In Soho, in an old bookshop with open hours that were only slightly less complicated than warranties for the latest mobile phones on the market, an angel quietly read as he sat on a worn fainting couch and vaguely noticed that he couldn’t remember feeling this relaxed before.
Six thousand years on Earth and Aziraphale could see in hindsight that he spent most of that time frame in a state of constant anxiety. He worried about Heaven finding his flaws like his indulgence in gluttony and coveting particularly rare and fascinating books. He worried about being a bad angel and not being good enough. And then he worried about them finding about Crowley, about their Arrangement and how cordial that Aziraphale was with his supposed adversary. Or how being cordial became friendship, a title for their relationship that didn’t quite cover it and yet was all that he could risk calling it at the time. He worried about crossing the line and Falling. He worried about Hell punishing Crowley or the demon deciding someday to avoid the cruelty of Hell’s fury with the contents of a thermos that Aziraphale reluctantly gave him. He worried about losing everything that he held to be precious. But mostly Aziraphale worried about what he felt radiating off Crowley, growing stronger with time.
While demons lost the ability when they Fell, angels could sense love. All forms of love. Aziraphale could tell when a location was well-loved and cherished. He could feel the love for treasured belongings. And he could certainly tell when someone loved or was loved by another. Whether that love was a form of friendship, familial, romantic, or unconditional devotion, the angel could sense it.
When Aziraphale first felt the spark of warm affection coming from the demon, he thought that it must be a mistake. That he must have simply picked up something else from his surroundings or misidentified the sensation. The rumors that wove their way through Heaven went against what he sensed on the wall surrounding Eden.
But it was there. And it was there the next time that their paths crossed. And the next.
With each successive encounter, it grew stronger and harder to brush off. At least one demon could feel love. Aziraphale spent so long denying what he was sensing, trying to convince himself that maybe he was getting the type of love mixed up or maybe he had the target of Crowley’s affection wrong or dozens of other excuses. Then it grew too bright and intense for that. Aziraphale truly realized how deeply Crowley felt when he walked onto consecrated ground to help him and even saved the books that he knew the angel treasured, performing a small demonic miracle somewhere that would resist his efforts. But it was also the moment that Aziraphale realized exactly what he felt in return.
He didn’t develop those feelings that night. They’d been there for quite some time. But emotional self-awareness was not Aziraphale’s strong suit.
But even with that new discovery about himself, he couldn’t admit it. He couldn’t allow the idea to even truly form. Because Heaven and Hell would never forgive that level of betrayal and failure. And while he could Fall if he slipped too far, Crowley would face far worse. That was something that the angel could never allow. They needed to maintain plausible deniability. So Aziraphale ignored and pretended that he didn’t notice. He ignored his own emotions and those that he sensed from the demon. He tuned it out, acting as if he didn’t notice the love shining from Crowley like a giant neon sign. It was the safer option for both of them.
But then the Apocalypse nearly happened. Everything was dragged out and exposed for all to see. Heaven and Hell knew. About their relationship, their Arrangement, and that their loyalty and obedience was not as ironclad as assumed. The truth came out and they managed to survive anyway. There was no point in hiding and existing in denial any longer. The realization was both intimidating and overwhelming when it hit Aziraphale, but he also found it rather freeing. They were on their own side now.
That newfound freedom, no longer fearing reprisals after their respective “trials” and no longer communicating only through subtext, was the reason that they could be like this a little over a year later. Aziraphale reading on the fainting couch wouldn’t have been that unusual over the past century or so. But now he could do it with Crowley sprawled along the length of the couch, dozing lightly with his head resting on the angel’s lap while Aziraphale absently ran his fingers through his hair.
It only took one hand to turn a page, after all.
Reaching their current state of affairs was a difficult journey. Six thousand years of glacial-like progress that suddenly accelerated to lightspeed once several obstacles were removed, the change abrupt enough to cause whiplash. But without anything to stop them and without any threat hanging over their heads, Aziraphale didn’t see the point in holding back any longer. He didn’t want to waste any more time. Especially when he could feel Crowley’s intense emotions radiating off him all the time.
But what Aziraphale forgot was that Crowley was a demon. Well, he didn’t forget about him being a demon. He merely forgot one small difference and what it meant.
Demons couldn’t sense love the same way that angels did. The rumors that demons could no longer feel love after they Fell and lost their connection to Her grace were clearly false, but the part about not being able to sense love was accurate. From bits and pieces that Aziraphale gathered over numerous drunken conversations scattered across several centuries, the angel had figured out that their senses had been warped to detect darker things instead. Hate, rage, fear, pain, desperation… All things that would point to a human being vulnerable and open to corruption. But not love. They couldn’t sense its presence any longer.
The implications of what that would mean for Crowley completely escaped Aziraphale until five months after Armaged-Don’t. And that led to certain misunderstandings and adjustments before they could settle into what they had now.
But then, any type of relationship took some cooperation to create and nurture.
Crowley shifted slightly under Aziraphale’s fingers, pulling the angel briefly from his thoughts and his book. He glanced down at Crowley’s drowsy smile. Even with the sunglasses hiding his eyes, his expression was clear enough. Aziraphale wasn’t the only one more relaxed and at ease than before. He was too comfortable to care about how nice and wonderful Aziraphale found him in that moment.
“Angel?” he murmured sleepily. “Could you… say the thing?”
Five months after the Apoca-Oops, Aziraphale and Crowley were feeding ducks in the park. Not as part of a cover to discuss part of the Arrangement. Merely because they wanted to do it before dinner at the angel’s current favorite sushi restaurant. But when Aziraphale threw a tasty treat towards a particularly greedy drake, the duck abruptly sank with a startled quack.
“Crowley,” he scolded, causing the duck to bob back to the surface and the demon to smirk. Aziraphale shook his head ruefully and said, “Really, my dear, I love you, but do you have to torment the ducks every time we visit?”
He meant it in a gently teasing manner, but Crowley stiffened and made a small sound. As if all the air was driven from his chest at once, something still uncomfortable even if neither of them technically required oxygen. And Crowley stared at him with a shocked and overwhelmed expression, one that Aziraphale couldn’t recognize. His mouth opened and closed a few times without making a sound as the demon wobbled slightly on his feet. Then, after a few moments of struggling, Crowley managed to produce a strained croak.
“Could you… say that again?”
“I mean, I know that you’re not hurting them,” said Aziraphale awkwardly, not certain what was happening, “but dunking them like that is a tad rude.”
“Not that. The… The thing. The thing you said about…” He was breathing a little funny by that point. “Did you… Do you actually…”
Despite what his moments of naïve and foolish decisions might suggest, Aziraphale was actually very intelligent and could occasionally make use of that intelligence. And with that unsteady, choked, and uncharacteristically vulnerable jumble of words, Aziraphale abruptly realized what Crowley was asking. What small and simple phrase left the demon looking like he was on the verge of passing out. Why he seemed so shocked, timidly hopeful, and completely overwhelmed upon hearing those words. And that realization hit Aziraphale with all the gentleness of dumping a bucket of ice water over a sleeping cat.
Demons couldn’t sense love like angels could. That meant that while Aziraphale could tell how much Crowley cared throughout the millennia, even if he tried to ignore it for both of their sakes, Crowley could only go off of what the angel said or did. And while Crowley knew that the angel liked him, there had been enough mixed signals that Crowley never realized that his feelings were reciprocated.
Not until Aziraphale told him just then.
He really could be an idiot sometimes.
Taking his hand and leading Crowley to the closest bench in case he completely collapsed, Aziraphale forced him to sit down next to him and repeated firmly, “I love you. I have for a long time. And before you ask, I don’t mean a general love for all things. I mean a love that is specifically yours and no one else’s. And I should have told you sooner, but I thought that you knew and I’m sorry for that.” He squeezed Crowley’s hand, who was currently gaping like a fish that was yanked out of a tiny pond only to be tossed into a much nicer lake instead of the expected frying pan. “I could sense your love for so long. Constant, warm, and almost blindingly bright sometimes. But I forgot that you couldn’t feel mine in return.”
Crowley was blushing by that point, coughing awkwardly and his posture a bit stiffer than his natural slouch. He would glance towards Aziraphale before looking anywhere except the angel, only to repeat the process a few seconds later. But he didn’t try to pull his hand away.
“I don’t want to make that mistake again. I want you to know how I feel about you,” he continued. “I don’t want you to doubt for a single moment. So if you need to hear me say it, I will. I love you, Crowley.” He smiled warmly. “And I will tell you that any time that you want and as many times as you might need. I promise that I’ll always and happily tell you how much I love you. All you need to do is ask.”
Crowley continued his awkward attempts to look at the angel and not look at him through Aziraphale’s entire promise, practically wiggling on the bench in a way that perfectly balanced his unfamiliarity with this level of emotional directness and a carefully restrained desire for exactly what he was being offered. But Hell and his fellow demons had long since taught him caution when faced with what seemed to be exactly what he wanted. The light at the end of the tunnel could be an oncoming train. The high point of his existence could easily be proceeding a painful fall. While he’d managed to hang onto hope and optimism, experience had left him suspicious of anything that seemed too good to be true.
If it was anyone else offering, if anyone else had suggested that his angel might someday love him back, he wouldn’t trust it for a second. But this was Aziraphale saying the words. And with the angel, he often left himself more vulnerable and yet found himself safer. If there was anyone in the universe that he could trust this much, it would be Aziraphale.
And he wouldn’t lie to Crowley about this. That level of cruelty could easily come from Hell, Heaven, or humanity, but never from his angel.
“Angel, you know that… all of this seems rather sudden. At least from where I’m standing.” Crowley glanced down and corrected, “Sitting.”
“Too fast?” asked Aziraphale.
Crowley was always the one who pushed the boundaries. The Arrangement was proof of that. Testing, questioning, suggesting, and slithering his way forward. He was the one who kept their relationship changing and growing closer, progressing by the tiniest increments as the angel slowly gave ground. But there was still a cautiousness to his efforts. He didn’t want to risk hurting Aziraphale or pulling him too close to the edge of Falling. Crowley was patient and understanding about his limits even as he pressed against them. He took it slow because that’s what his angel needed.
But this time, Aziraphale was the one taking the lead. He was the one pulling them into new territory. He was the one offering more than the demon could ever bring himself to hope for.
Taking an unsteady breath and tightening his grip on the angel’s hand, Crowley shook his head and said roughly, “No. Not too fast. Just give me a minute to catch up with…”
“With me loving you?”
“For longer than I realized. And in more ways than I can describe. But I’m willing to try,” assured Aziraphale. “I may not always remember to say it on my own, but I do love you. And there’s no reason to hide or wait any longer. We’re on our own side now.”
The bright and shining love from Crowley seemed to grow a little stronger, perhaps a little more confident. A fresh wave of affection radiated off the demon. The sensation returned the warm smile to Aziraphale’s face.
After a few moments, Crowley said, “You know, if you honestly plan to say… say the thing anytime that I ask, I’ll probably make you say it at the most annoying moments possible, right?”
“I wouldn’t expect anything different, my dear.”
And while Crowley did try to pester the angel occasionally, asking while Aziraphale was talking to someone else or when he was distracted or when he was busy, he would also ask in calmer moments. When he honestly wanted to hear the words. No matter how many times that Aziraphale told him, the demon always brightened at the reassurance. And the angel kept his promise to always tell him.
Which meant when Crowley asked if he could say it, the demon half-asleep on his lap, Aziraphale already knew what he wanted to hear.
Perfectly manicured nails running lightly along Crowley’s scalp, Aziraphale smiled and said, “Of course, my dear. Always.” His fingers paused in their efforts long enough to let him trace the curves of the snake design on Crowley’s temple. “I love you.”
He shifted under the angel’s hand, the sleepy grin widening a fraction and Aziraphale felt the familiar love radiating from the demon brighten a little more. Both the words and the calming touch seemed to be reducing him to a state of near bliss. The sheer difference between his current state and the last six thousand years proved that, even with his normal façade, Crowley hadn’t been this relaxed in a long time. And Aziraphale couldn’t help basking in the glow of his affection in return.
Lifting his head slightly from the angel’s lap, Crowley asked, “Again?”
Aziraphale paused briefly to slip a bookmark between the pages and set the book aside. Then he turned his full attention to the demon.
“I love you,” he said, speaking each word slowly and firmly.
With a breathy chuckle, Crowley asked, “One more time?”
The tone might be lightly teasing and casual, but Aziraphale treated the request seriously. He ran his fingers through the demon’s hair once more before cupping his head with both hands, pulling Crowley up as Aziraphale leaned over.
“Crowley,” he said before pressing a gentle kiss to his forehead. “I love you.”
And there was the smallest hint of a blush and quiet inhale that the angel was expecting from him. For all that he’d loved and wanted this for longer than either would admit, the demon still grew a little flustered when his love was returned. As if he still couldn’t believe that it was possible for Aziraphale to love him back.
He could understand it. Aziraphale didn’t know what he’d done to earn Crowley’s unwavering and constant love. Perhaps the original spark that he felt so long ago was the love of dawning friendship and admiration. And that friendship remained, a sturdy foundation at the core. But now his love was composed of so many different forms of love woven together like a beautiful tapestry. Bright, beautiful, warm, and beyond human description or labels. Some days, Aziraphale couldn’t understand how Crowley could feel so strongly or what the angel did to deserve it.
But regardless of anything else, they were both happier like this.
In many ways, not much had changed between them. Even kissing wasn’t completely new. Depending on the time and place, it could be part of a standard greeting for certain cultures. But now they didn’t have any reason to hide or hesitate. Everything was in the open. And that made a difference.
Heaven and Hell were keeping their distance after the failed executions. Adam might technically still have powers even after denying Satan and their connection, but he’d locked away most of it from his conscious control and Aziraphale and Crowley drove down to Tadfield every month or so to check on him the same way that they would send letters to another child. No one was carefully scrutinizing their every move, waiting for a mistake or a hint of disloyalty. The only side that they belonged to was their own. The world was safe from outside destruction. Everything was going well and the future looked bright.
Perhaps it was overly optimistic, but Aziraphale would almost call it perfect.
The whiteness was shredding his nerves, ratcheting up his anxiety to almost painful levels.
White walls, white floor, white ceiling, white desk and chair made of what vaguely seemed like a metallic material, and white paper stacked and waiting for him. Even his semi-translucent form was dressed in white, his essence taking on the familiar shape that he wore for six thousand years even after they denied him his corporeal body to make escape more difficult. The quill in his hand, because Heaven refused to give him anything more modern to use, was made from a white feather so similar to those on his wings. White surrounded him, the lack of color uniform and unbroken except for the ink and the writing on the paper. Even shadows refused to interrupt the whiteness.
The whiteness was almost blinding and suffocating, pressing down on him in a way that he couldn’t describe. At times, his vision seemed to turn strange and filled with unexpected colors and his hearing filled with high pitched ringing. Hallucinations concocted by the mind to fill the numbing and unending lack of normal stimuli. It wasn’t too bad at first. But it was too constant and for too long. He wasn’t even certain how long that he’d been trapped. And there was nothing else in the room. Only the endless white and the black words that moved across the pages.
There weren’t even sounds. The other angels put him in the silent room to “think about his mistakes without any distractions,” as Gabriel explained in what was meant to be an encouraging voice. A large room with distant walls and high ceilings. No windows and no doors, the only one vanishing seamlessly once Gabriel left. And as soon as it was sealed closed, Aziraphale couldn’t use any powers within the room.
His abilities came from Heaven. He drew power down from Heaven with every miracle. And he was technically in Heaven, so it should have been easy. But something about the space blocked him. He was cut off from everything outside the walls and couldn’t draw on any power for a single miracle.
The silence was unnatural, just like the lack of shadows. The room wouldn’t let him hear a single sound, just as it wouldn’t let him move further than a couple meters away from the desk regardless of how hard he tried to run or fly. He couldn’t reach the walls or ceiling just as he couldn’t hear the rustle of paper, the scratching of the quill, or his own voice when Aziraphale shouted uselessly. Smashing the furniture against the floor was equally useless: not a single noise produced and they always returned to their normal state as soon as he let go, undamaged and whole. He couldn’t even hear a heartbeat because they took his physical body.
The other angels didn’t understand exactly what they were doing was technically a form of torture. They realized that having an angel immune to hellfire would be an asset too useful to dispose of casually and decided that guilt would be the best way to bring him back to their side. They only needed to use time and guilt to force him to be obedient again. They had plenty of both. But none of them could understand exactly what they were doing by trapping him in the bright, white, and silent room.
Earth was never silent. Not like this. There were birds, insects, and other animals wandering around Eden from the start. There was the sound of the wind rustling the trees, rumbling thunder, falling rain, and running water ranging from trickling brooks to ocean waves. Later there were humans talking, moving, creating, and living their lives at breathtaking speeds. And then there were the inventions and machines that they gradually filled the world with. From distant cricket chirps to the traffic that moved constantly along the streets of London, there was always noise. Aziraphale couldn’t remember the last time that he heard complete and utter silence. Not like this.
But the other angels didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand the concept of sensory deprivation. Cutting off nearly all forms of stimuli could cause mental harm. Not as quickly or as intensely as it would affect a human, but Aziraphale was human enough after six thousand years among them that it was taking its toll.
He’d tried to escape. He couldn’t reach the walls or ceiling of the room, couldn’t use a miracle to get out, and he couldn’t even smash his way through the floor using the desk. Aziraphale eventually came to the unfortunate realization that he wouldn’t be able to leave without outside help. He knew that Gabriel and the other angels would keep him in the white and silent room, tucked away and forgotten by everyone as his mind tried to unravel from anxiety, lack of stimuli, and overwhelming worry. And the only way they would let him out is if he did exactly what Gabriel told him right before locking Aziraphale away.
Besides, it was the only thing that he could do to distract himself from his stressful surroundings.
The stack of paper didn’t look nearly as thick as it actually was. Six thousand years of reports should have been much taller. But it maintained the same height regardless how many pages that he went through. And the finished copies disappeared as soon as he set them aside. He didn’t know how many that he’d corrected or how many were left. There was nothing to judge his progress by, just as there was nothing to indicate the passage of time. But he kept writing because he needed to get out as soon as possible.
Correcting. That’s what Gabriel told him to do. Go through every report that Aziraphale ever submitted and correct them. The Archangel’s logic was that being faced with all his lies and “betrayal” would reduce the principality to a regretful and guilt-stricken soldier, obedient and eager to atone. And he had a specific way that he wanted the reports to be corrected.
“A family was healed of illness and a general blessing was delivered upon the household” was the original report that he submitted ages ago. But now Aziraphale wrote “The Principality Aziraphale was ordered to heal a family of illness and deliver a general blessing upon the household, but the Principality Aziraphale failed in his duty and betrayed Heaven by not fulfilling that order correctly. The Principality Aziraphale allowed the demon known as Crowley to tempt him into disobedience and the demon known as Crowley performed the tasks for unknown evil purposes. The Principality Aziraphale will atone for his mistakes and will be loyal and obedient to all future orders, never straying from the path of good again. The demon known as Crowley will no longer be a factor, unable to tempt or deceive the Principality Aziraphale because Hell does not share Heaven’s kindness, grace, and forgiveness.”
Every report that Aziraphale ever submitted, they wanted him to correct them and admit if Crowley was involved or even if he was present. And he had to write exactly the way that Gabriel instructed or else the words disappeared when he finished.
He hated it. Aziraphale hated the words that he was writing, twisting the facts until it painted a cruel picture. He hated the silence, the whiteness, the helplessness and the feeling of being trapped. But as bad as it was, the worst part was knowing that this was nothing compared to what was undoubtedly happening to Crowley.
Crowley was in Hell’s hands. And Aziraphale might not have quite the imagination as his demon, but his mind could conjure plenty of horrible possibilities. Heaven might try to pull their rogue angel back into the fold, to attempt to make him into an asset for the war that they desperately wanted, but Aziraphale knew that Hell would be brutal. They wanted to make him suffer. And while Heaven and Hell remained fooled regarding their “invulnerability” to hellfire and holy water, that would only prevent attempts to execute the demon. There were still ways to make someone suffer without destroying them with holy water.
And the angel knew that Crowley was suffering. Hell didn’t give out rude notes. They didn’t put traitors in a quiet corner and tell them to write lines. And every moment that Aziraphale was trapped, Crowley was in danger.
He wrote, hating every word on the endless pages. Aziraphale wrote because it kept him sane, it gave him purpose, and because he needed to get out and he’d tried every other way to escape. He wrote because it was the only thing that he could do.
He needed out. He would do whatever they wanted. He would endure it. As long as it got him out. Once he finished, they would let him out of the silent, white, and horrible room and he would find him. He would find Crowley.
Even if he couldn’t produce a single sound, Aziraphale kept silently begging Crowley to hold on and that he would find him. He would reach him somehow.
Crowley didn’t know where the pack of demons had spawned from. They had simply appeared without warning all around them, angry and vicious. Black and red eyes gleamed from faintly human-looking figures, the scent of fresh sulfur and brimstone too strong to ignore. The demons had clearly come straight from Hell, itching for a fight.
And then there was no time to think further.
Dark figures dashed forwards, slashing at him with occult blades. Most were on the ground, but a few had pulled out their wings to gain the advantage of flight. They were everywhere around him. And all of them were intent on tearing him apart. Crowley couldn’t escape them all.
But most of his attention was on the pale shape that he could only catch short glimpses of after the mob of demons separated them. A single speck of white in the dark crowd. Like a dove trapped within a murder of crows.
“Aziraphale!” he shouted desperately, exposing his own wings and trying to reach him.
Rough hands grabbed at him, pulling out dark feathers in painful bunches. Scratches and cuts appeared on him whenever he couldn’t dodge fast enough. And he was already tired before the fight began for some reason. The other demons dragged him back to the ground, battering and beating at him. But Crowley kept clawing his way forward. And his eyes never left the white shape weaving through the dark mass.
He had to reach him. That single thought pounded in his head like a drum. He had to reach his angel. Pain and fear for his own safety were left far behind. Crowley could only see Aziraphale in danger, flashes of white barely glimpsed through the crowd of attacking demons. And every instinct in him screamed that he needed to reach his angel now.
Crowley tore his way past a few more of the demons, ignoring the feeling of slime and grime as he shoved at them. Then there was a break in the crowd and he could finally see Aziraphale’s face. Crowley met his eyes, watching the angel’s worried expression relax a fractional amount and smiling a little in return. For a moment, Crowley felt a spark of hope.
Then a pair of demons tackled Crowley to the ground, pulling and twisting his wings in painful directions. A snarl of pain was all that he could manage as the wind was knocked out of him. And he lost sight of Aziraphale.
Their grip on him was firm, undoubtedly causing bruises, but it wasn’t enough to stop him. Crowley shifted into his serpentine form, forcing the change as quickly as possible, and they lost their hold as skin, torn clothes, and feathers were replaced by scales. Fangs sank into foul flesh as he struck out at them. Again. And again. At anything that came within range as he slithered.
Then he was human-shaped again, the change in shape just as sudden. Crowley was panting as he tackled another demon and kept going. The cuts burned and his body ached, but he kept going.
He couldn’t see his angel. He couldn’t see Aziraphale.
Eyes wide, Crowley scanned the dark mob of demons desperately. He couldn’t risk staying still, but he had to find him. He was in danger. He had—
Horror stabbed through him as Crowley spotted a thick knot of demons clumped together. Attacking something in the center. Someone.
He dove desperately into the thick of it, grabbing and shoving the other demons away. Crowley barely noticed as they attacked him in return. They tried to tear him away, but they never had a chance once he spotted a limp hand and a pale coat sleeve.
“Aziraphale!” he screamed, sore wings flaring out and slamming the other demons away.
Then it was silent. Crowley could only hear his own exhausted panting, his human-shaped body falling back on human behavior because he didn’t have the energy to do otherwise. The other demons were gone. He didn’t know where they went and the question seemed to flutter out of his thoughts before he could care. Crowley collapsed roughly to his knees next to a pale and still figure.
Dark stains. Crowley stared at the dark stains ruining his angel’s waistcoat and shirt. Wounds left by occult blades. Weapons forged to kill beings who weren’t limited to physical bodies, crafted to hurt on deeper levels. He knew what he was seeing and what it meant.
He tried to bury that realization.
Cupping Aziraphale’s slack face, pushing down the panic and desperation clawing at his chest, Crowley whispered, “Angel, look at me. I need you to open your eyes.”
He was shaking as he brushed back Aziraphale’s short hair, trying to coax out a response. His eyes burned and his chest ached sharply. He pulled his angel into his arms, cradling him close. Trying to pretend that he was wrong.
“Don’t do this to me,” he said with a ragged voice. “I know you’re a bit of a bas—” Crowley choked on the words and tears, shaking his head. “You can’t do this. You can’t. I’m supposed to protect you. I’m supposed to…”
Crowley barely noticed the ache and exhaustion of his body. All he could feel was the heavy weight in his arms and the sensation of something deep inside him cracking.
“Angel, could you… could you say the thing?” he asked, grasping desperately for anything that might work. “You promised, remember? I’m asking right now. Please say it. Please.”
He hugged the limp figure against his chest, trying to sense something. Anything. A speck of the angelic grace that he’d followed for six thousand years. Even the smallest sign would be enough.
He was supposed to protect Aziraphale. Crowley always kept him safe. Whether that meant reassuring him that handing over that sword was the right thing or dropping a bomb on the heads of a bunch of Nazis, Crowley always protected his angel. Because even before he recognized the feelings for what they were, he loved Aziraphale. But this time, he’d failed. And that knowledge felt like knives twisting in his guts.
It hurt. More than having Her grace and love taken away because he couldn’t stop asking questions. More than Falling.
“Please say it,” he whispered. “I’m begging you. Please say anything, Aziraphale. Please… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
And the last of his denial and hope crumbled, letting sorrow, loss, and grief wash over him like a tsunami. Crowley collapsed, clinging to his angel’s lifeless body. Tears streaked down his face unhindered. Something vital had been ripped out of him, leaving a ragged and agonizing hole where Aziraphale should have been. All the soft warmness that his angel sparked in him, his love, felt jagged and sharp as it sliced into him.
Loving someone meant letting that love be a part of you. Loving someone for six thousand years, letting those emotions grow and twine deeper like ivy until that love was buried into every corner of your essence, meant that it was part of the very architecture of your soul. But it also meant that when the person you love so deeply is torn away, it’s the equivalent of ripping out half the support columns, multiple load-bearing walls, huge chunks of the foundation, and even some of the door frames. You’re left with an unstable ruin on the verge of collapse.
Grief for what he’d lost mixed with guilt. It was his fault, whispered the thoughts in the back of his mind. Crowley didn’t reach him in time. Too weak, too slow, too useless to protect the most important thing in his existence. And that failure hurt.
It was the burning bookshop all over again. They took him. His best friend. His angel. Aziraphale. He was gone and Crowley couldn’t bring him back. And there was no convenient Armageddon ready to end the demon’s pain. No thermos of holy water to make it stop.
Holy water would be a soothing balm for the agony tearing Crowley apart.
“Why?” he croaked, shaking with barely controlled sobs as he turned his face upwards. “Why him? Because of Your plan? Or because of me? Wasn’t Falling enough? Don’t take him to punish me.” Struggling through the tears and sorrow, Crowley begged, “Give him back. Take me. Not my angel. Not him.”
Words failed him completely, his throat too tight for the words to squeeze past. But the broken prayer continued.
Help Aziraphale. Mercy, please. Just this once.
But any answer that She might give, he could not hear. Grief, sorrow, guilt, and absolute hopelessness blocked out everything else. His entire world shrank until all that was left was the weight in his arms, the emptiness where angelic grace should be, and the visceral agony consuming him. Hell itself couldn’t have found a crueler torture.
That hazy thought, barely coherent or conscious, pressed a little harder. Crowley… was missing something. It slipped through his fingers, loss and heartache moving in to fill the space. And when part of him tried to pursue that stray and fading thought, it seemed to tear at him with claws and teeth. New pain to his mind to add to agony already in place. But he… couldn’t… let it… go…
Where… was he… Didn’t… notice his… surroundings…
Painful, hazy, and straining consciousness, hurting itself trying to follow the loose thread, stumbled as Crowley abruptly found his arms empty.
Where did…? He was holding something. Wasn’t he? Why was he gasping for air, like he’d been running? Or sobbing. Why did grief and sorrow weigh him down? He didn’t remember anything happening, but the emotions didn’t fade.
Crowley forced himself to his feet, exhausted and sore. Why? He glanced down. Everything seemed intact, though he felt like he should see cuts and ruined clothes. And his body seemed to ache.
Why did he feel so bad? So physically and emotionally drained? Aching on so many different levels? The questions kept trying to form, but would then flow away like water. He shook his head, trying to banish the weird feeling.
Then movement caught his eye and his head snapped up.
Crowley didn’t know where the pack of demons had spawned from. They had simply appeared without warning all around them, angry and vicious. Black and red eyes gleamed from faintly human-looking figures, the scent of fresh sulfur and brimstone too strong to ignore. The demons had clearly come straight from Hell, itching for a fight.
And then there was no time to think further.
Dark figures dashed forwards, slashing at him with occult blades. Most were on the ground, but a few had pulled out their wings to gain the advantage of flight. They were everywhere around him. And all of them were intent on tearing him apart. Crowley couldn’t escape them all.
But most of his attention was on the pale shape that he could only catch short glimpses of after the mob of demons separated them. A single speck of white in the dark crowd. Like a dove trapped within a murder of crows.
“Aziraphale!” he shouted desperately.
And once more, Crowley raced forward, unaware that this was not the first time that he’d experienced this and similar nightmarish scenarios nor would it be the last. And he did not realize that with each successful loop, he hurt himself further as he tried to tear his way out of a fiction fueled by his own imagination and made less progress towards the truth each time.
Hastur lurked outside the thick door, smirking at the pain, anguish, and distress radiating out from the room. This particular hallway in Hell wasn’t technically considered to be part of the Head Office, though it was connected by a narrow staircase and some back corridors. It was one corner of the building that wasn’t completely packed with demons. No one bothered to come down unless they had to since there wasn’t much to see and nothing much to do. The only ones who had a purpose to visit the long, dark, and dank hallway of rooms were demons assigned to the Soul Torture Department and most them operated outside of the Head Office where the human souls were handled.
For the moment, Hastur had the entire Annex to himself.
Hastur wasn’t a fan of the Annex. He was a traditionalist. He liked torturing human souls the same way that he preferred to tempt and corrupt them. Individually. Personally. There was a craftsmanship to doing things the same way that they’d been done for thousands of years.
But some human souls were stubborn. They resisted more traditional methods. It was frustrating until Malphas came up with a possible way to “soften them up a little” and he and Ose created the Annex.
A dozen rooms behind thick metal doors, the metal glowing red in places from powerful wards and sigils. While occult and ethereal entities could directly influence humans and their souls to an extent, such as hypnotizing, teleporting, healing, controlling, and so on, that took concentration and personal attention that could be better used elsewhere. It was far easier and more efficient to put the power into the room itself and let it work on whoever was placed inside.
And the spells crafted into the metal of the doors and the very walls of the chambers were designed for a specific purpose: to trap a soul in endless looping illusions of their strongest and most painful fears. The trapped souls powered the spell, their imagination shaping and strengthening it. They couldn’t break out because the only way was to break themselves. Each nightmarish loop felt completely real in every way and when the victim’s pain reached its peak or began to wan, the loop would begin again while the trapped soul didn’t remember the previous one. Each loop was like the first time. Only the emotional and mental exhaustion and pain accumulated. A week inside and even the most troublesome human souls would be weakened and vulnerable to traditional torture again. Not even the most stubborn or resistant humans could withstand a visit to the Annex.
The biggest downside was that none of the demons could witness the torture behind the door. Hastur would have loved to see what brutal and cruel torment that Crowley was suffering. He personally hoped that it involved having his wings torn from his body and his skin peeled off slowly. Hastur would have happily tried it in person on the Serpent.
But he wasn’t in charge of devising a punishment. Not after the failed executions and everyone needing a moment to consider their options. It took a couple years of debate, but it was the best plan that they could come up with. At least it was better than whatever nonsense that Heaven finally decided on for their rebellious angel.
If they couldn’t destroy the traitor in a public and painful method, they could at least imprison and torture him in a particularly unique fashion.
The pain and desperation that Hastur sensed through the door dimmed briefly, signaling the end of loop and the start of another. They weren’t completely certain of the effects that the rooms might have on a demon as opposed to a human soul. They just stripped him of his physical body and tossed him in, a bit like an experiment. Human souls and the essences of angels and demons weren’t exactly the same, after all. Human souls couldn’t be destroyed, not by holy water nor hellfire. A week in the nightmarish loops could leave a human soul mentally fragile and vulnerable, unable to resist further.
Crowley had already been trapped for nearly two months.
Hastur pushed himself away from the wall. He couldn’t stay there all the time. And it wasn’t as if he wouldn’t be able to come back and bask in Crowley’s suffering later. Unlike every other door along the hallway of the Annex, there were no door latches on his prison. Only a lock, the sole key in Beelzebub’s possession. The traitor wasn’t going anywhere. Hastur had all the time in the universe to enjoy his pain.
But if they ever decided to drag Crowley out for a few sessions of old-fashioned torture, Hastur wanted to be there to witness it. And not just because he was a traditionalist. One of the side effects of opening the door and interrupting the spell was the memories of all the previous loops would return at once. All those memories of suffering hitting at the same time could really take it out of a human soul. A final overwhelming blow as a parting gift from the Annex.
And considering how many loops that he’d already gone through, Hastur and a few other demons thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if they hit Crowley at the same time. Would he go insane? Would his mind crumble under the pressure, leaving him as a barely-aware shell of his former self? Or would he shatter on a more fundamental level? Maybe Hastur would find out if a demon’s essence could be destroyed by that much strain. Nobody knew, but it they wanted to find out, who better to try it on than the traitor who disrupted the apocalypse and who melted Ligur? If holy water didn’t do the job, Hastur could at least entertain the possibility that Crowley might rip himself apart or extinguish himself painfully somehow.
But any fun experiments along those lines would have to wait. They probably wouldn’t even consider dragging Crowley out and shaking up his torture schedule for at least a couple centuries at a minimum. For now, all Crowley had to look forward to was yet another loop.
“Have fun, Crawly,” he said with a sneer before walking back down the hall.
Things to do. Human souls to corrupt. He would visit the Annex again soon enough.
In America, in the home of an ambassador who abruptly moved his family back into the country two years ago, a thirteen-year-old boy sat up suddenly in his bed, breathing hard and blinking back the prickling of tears.
1 The ancient Greeks had separate words to describe these different forms of love. Philia, storge, eros, agape… None of these forms of love were considered lesser and all were important. Unfortunately, the English language just squashed them all together with the same word. But what can you expect with a language that gives off the impression that it mugs other languages in dark alleyways and goes through their pockets for random verbs? [ ↑ ]
2 Not impossible though. The Not-Quite-End-Of-Times had proven that much. Aziraphale was one of the first angels to figure out that possession was not only possible for them, but also wouldn’t cause them to Fall. Assuming that the human was willing and open to such things, of course. But lacking a physical body of his own would at least hinder him if he managed to make it that far. [ ↑ ]
3 It was the closest thing that most demons ever got to being creative, though an outside source was responsible for Malphas’s uncharacteristic moment of imagination. The inspiration actually came from a misfiled and unsigned memo that Malphas found that said, in shaky and wine-stained handwriting, “Humans are better at torturing themselves than we ever will be. No demon could come up with half the things they do to themselves on their own.” By sending the note during his week-long bender after glimpsing exactly what was happening during the Spanish Inquisition, Crowley managed to invent all the problems of drunk dialing someone before the creation of the telephone. [ ↑ ]
4 Demons and angels, however, could not use their abilities directly on each other. Not unless their target directly allows it and made themselves that vulnerable on purpose. An angel could not hypnotize a demon, a demon could not teleport an angel away, and an angel could not even heal another angel unless their patient allowed them. Otherwise Crowley’s faceoff against Ligur and Hastur in his flat might have gone differently if they could have used demonic miracles against him directly. The only exceptions to such a rule would be a particularly powerful demon or angel, one in a position of high authority, being able to influence those under their command and only within their own domain. Yet another reason why Armageddon was intended to take place on Earth. [ ↑ ]
I know that this chapter focused mostly on Aziraphale and Crowley, but I promise that we’ll get to see more of the human characters in the next chapter. I have plans. Big plans. And hopefully you’ll enjoy those plans.
And I will fully admit that part of this chapter was heavily inspired by a comic that you can find here. Go give this amazing person some support.
Chapter 2: Dreams
Well, with that intense first chapter out of the way, let’s keep the momentum going. We have some human characters to visit. I hope you enjoy it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Once upon a time, almost exactly thirteen years ago, three newborn babies were shuffled around like a deck of cards. Let’s call them Baby A, Baby B, and the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness.
