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.
Take a trip with me, to a small alley just outside one of the bustling squares of Neveah. There is a door there, set into a gleaming white tower that reaches towards the blue, blue sky. It’s almost hidden, this wooden door, painted to resemble the white of the tower’s stone.
Does it look to you like the paint is peeling?
But we continue. Down the spiral staircase, down below the base of the tower. See the torches that line the walls? See the windows set high, high up, near the ceiling?
Further down the hall, almost just out of reach of your hearing, there is a sound you would not expect, not in a place like this. Here, where the nitre creeps along the floor and there is a dampness you cannot escape, here is a place for cries, for lamentations, not -
Not for laughter.
But laughter there is.
Chuckles, even. The audacity of a guffaw. Aziraphale has giggled, more than once, at a particularly amusing thing Crowley said, and still has not heard the end of it.
Aziraphale forgets, sometimes. Where they are, who they are.
There are days when Aziraphale sits against the door, the wood softer, somehow, than the cushions on the chair. He can feel Crowley moving behind him, flatters himself that Crowley is sitting on the other side of the door, warming the wood with the heat of his body. Aziraphale has never felt so cold as when the light slips away from the tiny windows at the end of the hall, the sign that any minute now, the night guard will appear, and he must stand or sit a respectable distance away.
The guard arrives with his things. They hand off the keys. Aziraphale leaves, and wanders his way through a city putting the day away, bundling up, a city going home. He sees families, couples, holding hands, walking close, laughing, whispering to each other, and he is always alone, alone, alone.
Sometimes at night, (only sometimes, he would say, if he were asked, but he would be lying [though there are no lies in Nevaeh]), he lays in his narrow bed, and thinks about the voice of another in his ear, a voice which whispers stories, which soothes, which asks questions (endless questions), makes him laugh, makes him want. (There is no want in Nevaeh, there is no want in Nevaeh, but how quickly the old songs ring hollow.)
Aziraphale wants . It is a biting hunger - he never knew what it was, how ravenous he could be, for so many things indeed, there, in the dark of his bedroom.
He wonders if Crowley ever thinks about the same sorts of things. But how could he? Aziraphale won’t even tell Crowley his name , is too afraid that allowing Crowley to have that final part of him will cause the pile of his half truths and self deceptions to crumble like a poorly stacked house of cards. (No comforts, or Nevaeh will fall.)
“I wish I could see you,” he says to Crowley one afternoon, in a moment of quiet he needed to fill. I wish I could touch you , he does not, although it is just as true. Crowley does not respond with the obvious: that Aziraphale could . He has the keys, there, in his hand, he could open the door, look his fill, see how the dim light of that small window plays across his features. And, if - if Crowley would would only ask, if he would want too , he could watch his finely manicured hands trace patterns up across Crowley’s palms, could bring one of those white hands to his own lips, could -
No comfort, he was told. Or Nevaeh will fall. Nevaeh is home to thousands, thousands who do not know want, or disease, or famine, and all it costs is Crowley.
Aziraphale does not know how much longer he can pay such a price.
He falters, again, late one winter morning. Crowley has just finished telling him another of his endless well of stories, this one about a snow maiden which came to life and lived happily ever after with the god of ice. Aziraphale doesn’t remember that one, and is certain Crowley has taken a few sad ones and spun them together, polished them until they shone.
None of Crowley’s stories have sad endings.
Aziraphale’s heart is full of the warmth that comes at the end of a warm and soft tale, his limbs relaxed and languid, and draws the skin of wine from his bag, for although his soul is warm his extremities could use some improvement, and the wine will serve his purposes well. He takes the first sip, feels refreshed, then thinks, as he does (more and more these days), of Crowley, leaning against the door on the other side, three inches away from him, a breath away, a lifetime away, feeling the same cold.
He opens the grate, as he has now many times, to share a bit of bread, a bite of a tasty cheese, a tin of curried rice he hadn’t cared for. (It’s only the heel of the bread, the cheese is a bit too sharp for my taste, it’s not comfort he’s doing me a service by sparing me the effort of having to be rid of it. Lies, lies, so many little lies piling on top of each other, a tower built that his doubt may ascend to new heights.)
“Would you like some?”
“Oh, wine . I haven’t had wine in… well, it’s been less than twenty but more than ten, somewhere around there.” Aziraphale holds the wine through the door, expecting that Crowley will grasp the other end of it. Maybe that’s what Crowley intends. Maybe Crowley’s fingers have a mind of their own. Maybe Aziraphale is holding it just so that it would be only an accident (keep the denial alive).
However it happens, when Crowley goes to take the wine, his fingers brush over Aziraphale’s.
The effect is immediate. Imagine a static shock of electricity between you and another, you have lightning in you, someone once said to you, with a curling smile and a secret in their eyes that no one else but you could possibly understand. It’s like that, a bolt, a shiver somewhere deep in your bones, and it makes you ache like never before.
