He hasn’t set foot in this particular part of the world in quite some time.
Simply put, there hasn’t been the need. There ought to be; these lands have been filled with dark things for as long as anything. But as hesitant as he is to agree with the other one, he must admit: once in a while, people take it upon themselves to do his job for him.
Wallachia grows its own guardian angels. It has no need for him.
And so, he is here purely by chance, because as wonderful as it is in the far east (the people on those islands are doing incredible things with raw fish) a little variety never harmed anyone. His destination is Spain, but he likes to travel the slow way, and his path takes him through Wallachia for no other reason than being the straightest.
What he finds there is a reminder that there is a Plan, that She must mean for these things to happen, because otherwise, what are the odds?
He feels it first: the deep, pounding thrum of a crowd brought together and whipped into rage. He smells the acrid burn of smoke in the air. He sees its shadow rising over the treeline. He hears shouting. Cheering. It rises and falls as the mob energy renews itself.
There is a time and place for the slow way. This is not the time nor place. In the blink of an eye he stands before the flames, surrounded by the pitching, heaving energy of wrath and joy, watching a house burn to the ground.
Houses are funny things. On the whole they’re just piles of bricks and mortar and wood, but they can come to mean quite a lot, depending on who happens to live in them. This particular house, for instance—
His heart sinks with dismay as the people laugh and jeer and throw things into the flames. They revel in the deaths of those who once lived inside. They cheer for the destruction of their own saviors.
He really wishes people would stop doing that.
The flash of red hair catches his eye, just on the edge of it, and he turns to find a man in priestly attire standing among the crowd, watching the flames serenely. Righteous indignation bubbles up within him, and he opens his mouth to let it loose, before he catches sight of the man’s face, and more importantly his eyes. Calm, satisfied, and brown—about as human as you could possibly get.
He should be surprised. He should be utterly shocked that a demon—that the demon—had no hand in this. But he isn’t, because—
Yellow eyes meet his, wide and shocked and dismayed. “Not the kids,” the Serpent says, almost pleadingly. “You can't kill kids.”
—He takes a deep breath, and turns away from the flames.
“What has happened here?” he asks the all too human priest. “Whose house is this, and why does it burn?”
“It was once the estate of the Belmont family.” The priest speaks with all the calm of a man with firm, unshakable belief in his own righteousness—so much that there is no room left for belief in anything else.
“Oh, how terrible,” he says, and his fretting tone is not even a lie. “Didn’t they protect this land from monsters?”
“They consorted with monsters,” the priest corrects him. “They were heretics and blasphemers, dabbling in the dark arts in defiance of God. They were excommunicated.”
“I see,” he says. “And the fire?”
“Their evil works have been put to the torch,” the priest says, satisfied. “No more will they spread their wickedness in Wallachia.”
“They are dead, then?” he asks.
“God willing. If any have escaped, then they will soon be found.” The priest sighs, then. “I pity the souls of their household staff, who may not have known of the evil they served. I pray that the fire cleanses them, so that they may reach Heaven.”
“Oh yes, very good,” he says faintly. He feels the last lingering dregs of holiness clinging desperately to the edge of the man’s robes, and calmly flicks them off like dust. Because proper men of the cloth don’t go about burning people in their own houses. The priest feels nothing as the last traces of God’s protection leave him, and probably won’t know the difference until some slavering creature of the night crosses his path and eats him.
God willing, he thinks, and then squashes the thought as quickly as he can. The wrong thought can be his undoing.
He turns to leave, because the house’s occupants are dead and there’s not much to be done about that—aside from shifting his schedule to allow for visits to Wallachia, now that he’ll apparently be needed here once more. As his eyes pass from the blaze to the surrounding forest, he spots torches moving quickly beneath the trees. In an instant, he is among them.
The men holding the torches smell of smoke and ash. He wonders if they lit their torches on the burning house, or the other way around.
“Where’d the little bastard go?” one of them snaps.
“Just shut up and look for him. If you were any slower you wouldn’t be moving.”
“Easy for you to say. Little shit stabbed me.”
“And that wouldn’t have happened if you’d just tossed him in instead of insisting we make him watch first! That’ll teach you, won’t it?”