None of them kept those titles for long. They all received proper names very quickly.
The Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness was intended for the Dowling family, to be raised in the household of the U.S. Ambassador, but ended up raised by Arthur and Deidre Young. They named their son “Adam” and took him home. He grew up in Tadfield with no knowledge of his heritage as the Anti-Christ.
And when he came into his powers at eleven and the end of the world was nigh, he chose humanity. He rejected what the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, angels, demons, and even Satan himself told him, claiming that he had no choice except to destroy everything. He rejected his supposed destiny. He loved his family, his friends, and the world enough to resist. And with enough support, he held his ground and succeeded. Adam was chosen to bring about the end of times, but he rejected that role and any connection to Lucifer. His decision threw Heaven and Hell into confused and frustrated chaos and kept the world spinning.
Being the former Anti-Christ was a heavy burden and left him with doubts that he would occasionally discuss with his self-declared celestial and demonic godparents, but Adam did his best with the support around him and continued his life as a mostly normal boy.
Baby B was born to the American couple, Thaddeus and Harriet Dowling, before being quietly and anonymously adopted to another couple in Tadfield. While not his proper name, most people tended to call him “Greasy Johnson.” Other than an interest in raising tropical fish and a fondness for American football, there were only two real things of note about the boy. First, his mistake of sparking off the temper of a young Pippin “Pepper” Galadriel Moonchild once by making fun of her full name too close. A mistake that even he was reluctant to repeat. And second, for having an ongoing rivalry between his gang, the Johnsonites, and Adam and Them.
Of course, if studied closely, even this ordinary boy, a bit oversized and rough, with a fairly normal childhood would have his own collection of fascinating tales and adventures. Stories that could fill an entire series and maybe even inspire a movie in the hands of a proper author.
But he isn’t particularly involved in the current series of events and continued with his life obliviously.
The fate of Baby A, on the other hand, was extremely relevant. Born to Arthur and Deidre Young, he should have grown up with those parents in Tadfield. He was not intended to be involved in the exchange. But the ordinary infant ended up in the arms of Harriet Dowling instead of the expected Anti-Christ.
Nothing about the child should have been noteworthy. He turned out to be good at math. He liked his stamp collection and baseball. And his father once bought him a BMX bike without really considering the fact that there was nowhere that the boy could ride one. By all accounts, he should have been utterly normal.
He was the Wrong Boy in every sense of the phrase.
But an angel and a demon believed that he was the Anti-Christ. They believed it strongly enough to spend a decade raising Warlock Dowling, trying to shape him into someone who wouldn’t destroy the world. They believed that he was the Anti-Christ prophesied to bring about the Apocalypse and because of that, they held certain Expectations.
While angels and demons can purposefully affect things with miracles, they could also do it subconsciously. Mostly small-scale changes or impossibilities that they wouldn’t even realize. Adam could do the same on a larger scale, the perfect weather in Tadfield being an ideal example of the phenomenon. When an angel or a demon had Expectations, reality tended to align accordingly.
Both Aziraphale and Crowley spent eleven years believing Warlock was the Anti-Christ. There were Expectations from them. And with the reports that they sent to Heaven and Hell, other angels and demons shared those Expectations to an extent.
It wouldn’t be enough to make a normal boy into the Anti-Christ, but those Expectations meant that reality did its best.
Those Expectations were the reason that Warlock bolted up in his bed, breathing hard. Blinking back the tears prickling in his eyes, the boy glanced at the clock as he waited for his racing heart to slow.
It was 2:07 AM on August, 22. The day after his thirteenth birthday. Other than a couple members of security, no one else would be awake.
Flicking on his lamp and causing Brother Hamster to scramble suddenly in his colorful plastic cage, Warlock reached under his mattress and pulled out a composition book. He didn’t call it a dream journal because he knew that his father had Opinions about what would be considered appropriate for a male boy son and a dream journal would not be on that list. But it was a journal documenting his Dreams, so it was definitely a dream journal. Warlock just decorated the cover in doodles of fire and spikes in order to disguise the purpose.
There was a difference between his dreams and his Dreams. He didn’t start having Dreams until the night after his eleventh birthday. And he only recorded his Dreams, the boy realizing their importance after a little while.
The Anti-Christ was meant to Know Things in order to fulfill his purpose. Warlock occasionally Dreamt them.
He turned to the next blank page. And after carefully writing down the date and time, he started scribbling what he could remember.
“Aziraphale (Brother Francis/Mr. Fell?) (“Azerahfell” is the wrong spelling) was in a white room, writing lots of things that seemed wrong and mean towards him. He was really upset and kind of see-through. And couldn’t hear anything at all. I don’t think there were any shadows either. The place didn’t feel right. Probably not Earth. I think they took him back and that’s really bad.
Crowley (Nanny/Anthony?) was somewhere else. Bad things kept happening to Aziraphale (Brother Francis/Mr. Fell?) and he/she was really upset about it. It was scary. But they kept happening over and over again. Like a nightmare. I don’t think what he/she was seeing was real.
Hastur (Poo Man) was in a dark hallway, standing outside a weird door with glowing symbols. I think Crowley (Nanny/Anthony?) was on the other side. Maybe the door is what’s causing the nightmare for him/her. I also don’t think they’re on Earth either.”
He paused, staring at the words on the page. Then, biting his lower lip, Warlock wrote one last thing.
“I think Aziraphale (Brother Francis/Mr. Fell?) and Crowley (Nanny/Anthony?) were taken and are in danger.”
After a moment, Warlock snapped the composition book shut and shoved it away. His breathing hitched a couple times as he wrapped his arms around himself. His head shook sharply, a furious whisper of “they left me” hissing out.
Warlock glanced around the room, trying to shove them out of his mind and ignore the storm of emotions churning in his chest. He tried to focus on anything else.
His room was large and filled with the various things that a fairly rich family could afford to give their only child. Expensive gifts from the previous day’s party, the guest list composed of the children of other important and influential families rather than anyone that Warlock would choose, were piled in a corner next to other expensive toys and electronics. Brother Hamster scurried through colorful plastic tunnels, too hyper to sleep at night even as he was a barely-mobile lump of fur during daylight hours. And on his desk was his laptop, the boy having completely unrestricted access to the internet. Which had led to exposure to certain topics that his less open-minded father would never approve of.
Thinking about his parents did little to calm his turbulent emotions. His father was a busy man, distant emotionally and physically. From the moment that the boy was born and shuffled into the family, he was disconnected from Warlock’s life outside of brief moments. He loved the concept of a son, but Thaddeus Dowling could not truthfully claim to know Warlock as a person.
And while Harriet Dowling was physically present more often than her husband, she shared his flaw of caring for their son without any real connection. She did love him. She loved him in small moments between the other various responsibilities and interests that consumed her day. She loved having a smart, handsome, and successful child that she could discuss with other spouses of powerful people. She loved him when she wasn’t distracted or busy. She loved him when he didn’t remind her of Thaddeus Dowling and whatever she was upset with the man over currently.
They loved Warlock, but only as an idea rather than a person.
Warlock was observant enough to know that he wasn’t what they truly wanted. Even with his fondness for baseball and the BMX bike that he was never able to ride, he didn’t match his father’s ideal image of a male boy son. And when his mother’s first act was to change his planned name to something strange and mockable out of spite for her husband, it sends a certain message. He grew up with the knowledge that he was only a trophy or a pawn to them. He was never what they wanted.
Hell had chosen this particular family to raise the Anti-Christ for a reason. It was the ideal homelife to produce a boy who would be taken care of, who would have all the opportunities and privileges possible, and who would not have those pesky emotional bonds with his adopted family that would make it harder for the boy to destroy the Earth. Hell chose the Dowlings because demons believed that they would raise the child and see to his basic needs, but would not make him feel loved enough to stop Armageddon when the time came. And just because Adam didn’t end up with them did not make Thaddeus and Harriet Dowling better parents to the son that they did have.
There were other people in the household. Other people that he sought out when he was younger. The security guards loomed in the background, rarely interacting. The housekeeper would let him talk as she cleaned, though she didn’t really pay attention. She didn’t even listen when Warlock told her that he could feed Brother Hamster himself since she always did it as part of her daily routine, meaning that he had to stop feeding him or else Brother Hamster would get too round to go through his tunnels. And the cook would always sneak him snacks, no matter how busy or distracted she might be. A small snack before shooing him out of the kitchen. But the two people who were always there, who honestly seemed to want him around, were his nanny and the gardener.
They always listened to him, always answered his questions, always had time for him, and always treated him like he was important. Like he mattered to them.
“You must love and revere all living things.”
“Someday you will ground your enemies beneath your heel.”
“Remember, your actions have consequences. What you do affects those around you. You don’t want to hurt someone on accident, do you? That’s why you need to be kind and patient with them.”
“If someone covets what is yours, don’t let them take it from you. If it is yours, fight back and keep it. And take what they have too, if you can.”
“You have a good heart, young Master Warlock. Listen to that goodness and let it guide you through life.
“Never let them knock you down or control you. You’re stronger than that. When they push you, my boy, you push back harder.”
But when Warlock turned ten, his father decided that he was too old to need a nanny. And when both Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis left on the same day, despite the boy alternating between heartfelt begging and graphic threatening to try and convince them to stay, he felt alone. As if the entire world was against him. So Warlock pushed back. For an entire year, he did everything possible to be a horrible, embarrassing, and rude brat, all cumulating in his chaotic eleventh birthday party.
He’d hoped that if he upset his parents, that if he made them look bad in front of their friends and other important people that they wanted to impress, it would fix things. He hoped that it would be enough for his parents to bring back his nanny and gardener because the two of them could control him. The two of them could keep him out of sight and out of mind, just like they used to. He’d thought that he could make everything right again.
Warlock didn’t know as much back then. He thought that Nanny and Brother Francis would come back someday because they wanted him. He thought that even if no one else did, they wanted him. And he had tried to get them back because he missed them.
Because he loved his nanny and his gardener. And he always believed that they loved him too.
He learned over time that not everything that he believed was true. That was part of the reason he kept his composition book up to date with his Dreams; he needed somewhere to put all the pieces together and work them out. There were big secrets about the world, but also smaller ones about people that he knew. And some of those secrets and lies hurt. But one thing remained true: Warlock still cared.
Trying not to think about what he was doing, because the hurt and jumbled emotions would get in the way, Warlock swung his legs around and climbed out of bed. With quiet movements, he walked over and started up the laptop. But as soon as he pulled up the internet, the boy shoved himself away and stumbled back, sitting on the floor next to his bed.
Sniffling slightly despite his best efforts, Warlock’s legs curled up and his head dropped onto his knees. His chest ached as doubts gnawed at him. Warlock knew that he shouldn’t act like a child. He was a teenager now. He didn’t think that he should be falling apart, his head and heart being yanked in multiple directions. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do though.
The questions kept rattling around in his head. What was he supposed to do? Could he do anything? Should he do anything?
After a few minutes, he shifted his position and managed to disturb the shoebox sticking out from under the bed. He pulled the box out and opened it almost against his will. Inside were numerous letters, two distinct handwriting styles making it easy to tell the difference between the senders. They’d been ripped to pieces in heartbroken fury before being carefully taped back together, then torn and repaired again repeatedly as his emotions continued to seesaw. Every month, two letters arrived with his name before being banished to the box. Every single month. Brother Francis’s arrived like clockwork, but Nanny’s letter kept taking longer and longer. Like she was gradually giving up.
Warlock never wrote back. He couldn’t. Not after everything. But they kept writing, not forgetting him despite all the reasons that they should.
“They left me. And I’m not him. I’m not… I’m the wrong one,” he muttered, bitter and sharp. “I’m a mistake. They don’t want me.”
But he was already back at the computer, pulling up a list of flights. Thaddeus Dowling provided his son with a credit card when he turned twelve. He also gave Warlock a rule to only use it for emergencies, but with the understanding that he would almost certainly use it to buy expensive video games or eventually rather adult movies that Thaddeus expected all male boy sons to hide from their parents. He would have considered such a purchase showing up on the bill at the end of the month as a sign that his child was becoming a proper man. Warlock doubted he expected the boy to book a direct flight to London leaving at 5:36 AM and quietly arranging a taxi to pick him up a short walk from his house in order to drive him to the airport.
He continued with that momentum. Warlock grabbed his old backpack and dumped the contents from the previous school year on the carpet. Then the boy stuffed a change of clothes into the bag. Then he yanked off his plaid pajamas and tossed them in too.
Warlock skipped past the school uniforms and the more expensive outfits meant for photo-ops with his parents. The dark jeans, the cream-colored polo shirt, and the gray jacket would attract less attention. He couldn’t completely deflect notice and suspicion to the extent the Anti-Christ could naturally, but Warlock could still make himself relatively easy to ignore.
Digging through a few drawers in his desk and in some boxes filled with random junk, he managed to scrape together a decent amount of pounds that made it through the move. He had his credit card, but he wanted other options too. He didn’t want to use it too much. People could track that stuff. He saw it in the movies. That’s also why he planned to leave his phone behind. Hesitating a moment, Warlock picked up a couple more things.
The first was a book. Probably the most boring and complicated book in the world as far as Warlock was concerned. He could never get through more than ten pages of “What We Owe Each Other” by T.M. Scanlon without getting a headache. He couldn’t understand most of it. But inside the front cover was a familiar neat handwriting. A short inscription that read “Young Master Warlock, I may no longer be there to guide you, but you are growing into a fine young man and I believe you are capable of finding the proper path on your own going forward. Yours truly and sincerely, Brother Francis.” Warlock doubted that he would ever read through the entire book no matter how old that he might get, but the message brought a smile to his face when he first read it.
He didn’t expect the package to arrive on his twelfth birthday. Nor did he expect another package, a different gift from across the ocean.
The second object that Warlock picked up was his black iPod. An older classic model, one that could only play music and needed to be hooked up to a computer to download more songs. It was actually older than him and Warlock would have an easier time using his phone to play music, but he kept it. He kept it despite how many of his other belongings made it obsolete. The iPod had a remarkable battery life to the point that he only charged it out of habit, it had more room for songs than expected, and Warlock could drop it hundreds of times without even scratching the Apple logo on the back. The oddest part was that, prior to Warlock adding his own music, there were only Queen’s songs on it. Even though most of them were labeled as other pieces of music on the screen. But even if it was outdated, Warlock rather liked it. He liked it because of who gave it to him.
The times may have changed, but certain things continue to repeat. And the Serpent offering an Apple to humanity was one such example.
The book went into his backpack alongside the composition book and a pencil. The iPod slipped into his pocket, the cords for his earbuds already tangling into knots. He pulled on his sneakers from where he left them in his closet. Then he moved towards the door.
But as he reached for the doorknob, Warlock froze. Doubts, hurt, and jumbled feelings rose up in his chest like the kraken released from the ocean’s depths. Those feelings twisted into anger and heartache, prompting him to drop his backpack on the floor and fling himself back on his bed.
Warlock buried his face in his pillow. He tried to force himself to go back to sleep, his body a little too tense to succeed. His hands dug into the blankets.
He didn’t know what to do. Warlock was mad at them. They left. They lied. And he was the Wrong Boy. He should just go back to sleep. He wasn’t meant to be involved. He was a mistake.
But Nanny and Brother Francis needed help. And no matter how he tried to ignore it and even half-heartedly tried to convince himself that they deserved it, Warlock couldn’t do it.
Not good enough to let go of the harsh truth, but not evil enough to leave them in danger.
Growling in frustration, the sound muffled by the pillow, Warlock shoved himself back up. He snatched back up his bag and slung it on. He would have stomped out of the room in a temper if he wasn’t attempting to be stealthy.
Stealing his passport out of Thaddeus Dowling’s safe barely counted as stealing. Nanny would probably remark that he wasn’t living up to his potential. The passport was his after all. And the man’s idea of a secure combination was 1-2-3-4. It took less than two minutes. That was including the time needed to walk to the office.
And, doing his best to keep quiet, Warlock stepped out of the house and jogged along the path leading towards the edge of the yard. The decorative iron gate was under camera surveillance, ensuring that no one entered or left without close scrutiny by the security, but an old tree offered an easy way to climb over and drop to the ground on the far side. At least it did if you so happened to be a skinny thirteen-year-old boy.
Only then did Warlock slip his earbuds in. Thanks to his excessive exposure to Queen’s songs and Brother Francis’s enjoyment of classical music while he puttered around the vast estate, his own musical tastes were rather varied. But most of the songs that he’d added to his iPod were from before he was born.
“Carry on my wayward son
For there'll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don't you cry no more.”
As the tune truly kicked in, Warlock started walking towards where he was supposed to meet the taxi. He hoped that he could get some sleep on the plane during the nine-hour flight. Some of his grogginess was beginning to return. And he vaguely hoped that he would get some more hints about what to do if he Dreamed again. But he was at least somewhat confident that between now officially being thirteen and his ability to be ignored, no one would bother him or ask too many questions about a young boy traveling to another country on his own in the early hours of the morning.
Once upon a time, Agnes Nutter wrote prophecies about the future. She was a witch, one with the ability to see hundreds of years into the future. It might only be tiny glimpses, like looking through a keyhole. And she couldn’t always understand what she saw, only able to interpret the future through the context of her time period. But her visions stretched far and she recorded everything that she could.
Warlock’s Dreams were more limited in scope than her visions.
At first, he didn’t realize what he was seeing. The night after his eleventh birthday party, Warlock Dreamt of people that he didn’t know and strange events. He couldn’t make sense of what he heard and saw. He only knew that his Dreams felt different than normal dreams. Fuller. Brighter. More intense. Solid. His entire week was filled with similar Dreams.
Then he slowly realized that at least some were coming true. He Dreamed about meeting the weird and smelly man in the middle of nowhere before his father announced the unexpected trip. And then there were later things, things after that, where he would Dream something that he couldn’t have possibly guessed only to see or hear something later that would confirm it. It made him realize that those unusual Dreams were real.
There were limits. He couldn’t control when they happened or what he saw. His Dreams just came whenever they wanted. But not all of them were about things that would happen. Some were things that had already happened. But he could only Dream about things up to a day in the past or up to a day in the future. Even those random glimpses were useful though. Especially when he started writing everything down and putting the puzzle pieces together.
It took time to unravel enough. Snippets of conversation, vague references, faces and names, and unexpected moments with little context or explanations served more as breadcrumbs than proper clues. But he learned to solve several mysteries that he didn’t even know existed previously.
Warlock learned that many things that his parents would claim were imaginary were actually real. Demons, hellhounds, angels, witches, and the Anti-Christ were all real. Just like Nanny’s more interesting and violent bedtime stories. They were real and the world nearly ended a few days after he turned eleven.
He learned about Adam Young. Who he was and what he was. Warlock learned that this curly-haired boy was the real Anti-Christ, but ended up with a different family than planned. He figured out that Adam was meant to have the destiny that Warlock was promised. That the role that Nanny and Brother Francis were raising him for was actually meant for Adam.
It was all meant for Adam. When Warlock put those facts together reluctantly, when his denial failed, it hurt more than he could admit. All those days wandering around the garden, seeing cute animals that should have been more afraid of humans… All those bedtime stories, lullabies, and hours answering any questions that he asked… All the dried tears, kissed scrapes, and love… Warlock realized that it belonged to Adam instead.
Because Warlock was the Wrong Boy and Adam was the one that they wanted.
And he learned the truth about Nanny and Brother Francis. That was the tricky part. They were so different after they left. Warlock didn’t even recognize the magician at his birthday party until he was looking back months later. But he kept Dreaming about a blond angel and the red-haired demon in black. The accents were different, the names were different, the angel’s sideburns and teeth were wrong, and the demon in his Dreams seemed drastically different than his nanny even with the same hair and sunglasses, but he finally made the connection. Warlock learned that Nanny and Brother Francis were lies that Crowley and Aziraphale told.
Warlock hated that everything about them was lies. That he didn’t actually know them. He figured out what they were and that they only spent time with him because of a mistake.
They wanted Adam.
But even if Warlock wondered at times if they ever truly liked him even a little, the boy still cared about both of them. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be curled up in an economy seat, flying across the Atlantic Ocean while Bach played in his ears. If he didn’t care, Warlock wouldn’t have run away with only the faintest idea of a plan simply because of his Dreams.
5 It was a miracle of the most literal nature that Thaddeus and Harriet Dowling kept forgetting about their decision to let her go for as long as they did. [ ↑ ]
6 The lack of any letters last month should have been his first clue that something was wrong. [ ↑ ]
7 It would be nice to think that the reason for his parents’ aloofness was because of this ability, but his unusual talents only appeared after his eleventh birthday since that’s when he was Expected to come into his power. The Dowlings ignoring the boy during his entire childhood was their own fault. [ ↑ ]
8 Crowley originally gained the sleek black iPod back when it was the cutting edge and most stylish model on the market. But then he misplaced the iPod under the seat of his Bentley shortly before he was handed a basket with the baby Anti-Christ and didn’t dig it back out again until about two months before Arma-gonna-fail. That’s over a decade spent in the Bentley. The music on the innocent iPod never stood a chance. [ ↑ ]
9 Thanks to his unrestricted access to the internet, Warlock was reasonably familiar with the idea that gender wasn’t always as clear-cut as Thaddeus Dowling’s “male boy son” view of the world. He could wrap his head around the idea of his nanny looking more like a man now and being called “Crowley,” though he didn’t know what Nanny would prefer to be called. He wouldn’t want to be rude. Not to his nanny. What the internet didn’t prepare Warlock for was how to refer to someone who sometimes looked like a woman, sometimes looked like a man, and sometimes apparently turned into a giant black snake. [ ↑ ]
And looks like Warlock is on a mission. Hopefully you’re enjoying what I’m doing with the kid. He’s had a couple years to grow up a bit more and he’s starting his teenager years off rather interestingly.
Chapter 3: Tracking Spell
We have one kid accounted for with this chaos. And since we know what’s going on with the Not Quite Anti-Christ, we should probably check on the Former Anti-Christ too.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Napping, snacking, and listening to classical music made the long journey jammed in a crowded plane a little easier to bear. But it was still boring. The most interesting thing was when a song labeled “Ride of the Valkyrie” by Richard Wagner turned out to be a copy of “Killer Queen” instead. But mostly the trip was boring and took forever. Eventually Warlock started doing the math just to keep himself occupied.
The flight would take about nine hours, but London was five hours ahead of the time zone where the Warlock left from. Finding a ride that would drive an hour outside the city would also take a little while, but he will expect that. Even having a credit card could only do so much to convince people. Warlock could make himself easier to ignore, but actively bending reality to summon a willing and ready taxi driver was beyond him at the moment. That would require a miracle, the authentic Anti-Christ and his powers, or at least more practice than Warlock had. Regardless, it would be close to nine o’clock in the evening before he reached Tadfield.
Almost an entire day after he left, Warlock would turn up on the Young’s doorstep. He would come face-to-face with the man who could have been his father if circumstances had been different. Arthur Young will even experience an odd feeling that something about the boy seemed familiar.
But Warlock’s arrival was still several hours away and there were others who were starting to ask questions.
When Adam woke up the day after his thirteenth birthday, a bright and cheery Sunday morning, he knew that something was wrong.
Not like how he Knew things during the Not-Quite-The-End-Of-Days. When whispers filled his head, knowledge crept into his mind, and his thoughts began to grow twisted and dark. When he nearly embraced the role that he was born to fulfill. When he almost became the Anti-Christ and came impossibly close to destroying the world.
No. Not like that.
Adam locked away most of that stuff. He buried it. He tried to ignore it and cut himself off from those abilities. Not all of it. He couldn’t change himself as easily as he could everything else. As easily as he could change everyone. What he did to his friends in his altered state still gave him nightmares. Even when he broke all familial connection to Satan, Adam remained the same. All that he could do was keep from using his powers as much as possible.
He was a normal boy. He wanted to be normal.
And as a normal boy, Adam realized that something was wrong through normal means and by noticing ordinary clues. The biggest clue was the absence of two figures during his entire birthday.
After Nope-mageddon, after they apologized for not being around sooner to guide him as intended and for trying to kill him when they thought that they were out of time and options, Aziraphale and Crowley tried to visit every month or so. It varied a little. Occasionally it would be three weeks between trips to Tadfield or sometimes it would be up to six weeks. But they always showed up eventually. Adam figured that they were trying to finally live up to their self-assigned task of being godparents.
Not that Arthur or Deidre Young knew about their son now having godparents. They seemed to believe that Aziraphale and Crowley were either friends of Anathema Device and Newton Pulsifer or were involved with some type of reading program connected to the school. But mostly they didn’t think about it too much.
It was nice having them around. Sometimes Adam asked them questions, the kind of questions that no human could answer. Other times they could reassure Adam when he was afraid that he was doing things.
No, you didn’t make your parents take you to the circus.
No, you didn’t make the girl in your class develop a crush and send you a Valentine’s card.
No, your friends aren’t your friends because you brainwashed them into liking you.
If anyone could tell or notice him shifting reality, consciously or subconsciously, it would be the local demon and angel. And while they confirmed that the weather was still bending to his desires despite his best efforts, they also told him that he wasn’t controlling people accidentally. At most, he kept them from noticing anything unusual about him and no more.
But they should have shown up for his birthday. Maybe not the party itself, based on some teasing comments from the demon. Aziraphale wouldn’t fit into a thirteenth birthday party very well, even if Crowley could adapt. But Adam asked them months ago to come and they’d promised to stop by. So when he woke up the next day and realized that they never showed, and that they hadn’t shown in a little over two months, Adam realized that something was wrong.
He made it through the morning, acting like everything was normal. After breakfast, Adam borrowed the phone and started calling. First Aziraphale’s bookshop. Then Crowley’s flat, which eventually went to his antique machine and the boy recorded a message asking the demon to call. Then Crowley’s mobile, which immediately went to voicemail and made Adam suspect that the battery was dead. Which didn’t make sense because Crowley always Expected his mobile to be charged. After that, Adam waited an hour by pacing in his room before repeating the phone calls. And then he waited another hour and tried again.
Adam repeated the process until lunch and the only thing that happened was that the tape at Crowley’s flat filled to the point that he couldn’t leave any more messages. No one answered and no one called back. And that feeling that something was wrong settled firmly in his stomach.
And while his father scolded him mildly for hogging the phoneline all day, Adam called his friends and asked them to meet him at Jasmine Cottage. He needed to figure out what was wrong and he knew that adults wouldn’t be any help.
Anathema and Newt didn’t count. Anathema was a witch and Newt was the least adult-ish adult that Adam could ever remember meeting. Besides, they were backup Them and knew about all the important stuff already.
Organizing everyone was a little trickier than when they were younger; too many parents thinking that they were old enough to take on some responsibility around the household and holding them hostage until chores were done. And while Adam briefly considered the idea that he could make them forget about wanting those chores done, he immediately shoved the idea down. Giving into temptation like that risked bringing back those whispers and sinking back into that toxic mindset. It wasn’t worth it to save a couple hours.
Which was why it was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon by the time that Adam rolled up on his bike with Dog padding next to him loyally.] Pepper was already setting her bike against the bench.
“And you’re sure they’re not just busy?” she asked without preamble.
Nodding, Adam said, “Positive. Uncle Crowley never turns his mobile off.] Especially if it could start ringing in a movie theater or whatever. Something’s wrong.”
Pepper frowned thoughtfully. All four of Them liked Aziraphale and Crowley when they visited Tadfield. Crowley could be dragged into any of their games, especially the ones that could turn out to be messy and get them into trouble. And it wasn’t so much that he was dragged into them as he kind of tempted his way into the middle before they could even make the offer. Games could get really fun when the demon got involved. And while Aziraphale was generally less directly involved in their games and might withdraw to Jasmine Cottage for tea or lemonade, he would still answer their questions and recommend the most interesting books. Which Wensleydale embraced enthusiastically.
Pepper surprisingly bonded the most with the angel over a shared common interest that no one saw coming.] But she remembered him holding a sword when things went wrong and he remembered her facing down War without fear or hesitation, the first of Them to challenge the Horsemen. And when Pepper, being practical about the fact that she was best friends with the former Anti-Christ and weird things might happen again, asked Aziraphale to teach her how to properly wield a sword to make certain that she could protect her friends. To protect everyone if necessary. And because she asked how to defend rather than how to attack someone, Aziraphale ended up agreeing. He didn’t like fighting, but he could understand the desire to protect.
“Adam. Pepper,” shouted Brian as he and Wensleydale rode up. “Sorry we’re late. My dad wouldn’t let me leave until I helped finish cleaning the attic. He’s been putting it off all summer and Mum put her foot down.”
The dust, dirt, and cobwebs clinging to him and his clothes gave a fairly accurate glimpse of what his morning had been like. Brian was naturally a scruffy and messy boy, but he’d reached a new level. But the fact that his parents didn’t try to scrape the worst of it off before he ran out meant he was telling the truth about coming as soon as possible.
“And my mum wanted me to help straighten the house after church. She’s having company visiting this evening.” Wensleydale pushed his glasses further up. “Actually, the timing is rather brilliant. Mum wanted me to keep out of the way while they visited.”
“So if Aziraphale and Crowley are missing, how are we going to find them?” asked Pepper.
Trying to brush the dust off his face and only smearing it, Brian asked, “Is it like when you knew that we needed to go to the airbase? Can you find them like that?”
Adam shook his head. It wasn’t like that. They weren’t a direct part of the whole Apocalypse setup. They weren’t part of the knowledge whispered in his skull, where he Knew what he was Meant To Do. They were just people. An angel and a demon, but still people and not that tangled up knot of destiny and anthropomorphic personifications that the Horsemen were. And he couldn’t risk reaching out to the rest of the world like he did when he was trying to put everything back. That might let them find them, but Adam would have to unleash more power. And the more that he drew on that part of himself, the harder it would be to put it all back again. It could start spilling over and overflow until he wasn’t Adam anymore and he was the Anti-Christ instead. And he didn’t know if his friends would be able to help him come back again. The last thing that they needed was him reigniting another Armageddon.
“We need an expert,” said Adam. “Someone who knows how to find things and people. And Anathema moved here because she was trying to find me, so she probably knows how to find people.”
“Actually, she didn’t really find you.” Wensleydale continued, “You found her. And she had her book to help.”
“Doesn’t mean that she can’t do it,” said Adam.
Brian shrugged and said, “Not like I have any better ideas.”
With that decided, Adam knocked on the door. A few seconds later and Anathema opened it, smiling as she saw them.
“Good afternoon,” she greeted. “I didn’t expect to see you today.”
“Sorry,” said Adam. “There’s trouble. Big trouble. And we need your help.”
Blinking briefly in surprise before adopting a serious expression, Anathema said, “Come inside. We have lemonade. I’ll pour you a few glasses while you explain.”
As the Them shuffled inside and clustered around the table, the lights briefly flickered and a yelp immediately followed. Then some footsteps stumbled down the stairs and Newt appeared looking a little more frazzled than normal.
“Did you break the radio again?” she asked calmly.
“I was trying to get better reception so it wouldn’t be so staticky,” said Newt.
“It didn’t have static earlier.”
“Well, it certainly does now.”
Anathema shook her head with an indulgent smile, already mentally adding a new radio to the list for the next shopping trip. Then she gestured towards the table and he claimed a seat without a word. Another glass was pulled out of the cabinets and lemonade was passed around.
“All right,” said Anathema, leaning back against the counters and adopting the same focused expression that she wore when she used to decipher Agnes Nutter’s prophecies. “Tell us what happened.”
“When was the last time that either of you heard from Uncle Aziraphale or Uncle Crowley?” Adam stared at them firmly. “I know that you talk about books sometimes. Has Uncle Aziraphale called you?”
“Not recently,” she said, frowning faintly with concentration. “Maybe… two or three months?”
Adam, gripping the cool glass tightly, shook his head and said, “Same for me. But they’re supposed to visit every month. And they promised to come to my birthday. But they never showed up and I’ve been calling all morning. Something is wrong.”
“So can you track them down?” asked Pepper.
Hesitating a moment, Anathema said, “I’m not quite certain that any of this is enough to know that they’re in trouble.”
“Right. I mean, they are an angel and a demon,” said Newt, still looking a little awkward even calling them that. “How much trouble can they be in?”
Staring at him with a deadpan expression that she'd perfected long before reaching the start of her teenage years, Pepper asked, “Have you even met them?”
“And there’s loads of things that could get them in trouble,” said Brian. “One of the Horsemen is still around and I don’t know if what we did got rid of the other three forever.”
“I don’t think it was permanent.” Adam frowned thoughtfully and continued, “They came from people and our minds, so they can always come back from there.”
“See? They could be causing problems. We don’t know.”
“Actually, the other angel and demon, the one who called Adam a ‘brat’ and the one who had the weird fly hat?” described Wensleydale. “They seemed upset with them and Adam too. Maybe they came back.”
“That was two years ago,” argued Pepper.
Pushing up his glasses, Wensleydale said, “So? All of them are supposed to be thousands of years old, right? Two years is probably like… a couple weeks or something to them. That’s not too long to be mad at someone.”
“Or maybe it was aliens,” suggested Brian. “Or maybe they could have gotten hurt or sick. They probably can’t go to a normal doctor.”
“Can angels or demons get sick?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” Brian shrugged and said, “Lots of things are possible. Maybe a witch captured them. There’s probably nice witches and bad ones. Got to be a reason why witchfinders started looking in the first place.”
“Maybe because an old man promised a job and they didn’t have any other options?” muttered Newt.
“Please.” Adam met Anathema’s gaze firmly. “Can you find them? Is there a spell that you can use to tell us where they are?”
She slowly nodded. It was a little hesitant and uncertain, but it was a nod.
“I have an idea that we can try. It’ll need to be adjusted because the spell was designed to locate humans instead of someone occult or ethereal. And since thy aren’t in Tadfield, I’ll need to use one of the more long-distant versions. Less accurate, but it should still give us a general location.” Anathema started pacing around the room, deep in thought. “The only issue is that it’ll take a while to set up properly and that it works better if we had something connected to whoever the spell is trying to locate.”
Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale reached for the leather cords around their necks and exposed identical charms from under their shirts, the movements almost synchronized with each other. Each one held a white downy feather and a black one, carefully tied together with by wrapping thread around the tips of the quills.
Adam was mostly protected from supernatural retaliation by his very nature, but his completely human friends didn’t share that protection and spent a lot of time around the former Anti-Christ. And Crowly always hated the idea of kids being hurt. Which is why he and Aziraphale came up with at least a small safeguard. A little piece of something demonic and a little piece of something angelic, bound together into pure protection. All three were gifted with these charms and wore them constantly.
But more importantly, the soft downy feathers came from Aziraphale and Crowley.
“All right,” said Anathema. “Newt, could you go upstairs and get the big roll of paper from the hall closet? I don’t want to write all of this out on the floor or table. It would be a nightmare to clean up afterwards. And if you four want to stay, you should probably call your parents and tell them that you’re staying for dinner. It’ll be several hours.”
Pepper knew that she wasn’t the most patient person in the world, but anyone would be tired of waiting by that point. The entire thing was taking forever and was turning out to be boring. She always imagined that proper witchcraft would be exciting or at least interesting. Though Anathema did warn them.
They did their best to pass the time. Newt made sandwiches for everyone. They were pretty good and Anathema managed to eat her while she worked, kneeling on the floor and trying not to drop crumbs over the project. Pepper and the others helped clean up afterwards. But mostly they were stuck waiting awkwardly as their local witch prepared her spell.
It looked complicated. On a huge roll of paper spread across the floor, Anathema drew careful designs and what might be letters in a language that Pepper didn’t recognize. Every couple of minutes, she would doublecheck her research. Dusty old books and New Aquarian magazines were scattered around her, which she consulted equally. Non-smear markers, a compass, a protractor, and a level were all included as part of her tools. And even when her fingers were stained by the black markers, the characters were nice and accurate. Not even a smudge out of place.
And as the sun began to set, Anathema placed several clear crystals at different points around the intricate design. Then she held out her hand for the feather-based charms and added them to the setup. Only after she completed the circle did she straighten up and rub the soreness out of her neck.
“That should do it,” she said. “All we need now is a map and something to burn it with. Whatever isn’t burned up will be the location of one of them.”
Anathema dug through a couple desk drawers before pulling out a folded map. Newt vanished briefly before reappearing with some rather old-looking matches. She raised a questioning eyebrow and he shrugged sheepishly.
“Standard issue witchfinder gear. Like the pin.”
She accepted the offered matches before unfolding the map and placing it in the center of the design. It depicted all of Britain quite nicely, showing several of the smaller villages and smaller roads. But Pepper noticed that Adam was frowning.
“Do you have a bigger map?” he asked. “It needs to show more.”
Glancing at him, Anathema said, “The more area it show, the less detailed the map will be. And the less accurate the results.”
“It isn’t showing enough.”
“How big does it need to be? All of Europe?”
“I don’t know.” Adam frowned with thought. “Just… more.”