He must gasp, or cry out, or otherwise betray himself, because Crowley’s voice cuts through, sharp, worried.
“Angel, what’s wrong?” Is Crowley’s voice too high? Or is Aziraphale just hoping, projecting, taking his own want and twisting it into Crowley? Aziraphale does not know what to say, opens his mouth and closes it, gasping like a fish dragged up from the depths and left to die on a hot wooden dock.
“I’m sorry,” Crowley continues. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean - it was an accident, I wouldn’t -”
“What?” Crowley’s babbled apologies arrest the carousel of Aziraphale’s fear, convert it instantly to concern. “Crowley, you - you’ve done nothing… why are you apologizing?”
There is silence on the other side of the door.
“Crowley?” Nothing but the sound of shuffling. Aziraphale’s eyes are fixed on the open grate, looking for a shadow, listening for a sigh, anything. But there is nothing, nothing to encourage.
Nothing to deter.
And Aziraphale wants . He imagines placing his hand there, where Crowley could reach it if he wishes, again the tentative brush of fingers, what would his hands feel like? Rough, certainly, rough against his soft, how they would - His hand twitches.
“It’s nothing,” Crowley says. “Nothing.”
Aziraphale snatches his hand away.
It is four days later.
The winter sunlight is not gentle, this morning. It glints and glares off of windows, of the ocean, it floods Aziraphale’s eyes and forces them to water, forces them to weakness. The bread from the bakery has no warmth left by the time he reaches it, and Aziraphale longs for nothing but to be curled up against the door while Crowley spins him a tale about a warm summer’s day. The night guard hands him the key and bids him a good morning. Aziraphale mumbles something in response. He is not here. He is an hour or so in the future, when Crowley wakes from his slumber, and they will talk, they will share the bread, yes, and Crowley will call him angel and -
There is a soft clearing of a throat or four, and he looks up.
It’s the ministers.
You might want to skip the next part. I want to. I wish that I could.
Do you know what it was like, to be small, and afraid? To learn where the hiding places were, the cracks of a home into which you could fold yourself, where you could hide, pray, pray that your hiding was better than their finding. Do you remember listening to them rage outside your hiding place, do you remember the roaring in your ears, the terror, the trembling, thundering heartbeat you were certain they could hear? But if they didn’t if they didn’t they would get tired, they would go away, and soon it would be safe to come out (as safe as it ever was.) Otherwise -
Do you know what it was like to be found?
All the children that had lived in the dark and the damp knew this fear. They learned silence, they learned to cower. Those who came to visit the child, who rushed into that dark room, with harsh words and flying fists, they reveled in their power, in the disgust they had for the child.
But Crowley was already a young man, when he went into the dark. A young man, who was strong from years of running and playing in the sunshine, who had bested his friends in their games, who was quick and clever, who had been loved by those who raised him, who never knew what it was to curl his body into a trembling ball.
Do you remember the first time you hit back? The surprise on their face, the stupid, slack-jawed moment before the explosion of anger?
Do you know what it was like, to make sure they never did it again?
So he was not attacked with kicks and fists, like all those who came before him had been. The elders had learned their lesson, the first time they had tried, and been sent away with aching heads, cracked noses, bruised pride. They knew not to even cross the threshold, lest such an action be taken as a challenge.
But there are other ways to ensure suffering. There are words, carefully chosen, designed to slice and cut, to flay a heart open and leave it bleeding on the stone.
How noble the ministers thought themselves, to take the burden from the citizens of Nevaeh, how put upon, how wise .
Cruelty to one, and ensure the bounty of the rest.
What an easy choice, the ministers would say.
It had been easy, in the time before.
But now see them. “What an easy choice,” the auburn one says, as she is supposed to. But the reassuring smile does not reach her eyes. Another looks away, stares at their feet. See their doubt?
There is no doubt in Neveah. (There are no lies in Neveah.)
Is it fortunate that Aziraphale was there, the day they came? Crowley would not have said so. He would have prefered Aziraphale never know this particular indignation. It was infrequent enough that it should not matter. He was practiced at sitting against the wall, watching them as they hurled insults from a doorway they were too afraid to step through. Their words could dig, they could slide like bamboo underneath his fingernails, but they were only such: words.
But, six months after Aziraphale came to sit and guard the door and first spoke to the man behind it, the ministers arrived.
“H-hello,” Aziraphale greets them, nearly stumbling over his own feet in his haste to stand. What are they doing here? Is he being relieved of duty? Do they know ?
“Open the door, Aziraphale,” the tall minister commands.
Aziraphale drops his pack, his fingers fumbling with the keys. Open the door open the door open the door . How many times has he longed to do this himself? How many afternoons wasted, and now he must open the door for those who placed him here, who cannot mean anything but ill, not with those looks on their faces. The tumblers click in the lock, but he does not open the door. He does not know if he is meant to, and he looks to the ministers for direction.