He hesitates. It would be practical to approach them, after all. They’ll know what’s going on, who they’re searching for, why any and all of this is happening.
But there’s no need, in the end. Their quarry shines out to him like a beacon in the dark woods, a single point of blinding fear and rage and grief, all tangled and snarled together like a skein of wool.
He sends the torch-bearers running after some vision or other, a noise in the dark easily mistaken for their prey. When the sound of their voices have faded and their torches are pinpricks in the distance, he turns upon the little beacon hiding in the bushes, drowning in pain and terror.
“They’re gone now, my dear,” he says, and steps within reaching distance of the concealing bushes.
The undergrowth explodes outward, and a knife flashes in the dark. He springs back, because now is most certainly not the time for inconvenient discorporation. The first blow misses, as does the second and third, because being a warrior and wielding a sword and avoiding other blades isn’t the sort of thing you forget, not really. But the knife keeps coming, each blow more blind and frantic than the last, because the hand holding it belongs to a frightened child.
The arm that he catches is slender and bony from a recent growth spurt, childhood edging into youth, but the struggle that the boy puts up is no less powerful for what it is. The boy fights for his life, twisting and kicking in a grip he can’t break, and the only sound he makes is the click of his teeth when he tries to bite.
“I’m really not here to harm you—” he tells the boy, and the only answer he gets is a flash of terror and a kick in the knee.
The torch-bearers may return, or some of the mob will get bored with the fire and come searching the woods. He can deal with that, if it comes to it, but he would rather avoid any… theatrics. Theatrics bring questions from Upstairs.
In the struggle, the knife falls to the ground, and the boy draws in a sharp, desperate breath—
With no more reason to keep his distance, he drops to a kneel and draws the child into his arms instead.
It is nothing so crude as a shout. His voice is soft. But it is soft in the way that distant thunder is soft, with the promise of power tempered and withheld. It is a voice that must, and will, be listened to.
The child in his arms freezes.
He swallows a sigh of relief before he speaks again. “No harm will come to you tonight.” The child’s pain burns in the back of his mind like an itch he can’t scratch, and he amends, “No more harm. No more, my dear. No more.”
Stillness turns to trembling. There are hands gripping his tunic, small and shaking as they curl into fists.
“Be still,” says Aziraphale, as the child breaks down in silent tears, surrounded and enfolded in wings that he cannot see. “And be not afraid.”
The boy sleeps in his arms. Aziraphale carries him out of the woods, past the villagers hunting in the trees, away from the village and the mob and the fire consuming his home.
That night, in a town far away, a quiet inn takes in a lodger. The innkeeper never speaks to anyone, but money for a night’s stay appears in his coffer, and he forgets that the room was ever vacant.It is warm and quiet, with a soft bed to keep a sleeping child comfortable.
There is blood on the boy’s face. A gash runs down one side, over an eye left blind and useless. Aziraphale fixes the eye without thinking, and only realizes the indiscretion when it is already done. It is only a small miracle, but they keep track of such things Upstairs. He will have to go to them first, rather than wait for them to come down and ask questions.
He wonders at his own worries. Surely not even Gabriel would begrudge him a simple little healing? On a child whose family has taken so much upon their shoulders, no less.
It hardly matters either way. He was going to have to see them regardless, after tonight. He has told them of the Belmonts before, and he knows full well that Upstairs has been looking in on them from time to time. Something like this, like men of the church leading mobs against self-made holy warriors, warrants a visit.
He leaves the boy sleeping, and Ascends.
Heaven is much the same as it always is, stark and white and immaculate. It is the Platonic ideal of a world, of existence, everything that the Earth could never be.
Stepping out of the quiet room in the inn, it leaves Aziraphale feeling cold.
He is met almost immediately, and his heart sinks at their cheerful smiles and good spirits. They must not have heard yet, which makes him the bearer of bad news, and therefore the one most likely to be blamed for it.
(and who says he isn’t to blame, when he hasn’t set foot in Wallachia in centuries, when he only happened upon the fire by chance—)
“Aziraphale.” Gabriel greets him first, smiling in that stretched way of his. “Well done!”