Biting his lip briefly, Newt said, “When I moved out, my mum packed a bunch of my stuff from when I was a kid. I think there’s an old poster that shows the entire world. Would that work?”
Pepper could tell from Anathema’s expression that she thought they were going overboard, but she exchanged the smaller map with the one that Newt retrieved from a box in the attic. Anathema whispered something over her intricate designs and Pepper felt something prickling at the back of her neck, reminding her a little of the power that gathered on the airbase two years ago. Then, striking a match, Anathema brought the small flame to the corner of the poster.
And it instantly ignited in a bright fire before crumbling into ash and soot, not even scorching the paper that she prepared the spell on. It was a rather impressive display. But it didn’t distract Pepper from noticing that not one speck of the map survived.
“What does that mean?” asked Wensleydale. “Where are they?”
Anathema shook her head and said, “I don’t know. Maybe I did something wrong. It wasn’t meant to track down angels and demons, after all. I could have made a mistake.”
Pepper tried to ignore the heavy weight settling into her stomach. She tried to ignore the fluttering fear that the spell couldn’t find Aziraphale and Crowley because there was nothing left to find. That they might be gone. She ignored it because it wasn’t true.
And while everyone quietly tried to figure out how to proceed from there, the tense silence was broken by a sharp rapping at the door.
The interruption startled them and caused Dog to wake up from his nap under the table. A short growl gave way to a series of sharp barks. No one should be at the door at this hour. Tadfield didn’t have much of a nightlife. The only people who might have a reason to visit Jasmine Cottage so late would be their parents checking on Them and they would probably call first.
Newt broke out of the startled state first, glancing between everyone awkwardly before answering the door. On the other side was a dark-haired boy standing in the falling darkness. Pale, his hair approaching long enough that R. P. Tyler might feel an urge to write to a letter on the current hairstyles of today’s youth, and with faint dark circles under his eyes, he looked like he could be a vampire. Though that impression died a swift death as he shoved his way past Newt and walked into the cottage like he belonged, not a single invitation issued.
Tadfield wasn’t a big place and everyone knew everyone. Pepper should have recognized a boy who looked around their age. But he was a stranger. A strange boy arriving at night and who apparently had no manners.
She already didn’t trust him.
“Hey,” called Brian, just as surprised by the intrusion as everyone else. “Who are you?”
The boy glanced between Them, silently sizing them up. But Pepper could see recognition in his eyes. None of them knew the strange boy, but he seemed familiar with them. Then his eyes locked on Adam and his expression darkened momentarily before he shook it off.
“Your dad said that you were having dinner with Ms. Device and Mr. Pulsifer,” he said, dozens of emotions flashing across his face. The strange boy glanced at Anathema and asked, “What kind of spell is she doing?”
Wensleydale, unable to resist explaining, said, “Tracking spell. Actually, it was supposed to cover the entire world, but it messed up.”
“Because they aren’t here.”
“Who are you?” snapped Pepper.
The boy shrugged, one hand tugging on his backpack. That did nothing to lessen her annoyance.
“I remember you,” said Adam wistfully. “Or… I remember remembering you. When I knew… almost everything. Now it’s fuzzy, but… We met a long time ago. You were with my mum before they took you away.”
Shrugging again, he muttered darkly, “I don’t remember, but sounds right. At least from what I overhead in my Dreams. They mixed us up. Wasn’t even supposed to be there. Made a real mess of everything.”
“It’s better now, right?” asked Adam. “You live in America now. Your dad works there most of the time, so you should get to see him more now. And there’s supposed to be thirty-nine different flavors of ice cream. Sounded nice to me.”
“You’re why we moved?” he snapped, the mixed emotions shifting towards something darker and angry.
“Excuse me,” interrupted Anathema. “I’m sorry, but who are you and what are you doing in our house?”
The boy blinked and shook his head. Then he turned away, purposefully ignoring Adam and locking those churning emotions away somewhere. He instead stared at the complicated design and soot.
“I’m here because you won’t find Na— Crowley and Aziraphale on Earth,” he said, as if it wasn’t a shocking thing to hear from a stranger who shouldn’t even know about them. “Heaven and Hell have them. They’re trapped and in trouble.”
10 Dog was still a hellhound in the same way that Adam was still the Anti-Christ. There were fundamental aspects that couldn’t be erased. But they could be buried and suppressed, Dog’s name and Adam’s decisions ensuring that those parts were hidden away. So most of the time, Dog was an ordinary dog just as Adam was an ordinary human boy. Only on rare occasions were they something more. [ ↑ ]
11 While Adam and the rest of Them had to call the two of them “Mr. Crowley” and “Mr. Fell” when talking in front of their parents and other adults who didn’t know about everything, it seemed wrong the rest of the time. Especially when he accepted their offer to be his godparents. Adam settled on “Uncle Crowley” and “Uncle Aziraphale” in private as a reasonable compromise. The reactions from the angel and demon to the names was relatively subtle, but positive.] [ ↑ ]
12 No, they did not cry when they left. Must have been a trick of the light. [ ↑ ]
13 Except for Agnes Nutter. But very little could ever surprise her. [ ↑ ]
Looks like our human characters are coming together. That’s definitely progress. And once they straighten out the confusion of their new arrival, maybe they can work on how to bring their angel and demon back.
Chapter 4: Plans
So after that cliffhanger ending where everyone gets to meet, it’s time for some actual introductions and conversations. Chances are everyone will get along like a house on fire: intense, destructive, and possibly with no survivors.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As everyone reeled over the strange boy’s unexpected announcement, Anathema decided to find out a little bit more about the person they were dealing with. Carefully pulling her glasses down slightly so she could peer over them, she examined his aura carefully.
Everyone possessed an aura, though Adam’s was too vast for her to actually see and the Horsemen were unnerving blackholes. But the others in the room were familiar colors. She knew them very well after two years. She knew how they looked and the different fluctuations to expect from Them and Newt. That familiarity made it easier to focus on the new one.
Different colors meant different things. Most colors could even have multiple meanings. In this case, the dark-haired boy shone with vivid shades of violet, royal blue, and a cloudy muddy green.
The latter hinted at deeply rooted jealousy, resentment, bitterness, and insecurity. Not surprising for a teenager and perhaps it was situational rather than a more permanent part of him, but it was still something that Anathema felt bad seeing in someone so young.
But the other two colors were unexpected. Blue could have a variety of meanings. But that specific shade, especially combined with violet, pointed towards some rather unique possibilities. Both royal blue and violet individually could indicate someone with clairvoyance, so having both made it nearly a certainty. And that bright violet shade could sometimes mean that a person might also be magical and have the ability to create vibrations that lead into reality.
The kid not only knew about things that he shouldn’t. He also showed signs of possible powers.
“Could you back up and explain a bit more?” asked Newt. “Like how you know where they are? Or how you know about them at all?”
“Or,” snapped Pepper sharply, “maybe you could tell who in the world you are? You just storm in here and… What? Start talking about Heaven and Hell and whatever you and Adam are going on about? We deserve some answers now.”
Glancing at her briefly before looking at Newt instead, the boy said, “I saw it. I Dream of things that are real. Have for a couple years now. And I know what’s happening to my— to Crowley and Aziraphale because I saw it last night. Aziraphale is stuck in Heaven, locked in a quiet room and writing things that make him upset. And Crowley is trapped in Hell and… he keeps having nightmares that feel real, over and over again. That’s why your tracking spell didn’t work. They’re not on Earth.”
“So you’re psychic or something?” asked Brian. “Can you move things with your mind? That would be brilliant.”
He shrugged and said, “Not really. Can’t really do that much. Not as much as was Expected of me anyway. But when I Dream, it either just happened or will happen soon. That’s how I knew most of this stuff. Like they were in trouble, who all of you are, and where to go.” The boy took a moment to look at Adam before turning away again. “I know you’re probably the only ones who can and will do something to help them. So I came to tell you where they are and what’s happened.”
“All the way from America?” asked Wensleydale. “That’s pretty far.”
“Had to do it,” he said simply.
Running a hand through his hair, Newt said, “Okay. You’re a bit like Agnes Nutter then. Didn’t see that coming.” He shook his head slightly. “But seriously, what can we call you?”
The dark-haired boy shifted his feet awkwardly, not looking at any of them. He tugged at the straps of his backpack, repositioning it to something more comfortable. Then he took a deep breath, lifted his chin, and straightened his posture.
“Warlock,” he said firmly.
Pepper snorted and said, “Liar. That’s not a real name. You can’t just make something up to make yourself sound cool.”
Glaring, he snapped, “Whatever. Call me ‘Lock’ then. I don’t care.”
“Like ‘Sherlock’?” asked Wensleydale.
“No. Not like ‘Sherlock.’ Don’t be stupid,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You wanted a better name and now you’ve got one. Happy?”
Taking a moment to glance at the clock, Anathema said, “Okay, there’s a lot going on and we need to sort things out, but your parents are going to start wondering where you are. I suggest that you head home and get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll see if we can figure out how to proceed from here.”
Because she could already tell that they were facing an impossible task. How were they supposed to retrieve an angel and a demon? If Heaven and Hell were trapping them, Anathema doubted that she would be able to use a summoning spell to bring them back to Earth. Not that she was very experienced at summoning angels or demons. But she couldn’t think of any alternatives. Outside of dying, humans couldn’t exactly waltz casually into Heaven or Hell.
But they couldn’t leave Aziraphale and Crowley in trouble.
Noticing the boy’s dark and sullen expression, Anathema asked, “Lock, do you need to contact your parents and tell them that you made it to Tadfield safe? I’m guessing you made up a reason for the trip.”
“I don’t need to call,” he said shortly.
“All right then. If you need somewhere to stay the night, we can fix up the couch for you.”
He shrugged, but slid his backpack off like he intended to stay. Pepper continued to look at him suspiciously while Brian and Wensleydale seemed to be relatively fine with him. Dog kept glaring at him from under the table, like how he might stare at a strange cat. And Adam kept looking at him with an expression somewhere between discomfort, guilt, and a desire to be welcoming and friendly. Adam knew something more about the American boy than either of them were explaining. But the boy, Anathema still uncertain if she should call him Warlock or Lock, was angry and resentful of Adam. His aura flared with the signs whenever he glanced at him, but she could also see the boy trying to suppress it.
She briefly wondered if Agnes Nutter would have offered any insight if Anathema kept the second set of prophecies. She had a feeling that by the end of all of this, she would regret not having any guidance.
Warlock shifted awkwardly on the lumpy old couch, trying to get comfortable and failing. Even if he was still relatively small and gangly, he needed to curl up slightly to fit the length of the couch and his tossing and turning ran the risk of him tumbling off the edge. Somewhere a clock was ticking, distracting and annoying. The pillow and blanket that Anathema gave him before disappearing upstairs with Newt weren’t too bad. They were at least soft and warm. But everything else about his sleeping arrangements bothered him. The entire setup felt like quite a step down from his spacious and expensive mattress back home.
He rolled over and stared up into the darkness. Seeing Anathema, Newt, and the others in real life instead of his Dreams… Seeing Adam… It was rougher than he expected. He’d finally met the person that Warlock was supposed to be. He met the Right Boy. The Anti-Christ. The one that was everything that Warlock could never be.
He shifted again, sniffling quietly while pretending that he wasn’t. The brief encounter with Mr. Young was enough for Warlock to realize that he was completely different than the father that he ended up with. And Adam had confirmed what Warlock had suspected for almost a year and a half: he was supposed to grow up here with a very different family until things got mixed up. Warlock didn’t get the family that he was born into nor the role and powers of the Anti-Christ that he was raised to expect. Adam got both. He got everything.
Warlock tried not to think about it. And he tried not to blame Adam. It wasn’t fair. Adam didn’t do it on purpose.
It still hurt though. The dull ache of old pain made sharp again.
He flopped over, tired and frustrated. He couldn’t sleep. A stray thought, one about missing an old lullaby sung in a soft voice, crossed his mind before the boy buried it for being childish. He needed a distraction. Warlock quietly slipped his earbuds in and turned the volume down low. Then he started up his iPod.
Soft and slow, recorders and guitar music drifted through his ears. He knew that the latter part of the song would build towards something fast-paced, loud, and exciting with an intricate and iconic guitar solo. It was a nice song. And in that moment, listening to Led Zeppelin soothed some of his frustration. A few songs later and Warlock finally drifted off.
Telling his parents that he and his friends were planning on a busy day with Anathema and Newt, which wasn’t even a lie, Adam left bright and early with Dog. He was a boy on a mission. Like one of the heroes in a book or in the movies. They knew where Aziraphale and Crowley were now. They were going to save them. They would fix everything. They knew exactly where to find their missing angel and demon.
Because Warlock came and told them.
Adam didn’t exactly remember everything that he Knew as the Anti-Christ, especially when he was trying to undo and fix everything that was messed up during the Almost-Armageddon. It was too much to hold if he wanted to be normal. But some things he could remember remembering. And one of those things was faint memories from when he was a baby. Which meant he knew who Warlock was.
He did try to do something nice for the boy when he was putting things back. Since Warlock’s father worked in America a lot and there was supposed to be so many different flavors of ice cream, Adam thought he would be happier there. It seemed logical to the then-eleven-year-old boy. But he didn’t seem happy when Adam met him. He seemed grumpy and sullen.
He did wonder sometimes… since Warlock was originally Adam’s parents’ child, did that make them almost family? Adam didn’t know.
Pepper’s bike came up next to him, the girl dressed in her newest red jacket and a stubborn expression as if it was that day at the airbase again and she was ready to face the Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Round Two. Brian and Wensleydale were coming from a different direction. They wouldn’t run into those two until they reached Jasmine Cottage.
“Ready?” she asked, pedaling steadily.
Adam nodded. He wasn’t completely ready, but he couldn’t admit that. He was supposed to be the leader of their group. Besides, the longer that it took for him to feel prepared and less nervous, the longer that his godparents were in danger. He couldn’t do that to them. Adam would help them. And if that involved him drawing on more power than he would prefer, enough to scare him, he knew his friends would be with him to ground him.
He hoped it wouldn’t come to that though.
A rational and mildly-concerned adult, if they were to become aware of Adam’s thought processes, would likely reassure the boy that everything would be fine. They would also go further to explain that a thirteen-year-old child shouldn’t need to worry about such things and he’s placing a far too heavy burden on himself. That of course the adults would take care of things and that he should go play with his friends while the grownups talk. And that adult might even shake their head at the amusing idea of a child thinking that he can save the world outside of the works of fiction.
Such a theoretical adult would be an idiot.
Adam and the rest of Them had long since become aware of the concept of individual responsibility and how everyone needed to work to improve things together. And they had also come to grips with exactly how powerful the Anti-Christ could be and what he could do. It just so happened to come at the cost of his humanity. Without Them and Dog, Adam would have lost himself on that Saturday where the world nearly ended.
Most of the time, none of them thought about it or only did in a general “yeah, that happened” type of way. But occasionally at night, when their thoughts wandered too far, those fears would surface. Adam feared what he was capable of, what he could do to everyone and everything if he lost control of himself, and did his best not to become that person again. Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale feared for Adam and what could happen to him.
But most of the time, they simply played games and tried to guilt everyone in Tadfield into recycling. Because despite everything and the heavy burdens on them from their knowledge of the universe, they were still children.
A thought curling around the back of his head, Adam asked, “Pepper, could you try not to fight with Lock when you see him today?”
“I’m not making any promises,” she said. “He showed up out of nowhere, pushes his way in uninvited, and knows way too much. And he’s keeping secrets. I don’t trust him.” Giving Adam a side eye, she said, “I know you know something about him. Who is he?”
“He’s… almost me. Except without… everything.”
Adam knew that his response didn’t really explain anything, but the entire thing felt too complicated to put into words properly. Besides, the lovely garden in front of the Jasmine Cottage had just come into view. And Brian was already there, waving at them as he set his bike against the bench. Adam would just have to explain later. Or maybe let Warlock explain. It seemed like something that the other boy should talk about instead. It would be wrong to expose his secrets.
“I’m here,” called Wensleydale, pedaling into view. “I’m not late.”
Climbing off his bike, Adam said, “Then let’s see if Anathema, Newt, and Lock have any ideas on how to rescue Uncle Aziraphale and Uncle Crowley.”
Since Brian was already closest, he was the one who knocked on the door. And this time, it was Newt opening the door and ushering them in. They found Anathema in the kitchen, several thick books and magazines scattered across the table as she read. And Warlock was on the couch, still half tangled in a blanket and scribbling in a composition book with a scowl.
Glancing up slightly, Warlock asked, “Did any of you write on a bunch of rocks and bricks in the woods yesterday? Then you put them on the ground like a path?”
“No?” said Brian slowly, rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth in an attempt to dislodge some sticky bits of jam from breakfast. “Why would we?”
Shrugging, he said, “I guess it’ll happen today then.” He closed his composition book and slipped it into his backpack. “We’re all here now. Anyone know how to get them back yet?”
“I’m researching possibilities,” said Anathema distractedly. “It’s not like we can march right into Heaven and demand to speak to the manager or something.”
“She’s been up since five.” Keeping his voice down, Newt said, “I’d ask if you want to help look, but she’s got it organized… somehow. Maybe you can hang out in the garden for a bit until she finds something useful.”
Newt did not intend to sound like he was brushing Them off. He was mostly concerned with keeping an eye on Anathema and making certain that she didn’t burn herself out with her research binge. Because he’d been living with her long enough to know that she could get consumed by projects, channeling her previous focus and obsession from being a professional descendant into other hobbies. And sometimes that meant Newt needed to remind her that she was only human and had limits. Which was a task easier to accomplish with fewer distractions in the room. But it still meant that he shooed the children out the door before trying to convince Anathema to eat some breakfast.
While the phrase “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” didn’t exactly apply to them in this situation, the small group was left to their own devices and it could only end one way. Especially with a group including a former Anti-Christ, a not-quite Anti-Christ, a hellhound, and the rest of Them.
“Why not?” asked Brian abruptly.
Tilting her head, Pepper asked, “What?”
“Why can’t we just march into Heaven? Can’t be that hard.”
“Because we’re alive?”
“But angels can come and go. And demons can do the same with Hell. And we know they mostly look like people, so why can’t we do it? There’s probably secret ways to get there,” said Brian.
Straightening his glasses, Wensleydale said, “So you think that we could find one of those secret entrances?”
“Sounds logical,” said Adam with a nod. “We just need to figure out where.”
Digging something out of his pocket, Warlock said, “Got an idea then. Was listening to this last night.”
He passed one earbud to Adam, who put it in his left ear. Then Warlock poked at an expensive-looking and old iPod, trying to find the right song.
“Where did you get that?” asked Pepper.
His voice distracted, Warlock said, “My nanny.”
“A nanny? What are you, super rich or something?”
Scoffing quietly, Pepper said, “Figures. Should have known we were dealing with the pushy and rude bourgeoisie.”
Adam was only partially listening to the background conversation. Most of his focus was on the music. He didn’t immediately recognize the song. Certainly not enough to name it. But the lyrics were starting to explain why Warlock wanted to share it.
“What’s the title?” asked Adam, just wanting to confirm what he suspected.
“The song’s called ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin.” Warlock reclaimed his earbuds and stuffed the iPod back into his pocket. “If Heaven is supposed to be above all of us somewhere, then any secret entrances would have to go up, right?”
“But a stairway? Not a lift?” asked Brian.
“Maybe the new ones are lifts and the old ones are staircases.” Adam nodded thoughtfully to himself. “Makes sense. And we’d want to use one of their older secret entrances because everyone will pay more attention and use the nice newer ones.”
Tilting his head, Brian asked, “But where do you think they would hide the stairway?”
“Actually,” said Wensleydale slowly, “if they wanted to make a secret entrance to Heaven, wouldn’t the logical place to put it be in a church?”
Adam’s eyes widened and he said, “That’s perfect. And doesn’t the church down the road have a thing over the entrance where they have a bell that they ring with a rope? And there’s this locked door underneath, but no one uses it? Bet there’s a staircase in there. And I bet that’ll go up to Heaven. The priests and pope or whatever probably know about those secret entrances and just can’t talk about them because of a vow of silence or something.”
And because Adam believed it and Expected it to be true, reality wanted to comply. But the former Anti-Christ had tamped down his powers too much. It wasn’t enough to twist reality and connect a physical path to Heaven in the nearby church. At least, not alone. Not unless he wanted to risk using it consciously.
But Warlock believed and Expected the same. And even if he had far less power available and far less experience twisting reality to his will, he was not alone.
The power of a former Anti-Christ united towards the same desire with the power of a not-quite Anti-Christ resulted in something a little more impressive than either could do alone. Which was why the staircase in the church now led to what was previously an unassuming broom closet in Heaven.
“Okay, I guess we’re going to rescue Uncle Aziraphale first then,” said Adam, not noticing the dark and resentful look that briefly flashed across Warlock’s face at the affectionate address. “How about we go and get supplies and meet up at the church in an hour?”
As the rest of the Them nodded in agreement, Warlock asked sharply, “Why wait? And what kind of supplies could we need for a rescue mission to Heaven. Why would you need anything? You’re the Anti-Christ.”
“Not anymore,” said Pepper. “And what would you know about any of this? You weren’t there.”
“I know he’s supposed to be this great and terrifying force that could conquer everyone. Powerful and unstoppable. Destined to lead vast armies and crush your enemies under your heel.” His voice growing louder and angrier with every word, Warlock continued his description even as he began to blink more often. “You’re supposed to be everything they wanted. You’re supposed to be strong enough that no one could stop you. You’re supposed to be better. Capable of anything.”
And Adam shivered. The power that he’d locked away, the part of him that made him the Anti-Christ, began to press harder. Resisting and struggling to break free for the first time since Armaged-Didn’t-Happen. An unsettling sensation that he was forced to shove back down hard. Something was trying to pull it loose, like prying open an oyster to expose the pearl.
“I don’t want that,” said Adam firmly. “I never asked for that power and I don’t want to end the world.”
“Coward,” he snapped. “Too scared to use your abilities. You have everything, but you’re too selfish. You don’t care about them.”
“Hey,” said Brian. “Back off, Lock.”
“And you do? You don’t even know them.” Pepper stomped forward until she was practically pressed against Warlock. “Why are you even here? Just wanted to pretend you’re a hero for telling us something we’d figure out ourselves? We don’t need some rude rich kid around, acting like he’s better than us. We handled the Horsemen of the Apocalypse without you and we can handle this too.”
Warlock and Pepper glared at each other stubbornly, the girl’s expression fiercely protective and the boy’s a storm of wounded fury. Then his expression closed up and he turned away, shoulders hunched.
“Whatever,” he said sullenly. “No one wants me? Not exactly a surprise. Shouldn’t have come in the first place. Waste of time.”
Then, before anyone could react, he took off. He disappeared from the garden and out of sight. As abruptly as he’d arrived at the doorstep the night before, Warlock had left just as suddenly.
Despite how uncomfortable and heated things had spiraled towards the end, Adam still felt a wave of regret that Warlock left the way that he did. But he didn’t know if going after him and trying to fix it would make the situation worse or better. It was a complicated mess.
Adam quietly decided that they needed to save Aziraphale and Crowley first and then smooth things over with Warlock later. Rescuing the two of them took priority. And it would let him cool off a little.
“Right,” said Adam slowly, his discomfort leeching into his voice despite his best efforts. “Everyone find something useful and meet up at the church in an hour. Remember, we’re trying to be sneaky about it. Nothing loud or flashy.”
“Actually, should we tell Anathema and Newt?” asked Wensleydale.
Adam nodded and said, “Me and Brian can tell them. If they aren’t too busy. We’re in a hurry and we don’t need to distract them if they’re close to figuring out how to get Uncle Crowley back. We still need a plan for that.” He glanced towards Wensleydale and Pepper. “Go on. We’ll catch up.”
Slipping back inside, Adam and Brian found a thoroughly distracted witch and a former witchfinder trying to tempt her with whatever fruit that he could lay his hands on. Adam did his best to describe casually what happened while Brian wandered aimlessly around the ground floor of the cottage, poking at whatever caught his attention as he apparently grew bored. Unfortunately, Anathema’s mind wasn’t exactly easy to drag out of her distracted state. She mumbled “mmhm” and “uh-huh” as Adam tried to explain things, but he essentially gave up as he reached the point about Led Zeppelin. Besides, he wasn’t putting as much effort into it as he could have.
Adam had long ago decided that sometimes it was better to ask forgiveness than permission. And he suspected that Anathema and Newt would try to convince Them that invading Heaven themselves was a bad idea. But it wasn’t like this would be the first time any of them dealt with angels. They had experience. They could handle this.
14 He might have if he and Anathema didn’t burn the second set of prophecies, which included the prediction “The young Warlock will fly across the sea to thy door, bringing ill tidings of the fate of the Serpent and the foole of a Principality. The Warlock be Young and not the Anti-Christ, though long believed to be otherwise. Offer hospitality and beware hys moods.” [ ↑ ]
15 Pippin Galadriel Moonchild didn’t acknowledge the hypocrisy of calling an unusual name “fake.” After all, her mother named her after a couple characters from her favorite books, “The Lord of the Rings.” Nor did she recognize the hypocrisy of claiming that someone couldn’t just make up a name it they wanted even though she chose to go by “Pepper” instead. But then, no one ever claimed that a thirteen year old was always fair. [ ↑ ]
16 Warlock did not actually have a problem with his name. It was the rest of the world that seemed fixated on how unusual it was. And they always seemed determined to inform him of exactly how strange it was, as if it was a brand-new revelation that must be brought to his attention immediately. Occasionally he found it simpler not to argue. [ ↑ ]
17 Dog did not like this boy. He knew who his Master was, the giver of belly rubs and thrower of sticks. And yet this other boy, who smelled of fear and unease whenever he glanced at Dog, also seemed faintly like his Master. But only a little. Like a shadow of his Master. That was wrong. He only had one Master. [ ↑ ]
18 Most angels did not notice or think about the existence of a small broom closet in Heaven. It was tucked slightly out of the way, similar in location to broom closets in countless office buildings across the globe. But there were no celestial janitors pushing around mops or emptying trash cans. There was no practical reason for a broom closet to exist in Heaven. Its presence was impossible to explain like so many things, especially when they connected to the Ineffable Plan. But there was indeed a broom closet in Heaven. And it had now been converted into the entrance to a stairway that led to Earth. [ ↑ ]
Unfortunately, a few of Warlock’s issues got poked and things didn’t go exactly smoothly. But Adam and his friends have a plan on how to find Aziraphale. And we know that plans always go smoothly, right? Four kids and a hellhound invading Heaven to break someone out. What could possibly go wrong?
Chapter 5: Supplies
Now that the kids have come up with their plan to rescue Aziraphale, they have to do a little prep work before they charge off. After all, you can’t go on a rescue mission unprepared.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As they stepped out of the garden and prepared to go their separate directions, Wensleydale said something that made Pepper stop in her tracks.
“I think you went a little too far.”
She glanced at him, her finger tightening on her handlebars. Wensleydale scuffed his foot on the ground before continuing.
“Lock didn’t have to come here and try to help. But he did. All the way from America. Maybe he doesn’t know Aziraphale and Crowley like we do, but he came to help.”
“He wanted Adam to be the Anti-Christ,” she said firmly. “He doesn’t know what that almost did to him. And he even called Adam a coward because he didn’t want to be like that again. I think Lock can handle a few hurt feelings.”
“You’re right. He didn’t know. Doesn’t mean he deserved that.”
Pepper glared a couple more seconds before looking away. Wensleydale was right. She just didn’t want to admit it. She let her temper and annoyance with the boy get the best of her, boiling over at the worst time possible.
Sighing tiredly, she said, “Okay. If he hasn’t disappeared forever, I’ll apologize the next time we see him.” Pepper climbed on her bike. “Hurry up. We’ve got an hour.”
“What do you think you’ll bring?” asked Brian.
Pushing his bike, Adam shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I mean, you guys and Dog are coming with me. What else do I need? I mean, ropes and stuff are pretty standard for an adventure, but that’s not much. Maybe Lock was right about not really needing anything.”
“Then why did you tell us to find supplies?”
“It’s what people do in books and shows before they start a quest. And this is almost like a quest.”
He was correct. After all, a quest was just a type of adventure. Usually the sort of adventure that involved magic or at least an evil king ruling over a kingdom, but still an adventure. And four kids and a dog were just the right number for a proper adventure. They were practically traditional.
“Well,” said Brian, digging into his pockets. “If you don’t have any ideas yet, I suppose that it’s a good thing that I picked up a few things.”
He wouldn’t call himself a pickpocket, a thief, or a rogue. That sort of thing took a lot more practice and stealth than he could manage. But Brian did like those types of characters in books and movies. They were clever, sneaky, and charming people who were just bad enough to be interesting, but still considered to be the good guys. They were anti-heroes.
And maybe he wasn’t particularly skilled when it came to being a rogue, but Brian was clever enough to pick up a few things while wandering around Jasmine Cottage and waiting.
“That’s stealing,” said Adam, not entirely disapproving.
“Borrowing. I’ll give them back later. Not like they’ll miss them.”
Adam frowned, but took the long and pointy crystal that Brian borrowed from a drawer in the house. When Wensleydale lost a library book almost a year ago, Anathema helped them find it with the crystal tied to a string. By dangling it, she followed it like a compass and they found the book in time. Which was lucky because the librarian was terrifying even for children who faced Armaged-Didn’t-Happen.
“I thought, even if it wouldn’t work long distances, it might help us find him when we get there,” said Brian with a shrug.
“But none of us are witches.”
“Technically, no.” Brian grimaced apologetically. “But you’re… you know. You. And even if you aren’t doing that anymore, that’s probably close enough to make it work.”
Adam stared at the crystal for a moment with an unreadable expression. Then he slipped it into his jacket pocket. He apparently agreed with his logic. Though Adam gave Brian’s other option a questioning look.
“And Newt’s witchfinder matches?” he asked.
“We might need a distraction,” said Brian. “And nothing beats a distraction like something catching on fire.”
Wensleydale crawled out from under his bed, glasses askew. He didn’t seem to be having any luck finding supplies for their upcoming rescue mission. Not that he really knew what he was looking for. What exactly would be useful for invading Heaven to break out an angel who was being held prisoner?
Brushing off the lint and dust bunnies, he sat down and tried to consider his options logically. They needed to be quiet and sneaky, so he would wear sneakers. But what else? What else could they use? Snacks? He could put a few apples in his pockets for them. Aziraphale might be hungry when they find him.
Well, if the other angels locked Aziraphale up somewhere, they would need a key.
That was enough to spark an idea. Wesleydale scurried to his dad’s office and headed for the desk. He dug around the back of a drawer for a bit before finding what he was looking for.
Old, darkened by tarnish, and rather ornate, Wensleydale pulled out a skeleton key. The name was much more interesting that it actually was. Adam had been mildly disappointed that it wasn’t made of bone or even looked like a skull. But according to all the stories, skeleton keys could open any lock. And if that was true, it might work on the locks in Heaven too.
“Hey there, Youngster.”
He glanced up and saw his father in the doorway. Wensleydale shoved the key in his pocket. Then he grinned awkwardly.
“Looking for something?”
Wensleydale shook his head and said, “Actually, I’m good. We’re going on an adventure today. Practically a heist.”
“Have a good time then. Try not to get into too much trouble.”
“Of course not. We’ll be good enough to get into Heaven.”
Pepper kicked a rock, sending it tumbling across the leaves. She’d ended up in the woods where the four of Them tended to play. She considered going home to find supplies, but she couldn’t come up with any good ideas of what to bring on the rescue mission.
She’d eventually wandered down to their usual spot to retrieve her wooden sword, but even she knew it wouldn’t be enough to protect her friends. At the end of the day, it was a toy. And no matter how much she was learning about sword fighting, she could only do so much against armed angels with her wooden sword.
She needed a real weapon. She refused to be powerless. This was a dangerous rescue mission and her friends needed her protection. Pepper needed something to help keep them safe.
Well, maybe she could figure something out. The wooden sword would be better than nothing. And she halfway remembered that Brian left his slingshot around somewhere. That could do some damage with some decent-sized rocks as ammo. That might keep the other angels at a distance if she could find it.
She would protect Them. Somehow.
Pepper kicked another rock, but it didn’t go as far. She scowled in disappointment. But she couldn’t go after another because the crunch of leaves made her spin, the girl falling into a defensive posture with her toy sword.
Startling visibly at her reaction, a strange man stood in the middle of their normal corner of the forest. He didn’t belong among the leaves, the dirt, and the landscape of their childhood games. Not in his neat and tidy uniform. He didn’t belong there because there was no reason for someone to make deliveries away from everyone’s houses. And he was there, flinching at her raised wooden toy.
“Sorry, Miss,” he said. “Didn’t mean to startle you. Bit off the beaten trail, I’ll admit. But I’ve always been the one called to deliver the special packages and those tend to be more difficult to track down.” He gestured with his clipboard towards the long package tucked under his arm. “Are you… Pippin Galadriel Moonchild?”
Scowling even as she nodded, she said, “Call me ‘Pepper.’ No one really calls me by my full name.”
“Then I found the right person then.” He held out his clipboard. “If you could sign on the line, please.”
Pepper eyed him suspiciously, but she was growing relatively used to weird things. At least she was fairly certain that this didn’t have anything to do with Adam. She took the pen and scribbled down her name.
“All right then,” he said, handing over the long package. “Have a nice day, Miss.”
“Wait. Who sent this?”
Shrugging as he turned and started walking away, he said, “There wasn’t a return address and I didn’t ask. I’m just the deliveryman.”
Pepper stared at him for a moment before turning her attention to the random box. She sat down on the ground and set her toy sword aside. The package was long and thin, wrapped in brown paper and twine. It looked rather ordinary. But she didn’t receive that much mail on normal days and certainly not packages dropped off in the middle of the forest. Curiosity pushed her forward as she started untying the knot.
She wasn’t really certain what she expected to find inside, but the familiar short bronze sword certainly wasn’t it. The last time that she saw it was at the airbase in the hands of Aziraphale. And it was on fire then. She wasn’t likely to forget that. The sword in the box wasn’t on fire at the moment, but Pepper still recognized it.
This didn’t belong to her. That was her first thought. The sword wasn’t hers; it belonged to the fussy angel who loved books and the resident demon. But it was an actual weapon. One that she could use. And if she brought it with her, then she could give it back to Aziraphale when they rescued him.
Pepper gave the blade a few practice swings, trying to familiarize herself with the weight and length. It was a bit different than her wooden sword. Which made it a little different than how she’d practiced. But she could adapt. She could protect her friends with this.
Grinning, Pepper said, “Time to break into Heaven.”
The church in Tadfield was one of the oldest buildings in the village, though it had been expanded, renovated, and repaired numerous times over the years until it barely resembled the original structure. Generations of faithful members of the congregation had passed through the doors. Love, devotion, and belief filled every corner. Weaker demons would blister as soon as they drew near and more powerful ones would at least be hopping on stinging feet.
Oddly enough, there was no problem with the Anti-Christ setting foot inside. Probably because he was more human than anything else. And after two years away from Hell and Adam’s firm conviction that Dog would be fine, the hellhound could follow his master with only some cringing and whining.
The front door was unlocked even outside of service in case someone needed to visit for any reason. You can never tell when someone would be in the middle of a crisis of faith and need reassurance, after all. Slipping inside the building was easy. And as long as they kept their voices down, no one would even notice Them lurking around.
“Where did you get a sword?” asked Wensleydale.
Pepper grinned and said, “A deliveryman brought it. I’m taking it back to Aziraphale.”
“I think you won on finding the best rescue mission supplies,” said Brian.
“It’s not a contest. We all found some good stuff.” Adam reached down and scratched Dog’s ears in an attempt to comfort him. “Hopefully we won’t need to use the sword. We’re going to be sneaky about this. If we do this right, none of the other angels will even know we’re there.”
Adam may be a clever and imaginative newly-turned thirteen-year-old with the capability to warp reality when he put his mind to it, but there are a few things that he had not quite learned yet. And one of those things was the danger of tempting the universe.
“Come on then,” said Adam, unaware that he’d already invited disaster to strike their mission.
The door in question didn’t look that impressive. Just an ordinary wooden door with an old-fashioned lock that likely had not been opened in years. But it was the only one that could possibly lead up. And thanks to the combined Expectations, it now led somewhere far more interesting than the bell. The only problem was that, unlike the front door of the church, it was locked to keep random members of the congregation or eager teenagers looking for privacy from ducking inside.
“Here,” said Wensleydale, reaching out a hand. “Try the skeleton key. It’s supposed to unlock anything.”
Adam took the offered key from him. He knew all about skeleton keys from books, so he wasn’t surprised when there was a soft click and the door swung open. A wooden staircase, the planks smoothed by age and time rather than machinery and polish, spiraled upwards. They twisted up, the angle making it impossible to tell how far that they might go.