“Thank you, Aziraphale,” the tall one says. “You may go. Have a break. Go for a walk.”
It is not a choice.
They are staring at him, the four ministers, expectantly, waiting, waiting for him to move and he should move, he should step away from the door.
“Is something wrong, Aziraphale?”
“No, no, not at all, it’s all -” he shuffles away from the door, takes a few halting steps down the corridor.
He does not hear anything until he reaches the foot of the stairs, a whisper, scuttling across the floor like a spider, creeping like a mad woman behind the wall.
“It’s been a while, Crawly."
"Have you gone mad yet?”
A good citizen would do as he’s told, would walk away, take a break, come back in ten or twenty minutes, abide by his ministers, ignore the words he hears at the end of the hall, offer no comfort, none at all.
“Doesn’t matter, now, does it? Whether you’re mad or not. Who would care for you, if you came out again?”
Aziraphale is very, very bad at being a good citizen of Neveah.
“Look at yourself. Children would think you’re a ghost, and run from you in fear.”
He turns on his heel.
“She never mentions you, did you know that? She’s forgotten you.”
“Everyone has forgotten -”
“What are you doing?” Aziraphale cannot believe his own voice, the gall of it, ringing out over the voices of the ministers, and four heads whirl around to face him.
The door is open.
He cannot see Crowley, through the open door. The ministers block the view, and it is so dark within.
“Aziraphale, you would not understand-” the short minister begins, but Aziraphale shakes his head. He needs to play this - he cannot say what he means, what he feels. He must be clever.
“How can the great ministers of Nevaeh debase themselves like this?” he asks, letting the despair he feels filter in to his voice, though the cause could not be more different than the expression. They will not be able to tell the difference. “To come to this dismal place on such a day? To associate with… it.” His heart hurts to say it, for that word to leave his mouth. But this isn’t about what he should be doing, it’s not about how he feels, it’s about -
“We… this is…” the auburn minister falters, and Aziraphale seizes the opportunity like a dog with a bone.
“Surely there is another, there is a lesser citizen that can take this terrible burden from your shoulders!” Aziraphale continues. Look at the drawn lines in his face, the worry in his voice. He is the picture of a concerned citizen, is he not? “If it should get out that the four of you-”
“It will not get out,” the tall one interrupts, with a furtive glance at the others. “Will it, Aziraphale?”
“How could you ever-” Aziraphle hopes his face is aghast. “Me? I would never , I could never tell a soul how the four of you came down here and stood outside the room, shouting insults! Who would believe you capable of such a thing? None! I should be made the laughingstock of all Neveah!” He cringes. Had he laid it on too thick there, at the end? But the ministers are not looking at him as if they have seen through the ruse. They are looking everywhere but him.
“Well, I think we have delayed our morning meeting long enough,” the auburn minister declares, suddenly. The others latch on, murmuring their agreement. Indeed, you can imagine, there must be many things for these busy ministers to do, many great and weighty matters to take up. This task is… an unpleasantry, especially with this blonde and blue eyed son of Neveah looking at them as he does, his arms out, supplicating their greatness.
The short one slams the door shut, turns the key, and hands it back to the guard.
Then, with many a murmur amongst themselves, the ministers depart.
Aziraphale sits against the door, listens to Crowley's shaky breaths, just out of reach.
“Crowley?” he asks. He wants to apologize. I’m sorry I opened the door, I’m sorry I left you with them, I’m sorry, I’m sorry -
"Don't worry about me, angel" Crowley says out at last. "They've done worse. Would have done worse, if you hadn't said what you did. So - thanks. Thank you, for that." Angel, again.
It’s too much.
"Aziraphale," he mutters.
"What was that?" Crowley asks.
"My name. It's Aziraphale."
Crowley pauses, even in his breath.
"Aziraphale," he repeats. "Aziraphale, Aziraphale, Aziraphale." Like Crowley is committing it to memory, like it's a prayer, a benediction. "Aziraphale." Aziraphale cannot listen anymore, will do something drastic and ridiculous if he hears his name drop from those lips even one more time.
"Are you worried they'll come back?" Yes, a frantic question, redirect.
"Them? Nah. This is a once every few months thing for them. Remind me of what I am. What I've chosen. Make themselves feel better, hope I've gone mad." There's a grin now, despite - "They always get frustrated when they realize it hasn't worked. That I'm not - that there isn't complete suffering. How will Nevaeh remain, if there isn't total suffering?" It's bitter.
"Crowley, are you suffering?"
"It's no picnic in here, angel - Aziraphale, but it could be worse. I have the plants, and I have my stories, and -" an exhale. "I have you."
Aziraphale makes his decision. They won't be back today, Crowley has said, and Crowley would know. Crowley isn't suffering. Nevaeh still stands. Aziraphale has been testing the boundaries since that first week, hasn't he? Since the first time he listened? There's been no plague, no famine, no tower toppling into the sea. Crowley has been provided a hundred, a thousand moments of comfort from his hands alone, and there have been no consequences .