Aziraphale blinks. “Thank you,” he says automatically, because the best way to talk to the angels Upstairs is to take compliments with grace and otherwise agree with everything they say.
“That was quick thinking on your part,” Gabriel goes on. “Wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was a commendation on your way. Good on you for showing initiative like that.”
Aziraphale’s brain catches up, and relief floods through him and drowns out all the anxiety. They know already, then. Gabriel must have already caught wind of how he’d plucked the boy right out of the jaws of the mob. One final Belmont saved. “Well, it was the least I could do. I’m only terribly sorry I couldn’t have done more, and sooner.”
“Not to worry.” Gabriel claps him on the back. “It’s all the same in the end. Who knows what those humans might have done, with all that knowledge? Better safe than sorry, and better late than never.”
His brain trips and stumbles to a halt then, because Gabriel’s words don’t quite match up with the conversation that Aziraphale is fairly sure they’re having. He keeps his smile in place, burying his confusion under practiced politeness. “Of course,” he says. “Can’t be too careful with knowledge.”
“Right! You’re an angel after my own heart. Not afraid to do what’s necessary.”
“Yes, yes, making omelets, cracking eggs, and all that.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
Hidden behind his bland smile, Aziraphale falls into the familiar rhythm. Gabriel is The Messenger and loves to hear himself talk; all that Aziraphale has to do is nod and agree with him in that probing way that keeps him talking, keeps him delivering the news like he was born for it—because he was.
“To be honest, it’s a bit of a surprise to see you up here,” Gabriel says. “Would’ve thought you’d be busy cleaning up after those… oh, what were they called again?” Gabriel snaps his fingers. “Beauforts?”
“Belmonts,” says Aziraphale, seeing his chance. “And yes, well, on the subject of my initiative, I was wondering if you had any specific… instructions? About how best to proceed?”
“Not much left to do now, besides make sure you got all of them,” Gabriel says.
Aziraphale’s smile freezes on his face. “I’m sorry?”
“It’s always best to be thorough with these things, Aziraphale,” Gabriel tells him. “You ought to know that better than anyone else, grubbing around down there. I mean…” He pulls a face. “They were harnessing Enochian. Can’t take any chances. Next thing you know, they’ll be building wax wings and trying to find Heaven itself!” He chortles at his own joke.
Aziraphale laughs along, thin and lukewarm. “Can’t have that.”
“So, if you don’t mind the legwork, you might as well get back down there, make sure none of those Belroses slipped through the cracks. Make sure that fire got everything.” He holds Aziraphale’s eyes for a moment, with a gaze as blank and pristine as the white walls around them. And then he smiles again, and claps Aziraphale on the shoulder. “And don’t look so nervous! You’ve done a good thing today. You’d think those humans would learn after what happened the last time they went grubbing for knowledge that wasn’t theirs.”
“You’d think,” Aziraphale says faintly, and in the blink of an eye he’s on Earth once more.
The little room at the inn warms with his presence. It’s so very cramped in here. His wings aren’t even out but he can feel them pressing at the corners, straining against a cage.
The boy sleeps before him, dreamless and unaware—he’s made sure of that. No dreams, no nightmares, nothing but rest. The knife lies several villages away, lost in the dark woods.
It is so very easy to end a life, and snuffing out the very last Belmont in the world is perhaps the easiest thing Aziraphale will ever do. Upstairs won’t even begrudge him the miracle. A single effort of will would stop his heart from beating, steal the breath from his lungs, snuff out the synapses firing in his brain—all without waking him.
It might even be more merciful. He is an innocent, no matter what his family has done—what Gabriel thinks his family has done. He’ll be expedited straight to Paradise. Certainly easier than what life would offer him.
It would be so very easy.
Aziraphale rolls the thought around in his head for a moment, just to see if he can. But when he tries to picture the little boy before him floating up to Heaven in a little white robe, all he can see instead are a serpent’s yellow eyes, bright and pleading. Not the kids.
He turns away.