“Stay close, Dog,” he ordered before taking the first step.
Up the creaking wooden stairs, they moved slowly. Adam took the lead with Dog, Pepper close behind with the sword. She looked ready to stab anyone that popped out of the shadows. Brian and Wensleydale brought up the rear, moving side-by-side. The farther up that they went, the darker that it seemed to grow. He certainly regretted not grabbing a torch for the rescue mission. Adam almost considered asking Brian to break out the matches to give them a little light. They’d been going up for far too long. They were definitely higher than the church could possibly be.
Then they rounded a corner and found another door. One white and nearly gleaming, light streaming from underneath.
“Guess that’s it,” whispered Brian. “Thought it would be more impressive.”
“Supposed to be sneaking in the back door.” Adam reached for the handle. “Back doors are never as impressive as the front one.”
He opened it slowly, hoping that it wouldn’t creak. The other side was a huge, white, and empty room with shiny floors and tall columns. The whole place was bright to an obnoxious level. And something seemed to grate against Adam’s nerves like nails on a chalkboard.
So far, he wasn’t that impressed with Heaven. The only good thing was the view, an entire wall lined with windows. And the landscape below was beautiful. Though Adam was fairly certain most of those structures among the trees weren’t anywhere near each other on Earth.
“Why does Heaven look like a really empty and boring building?” whispered Pepper. “Isn’t it supposed to be fluffy clouds and nice dead people?”
“Dead people are probably down there with the pyramids and trees and such.” Wensleydale straightened his glasses. “Actually, I suspect that this is just where the angels do paperwork and keep their files.”
“Would they keep Aziraphale prisoner up here then,” asked Pepper quietly, “or down there?”
Pulling out the crystal, Adam said, “Let’s find out.”
He let it dangle on the string, the crystal spinning lazily. He remembered what it looked like when Anathema searched for the library book. And as much as Adam didn’t want to consciously draw on his abilities, he focused on wanting to find their angel. They needed to find Aziraphale and get back out before someone noticed. They needed this to work and that meant pushing things a bit.
Adam concentrated on wanting to find Aziraphale. It felt harder than it should have been, like he was moving through water. As human as he was and though he cut all ties with the devil, his powers came from a rather demonic source originally and he was literally standing in Heaven. It was more difficult to achieve the same effect as on Earth. He had to push a little harder than he would normally risk.
But the crystal finally stopped spinning on the string, pointing in a very deliberate way. Like a compass needle aiming them in a specific direction.
“This way,” he whispered. “Keep together and keep quiet.”
They hurried down the white and reflective hallway, keeping close to the columns since they were the only sources of cover and the children knew that they might need to hide in a hurry. But there was no one in the large space, too wide to be called a hallway and too vast to just call it a room. It seemed to stretch endlessly, but the space did have edges. Their sneaking eventually brought them to a staircase, a sleek and modern one made of glass and steel.
And the crystal pointed up.
“Great,” complained Wensleydale quietly. “More stairs.”
They didn’t run into anyone as the four kids and an uneasy hellhound climbed three more flights of stairs. Their footsteps echoed through the emptiness. It was like they were all alone in the entire building.
Adam wanted to do something to mess up their perfect order. Maybe playing some loud music or splattering some paint around to interrupt the white boring place. Anything to distract him from the unnatural perfection. And from the faint whispers that seemed to be trying to creep back in. He couldn’t make them out properly and he knew that they were just in his head, but Adam also knew that they weren’t good. He was treading into dangerous territory again. The more he used his powers, the easier it was to slip back.
But at least he was aware of the whispers. Last time, he didn’t really notice their presence until it was almost too late. He knew that they were there and that he shouldn’t listen to them. And his friends were around him, brushing against him as they climbed the stairs. As long as he focused on them and saving Aziraphale, Adam hoped that he wouldn’t slip too far.
The group kept moving forward, quiet and cautious. None of them noticed the dirty and scuffed footprints that were left behind.
The crystal eventually led them to a floor that didn’t have a wall of windows. The high ceilings didn’t make up for the change. Everything about the place made Adam feel trapped. No windows, no columns, and still no angels. The only feature was a speck of gold glimmering on one of the white walls. It was only when the crystal led them closer did Adam recognize it as a keyhole.
No visible door. No hinges or handles. No cracks to show the edges of an entrance. Not a single other feature. Just a golden keyhole.
Or, Adam noticed after a moment, almost no other features. As he stood at just the right angle, there was a slight golden sheen. At first, they seemed to be strange letters in a language that he couldn’t recognize. Then Adam blinked and the faint letters abruptly read “Principality Aziraphale.”
“Doesn’t look like a prison,” said Brian. “No bars.”
“No windows either.” Pepper shifted her posture, raising the sword. “And the door is part of the wall. Like you can’t even see it. Not easy to break out.”
“Then let’s get him out,” said Wensleydale, pulling the skeleton key back out.
After an eternity of silence and blinding whiteness, the soft click of a lock turning was deafening. The unexpected sound, an actual sound, caused Aziraphale to jump away from the stack of papers and knocked the chair over. Which clattered on the floor. Loudly. The angel covered his ears with a whimper. A whimper that he could hear.
Whatever power in the room that kept it perfectly silent was clearly no longer active.
He shivered, blinking rapidly against the burning sensation in his eyes. He couldn’t describe how much that he’d missed simply being able to hear. It hurt; even his nonrequired breathing sounded too loud to bear. It was too much hitting him suddenly. But hearing anything was better than the silence scraping across raw nerves.
Then a section of blank wall began to open, becoming a door. And as Aziraphale tried to pull himself together, struggling to stop shaking as he wiped the wetness from his face. He couldn’t let Gabriel see him in such a disheveled and unsteady state. Not if he wanted to reach Crowley. He needed to get through this. All he had to do was get through whatever Gabriel and the others had in mind. Then he could escape and find Crowley. He could endure it with grace and dignity.
But all his thoughts stumbled when it wasn’t an Archangel walking in. Instead, a cluster of human children came charging through the door while a small dog barked at their heels. And Aziraphale could only gawk at the surprise invasion while flinching with every sharp bark.
“Uncle Aziraphale,” shouted Adam, painfully loud. “You’re all right.”
Then Aziraphale was practically tackled by the former Anti-Christ wrapping his arms around him in a worried hug. And the others crowded around him. Loud, colorful, and wonderful. How? How did they find him? How did the children get there? How did they get past the other angels? Aziraphale tightened his grip on the small figure.
They shouldn’t have come. Anything could have happened to them.
But he was relieved to see them.
“Adam.” The angel’s voice came out rough, perhaps from disuse or perhaps from the strain of silent shouting. “Pepper. Brian. Wensleydale.”
“And Dog,” said Adam. “He’s here too.”
“How? How are you here?”
“We snuck in,” said Pepper.
Crossing his arms, Brian asked, “Why are you see-through? Are you a ghost?”
“Actually, the proper word for him would be ‘translucent,’” said Wensleydale. “You can only see through him a little bit.”
“Discorporation.” Aziraphale was slowly getting used to sounds and colors other than white again. “I am not a ghost exactly. Just lost my body again. That’s how they brought me here.” Letting go of Adam so that he could gesture at himself. “I can still look like this in Heaven out of habit and you can touch me while I’m here, but I no longer truly have a physical body. Not one that can exist on Earth. If I leave Heaven in this state, I am stuck either sharing with the lovely Madame Tracy once more or wandering around as a blind and nearly deaf disembodied spirit.”
Adam frowned thoughtfully and said, “You need a body again? That’s worst than just locking you up. But I think I can still fix it.” He bit his bottom lip briefly. “I’m not really the Anti-Christ anymore and can’t do all the big stuff anymore, but I kind of remember what I did the first time. It just might take a little longer to do it now.”
“That’s quite all right,” Aziraphale reassured. “There’s no rush.”
Though the angel had to admit that there was a bit of a rush. He needed to get the children back to Earth and safe before something happened. He didn’t know what his fellow angels might do if they discovered the former Anti-Christ, a hellhound, and assorted other humans wandering around Heaven and freeing traitors. Aziraphale might have once tried to convince himself that nothing too bad would befall them, but he couldn’t wrap himself in that blanket of denial any longer. He simply didn’t know what Heaven would do and he couldn’t risk their lives with the gamble.
He also needed to get out of Heaven quickly before they noticed his escape. Because the moment that they realized the door to the room was open, news would undoubtedly trickle down to Hell. And the only way he could imagine being able to rescue Crowley was if the other demons had no idea he was on his way.
But he couldn’t properly leave Heaven without a body. Not if he wanted to be at all useful. And since Heaven was unlikely to issue him a replacement, that meant his only option was to let Adam take his time and fix things.
“Do you remember what happened?” asked Brian as he picked the chair back up. “We don’t know too much. This psychic kid named Lock told us that you were stuck here, but not much else.”
Taking the offered seat as Adam reached for his hand, Aziraphale murmured, “I remember. I remember exactly what happened.”
He felt some form of power washing up his arm, not quite ethereal or occult. It tingled in a way bordering on uncomfortable, wrapping around his essence and growing sturdier as something seemed to settle. Aziraphale closed his eyes, trying to ignore the strange sensation of a physical body manifesting slowly. Unsurprisingly, his thoughts drifted back towards what happened to him and Crowley.
19 Because they certainly didn’t want to waste time waiting for the other two to finish up in the cottage. They had a rescue mission to prepare for. [ ↑ ]
20 Not completely accurate. They certainly didn’t work on car doors. But those rarely come up as an obstacle in the type of adventure stories that the young teenagers tended to read. [ ↑ ]
21 A nice pen attached to the clipboard with a chain. For some reason, pens are one of the most commonly stolen objects in the world even if they aren’t particularly valuable. But they are mighty weapons in the right hand. That is a known fact. A pen, however, was not the weapon that Pepper needed at the moment. She needed something that could protect her friends during a rescue mission to Heaven and would hopefully be slightly larger than a pen. [ ↑ ]
22 Aziraphale noticed his sword in her possession, but there were already enough questions on his mind without addressing that side mystery. [ ↑ ]
23 The angel briefly wondered about that last sentence. He assumed that it might be a relative of Anathema, another descendant of Agnes with a hint of foresight. Then he shrugged off the matter the same way that he did the question about how Pepper came to bear his sword. There were far more immediate concerns to address. [ ↑ ]
Well, they’ve found Aziraphale. Looks like the kids are making progress. That’s good news. But they aren’t really safe until they’re back on Earth.
Chapter 6: Corporeal Body
Wow, a lot of people are concerned about Warlock not being in the last chapter. I guess you’re worried that he went and did something dumb offscreen. I mean, considering that he was at least partially raised by Aziraphale and Crowley, that’s not a strange assumption to make.
But we’re not jumping back to him just yet. First, we’re going to explore a quick flashback of how exactly Aziraphale and Crowley ended up in their current predicaments.
“I still don’t see the appeal of those… Kindlings?”
“Kindles, angel. You— They’re, you know, sort of— For reading eBooks. Electronic books. You read them on kindles and such. Stores them all together. Like an imaginary bookshelf.”
“But what’s wrong with a good and solid hardback book? They’re durable and easy to use.”
“They’re also heavy, bulky, and, at least for you, require an entire bookshop to hold them all. Besides, I would have thought you’d approve of making books more accessible.”
Aziraphale pursed his lips in a way that some might describe as petulant, earning a victorious smirk from Crowley. But both of their moods were actually rather bright. It was a playful argument similar to thousands that they’d shared over the ages. The pair were simply having fun as they walked down the sidewalk. Side-by-side, close enough for their shoulders to brush with every other step and their fingers to lace together loosely. They didn’t feel the need to hide. They kept closer than they would have risked a couple years ago.
“You weren’t nearly as resistant when they stopped using scrolls,” teased Crowley. “Or when they stopped using stone tablets.”
As they reached the corner near the bookshop, Aziraphale said, “Oh, hush now. I just prefer a physical book. Is that so wrong?”
He didn’t bother unlocking the door. He hadn’t bothered in years. The actual keys for the building were probably still buried in his desk, gathering dust. The door knew Aziraphale well enough by now to respond to his faintest wishes. Just like how Crowley could slip inside even when the angel locked the building and put the protective wards up for the night. The door opened easily at his touch, letting them step inside and Aziraphale picked up the mail that had fallen through the slot earlier in the day.
“Anything interesting from the post?” asked Crowley, peering over his shoulder as Aziraphale flipped through the envelopes.
Humming distractedly, he said, “Yes, no. No. Afraid not. I sent a letter out a week ago, but no response yet.”
“Angel,” he said gently, “if you’re talking about Warlock, you know he’s not going to write back. He never does. Give it up. Don’t know why you keep bothering him. We meddled enough in the kid’s life already.”
Aziraphale smiled sadly at his tone. He’d grown attached to the boy during those years he spent as a gardener watching over him, but he also knew that his letters weren’t the only ones still being sent. Despite his remarks about not wanting to meddle further and how they shouldn’t bother writing to someone who obviously wanted nothing more to do with them, Aziraphale knew that Crowley missed the boy. They both still cared. You couldn’t spend that much time around a child and avoid it. Crowley just didn’t want to admit that the silence hurt.
But he was right. They’d meddled in Warlock’s upbringing enough already. The boy deserved some space and normality after everything. A letter or two every month and a birthday gift was all the two of them would allow themselves now.
“You know me,” said Aziraphale. “I suppose that I can’t let go of hope that easily.”
Crowley’s hand slipped more firmly into the angel’s, a soft smile materializing as he circled back around until he was in front of Aziraphale. And the warm flare of love washed over the angel. Familiar and wonderful. Crowley’s affection made Aziraphale grin, just like always.
“No, I don’t suppose you can, angel.” Crowley squeezed his hand. “That’s just the way you are. Wouldn’t want you to change anyway.” He brought the angel’s hand up and, hesitating a moment to make certain it was all right, Crowley pressed a gentle kiss on Aziraphale’s knuckles. “Could you…?”
Already knowing what he was trying to ask, Aziraphale said, “Of course.” Tugging the demon over and pressing a short kiss to his cheek came far too naturally to him now. “I love you, Crowley. And I wouldn’t change a thing about you either.”
The faint blush and the tiny gasp that followed the words, Crowley still responding strongly to definitive statements of affection, warmed Aziraphale to his core. Then Crowley stiffened and a confused frown crept across his face. He tilted his head and took a deep breath. He didn’t move for a moment, focusing too strongly on whatever scent caught his attention.
“Something’s off,” said Crowley slowly. “Not sure… Put up the wards.”
While the angelic wards of protection were added the moment that he opened the bookshop, the demonic ones were only added a couple years ago when there was no point in hiding their connection. Neither set were strong enough to stop a determined assault from Heaven or Hell, but combined they would at least slow down most angels or demons. But Aziraphale didn’t normally bother raising them most of the time. Not unless they had a good reason.
Crowley’s tone and posture gave him more than enough reason though.
Aziraphale snapped his fingers and let the wards flare up protectively as Crowley stalked his way through the shelves. He knew that the demon would search the entire bookshop for whatever was setting off his defensive instincts. Including the second floor, which wasn’t accessible to customers. Crowley was thorough when it came to possible threats, especially after Fail-mageddon. There was a reason why the entire building no longer contained any candles.
Letting Crowley continue his search, Aziraphale briefly detoured towards his backroom. He planned to drop the mail off on his desk before joining the demon. Only a few moments apart. That was the plan. His plan didn’t include someone slipping behind him and pressing a blade against Aziraphale’s throat.
“Not a word,” hissed a vicious voice in his ear.
Aziraphale didn’t move, the sharpness biting into his skin even as his thoughts raced. He recognized that voice. He recognized the demon from the trial. Hastur. That was his name. Hastur, a Duke of Hell. Hastur snuck into his bookshop and was holding a knife to his throat.
A demon with a known grudge against Crowley was in the bookshop. And Crowley didn’t know about the danger.
As Aziraphale opened his mouth, fully intending to take the risk to warn Crowley regardless of the blade, another voice said, “I would listen to him if you value your demon boyfriend’s existence.”
Michael stepped into view, her suit perfectly neat and twin sheaths strapped to her waist. The business outfit and the weaponry should have clashed. The eras were too distant from each other for them to work as matching accessories. But she managed to give off the impression of control and professionalism as she turned the bronze-looking blade in her hands.
“We may not know why the two of you gained the immunities that you have,” she said in a low voice, “but this blade was forged specifically for the first War. Equally effective against angels and demons. It was made to wound our true forms, not just the corporeal ones. To harm and destroy on a deeper level.” She grinned, though the expression never reached her eyes. “I believe that makes it rather similar to the flaming sword that you lost, traitor.”
Aziraphale swallowed hard, wincing as Hastur pressed the knife a little tighter. He felt a thin line of pain that made him suspect that the demon had broken the skin.
“Now, you have a choice. You can try warning the Serpent and I will slaughter him with this sword. Slowly. I will take my time and we will make you watch every second of it. And if anything can still destroy him, I suspect it will be a weapon designed to destroy an angel or a demon equally. And even if he proves able to survive it as he did holy water, I doubt it’ll be painless when I drive my sword through his true self.”
Her words stole Aziraphale’s breath away. What she was describing would definitely kill Crowley. No, more than that. It would destroy him completely.
But it wouldn’t be fast. He wouldn’t melt away within seconds as demons would with holy water. He would suffer. Aziraphale had seen those who were hurt by those blades during the War. There was a reason that Aziraphale could never bring himself to harm anyone with his flaming sword and would rather give his weapon away to someone who needed it more.
“Or,” she continued, “you can remain quiet. And I’ll use this instead.” Michael drew a thin knife from the other sheath. “A perfectly ordinary human blade. Discorporation, not permanent destruction. I’ll even be kind enough not to draw it out longer than necessary. Torture is outside my job description, after all. His punishment belongs to Hell.”
“And they have plans for him,” said Hastur in Aziraphale’s ear. “Not the type of torture that I would have preferred, but he’s not wiggling out of this one.”
Horror gripped his chest tightly. Aziraphale couldn’t let Hell take Crowley. What if they tried holy water again? Or some other form of torture? Crowley might complain about Hell’s lack of imagination, but torture and pain was their specialty. Aziraphale couldn’t let that happen. Every part of him rebelled against the idea of Crowley suffering. Aziraphale would turn himself over to Satan himself before he would allow them to harm Crowley.
But a small and pragmatic part of him point out that at least Crowley would survive. Torture, pain, and punishment would be awful and it broke the angel’s heart to even consider letting something happen to someone that he loved so dearly. But he would survive.
Michael was a warrior. One who embraced that role fully rather than handing over her weapon to the banished and vulnerable humans as they left the garden. Even if Aziraphale tried to warn Crowley, she would be on him before the demon reached the door. And she would tear through his corporeal body to his true self, using the angelic weapon to wound and mutilate him enough that there would be no hope of recovery. But he wouldn’t be immediately destroyed either. Michael promised to make it slow. And she would make Aziraphale watch it unfold.
If the choice was between Crowley being tortured and him being permanently destroyed, there really wasn’t much of a choice. Because if Crowley survived, then that would mean that Aziraphale could still save him. There was still a chance as long as the demon lived.
It was the smart decision. It was the only one that offered a sliver of hope.
Crowley’s voice made Aziraphale stiffen. All those rationalizations that had flashed through his mind evaporated. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stand by and let them hurt Crowley. He loved him too much. Maybe if he lunged forward, ignoring the damage from the knife, he might be able to break free of Hastur and tackle Michael. They wouldn’t expect it from him. Aziraphale might be able to buy Crowley some time. Assuming that the stubborn demon actually took advantage of it.
The shout and attempted lunge were interrupted by the sharp edge digging a little harder into his neck and Hastur’s free hand digging into Aziraphale’s hair, yanking his head back. A thin trickle of blood dripped down his throat. But even the aborted warning was enough to catch Crowley’s attention. Aziraphale heard racing footsteps.
Why? Why couldn’t he be running away?
“Aziraphale,” called Crowley as he reached the backroom.
Even through his sunglasses, his expression was easy for Aziraphale to see. He saw the shock and horror on the demon’s face when he spotted Hastur holding a knife to Aziraphale’s throat. Then the expression shifted into protective rage as he stalked forward. He clearly intended to risk a fight against a Duke of Hell to protect the angel. Because six thousand years had already proven that he would always protect Aziraphale. And just as obvious was that Crowley missed the Archangel tucked just out of his line of sight, letting her slip behind him.
The pained gasp, the thin blade stabbing into his back and sliding between the demon’s ribs into something vital with practiced ease, sounded deafening. An actual scream would have been less gut-wrenching. Michael stabbed him twice more before letting Crowley tumble forward and collapse on the ground. His clothes hid the spreading wetness, but the floor started turning red. Aziraphale couldn’t tell if the broken sound came from Crowley as he lay bleeding on the ground or from himself as he watched it happen.
No. Please, no. Even if it was only discorporation, seeing that much blood pouring out of him and hearing the gurgle with each choked breath broke his heart. He couldn’t bear seeing Crowley like—
Pain cut into Aziraphale, a straight line that sliced across his neck in a sudden motion. A horrified choked sound that might have been a name erupted from Crowley. Then Aziraphale fell as Hastur shoved him. The angel clutched at his slit throat, trying to stop the flow.
His head swam. Copper in his mouth. He couldn’t focus. Not enough to heal even if they allowed him to try. He was losing too much too fast.
Movement. Crowley pushed himself forward, towards Aziraphale. He’d lost his sunglasses in the fall, his solid yellow eyes barely able to focus and drowning in pain. But still trying to reach him.
Blood. So much blood spilling out. From both of them.
Then Michael planted a foot on Crowley’s back, driving a pained whimper out of him and pinning the demon in place. Her expression made it seem like she’d stepped on something foul and unpleasant, which she probably believed. She dug her heel a little harder into his back, where she’d already stabbed him. That didn’t stop Crowley’s hand from stretching in Aziraphale’s direction.
“No crawling away, Crawly,” said Hastur.
Sound had turned fuzzy and Aziraphale’s vision was growing foggy, the edges darkening with each passing gasp. Breathing was a struggle, pain throbbed beneath his clutching hand, and blood loss was taking a rapid toll. He knew that he would lose consciousness in a few moments. And his corporeal body would expire soon after.
If he was going to discorporate anyway, then he wanted… wanted…
Aziraphale reached out his free hand, but his red-stained fingertips barely missed Crowley’s…
The darkness at the edges of his vision crept over and swallowed Aziraphale completely. Darkness and silence engulfed him as his physical body succumbed, barely out of reach of his demon.
And then there was light.
Which was the start of Aziraphale’s prolonged and unwanted stay in the unnerving white and silent room. He was painfully discorporated alongside Crowley before being locked away. Not a single part of the entire process was pleasant. Somehow having his physical body shattered by stepping into a summoning circle without proper preparations was easier and less traumatic than having his throat slit. Aziraphale’s low opinion on the entire discorporation businesses had not improved and he would definitely do his best to avoid bleeding to death again at any point in the future.
The strange tingling, wobbly, and faintly nauseating sensation began to fade and Aziraphale felt more solid than he had in a while. He slowly opened his eyes as Adam released his hand. Aziraphale relaxed as the boy smiled. Adam seemed satisfied with his efforts and everything seemed to be in its proper place. Even if it was a brand-new and freshly crafted physical body, it felt exactly the same as the one that he’d occupied for six thousand years. And the last one that Adam made him during Fail-mageddon. Comfortable and familiar like a well-worn set of clothes.
“Feeling better?” asked Wensleydale.
Smiling, Aziraphale said, “Yes. Thank you. For everything.” Standing up carefully, he continued, “We shouldn’t linger. I don’t want to imagine how the other angels would react to your presence.”
And Crowley. He needed to find Crowley and rescue him. He couldn’t linger around Heaven while Crowley was in danger. The very thought made Aziraphale’s newly-restored heart twist.
“I won’t let those other angels do anything to you guys,” said Pepper sharply, raising the sword.
“My dear, while I appreciate the offer of your defense, perhaps it would be best for me to take the sword for now.” Aziraphale held his hand out towards her. “I know you are capable, but I happen to have a tad more experience with the blade. And to be honest, I would rather not encounter any of my former colleges empty handed. I am rather… miffed with them at the moment.”
Pepper hesitated a moment, her eyes searching him carefully. Then she gave a short nod and handed over the short sword.
The moment that his fingers wrapped around the hilt, Aziraphale felt power hum through the blade. Familiar ever after so long. Like riding a bicycle. You never really forget. He gave the weapon a brief flick and flames ran along the length, earning appreciative gasps from the children.
“Let’s get moving then. I can’t imagine that the escape attempt will remain secret for very long,” said Aziraphale.
Adam nodded before glancing down and said, “Stay close, Dog. And if anyone tries to sneak up on us, let us know.”
The soft bark sounded like an affirmative and the boy seemed to accept it as such. Aziraphale didn’t know how a normal dog’s senses might compare to that of a hellhousnd wandering around Heaven, but he would accept any assistance possible. Then, for the first time since the other angels locked him away in the horribly quiet room, physics didn’t bend and twist to keep him trapped in the middle. He was able to approach the waiting open door.
Aziraphale didn’t need to breathe; even with his restored corporeal body, he was still an angel. But he couldn’t help sighing in relief as he stepped out of his bright and silent prison.
“The secret backdoor is a few floors down,” said Brian. Then we take the stairway back to Earth.”
“Oh… I… I would certainly like to know more about how all of you managed to find your way into Heaven,” said Aziraphale, an even mixture of nervous and curious, “but I’m afraid that will have to wait until we’re safe. Be sure to remind me to ask about the story later.”
The children clustered around Aziraphale, half-leading and half-following. And definitely trying to protect him. Their behavior made that intention clear. None of them were running, but they were moving a bit too quickly to be casual. Urgency seemed to nip at their heels.
Footsteps bounced and echoed around them. More glorious sounds. Aziraphale both appreciated hearing everything once again and dreading the attention that the noise might draw towards them.
Their journey down the staircase was unhindered. And that only ramped up the angel’s anxiety. He didn’t particularly want to run into anyone. He knew it wouldn’t end well. But the suspense was a new form of torture. Something was going to happen. Aziraphale could feel it. And he almost wished that it would happen already and let him face it.
Crowley. He tried to think only about Crowley. He was in Hell and needed Aziraphale. They needed to escape Heaven so that he could reach Crowley.
“This floor,” said Wensleydale abruptly. “It was on this floor.”
Brian asked, “How can you tell? Almost everything here looks the same.”
They eased away from the staircase cautiously. Heaven always felt too big, too empty, too open, and too suffocating during all of his visits. He’d previously been ashamed by that feeling in the past since Heaven was meant to be his home and somewhere that all angels felt at ease. That discomfort seemed worse now. Aziraphale didn’t like it. He felt too exposed. Too vulnerable.
Adam tugged on the angel’s hand and said, “Come on, Uncle Aziraphale. We’re almost there. The exit’s on the other side.”
Sudden sharp barking, echoing loudly in a way that the angel was still growing used to again, was all the warning they had. But it was enough for Aziraphale to spin around and push the children behind him. He held his flaming sword up defensively, old instincts kicking in without thoughts. Aziraphale tried not to flinch as he spotted Gabriel, Michael, and Sandalphon stepping off the stairs where he and the Them had just been. Uriel remained back, watching cautiously. Their expressions were even mixtures of surprise, annoyance, anger, and confusion.
“Well, this is a fine mess you’ve made of things, Aziraphale,” said Gabriel. “I thought we were making some real progress on your rehabilitation. Then you decided to toss away this chance that we’ve offered you to make things right.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “And what are these small humans doing here, leaving everything so… sticky and scruffy? They look familiar.”
“You showed up on the airbase,” said Brian helpfully. “After we got rid of the Horsemen.”
Pepper added sharply, “You called Adam a ‘brat’ and tried to make him end the world.”
Aziraphale considered pulling out his wings. Just to give the children a bit more cover. A little more protection. Though it wouldn’t work if they insisted on trying to antagonize the other angels. And he was familiar enough with these specific children to know that nothing that he could possibly say would keep them from speaking their minds. Kids who back down in the face of authority or confrontation did not stop the Day of Reckoning before puberty.
He would protect them. They came all the way to Heaven to free him. Aziraphale would do everything in his power to ensure they would make it home safe.
“We’re here to take Uncle Aziraphale home,” said Adam firmly.
He spoke as if he was merely stating an obvious fact. The sky was blue. Pears were delicious. The Serpent of Eden was curious, creative, and wonderful. And they were taking Aziraphale back to Earth.
No arguments. No exceptions. And no changing his mind.
“Depending on snot-nosed children to assist you?” Gabriel grimaced slightly, as if he was uncomfortable with the entire confrontation and wanted it to be over soon. “That sounds… How would you describe it, Sandalphon?”
“Pathetic,” it said.
Dog was growling at their side. A low and dangerous sound. Or at least as low and dangerous as a small and friendly dog could produce. He recognized a threat. And despite what he might have become when Adam named him, Dog intended to protect. Not merely because he started as a hellhound. But he was the very essence of a dog and dogs were the very concept of loyalty given a furry shape and a wagging tail.
“Unsurprising,” said Michael. Even without a weapon in her hand or in a sheath at her side, Aziraphale shivered at her ruthless gaze. “He couldn’t handle a single demon on his own and was in fact tempted by him into disobedience. Needing the protection of children is merely further proof of his weakness.”
Aziraphale didn’t care what Heaven thought of him. That’s what he told himself silently as he stood between the other angels and the children under his protection, sword in hand. He didn’t care what Michael accused him of or how weak she saw him as. He wasn’t on their side anymore, so it didn’t matter.
But thousands of years of trying to be what they wanted and expected of him meant it still stung a little.
“Now, I know that you don’t want to turn this entire thing into an unpleasant mess,” said Gabriel, grinning a little too brightly, “because despite your interference and mistakes, you like to think that you’re a good little angel. You want to be a proper one. You want to be good. So here’s what we’ll do to sort this out. We’ll send the small humans away and we’ll settle you back in that nice quiet room to contemplate the mistakes that led you astray. And maybe in a century or two you’ll be ready for us to forgive you for those mistakes. Then you can redeem yourself properly and we can welcome you back into the fold.” He spread his hands in front of him. “Now doesn’t that sound nice?”
His suggestion, which Gabriel spoke as if it was the most reasonable idea in the universe, didn’t exactly work as planned. No one immediately fell to their knees, begging for forgiveness and mercy and the kindness of Heaven. And some of his dignity immediately crumbled as a small red apple smacked Gabriel right in the face. Aziraphale glanced briefly over his shoulder to see Pepper with a glare and an outstretched arm from her rather accurate throw while Wensleydale finished passing out fruit to the rest of Them.
“You will learn proper respect,” said Sandalphon, starting forward with a scowl.
But a localized and small-scale version of the retribution that it delivered on the doomed people in the past did not have the chance to come to fruition. The angel didn’t manage more than a couple steps before Dog’s ominous growls became barking and snarling. Dog lunged forward.
And for a moment, he wasn’t a mortal creature of flesh and blood. He was darkness, hellfire, fangs, and power. He was what he began as before he was named; larger and stronger than his normal canine shape. The hellhound snapped at the angel, driving it back.
The change only lasted a moment. Barely a heartbeat. But that moment was enough. Sandalphon stumbled back to Gabriel’s side before Dog returned to his position at Adam’s heel.
“We know all about respect,” said Brian, apparently unconcerned by Dog’s brief transformation. “Don’t think you do though. And I don’t think you’ve really thought this out properly either.”
Adam nodded and said, “You see, we’ve talked with Uncle Crowley a bit over the last couple of years and if you don’t let us and Uncle Aziraphale go, we could cause you a lot of trouble.”
“Even if you still have some of your abilities as the Anti-Christ, you are standing in Heaven itself,” said Michael. “There is a limit to what you can accomplish here. What form of ‘trouble’ do you believe that you can cause that we cannot counter?”
Tossing the apple in his hand and catching it a couple times, he said, “We can ask you a few questions.”
24 The term “miffed” in this case was not the most accurate word for Aziraphale’s feelings concerning his fellow angels in general and several Archangels specifically. But the more appropriate wording was not one that Aziraphale felt comfortable using, especially in front of a group of children. Perhaps in other circumstances he would have used the correct term for his emotions, which would have completely stunned Crowley in the process due to the demon missing the first instance of Aziraphale cursing in six thousand years. But it wouldn’t be fair to make Crowley miss a second chance at hearing it. So for now, “miffed” would have to do. [ ↑ ]
25 Human pronouns and gender didn’t exactly translate accurately when it came to angels and demons. They didn’t technically have genders naturally and human pronouns tended to be too limited to fit. This resulted in a variety of reactions and attitudes towards the concepts. Some picked a favorite to go by, finding one that was the closest to suiting them and not having any interest in adjusting it further (Gabriel). Others chose one merely out of convenience and never bother to change because they still didn’t have strong feelings for any of them (Aziraphale). Some adjusted their preferences over time as new possibilities were introduced, zeroing in on the ideal fit (Beelzebub). Others liked to shift through a variety depending on their mood, enjoying all the different ones available (Crowley). And yet other just preferred to avoid the entire mess entirely. Sandalphon was one of the angels who held no interest in accepting human pronouns or gender even when forced to deal with humanity, finding the entire concept to be pointless. [ ↑ ]
26 Compared to the rest of the strange parts of their lives, it was barely worth mentioning. [ ↑ ]
Chapter 7: Questions
The whispers at the back of his mind, tempting Adam with power and glory and a blood-soaked destiny ruling over a broken world, were louder than he felt comfortable with. But he could still ignore them. Not block them out, but at least ignore them. With Dog pressed against his leg, with his friends clustered around him, and Aziraphale standing protectively in front of him, Adam could remember who he truly was. Adam could hold onto himself even as he tossed an apple a few times, trying to look like he knew what he was doing.
He had a plan. One that Crowley would probably enjoy.
“Questions?” asked the rude angel with the purple eyes.
Raising a hand, Brian said, “Yeah, we’ve got a few questions for you guys.”
“Like who are you?” demanded Pepper. “You try to end the world a couple years ago and kidnap our angel, but you don’t even take the time to tell us a name or something?”
“Gabriel, Michael, Sandalphon, and Uriel.” Aziraphale pointed his sword at each one as he identified them. “My… old bosses, I suppose you could say.”
Frowning in confusion, Wensleydale said, “Michael? Isn’t that a boy’s name?”
“That’s sexist,” said Pepper. “Girls can call themselves whatever they want.”
“She’s not a girl.” Adam tossed the apple to his other hand. “They’re not boys and girls. They’re angels. That’s different.”
“Humans and their obsession with gender and which dangly, squishy parts they’ve got,” sneered Sandalphon, practically rolling its eyes.
“And we’re getting distracted,” he continued. “I’ve got a bigger question for them.” Adam crossed his arms. “Why did you lock Uncle Aziraphale up? Who told you that’s what you were supposed to do?”
“He betrayed Heaven and the Great Plan.” Michael’s voice was cold and even. “He turned against us and ignored thousands of years of preparation. He is a traitor. There needs to be consequences.”
“But no one told you to do that,” said Pepper, “did they? Were there rules that told you to do that? Written down somewhere in a rulebook? Or did you decide to do it on your own?”
Wensleydale straightened his glasses and said, “Doesn’t the bible have some important stuff about judging people? It’s supposed to be God’s job. Not yours.”
The four resident angels didn’t look particularly happy listening to the children and their questions. Gabriel wore a professional, clinical, and cold expression but there was a sharpness in his eyes and a tension around his mouth like he swallowed a lemon. And the sharpness wasn’t hidden quite as well in Michael, Sandalphon, and Uriel. The only reason that they were probably still listening to Them was the presence of Dog and Aziraphale holding his sword at the ready. But Adam thought there might be something else. Not yet doubt, but close enough for him to keep going.
“And if God was angry about the world not ending and Uncle Aziraphale wanting to be on Earth’s side, wouldn’t you know?” asked Adam. “He didn’t though. He didn’t… He didn’t tell you to kidnap Uncle Aziraphale and trap him in that room alone. Or to do any other punishment. Like… Like…”
“Like Falling.” Pepper glared at the other angels, looking like she was considering throwing another apple at the increasingly uneasy audience. “You probably want to try that next. We won’t let you make him Fall.”
The other angels spun around to glare at Uriel. They flinched slightly under the intensity of the group’s combined disapproval, but Uriel was left with no choice except to continue forward. They’d already broken the angels’ united front of silence and superiority.
“We cannot make the traitor Fall. Only one can cause an angel to Fall and our Lord has not yet done so,” said Uriel.
“There. You see? If Uncle Aziraphale was really that big of a traitor by not wanting to destroy the world, if he went against the…” Adam frowned in confusion. “What’s the word again? The one from the airbase? The one you like saying a bunch and Uncle Crowley rolls his eyes?”
“Ineffable,” said Aziraphale, his wings relaxing slightly as they folded against his back. “The ineffable plan.”