What's another moment, after all? Another ten, another twenty?
"Crowley, step back a moment." Aziraphale draws the key from his robe for the second time today, only now he does not fumble in front of grim-faced ministers. He fiddles with the key in the lock.
"Crowley? Are you alright?" There is no sound from behind the door. Aziraphale takes a deep breath, pushes. The door creaks open.
He sees Crowley for the first time.
It’s the hair he sees first. It is dark, dark red, glinting in the dim light of the torches and the small square of sunlight from the window high above their heads. He follows the trail of Crowley’s curls down his shoulder, across robes that were once fine quality indeed, gone dull and patched. There is a white throat, and above that - above that -
Two wide and bright eyes set in a sharp face blink back at him. They’re amber, almost gold - it could be a trick of the light, perhaps - and they gleam with fire and intelligence and -
Aziraphale freezes, his foot hovering in the air. It would be comical if it were not so sad, and he slowly lowers it to the ground. Crowley is backed against the wall on the other side of the room, standing, shoulders back, like he expects a fight, an attack. Twenty years Crowley has been here. Twenty years, and the only time the door has been opened it has been an invasion of Crowley's space, with harsh words and fists that wished to hit. (But they couldn't, they never could, not with the whipcord strength in those lean arms.) Crowley is breathing heavy again, and Aziraphale stays put. Doesn't enter.
"What's wrong, angel?” Crowley asks. But it’s been too long, you see. Maybe Aziraphale would have taken the bravado in that voice on it’s face six months ago, but he would have to be a fool not to sede it for what it is now. “Sorry,” Crowley continues, still trying to keep up his charade. “ Aziraphale . Too afraid to come in? Too afraid to share the same space?" There is a question Crowley is asking, one that Aziraphale can only see the edges of. He is afraid of getting it wrong, of -
Well, there is one thing he can reassure Crowley of, at least.
"I don't mind,” Aziraphale says, simply.
"You don't mind what?" Crowley asks.
"You can still call me angel, if you like."
You remember, I’m sure, the first time someone surpirsed you. When you expected them to recoil, to jump back, to gaze at you in horror for what you’ve done or said. But then they just smiled,t you it was okay, told you they loved you regardless.
Crowley feels that way now, and he closes his eyes, steels himself, allows the moments to pass, one by one. He opens them again, and Aziraphale is still there, ringed in the torchlight of the doorway, golden ringlets shining like a halo of all things, kind, impossibly blue eyes - blue eyes like the sky Crowley hasn’t seen in twenty years staring back at him.
Crowley takes another breath. (Just one more, just to steady himself, he’s allowed, he’s allowed to be nervous, allowed to be-) Then he takes a step towards Aziraphale, and another and another, until they are barely a breath apart. Aziraphale doesn't move.
"Are you scared?" Crowley asks. Aziraphale didn’t answer him, the first time he asked, and Crowley doesn’t know how to read the expression on the other’s face. "I know what I am. I know what I look like." Crowley bites the inside of his mouth, and Aziraphale doesn’t know how to tell him how he looks, doesn’t know how to describe the riot of emotions spiralling in his chest. So he doesn’t.
Instead, Aziraphale gently, so gently, offers Crowley his hand, palm up, like there is something waiting there in the lines, something that can be read, taken, given freely. Crowley stares at the hand. Aziraphale remembers being younger, his mother taking him to the beach. There had been fishermen there, a boat full of them. They had reeled in a shark, and though it was dead on the bottom of their boat, Aziraphale had not been able to stop staring at the rows and rows of razor sharp teeth, certain that at any moment the beast would spring to life, and use those terrible knives to cut and rend and hurt.
He thinks, if he could have seen himself then, he would have stared at the shark the same way Crowley is staring at his hand now.
You can imagine it. You’ve felt it before, the gulf between you and another, insurmountable, mamihlapinatapai , each of you wishing the other would take the initiative.
It’s Crowley who reaches first.
He slowly, slowly, then all at once, as if he is trying to prove something to himself, as if he knows he will lose his resolve if he hesitates one second longer, he places the pads of his fingers into Aziraphale’s outstretched hand. They twitch there, certain that Aziraphale will clutch, will grasp, will try and pull, but the moments stretch on and on and Aziraphale hasn’t moved. Crowley can feel the warmth in his hand, can feel their point of contact, buzzing and electric, can feel sensations churning in the base of his spine, bonfires lit there from even this barest touch.
How long he has been without touch.
“Are you alright?” Aziraphale asks, softly. Crowley nods, brushes his fingers against Aziraphale’s skin, climbing higher, daring to feel the heel of his hand, the ridges of his thumb, to trace the delicate veins sitting against the soft skin of his wrist. He marvels at the warmth, at the frisson, and he stifles a pathetic sigh that has been sleeping deep in his chest since the moment Aziraphale told him the terrible and wonderful sin he has committed against Nevaeh that landed him here.
