears have trained themselves to listen for sounds coming from within? But there is nothing, not for the rest of the day or the one after that, just the shifting of limbs and deep breathing of sleep. It’s not until three days later, when he’s almost settled into the silence again, that -
"How did you land this job then?”
Aziraphale is so startled he almost falls out of his chair.
“Couldn’t have been anything good. But, you know what they say, ‘There are No Punishments In Nevaeh,’ or whatever it is now. Remember the old school song?” Aziraphale does. It was sung every morning before classes began, hand placed firmly over heart, voices raised in unison, sharp eyed teachers watching for anyone who was not singing loud enough. “So let’s see. Educator who said one too many free-thinking phrases? Bookseller with some, shall we say, controversial material? An administrator who dipped in for themselves one too many times?”
“I’ll have you know I would never! ” Aziraphale claps had hand over his mouth. NO! Barely outside of his first week and already he’d -
He hears laughter.
“Oh, I’m sure! An administrator! Right angel you must have been!”
“I was !”
“Then what are you doing here? Slip a little too much gold off the top?”
“Well - not… not so much as that.”
“What’d you do then? Some supplies go missing? A crate of delicacies diverted from a banquet hall to the front door of your flat?”
“No! I…” He falters for a moment. But what could be the harm in telling the person behind the door? “I… gave it away.”
“I gave it away! There was a group of refugees passing outside the city gates and - well of course the ministers wouldn’t let them in - I tried that before, it didn’t work - but their children were hungry and they needed help so I made sure a few trunks of supplies made their way to them - ‘Don’t thank me,’ I said, but who else could it have been? It took the ministers a whole three days to work it out, and then I was - then I was here.”
There is silence behind the door, but it’s not so thick as it has been before. Can a silence betray surprise? Aziraphale’s skin prickles, like he is being watched, but there is no window on this side, only the other, a high window set in a low cellar room beneath a tower.
“Huh. I suppose I wasn’t wrong. A right angel you are after all.”
Aziraphale is no such thing. If he were better he wouldn’t be here at all, fated to while away his days, perhaps the rest of them, if he is very unlucky (his life has never shown him he is fated to be otherwise) here in this place, with none but his books and a voice with no name or face for company.
“I’m Crowley, by the way. My name, I mean.”
Well, no face, then.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale repeats. “Crow-ley.” It is not a name he has ever heard in Nevaeh, a strange name that nevertheless sits delicately on his tongue. Crowley knew the songs, he knows the ways of the city. He is no stranger, no child stolen from parents outside the city walls.
“Has it always been Crowley?” Another laugh.
“No, angel , it hasn’t always been Crowley. But it’s better than what it was, I think.” Crowley pauses a moment. “Let’s play a game. I’m thinking of things that start with R.”
You’ve played such games, when your heart was stretched too thin for more conversation. You’ve made jokes so that you didn’t burst into tears. You’re thinking of things that start with R, revile, remembrance, recollect, recall, rejoice.
Aziraphale hesitates. But he has spoken to Crowley. There’s been no great wailing and gnashing of teeth outside, no sounds of the city gates being wrenched of their hinges by a passing horde of invaders, no trumpets sounding that a minister has taken ill.
Perhaps… perhaps speaking is allowed, after all?
“Rhododendron?” Aziraphale ventures.
“Rhododendron?!” Crowley is aghast. “Why on earth would I be thinking of that?”
Aziraphale remembers the courtyard of his youth, remembers the high hedges that blocked the view, that boxed him in, how afraid he had been of them. But, then, in the spring, those pink flowers would bloom. Small joys, even in the imposing dark.
“First thing I thought of, I suppose,” Aziraphale ventures. He thinks about telling the story about the hedge. He has never told anyone before.
“Well it’s not. Come on then, things that begin with R.”
“Was I close?”
“Not even a little. Try again.”
How quickly things happen to us, when we don’t realize they’re happening at all.
“What are you reading?”