“Right. That’s it. If he went against the ineffable plan thing and it was that bad, Uncle Aziraphale would have Fallen. Every other angel that did something really bad or disobeyed God or rebelled against God or questioned God or stuff like that ended up Falling and becoming demons. Messing up really important plans would qualify, right? But he didn’t Fall, so that means it wasn’t wrong.”
Brian nodded and said, “Sounds logical to me.”
“It was wrong,” said Gabriel firmly. “Why are we listening to children?”
“Actually, you’re listening because you know we’re telling the truth.” Wensleydale handed his apple to Pepper. “And that’s the problem. You know what we’re saying is true and it makes you second-guess a bunch of stuff.”
“If God didn’t make Uncle Aziraphale Fall, then all of you couldn’t kill him and Uncle Crowley after that, which you also probably did because you were mad and not because someone told you to do it, and then we get in here even when living people aren’t supposed to do it, then that probably means God isn’t that mad at him about the whole thing in the first place. Too many impossible things helping him out. Can’t be just chance. Someone doesn’t want him punished. That’s just logic too.”
Adam took a bite of his apple, using it as an excuse to look around. He spotted a few more angels further up the staircase. They must have gathered there to see what was going on. Everyone liked poking their nose into things. They weren’t approaching further. Just subtly eavesdropping.
Good. The more people who were listening, the more people who might start thinking. And the more reasons for Aziraphale’s old bosses to want them to leave sooner.
“Claiming to know for certain what She wants is treading on the edge of blasphemy,” said Gabriel. “Unsurprising coming from the Anti-Christ, but dangerous none the less.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Adam stared firmly at the angel. “Or maybe you just think you know better than God.”
“You keep trying to punish Uncle Aziraphale even when God doesn’t want him to Fall and when something protects him from hellfire,” interrupted Adam. “You keep doing that because you’re mad. Because you think God was wrong not to punish him and you know better.”
Aziraphale said, “Pride goes before the fall.”
“We do not think that we know better than our Lord,” said Michael in a scandalized tone. “We are trying to obey Her plan and to prevent further interference.”
“At this point, it sounds more like you are following your plans rather than God’s,” he said, Aziraphale raising his sword a little more as he stared them down. “I never turned against Her Plan. I couldn’t do that even if I tried. Only Heaven’s plans for the world. And your plans are merely an excuse to fight a pointless war and your claim that it is Her will is an increasingly flimsy façade.”
Brian pressed something into Adam’s hand, causing him to glance down. He recognized it instantly from before and it gave him an idea of a backup plan. Looking back up, he could tell that other angels appeared uncomfortable and more were carefully edging down the staircase quietly. They were listening to the questions and observations. But Gabriel, Michael, and Sandalphon still held their stubborn anger. Adam knew that he might have to use that backup plan.
Crowley would approve of any backup plan that involved a lot of bluffing.
“We could stand around here all day, asking questions about why you’re trying so hard to cross the line and Fall,” said Adam before taking another bite of his apple. He gestured towards the eavesdropping angels on the staircase, drawing everyone’s attention to the unexpected audience. “Of course, the longer we’re here, the more that everyone will hear about that stuff and start wondering. And maybe they’ll start doubting all the angels in charge.”
“Things could turn a little,” said Aziraphale slowly, “rebellious.”
“Or you can let us and Uncle Aziraphale go home and leave everyone alone from now on,” he continued. “That’s better, right?”
Sandalphon took a step forward, eyeing Dog cautiously, and said, “Or we could silence you permanently. Humans are rather fragile.”
Adam lifted the small object that Brian gave him. The one that he “borrowed” from Jasmine Cottage and from Newt specifically. He saw several eyes widened as they recognized what it was and drew the obvious conclusions. And when the boy lit the match, Adam tried not to feel completely like the Anti-Christ as several angels took a frightened step back.
“I don’t know if I can create hellfire,” he said, holding the burning match up. “Never tried. Never wanted to. Never wanted to be the Anti-Christ in the first place. But it seems like something I could probably do. And if you try to hurt my friends or family, we’ll find out if it works.”
The threat, the menace, and the ruthlessness of the boy’s words fed into the darker parts of him. He could feel the power trying to answer, metaphorically chomping at the bit. The whispers in his mind to destroy them, cast them down, raze everything in sight, slaughter your enemies refused to stop. Adam knew that if they called his bluff, he might be able to live up to his threat. But he didn’t know if he would be able to stop afterwards. He needed to get back to Tadfield. Brian and Wensleydale drew a little closer, brushing against his arms enough to remind Adam of home, family, friends, and a wonderful world that he loved. But he still needed to end this soon.
Adam didn’t know if it was the threat and the lit match, Pepper’s death glare, Brian and Wensleydale holding up the remaining apples in a silent promise, Dog’s quiet growling, or Aziraphale still aiming his flaming sword at them. But the four angry, uncomfortable, and stubborn angels slowly eased out of their aggressive stances. Thy exchanged looks until Gabriel turned back towards the group with cold disdain.
“If the traitor refused to accept our kind offer of redemption,” he said evenly, “then we won’t waste any further time on the attempt.” Gabriel met Aziraphale’s gaze firmly as he did his best to ignore the suspicious glares from Them. “Even though no one truly believes their childish fantasies, the small humans might have a minor point concerning a lack of clarification about handling you. We cannot destroy you or make you Fall for your actions currently. Instead, we will be merciful. We will leave you alone as long as you, the rebellious Anti-Christ, the hellhound mutt, and the gang of brats—”
“Hey,” snapped Brian. “That’s rude.”
“—leave right now. And once you return to Earth, I recommend that you remain there. For your own safety, of course. If you return to Heaven, you may not find a warm welcome.”
Taking a step back and urging the kids to start edging towards their secret exit, Aziraphale said, “I find those conditions more than acceptable.” He lowered his sword a little and finally tucked his wings out of sight, but Aziraphale didn’t completely relax his guard. “Earth and humanity are actually quite preferable to your idea of hospitality.”
The nightmarish loops weren’t identical. Crowley’s imagination was vast and elaborate. Even being unable to remember the previous versions didn’t prevent a wide variety of horrible fears and emotional trauma. But even when the scenarios changed, the ultimate outcome was always the same.
The current loop began with Crowley trapped in Heaven, strapped to a chair and unable to move.
He didn’t wonder about how he ended up restrained or in Heaven. His mind stumbled away from the circumstances and left him focused solely on the present. Tight ropes bit into his arms, his chest, his wrists, and his legs. Perhaps he would have been able to wiggle free if he shifted to a more serpentine shape, but that transformation remained beyond him at the moment. For reasons that he couldn’t seem to explain, everything ached deeply and his energy had long since melted away. He was too exhausted to shift into a different form.
He didn’t wonder about his condition. His thoughts avoided it. He couldn’t focus much beyond the immediate. Though if he did try to rationalize his current state, Crowley would have likely blamed it on the Archangels in the large white room.
There were several angels present. He’d glimpsed Uriel behind his chair, one hand braced to keep him from doing something idiotic like knocking it over with his struggles. Pacing slowly back and forth across the polished floor in front of Crowley, smug and self-righteous, was Gabriel. Neither held his attention much. Not when Michael and Sandalphon were slowly dragging a limp and unconscious figure towards a tall pillar of fire.
A pillar of hellfire.
“Did you really believe that we wouldn’t figure it out?” asked Gabriel coldly, his voice cutting through the roar of the flames and Crowley’s desperate shouts towards the motionless Aziraphale. “I didn’t expect him to be such a good actor though. He almost pulled it off. But you made a mistake. You’re the reason we realized it in the end.”
“Let him go,” he snarled. “Take me if you want. Angels are supposed to kill demons. Do it. Go ahead. Just leave him alone. The whole thing was my fault anyway. He didn’t do a thing to mess up your stupid apocalypse. Blame me, not him.”
As exhausted and sore as he felt, Crowley twisted and wrenched at his restraints as they kept dragging Aziraphale closer and closer to the hellfire. What the ropes didn’t bruise on him, they tore and scraped at his flesh. But they didn’t loosen. And Uriel didn’t let the chair fall over.
He couldn’t let this happen. He couldn’t let them hurt his angel. He had to break free. Or convince them to let Aziraphale go. Maybe they would force the angel to do paperwork in Heaven for all eternity, which would break his spirit and turn him into a dull shadow of his wonderful angel, but he would be alive. That would be enough. If that’s all that Crowley could do to save him, then so be it. But he needed to do something to protect Aziraphale.
He couldn’t let this happen. He had to save him.
Then he saw it. Aziraphale’s lolling head started to rise. A weak movement, but a deliberate one. Then his eyes fluttered a few times. He was waking up.
Horror and helplessness clawed desperately in his chest. He didn’t know if it was better or worse that his angel was waking up. Because Crowley still couldn’t break free and the other angels weren’t stopping. He couldn’t save him.
“Aziraphale,” he called, his voice raw and broken. “Angel, please.”
He couldn’t save him.
Crowley threw himself forward as much as possible, jerking sharply against the ropes holding him to the chair. Pain shot through his left shoulder at one particularly violent attempt, causing him to snarl out a three-thousand-year-old curse. He suspected that he dislocated or at least wrenched it badly. That didn’t stop him from lunging against the restraints once again. And again. The physical pain didn’t matter.
His foggy eyes starting to clear, Aziraphale managed to meet Crowley’s frantic and terrified gaze. Time seemed to stop, the moment suspended like a raindrop on the tip of a leaf on the verge of falling. He could see every detail of his angel perfectly. His ruffled clothes from their manhandling, his pale hair frazzled and messy, and the way that the bright flames cast deep shadows across his face. The hellfire reflected in his eyes in a way that made them shine even brighter than normal. Crowley took all of it in. Then Aziraphale started slowly opening his mouth, a word already forming on his lips.
Then Sandalphon and Michael yanked Aziraphale upright just long enough to shove him forward into the roaring pillar of hellfire. And the screaming started.
Two screams of absolute agony, one physical and one emotional. Deafening, broken, wretched, and inhuman. They seemed to continue for an eternity. The sounds wove together until no one could tell where one ended and the other began. Only one united force of raw and endless pain.
Until one voice fell silent, leaving Crowley crying and screaming out alone in grief, horror, guilt, and loss. The strained and heartbroken sound gradually crumbled into broken sobs.
He slumped weakly against the ropes. He couldn’t even collapse to the ground from misery. The restraints wouldn’t let him. His breathing hitched as Crowley wept weakly. His body shook with painful sobs. There was no use fighting it.
His angel… Not his angel… Aziraphale…
There was nothing left. The pillar of hellfire scorched away every trace of the angel. He saw it happen. He could smell it.
Crowley felt the intense heat pressing against his face, but he felt cold. Like ice forming in his core. Ice cold enough to burn through Crowley and sharp enough to stab like a dagger.
“He didn’t have to die,” said Gabriel, not a hint of mercy or sympathy in his voice. “If you had never corrupted Aziraphale from his purpose, there would have never been a reason to do this. Or if you could have managed to keep your little switch a secret. But you failed and we found out. You let this happen. But what else should we have expected. A demon could never protect anything important. They can only corrupt, taint, ruin, and destroy. And you destroyed this angel. Not us. You.”
Crowley shook his head violently, choking and sobbing brokenly. Tears fell unhindered. His face was soaked with them.
It hurt. Everything hurt. A raw and gaping wound filled with jagged ice. He couldn’t breathe, his throat strained from screaming and exhaustion dragging him down. Crowley silently begged for the other angels to stop waiting around and destroy him too. He wanted the pain to end.
He failed Aziraphale. He couldn’t protect him. But it was more than that. Crowley lost his angel due to his own stupidity.
The only thing that he wanted now was to follow his angel’s fate.
But that mercy didn’t come. Crowley was left to drown in his own misery without any sign of relief. There was no escape.
Eventually exhaustion began to overcome the heartbreak, loss, and sorrow. And as that balance shifted, his thoughts and memories grew foggy, indistinct, and confused. Tears slowed as he forgot their cause, though the emotional agony and all forms of exhaustion lingered. They weighed on him heavily.
Too heavy. The accumulative damage was breaking him in ways that neither angels nor demons could normally encounter. Though none had experienced the self-destructive limits of Crowley’s imagination turned against himself either. Even forgetting did nothing to slow or diminish what was happening.
And thus the 1,529th nightmare loop drew to an end. Which marked the start of another attempt to save Aziraphale that was doomed to failure.
If someone chose to stand across the road from the church on that mildly overcast day in Tadfield, they might see a group of four energetic and relieved children pulling an overwhelmed bookshop owner out the door while a dog barked eagerly at their feet. Then they might see them hug the blond man, chattering between each other with an air of victory. Witnesses might be too distracted by the heartwarming scene to notice the strained and tired expression on the man’s face or the sword dangling from his weak grip. Of course, if someone were to stand across the road to watch their return to Earth, he would also be in plain view of Them as well.
Unless his minor abilities to affect reality included a talent for making people ignore him.
Warlock stared at the angel, blinking rapidly against the burning and prickling sensation from his eyes. Outside of his Dreams, this was the first time that he’d seen his old gardener in years. The last time was at his eleventh birthday and he didn’t even recognize him as the magician until afterwards. Seeing Brother Fra— Aziraphale… It made his chest ache. Something twisting and squeezing deep inside him, hurting in a way that he didn’t want to consider.
He wanted to run over there. Warlock wanted to wrap his arms around the angel like when he was a little boy. He wanted to shake Aziraphale and beg him to explain why Warlock wasn’t good enough for them. He wanted to scream, to cry, to throw things and break stuff, to do something. There were too many things that he wanted to do.
But he didn’t do anything except stand there, struggling with the tightness in his throat and chest.
He knew why they left. The reason was the curly-haired boy being hugged by Aziraphale, the angel giving him a fond and thankful smile. Warlock was the Wrong Boy. Adam was everything that Warlock wanted to be and yet could never be. Adam was the one that they wanted. The one that they loved; the angel held him close the way that Brother Francis did when Warlock tumbled into some thorny plants, trying to calm the child until Nanny arrived. Aziraphale clearly loved Adam and the feeling was mutual.
It was Adam. It had always been Adam. Warlock was just the result of a simple mix-up and should have never been involved.
He shouldn’t intrude. They didn’t need Warlock around. Adam and his friends could handle everything. And Pepper had already made it obvious that he wasn’t wanted. He wasn’t even completely certain why he’d lingered as long as he had, though part of him knew the answer. Warlock had wandered around blindly for a couple of hours before being drawn toward the church for a single reason: he needed to make sure it worked.
But it did. Aziraphale was safe. Because of the others. Why did Warlock even come in the first place?
Warlock watched them gradually move down the road vaguely in the direction of the Jasmine Cottage, Aziraphale looking overwhelmed and twitching at every sound. They saved the angel without needing him. They would save Nanny too. Because Adam was the right one. He was the one that everyone wanted and who possessed all the power promised to him by destiny, even if Adam took all of it for granted. He would fix everything. There was no reason for Warlock to stay.
There was no reason for him at all.
He didn’t immediately leave. He watched Aziraphale until he was out of sight. Then Warlock scrubbed some of the dampness from his face and settled his earbuds back in place. The familiar rhythm of “We Will Rock You” pounded in his ears. He tried to focus on the music and nothing else. He especially tried to ignore the aching pressure in his chest, like a tight fist squeezing on his heart.
Then, shifting his backpack a little and burying his hands in his jacket pocket, Warlock stomped away in the opposite direction. He decided that it was time to start searching for a way back.
27 Yes, they can. And so can boys. Dogs tend to have less say in the matter, but they rarely worry about their names too much anyway. Just as long as they are told that they are Good Dogs. [ ↑ ]
28 The kids did wonder why their face looked like it was covered in golden flecks. Several of the angels looked not quite human since they didn’t bother hiding the signs as much in Heaven, but Uriel’s traits were the most obvious to Them. It was a true testament on the seriousness of the situation that no one asked why Uriel apparently dunked their face in a vat of glitter. [ ↑ ]
29 Currently extinguished. [ ↑ ]
Chapter 8: Road
I know that you're all anxious about Crowley (and want to give Warlock a hug). Hopefully this chapter will help keep all of you satisfied.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As the William Tell Overture came to an end, Warlock tugged his earbuds out and took a moment to glance both ways expectantly. He'd been sitting on the bench for a while and there was still no sign of a bus. And he was left waiting around as the skies continued to grow more and more overcast. It wasn't as if he had anything else to do. As soon as he could catch a bus to somewhere with an airport, Warlock could put this entire thing behind him. Just as everyone put Warlock behind them once they found the real Anti-Christ.
He knew that he must look like the picture of misery. His knees were drawn up and he couldn't stop sniffling. And while Warlock knew it made him look like a little kid instead of a recently-turned thirteen-year-old, his cheeks were covered in drying tears and his eyes were red. He couldn't help it. He looked like the picture of misery because he felt miserable.
Warlock scrubbed his eyes frantically with his sleeve. He couldn't stop picturing Adam hugging Brother Francis— Aziraphale. Warlock never knew their real names, what they truly were, or anything real about his nanny and gardener. All he had were the lies and his Dreams. Adam was the one who they wanted. He was the boy who actually knew them. This was how it was supposed to be. Warlock wasn't supposed to even be there. He didn't matter.
He was just the mistake. The Wrong Boy. He didn't matter to any of them.
"Excuse me. Are you all right?"
His head snapped up in surprise. A blonde woman carrying a pair of cloth bags of shopping was staring straight at him with a worried expression. After a moment, she sat down next to the sniffling boy.
"I don't think I've seen you around before," she said gently. "Are you new to Tadfield?"
Warlock shrugged and mumbled, "Visiting."
"Are you visiting family?"
He hesitated a moment before giving a slow nod. It was the closest explanation that anyone would believe.
"Is that why you're upset?" she asked, maternal concern filling her voice.
Warlock shrugged again. But he uncurled a little, letting his feet drop to the ground. He wrapped his fingers around the strap of his backpack and shifted awkwardly.
"Do you want to talk about it? It might make you feel better."
"It's complicated," he mumbled.
But he wanted to try. Warlock couldn't explain it, but something about the woman made him want to open up. A warm and inviting feeling surrounded her. She felt comforting, like a human personification of a hug from Nanny. He didn't know the woman, but she seemed to care. She seemed to care enough when she saw a someone sitting on a bench and crying like a little kid that she stopped to check on him. And Warlock wanted— needed to untangle the complicated knot of emotions in his chest.
He needed someone to talk to.
"If you help me carry my shopping, I'd be happy to listen," she said. She smiled kindly. "Or I could stay here with you until your parents or a bus comes by. My conscience won't let me leave someone clearly upset sitting alone."
Hesitating the moment, Warlock said, "I can catch a different bus."
The woman handed over one of her bags and they started a casual pace along the road. Warlock tried to sort things out in his head. He wasn't certain how to start. Maybe the beginning would be best.
"I was born near here. No one knew back then, but there was a mix up with the babies and I went home with another family."
She was quiet a moment before asking, "Are you in Tadfield to meet your birth family then?"
Warlock shifted the groceries to his other hand, but didn't immediately answer. A slight breeze made him shiver. It wasn't raining yet, but it felt like a storm was on the horizon. Or maybe it was the storm brewing inside him.
"It explains a lot really. I wasn't my parents' kid. I wasn't the one they wanted. I wasn't the one that anyone wanted," he muttered darkly. "I'm the Wrong Boy. And the right one, the one that ended up with my birth parents? He's perfect. Everyone loves him. Everyone. He's everything that they wanted. And he's everything that I can't be, no matter how hard I try." Warlock's eyes were burning again and his voice came out choked. "Everyone wants him more. They love him and not me. And I don't blame them."
After a few moments of silence, she said, "I'm sorry that you're going through something like this. I can't imagine how confusing and upsetting this must be for you. I don't know you or any of your family members, so I probably don't know everything about what's going on in your life. But I know how I would hope that I would react if I found out my son was switched as a baby." She smiled at him. "I hope that I would react the way that all parents should. But I believe that your parents love you. Both sets do."
"Do not. They never wanted me. They wanted the other boy."
"A mother always loves her son. Whether that means the one that she's never met before and is now meeting for the first time or the one that she adopted without realizing that she adopted him. Both of your mothers love you. And no amount of baby swapping will change that. Just because she found out that you weren't the son that she gave birth to doesn't mean that she would suddenly change her mind. Not after everything."
"They don't care me. Not really. I'm the Wrong Boy."
"Do you honestly believe that anyone could raise a child for years without loving them? That someone could take care of you, watch you grow, teach you, encourage you, and love you for your entire life and then just stop one day and love another boy the exact same way instead?"
Warlock opened his mouth to snap that if she knew anything about the Dowlings, she would know that they didn't really care. They didn't really notice him or even know Warlock. They barely spent time around him. They didn't raise him, so their love was distant and vague. It would be easy to replace him with someone else because they didn't even know who he was. Warlock prepared to snarl all of that out venomously at the maternal and kind woman, the boy hurting and frustrated.
Then he stopped. Thaddeus and Harriet Dowling didn't raise him; they didn't form the loving bond that the woman was describing. But Nanny and Brother Francis did.
They were the ones who were there. For as long as Warlock could remember. Brother Francis would follow him around the garden, introducing him to all the creatures; once he even convinced a deer to let the child pet her fawn. Nanny would read him stories of gruesome murder and vicious demons that would lay waste to the world and then she would look over his schoolwork. They taught him to ride a tricycle, to write his letters and numbers, how to tie his shoes, and the proper way to vanquish an opponent without mercy. There were lullabies, kisses on skinned knees, hugs, kind words and encouragement, and proud smiles. They were there for holidays, bedtimes, sickness, tears, tantrums, nightmares, bright days filled with sunshine, laughter, and everything in between. Maybe they thought he was the Anti-Christ and had to keep an eye on him, but they didn't have to do the rest of it.
And afterwards, when they knew the truth, they didn't have to keep sending letters. They didn't need to send him birthday presents. There was no reason for them to do it. No reason except one.
Could anyone raise a child for years without loving them?
Warlock's free hand brushed against the earbuds of his iPod dangling out of his pocket. His backpack held the weight of a dull book with a reassuring inscription. Both served as physical proof that they never forgot him.
"You think they love me and the Right Boy?" asked Warlock softly.
"There's no right and wrong boy," she said. "There's just two boys who are loved by twice the number of people now."
"I can't be him. I can't be the person that they expected or wanted me to be."
"Then don't be. You don't have to be anything other than what you want to be. No one can decide who you are except you." The woman smiled. "And I'll bet that whoever you choose to be, they'll be so proud of you."
Not everything that the woman was saying was right, but enough seemed to be. And that left Warlock sniffling for a different reason. He didn't know why it seemed to make such a strong impression coming from the blonde woman. Maybe because no one else had told him that he was loved, wanted, and didn't make him feel like he was a mistake. At least, not for a long time. And not from someone who seemed honest.
Or maybe it was just because she felt so maternal, caring, and warm to be around. His own mother didn't feel like this when he was around her. The blonde woman felt like someone who would welcome a hug outside of photo shoots and wouldn't ever be too busy for them.
Warlock hoped that her son appreciated that approachable and open feeling.
"But if you still don't feel certain about all of this, then I think that this is something that you need to talk to them about," she continued. "Your family deserves to know what's going on with you. I'm certain that they would want to help. They love you and would probably want to reassure you themselves."
Warlock nodded and said quietly, "I should probably go find them then. They… They need me. I don't want to let them down."
Nanny and Brother Francis were there for him while Warlock was growing up. Maybe they kept secrets and didn't tell Warlock everything about them, but he knew enough. He knew the important parts. They taught him, supported him, encouraged him, and loved him. And while the gardener might be safe, his nanny was still in trouble. Nanny needed him.
They made him who he was. Both of them. Even if they made some mistakes, they did so much.
Warlock could do this. He knew who he wanted to be.
He carefully handed back over the shopping and muttered a thanks to the woman for her time. Brother Francis always encouraged manners, even if Warlock didn't always listen. He slipped his earbuds back in and let his iPod play.
"Well, I won't back down,
No, I won't back down,
You can stand me up at the gates of hell,
But I won't back down."
A plan already forming in his head, Warlock took off running. Nanny's bedtime stories were about to be very useful. He had a few stops to make first though.
But he knew what to do. He knew how to make this work.
"No, I'll stand my ground,
Won't be turned around,
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down,
Gonna stand my ground,
And I won't back down."
He knew how to be the person that Nanny and Brother Francis raised him to be, even if he wasn't supposed to be that person after all. And if destiny didn't like it, then that was too bad. If destiny wanted to be his enemy, then it would be crushed under his heel like the rest of his enemies.
"I won't back down. Hey, baby,
There ain't no easy way out.
I won't back down. Hey, I
Will stand my ground,
And I won't back down."
She watched the no-longer sniffling boy run down the street before turning a corner. She smiled, hoping that he would be all right and that he would sort things out with his family. Then Deidre Young shifted her grip on the two bags and continued home.
After interrupting Anathema and Newt's research session with the news of at least one successful rescue and causing the witch to subject Them to a lecture about how dangerous their stunt was, Aziraphale quietly excused himself. Of course Anathema and Newt were both thankful that he was safe and sound. Neither of them was callous nor heartless. But the children putting themselves in danger took priority for the moment. She was still describing exactly how badly it could have gone and the angel needed a little space. A chance to catch his breath and deal with everything that had happened. He slipped out of the cottage and claimed the bench in the garden.
It was overwhelming after apparently two months of Heaven's hospitality. The bright colors of the flowers, the grass, and the sky left him blinking uncomfortably even as he tried to soak it all in. Even the softest sounds seemed impossibly loud. Loud, but welcomed. The wind rustling the trees. Birds singing Distant traffic and aircrafts flying high overhead. Anathema's muffled scolding and Newt's occasional comment, their voices drifting outside. Both the sights and sounds helped reassure him that this was real, that he was actually free.
After everything, it wouldn't have been unexpected to hallucinate the entire rescue and escape.
He sat there silently, breathing in and out. Aziraphale didn't need to breathe, but he wanted to. It was grounding. Just like the sensation of a heartbeat in his newly-restored corporeal body. All the sights, sounds, and feelings helped.
Aziraphale knew that he didn't have much time to straighten out his head. They didn't have much time at all. Heaven would probably hold enough of a grudge to tell Hell what happened. Which meant they could make it harder to reach Crowley. The longer they waited, the harder everything would be. Aziraphale could take a moment to reclaim his footing after everything, but no more than that.
Crowley needed him. While they both watched each other's backs for thousands of years, Crowley was always the one pulling off the more dramatic or dangerous rescues. He was the one protecting Aziraphale over and over again. But this time, Crowley needed him. His demon was in trouble and suffering every moment that they left him there. Aziraphale needed to bring him home.
His hands fiddled and tugged at his coat. There had to be a way to get Crowley back and quickly. Aziraphale knew where the main entrance was, but it would be better to be stealthy. He needed to get in, find Crowley, and get out. He couldn't relax until Crowley was safe.
He looked up. Adam sat down next to him on the bench, slumping slightly. The boy scratched Dog's ears briefly as he stared at the angel.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he continued, kicking his legs slightly.
Nodding, Aziraphale said, "I will be. Once Crowley is safe, I'll be fine." Smiling weakly, he asked, "Is Anathema still trying to explain how dangerous it was to run off without a plan?"
"She moved onto telling Brian why he shouldn't 'borrow' things without asking," he said with a shrug. "And we did have a plan. And it worked, right? We got you back."
"You did. And I'm very grateful." Aziraphale closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. "I don't suppose you have any insight on how to sneak into Hell like you did to get into Heaven, do you?"
"That was Lock's idea," he said, which clarified nothing. When Aziraphale glanced at him, Adam was frowning thoughtfully. "But he mentioned something earlier. Something about writing stuff on rocks…?" He bit his bottom lip for a moment before continuing. "Wasn't there some funny saying about paving roads and Hell?"
Bailey's Toys was one of the small second-generation family stores that tended to be choked out of existence by large corporations and internet shopping. And in most places, it would have been driven out of business a little less than a decade before. But just as their ice cream shop was a small business instead of a Baskin-Robbins, Tadfield tended to support a simpler way of life and discourage big-name chain stores from moving in. And that was even before Adam's birth. After his arrival, he subconsciously maintained his idyllic childhood and that included keeping the local toy store in business.
Tiffany was watching the register for her uncle when a dark-haired boy came in. With a stubborn expression, he marched straight in and asked where the summer toys were. Then he examined the merchandise closely, carefully comparing the different versions of the toys. He treated the entire process with the utmost seriousness. She thought it was rather adorable.
"Spending all your birthday money in one place?" she asked, popping the bubble gum in her mouth.
He shrugged as he stacked the different models of brightly-colored molded plastic on the counter.
Tiffany raised her eyebrow at the larger one that he'd picked out. That one could be rather expensive. Kids always drooled over it; multiple settings, ideal for distance, accuracy, and strength. At close range, that model could even sting a little. And it was big enough to last a while, even if it was a bit annoying to prepare.
But parents usually went for the smaller cheaper ones instead. Not the best range or power, but faster and less bulky. And it was ideal for stealth because they were small enough to hide. Some kids like that. Mostly though, it was a question of whether someone wanted quality or quantity.
But this kid seemed determined to have the best of both worlds. The boy had picked out one of the expensive model and two of the smaller versions, pulling out a handful of money from his backpack. And after a moment, he ran back and grabbed a jump rope.
Tiffany considered it further support for her birthday money theory.
"Planning something with your friends?"
"Sounds fun, kiddo. Do you need a bag?"
He shook his head and asked, "Can you help me take off all the tags though? I need to use them almost immediately."
Pulling open and digging through a drawer, Tiffany said, "Sure thing, kiddo. I think I've got some scissors around here."
There was a relatively common figure of speech. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Working off the metaphor, Aziraphale found himself at Hogsback Woods where the children enjoyed playing during less stressful times. He, Anathema, Newt, and the rest of Them had gathered down there with markers and paint. Brian and Newt were gathering stones and the occasional random discarded brick. The others were focused more on writing on the provided rocks.
I picked up my toys so my parents didn't trip.
I came to Tadfield to help stop the apocalypse.
I walked Dog to make him happy.
I followed prophecies to save the world.
I recycled to save the whales.
Dozens of actions made with good intentions were carefully written down. The handwriting varied from neat and immaculate to barely legible. Then they arranged the rocks into a short and narrow path that might be referred to as a "road," but only if one was feeling especially generous. But it would be good enough. As long as it was enough for Adam to believe, then it should work.
He managed to reach Heaven after all. And he was far more closely connected to Hell.
A road to Hell. A more subtle path that would let them slip past the other demons. That's what he needed. Because if this didn't work, Aziraphale would simply march through the front entrance, carving through any obstacle with his flaming sword.
Crowley would not remain in Hell's possession for a single day longer.
"What do you think, Adam? Looks pretty good, right?" asked Brian.
"Considering that none of us are professionals," said Newt, brushing off his hands and then taking off his glasses in a futile attempt to clean them on his shirt, "and we don't really know what we're doing, I think it's at least a decent attempt."
Adam nodded slowly and said, "I'd call that a paved road, even if its rocks."
"Actually, all roads used to be dirt or paved with stones called cobblestones," said Wensleydale. "So this should count."
He continued, "And that's a lot of good intentions." He nodded again. "I'd say it's ready."
And as the young teenager spoke, Aziraphale felt reality adjust. Not a lot. But he felt something hellish and saw the air ripple above the stones like a heat mirage. Their secret entrance to Hell now existed where it didn't a moment before.
"Well, then let's get going," said Pepper. "Aziraphale, got your sword ready?"
Her words sent a chill down Aziraphale's spine. Bringing humans, bringing children, into Hell was unacceptable. It was dangerous enough for them to wander around Heaven, but Aziraphale had no say in the matter. The kids were wearing their charms again, but that protection wasn't perfect. He couldn't risk them. None of the humans should be put in the line of fire.
They were lucky in Heaven. Demons didn't have to pretend to be polite or nice. The humans might not be lucky a second time.
Aziraphale raised his hand up before yanking it down with a snap. Abruptly, several limp bodies crumbled on the leaves. Unharmed, but asleep. None of them would be put in danger.
This was a personal matter; not something concerning the fate of the world.
"You know, if you didn't want us to come along, you could have just asked."
Aziraphale turned to find Adam and Dog standing among the unconscious figures. Somehow the angel wasn't surprised. If anyone would be resistant to the angelic miracle, it would be the former Anti-Christ and his hellhound.
"Would any of you have actually remained behind if I had asked?" remarked Aziraphale dryly.
Shrugging, Adam said, "Probably not. Pepper seemed pretty excited about storming Hell. She's going to be upset if she misses out."
"It'll be safer for everyone." Aziraphale straightened his coat nervously before picking up his not-currently-flaming sword. "I don't suppose that I could convince you to stay, could I? I'm not certain how well you and your powers will react to being there."
"Sorry, Uncle Aziraphale. You're stuck with me and Dog."
He stared at the boy for a few moments before slumping in resignation. Then Aziraphale nodded and reached out. Adam took his hand.
"Stay close," said Aziraphale. "And try to keep quiet. I don't know if we can avoid attention down there. It was crowded in the parts that I visited. But if we can slip in and out without notice, that would be best."
"No barking, Dog," he ordered firmly. Then Adam turned his attention back towards the angel. "We'll keep quiet."
Walking along the improvised road, they passed through the rippling air and started sinking with each step. Like they were descending a staircase and the ground was an illusion. Aziraphale closed his eyes as the feeling of demonic influences washed over him. He didn't particularly like the sensation. Hell didn't share the same feeling of comfort that Crowley's presence did.
Aziraphale eventually opened his eyes to find them in a dark, dank, and narrow stairwell. Fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered in a way to guarantee to cause a migraine. They didn't truly seem to help illuminate anything. Mostly they cast harsh shadows. Along the mildew-and-mold-covered walls were occasionally posters, but they did nothing to improve the atmosphere. And the temperature matched that of any office building. No demons in sight, but it was certainly Hell. The feeling made his skin crawl; Aziraphale was as far from Heaven and Her as physically possible without Falling and he could feel it.
But he could feel something else. Something bright, warm, and familiar. Love. Crowley's love. Aziraphale would recognize it anywhere.
For a brief moment, he basked in that warmth and the sheer relief of feeling Crowley again. Then Aziraphale realized that something was different. Wrong. The sensation seemed weaker than before. Not as if the love that Crowley felt for him had lessened and he didn't care as much anymore. It felt more like the source of that love had weakened. And the love was tinged with sorrow and pain.
Whatever they'd done to him, Crowley felt weak. Hurt. Fading.
But as much as it worried Aziraphale, the fact that he could sense that spark of love was good. It meant that they had a way to track his demon and rescue him. All they had to do was follow Crowley's love for Aziraphale.
30 At least some of Mr. Dowling's influence managed to leak through when Warlock was in a negative mood and the man had Opinions about boys and emotions. [ ↑ ]
31 Startling the pair quite strongly since they never noticed that the children had left the garden or how much time had passed while Anathema searched for a plan. [ ↑ ]
32 She felt obligated to act like an adult and voice of reason. Adam and his friends accepted the scolding without complaint. That didn't mean that any of Them regretted their decision or believed that it was the wrong one. It was just polite to let her pretend to be an authority figure. [ ↑ ]
33 If anyone asked a demon about the concept, they would deny it. The road to Hell, while easy to bypass, was actually paved with frozen door-to-door salesmen. But thankfully Crowley had never mentioned that to Adam. Otherwise their current plan wouldn't work. [ ↑ ]
34 Who was happy and relieved to have a plan that didn't involve electronics or magic. He really did want to help and so far, he'd been limited. [ ↑ ]
35 Too cold for short sleeves, but too hot for a jacket. Ideal for making everyone miserable. [ ↑ ]
And so they found their way into Hell. Even if the rescue party has shrunk a bit. To be fair, it would be very irresponsible to drag all the kids (and Newt) into Hell.
Chapter 9: Miracle
I know that everyone is worried about Crowley and really want him out of his current predicament. Well, good news. We're about to go and check on him.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Fire crackled and popped all around Crowley. Heat pressed on him from all sides like a physical force, intense enough that any mortal would be struggling to breathe and would quite probably be unconscious. Flames danced across the shelves as they consumed the books. Smoke and ash filled his mouth. The floor under his sore and exhausted body felt uncomfortably hot. And the tears on his face were evaporating as fast as they were falling.
The bookshop was burning around him. And somewhere his angel was trapped. He knew this fact without wondering how he knew it. But somewhere in this roaring and ravenous fire— hellfire, whispered part of him cruelly— was Aziraphale. Trapped and in danger.
He wanted to get up. He needed to get up and reach his angel. Every instinct screamed that he needed to reach Aziraphale. But Crowley couldn't move. His body ached, too exhausted to respond to his demands. And inescapable grief, guilt, and hopelessness devoured any energy that he might still possess.