It’s Aziraphale who shivers, as each nerve along his arm is brought into acute awareness with each stroke of Crowley’s rough, calloused fingers. All intention of what he was going to do when he opened the door has spun out somewhere in the air between them, foundered on the rocks of the intensity in Crowley's gaze, the hope that mingles with fear in his expression. He didn’t know, it’s been -
How long has it been since someone touched you with love, with reverence? Has it ever happened before?
Would you know it again?
Aziraphale slowly raises his other hand, pauses above Crowley’s outstretched arm, waiting for a sign ( is this okay? ). Crowley stares at the movement, eyes impossibly wide, but doesn't pull away.
He nods again. Yes. Please .
Aziraphale runs his fingers down Crowley's arm and Crowley whines , a needy, high pitched thing that hitches his breath. He shuts his mouth, immediately, embarrassed, surely now Aziraphale will pull away, will - but Aziraphale is not deterred. He traces the valleys of the lean muscles, the hollow of his elbow, the curve of the shoulder. Here he comes to an impasse. He is tempted by Crowley’s long hair, wants to know what it would feel like curled around his fingers, but he doesn’t know, doesn’t… He looks at Crowley helplessly, sees those golden eyes focused on the infinitesimal space between Aziraphale’s hand and a loose curl.
Crowley covers Aziraphale's hand with his, and runs their joined hands through his hair. It's Aziraphale's turn to gasp, at the softness, at the gentle twist of Crowley's hair in his fingers. Crowley steadies his breath again before moving on in his own explorations. His long, fine fingers find themselves splayed against Aziraphale's throat, where Aziraphale is sure Crowley must feel his heartbeat which has long surpassed anything resembling a modicum of control. He looks up, and Crowley is - Crowley is -
When did they get so close?
Ten moments are not enough. Twenty are not enough. A lifetime, Aziraphale thinks. Yes. A lifetime of this would be enough. But -
"What is this?" He asks, because he doesn't know. What is this hysterical, wild feeling bubbling through him when Crowley makes a small, delighted sigh each time Aziraphale runs a hand through his hair, as Crowley gently - so gently - runs his fingers along the soft curve of Aziraphale's jaw.
It's too much. It's not enough. Aziraphale has the sudden urge to provide Crowley with all manner of comforts, to lie with him as the tower collapses down around them, to be buried together for the rest of time in the rubble of this thing between them.
"I don't know." Crowley replies. "I don't -" There is distress creeping in, and Aziraphale draws back at once.
"What is it?"
You must understand, you must , that Crowley has not wanted many things. He has not wanted to walk among the liars and doubters and hypocrites of Nevaeh, he has not wanted to enjoy the wines and chocolates and dancing and pleasures the city had to offer. He could not, even if he were forced from the room, not knowing what it would cost.
But now there is another cost he did not anticipate, not when he went into the room at sixteen. To remain in the room, to keep children of Nevaeh safe from grasping ministers drunk on tradition, he must give up this .
He must give up Aziraphale.
Aziraphale will not come into the room with him forever. He would never be allowed to, and Crowley would never ask that of him.
Maybe there is another way (there has to be another way). He has to think, and he cannot think, not when Aziraphale, with his earnest blue eyes and head of soft, heavenly blonde curls, looks at him like that , like he isn't - like he's not -
Crowley's face passes through a gauntlet of feelings, settles on something between false cheer and agony.
"Sit with me?" he asks, finally. "I'll tell you a story."
Aziraphale pauses, then smiles.
"Of course, my dear."
And this is how, an hour hence, we see Crowley's shoulder pressed against Aziraphale's, as they build a story together. Crowley has the characters, the plot, but it is Aziraphale whose reactions drive Crowley's telling, whose laughs wide eyes propel the tale to new heights.
They almost do not notice the sun burning orange in Crowley's small window.
Until Crowley stands, and offers a hand down to help Aziraphale up. He tries not to thrill at their clasped hands. (He fails.)
(Crowley was thinking. Crowley is always thinking, and the urgency of the matter at hand drove his thoughts in desperate directions. He has a solution but -)
“I can’t leave,” he begins, and Aziraphale’s hand tightens on Crowley’s arm, on instinct.
"If I left,” Crowley says, very carefully (so carefully, not looking at Aziraphale, too afraid to see the look on his face). “I could walk out, if I wanted. But they would just - they would put someone else in.”
“But they wouldn’t have to!” Aziraphale exclaims, giving voice to the thoughts that have been plaguing him for months. “Once they see you’re out and the city is fine they’ll - they’ll see its all just been for show!”
“You don’t expect them to throw away centuries of tradition because there wasn’t someone in the room for a single afternoon, do you?” Crowley shoots back. Aziraphale opens his mouth to answer but Crowley continues -
“But we could - we could - There are no soldiers in Nevaeh."
"No, There aren't." Aziraphale is wary. What is Crowley getting at?
