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A Portrait in Synesthesia

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“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”

-T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

 

The thing about beginnings is that they always go wrong. You don’t get to plan the beginning of something. Not really. Certainly, you can lay the plans, imagine how a thing will go, let it play out in your head time and time again— but we all know what they say about the best laid plans. What you may not know, is that the best laid plans of gods can also go awry, but one of the perks of being an almighty and all-powerful being is that the word “ineffable” and a vague wave of the hand allows you all sorts of leeway.

Endings, much like beginnings, are never what we picture. The vexing business of the middle sees to that. That strange and unknowable landscape where plans go awry and take on a chaotic life of their own. There are no maps of this in-between space except those you create as you traverse it, the lay of the land being something you learn as you go.

Because it’s the middle where a story truly lives. The meandering space between the bookends that holds deserts and seas, stars and comets, cities that grow from villages, then crumble to ruins. Simple things are also found here, of course; pockets of stillness and solace in a turbulent world. Stretches of gentle terrain that lead you to gardens, libraries, festivals. Quaint bookshops in sleepy towns or a peaceful bakery with a flower box where the welcome sign should be. Tea shared with a friend in a quiet moment. Empathy shared with a stranger. It all depends on where you look, and how— the lens through which you examine this map. The souls who carefully draw the roads and plot the topography to chart this course.

Here between the bookends, there are two. Two angels who had far more beginnings than they should have. Then one angel and one demon who took a very long and unlikely path through the middle.

Since we need to start this story somewhere, let’s start at the beginning. The first one.

 


 

The first time God created the earth, it was something of a disaster. She’d had no teacher of Her own, and, fresh off the rush of creating several million angels, She was riding more than a little bit of a creative high. So She laid out some rough plans for creating stars and shaping the cosmos, handed them off to Her angels, then settled in to pursue Her own artistic endeavor.

The problem with setting the stage for that first version of Earth, was that “setting the stage” is exactly what She did. She made a stage. A great flat thing that refused to thrive or evolve. Her angels had been diligently hanging the stars, and the new sun that shone on this stage did so in a harsh and constant way. The flat Earth didn’t rotate to ever show anything less than all of itself to the sun and, as a result, very quickly overheated.

Oh, this won’t do, She thought, and threw the whole thing in the bin.

The second time She created the earth, She observed Her angels and decided to take a leaf out of their book. The mind of an angel is a very logical and rigid thing, and they certainly seemed to have the physics of the universe figured out. A cursory glance of the cosmos they were working on showed a strong preference for spheres.

Perhaps a sphere, then.

And so, the second version of Earth was a sphere. What She was not expecting was the panic and confusion this would cause among Her angels.

“The Almighty is making a new Earth?”

“What was wrong with the first?”

“Why would She start over? Should we start the stars over?”

“I thought She was infallible.”

“Is this our fault?”

“Have we upset Her in some way?”

Oh dear. I really didn’t give them much room for adaptation, did I?

She wiped the slate again, but this time She was careful to pluck the memory of Her scrapped project from the minds of Her angels. Questions, especially of the existential sort, did not seem like something they were equipped to deal with. Best not to confuse the poor things more than necessary.

The Earth passion project went through several more iterations in this manner before She started to get a feel for Her artistic vision. There was a sphere covered in dust and rocks that fell apart when She forgot to add gravity. After creating a world that was completely covered in dandelions (pretty, but ultimately very boring), She overcompensated by covering a planet in flora so fecund that it quickly entangled the surface in a chaotic snarl. There was a planet whose day and night cycle went as fast as breathing, followed by a planet that was locked in place, with one hemisphere always facing the sun and the other in constant darkness. None of these versions of Earth were anything She was happy with and each one eventually joined its fellows— a half-finished sketch abandoned on the cutting room floor.

All the while, Her angels went about their heavenly duties, blissfully unaware of the Almighty’s art block. Each time She wiped Her easel clean, She removed all existing memories of the abandoned Earth, preserving the knowledge of the cycles in Her mind alone.

Eventually, She began to find inspiration for her project. But as is often the case with inspiration, it came from a very unlikely source.

 


 

The Earth Project: iteration 18

Aziraphale had wrapped up his work in the archives quicker than usual, eager to make his way to the main hall. There had been quite a buzz going around about the whole Earth project, and he had been scouring the records for any scrap of information about it, finding surprisingly little save some details on the local flora. According to the Archangels, the Almighty was encouraging any angel who wanted to explore Earth to do so, and Aziraphale had been excited to get down there and learn about Her latest creation firsthand.

