It was beautiful, Aziraphale mused distantly.
The birds, numerous and varied in this country, could still be heard calling to each other, even as far beneath them as he was, well below ground level. He had been lucky enough to see a bit of dim sunlight, back in the deeper caverns as his torch flickered and died. He had stood alone there, unmoving, hearing his breath rasping far too loud in the eternal night. Then, same as now, his pack had been heavy and cold on his back. He had blinked, trying not to despair, little good as it did him, but as his eyes adjusted to the blank and perfect gloom, but there had been just a hint of a glow, off in the distance despite hundreds of tonnes of rock above him.
Stumbling in the darkness, following the hints of refracted light and desperately hoping it wasn’t some kind of dream or bioluminescence, he had splashed and bumped and at one point swam to find this lovely alcove. Perhaps thirty meters up, the cave ceiling had collapsed into a heart-shaped open space and he could see the blue sky, a bit of greenery, and of course hear the wildlife, going about their business on a beautiful day.
Thirty meters up. He was going to die thirty meters away from any hope of being seen, waist-deep in spring-fed cold water that even now was leeching away his strength.
Aziraphale swallowed, set down his pack on one of the wide rocks scattered about and splashed his way to the center of the beams of sunlight. It was a bit warmer here, but more importantly, he tilted his face up to the sun and breathed. At least it was beautiful.
He didn’t blame his teammates. They only paid attention to the ‘buddy system’ and safety protocols as it suited them, and in general, it did little harm. All it had taken for him to be lost was them neglecting to inform him they were moving on, or perhaps his radio hadn’t picked up the transmission, and he was alone and stranded in this fascinating cave system they had been exploring.
It was unlikely they would return, or would be able to find him if they did. This had simply been a walkthrough of some of the poorly-mapped cavern branches that the team hoped to investigate on a future field work project. Budgets being what they were, they were all flying out at different times, and he was not close to any of them, so they might not notice he wasn’t with them until the beginning of semester. He was abandoned.
Aziraphale bit his tongue, then unclenched his fists. It was what it was. He would see what could be done, and if escape was possible. If it was not, he would do what he could to ease his own suffering, pray a little, and hope to be at peace. He had always liked his solitude, so perhaps it was a blessing of a kind, dying alone in a beautiful place.
The splashing of the water was peaceful. He took another breath and exhaled heavily, then turned towards his pack and screamed.
There was something in the water: massive, sinuous, cave-pale. It was looking at him.
Aziraphale’s hands twitched, with nothing to use as a weapon. His voice echoed off the walls and the creature ducked almost entirely under the water, folding flat the strange feelers at the sides of its head. The long length of its body bunched up defensively, although the huge black eyes never blinked.
Aziraphale clutched a hand to his chest. The adrenaline made him hyperaware of everything. The creature was a pale pink that looked like the rose quartz found in this region, faintly iridescent. It was very long, with forelimbs but no back limbs, and a very long, solid tail. Aziraphale’s heart pounded harder as he realized that the creature had a face. Almost human, aside from the coloration and lidless eyes, and the wide fans of what must be some kind of sensory organ behind its ears. It was still staring at him, but as the noise of the echoes faded, it tilted its head at him curiously. That small gesture, along with the unsure movements of the long-fingered hands in the sand of the cave floor, visible in the achingly cold clear water, settled him and he tried to measure his breathing.
“My apologies.” Aziraphale whispered. “It was very rude of me to shout.”
The creature lifted its head a bit more out of the water. The fringed pink fans lifted hesitantly, three on each side, looking like wet ferns framing its face. It had red hair, Aziraphale now saw, as it came a bit closer into the sunlight. Only perhaps as long as his index finger, but a bright ginger. It ducked away from the light, and Aziraphale reflexively lifted a hand up to shield its eyes. It froze in place at his movement, unblinking. He looked closer. Not true eyes, he guessed-perhaps some light sensory capabilities, but he would assume down here in the dark of the caves that it detected something useful like heat. The sunlight and warmth must seem very intense for the poor creature. So must he, for that matter.
Moving slowly, a bit sorry to lose the heat, Aziraphale sidestepped slowly into the shaded area of the cave, shivering a bit from the cold and the beginnings of an adrenaline crash. He was a bit closer to the wall now, next to the rock that held his pack. He leaned against the stone, wishing that it was big enough to hold him so he could try to dry off, and rummaged through his pack. He turned back, startling a bit when the being was significantly closer than before.
Trying to keep his movements unthreatening, Aziraphale gripped his bounty. He had exactly three granola bars, a canteen of fresh water, a small first aid kit, his water-soaked radio, an equally-soaked notebook and pen, and an apple in his pack. Holding the apple firmly, he twisted in that way he had learned from his mother as a boy, and it broke cleanly in two.