A different day. The rain pitter patters gently on the tiled roof in a hypnotic rhythm, the kind of day where you wake up and turn over and would go right back to sleep, if only you could. If you have someone or someones in your bed you curl closer to them, brush your lips against the back of their neck, throw an arm around another warm body and make a vow that if ever you rule the world, working on days like this will be strictly prohibited, that such days will be devoted to sitting about wrapped up in blankets, cupping mugs of tea or cocoa, sharing stories, brushing limbs together underneath bedroom sheets.
But Aziraphale lived in Nevaeh, where such days are greeted as an “opportunity to work in less than ideal conditions, and confirm our commitment to the grandeur of our city.” Aziraphale had woken up with no one beside him, as had been the routine for the entirety of his adult life. (He hugged his pillow a bit tighter, but it wasn’t quite the same.) He thought of Crowley, sitting alone in his room in the tower, or lying on a bedroll listening to the rain drip outside his window, and then he rose to dress himself.
They have talked now, beyond things that begin with R, beyond what egregious act of compassion led Aziraphale to guard duty outside a room that is almost always locked. Crowley likes to tell stories. Some are of his own invention, some are alterations of ones they learned as children. He wonders who Crowley was. Were they friends, before? When did Crowley enter the room? But he does not ask. Crowley likes to hear how things are outside, what shapes Aziraphale saw in the clouds, what smells were riding along on the wind, what the market squares where Aziraphale buys his lunch every morning is like.
“Is the place with the flatbreads still there?” Crowley asks. Aziraphale wonders what his favorite dish used to be. Was it the one with pears and honey and goat cheese? His mouth waters as he remembers it. But sadly, -
“No, no, its some new owner, they’ve changed it all around.” Crowley groans in disappointment. “They do remarkable things with oysters, though.” Aziraphale tries to placate, feeling guilty. Crowley will never know, he could have just - But no, that would be too cruel. Better to try and soothe the wound then lie to prevent it from happening. It’s not all bad, see? There are other places, where the places you knew once stood. They’re not the same, but it’s not always bad.
“I’ve never eaten an oyster.” Crowley says it thoughtfully, without any admonishing. Aziraphale still feels guilty, and he has wanted an oyster more.
But I’ve done it again, I’m winding the tale back in on itself. Where are we now? Ah, yes. It is a rainy day, a gray day, with a chill in the air. Aziraphale treated himself to the purchase of a special lunch that morning, and now it sits in his pack underneath the chair. His book rests on his knees, and Crowley wants to know what he is reading.
Aziraphale does not want to say, exactly. Not because he doesn’t wish to talk to Crowley, not at all.
But he is rather embarrassed by his choice of literature.
“Oh, you know, one of those - ah - drawing room comedy of manners types. Nothing special.” He says it too fast, he knows he does.
“You’re lying,” says Crowley. “I know your tells.”
“What are they?” Was it the rapidity of his speech? He knows it must be, but what if there are others, other little ways he gives himself away? They should be rooted out, understood, vanquished.
“Well, if I told you then you’d go trying to hide them,” Crowley laughs. “So, tell me, what kind of book is it today? It must be very interesting if you’ve gone and lied about it.”
“There are no lies in Nevaeh,” Aziraphale says, automatically. There is a beat of silence before they both break into a small chuckle.
“So what is it that could be embarrassing you so, angel?” Crowley continues to needle. “Nothing untoward, I imagine? Nothing erotic ?” He overenunciates the word, it clicks off his tongue, and the way Aziraphale shivers afterwards has nothing to do with the rain outside.
“Of course not!” Aziraphale says, too fast again, his face burning. He would never - not outside of the house at least!
“It is, isn’t it?” Crowley harps, the words curling around his smile. “Oh, angel, the scandal , the gall , the -”
“It’s not erotica !” Aziraphale manages to say through his embarrassed haze. “It’s a - a - a spy thriller! It’s pulpy nonsense!” Instead of the mocking he expected, he hears a delighted gasp.