He had seen the massive spherical map in the main hall, of course. It was impossible to miss, and quite the impressive feat of interactive engineering. There had never been time to stop and admire it thoroughly, but even in passing, the view was so colorful. The lack of color in Heaven isn’t something Aziraphale has ever really thought about, but now that he knows a place can be comprised of so much green and blue, the bright and ubiquitous whiteness of Heaven is suddenly all he can notice.

He is pondering the nature and merits of color as he turns the corner into the main hall. The room is empty, save for one other angel inspecting the globe. He isn’t anyone Aziraphale recognizes, but seeing as he is a rather bookish sort even among the other chroniclers, that isn’t necessarily surprising. The angel is his own splash of color against the achromatic thrum of the room, red curls spilling down his back in a wild tumble as he circles the Earth in a slow, anticlockwise circle. Aziraphale finds himself momentarily distracted by the sight, his pace slowing to match his thought process.

For a brief moment, he considers returning to the archives. It would be a simple thing— to turn back and find a menial task in the archives to complete, returning to the globe once this stranger has had a chance to make his way down to Earth. It’s not that Aziraphale is a friendless angel; he is exactly as social and friendly as he needs to be to get his work done and exist comfortably among his peers. It is simply that he doesn’t easily make conversation when it’s not required of him. He is a very efficient angel, perfectly suited for his work as a chronicler. He watches the thought of avoiding the stranger pass through his head, somewhat overshadowed by the wonder and curiosity surrounding the Almighty’s new project, feeling his feet carry him forward as he thinks.

“Er— hello,” Aziraphale says when he finds himself at the globe, facing an unavoidable social exchange. The other angel acknowledges him with a nod and a distracted smile, continuing his slow examination of Earth’s likeness. “Taking up the Almighty’s suggestion to explore Earth, I take it?”

“Figured I’d see what all the fuss was about. It’s very colorful, this new planet.”

“I suppose it is. You know, if I’m being perfectly honest, I’d never given much thought to color before now, but this really is quite lovely,” Aziraphale says, falling into his own slow orbit around the globe, rotating in the opposite direction to the other angel. Positioning the globe as a buffer between them bolsters his confidence somewhat. “What do you think it’s like down there?”

“Stars if I know. ‘S’why I’m here, isn’t it?” comes the casual reply from behind the globe. Stars? Interesting expression. “Baraqiel and Tamiel nipped down earlier, but didn’t have much to say about it. Not to me anyway. They seemed pretty keen to get back to work on their helix nebula.”

“You’re a starmaker then?” Aziraphale calls around the globe.

“Mmm. You could say that. Mostly been stuck working on moons though.”

“Oh! I was just reading about those!” Aziraphale says with excitement. Curiosity starting to overshadow shyness, he pops up on his toes and peers around the planet, suddenly eager to catch the stranger’s eye. As much as he loves his work in the archives, it does lack a certain amount of hands-on excitement. The thought of talking to someone who has actually touched moons is suddenly thrilling. “Wonderful bit of innovation, moons.”

“If you say so. Just chunks of rock, really. Can’t hold a candle to the stars,” the stranger says, coming into view. He stops and crosses his arms, leaning forward to get a better look at one of the land masses.

Aziraphale’s orbit comes to rest next to him. He clasps his hands behind his back and follows the starmaker’s gaze down to Earth. His mind begins to drift toward the wonders being created across the cosmos, and it is with a dreamy sort of tone that he begins to speak again. “The stars are obviously stunning, but there’s something to be said for that which reflects them back. Your ‘chunks of rock’ have found a way to shine even though they can’t create light.”

The starmaker gives a delighted chuckle at this. His attention finally captured, he turns to look at Aziraphale, tilting his head curiously. “Huh. Well that’s very… poetic—” he pauses expectantly, letting one eyebrow creep up his forehead.

Aziraphale turns and locks eyes with him for the first time. He is distantly aware that this angel is asking for his name, but when he meets his gaze, Aziraphale feels his words catch in his throat.

The eyes staring back at him are unlike any he has ever seen. While it’s true that each angel’s eyes are unique, there is still not a huge amount of variation. You can find the usual spectrum of blue, grey, and brown, the occasional violet or green or hazel, but they all seem to be made from roughly the same base model. The angel currently studying Aziraphale has eyes of bright, molten gold, with pupils so pinprick-small, they seem almost non-existent at first glance; as though the blazing starlight he’s exposed to is so intense that his body had found a way to counteract it, shuttering its windows from harm. When the starmaker tilts his head, light catches his eyes in new ways, glinting off flecks of gold leaf and dark amber.