His angel was probably burning and he couldn't stop it. He couldn't save him. He could barely raise his head with shaking arms.
"Get up," he whispered, trying to convince his uncooperative body to obey. "Aziraphale… needs… me."
He needed to find his angel. He needed to reach him. He needed to save him. Crowley couldn't fail him. He couldn't lose his angel.
Crowley's arms gave out, causing him to collapse. Four limbs and not a single one worked. Useless. And he didn't have the strength to try again.
A ragged sob shook his body as the flames drew nearer. He curled in tightly on himself, barely able to do that much. He couldn't find Aziraphale. He couldn't find him, let alone save him.
He closed his eyes and gave up. He surrendered to the inevitable. He knew the fire would consume him too; he didn't have the energy to prevent it. It would discorporate him. And to be honest, Crowley didn't have the strength to care anymore.
Nor did he have the strength to keep powering the spells causing the nightmarish loops. But he couldn't stop them either. His imagination and willpower were the fuel for the spells and they would continue until there was nothing left.
Hell felt uncomfortable to Adam. But in a drastically different way than Heaven. From the moment that they arrived, the Adam and his powers seemed to be reacting to his surroundings. He'd been struggling against his power all day, the excessive use of his abilities making them harder to keep contained. But something about Hell seemed to feed into his power and made him feel less in control than normal. It seemed to hum under his skin and pulse through his body. But it also made his head feel a little fuzzy, like he was back in time to the start of Nope-mageddon again.
Despite breaking his familial connection to Satan, Adam was originally the Anti-Christ and his abilities came from Hell. He was walking in the source of his strength.
Perhaps it would have been smarter for Adam to remain behind, but he didn't regret his decision. He simply decided to keep a firm hold on his powers and try not to use them until they made it back.
Unlike Adam, Dog trotted eagerly along the dim maze-like hallways. His ears were perked up and his tail wagged. While he preferred Earth, Dog was perfectly comfortable with his return to Hell.
Both of them followed Aziraphale closely, keeping quiet and cautious. It wouldn't take long to get lost down there. There were several turns and a few more staircases that led them further down. At every intersection and every window that looked into a room, the angel would pause. Aziraphale would take the time to make certain that the coast was clear before proceeding. They knew the dangers. But even if shouts and snarls echoed along the halls, they managed to avoid running into any demons.
It was a maze. A dark, damp, and uncomfortable maze that Adam couldn't possibly navigate on his own. He didn't like Hell anymore than he did Heaven. Maybe it was different in the areas meant for humans, but the parts where the angels and demons stayed made him uneasy. He could practically hear the whispers in his ears again, tempting him to give into his destiny.
But he ignored them. He thought about his friends. He thought about his family. He thought about his godparents. They all needed him to be Adam and not anyone else. As long as they found Crowley and got out quickly, everything would be fine.
He still thought the motivational posters on the walls were a bit dumb though.
"I think," whispered Aziraphale, barely breathing out the words, "that we're close."
Adam looked up. A sign over the next stairwell read "Annex." It looked no different than any of the other stairwells or hallways. But if the angel thought they were close, then he was probably right.
To The Editor
I feel it is my responsibility to once again draw attention to the continued decline of morality and the youth of today. We, as the concerned public, should be far more disturbed by the increased disrespect that the next generation displays towards all the pillars of a moral and polite society. Today it was my great misfortune to witness another clear example of that decline in ethics.
Earlier today, a group of youths with far too much free time on their hands, the same troublemakers that I have written about in previous letters, caused a minor ruckus stomping around a church. True, this behavior did not occur during a service and I did not have the opportunity to witness what sorts of mischief that they participated inside, but their demeanors did not show the proper respect and solemnity that they should demonstrate within a church.
And then sometime later when I passed the church again, another youth, not one that I am familiar with, came charging out of it. He was carrying around several colorful toys, one of which was strapped to his back, and said toys were dripping wet. Playing with toys and making a mess in a church? How can the public continue to remain silent on the moral decline of our next generation?
Personally, I blame a lack of discipline at home and the media showing inexcusable amounts of smut, filth, and violence to impressionable youths. And it would serve our community well to encourage parents of such troublesome children to spend more time setting proper boundaries and educating these youths about proper manners and respect. Their behavior is a poor reflection on their parents and the entire Tadfield community at large.
R. P. Tyler
Chairman of the Lower Tadfield Residents' Association
Crowley's love stood out in Hell, even with how weak and hurting the warm emotion felt to Aziraphale's senses. Maybe other demons might be theoretically capable of love, but few apparently embraced it. Certainly none of them shared the same unwavering love for six thousand years. There was no disguising or hiding his love among the background emotions of Hell because nothing could compare. Crowley's love shone like a beacon.
A dim and weak beacon, but one that Aziraphale followed to the low and distant corner of Hell.
The hallway was lined with thick metal doors. At least a dozen of them. The metal glowing red in places from powerful wards and sigils, demonic power practically humming through the symbols. Demonic power more aggressive and sharp-edged than what Crowley would use. There were no bars or chains, but Aziraphale could recognize a prison when he saw one.
Aziraphale shivered slightly. He didn't like Hell. He didn't like the oppressive and suffocating atmosphere. He didn't like feeling so far away from Her. And he didn't like the idea of Crowley being trapped in such a place.
Dog padded ahead, sniffing excitedly at the doors. He eventually stopped in front of one. If Adam hadn't ordered him to keep quiet, he would have barked at it.
"Did you find Uncle Crowley?" asked Adam softly, hurrying over.
His tail wagged as they joined Dog. Aziraphale carefully studied the indicated door. It was the only one without a proper latch. Only a lock. Crowley's name was on it, though written in a far older language than any still used on Earth. And the faint, but warm glow of his love shone through the thick metal.
Resting his hand on the door, Aziraphale whispered, "There you are, my dear."
He looked over the various symbols inscribed across the surface, some of them glowing evilly. Aziraphale recognized some of the components of the spells, but others hurt to stare at too long. The fragments that he recognized spoke of nightmares, fear, pain, and illusions. But even if he couldn't decipher every part of the spell woven into the locked room, Aziraphale knew that they couldn't be for anything good.
Digging into his pocket, Adam said, "I brought Wensleydale's skeleton key. It should work on this door."
And it would. The lock was only meant to open with a specific key. The one that Beelzebub kept on zir person at all times. But Adam believed that the skeleton key could open any lock and he was standing in the middle of Hell. He was meant to bring about the apocalypse on Earth, but Hell was still the source of his abilities. The boy's powers were less restrained and, outside of Fail-mageddon, they had never been as intense. He was one of the most powerful beings currently in Hell even if he was actively resisting most of his abilities at the moment. As long as Adam believed that the skeleton key would work, then it would.
"Thank you," said Aziraphale, trading his sword for the key. "If you could hold onto this, that would be helpful. Be careful with it and make sure that the door stays open. If you can stand guard, then I will go in to get Crowley.
Handing over a weapon to a child wasn't something that Aziraphale would do lightly, but he couldn't leave the boy defenseless anymore than he could leave the original Adam and Eve without protection. And Aziraphale didn't want to risk any of the spells in the room affecting the kid. It would be safer for Adam to stay in the hallway with Dog and the sword.
Relatively safer. It was Hell, after all.
"We'll keep watch," said Adam. "You take care of Uncle Crowley. We won't let anyone in and we won't let the door close with you two inside."
Aziraphale smiled at him. He knew the boy would do his best. And Adam's best was impressive. At a minimum, Aziraphale would have some warning if demons showed up.
The key slid easily into the lock without a problem. As if it was made for the purpose. The skeleton key turned with a surprisingly-loud click and he felt the spells deactivate. But the backlash of all the released power flaring out made Aziraphale wince.
That was a lot of power breaking free all at once. He knew that there were bound to be consequences.
That thought barely occurred to him before his eyes flew open and his heart leapt into his throat. Aziraphale couldn't feel him. He couldn't sense Crowley or that unwavering warmth of his love.
Gone. The word rang in his mind like a bell. Gone. Gone. Gone.
Aziraphale yanked open the unlocked door.
Physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion had worn away at the demon. Even without retaining the memories, the repeating nightmares had ground him down like a millstone. It had left him as a wispy, faded, indistinct, and paper-thin shadow of himself.
And then the door unlocked, unleashing the memories of hundreds of loops of his worst and most painful fears all at once. Too much pain and heartache hitting at once. And the demon was too fragile by that point to withstand the impact.
The backlash of the intense memories returning in an instant and the spell shattering broke what was left, sending him plummeting.
The room was dark, but Aziraphale's footsteps echoed loudly enough to tell that it was a fairly large space. He didn't like the idea of using miracles in Hell. A holy miracle would draw attention. But the sliver of light from the open door didn't reach far into the chilly room and he didn't see Crowley.
"Let there be light," he said, snapping his fingers.
Pulling down celestial energy all the way from Heaven was more difficult than it was on Earth, but a white light materialized overhead. Dark grey walls, ceiling, and floor. There were some more symbols inscribed on every surface, though none of them were glowing currently. No furniture. No windows or other doors.
And no sign of Crowley.
At least, not initially. For a brief and heartbreaking moment, Aziraphale didn't see any sign of his demon. Then he spied a faint darker patch, like the palest shadow.
He scrambled towards the faint shadow, falling to his knees as he closed his eyes and opened different eyes. While angelic and demonic senses can detect things far beyond the capabilities of human senses, Aziraphale tended not to use them because it was far too easy to See too much. An entire planet teeming with life, including six billion humans, along with power running through ley lines, background levels of love and other positive emotions, and the occasional witch, medium, or supernatural being meddling in magic, it could quickly become overwhelming. Aziraphale didn't use his more angelic senses more than necessary. But at the moment, he needed to Look properly.
And as he expected, Seeing Hell with his angelic senses wasn't exactly pleasant. There was a lot of background misery, pain, and anger that gave it a dark and oppressive feeling that hung around like smoke or fog. And even if they were no longer active, Aziraphale could See all the sigils inscribed around the room. Their potential power stood out against the dull background. But then he turned his attention down and nearly choked at what he found.
Crowley's corporeal form was long gone and his true form had been weakened and worn away. What was left might as well be made of cobwebs, the shape vague and indistinct.
Dim, cold, still, and silent. He felt fragile.
Fragile and fading. Aziraphale reached out and felt the tiny spark of demonic energy pulsing weakly. It was barely there. The tiniest fraction of what it should be. And Crowley's awareness had fallen away somewhere that Aziraphale couldn't follow. It felt wrong.
The best description that Aziraphale could come up with for what he felt was that Crowley had slipped into the supernatural equivalent of a coma. The comparison wasn't perfect, but he couldn't find a better term. He technically existed, but only just. And even the faintest signs of life that Aziraphale sensed in the comatose patient seemed to be slipping away.
He didn't know if a demon could die like this, but Aziraphale was terrified that he was about to find out.
"Crowley," he whispered in a shaking voice.
Aziraphale reached out a hand towards the faint shadow that he could only properly see when he Looked with his angelic senses. He wanted to feel skin, hair, feathers, or scales. He wanted to feel all the different textures that he'd grown to associate with Crowley. But his hands couldn't find the familiar sensations. Crowley's true form barely felt solid, like his hands could easily pass right through him.
"Crowley," he called softly, pleading with all his heart, "I need you to let me help you. I can only heal you if you let me."
That was the thing. Outside of the highest authority within their own realm, demons and angels couldn't use their powers directly on each other. Not unless their target allowed it. And that included healing.
Unless Crowley allowed Aziraphale to help him, unless he made that decision and lowered his defenses further than what even his weakened state could cause, he couldn't heal his demon. He couldn't stop him from fading before his eyes.
"Please, Crowley," he whispered. "I need you to… Let me help you. Let me in. I can't lose you." Aziraphale's voice came out strained and shaking. "What did they do to you? What did they…? Please, my dearest. I can't help you unless you let me. Please let me help."
Not a single sound or sign of life. And the faint traces of Crowley continued to weaken. It was a strain to sense him. He was fading away.
Crowley was silent. Everything was silent. Like that white and empty room, eternally and unnaturally silent. But somehow the silence was even worse. It hurt more. But in both cases, he was equally powerless to change things.
Crowley was dying.
Aziraphale didn't want to admit it, but it was the truth.
"Crowley, please… I can't lose you. Not like this." He wanted to hug the barely substantial demon close, but Aziraphale was terrified to move him. "You have to let me help. I can't… I love you, Crowley. Don't do this to me."
A soft sob shook Aziraphale's frame as tears fell. He couldn't stop what was happening. He couldn't help Crowley.
Aziraphale stiffened. That wasn't a normal voice speaking; it was a rough and quiet whisper that was felt more than heard. True angelic voices, those that did not require vocal cords to produce and not bound by the limitations of their human-shaped physical bodies, were melodious and beautiful things meant for singing about Her. Those that Fell tended to damage or lose those voices. The more fortunate ones ended up with hoarse, guttural, and rough voices that could never be raised in song again.
But at the moment, that exhausted request was the most beautiful thing that Aziraphale had ever heard.
Leaning over Crowley, he whispered frantically, "I love you. I promised that I would tell you. As many times as you want. I love you so much, Crowley. Please let me help you. I'll keep saying it. I love you, Crowley. Just let me help you. Please, I'm begging you. I need you."
Crowley didn't feel properly conscious or aware. But Aziraphale felt something stir weakly. Responding instinctively to his desperate pleading. Because if there was one thing that Aziraphale knew without a doubt, it was that Crowley would always try to help him. He would try to answer the angel's pleas. It was part of who he was. That didn't stop Aziraphale from being surprised and relieved when he felt Crowley's natural defenses lower shakily, leaving the demon vulnerable and open.
It was the demonic or angelic equivalent of tilting back his head to bare his throat, making it easier to slit if someone wanted to try it.
But it also gave Aziraphale the opening that he needed. He forced as much of his energy into his demon as possible, his miracle focused on healing and providing strength. Crowley felt so empty and dark though. It felt like Aziraphale was pouring water into a bottomless pit. Like he wasn't making any difference. But he kept going. And when it wasn't enough, Aziraphale yanked down more celestial energy from Heaven.
Pulling that much power from Heaven deep into Hell was hard. And Aziraphale couldn't risk pouring that much holiness straight into a demon. Especially one on the verge of nonexistence. But by passing it through himself first, Aziraphale could try to make it less harsh. Make it gentler. Softer. It was exhausting, but he couldn't stop.
"I love you, Crowley. I love you far more than you can imagine," he whispered. "And I love you too much to give up. Please come back to me."
And with that quiet request, Aziraphale focused harder on trying to coax life back into the demon. Then, knowing that it couldn't make things worse, he prayed silently for Her help. Not a formal request sent through the proper channels, but a private and hopeful prayer. His faith in Heaven and the other angels might have been shaken, but never his faith in Her. And perhaps She wouldn't answer directly and perhaps it was wrong to pray for the life of someone who Fell, but there was a chance that She might offer a small act of kindness. Aziraphale would accept any possible help. So he prayed silently for the strength to heal Crowley and for Crowley to have the strength to survive.
After what felt like an eternity, the balance seemed to shift. His previously-futile attempts to heal and strengthen started having an effect, no longer vanishing into a bottomless pit. Aziraphale could feel the demon finally stabilizing.
And even more encouraging, Aziraphale felt the bright and warm love blooming again, shining where it was supposed to be.
When he couldn't continue any longer, Aziraphale reluctantly ended his healing miracle. A wave of nausea, weakness, and exhaustion washed over him briefly as a form of backlash. Using that much celestial energy for a single purpose would have ended up with some rather unpleasant consequences from Heaven if he had still been welcomed among their numbers; he could easily imagine the verbal tongue-lashing from Gabriel. But Aziraphale considered it a fair trade. Crowley was alive.
Aziraphale slowly pulled his focus back towards his corporeal body and blinked open those sets of eyes. While still translucent enough that the grey floor was easily visible through him, Aziraphale could see Crowley's familiar human shape. It wasn't perfect; he was still discorporated and was a bit limited in how much he could mimic his old body. Plain black clothes and no sunglasses. But even that much demonstrated some improvement, especially when Crowley was still working his way back towards consciousness.
Now that he was paying attention to his own physical body again, Aziraphale realized that he was leaning over Crowley with his hands pressed firmly against the demon's chest. Which made sense because it felt like he'd been performing the supernatural equivalent of CPR on Crowley. But the solid feeling under his hands was reassuring; even without a body of his own, he managed to regain some stability as long as they were in Hell. Aziraphale also noticed that at some point he must have manifested his wings because white feathers framed either side of them. As if Aziraphale could protect and hide Crowley from further harm by mantling him with his wings.
But mostly Aziraphale noticed how tired he felt. Even if he didn't need to breathe, he couldn't help panting and he slumped over. His heart pounded heavily in his chest and everything felt too heavy. The strain of what he'd done was starting to set in now that the urgency of the situation had passed.
"Hng," groaned Crowley, wincing slightly and struggling to open heavy eyes.
Brushing back his hair, Aziraphale murmured, "Easy now. Take it slow."
Yellow eyes, not a hint of visible white, finally managed to open and met his gaze. Even being nearly transparent couldn't disguise the look of confusion, relief, surprise, and happiness. And the exhausted wave of love warmed Aziraphale past the chill of the room.
He'd only heard that particular tone from Crowley once before. When Aziraphale returned to Earth without a body, blind and half-deaf, to find the demon right before Armaged-Don't-Even-Think-About-It. That was the only time that he could remember Crowley saying his name with such disbelief and awe.
When Crowley tried to reach up with a clumsy and weak limb, Aziraphale caught his hand in his own. Fingers interlacing, Aziraphale pulled his hand up and pressed a few soft kisses to the web between his thumb and fingers. Then he moved slightly, resting his cheek against the back of Crowley's hand.
"Angel," he whispered, barely breathing the word. Crowley started pushing himself up weakly. "You're all right?"
Chuckling quietly in a way that could have easily tumbled into sobs, Aziraphale said, "You're asking me? What about you? What did they do to you?"
Sitting up and rubbing his head briefly with his free hand, Crowley said, "Don't know. It's all a bit jumbled." He was quiet for a few moments, eyes pressed shut. "Nightmares. Whole bunch of them. Loads of nightmares, but… real. Over and over again." His fingers tightened on Aziraphale's hand. "But they weren't real. Felt like it though. But you're here. Can't be real then. You're fine. Tickety-boo or whatever."
The way that he said it, even as the demon tried to play it off slightly, told Aziraphale plenty. The angel gently pulled Crowley closer, wings folding around them protectively. While not managing to tug the tired demon into his lap, he managed to settle things so that Crowley's back rested against Aziraphale's chest.
They sat in silence on the cool floor. He could feel Crowley shuddering occasionally, though Aziraphale couldn't be certain if it was from the cold of the room, exhaustion, stress, or possibly pain. But Crowley gradually relaxed against him, especially after Aziraphale wrapped both arms around his middle and hugged him closer.
"No matter what they made you see, it wasn't real," he murmured. "You're safe. We're both safe. Heaven and Hell won't hurt us again."
He could feel Crowley's love returning to a stable and comforting strength. Warm and bright. Aziraphale couldn't help basking in the familiar glow.
"How do you feel, my dear?" he continued after a moment. "And please be honest."
He felt Crowley shift slightly in his grip. Then he took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Tired," said Crowley finally. "Exhausted, really. Don't remember feeling this weak since… Well, not in at least six thousand years. And sore." He reached up and rubbed his chest. "Everything aches."
Tightening his grip in an apologetic hug, Aziraphale said, "Sorry. That's probably my fault. It took a fairly strong miracle to fix you up and that much celestial energy in a demon... I would have said that I got carried away, but you truly did need it. You were in a fairly wretched state when I found you…"
The uncomfortable silence that followed his words was eventually interrupted by a sudden chuckle from Crowley. His whole body shook with it.
"Oh Looooord, heal this demon?"
Aziraphale smiled despite himself and said, "Something like that."
"And you?" Crowley turned his head enough to look over his shoulder at Aziraphale. "What did Heaven do to you, angel?"
It took a moment for Aziraphale to find his voice. His throat had tightened despite his wishes, forcing him to swallow a few times. One of the problems with human-shaped corporeal bodies is that they had a tendency to develop minds of their own at the most inopportune times.
"Not much," he said finally. "They put me in a quiet room and had me write lines."
Twisting further so that he could look at the angel suspiciously, Crowley asked, "And that's it? Nothing else that you're leaving out?"
"That's it," confirmed Aziraphale, trying not to think about the suffocating silence and uninterrupted whiteness of that awful room. "They put me in a quiet room and had me write lines. At least until Adam and his friends released me."
"How…? Never mind. Are they safe?"
Nodding, Aziraphale said, "Most of them are back on Earth now, completely unharmed. Adam is currently guarding the door with Dog."
That caused Crowley to start fumbling clumsily, trying to see past Aziraphale's wings. And he finally took notice of his surroundings and cursed quietly.
"You brought the kid to Hell? We're still in Hell? You've been tossing around miracles, shining like stupid beacon for any demon in the place? What were you thinking, angel?"
"I was thinking that preventing the former Anti-Christ from doing what he wants was a fool's errand and that keeping you from nonexistence was worth the risk," said Aziraphale dryly.
Aziraphale was a little unsteady as he managed to climb to his feet, but nothing compared to Crowley. The demon's first attempt nearly resulted in a faceplant on the hard floor. The second attempt, rejecting the angel's offered hand and still attempting to stand on his own, didn't go much better. At least he tumbled backwards instead of forward. Crowley let go of his pride enough to accept Aziraphale's assistance on his third attempt to stand up and actually succeeded, though he ended up leaning quite heavily on the angel.
"Besides," Aziraphale continued, "you'll need Adam's help if you want to leave. I don't think that they left you a spare body in a broom closet around here."
Trembling weakly as the angel supported his weight, Crowley said, "Right. Good point. Don't know if Hell even has broom closets. Lead the way, angel. Let's get moving before everyone who wants to kill us shows up to the party."
36 There were so many more interesting smells to investigate and cats and mud puddles to roll in. [ ↑ ]
37 Aziraphale had learned his lesson about Heaven's assumptions regarding demons and love. The propaganda wasn't always the most accurate. [ ↑ ]
38 With one exception, assuming that both of them were in Hell when they were compared. When Adam was on Earth, the balance would shift in the boy's favor instead. [ ↑ ]
39 Though the former Anti-Christ could never be considered defenseless. [ ↑ ]
40 Humans couldn't handle seeing angels and demons' true forms. Their minds couldn't wrap around it properly to properly comprehend what they were seeing. Regardless of what their physical bodies might suggest, they didn't just look like humans with fluffy wings. Slightly better descriptions by humans who somehow managed to perceive them might include dozens of eyes, spinning wheels, fire, light that shown like a halo around them, parts of multiple animals, and (naturally) wings. That wasn't exactly accurate either, but it was at least a better attempt. To be fair, angels and demons aren't limited by physics, biology, geometry, or logic. After all, they were created long before those concepts came into existence.
So Crowley's true form didn't look like a red-haired man-shaped being with black wings nor a giant serpent. Normally he tended to reflect that appearance even without his physical body, but that was due to having the same body for six thousand years and finding hands and opposable thumbs to be far more useful than extra eyes and a dark core of crackling demonic energy. But without a physical body and unable to consciously hold onto a familiar shape, his true form had slipped back into something less comprehensible to the human mind. [ ↑ ]
41 If you were paying attention to the footnotes earlier, then you probably remember. It's what is sometimes referred to as "foreshadowing." [ ↑ ]
And so they have found Crowley. That's the good news. Unfortunately, they still have to make it back out… But what are the chances of that going badly?
Chapter 10: Hallways
I'm so glad that everyone enjoyed that last chapter so much. Aziraphale and Crowley have reunited and that's just awesome. Now they just have to figure out how to get out of Hell before things go wrong.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He was alive. His angel was alive. Aziraphale was safe and alive. That thought pulsed through Crowley's exhausted and weak body.
His mind felt too crowded. Overstuffed with hundreds of images of death and destruction. Crowley couldn't seem to banish the vivid images for Aziraphale dying in a variety of ways.
Cursed blades in the hands of demons or celestial ones held by other angels, the weapons driven deep into his chest and his true form. Hellfire burning the angel to ash, leaving not even a trace behind. Aziraphale, freshly Fallen because Crowley accidentally pushed him over that thin line and weeping because he couldn't handle the loss of Her love, choosing to pour holy water down his throat before Crowley could stop him. Countless different deaths. And every time, it was Crowley's fault. Aziraphale kept dying in horrible ways because of him and Crowley could never stop it.
They weren't real though. Crowley knew those memories were fake. But they seemed so real. Everything that he saw and heard seemed completely vivid and authentic. Everything felt like reality. Even the scents were strong enough to sear into his mind. But it was his imagination feeding into the nightmarish scenarios. They weren't real and his angel was alive.
But as long as they remained in Hell, Aziraphale would be in danger. As would Adam. They needed to get back to Earth as quickly as possible. Even if the angel was supporting most of his weight, his arm wrapped around the demon's middle, Crowley did his best to stumble urgently towards the door.
As soon as they slipped out of the room, an excited whisper of "Uncle Crowley" barely reached him before a boy slammed into him in the gentlest version of a tackle. It was still hard enough to nearly knock the demon back off his feet. But both Adam and Aziraphale managed to keep him upright. Mostly by the two of them hugging their arms around him.
"Miss me?" he asked quietly.
Nodding even as he looked up at him, Adam said, "You didn't come to my birthday. I was worried."
"Sorry we missed it. We'll make it up to you."
Breaking off the hug, Adam gave him a quick inspection and said, "You look more like a ghost than Uncle Aziraphale did when we found him. You're almost completely see-through."
"That's what happens when you're missing a body." He wobbled tiredly on his feet. "Aziraphale says that you can help me out with that."
"I can do it. Just not as fast as when Armaged-Don't was happening. I have to concentrate more and it takes longer."
"It did take a while," said Aziraphale. "But Adam can create you a new physical body."
Crowley smiled tiredly at both of them. He was pretty certain that none of the prophecies about the Anti-Christ mentioned the kid being nice enough to help give bodies to rebellious angels and demons. But it certainly made things more convenient.
"Great. That's perfect." Crowley tried to adjust his grip on Aziraphale to steady himself. "But if it takes a while, let's wait until we get closer to our escape instead of lingering here. The angel pretty much put up a giant sign announcing we're down here. It'll be safer closer to Earth."
Not to mention that if things went wrong, it would be easier to shove Aziraphale and Adam to safety if they were near an exit.
Frowning thoughtfully, Aziraphale said slowly, "That might be a tad difficult. I'm afraid that I didn't pay particularly close attention to the route down here from our improvised entrance."
"I was distracted. And there were so many different turns and stairs. I know that we came in near a poster prohibiting the act of licking walls…"
"Well, how did you find me down here, angel?"
"I could follow you anywhere," he said gently, pulling Crowley a little closer. "Your love is too bright and warm to ignore, my dear. And I've missed sensing it so much."
Staring up at the two of them, Adam said, "If you want to kiss, can you make it quick? I thought we were in a hurry."
A large amount of celestial energy being pulled deep into the heart of Hell was not something that could go unnoticed. Not that much power and not for such a prolonged period of time. No demon in Hell could miss it. Like a spotlight in a pitch-black cave.
But unlike a spotlight, angels were also dangerous and tended to smite demons when they encountered them. Especially when in a tetchy mood, which anyone wielding that much power in Hell probably was.
So while the local population might have realized that there was an intruder and could likely track the angel down to their general location if they put the effort into the task, none of them were particularly eager to be the first. Running into the lurking angel alone would almost certainly be risky. They needed numbers on their side to overwhelm their opponent or the demon would have to be particularly powerful to ensure a guaranteed victory. And the more powerful demon would still likely delegate the task to someone with a lower rank as a disposable sacrifice to try wearing down the angel first. Which was why most demons were trying to find decent excuses to keep their distance for the moment.
Hastur's prepared excuse for not instantly charging in to find and attack an angel who was wielding that much power was that he was trying to uncover how they got into Hell in the first place. It was a good excuse. It made sense and sounded important enough to warrant him not putting himself in the direct path of an angel strong enough or reckless enough to charge into Hell. It was the type of excuse that would cause Beelzebub to nod zir head and wave him along.
That didn't mean that Hastur expected to actually find anything.
He stared at a narrow stairwell that he knew didn't used to be there. Granted, it wasn't the most popular corner of Hell. Not many demons used this corridor, but enough did that Hastur was relatively familiar with the area. He would have noticed a set of stairs at some point.
Investigating these stairs was an equally good excuse to keep away from the angel wandering around on a lower level.
Hastur didn't really know what he expected to find at the top. He didn't have the time or imagination to really contemplate the possibilities. But he found himself emerging in a forest with several unconscious humans scattered around. Including several smaller ones.
Which Hastur found very interesting. Younger humans tended to be tender and juicy. He didn't often find himself on Earth without a specific assignment to tempt, which meant he didn't get to indulge himself as often. But he was feeling a bit peckish and no one would really miss a half-grown human if they disappeared. It was just a quick snack compared to a room full of telemarketers. The opportunity was too tempting.
The brief plan to nibble on the tasty-looking boy with the glasses was quickly derailed when touching the child's arm sent a pain jolting through the demon like an electric shock. Hastur snarled and cursed, waving the offending appendage in the air. Only then did he notice the twin feathers around the boy's neck. A protective charm. Not enough to technically stop Hastur if he put in the effort, but still an annoyance. And he could guess who was responsible.
"Crawly," he growled, "and his stupid angel."
A smarter demon might start making the connection. A smarter demon might realize that if Crowley and Aziraphale were connected to the unconscious humans lurking outside a new entrance to Hell, then Aziraphale was probably the invading angel. A smarter demon would then take this information to Beelzebub to earn zir favor.
But Hastur wasn't the smartest demon. Nor was he the most observant. Otherwise he would have noticed the arrival of a dark-haired boy. Or perhaps he wouldn't have noticed even if he was someone more observant. This particular boy had a talent for being ignored.
Regardless, Hastur didn't notice the arrival of the dark-haired boy. He had no clue until a sharp voice shouted "Poo Man" and a hardback book on theology slammed into the demon's stomach when he turned, driving the air out of him and leaving Hastur hunched over. And then, before he could recover enough to react, the book hit his face and caused him to stumble back.
And by stumbling back, Hastur tripped and fell backwards down the narrow stairwell into Hell.
If Hastur could have watched the scene longer, he would have seen the boy shrug off his backpack, slide the book back inside, and leave the backpack next to a tree. Then he might have heard the faint sounds of a song coming from the earbuds dangling from his pocket. A simple and yet powerful beat, the sound infectious enough that most people would instinctively start stomping and clapping along.
"Buddy you're a boy,
Make a big noise playing in the street,
Gonna be a big man someday,
You got blood in your face, big disgrace,
Kicking your can all over the place.
Singing we will, we will rock you,
We will, we will rock you."
But Hastur didn't notice any of that nor did he see Warlock when he marched straight into Hell, fully prepared to threaten any other demon he encountered into giving him directions if necessary. Hastur didn't witness these events because he fell down the stairwell, the impact broke his physical body's neck. He'd discorporated instantly. While Warlock continued unhindered, Hastur was busy cursing over the amount of paperwork that he would need to fill out in order to claim a new body.
Hell, in many ways, was a dark, damp, and confusing maze. Especially when starting from some distant corner than Crowley didn't recognize and searching for a stairwell that hadn't been there until an hour or two ago. But Adam had commanded Dog to follow the trail back and the hellhound was doing his best to obey.
It was slow going. Even with what the angel did to help him, filling the demon with enough celestial energy to restore his strength, Crowley wasn't close to back to normal. Exhaustion weighed him down and everything ached. He needed rest. And yet he kept putting one unsteady foot in front of the other, leaning heavily on Aziraphale whenever his balance suffered. His angel was in better shape, but he wasn't hiding his weariness. He would reach out with one hand and steady himself with the wall.
But they were moving. Slow and steady, they crept their way along the dim corridor. Adam kept close to them. His expression was serious. Or at least as serious as the boy could look. And Dog would sniff thoroughly at each intersection, trying to find the scent to lead them back to Earth. Crowley wasn't certain if the little hellhound was even going the right way. But it was their best lead and at least they were working their way upwards.
When Crowley stumbled for the third time in less than five minutes, cursing quietly under his breath, Aziraphale paused and asked, "Are you all right? Do you need to rest?"
"Yes," he admitted. "But we can't. Longer we're here, the more likely someone will show up."
Pausing against another damp and moldy wall, Aziraphale said, "Take a moment. If you collapse, that won't help anything."
Crowley wanted to argue. They needed to keep moving. But even if Crowley was the one struggling to stay upright, Aziraphale was panting quietly as he braced himself. Healing the demon took more out of him than his angel wanted to admit. Aziraphale needed to catch his breath just as much.
"Maybe just a minute then," he said, trying not to slump bonelessly as he breathed out the words.
Crowley let his head lean towards the angel beside him. He inhaled the familiar and comforting scent. Aziraphale was alive and safe. He needed that reassurance. His angel's scent, the feeling of his arm wrapped around supportively, and even the sounds of him panting tiredly all provided evidence that Aziraphale was there. He needed to remember what was real.
His angel wasn't dead. He hadn't lost Aziraphale. None of that actually happened.
The quiet growl from Dog gave them only a few seconds of warning before a door opened and a relatively low-level demon came out of the room. Not one that that Crowley actually recognized, though the beady rodent eyes and the rat-like teeth should have been fairly memorable.
For a brief moment, no one moved. They simply stared at each other in shock, the silence strong enough to hear a pin drop. Then the scruffy demon decided that she could handle the two exhausted figures and that the reward was worth risk. Grimy claw-like hands grabbed Crowley and ripped him away from the others, faster than the anyone else could react.
She twisted him around, arm wrapping around Crowley's neck in case it wasn't obvious that she was taking him hostage. Needle-like claws dug into him as she hissed in his ear.
"Not so invincible now. Maybe I'll get a commendation for—"
Her fantasies of advancement evaporated as the demon made the mistake of focusing solely on her captive, the traitor who was immune to holy water. She inadvertently ignored the others and quickly paid the price.
Dog sank his fangs into her leg and yanked her off her feet, the small creature using his inherent strength as a hellhound. Adam managed to catch Crowley before he collapsed to the ground. She shoved herself back to her feet, hissing furiously and pointy nose twitching. But then Aziraphale was there.
Flaming sword swinging and cold rage etched on his face, he was the very definition of an avenging angel. One who had just seen someone dear to him threatened once too often. The demon barely dove out of the way of a vicious slash. Another attack forced her to stagger further back. A section of her threadbare sleeve was scorched by the flames of his weapon.
"You should be running," said Aziraphale coldly.
For once in her existence, the demon made a rational decision. She took the advice and broke into a run. Aziraphale glared until she turned a corner. As soon as she was out of sight, he dropped the sword and stumbled over to Crowley and Adam.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, looking Crowley over frantically. "I'm so sorry. Did she hurt you?"
"I'm fine." Crowley let Adam pass him back to the angel to support. "She didn't get the chance."
Breathing out a sigh of relief, he murmured, "Oh, thank goodness." Aziraphale tried to steady the demon, but he was wobbling almost as badly from weariness. "I didn't know what she might do to you."
Wishing that he had his sunglasses to hide behind, Crowley said, "Not a thing, angel. You scared her off. Very impressive." He tightened his fingers protectively into the angel's coat. "But break time's over. We've got to move."
"You sure?" asked Adam, eyes wide and body tense. "Neither of you look good. You're all wobbly and Uncle Crowley still looks see-through."
"It's all right." Aziraphale smiled reassuringly. "We'll be fine once we make it home. But Crowley is right. We've lingered too long."
As soon as the boy set foot in Hell, he knew. How could he not? Even if the child tried to shatter the bond between them, the boy had entered his domain. And with an angel, no less. Even if the boy tried to bury and suppress his abilities, those powers originally came from Hell. There was no way that he could miss the arrival of the Anti-Christ.
The boy was strong, but not unstoppable. On Earth, fully embracing his powers and his fate, there were no limits to what he could do. Reality would bow to the child's will. But the boy was in Hell now and that's where he held dominion. And no one could out-power him on his own domain.
But it offered a unique opportunity. Perhaps the boy could be convinced to accept his purpose. A brief heart-to-heart, so to speak. Away from the distractions of Earth. He turned the possibility over in his mind. And if reason didn't work, then he would force the boy into fulfilling his role as the Anti-Christ.
Defeating Heaven's forces and destroying Earth in the process was not something that he would give up easily. He put in plenty of prep work that he refused to allow to go to waste. Large amounts of prep work. But you know what they say.
The devil is in the details.
"I think we made a wrong turn somewhere."
"You think, angel?"