“Angel, I love pulpy nonsense! No one who talked to me ever brought it down before! What’s the title? Would I know it?” Crowley is babbling like an excited teenager upon meeting a favored author. Aziraphale would never have predicted this, not in a century. But Crowley is full of surprises, isn’t he? Hasn’t he always been?
Aziraphale tells him the title. It’s one of Crowley’s favorites, and he recites the first lines from memory to Aziraphale’s bewildered delight.
“How do you do that?” Aziraphale asks once Crowley’s voice has faded. “Memorize so many stories?”
“There’s not a whole lot to do down here, is there?” Crowley says, because it’s not a question, and there is a hitch in his voice. Not everyone has been so willing to talk to me as you, although there have been more inclined to than not. My first few guards were lovely, and then there was - there was a stretch there… Well.” The pain in his voice seeps through the door, eating away the boards like acid. Aziraphale wants to reach out, to press against it, imagine Crowley’s hand pressing against the other side. It’s not enough. “I could spend years in stories, if I had to.”
“You’ve had no books at all?” Forget pressing either side of a door. Aziraphale wants - Aziraphale is a creature of physicality, you see? Of decadence. He eats the finest foods, sleeps in sheets of the highest quality, he has never tried to console another person without the use of touch, without a hand draped around a shoulder, without arms wrapped around in a solid hug. He wants to do the same to Crowley, wants to offer him protection from… from all of it.
“Well, that would be comfort , wouldn’t it, angel? Can’t have that, can we? Some minister might get a sore throat, if I was allowed to have books.” Aziraphale nods, agreeing, and then realizes Crowley can’t see him. Realizes that Crowley is not being serious.
“Do you not believe, then? That what you’re doing -”
“What I’m doing , angel, is preventing some poor toddler from being ripped away from their parents and locked up in here. Don’t ascribe some lovely, martyr-for-the city-type motivation to me. I’d tear it all down if I could. I’d beg you for the most luxurious of comforts, I’d tempt you - ” he pauses, swallows, “... to bring me all manner of things, if I honestly thought it would bring the walls of this city down around my ears. But it won’t. So what’s the point?” Aziraphale hears sliding, fabric on skin, bare feet stepping almost silently across stone, and knows Crowley has moved away from the door, towards the back of the room.
If Crowley is wrong, and he must be wrong, or else - well, he must be wrong. But then why does Aziraphale feel so rotten? Why does the sound of movement, of Crowley going away from him, fill him with such longing as pathetic as it is cutting?
And how can he fix it?
The words are out of his mouth before he’s even had a chance to think about them.
“Would you like me to read to you?” Aziraphale cringes at once, half expects to hear lepers lamenting in the streets, bodies instantly covered with sores the moment the words left his mouth. But the moments stretch on, and there is nothing, nothing but a resounding and terrible quiet.
“You can do whatever you like,” Crowley says at last. But there is desperation there, Aziraphale can sense it, can tell now, after weeks of conversation, when Crowley is being glib, when he’s trying to hide his hurts. Well, Aziraphale can read out loud if he wishes. He’s allowed . If Crowley should hear him, if he should do the voices correctly, if he should pause so Crowley can finish laughing at a particularly amusing passage, that’s… that’s just random chance.
The city cannot fall due to a - a coincidence.
What’s that old saying? The road to hell is paved with good intentions? Who wrote it, I wonder? What long line of good deeds led to such bitterness? The ministers of Nevaeh would have agreed with the sentiment, the elders and all who had come before would have held it to their chests, breathed it in, expounded on its merits, made their children repeat it over and over and over again.
Aziraphale would have gone along. He would have repeated the words they asked of him, sang the songs.
And yet, despite all his efforts to conceal it, to tamp it down and shut it up, there, in his heart, there would have been doubt.
In a few hours, Aziraphale’s voice grows tired, and he pauses in his reading and reaches for his pack.
“What’s for lunch today, angel?” Crowley asks through the door.
“Oh, I admit, I spoiled myself a bit today,” Aziraphale replies, gleefully, unwrapping the plate of shells like a gift.