Stars indeed…

“A-Aziraphale,” he manages, maintaining most of his composure.

“Aziraphale.” The starmaker repeats it back slowly, like he’s testing the shape of the name. He stares back at Aziraphale, interest clinging to the edges of his crooked smile. “How do you know so much about moons and starlight anyway? I don’t recognize you as one of the starmakers.”

“Oh. No. Not a starmaker. I’m a chronicler. It’s my job to keep a record of the cosmos, among other things. You all are doing a marvelous job… er—”

“Joriel.”

“Joriel. Right. Simply marvelous.” Aziraphale tears his gaze away from Joriel, returning it to the globe in front of them. “So. Earth seems quite a bit larger this close up. Did you have a destination in mind?”

“Nope. I’m flying as blind as you are. Figured I’d just wing it.”

“Wing it?”

“Yeah, you know, just pick somewhere at random. Seems as good a way as any.” Joriel pauses, leaning back slightly to examine Aziraphale better. “You, uh… want to come?”

“I… Yes, I’d love to.” Aziraphale responds, surprising himself with the realization that he would actually enjoy some company.

The lopsided smile on Joriel’s face spreads into a wider, more balanced grin. “Great!” he says, extending a hand.

The whole encounter is not at all what Aziraphale had expected. His experiences with other angels have always been short and to the point. Predictable. Some of the Archangels leave him downright uncomfortable. But there is something different about Joriel. He seems… carefree. Jovial, even. Quick to smile and laugh, and welcoming in a way Aziraphale finds absolutely foreign. Maybe it’s something to do with being a starmaker. Aziraphale had never talked to one before, what with how distant their departments are. Starmakers rarely seem to come down from the sky, and when they do, they hardly ever mingle with the other angels. But here was one now, smiling and extending a hand to Aziraphale so easily. He finds himself overwhelmed by the urge to take it.

She did suggest we explore Earth for ourselves and there’s certainly nothing wrong with making a friend.

So Aziraphale smiles and reaches out to grasp Joriel by the forearm. “Ready then?” Joriel asks, gripping his arm in return. Aziraphale nods.

Maintaining eye contact, Joriel reaches his other arm out to the side and jabs at a random point on the globe.

There is a sensation like a rush of warm air against Aziraphale’s face as the two of them are dematerialized in Heaven and swiftly given physical form on the planet’s surface. It isn’t like falling, as he might have assumed. It doesn’t even feel like moving. One moment he is standing in the empty white expanse of Heaven’s main hall, the next he is simply… elsewhere. Somewhere bright and warm and colorful. There is light, but instead of the achromatic brilliance he has become accustomed to, it has a deep golden hue, adding a sense of depth to everything around them. They stand in a vast field of flowers, bursting in vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows and expanding as far as he can see in every direction. Joriel stands facing him, a firm link still between them where they hold each other’s forearms.

“Well that was easy,” Joriel says, squinting as he peers up at the sky. “I guess I expected a little more resistance. Atmospheres are tricky.”

Aziraphale loosens his grip on Joriel’s arm, disconnecting himself so that he can turn in a slow circle and take in the landscape around them.

Awe overwhelms him utterly. He tries to absorb the portrait he suddenly finds himself in the middle of, but for the first time in his existence, feels ill-equipped for the task at hand. Standing in a work of pure passion and beauty, crafted by Her hand, he feels as though he’s a part of something far larger than himself. It’s not the deep blue of the sky that stuns him, but the vastness of it— the way it somehow seems more expansive than the cosmos when viewed from down here. The sun offers a soft quality to the light and a warmth to the air that he never would have thought possible. From where he stands in the field, he suddenly imagines himself as the exact center of everything; the ember heart of a fire from which the blooms at his feet blaze out to the horizons.

He closes his eyes and takes a moment to quiet his mind. Recenter himself. Concentrate. He allows a list of relevant facts and information about Earth—what little he could find in the archives—to run through his head, grounding himself with the names of flowers (tagetes patula: marigolds), the composition of the atmosphere (78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon), the stripped-down definition of sunlight (electromagnetic radiation: infrared, visible, ultraviolet).

The awe remains, but calm slowly seeps in to join it.