He held out half towards his companion, taking a demonstrative bite out of his own portion. The being did not move closer, but they breathed in audibly. Aziraphale swallowed his mouthful. Soon enough, he would be far hungrier than this, but the scientist in him was giddy with joy and the philosopher in him understood the value of things.
“Hello. I doubt you understand me. I am Aziraphale. I am certainly not the best person to introduce you to the human species, but well met.” he murmured gently. “I doubt I will be with you long, but if you meet another one like me someday, I hope that it will be with the benefit of at least one good experience. Here is an apple. It’s for you.”
There was a very long pause. Aziraphale kept his arm out. He was just considering leaving it on the rock and moving away when the being eased forward slightly and reached. Their right arm came out of the water dripping. Aziraphale held his breath as the thin webbed fingers, each tipped with a sharp claw, delicately took the fruit. Still keeping his motions steady, Aziraphale slowly munched his way through the rest of his portion. He was getting close to the core, trying to get as much out of it as he could, before his companion licked experimentally at their own piece. There was a pause, then the small crunch of a nibble. Aziraphale held his apple core and watched smiling as his companion then eagerly devoured the entirety of their half.
Perhaps half a minute in, Aziraphale realized that the strange sensation of the rock against his arm was not his imagination. There was a deep noise of some kind, too low for his ears to hear, but enough to resonate with the stone. The water around his companion rippled in small circles and Aziraphale beamed, only wishing that he could hear the infrasound of what must be a loud and enthusiastic celebration of gustatory delight. Perhaps the poor soul had never had a piece of fruit before.
Perhaps too tired to be sensible, or too thrilled at the obvious joy from the being before him, Aziraphale laughed instead of screaming when his companion splashed close and pawed at him beseechingly. He opened his hand with a huff. “There’s only the core left, my dear.” he offered wryly. His companions’ hands were cool to the touch, the fingers much longer than his own, although they both had five, he observed in fascination.
His companion munched the core, teeth audibly cracking the stem and seeds. Their hair was drying out in messy tufts, the sensory fans spread wide and pretty as feathers. As he watched them, fear now far from his thoughts, he realized what species he was reminded of. “Axolotl.” he breathed. “Leucistic color mutation. Neotenic amphibian.” The caudal fin was fully-developed, he noted. Gill-slits prominent, with the secondary slits just barely visible along the rib cage. “Oh, you are a wonder.” he marveled, scientific mindset agog with what this being might phylogenetically represent.
Aziraphale might have been better served with a dose of common sense. His webbed, finned, clawed, entirely inhuman companion put a hand on his shoulder, and Aziraphale, conditioned by a childhood of dancing lessons, reflexively put a hand on their waist as if they were about to begin a waltz, instead of standing wet to the skin in an undiscovered cavern.
He stopped, abruptly aware that he was effectively embracing what might be indelicately termed a monster. His companion petted him gently, and he held still as they nosed along his jaw, breathing in deeply. Aziraphale lifted his head and tried to be calm. They were only curious, he reasoned. So was he, to be fair. He tactfully began to slide his hand off of the muscular waist. Quick enough to blur, a chilled hand pressed over the top of his, holding him in place.
A bit startled, Aziraphale inhaled sharply and the delicate hands loosened. His companion moved back slightly, sensory fans drooping and facial expression so very identifiably worried. He reached towards them, barely able to believe what he was doing, and they perked up visibly and swept back against him with a little swell of water and an almost-detectable hum.
They fumbled and tugged at his shirt, and Aziraphale hesitantly demonstrated how the top button worked. He pushed it through the buttonhole, then rebuttoned it. Almost immediately, those thin fingers undid it again, then proceeded to swiftly undo the rest. Tool usage, Aziraphale thought vaguely. As if it wasn’t obvious enough that this was a sentient being, they were also intelligent. His shirt billowed open in the water and his companion smiled widely, petting over the hair on his chest in seeming fascination.
He smoothed his hands gently against the skin of the most amazing discovery he could ever have dreamed of. An entirely unknown, intelligent, sentient nonhuman species, with a curious mind and beautiful features. What a privilege to meet them.
Then they shoved their hand down his pants and he yelped like a teenager on a first date.
Aziraphale very quickly realized that while he had been reflecting philosophically like the useless academic numpty he was, his companion had learned three things: that his clothing was not part of him, that his clothing could be removed relatively easily, and just now that he had male genitalia.