"There is no one watching the gate. We can leave - together, we can go off - And… and when they put someone else in, we can come back in, we can stop it, rescue them, their families too, we can -"
“Crowley that would never work!” Aziraphale’s face is hot. “They’ll catch us - somehow, they’ll -”
“Ah yes, lets just sit out there safe somewhere while some other child is stolen from its parents in the night, wonderful idea, perfect.”
“No!” Aziraphale is affronted, confused, where is that sparkling thing between them, where has it gone so quickly? “I’m not saying this is right , Crowley. I’m saying we shouldn’t run . There needn’t be anymore children at all.”
“How would that happen then?” Crowley is angry, Aziraphale has never heard him angry before. “Going to overthrow the government, spark a revolution?”
“Of course not!” Aziraphale is affronted at the very thought. “I’m going to talk to the ministers tomorrow, I’m going to explain that - that there’s been some mistake and then… well, and then they’ll fix it.” Crowley’s mouth hangs open in disbelief. He blinks at Aziraphale twice, three times.
“That… won’t happen!” he exclaims at last. “How can someone as clever as you be so stupid?”
“Well there’s no need to be-”
“We can go, Aziraphale, we can leave this miserable city behind, we can rescue those they put back in but -”
“No, Crowley.” Aziraphale says, shaking his head. Leave Nevaeh? He has thought about it, as a distant hypothetical, a what if scenario to take out of its box and play with of a particularly boring afternoon.
But Crowley turns away, stares up at the window with his back to Aziraphale.
“Get out, Aziraphale.” Crowley says. “Night is falling. Wouldn’t want to be caught in here, not with ‘it.’”
“Crowley, that’s not, I don’t mean -”
“I don’t want to stay, Aziraphale. I don’t want to stay in a city that knows what’s happening - that has always known what was happening, and never lifted a finger to stop it.” His voice is cracking, and he will not turn around.
“I’ll - I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Crowley does not reply.
Aziraphale steps out the door. His hands shake as he closes the door, his chest aches as he locks it behind him.
Aziraphale is going to stop this.
He has to.
Very early the next morning, Aziraphale twiddles his thumbs outside the offices of the ministers.
The last time he was here was right before his “discussion” with them in regards to his missing supplies, the overabundance of admitted travellers. They had stared down their noses at him and he had stood there and - and lied, and they hadn’t -”
One foot in front of the other, he enters their chambers alone.
(If he imagines someone else there with him, someone with a head full of stories and a heart full of bravery, that is Aziraphale’s concern, and no one else's.)
The room is bright, and the ministers sit on their chairs above him, wreathed in light.
“Aziraphale,” the tall one begins. “You have requested an audience with us, and you may speak at your leisure.”
“Yes - ah - thank you.” Aziraphale shuffles his feet, flicks his eyes toward the ground for a moment to give himself some relief from the hash light. “It was - that is, in regards to Crowley -”
The energy of the room instantly shifts.
Where there had been pitiful indulgence, now there is something intense, hot.
“There is no one by that name in all of Nevaeh,” one of the ministers declares. “There never has been.”
“But… but you were all there yesterday -”
“I thought we were clear on this matter.”
“We were nowhere, Aziraphale,” the short minister interjects. “We are where we must be, and where we are is to best serve the needs of Nevaeh.”
“There must always be a room.”
“There must always be someone in it.”
“Yes!” Aziraphale seizes his chance. “You see. This is… this is what I wanted to speak to you about. I just think… that, perhaps… there need not be anyone there,” The words drop out onto the marble floor like coins into the bottom of a bucket. They linger there, in the air, like a collective breath.
“How would that go, Aziraphale?” the tall minister finally asks him, carefully. “Should we tell the city that there is no cornerstone?”
“No, not at all, it just seems -”
“Well, we were always told that there must be - that the room must be awful, that the person in it must be suffering, but -”
“Do you feel there is not enough suffering?” The short minister again, with lips curled over their teeth and look on their face that makes Aziraphale queasy.
“I knew the window was a mistake-” the minister who has yet to speak, the stout one, is roused from his stupor. “Knew we shouldn’t ever have allowed it. Would tear the city right from it’s foundation, I said. Now look, it’s got his guards asking questions and turning soft. Better to have let it gone mad like the rest of them.”
The other three ministers share an uncomfortable glance upward. There is no one there, no one but the head minister, and she is even less visible than the others. She is hardly more than a dark smudge against a brilliant background, but Aziraphale has to believe she is there, he has to believe that there is a gentle, yet firm hand that can right the ship.
The ministers wait. Aziraphale waits.
But there is no reply from above.
“You would not say such things, were it once your child,” the auburn minister says, finally. Her eyes do not deviate from the fixed point above.
Realization floods Aziraphale, and he bites down hard on his tongue - almost enough to draw blood. His ears are ringing, his stomach lurching, and if he doesn’t leave the chamber this moment he’s going to - he’s going to - he doesn’t know what he’ll do.