It’s not a rebellion, it’s not—
He’s not disobeying, not really, he’s exercising his own judgment—
That’s why he’s down here, isn’t it? Gabriel isn’t the expert, he is, with over five thousand years of experience—
He’s doing his job. This is his job. This is what is best for Earth and the Plan—
And it’s not as if She was the one who told him to do it. The last time She spoke with him was when she asked after his sword—
And he didn’t fall then! He didn’t fall then and he isn’t falling now, he isn’t disobeying anyone or rebelling against anything, he’s just—
Doing his job. Exercising initiative.
Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
The child sleeps on, unaware of any cosmic rationalizing going on over his fate. Aziraphale leaves him breathing, and returns to the burning hold.
It’s not burning anymore. The fire has gone down to embers and cinders, and the mob has dispersed. A priest lingers, insofar as he can still be considered one. Aziraphale searches him for any trace of Her acknowledgment, and finds none. Something settles within him, smoothing his ruffled feathers.
This is Right. This is Good. It has to be, no matter what Gabriel says.
Only when the man of the now decidedly ordinary cloth leaves, does Aziraphale step into the smoldering ruin.
It’s not hard to find. It practically sings out from beneath the rubble, in his literal Mother Tongue. Aziraphale kneels before it, brushing away ash and soot to reveal the Enochian runes inscribed upon the stone.
He barely has to speak the words for it to open, but he does anyway, and descends the steps one at a time. It feels more respectful, to do it that way.
At the bottom, he finds what he expects to find, but the giddiness overtakes him all the same. A vast array of knowledge—centuries of it, all brought together in a single glorious library. His fingers itch at the sight. The thought of these books burning makes his stomach turn.
Gabriel compared the Belmonts to Adam and Eve in the Garden, as if he would know the first thing about what happened in the Garden. This is not forbidden knowledge tricked into human hands by a demon in the shape of a serpent; this was knowledge hard-fought, hard-won, through blood and sweat and stone-cold experience. Knowledge earned, not stolen.
There are other things here, of course. Old bones. Trophies from past hunts.
What is a holy warrior without a proper weapon?
Most of what he finds are unsuitable for twelve-year-old hands. Too heavy, too big, poorly balanced. And even the smallest daggers are emblazoned with family crests and such, loud and ostentatious and liable to be stolen for their value, or at least make a little boy stand out as a member of a clan that everyone wants dead.
His hand falls upon a coil of leather hanging half-forgotten on a peg, plain and unassuming at first glance. The designs etched into the handle are easier to hide. An old whip is hardly going to catch any thieving eyes.
The consecration is weak and faded, but that’s an easy enough fix.
The sun will rise soon. He has spent enough time down here. With one last longing look at the trove of books hidden away beneath the burned-out husk of what once was a home, Aziraphale returns to the surface, locks the ward behind him, and hides it from unfriendly eyes beneath dust and rubble.
The boy sleeps on when he returns. The wound on his face does not bleed—has not bled since Aziraphale first carried him out of the woods and away from the fire. The tiniest of miracles would wipe it away without leaving so much as a mark.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” Aziraphale whispers. “I can’t risk it. But… this isn’t something you ought to forget. Heal, maybe. Forgive if you can. But do not forget.”
He presses the coiled whip into the boy’s hands, watches as the fingers curl over it, hopes that a fresh blessing that will never fade is enough to protect him from what’s to come.
And if not…
Aziraphale whispers words to the sleeping boy—the key to the locked door that leads down to his family’s legacy. He won’t understand the words, but he will know them, and that means—
“You will find your way home again, my dear.”
It’s not a miracle. Reality does not twist to accommodate his words. But he hopes very much that they will stick, all the same.
Wallachia is much the same as it was before tonight: still filled with nameless things crawling in the dark. The reasonable thing to do is hunt them, now that the Belmonts are gone.
But Aziraphale takes one last look at the sleeping orphan boy, the last of his line, clutching a consecrated whip like it’s a comfort item, and thinks, Perhaps not.
No lesson would be learned, then. And they should learn. They need to learn.
The people of Wallachia need to understand what they have given up.
In the morning, Trevor Belmont awakens in a place that he does not recognize, with no home, and no family—nothing left but a scar, a battered whip, and the vanishing memory of the sound of beating wings.