Crowley couldn't keep the slight edge and anxiety from his voice. They'd ended up in a wider corridor at some point, one with higher ceilings. That didn't mean the condition of the hallway was any better though. There were still leaks dripping down and the fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered the exact same way they did in the narrow hallways. But it did mean that this part of Hell was meant to have more traffic. They should have been crowded. Demons should have been pressed against each other as they shoved their way past each other. But there was no one there and hadn't been since their one encounter. And that was setting off alarms in his mind.
If he'd looked more closely, he might have noticed that the doors to various rooms were open just a crack. The rooms were packed full while leaving the hallways empty. They knew by now what was coming and the demons were smart enough to keep out of the way. But that didn't mean they wouldn't watch.
"Well, which way should we go?" asked Aziraphale. "I don't think Dog can guide us any further."
Looking down at his loyal pet, Adam said, "He tried his best. Everything probably just smells the same down here. It isn't his fault."
"I know. But we still need to pick a direction."
They'd managed to end up at a four-way intersection of the hallways. And due to the wider corridors and higher ceilings, the area ended up with the open space of a decent-sized room. Crowley didn't like it. It almost resembled an indoor version of a crossroad and demons liked lurking at crossroads almost as much as they did in graveyards. Not to mention that someone could come after them from four different directions.
"Does any of this look familiar, Crowley?" asked Aziraphale.
Shaking his head slowly, he said, "Maybe? I mostly stuck to the same areas. Didn't do much exploring. Spent all my time on Earth, remember?" Crowley peered tiredly at their options. "Would it be too much for them to add the room numbers where we could see them?"
"Or a map?" added Adam.
Crowley inhaled deeply, trying to detect the scent of anything other than damp mold and faint traces of sulfur. He couldn't direct them to their unknown secret entrance since he didn't have a clue where it might be. But he hoped that he could pick up something. Perhaps a scent to direct him towards more familiar grounds or even traces of Earth to hint at a way out. It was the only idea that he could come up with.
But as he breathed in the various scents, Crowley stiffened. Among the normal mixture of Hell was something strong. Strong, overwhelming, and intense. He couldn't move or think for a moment. His mind was too consumed by what he detected. He knew the scent. He remembered it. Crowley last encountered it on the tarmac of the airfield.
"Run," he whispered, struggling to get the words past his mounting terror. "We need to run."
Then it hit him with the force of a speeding train. An aura of power that made Crowley nearly collapse, only Aziraphale's arm keeping him vertical. The oppressive feeling pressed down on him, suffocating and clinging to him. Crowley dangled limply in his angel's grip, only able to shudder weakly. The crushing presence was too powerful. He didn't have the strength to resist it.
"Crowley?" asked Aziraphale worriedly. "What's wrong?"
He couldn't force his voice to cooperate. Crowley could barely get his wobbly legs under him again. But that didn't matter. The answer came walking down one of the hallways.
He didn't look the same as he did on the day of Fail-mageddon; his physical form had been a combination of his desire to be especially intimidating for the occasion and Adam's mental image of what the devil should look like. Batwings were considered traditional, though the Fallen's wings were nearly indistinguishable from an angel's in style.
Today, he was going for subtle. No wings on display at the moment, feathered nor bat-like. His corporeal body resembled a tall man with curly black hair and sharp cheekbones. He wore maroon cardigan and sensible shoes rather than something more fashionable or intimidating. He wanted to appear approachable and friendly, like the father from 1950's sitcom. But his appearance did nothing to hide the waves of power and influence radiating off him.
He could disguise himself however he wished. It didn't change anything. He couldn't hide his power, especially in the middle of Hell. In the very center of his realm.
Satan had found them.
"Well, isn't this an unexpected and interesting group of visitors," said Satan, a predatory smirk on his face. "A pair of traitors who somehow gained a few minor immunities and my poor neglected son who threw a temper tantrum rather than obey his father."
"You're not my dad." Adam, now recognizing the smaller form for who he was, continued firmly, "You never were. And you're not allowed to hurt Uncle Aziraphale or Uncle Crowley. I won't let you."
The boy tried to take a step forward, but the angel blocked him with his sword arm. Aziraphale stared wide-eyed at Satan, but did his best to keep Crowley on his feet and to protect Adam. But they were outmatched. Impossibly outmatched. And Aziraphale knew it. Crowley could feel him shivering faintly.
"There's no reason to be like that, child. You were created for a specific purpose," said Satan pleasantly. "It is your destiny. You might deny any relation to me, but you cannot deny your true role. Fighting it is futile and I don't want to see you suffer if you don't need to. Wouldn't it be better to embrace a future where you rule Earth and live up to your true potential? Isn't it better than constantly suppressing your powers? And yes, I may not have been present in your life in the past. But it was necessary. And now we have the chance to build a future together. One that fulfills both of our visions for something better."
His voice came out silky smooth and sweet. Like spun honey. But it wasn't just his tone. Satan laced his words with power, making his words unnaturally compelling and persuasive. His own form of temptation.
And it was very effective. Adam was swaying faintly on his feet and blinking groggily, as if he was having trouble focusing. Even Crowley could barely resist the nearly-hypnotic quality to his words and not only was he aware of what Satan was doing, but he wasn't even directing it at Crowley specifically. The devil's influence was nearly impossible to deny when Crowley was already weak. And especially in Hell and at such close range to Satan.
Crowley was a demon. And being a demon meant that Satan could compel a certain amount of obedience to his desires. He could only resist so much.
"I don't want that," said Adam slowly, as if it was difficult to force the words out. "And you can't make me."
Grinning sharply, Satan said, "You do want it. You know that it is what you were meant for. You can feel it, child. And I know you're smart enough not to deny me again. Such foolish and childish stubbornness has consequences."
"No," said Adam, gritting his teeth. "I told you before. I'm not helping end the world. You can't make me be the Anti-Christ. You can't make me do anything."
Other demons were starting to appear in the other corridors, coming out of their hiding places. Not many. Not enough to crowd the wider hallways, but there were witnesses. They remained far enough back not to get involved or risk ending up collateral damage. They weren't foolish, after all. But they were watching. Waiting. Enjoying the show.
"Don't listen to him, Adam." Aziraphale's voice somehow remained steady despite everything. "You're doing wonderfully."
The sharp expression on Satan's face was turning deadly. Nearly murderous. And his corporeal form seemed a little less human. A little taller and broader, eyes gleaming a little brighter, teeth a little pointier and more like fangs, and nails turning into talons. As if it couldn't contain him anymore and Satan was about to burst out of the seams.
And Crowley wasn't the only one who noticed the gradual transformation. He could feel the tension growing in Aziraphale with every passing second. His angel was glancing between the devil in front of them and the increasingly uncertain boy. And he knew exactly what he was thinking. Crowley could tell from how Aziraphale squared his shoulders and tightened his grip on his sword.
Crowley could see the future clearly enough that he should start carrying around a crystal ball. His angel was planning something brave, but foolhardy. And Satan was on the verge of losing his temper. The realization of what was about to happen resulted in a heavy dread settling deep in Crowley's core.
"On Earth, you may be the most powerful force," growled Satan, starting to resemble a gargoyle even with his wings hidden. "But you are in Hell. You were created here. This place is the source of your powers. Perhaps on Earth you are capable of refusing me, but you are currently within Hell. In the very heart of my dominion. I rule over all of Hell and command those who belong to it. And within my domain, none can resist my will." He shifted slightly, the now-barely-human-shaped figure large enough now to loom over them. "You tried breaking away and you may not be my son, but you will always belong to Hell, child. You belong to me. And I order you to begin Armageddon once more."
Shaking under the power of the influence that even Crowley was half-suffocating from, Adam said, "N-no. I won't."
Several things happened in the same moment. The only way to truly appreciate all the events is to take a step back and slow them down.
Eyes flashing with fury at the defiance, Satan fully abandoned the human façade for something larger and stronger as he lunged at Adam. And in that same instant, Aziraphale let go of Crowley in order to put himself defensively in front of the boy. Protecting humanity was always his role and Adam was his godson. He did not regret his choice. He raised his sword and his body braced for impact. Ready to risk himself to keep the child safe.
But Crowley did not stand idly by while all of this was happening.
There was no rational thought or carefully reasoning. There was no time for such niceties. The horrors of countless nightmarish loops ensured that Crowley's entire being screamed he couldn't let Aziraphale die again and he acted instinctively. In the same instant that Satan lunged and the angel moved to block him, Crowley summoned a tiny spark of strength buried within and threw himself sideways hard enough to knock both Aziraphale and Adam out of the way.
He didn't have a chance to feel any relief. Pain stabbed through Crowley as a clawed hand hit and slammed his aching body down. The impact drove a short and strangled yelp of agony out of him. Instinctively prying at the talons digging into his translucent chest, the only reason that didn't immediately pass out from shock and blood loss was the lack of a physical body. But that didn't mean it was good to have thick demonic claws stabbing deep wounds through him as Satan loomed over him, nearly twice as large as he started as he pinned Crowley to the ground.
Someone was screaming his name. It took far too long to notice past the pain and his struggles to remain conscious. Aziraphale was shouting in horror. Satan was talking and taunting, Dog was growling and whining, and Aziraphale was calling his name.
He couldn't pay proper attention though. He found himself a little distracted. He desperately wanted to pry Satan's talons out of him, Crowley's arms shaking with the effort. His hands scrambled and fought to pull them out. He wasn't strong enough though. He wasn't even certain that Satan noticed his attempts. The devil wasn't looking down at him; he was glaring towards Aziraphale and Adam.
Which was a little rude in Crowley's opinion, but he couldn't seem to scream in pain, let alone complain about the situation. But it could have been worse. Maybe Satan was literally digging talons into Crowley, without even a corporeal form to shield him from the damage. Maybe he was in agony and exhausted, helpless to make it stop. And maybe there was no hope of escape or survival. Crowley was quite aware that he'd essentially doomed himself.
And yet he didn't regret his impulsive act. No matter how sharp the pain stabbing deep into his core, it was fine.
Aziraphale was alive. And he was even relatively safe at the moment; Satan couldn't reach him without prying his talons out of Crowley first and letting him go. After over a thousand visions of death, Crowley managed to save him this time. He didn't fail. He didn't lose his angel. Regardless of what happened next, which Crowley suspected would be his own demise, he could at least pretend that Aziraphale had a chance now.
42 As well as Dog, but Crowley could be excused for not worrying about the hellhound overly much. [ ↑ ]
43 Agnes Nutter did, but her prophecies on the topic had long since burned to ash. Which she also predicted. [ ↑ ]
44 That description didn't actually narrow down a location as much as Aziraphale might have believed. There were thousands of posters scattered throughout Hell that forbid demons from licking walls. Most demons were ignorant of who started it up, but there was a point in the 1300s when it was rumored that if a demon could absorb enough of Hell, they would have some resistance to the pain of consecrated ground. And somehow that translated to hundreds of demons trying to lick the walls in an attempt to gain that minor immunity. It didn't actually work, but the sight of dozens of demons with their tongues pressed against the walls while Beelzebub just rolled zir eyes during Crowley's next report made starting the rumor completely worth it. [ ↑ ]
45 They would call it Sloth, but it was honestly just self-preservation. [ ↑ ]
46 With a lovely inscribed message from "Brother Francis." [ ↑ ]
47 Regardless of whether or not someone was dancing on the head of the theoretical pin in question. [ ↑ ]
48 If he resembled the type of person who could easily become an actor and play roles such as a detective or a magic-wielding superhero, that was completely coincidental. [ ↑ ]
49 As mentioned in a previous footnote near the beginning, angels and demons cannot use their powers directly on each other without permission except a particularly powerful one in a position of high authority being able to influence those under their command and only within their own domain. In this case, Satan being able to exert his will and power over those he rules over in Hell. Once again, foreshadowing at work. [ ↑ ]
And yes, in case you're wondering from the reference with the footnote, Satan's human-looking corporeal form was indeed based on Benedict Cumberbatch since that's who voiced him in the miniseries. I couldn't resist.
Chapter 11: Water Guns
I have definitely been enjoying everyone's reactions to this story. It seems like everyone is having fun with it, even when I make my readers anxious and worried about the characters. And I've certainly been looking forward to this part of the plot.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Crowley," shouted Aziraphale as he straightened, still off-balanced from when the demon pushed him.
He pushed Aziraphale. Crowley pushed him out of the way. He saved him from Satan. Crowley protected him. It's Aziraphale's fault.
The thoughts echoed through his mind as the angel stared in horror at Crowley flat on his back, Satan pinning him in place with talons embedded in the demon's chest. Crowley, hands fumbling weakly at the demon looming over him. Crowley, gasping in pain out of habit rather than need for air. Crowley, hurt because of Aziraphale.
Aziraphale barely grabbed Adam's arm and stopped him from charging forward. Dog snapped and barked fiercely even as he cringed, ears flat to his head. The hellhound and the flaming sword felt like inadequate protection. It wasn't enough. Not against Satan.
He'd abandoned the brief attempt to look human. The wider hallways didn't seem like enough, the devil now at least twice as large as any mortal man. Unnaturally muscular limbs and a broad chest made his proportions more like a grotesque gargoyle than human. His skin tone was as red as his now-missing cardigan. No bat-like wings, but eyes flickering like flames and numerous black horns jutting from his skull like a crown.
But Aziraphale's eyes kept falling to the taloned hand wide enough to cover Crowley's chest. Black claws digging into the translucent demon. Crowley couldn't discorporate from the damage. There was no physical body. Satan could easily destroy him.
"As I was saying," continued Satan, "you don't have much choice, boy. You will do as I command because you have no other option."
Adam's breathing was shaking and he swayed faintly, but he let Aziraphale pull him back. The angel held his sword between them and the devil. Even knowing how outmatched he was, Aziraphale had to try. He needed to keep Adam safe. The boy needed to be protected and Crowley needed to be saved. Aziraphale tried to focus on those goals rather than who was looming over them.
"He does have a choice," said Aziraphale. "Adam is human and humanity possess free will. That's the whole point. He's already chosen not to destroy the world." Trying to keep his voice steady, he said, "Armageddon has failed. There's no reason to go after Adam now. And there's no need to harm Crowley further. Wouldn't it be better for everyone if we all went our separate ways and pretend this never happened?"
He didn't truly expect Satan to accept the offer. Aziraphale wasn't quite that foolish. He was mostly trying to give Adam reassurance and boost his confidence. But that didn't mean that he enjoyed Satan's dark and cruel laughter.
"I won't do it." Adam's voice came out weak and uncertain. "I won't help you."
"You hear the whispers, telling you to embrace your purpose," said Satan, baring his fangs in a way that might charitably be described as a grin. "How long do you think you can deny it? Resisting me means tapping into your powers. It means accepting your role as the Anti-Christ in order to have the strength to try. Don't you understand, little boy? Whether you fight or give in doesn't matter. Either way will end with you succumbing. Either way will lead to you starting Armageddon once more."
Adam shook his head, but there was something wrong with him. His expression strained and scared, he kept squeezing his eyes shut. There was an internal struggle that Aziraphale couldn't fix.
The braver demons who lingered down the hallways or peered from doorways were watching with vicious grins. As eager as they were at the execution. They knew what was coming. They wanted to see Aziraphale and Crowley perish and to see Adam's will collapse.
Reaching slowly towards the boy with the clawed hand not currently buried in Crowley's chest, Satan said, "Just give in and start the Apocalypse like an obedient child and maybe I will let you rule one little corner afterwards."
Aziraphale, when given enough time to plan and prepare, was a clever and capable opponent who could figure out how to handle numerous problems. He deciphered prophecies, arranged to trade places to avoid executions, and survived six thousand years on Earth through numerous wars. In the right circumstances, Aziraphale could be soft and strong at the same time.
But these were not those circumstances. He was too tired, too worn out, and too worried about the boy under his care and Crowley. When Satan reached towards Adam, he didn't take the time to consider the best way to handle it. Aziraphale dashed forward, swinging his sword down and slicing across the devil's palm.
The snarl of pain felt deeply satisfying. But it was short-lived. With blinding speed, Satan lashed out and backhanded Aziraphale. The angel slammed into the wall hard enough to crack the dry wall, pain exploding through his new corporeal body. Then he crumbled.
The strained and choked sound broke through the angel's scrambled mind as he struggled to raise his head. Crowley. The demon managed to call out weakly despite the talons in him. Even if he couldn't finish the name.
Pushing himself slightly up on an elbow, a sharp spike of pain made Aziraphale hiss. Something definitely broke with that impact. Even with his exhaustion and the difficulty dragging celestial energy into the heart of Hell, Aziraphale directed a little miracle to heal the damage. He wasn't going to be moving much otherwise.
But as he tried to convince ribs to knit together and what felt like a concussion to ease, Aziraphale made a grave realization. With him temporarily disabled and Crowley trapped in place, who would help Adam?
The whispers didn't qualify as whispers anymore; they were practically screams in his mind that kept demanding for Adam to change the world, improve it, conquer it. Adam couldn't block it out. He couldn't keep out the voices in his head commanding that he destroy everything any more than he could stop his breathing from hitching or his heartbeat from pounding in his ears.
There was a weight on him. Not a physical one. But Adam could feel it wrapped around him, pushing down and squeezing tight. Adam could feel it suffocating him. He could feel Satan crushing him beneath his will. It made him feel small and weak, something that the former Anti-Christ didn't feel to this extent even during the worst of the Apoca-Not.
Adam might be a strong-willed and determined thirteen-year-old, but Satan had several thousand years on him and the home field advantage.
Gritting his teeth, Adam tried to stare back at Satan with the same unwavering certainty that he used to banish the devil from Earth two years ago. A bluff, but one that he hoped wouldn't be called out. Aziraphale and Crowley were hurt and Dog was cringing at his side. Adam was on his own this time.
Ignore the voices. Ignore Satan's words. Just be Adam, not the Anti-Christ.
It would be easier if his friends were with him this time too. Pepper, Wensleydale, Brian…
"Give in," ordered Satan. "You cannot resist. Not truly. I created you, boy. And you were created for a single purpose that you cannot deny. I grow tired of your childish tantrums. You are of Hell and must obey. You have no choice, child. Give in and embrace your destiny. Surrender to me."
Adam could feel the pressure increasing, suffocating him. He could feel Satan pushing him. And Adam could feel himself buckling under the weight of the devil's will.
He didn't want this. Adam didn't want any of this.
"You will obey, child. You were made to bring about the end. You are that purpose. Your existence has no other reason. You are simply a catalyst. A tool." Each word added to the suffocating weight. "You are an extension of my will and nothing more. What I want, you shall fulfill. And I desire the end of the world and all of Heaven slaughtered beneath Hell's blades. Stop causing trouble and wasting everyone's time."
He didn't want this… He didn't want to end the world… Adam didn't want this…
The crushing pressure nearly choked him. His head swam. He couldn't focus. And he couldn't block it out. He couldn't even try to cover his ears. Everything was too much and too loud.
"Start the Apocalypse, child. You are the Anti-Christ. You have no other purpose."
He didn't want this… He didn't… want…
…Maybe he should…?
"Don't you listen to him. You listen to me."
The voice cut through the tension and pressure, startling everyone. It startled Adam out of the near trance. It startled Satan out of his attempt to impose his will on the boy. It startled the injured Crowley and Aziraphale, both from the abruptness and the familiarity of the voice. And it startled the handful of demons lingering in the surrounding corridors to watch, none of them noticing the dark-haired boy concentrating so hard on being ignored.
At least, they didn't notice until he spoke and marched right over to Adam. Warlock took up position next to him, apparently unconcerned by the stares.
"You aren't part of that dumb destiny anymore," continued Warlock. "We pick who we want to be and destiny can just shut up already. And they can't make you do anything and he's just mad about it." He glared at Satan towering over them. "That's why he's trying to be a jerk. Because he can't do anything to end the world without help. Practically useless, isn't he?"
Eyes burning bright, Satan stared back and asked, "And who do you think you are, walking into Hell and speaking to me like that? Who would dare to be that arrogant or that foolhardy?"
"I am the Adversary," he recited, stepping forward.
As Warlock slowly approached the devil, it gave Adam a view of the colorful object slung across his back and he realized what the dark-haired boy had in mind. Adam also saw how Aziraphale was covering his mouth in shock and even from his awkward position pinned to the ground, Crowley's wide-eyed stare never left the new arrival.
"I am the Destroyer of Kings. I am the Angel of the Bottomless Pit. I am the Great Beast that is called Dragon. I am the Prince of the World and of Hell. I am the Father of Lies. I am Warlock Dowling. I am the Anti-Christ, the one who will lead Hell's armies to slaughter my enemies."
His voice grew stronger and more confident with every word. As if he was believing it more with every title that Warlock claimed and made his own. He was wrapping himself in the destiny that Adam spent so long rejecting.
Well, Warlock was raised for the role. If he wanted the power and thought he could be the Anti-Christ without destroying the world, he was welcome to the job.
"I am Warlock Dowling, the Anti-Christ," he said firmly. "Now let go of my nanny."
If you tell a child the same thing for a decade, he will internalize the message at least on some level. He'll believe it. It'll become part of his identity. Warlock was raised with the twin beliefs that he should love and cherish all living things and that he would someday crush his enemies beneath his heel. Combine those two opposing viewpoints together and what do you get?
Someone who cares deeply for those who are important to him and who is viciously protective of those people.
Warlock marched into Hell, stared down the devil, declared himself as the Anti-Christ, and demanded the release of the demon pinned to the ground. And he didn't even hesitate. Anyone in the immediate vicinity could feel the cold fury and aggression radiating off the boy.
Though if asked, Aziraphale would describe the glow of love instead as the stunned angel managed to sit up.
Satan's confused expression was almost funny to the boy. He could only stare through the entire speech, his mouth working soundlessly a few times. The devil being at a loss for words was truly a rare sight.
"Uh, no," said Satan finally, blinking a couple times. "No, you're— you're not the Anti-Christ." Pointing towards Adam, he said, "He is."
Taking a step forward so that the two boys were standing side-by-side again, Adam said, "I'm not your son or the Anti-Christ. I told you two years ago." Adam sounded sturdier now. "If I can make you never my dad, then he can decide to be the Anti-Christ instead. Sounds fair to me."
The earbuds dangling out of his pocket shouldn't have been strong enough to make much noise. They shouldn't be loud enough to hear the music clearly. But Warlock's iPod played and everyone heard.
"We're not gonna take it.
No, we ain't gonna take it.
We're not gonna take it anymore."
"You are not the Anti-Christ," repeated Satan. "And even if you were, you have no right to demand anything."
Shrugging, Warlock said, "Believe what you want. But I'm leaving with my nanny and gardener. And Adam and his Dog are coming with us. You're letting them go."
"And if I don't?" asked Satan, still staring the down the boy for his arrogance.
The boy didn't even flinch.
"We've got the right to choose and there ain't no way we'll lose it.
This is our life, this is our song.
We'll fight the powers that be just, don't pick our destiny 'cause,
You don't know us, you don't belong."
Grinning vicious, Warlock said, "Then I'll be the best Anti-Christ possible. But I'll be my version. I will lead and command armies of demons. I'll crush my enemies. I'll cause the end." Hands curling into fists at his sides, he drew himself up as tall as possible. "But it won't be on Earth. I will take control of your forces. I'll steal your demons away and go to war against you. I will overthrow you and take over Hell. Then I will use my new armies to guard Earth and those who live there from anyone who would cause them harm."
"We're not gonna take it.
No, we ain't gonna take it.
We're not gonna take it anymore."
Warlock's views on being the Anti-Christ weren't exactly the same as what was traditionally written. His views were built on bedtime stories, his childhood imaginings and misunderstandings, and assumptions woven into something powerful. There were no whispers. Warlock didn't automatically Know his role. He only had his beliefs.
But Warlock believed. And Adam believed in him. It created a feedback loop, growing in strength. Strong enough to make reality take notice. One boy wasn't quite the Anti-Christ and the other was no longer the Anti-Christ. But combined together on the same goal, they added up to something more than one Anti-Christ. And they were both focused on making Warlock into the kind of Anti-Christ that wasn't controlled by destiny, Satan, or anything.
Warlock's abilities came from various Expectations instead of Hell itself. Satan held no power over him, but he Expected demons to obey his command. Because Warlocked was raised to Expect to rule.
And Satan saw that. He saw the demons in the corridor sway slightly on their feet, confused and drowsy expressions on their faces. He saw the forces of Hell slipping under the child's influence.
And Satan saw that Warlock's threat held some merit.
"Oh, you're so condescending, your gall is never ending.
We don't want nothing, not a thing, from you.
Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated,
If that's your best, your best won't do."
But the devil was not one to surrender easily. Certainly not to a child. Warlock wouldn't expect anything different.
"You want to go to war against me?" asked Satan. Tightening his claws deeper into Crowley's chest, earning a choked gasp of pain. "Over a pair of disgraced traitors? Is it worth it?"
Expression darkening, Warlock said, "Last chance. Let my nanny go and we'll leave without hurting you."
"Hurt me?" Satan laughed harshly. "Tell you what, child. You want Crowley that badly? If you can take him from me, I'll let you keep the wounded thing."
"We're right, yeah.
We're free, yeah.
We'll fight, yeah.
You'll see, yeah."
"A deal with the devil?" he asked. "Sounds dangerous, but I accept your terms."
Then Warlock yanked the brightly-colored water gun off his back and fired directly at the devil's face.
And while Satan may be the ruler of Hell and the most powerful of the Fallen, he was still a demon. A full blast of holy water to the face was bound to hurt. Like splashing someone with acid. He screamed in agony, both hands clawing at his face as he tried to escape the pain. And in doing so, Satan let go of Crowley for a moment.
A moment was all they needed. Aziraphale, still crouched on the ground from when the devil knocked him aside, flung himself forward and grabbed Crowley. Then he scrambled backwards, dragging Crowley with him until they were both out of reach. The angel held the demon close, his hand brushing across the translucent chest protectively as Aziraphale whispered to him.
Warlock shoved his water gun into Adam's hands as the hallways filled with terrified shrieks and fleeing demons, the temporary trance state shattered by fear. Adam immediately started pumping the large water blaster in preparation for a second shot while Warlock yanked a pair of smaller water pistols from his pockets, aiming them towards the snarling devil. While they didn't have the same range and couldn't hold as much holy water, they didn't take time to recharge between shots. Pulling the trigger was all the prep work needed.
Besides, Warlock had watched plenty of enough action movies that he technically wasn't supposed to watch until he was older. And he knew for a fact that everyone always looked cooler when they were dual wielding weapons.
"We're walking out of here," said Warlock coldly. "They're mine, you can't have them, and we're leaving together. And if you try to stop us, I'll melt your eyes out. You and anyone else who gets in my way." He shrugged. "Don't know if holy water can kill the devil, but it doesn't look fun either way."
Satan's hands dropped from his face and he glared at them. His skin tone was reddish before, but now there were visibly-scorched patches across his face. The holy-water-burns looked raw and painful, already oozing in places. Warlock felt oddly proud of that fact.
"A deal is a deal," he continued, meeting the devil's death glare firmly. "You said if I could get my nanny, I could keep my nanny. Right? So don't push it."
For a moment, it looked like Satan wanted to snap the boy's neck even at the risk of another shot of holy water. But then he apparently reassessed the situation and thought it through. His eyes flickered towards the water guns in the children's hands. His expression grew sharper, but he made no move towards them.
"Whatever else you may be, you are not immortal. You better pray that you end up in Heaven when you die," said Satan. "Because I can wait a few decades for you to die. And if your soul is delivered to Hell, you'll be at my mercy. And I won't forget this. Your nightmares will never live up to what tortures I will devise especially for you."
Tightening his grip on his dual-wielded water pistols, Warlock said, "You better pray that I end up in Heaven when I die too. Because if I come back here, I'm taking over. And we both know that I could do it."
He took a step back, keeping his holy-water-filled weapons trained on Satan. Warlock watched Aziraphale and Crowley out of the corner of his eye. They stumbled towards the direction that Warlock originally came from, the pair supporting each other to stay upright. No one moved to stop them. Most of their earlier audience had already fled at the sight of the holy water.
"Adam, could you and Dog lead the way with your water gun?" asked Warlock. "I'll cover our retreat."
"Got it, Lock."
Warlock saw Aziraphale's head snap up at the nickname, something that he'd apparently heard before. But Warlock couldn't see his expression. He mostly just saw the brief motion with his peripheral vision.
He couldn't risk looking directly. Not when Satan was watching their clumsy escape with murderous eyes and seeking any form of weakness. Not when his heart had been pounding in his chest since the moment that Warlock arrived. Not when he needed to maintain his poker face until they were safe.
He needed to look like the cold, ruthless, and powerful Anti-Christ without a single vulnerability. He needed Satan and all of Hell to know that he wasn't afraid of them. Because he wasn't. Warlock knew they were dangerous and vicious. He knew who and what he'd just threatened. He grew up with the dark and blood-filled bedtime stories and lullabies. That's why he knew that holy water would hurt them. He knew what he faced. He held no illusions about the kind of retribution that the devil might choose just as Warlock held no illusions about the kind of parents that he had.
No, it wasn't Hell, Satan, or the demons hiding in fear that might weaken Warlock's resolve.
Warlock couldn't risk looking directly at Aziraphale and Crowley. Because Warlock knew that if he met their eyes, if he let himself acknowledge that he was with them, he didn't know what he would do. He didn't know what he might say or how he might react. He didn't know if he could remain strong and firm when he properly saw them again.
He didn't know how he would react, but he was certain that his response wouldn't be helpful for their escape.
Satan didn't scare him. Not really. But Warlock was terrified of what would happen next. What would he say? What if he couldn't say anything and just stood there, useless and unable to do anything? And what would they say? What would they want to do next? Did they even want to see him again? They never tried to visit. Would they be disappointed in him? Would they be mad at him?
Warlock lingered behind, making certain that no one tried to follow. He kept just enough distance that it wouldn't seem like he was deliberately avoiding them. And he kept his eyes watching carefully for anyone who might attack, his water pistols ready to fire. Warlock did his best to keep them safe without making it obvious that he was scared to death about the inevitable conversation.
50 Dog knew his Master. He was loyal and protective of his Master. He knew the scent and aura of power in a way that only a hellhound could. But while Dog was standing loyally at his Master's side, he was also in the Master's presence. The Master of Hell and all who dwelled there. The pack leader above all pack leaders. And an instinctive need to roll over on his back and submit to the Master struggled against his desire to be a Good Boy for his Master. [ ↑ ]
51 While not immediately fatal, being stabbed was never a good thing. And the longer the talons remained in place, the more dangerous it was for Crowley. He was already weak and exhausted. Worn thin by his experiences in the Annex. And while it was a rarer occurrence than on Earth, Death was everywhere and certainly could pick up someone in Hell. [ ↑ ]
52 Too fast for human eyes and Aziraphale wasn't using his angelic senses. [ ↑ ]
53 If he could have torn his attention away, Adam would have seen Crowley's struggles grow sluggish and his eyes grow unfocused. He would have seen the demon falling under the same powerful compulsion to obey and give in, too hurt and weak to resist. Not at that range. Crowley's head tilted back slowly against his will, baring his throat literally and metaphorically as he made himself vulnerable. Adam may have been Satan's focus, but he didn't plan for Crowley to escape unscathed either. [ ↑ ]
54 The confused and annoyed stares from Satan and the other demons of Hell were quite different than the stunned, overwhelmed, worried, and extremely confused stares from Aziraphale and Crowley. [ ↑ ]
55 The Mega-Nova Water Blaster 6000X Plus was a top-of-the-line water gun. Almost as long as some children were tall, the molded plastic bulbous and complicated-looking, and in shades of blinding neon, it wasn't made for water gun fights. It was made for water gun wars. And while it took time to pump up enough pressure, time that opponents normally used to drench the owner completely, it was the best model on the market when it came to accuracy, distance, and sheer power. [ ↑ ]
56 Perfectly hitting the target and not a drop falling on Crowley pinned below. Because that's what Warlock Expected to happen, fully and completely. [ ↑ ]
Can you tell that I really liked writing this part? Because it was a lot of fun. I've been looking forward to Warlock's big hero moment since the start. In fact, that's actually the inspiration for this whole story. I really wanted to write this scene and thinking about how fun it would be kept me motivated. I just hope that all of you enjoyed it just as much.
Chapter 12: Rain
I'm so glad to hear that everyone enjoyed the previous chapter. It was Warlock's greatest moment and I definitely enjoyed writing it. But I'm certain that everyone is eager to see what happens next. I'm sorry that the holiday season threw everything out of whack, but I did get the update finished.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Fear and stress managed to banish his weariness temporarily, but Aziraphale could feel it returning at full force as they drew closer and closer to safety. They'd somehow stumbled and staggered their way back until they reached a familiar-looking stairwell.
At that point Crowley practically collapsed on the first step, letting Adam take his hand and focus on restoring the demon's corporeal body. The angel couldn't help hovering over proceedings worriedly. Regardless of how tired that Aziraphale might feel, he needed to know that Crowley would be all right after Satan dug his talons into the demon's essence. He'd managed the smallest and weakest healing miracle when he yanked the vulnerable demon away from the devil, but Crowley still needed more help than the weary Aziraphale could provide.
But not all of his attention was on the increasingly solid-looking Crowley, eyes closed and body slumped. Aziraphale kept glancing down he hallway at the small figure keeping watch, his back towards them as he kept guard with his twin water pistols. And every time the angel look, he was hit by the same feeling of how impossible the boy's presence truly was.
Warlock Dowling. Their little Warlock. How was Warlock in Hell? He was supposed to be in the United States with his family, no longer tangled up with the occult or ethereal. Why was he there, armed with water guns filled with holy water? What possessed him to declare himself the Anti-Christ and start threatening the devil? How much did he know? Too many questions filled Aziraphale's mind and the only one who might have the answers was keeping his distance.
Adam called him "Lock." And before they came to Hell, they mentioned that they found out about Aziraphale and Crowley being in trouble from someone named Lock. Which meant Warlock told Them about what Heaven and Hell did.
But that only raised more questions. How did Warlock know what happened to the angel and demon? How did the boy even recognize them? He called them his nanny and gardener, so he knew that the two of them were the same people from his childhood. And how did he make Satan back down? Despite what he and Crowley might have believed for a little over a decade, Warlock was born a perfectly normal child. And after they left, he should have enjoyed a perfectly normal life. How did he end up here?
Azirahale turned back towards their other godchild and Crowley. The look of concentration on Adam's face slowly relaxed and he let go of the demon's now-solid hand. Aziraphale quickly took Crowley's hand instead and squeezed it gently. Then he used his free hand to reach up and cup the demon's face.
"How do you feel?" asked Aziraphale gently.
Eyes flickering open, still fully golden with no visibly separate irises, Crowley said, "A little better." He rubbed at his chest with a small grimace. "Still tired and sore. Feel like napping a decade. But I think the kid did a bit more than fix me up a new body."
"Only a little," admitted Adam. "Feels too much like messing with people when doing stuff that deep and I don't do that anymore. But I tried to fix where my Not-Dad poked holes through him. Should help a little at least."
"We appreciate that." Aziraphale carefully pulled Crowley back to his feet. "And everything else that you've done for us."
"Yeah, thanks, kid," said Crowley, giving a weak smile.
Brow furrowing briefly with concentration, Crowley snapped his fingers and managed to miracle up a pair of sunglasses. He immediately wobbled afterwards and Aziraphale nearly scolded him for wasting his very limited energy, but Crowley looked more comfortable after slipping them on his face.
"Let's get out of here," he continued. "We've spent more than enough time in Hell, thank you very much."
The soft bark from Dog sounded like agreement. Aziraphale certainly appreciated the idea of escaping the dark, dank, and oppressive place. Both angel and demon ended up reaching out to steady themselves against the walls as they climbed the narrow stairwell, but they didn't stumble. And they managed to reach the exit.
Aziraphale took a deep breath as soon as he felt the familiar sensation of being on Earth again, a cool breeze brushing against his face. The tension melted out of him. Part of the angel whispered home.
"Why is Book-Girl and company napping on the dirt?" asked Crowley.
Glancing at the sprawled figures and trying to ignore the spike of guilt, Aziraphale said, "Ah, yes, that's right. They're fine. Tickety-boo and all that. They should wake up soon enough."
"…You knocked them out, didn't you, angel?"
"It was for their own safety. Otherwise all of them would have wandered into Hell too and they could have been hurt. I couldn't bear the idea."
"Yeah, I don't imagine that Book-Girl would appreciate her nerd getting eaten down there."
Aziraphale knew that he should scold Crowley for even making a joke about such a thing, but he was simply relieved to have his demon back and making snarky comments. But now that they were both somewhere safe, the angel knew that Crowley needed to rest. His demon was still clearly exhausted from everything and Aziraphale could also use a moment to catch his metaphorical breath.
"While we wait for them to wake up," suggested Aziraphale gently, "perhaps we can take a short break."