Crowley was - Crowley was once -
He looks up, tries to see through the bright light, tries to see the eyes of the head minister who once allowed her own child to -
But he cannot. He cannot read her expression, he cannot know if she approves or is furious. The ministers bicker with each other, each spouting a darker shade of morality than Aziraphale can comprehend. This, then, are the leaders that tend the city? This is the glorious council of Nevaeh? This is who he wants to - who he thought Crowley would want to live among again?
Aziraphale backs slowly out of the chamber. Most of the ministers do not notice him, so consumed with discussing the best method by which one might suffer. There is one, though, who does watch as Aziraphale’s gaze takes on steel, his spine straightens, his gait becomes more sure. She sits high, high in that chamber. See the pale cast upon her cheek? See the tear rolling down her face?
See the amber of her eyes?
There is only one place Aziraphale wishes to go, but he stops off at his small flat first, packs a bag, says offhand and distant words to his neighbor when she sees him in the hallway. What need will he have of money? No, there are other things to bring - food, blankets, skins for water and wine. He is worried he will be stopped in the street - there are no soldiers in Nevaeh, but there are a thousand busybodies. People carrying things all over the city, what should one more man with curly blonde locks and and flint in his motions matter? He does not. No one stops him, no one even pays him a single iota of attention.
They should have, you know.
But do we ever know the iconoclast when he walks past? Can we read the winds of change in the lines of his face?
Because, you see, Aziraphale has made his decision.
He goes to work.
He hears them before he sees them. Crowley is in the midst of a lengthy diatribe (Can’t start everyone off on different footings and expect them to all make the same choices), but the guard is ignoring Crowley completely. He waves at Aziraphale, hands him the key, doesn’t notice anything is amiss.
He doesn’t see.
The moment he is gone, the moment his footfalls have stopped echoing down the hall, Aziraphale is at the door.
“Crowley,” he hisses. “Crowley you were right. They didn't - they wouldn’t listen.” Silence. “Let’s - let’s run.” Please.
“Angel?” There is so much disbelief there it breaks Aziraphale’s heart near in two. “What do you mean, exactly ?”
“Can I open the door, and show you?”
The tumblers click, the door is thrown open, and -
Crowley is there.
“I know what this is,” Aziraphale says, because he does. He left all his second guesses and cowardice shattered into pieces on the marble floor of the ministers chamber.
“You do?” Crowley asks. Aziraphale watches his lips as he says it, and when he flicks his eyes up, he knows Crowley has been watching him too. “Is it like the stories?”
Is this what they had all been about? However did those authors get it so wrong? How did Crowley ever get it so wrong? In all the kisses ever described, he'd never heard of one that felt like flying, like the ground has dropped out from underneath him and he's soaring, boundless, weightless, free.
It's how he feels now, as Crowley presses rough lips to his.
But then Crowley jumps back, looks on Aziraphale with something like fear.
"I'm sorry - I didn't mean-"
"I did," says Aziraphale, and he finds that he does, he does mean it, he meant every moment he thought about Crowley before, in the morning buying bread, in the sunshine knowing that Crowley was missing it, in the darkness of his room wondering what it would be like if his bed were no so empty and so small.
"Are you sure?" Crowley asks, and sweeps a hand over his body. His hair hangs about his face, long and curled, his skin is pale from so long in the dark, robes that were once fine silk now patched and threadbare. His eyes flick away from Aziraphale's, focus on the corner of the room. He does not see how the light from the candle strikes his face, does not see the halo of dark hair that falls about him like a crown of flames, does not see the sharp intelligence of his eyes, or feel the softness of his fingers where they still clutch Aziraphale's wrist.
He is the most beautiful thing Aziraphale has ever seen.
"Oh my darling, of course I am."
It is all the permission Crowley needs. He surges forward, presses Aziraphale against the wall, runs his hands through the blonde curls
"I love you," Aziraphale manages in between kisses. "I've loved you for so long." He does, he does , he doesn’t know where it started, between which silence, which pause before the next line of a story, which brief second in between chuckles was the spark to light this fire in him, this longing in his chest that can only be soothed by Crowley’s touch.
“I’ve been gone since the first,” Crowley mutters against his throat, the vibrations of his voice shooting sparks behind Aziraphale’s eyes. “Since you told me - how you gave it away.” Aziraphale digs his fingers into Crowley’s shoulders, buries his face in the crook of Crowley’s neck.
Have you lived for a long, long time, behind a locked door, behind a wall, with a small square of light to give you hope?
Aziraphale has too.
But now, when they hoist the packs of supplies onto their backs, when they take those first few steps out of the room?
They are not alone.
Have you found home?
Perhaps I should not have called this story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Nevaeh.” After all, our protagonists did not stay away.
You see, the ministers of the city were stickers for tradition. Once they realized that Crowley was gone, that Aziraphale had gone with him, they sought at once a new child.