When he opens his eyes again, he sees Joriel standing in front of him, eyebrow cocked once more, crooked smile back in place. He seems to fit so well here. Like he was painted from the same fiery pigments as the landscape around them. His strange eyes are fixed on Aziraphale with a look that is tinged with concern.

“You alright?” he asks.

Aziraphale stares for a few seconds before finding his voice. The colors, the light, the warmth, the smell of this place have slowed down his reactions to the point where he feels like he’s trying to run underwater.

“Hmm? Oh. Yes. Perfectly."

"Because you look a little dazed."

"It's just… So colorful,” Aziraphale breathes. “It’s quite a lot."

The smile falls a bit, the concern lingering in Joriel’s eyes. "Wait, is this your first time on a planet?"

Aziraphale nods.

"Oh stars, I should have warned you,” Joriel says, shifting to stand beside him, a movement that feels like he’s positioning himself to catch Aziraphale if needed. “Okay, so, down here? Your senses will be heightened. Planets are far more tactile than what you’re used to. It's not that you don't have physical senses in Heaven, it's just that you don't need them. Smell and taste particularly."

"Taste? Why taste?" Aziraphale asks. He is aware of the fifth sense of course, he had always just considered it a bit useless.

"Uh, yeah. It's hard to explain, but you’ll probably find you’re more sensitive to it while you’re planetside. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with smell.” Joriel says, furrowing his brow. “Actually. It might help ease you into things...” He cranes his neck to peer around the field. “You okay if I look around?” he gestures vaguely at the landscape with one hand.

“Quite. I think I’d just like to admire it all for a moment anyway,” Aziraphale says. It’s the truth, but only part of it. He doesn’t mention how it feels like his feet have put down roots and he’s not sure he could move from this spot if he tried.

Joriel flashes him a smile and starts picking his way through the flowers. He stoops down a few times to pick pebbles off the ground and examine them before tentatively touching them to his tongue. Aziraphale watches him with growing amusement as he makes a disgruntled sound at each rock and tosses it aside. It takes his mind a few beats to catch up and realize that Joriel is searching for an example of taste. Something he can share with Aziraphale.

Still observing from within his sensory daze, Aziraphale’s mind hovers briefly on the fact that his wonderment was not met with cold confusion or impatience. He was not told to snap out of it. His unusual new companion didn’t just accept his reverence in stride, he joined him in it.

What a curious thing, Aziraphale thinks, as he observes the angel who is unlike any he’s met before.

“Why not the marigolds?” he calls, after watching Joriel taste what appears to be a particularly unappetizing pebble.

“The what?”

“The flowers. Marigolds.”

“Wait.” Joriel stands and turns to look at Aziraphale. “You know enough about this place to know the names of the local flora, but you weren’t prepared for color?”

“It’s one thing to read about it. It’s quite another to actually experience it,” Aziraphale says, crouching down among the flowers. Joriel retraces his path and kneels down beside him. “Honestly though, we’re standing in a veritable sea of marigolds and the first thing you think to reach for is a rock?” He extends a hand and brushes his fingers against the frilled petals of a bright orange flower, finding them far softer than he expected.

“They’re alive, aren’t they?” Joriel huffs defensively. “I don’t think I’d like it very much if some angel swooped down and yanked my roots out of the ground.”

Aziraphale smiles at this sentimentality. “They’re alive, yes. But it’s a different kind of life. They don’t feel pain.” He gently plucks a petal from the marigold and holds it out to Joriel. “Here. Just a petal. Its roots are fine.”

The suggestion of a frown flickers across Joriel’s face. “But how can you know that?” he asks, accepting the petal.

“I’m a chronicler,” Aziraphale says confidently. “The job comes with direct access to all information regarding everything in the cosmos, straight from the Almighty.”

Joriel narrows his eyes suspiciously. Looking down at the flower, he asks, “And what do you have to say about it?”

“Joriel, it’s… a plant.”

He shrugs and drags his eyes back up to Aziraphale. There is an emotion in his voice that Aziraphale can’t quite place when he says, “Just in case.” Then the easy smile slides back onto his face as he turns his attention to the petal in his hand. In a fluid movement, he raises his hand and places it on the tip of his tongue. After a brief consideration, his eyes light up. “Oh! Yes, that. You should try one. It’s weird, but… good weird.”