Their tail curled between his legs as their fingers curled around him, and he gave an overwhelmed whine. They stopped moving, face very close to his, and waited. He panted, entirely ready to use his strength to shove them away, then saw their prettily flushed cheeks. Oh. This wasn’t just curiosity. Humans had a lot of cultural mores about attraction and how to express it. Apparently this species did not, or perhaps his companion was just very bold. Their fingers tightened slightly. He made his decision as he gasped and tugged their waist closer.
The water thrummed around them as his companion gleefully tucked themselves against him, nuzzling his neck affectionately and hand working with the mix of mastery and awkwardness of someone doing a familiar task backwards. At that realization, Aziraphale let out a breathless sigh and his head fell back against the stone. “I will...return the favor…my dear.” he stammered. He rolled his hips up in response to a deliciously good twist of their wrist, and the very stone hummed against his back. He was quiet by habit, but now he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He shrieked and whined and pleaded in turns, feeling the slick fingers around him, the amazing scent of their hair as they nipped and bit at his neck, and the water shivering along with him as he peaked.
He clutched them tight, shaking as he came down, then found himself absolutely desperate to reciprocate even as his limbs responded sluggishly, clinging to them, hands searching until he eventually found what he was looking for, the delicate pink structures reminding him of a sea anemone or an orchid. They twitched in his hand and he glanced up for permission. His companions’ smile was small and their fans flattened shyly, but they gave a little push into his hand. Oh, he was going to ruin them.
They moved pliantly with him as he pulled them through the water. The heat in his blood matched the chill, at least for now, and he tugged them up and bent them backwards over the smooth rock beside them. His pack cushioned them well enough, and now he had all the access he needed. They braced themselves and stared at him as he lowered his head, and he held their gaze as he gave the first lick. They spasmed, hands patting helplessly at his head and shoulders, but not stopping him. Aziraphale smiled, anchored his hands firmly around their smooth hips, and opened his mouth.
It was possible that he had gotten a bit carried away, he thought some unknown time later, when a small rock dropped painfully onto the back of his head. Regretfully pausing in what he was doing, he rubbed the sore spot and looked up. Streams of dust were trickling down steadily from the cavern ceiling, along with occasional pebbles and rocks. He had a moment of fear of earthquakes and cave-ins, before he heard his partner sigh and lie as limply as if they had melted. The rocks stopped falling, although the dust still hung in the air, and Aziraphale stared down at his partner in amazement. He cleared his throat, tongue valiantly sore, then gently gathered them off the rock and into the water. “That was very flattering, my dear. Very good for my ego, that I might be skilled enough that the earth moved for you.” he teased quietly.
He pressed a little kiss against their temple, just in front of their sensory fans. It might not mean anything to them, but he didn’t know how else to express himself. They held him close in return, burying their face in his hair, and he breathed with them, feeling their gills fluttering against his ribs. It was mesmerising. “Do I smell nice?” he murmured.
He didn’t notice at first, but his partner did, stiffening and head darting up to face the cavern ceiling. His partner’s senses were not like his own, and were very suited to the changes of water and stone. Then he heard what they already had, or felt, perhaps. The barking of dogs, and snatches of the local language, getting steadily closer. Before he could blink, his partner was out of his arms, leaping into the water and darting away like a shadow. He stumbled, awkward in the water, stiff with the cold, just as an incredulous shout echoed down from above.
Much later, after the yelling and the gesturing and a long rope, the group of kids from the local village, who had come out to investigate the small earthquake they had felt, had helped him back to human civilization. Once he had used the store payphone (thank God for his wallet and ID being wet but salvageable in the cargo pockets of his pants) it was relatively easy to get back to his cheap hotel room.
After a shower, a moment of staring into his own soul in the bathroom mirror, and a prayer for bravery, he was on his own telephone, talking smoothly to the university dean. He walked in circles as he talked, about fascinating geology, unique ecosystems, and a long-overdue sabbatical. No sir, he would not be returning this semester. Perhaps next year, but hadn’t they wanted more research from him anyway? He passed the mirror, and saw the light pink lines from affectionate teeth on the side of his neck. He blushed and sat, making notes as he firmly talked the dean into the funding he needed, and to forward the paperwork. Yes, it was fine if no graduate students could be freed up right away. He would work solo. Yes, sir. No, sir, he did insist, actually. He was intellectually inspired and would not be budged.
He rubbed his sore neck and smiled. He knew exactly where the cave was, and he would write some very boring but academically valuable treatises and books to keep the money coming in, until such time as he could be sure that humanity could be trusted not to destroy a beautiful, pink-fanned, dark-eyed sentient species. Perhaps not even then.