They found one quickly, as the ministers from Nevaeh always had.
See them there, the ministers themselves, at the door of the humble home on the side of Nevaeh that is perhaps not as picturesque as the rest. There is no want here, there is no want in all of Nevaeh, but perhaps here there is an air of something less than perfect. It is in the too strained smiles of citizens who walk to and fro, in the unevenness of the cobblestones that line the streets. But see them there, at the door? See the man welcome them in?
There they are again. One holds a child in his arms. He does not smile. You hear the wails and cries of the child? Listen to how they match those of the woman within the flat, how she cannot be consoled by the soft, empty words of the man who met the ministers at the door.
The child is brought to a different place, one with no window, no little line of plants on the sill, no kind hearted guard.
Back to basics , they tell themselves. Reinstate the trial. No more mistakes. No more strong willed fallen who make their own choices.
The child is kept in the dark. Their pleas to be let out, to be good, to be allowed to see his mother, they all go unanswered.
For three days, the child is there in the damp and the dark, with the spiders.
On the dawn of the fourth day, the lock is found broken. The woman who should have been guarding the door is nowhere to be found.
See the empty room? There is no more child.
Nevaeh still stands.
Imagine the second child the ministers lock away. The third. The fourth. None remain for more than seven days. The mothers and fathers of the children are not found in their beds, and they do not return.
Double the guard , one of the ministers declared. Have the gates watched!
By who? There are no soldiers in Nevaeh. There are no agents of the state to walk the streets. There is no crime in Nevaeh. There is no war. There is no dissention.
There are no lies in Nevaeh.
But now there is something that there has never been in Nevaeh.
There is talk .
They do not want more talk . Soldiers on the walls, guards in the streets? Unthinkable.
They soothe it the only way they know how: soon the rumors circulate that another child has been put into the dark. There is a guard, and a door, and the room beyond it is miserable and awful.
Three days after the rumors begin, there are two cloaked figures that enter the city.
One carries a bent piece of metal. The other a short sword that glows faintly in the dark. (Phosphorous from the ocean, but those in Nevaeh do not understand, and they are afraid.) They make their way to the new room, as they have nearly half a dozen times before.
Something is wrong the moment they arrive. There is no guard. The key is in the lock, and when they turn it and open the door, there is no child. There is nothing there, but a note upon the floor. It says two words.
The city of Nevaeh, white towered by the sea.
But we no longer care for the lie, do we? We see through the pale walls, we see the grime in the cracks of the limestone of its towers, we know there are weeds sprouting between the cobbles that line the streets. We know on the faces of the people, we can see it, the merry lie they carry within themselves.
There is a child somewhere in the city. There are many children in the city.
There is no room where there is dark, and damp, and spiders.
Let us leave, you and I, while the evening is set out against the sky. There are other places than these.
There is a little village. It is not far from here. I want to show it to you, before you go.
It overlooks the sea. Those who live in the village have always loved the sea, although most of them have come here from somewhere else. There are children here, and in the mornings they roam the hills and tend the sheep. You can call the village a name, if you like.
Call it Eden. It’s a good a name as any.
There is want here, in the winter. Sometimes there is sadness, disease, famine. But there are no lies. There are no dark and damp rooms.
All the children are raised in the sunshine.
And there, in an unassuming cottage by the sea, there are two figures who should be very familiar to you. One still wears his hair long, and it hands about his shoulders in curls as he thins out the carrots in the large garden. Crowley stands up, stretches his back, wipes the sweat from his brow.
“Are you almost done out there, my dear?” Here is the second, with his fair blonde curls, his eyes like the sea reflecting the sky. “The Youngs have invited us over for supper and I would hate to keep them waiting.”
“Keep them waiting, angel?” Crowley replies. He’s seen Aziraphale help himself to seconds and thirds of Mrs. Young’s famous shepherd’s pie, and he isn’t fooled by Aziraphale’s concern for punctuality in the slightest.
“You know what I mean, love.”
Crowley does. He is more happy than he ever thought possible, to know exactly what Aziraphale means, to know what he wants, to see him there, in the light, to take his hand whenever he pleases.
He doesn’t flinch anymore, but even the smallest contact can still set his soul on fire.
There are days when they don’t make it much past the confines of their warm bed, past the confines of each other, lost in the sense of where one begins and the other ends, hands tangled in hair, sweat mingling, quiet pleas, please please please, that are always answered.
Sometimes Crowley wakes up in the dark, and breathes too quickly.
But he is never alone. There is always a warm, soft pair of arms that wind themselves around him, a head full of curls that smell like bergamot and sea salt air, a pair of lips hungry to kiss away the cobwebs of nightmare.
And in the morning, the sun will rise.
Thank you so much for reading. I haven't been able to get The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas out of my head since I read it, and thought it would be the perfect AU for the dynamics of Good Omens.
Talk to me here @soft-october-night