Aziraphale feels himself exiting his daze, his head finally catching up with the moment. He thinks he should feel more trepidation around this strange starmaker that he’s known all of ten minutes. Falling into easy banter and company isn’t something he can recall happening with any other angels. There is friendliness and intellectual conversation among his colleagues, certainly. At the very least, there is politeness and respect. But camaraderie? Having a casual chat with a flower and licking rocks as though it were the most normal thing in the cosmos? This is new. This is strange. Fun. He reaches out to pluck his own petal from the flower at his feet, leaving his reservations behind him.

Following Joriel’s lead, he places the petal on his tongue. It’s a subtle thing, the tingling bloom of sensation through his mouth. He immediately understands why Joriel compared it to the sense of smell, and realizes how impossible it is to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced taste. Aziraphale likens the flavor to the color orange, a thought which feels utterly ridiculous as it passes through his mind, but somehow makes perfect sense at the same time. It’s a quiet perfume on his tongue at first, before budding into something vaguely sharp and warm.

His eyes go wide and snap to Joriel, holding his amused gaze with an intense focus as the taste of marigold dissolves into a memory.

“Well?” Joriel asks. “Taste is wild, right?”

Aziraphale nods, breathless. He finds himself grasping for a way to describe the alien experience. “It’s… prickly? No, that’s not right. Soft, maybe? Warm? How in Heaven’s name am I supposed to put this down in the books?”

“Prickly seems right, just go with that,” Joriel says with a laugh. “Do you really need to put an entry in the library for all the things you taste while you're on Earth?”

“It's new information and I'm a chronicler,” Aziraphale says, feeling like he's stating the obvious. Starmakers really are a strange lot.

Joriel stands, brushing the dirt from his knees. “Well then, chronicler Aziraphale,” he says. He extends a hand and helps Aziraphale to his feet. “Would you like to go for a walk and see what other new information we can find?”

Aziraphale smiles and nods, falls into step beside Joriel, but finds himself unable to formulate an intelligent response. All his senses feel overtaxed somehow, and settling into such quick companionship with Joriel has managed to throw him even further off balance. He loves his work in the archives, of course. He loves learning and giving information permanence. Making sure everything has its proper place in the records fills him with absolute fulfillment, but what he’s feeling now is something slightly different from that. It’s a deeper kind of curiosity, closer to precociousness, and it radiates off of Joriel like sunlight. It’s strange and new, but also warm and nourishing. Aziraphale is utterly fascinated. He wants to know everything.

As they walk, Aziraphale mentally takes what notes he can, but soon finds himself doing it more for the enjoyment of Joriel’s reaction than for the sake of being a chronicler.

His notes on marigolds are met with a bright laugh and the given footnote: ‘bright and smelly, tastes prickly,is what you should put in the books, chronicler.

When he remarks on the clouds, the response from beside him is: a weird, white nebula made out of water followed by a grin and a shrug.

By the time he brings up the sun, it is solely to hear Joriel’s input of: oh, okay so, Sol? Looks and feels great from this distance and all, but what you can’t tell from down here is what it sounds like. Constantly singing, Earth’s star.

Aziraphale takes these chaotic answers in, offering a bewildered smile in exchange. While the chronicler in him tries to puzzle out a way to record the taste of flowers and the sound of the sun, he allows the rest of him to simply enjoy the unexpected delight of having a friend.

 


 

From somewhere outside the cosmos, God watched the two angels carve their unscripted path through a field of marigolds. Her attention had been piqued early; the creative starmakers rarely mixed with anyone outside their department, least of all the highly analytical bunch that was the chroniclers. But Aziraphale and Joriel seemed to click instantly, their quick rapport holding Her rapt attention for the entirety of their trip to Earth. And again, when they met for a return trip. And every visit after that.

She watched them with growing interest as they began frequenting the night side of the planet at Joriel’s suggestion, in order to see the stars through the lens of Earth’s atmosphere. The physical distance somehow made the stars feel real to Aziraphale in a way they never could when considered from Heaven. Joriel would tell Aziraphale stories about asteroids and moons he had made, the inner workings of nebulae, the names of stars and planets light years away. She watched the stars reflect in Aziraphale’s eyes while he listed to these stories, his expression a mask of wonder. She had made him to be a keeper and teller of information, but when he turned his face to the night sky and relaxed into Joriel’s words, he seemed to become something else. A creature utterly enchanted by being on the listener’s side of a tale for the first time.

It was the starlight reflecting in Aziraphale’s eyes she was thinking of when, the next time She reset the balance and remade Earth, She decided to give it a moon.