Crowley offered no resistance as the angel lowered him until the demon was sitting on the leaves, leaning back against a tree with a tired sigh of relief. Aziraphale nearly sank down next to him. All the celestial energy that he'd been throwing around all day, trying to perform difficult miracles in the depths of Hell, had taken a toll on him. But when he thought about the potential stains on his trousers, Aziraphale ended up bracing himself against the bark of the tree instead. His hand rested lightly on Crowley's shoulder beside him as faint thunder rumbled.
Aziraphale closed his eyes, letting the cool breeze banish any remaining traces of Hell that might cling to him. Safe. They were safe. Both Heaven and Hell failed. Everything would be fine now.
He was starting to relax when he felt Crowley stiffen under his light grip. That startled Aziraphale into opening his eyes. And then angel froze when he caught sight of the same thing.
Standing awkwardly at the edge of their improvised road paved with good intentions, Warlock gave them an uncertain look. His confident expression and fury from earlier were gone. He didn't look like the Anti-Christ, ready to do battle against Satan with childish toys. He looked like he did when he was six and accidentally stained his mother's favorite dress when the boy tried to get her attention, requiring a quick miracle to make the mud crumble off before anyone could say something that they would regret. Warlock looked like he expected to be yelled at for a simple mistake. As if he had done something wrong and expected punishment.
"Oh, Warlock," said Crowley quietly.
His voice had shifted from his normal timbre. It was softer and the accent had morphed into something different. But still familiar. Aziraphale heard that voice countless times over the last few years. And the boy recognized it just as easily and responded instinctively to the sound.
Face crumbling slightly and tossing away the water pistols, he called out, "Nanny!"
Warlock ran the short distance between them, practically flinging himself down into Crowley's suddenly waiting arms. The demon wrapped him in a tight hug, burying the boy's face into his chest. Weariness forgotten as something more pressing took center stage. Crowley rubbed Warlock's back in small circles as silent sobs shook the child. The soothing gesture was practiced, demonstrating that he'd done this hundreds of times over the boy's childhood.
Aziraphale sank down next to them, placing a hand on Warlock's shoulder. Neither of them ever expected to see the boy again. They left him alone as much as possible, trying to give the child a chance at a normal life. They'd agreed. They'd mess with him enough already and he deserved better than that. Warlock deserved to be more than a pawn in a giant game to prevent the Apocalypse. But Aziraphale couldn't ignore Warlock's current emotional state any more than Crowley could.
"Poor darling boy," murmured Crowley, easily slipping back into the role of a caregiver. "What are you doing here?"
Sniffling slightly even as he kept his face hidden, Warlock said, "You needed help. Saw it. In my Dreams."
"Do you often see real things in your dreams?" asked Aziraphale softly, struggling against habit not to fall back into the voice that he used as a gardener.
He pulled back as he gave a small nod. Warlock stared up at them with watery and uncertain eyes.
"Since my birthday party," he said. "The one where… I'm sorry. Didn't know it was you. Not then. I'm sorry we threw cake at you and stuff."
"He really was a rubbish magician," said Crowley, chuckling softly and earning a glare. "What else did you dream about?"
"The world almost ending. Angels and demons. Both of you, looking different and using different names," he described with a small shrug. "I only Dream a day ahead or behind, but it is always real."
Aziraphale tried not to think about the implications of Warlock developing the ability to see the future. Most people tended to go a little strange in the head when they tried it. There were reasons why most prophecies were inaccurate; they generally went mad when they looked too far. Agnes Nutter was the exception in many ways. And now Warlock had visions of the immediate past and future.
But that wasn't a problem that he could handle at the moment. It wasn't something that he could necessarily fix. So he tried to ignore it. Aziraphale did his best not to think about that possibility and focus instead on more immediate concerns.
"So you know about us?" asked Aziraphale.
"You're an angel named Aziraphale and you have a bookshop," he said slowly. "And Nanny is a demon named Crowley and…" Warlock trailed off, biting his bottom lip briefly. "I'm sorry, Nanny. What would you like me to call you? When I was little, everyone called you 'she,' but in my Dreams they call you 'he.' Do you want one of those or something different?"
Smiling at the child half-crumbled in his lap, Crowley said, "You can call me whatever makes you happy. Mostly been using 'he' at the moment, but I might change things up in a decade or two."
"Okay," he said quietly. "Well, I know you're an angel and a demon. And I know you were supposed to take care of me because you thought I was the Anti-Christ. But it was a mistake and you wanted Adam instead. I was the Wrong Boy. That's okay, though. You found the right one and he didn't want the world to end either. Everything was the way it was supposed to be then. Both of you were happy and keeping an eye on Adam afterwards." Warlock shrugged slightly, eyes dropping towards the ground. "But you were in trouble. I had to help you. Even if I wasn't the one you wanted, you two were there for me and…"
And the boy still loved them. Aziraphale could sense it radiating off Warlock like heatwaves. Strong familial love. Even knowing that everything that they told him was a lie or a mistake due to believing that he was the Anti-Christ, Warlock still loved them both. Enough to chase a vision across an ocean and into the bowels of Hell. Enough to risk everything to save the pair.
But Crowley wasn't considering the implications of the love and affection coming from the boy. Demons couldn't sense love like angels could. He was focusing solely on Warlock's words, tone, and body language.
"Hellspawn," he murmured, brushing the boy's hair back. "Do you think that… do you think that we stayed away from you because we didn't want you?"
"No," said Warlock. Then, a little uncertain, he said, "…Maybe. I don't know. I mean, I don't think that… anymore…" He shrugged a little. "I don't know."
Crowley pulled him close again, hugging the boy just like he did throughout his time as a nanny. Aziraphale couldn't easily mirror the gesture with his current position and the demon was always surprisingly better at interacting with children, but he squeezed Warlock's shoulder and hoped it would give him some comfort.
"Warlock, we stayed away afterwards because we thought it was best for you," said Aziraphale apologetically. "A normal life. No more angelic or demonic influences. After the mess that we made of your childhood, tugging you this way and that to find a balance between good and evil, we owed you at least that much peace. We owed you a normal and human life."
Aziraphale could feel the boy's breath hitching with silent sobs and he could see Warlock's fingers digging into the fabric of Crowley's coat. Clinging to the demon, as if terrified that he would disappear. Warlock didn't have to say a word to make it clear that given the choice between the two of them and a normal life, he would have made a different decision. He'd already said it by walking into Hell to save them.
Still brushing the boy's hair back with his hand, Crowley said, "I was glad that it wasn't you, Warlock. I mean, we were freaking out and panicking about it because we only had a few days to fix things and no idea where the Anti-Christ ended up, but even then I was relieved it wasn't you. Because if it didn't work, if it went wrong, the backup plan was… If it meant protecting the world, the backup plan was to kill the Anti-Christ to prevent the Apocalypse. And we never wanted to hurt you, hellspawn."
"He means it," said Adam, startling the trio into remembering that they weren't alone in the forest. "When I first met them, Uncle Aziraphale pointed a gun at me."
"To be fair, it had been a very trying day for all involved and I have apologized extensively since then," said Aziraphale, still feeling a twinge of guilt even though the boy had long since forgiven him.
Adam grinned at the angel's embarrassment. The other humans were in various stages of waking up and climbing to their feet. Newt somehow was doing it in the reverse order, staggering upright even before his eyes opened. Thunder rumbled as Pepper tried yanking Brian off the ground.
But the angel wasn't the only one who reacted to the reminder that they weren't alone. Warlock pulled back from Crowley, sniffling and drying his face with his sleeve. He tried to pull himself together, but Aziraphale could see the fragility behind his expression.
"I can't believe you took Lock with you and not us," complained Pepper. "We could have helped."
"I didn't intend for Warlock to end up in Hell either." Aziraphale gave the girl an apologetic smile. "But he followed us with a few water guns filled with holy water."
Warlock shrugged and said, "Nanny told the best bedtime stories, so I know all about that stuff. And sneaking in there and shooting the devil? Better than an escape room."
"Wait, 'Nanny'?" asked Newt.
Smirking, Crowley said, "I made a better nanny for the Dowling family than the angel did a gardener."
"You were like a goth Mary Poppins," said Warlock, his expression brightening slightly at the memory. "And Brother Francis had a big hat and funny teeth."
"It added to the character that I was supposed to portray," defended Aziraphale even as the demon chuckled.
"It looked ridiculous, angel. I could barely keep a straight face whenever I looked at you. An entire decade of that without me laughing constantly? Sometimes I amaze myself with my level of self-control."
"Yes, you are truly the model of restraint," he said dryly.
Thunder rumbled once again, reminding Aziraphale of their current situation. He and Crowley were both exhausted and despite what help the angel and Adam provided, Crowley still needed time to recover from whatever happened in that locked room. And Aziraphale couldn't imagine what the time zones might be doing to Warlock's sleep schedule. Add in the way that Adam kept lingering near his friends as if drawing strength from their presences and there was no ignoring that everyone needed a break. They needed rest and a chance to regroup.
Aziraphale slowly climbed back to his feet, using the tree to steady himself. Then, with Warlock's help, they pulled Crowley back upright. While the Serpent's balance on his legs always looked like an uncertain and fleeting thing, exhaustion made the wobbling worse.
"We should get out of here," said Aziraphale gently. "Before the storm hits. The last thing that any of us need is to get soaked by the rain.
Nodding slowly, Crowley said, "Yeah, right, good. Yes, let's do that. Would be nice to go home after all this. Sleep in my own bed."
"That's a bit of a drive," reminded Anathema as she approached them. "And last time I checked, your car wasn't in Tadfield."
"We'll manage." Aziraphale glanced towards the dark-haired boy. "I know that Crowley's flat is a bit sparsely-furnished, but at least I convinced him to add some furniture. He doesn't have a spare bedroom set up for you at the moment, but perhaps the couch will do for the night?"
Warlock blinked up at them in surprise. As if he didn't expect the invitation to stay with them. As if they wouldn't want him to come with them. As if he didn't expect to be included after it was over.
"Unless Adam or one of his friends has invited you already?" continued Aziraphale awkwardly. "Or perhaps you've made other arrangements. Who do your parents believe that you are staying with?" Hesitating a moment as he realized something, he asked, "What do your parents think that you're doing?"
Shrugging and not meeting their eyes, Warlock mumbled something. And while a decade wasn't that long in the grand scheme of things, it remained long enough for certain actions to become instinctive. Especially when that decade involved helping raise the child in front of them.
"Speak up, Master Warlock," he said, sounding too much like his role as a gardener despite his best efforts. "I cannot hear you when you mumble and I know that you were raised with the manners to speak properly."
Warlock straightened at the tone even if he refused to look up. He bit his lip and then the boy repeated his previous words.
"I didn't tell them. They don't know I'm gone."
"You what?" asked Crowley, his eyebrows raising in a way that suggested that his eyes were bulging behind his glasses.
"You live in America now." Aziraphale stared at the boy, trying to wrap his mind around the concept of what Warlock was saying. "How could they not know?"
He shrugged and said, "I snuck out. Left my phone behind and everything. Didn't tell anyone. Security might have noticed by now, but not my parents."
Crowley stared at Warlock silently. Even with his eyes hidden, Aziraphale could see several emotions flash across his face in an instant. Then he shook his head tiredly.
"You wandered into Hell. Why are we surprised that you crossed the Atlantic Ocean by yourself?" One hand gestured vaguely and he made a few half-aborted sounds that weren't quite words before stumbling onto what Crowley intended to say. "We'll sort it out tomorrow. Come on then, hellspawn. That insult to cars that the technobane drives should have room for you too."
Yes, they could sort out Warlock and his decision to run away from home in the morning. Among other things. Aziraphale still had some choice words concerning Crowley's earlier decision. Flinging himself in front of the angel and being skewered instead was not something that Aziraphale was all right with. He knew that Crowley would do almost anything to protect him, but he also knew that the demon normally possessed a survival instinct. Aziraphale would be far happier if Crowley wouldn't risk so much for his sake.
Especially not after he'd already come so close to… Aziraphale didn't want to think about it, but he couldn't forget what he found in that room. In that prison. How he found Crowley worn as thin and weak as a shadow, fading away towards nonexistence… And the angel barely pulled him back from that state, only for Crowley to turn himself into a demonic shield against the devil and could have easily been destroyed permanently. Those memories would not be leaving Aziraphale any time soon.
But that was a conversation for another day. For now, the exhausted group began their unsteady trek out of the forest. Wobbly and stumbling steps that crunched dry leaves eventually faded. Silence fell across the woods for a while, only broken by another rumble of thunder.
Then the skies opened up and released a torrential downpour. The rain soaked everything within seconds. And the writing scribbled on the stones washed away, erasing the entrance to Hell along with the words. The storm raged on, not leaving behind a single trace of what happened there.
The crowded car ride was quiet. Not uncomfortably quiet. Understandably quiet. Newt was the only one in the vehicle that wasn't completely exhausted, though that was partially due to his involuntary nap.
Honestly, Newt was surprised that he didn't hear any snoring. Crowley nearly passed out the moment that he slithered into Newt's car. And, after sparing a moment to give Adam a parting hug, Aziraphale had swiftly followed. While technically conscious, the angel was resting next to them and barely able to keep his eyes open. Even the boy, whether the name was Lock or Warlock, was yawning from where he was pressed tightly between the pair. Newt didn't know what caused the exhaustion for the two supernatural beings, but he suspected that Warlock was still dealing with remnants of jetlag.
There was no conversation. The only noise was the rain pounding on the windshield, the slight squeak of the wipers moving back and forth, the occasional rumble of thunder, and faint traces of a string quartet drifting out of Warlock's iPod. It wasn't really that bad though. Rather quiet and peaceful. Newt would almost describe his mood as Zen-like. The drive all the way to London in a storm didn't seem as bad with the relaxing atmosphere.
But eventually Newt needed to break the weary silence.
"Are you certain that you don't want me to drive you to the bookshop?" he asked softly.
Blinking a few times to combat the bleariness, Aziraphale mumbled, "No. Not yet." He shifted slightly in his seat. "Don't know what kind of mess that they left behind there. When they took us. And neither of us have the energy to… clean up."
"Should we stop somewhere and get food then?" asked Newt. "If you're all that tired, I can pick something up for you. Or even call my mum and have her fix some food. She's a great cook. It wouldn't be hard to swing by her place first." He paused a moment. "Though it might be safer to have someone else call the number. My mobile has survived almost three weeks so far, but I don't want to press my luck."
"Wensleydale gave me an apple. I'm fine," mumbled Warlock, yawning once again.
Aziraphale thought for a few moments before giving a slow shake of his head. He kept the movement gentle to ensure that Crowley didn't wake up. Not that Newt believed anything would wake him up except pulling the angel's hand out of his loose grip.
"No," said Aziraphale quietly. "At the moment, rest takes priority over a meal. We can always order food later. But thank you for the kind offer. We appreciate everything."
Newt grinned and said, "Just trying to help. I might not be a witch or an angel or a demon, but I can do a few things." Switching on the turn signal, he added, "And I don't know if I said it before, but we're glad that the two of you are all right."
57 Once Aziraphale would have felt guilty because Heaven was meant to be his home, but he knew better now. Earth had been his home from the start. Earth and Crowley. [ ↑ ]
58 Yes, Crowley knew their names. No, he didn't plan to use them much when he could use more interesting nicknames instead. [ ↑ ]
59 By angelic and demonic standards, Crowley was changing his gender and pronouns constantly. But by human standards, the time frame meant something completely different. [ ↑ ]
60 Only a demon would treat the word as a term of endearment. [ ↑ ]
61 This did nothing to sooth Pepper's annoyance at missing out. She would hold onto this disappointment for at least two more weeks and wouldn't really forgive Aziraphale until she received a rather nice sword of her own at Christmas ("For emergencies only, my dear.") [ ↑ ]
62 The angel didn't even notice that Pepper retrieved his sword from where he dropped it earlier. He was never very good at keeping track of it. [ ↑ ]
63 Technically, Newt's infamous Dick Turpin wouldn't normally fit three passengers. But as long as an angel, a demon, and the not-quite-Anti-Christ firmly Expected to fit, the laws of physics would politely look the other way. Crowley also neglected to ask Newt if he would mind giving them a ride back to London, but Newt tended to be volunteered by everyone regardless. Ranging from his mother to Them to the little neighbor lady that kept thinking that he was a plumber. Newt wasn't likely to complain and start asserting himself now. Especially not against Crowley. [ ↑ ]
64 The possible mess left behind by the attack could be anything from some scattered papers to bloodstains to a pair of decomposing bodies, depending on what Michael and Hastur decided to do after discorporating them. And none of them were in a state to deal with the more unpleasant options. [ ↑ ]
I hope that this chapter is a suitable one to enjoy right after the holiday season. It was a busy time of year for me, so it took a little longer to update. But I'm pretty happy with how this one turned out. And hopefully the next chapter will be equally enjoyable.
Chapter 13: Nightmare
Everyone seemed thrilled with the hugs in the last chapter. I'm glad that it went over well. Hopefully you'll enjoy this chapter too.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Crowley couldn't move. He fought and struggled, but he couldn't move. His limbs felt bound to his sides even if he couldn't see any restraints. He could only watch events unfold.
He could only watch in helpless horror as Aziraphale was torn apart before his eyes.
Fire, blades, claws, and fangs struck out at him. Burning and ripping at his angel, making him scream. Pain and fear filled Aziraphale's eyes; every flinch and wordless cry felt like a stab to Crowley's very essence. And he could do nothing. The demon could only watch as his angel was killed.
Crowley choked and gasped, barely able to stand the pain of what he was forced to witness. He couldn't speak. And he couldn't look away.
Not Aziraphale. Not his angel.
It felt like knives digging into his chest. Into his very essence. Trying to carve him out until he was hollow inside.
Blood fell. Flesh burned. And an angelic true form scorched away. Thousands of different individual images of pain, suffering, and fatal damage. Images that didn't make sense added together, contradicting each other, but they assaulted Crowley's senses like a tsunami. All he could see was his angel dying painfully.
Crowley struggled to reach Aziraphale, unable to move or speak. But he tried. He tried to break free. He tried to beg, to plead, to apologize—
It hurt. Sharp, stabbing, and cruel pain.
It was Crowley's fault. He didn't know how he knew, but the knowledge was already there. Beating and burning in him, vicious and cruel. This was his fault. The knowledge was there, just like the contradictory images.
Aziraphale was in pain, suffering, and dying and it was Crowley's fault.
Wrong. This was wrong. It was wrong on a sickening and awful level. He was supposed to protect Aziraphale. But he couldn't reach him. He couldn't stop this. And he was losing him.
Please, not his angel. Crowley begged silently. Desperately. Please don't hurt Aziraphale. Please don't let him die. Please stop it.
He couldn't look away. And it wouldn't stop. Flames, screams, blood. All he could see, hear, smell was Aziraphale dying.
Stop. Not him. Crowley would take his place. Anything. Kill Crowley, not him. That would hurt less than the choking and stabbing sensation from merely watching. He just needed this to stop.
Claws. Blades. Fire. Burning flames and glinting metal that sliced, scorched, and shredded the screaming and weeping angel.
No. Stop it. Not him. No. Stop.
Don't do this.
Then the screams fell silent.
No, no, no—
Crowley tried to bolt upright, but the black sheets cocooning him kept the demon trapped and flailing desperately back to consciousness in the most awkward way possible. He kept fighting the restraining blankets, choking on frantic sobs and gasping. He kept struggling until his limbs broke free. Only then did his mind start sorting out reality from the nightmare.
Despite not requiring either, Crowley's pounding heartbeat and struggling breath took time to slow and settle. And it took even longer for his face to dry and the shaking to stop. Long and clumsy limbs curled close as he tried to regain control of himself, resting his head limply on his knees.
It wasn't real. None of it was real. Crowley kept repeating that thought until he almost believed it.
He gradually became more aware of his surroundings. He was curled up on the large mattress of his vast and expensive bed. His blackout curtains kept everything dark and an electric blanket kept it warm. Crowley was in his bedroom. In his flat.
Crowley remembered now. They made it back. Him, Aziraphale, and Warlock. Crowley barely made it in, struggling to stay awake long enough to make it a few steps.
Not that Crowley had much energy now. As the nightmare began to fade, some of the earlier weariness and aches made themselves known. He felt better than before, but not quite back to normal.
Regardless, they made it back to his flat. And he remembered that neither of them had the strength for miracles. But Aziraphale had brought small touches to the flat over the last few years, just as a few sturdy plants had slithered their way into the bookshop. A dark and rather comfortable couch now shared the same room as his throne, angled perfectly to view the television. A soft tartan blanket. Both claimed by Warlock, who promptly went to sleep. Actual pajamas rather than stuff instantly created from raw firmament, a gift that he'd barely managed to slip into before passing out in his bed.
Crowley slid out of bed, grimacing slightly at the chill of the floor under his feet. He was still tired and still needed rest, but he also knew that he wouldn't be able to sleep. Not again. Not if those nightmares would be waiting. He just needed… He needed…
He crept through the dark and silent flat like a shadow. Crowley searched with both sight and scent. Nothing out of place. Nothing disturbed. Not even the plants moved, none of them in great shape after being abandoned for about two months and several in serious condition. Crowley paused long enough to water them, but saved further care for daylight hours as he moved on.
He wandered into his office and checked on Warlock. At least someone was sleeping soundly. That didn't stop Crowley from tucking the blanket around the boy more firmly and smoothing back his hair, the habit still thoroughly engraved. His— The brave and clever boy deserved his rest. He'd come so far and risked so much for them. He'd exceeded any of their hopes and did it his own way. What Warlock said about his parents not noticing his absence… Crowley pushed those dark thoughts away for now. He barely had the energy to deal with his own nightmares and worries. He would give those important issues the proper amount of focus in the morning when his mind didn't feel as scrambled. For now, Warlock was safe and unharmed.
Once he was satisfied with the boy's condition, Crowley continued his search. No matter how tired he might be, Aziraphale wouldn't be sleeping. The angel didn't appreciate the benefits of sleep like Crowley did and would be awake somewhere in the flat.
He needed to see his angel. To banish the chilly lingering tendrils of the nightmare with undeniable reality.
The only light in the flat turned out to be in the kitchen, the only room that didn't currently match the dark minimalist style of the rest of the place. A small change after a remark about his flat looking like a dungeon. But Crowley redecorated the little-used kitchen with a sense of irony. Just as minimalistic, but white tiles, white walls, white marble countertops, white cabinets, and white appliances. The only way that Crowley could have made his teasing more obvious was if he incorporated some angel wings into the design or maybe covered the walls in shelves, but there were limits on how far he wanted to go with the joke. Crowley would put things back in about five years, but for now his kitchen was a splotch of white in his dark flat.
That was where he found Aziraphale, sitting on a stool at the countertop. Just seeing him seemed to ease the tight knot in the demon's chest. Crowley spotted some of his expensive stationary from his desk, now nearly stacked on the white marble. His immediate suspicion was that the angel was writing thank-you notes to Anathema, Newt, and the children. It was the type of thoughtful and old-fashion notion that Aziraphale would come up with. Rather than rest when he exhausted himself performing powerful miracles in Hell, his angel would spend the late hours drafting letters of gratitude.
"Angel," he said quietly. "You should take a break. It's been a long day."
Aziraphale didn't look up and give him the small smile that Crowley expected. He didn't even twitch at his voice. And he didn't stop writing, the pen scratching softly on paper. The lack of response rekindled some of Crowley's earlier anxiety.
"Angel?" he called softly, slithering closer.
Crowley claimed the stool next to Aziraphale. He still didn't react. But from his new angle, Crowley could see his face. He could see the blank emptiness in Aziraphale's eyes, as if staring through the paper rather than actually looking at it. Crowley instantly hated that emptiness that didn't belong in his angel's eyes. And a quick glance down at the stationary showed what started as a letter quickly devolved into…
"The Principality Aziraphale was ordered to deliver a blessing of good fortune upon a new village, but the Principality Aziraphale failed in his duty and betrayed Heaven by not fulfilling that order correctly. The Principality Aziraphale allowed the demon known as Crowley to tempt him into disobedience and the demon known as Crowley performed the tasks for unknown evil purposes. The Principality Aziraphale will atone for his mistakes and will be loyal and obedient to all future orders, never straying from the path of good again. The demon known as Crowley will no longer be a factor, unable to tempt or deceive the Principality Aziraphale because Hell does not share Heaven's kindness, grace, and forgiveness. The Principality Aziraphale was ordered to heal a child of illness, but the Principality Aziraphale failed in his duty and betrayed Heaven by not fulfilling that order correctly. The Principality Aziraphale allowed the demon known as Crowley to tempt him into disobedience and—"
"Aziraphale," he called, raising his voice a little louder. "Look at me."
The pen twitched, leaving a clumsy mark across the paper. But it didn't break him out of the strange state. His angel didn't see him or truly hear him. And that only frayed Crowley's nerves worse. Something was deeply wrong with his angel.
Trying to force his corporeal body to behave before panic turned into hyperventilating, Crowley hissed, "Please, angel. For Go— For Sata— For Somebody's sake, please look at me. Say something. Tell me what's wrong."
His pleas didn't provoke even the smallest reaction. Wherever Aziraphale might be, Crowley's voice couldn't reach him. Something was wrong. Something was seriously wrong with his angel and he couldn't fix it. Useless. Powerless. He was failing his angel. He couldn't do anything and it was his fault. It was his fault and—
No. Crowley yanked his train of thought off that particular downward spiral and forced it onto a much more sensible track. This was reality, not that dark and twisted realm of nightmares. Whatever was happening to Aziraphale wasn't his fault. But he did know who to blame for this. Only Heaven could be responsible. Only Heaven and the other angels could have reduced Aziraphale to such a state. And while that sparked a flare of fury, worry and guilt washed over everything else and threatened to drown the demon.
If sight and sound failed to coax his angel back, Crowley would go for something more direct. Something solid and real. He reached over and gently took Aziraphale's hand, plucking the pen free before wrapping his fingers firmly around the angel's hand. Touch. Firm and warm touch to ease the chill of Aziraphale's fingers. And appealing to that sense finally made an impact.
Crowley watched the gradual and subtle transformation, like snow melting away to reveal the first few sprouts of spring. He could see the light and awareness slowly return to the angel's eyes. He watched him blink away the confusion and look down at the joined hands. Then Aziraphale turned towards Crowley and finally saw him.
Breathing out a slow sigh of relief, Crowley murmured, "There you are, angel." Squeezing the hand between his own, Crowley asked gently, "What did Heaven do to you?"
He didn't want to ask. He wanted to know, but he didn't want to ask. Because whatever the answer might be, Crowley knew already. They hurt him. They hurt Aziraphale and somehow they were still hurting him even now. Safe on Earth and away from them, they were hurting him and Crowley didn't know how to protect him. That's why he had to ask. He needed to know. He couldn't protect his angel if he didn't know. He couldn't help him if he didn't know.
He felt the angel shiver at the question and saw Aziraphale glance away. And an instinctive part of Crowley, something old and buried from before the Fall, wanted to mantle his wings around his angel protectively. But that horrible emptiness didn't return to his eyes.
"I told you before, my dear. They put me in a quiet room and had me write lines."
The quiet words didn't feel like a lie, but they didn't feel complete either. Not if the scribbled words on the paper were the type of lines that they forced him to write. Not if Aziraphale could so easily slip into such an unnerving state. But if he didn't want to reveal more, Crowley couldn't force him.
But his angel could continue to surprise him even six thousand years later.
"It was a white room," described Aziraphale softly, staring down at the way Crowley still clasped his hand between both of his own. "White, empty, and silent. Unnaturally silent. I couldn't even hear my own voice. And the lines that I wrote… They were 'corrections.' Of old reports. They didn't harm me or purposefully torture me. They simply left me in that white and silent room, alone and writing lines with nothing else in that place."
Crowley squeezed his hand before drawing it up to gently kiss. Not all torture was physical. He'd spent too much time on Earth and in Hell for Crowley not to learn that much. Heaven may not have laid a hand on Aziraphale, but they hurt him.
But Crowley didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to imagine his angel, trapped alone in empty silence with nothing to focus on except vicious lies meant to make Aziraphale doubt his own memories. He didn't want to think about how that type of thing, that type of torture, could break people. He didn't want to acknowledge that even though he knew that Aziraphale was the strongest person that he knew, they could have broke his angel like that and at the least managed some form of lasting harm. Because if Crowley stopped to consider it, then he wouldn't be able to stop himself from going back up there and probably get himself killed in an insane revenge attempt.
Aziraphale didn't need that right now. He didn't need revenge. He needed protection, comfort, and reassurance. And possibly this kitchen remodeled as soon as either of them could manage it. For him, Crowley put aside his anger and gave his angel a small smile. It was easier to focus on Aziraphale than his own storm of emotions.
His anger didn't matter. His fear, guilt, and dread from that nightmare didn't matter. At that moment, all that mattered was making certain that the blank emptiness never returned to Aziraphale's eyes.
"They managed to find something worse than listening to 'The Sound of Music' for eternity," he said, managing to startle a short laugh from Aziraphale. Pulling the angel carefully to his feet and making certain that his eyes remained focused on the demon, Crowley said, "I'm sorry that I couldn't get you out of that place, angel. I'm sorry that I wasn't there."
"It wasn't your fault. We were both trapped. What happened was not either of our fault," said Aziraphale. "But we're safe now. Warlock intimidated Satan and Hell. And Adam and the others asked questions until the Archangels started getting nervous. You would have been proud of them. We're safe. Safe and together."
Crowley pressed another short kiss to his angel's hand. Safe. His angel was safe now. Not dying. He was safe.
"I love you, Aziraphale," he murmured.
Surprise briefly flashed across the angel's face. Crowley never said the words; Aziraphale could sense love without being told. But Crowley knew how wonderful it felt when he heard the angel say it. He knew how good it felt to hear the comforting reassurances, no matter how many times it was repeated. Even if Aziraphale didn't need to be told in order to know the truth, sometimes people still needed the words. Sometimes people deserved the words.
Besides, it was a proven fact that emotional discussions and remarks are easier in the wee hours of the morning.
Taking a step closer, Aziraphale said, "I love you as well, my dear. And thank you. Thank you for finding me this evening. I suppose it was foolish of me… I did not think it would bother me so much. I didn't want to disturb your or Warlock's rest and I thought this room would be far enough if I was quiet… Perhaps too quiet."
Shoving back down the fresh flare of fury at the other angels, Crowley said, "Should have got some music going, angel. I think we're tired enough to sleep through almost anything." His thumb brushing back and forth over the angel's hand, he said softly, "I'm still sorry that you were stuck there. Would have done anything to get you out sooner. To protect you from that. You know that, right? No matter what it took to keep you safe, I'd do it. Even if it meant facing Heaven, Hell, the end of all things, and even God Herself, I'd risk everything for you. Always."
He felt the angel shiver at his words. Then Aziraphale's arms were around him, pulling him close in an almost desperate hug.
"No, Crowley," he said, his voice unsteady. "What you're promising… I can't… Don't risk everything for me. Not everything. I've never wanted you to die for me." He took a shaky breath, burying his face into Crowley's shoulder. "You threw yourself in between me and Satan. You were already weak and exhausted, but then his claws… I thought I was going to lose you. He could have torn your essence to shreds. He could have ended you right there and I couldn't do a thing. I was about to watch you be destroyed… because you wanted to keep me safe."
Crowley tightened his grip on the angel, hugging him closer. He knew that fear. He knew that sorrow. He knew that feeling of helplessness and guilt. Crowley felt it when he stormed into a burning bookshop, unable to sense Aziraphale and just knowing that he was gone. Gone in a way that felt final and heart-wrenching. And then he had that same horrible experience repeated in an infinite number of different configurations, trapped in that room and in nightmares.
He knew the pain of loss and he never wanted his angel to feel it.
"Didn't mean to scare you like that. I'd never leave you," he murmured, one hand drifting up to cradle the back of the angel's head. Fingers buried in the soft blond hair, Crowley repeated, "Never."
"You almost did," said Aziraphale. "But thank you. When I found you in Hell, when I asked you to let me heal you, thank you for listening. Thank you for coming back to me. Thank you for staying. I've never wanted you to die for me, so thank you for living for me."
They stayed like that. Holding onto one another. As if some new unknown enemy might storm the dark and quiet flat at any moment, prepared to tear them apart once more. As if the peaceful moment could shatter in an instant. As if they were waiting for something else to destroy them anew.
But nothing interrupted. Nothing appeared from the shadows to harm them. Nothing lurked in the designer kitchen with malicious intentions. There was no threat. There was no danger. Only the two of them together after a long and stressful day that had followed two long and stressful months, the pair facing the fallout finally.
They were safe. Perhaps not unaffected by their experiences, but no longer in the hands of those who meant them ill. And eventually the embrace began relaxed and the two inhuman beings calmed. True peace began to settle over the weary entities.
"How did you know that I needed you this evening?" asked Aziraphale finally. "That I was getting stuck inside my own head like that? Weren't you sleeping?"
Crowley reluctantly ended the hug. He didn't want to admit to his nightmare and the gnawing and irrational fear of what could happen the moment that Aziraphale was out of sight. It was bad enough dealing with that paranoia after the bookshop burned and the failed executions. He didn't want to start unraveling the new emotional knot in his chest. Two o'clock in the morning might be traditional for deep and contemplative conversations, but there needed to be a limit. He didn't have the energy to figure it out or face it that night.
But Crowley needed to sleep. They both needed to rest and recover, but Crowley desperately wanted and needed to sleep. His corporeal body was used to it and demanded that he get some actual sleep. And there was only one way to ensure that it happened.
"Come on, Aziraphale," he said, tugging the angel's hand and pulling him away from the kitchen. "I know you don't really like sleeping and I should have kept some more books around for you, but… Stay with me until morning? Please?"
The request sounded selfish to his ears, but that was fine. Crowley was allowed to be selfish. Despite his current lack of welcome in Hell, he was still a demon. Being selfish was practically part of the job description. And he was tempting Aziraphale to perform an act of sloth. See? Selfishly demanding an angel commit the sin of sloth by spending hours sprawled on a bed, getting some proper rest instead of doing anything productive. Totally demonic activity. Almost like Crowley wasn't technically retired.
The angel blinked in surprise a few times, but didn't say a word even as his eyes searched Crowley's face closely. Nor did he pull free of Crowley as the demon led him through the dark flat and towards the bedroom. Aziraphale simply followed. And while he didn't have a spare set of pajamas for the angel nor the energy to attempt creating some, the plush and oversized bathrobe proved to be an agreeable alternative when the demon suggested it instead of wrinkling his waistcoat. By the time that Crowley's weariness started gaining ground, Aziraphale sat on the edge of the bed and pulled back the blankets.
"I'll be here when you wake up," said Aziraphale gently. "Get some sleep, my dearest."
His reassurances allowed Crowley to succumb to the impulses of his tired corporeal body. He leaned back with a tired sigh until he was laying in his soft bed. Aziraphale settled a little slower, twisting around until he found a comfortable position on his side with his back to the demon. Crowley accepted it as an invitation and slithered up behind him, letting one arm wrap around the angel's stomach. The gentle pat on his hand proved that his assumption was correct and Aziraphale wanted him close.
"Could you," asked Crowley, barely able to keep his eyes open, "say the thing?"
"Of course." Somehow managing to nestle closer to the demon behind him, he said, "I love you, my dear and precious Crowley." Aziraphale briefly rubbed his hand again as the demon smiled at the words. "Now rest. You need your rest. I'm not going anywhere."
His angel was safe. Crowley could feel him, soft and warm in his embrace. Not in pain. Not dying. He was safe. Nothing could touch Aziraphale without him noticing. There was no danger. Aziraphale was safe.
Crowley allowed himself to finally relax properly, any remaining trace of the fear and anxiety from the earlier nightmare melting away. And weariness took care of the rest. Holding his angel protectively close, the demon drifted back to sleep.
65 Which kept the bed a cozy temperature for reptile-adjacent demons, even though the cord had never been plugged and in fact the cord had never made it out of the box in the first place. But Crowley had Expected it to work, just as he Expected his sound system to work despite him forgetting to buy speakers. [ ↑ ]
66 If it had a desk and a safe, it counted as an office. The throne and relatively new couch weren't enough in his opinion to qualify the space as a throne room or living room instead. [ ↑ ]
67 Or rather, Aziraphale comparing it to the Bastille after a little too much wine. [ ↑ ]
68 It wouldn't do to drag out a joke too long. [ ↑ ]
69 Seeing the angel wear black would always be a strange experience for him. Even when it was only Crowley's bathrobe. The demon silently added "find pajamas for Aziraphale" to his list of future tasks, along with "redecorating the kitchen so it doesn't remind the angel of Heaven" and "recruit Book-Girl to help add as many new wards as possible to the bookshop." [ ↑ ]
We all know that after everything that's happened, there was bound to be some fallout. I couldn't just ignore it. It's been a long day (and a long couple of months) for everyone.