“You? Never.” Aziraphale imagines Crowley with a sardonic smirk, catches himself wondering at the image for a moment too long.
“It’s from the - oh, you remember, the oyster place?” His voice is too high. “That used to sell the flatbread you liked?” Yes, that’s better.
“Oh, a delicacy indeed!”
But Crowley’s words from three weeks past echo in Aziraphale’s head. I’ve never eaten an oyster , he had said. And now Aziraphale sits against the door, with a shell half raised to his lips, and pauses, contemplating the opal sheen, the hollow of spiced sauce that sits atop the meat. It looks like a treasure, like a treat.
No comfort, he thinks, the mantra beating a drum in his head. How has it not pounded straight through his skull and come out the other side?
Well, perhaps Crowley won’t even like it, where would be the comfort there? And it’s - it’s only one little morsel. Hardly more than a mouthful.
“I’m opening the slat.” Aziraphale has never done this before. The nighttime guard is responsible for bringing Crowley his meals every night and early every morning. Aziraphale was told not to touch this small, latched opening in the door, ever .
There are many things Aziraphale was told not to do.
He hears Crowley shift, hears footsteps from the far end of the room as they come closer, closer, and stop just before the door.
“Are you sure?” Crowley’s voice sounds as nervous as Aziraphale feels.
“Well you’ve - you’ve never eaten an oyster, have you? Doesn’t seem fair.” Crowley doesn’t say anything to this. Aziraphale flips the latch. The slot is big enough for a tray of food, for a bucket. An oyster hardly matters. He reaches his hand down, his hand tingling, closer than he has ever been to Crowley. He thinks about the monster he was certain dwelled under his childhood bed, how he would sprint into the room and dive onto the mattress so that no claw or tentacle could reach out from the darkness there and seize him by the ankle. Crowley is not a monster , he knows, and the hands that gently place the shell just inside the door are steady and sure. If he trembles, a bit, just in his shoulders, it is not out of fear.
He should close the little gate. He knows he should.
But he wants to see .
A white hand appears in the grate. The skin is so pale as to practically be white, the fingers long and thin. Precise , Aziraphale thinks. A piano player, a violinist . Those delicate fingers shoot out, pluck the shell from the ground, and are gone in an instant, gone so quickly that if Aziraphale blinks hard enough he can still see the ghost of them against the back of his eyelids.
“You’re right,” Crowley says. “They are rather good.”
There is something you might not yet understand.
Crowley is a thorn in the side of the elders, of the ministers. He is not like the others who have come before him, not least of all because there is a small window, there is a square of light, and sometimes he can hear the caw of a crow, the roll of the ocean, laughter carried on the wind. Crowley is not bound to this place. He can walk out any time he chooses. He knows this. He has been told this many times by some of the ministers, or the elders. He has never been told this by a woman with red hair going grey at the temples and sad amber eyes, though he wished to hear it from her more than anyone, once upon a time. But those who do tell him all say the same thing. You can live among us again. You can come back out. No one would blame you.
They will replace him with someone else.
Crowley does not see that he has a choice.
Why should he leave? Why on earth would he chose to live among those people again, who would not lift a finger to help the suffering of a stranger?
But there is a new guard, now. And while most of the rest were kind in their own way, have provided such comforts as to have decimated the city of Neveah down to the very last brick if any of the garbage the city was founded on were true (combs for his hair, extra water for washing, fabric for his clothes, needles and thread, pots and seeds and dirt for the plants, conversation) it was easy for them to do so, once they understood that he was not an ‘it,’ that he was not an other, once they knew him. But none of them shared their lunch. None of them read to him.
None of them were in trouble for defying the city’s edicts, for providing aid and comfort to strangers outside the city walls, none of them had compassion for people they had never met.
None of them truly had mercy.
The new guard has done all these things, has all these things.
And, for the first time, as Crowley licks away the last of the sauce from the hollow of an oyster shell, he wonders what would happen if he should come out.
For the first time in decades, he wants to.