JUST OVER 25 HOURS AGO, THE WORLD ENDED.
Very few people noticed, which would seem odd if not for the rather convenient fact that the world had restarted in virtually the same instant. It was little more than a cosmic hiccough, when you get right down to it.
Most human beings haven't the mental capacity to accept such things, and therefore chalked anything they couldn't understand up to typical governmental snafus, the media getting carried away as usual, or perhaps abnormally large solar flares. A large number of alcoholics decided that they'd had one too many bad weekends and jumped on the wagon. But just as many former tee-totallers decided the world was just a mite too strange to cope with in a state of sobriety anymore, thus balancing things out nicely.
What was important was, by the next day, everything had returned to normal and everyone on earth was reasonably at peace with that fact.
Except for one individual.
This particular individual was extremely peeved over the world's failure to follow its destiny and get on with ending. And this individual was also planning to do something rather drastic about it.
What you're probably thinking is, Ah, it must be Satan, because he was so looking forward to running roughshod over the earth, crushing it beneath his heel during the fabled thousand years of darkness and terror which had been prophesied.
You would be incorrect, actually.
At this juncture, you're likely to think, Could it be God Himself? After all, He didn't exactly get what He wanted either…did He? At this point, you'd probably become confused as to what God actually wanted anyway, and give up thinking about it.
Which is a good idea. Also, it's not God we're talking about here.
Well then, you'd implore, who the bloody hell is it?
And we'd tell you to keep a firm grip on your equines and we'll get around to it, no sense ruining every mystery of the story right off the bat, Patience is a Virtue, and so on.
After all, this is a story about mysteries: The mystery of love, which is messy and complicated and horrible and divine. The mystery of being human, which is very much like love. The mystery of life and death and a third state that doesn't quite have a name. The mystery of being demonic and/or angelic, when you have nothing much to occupy yourself with for the rest of infinity. The mystery of being the Antichrist when you're heading into puberty. The mystery of a very special deal made during the attempted Armageddon. And above all, the mystery of Ineffability, which is the mystery of being mysterious.
It may take a while to unravel.
Meanwhile, we can vouchsafe one small detail. There is a book of prophecies, concerning the Last Three Seals of the Apocalypse, the Second Coming of the Christ, and the individuals who will be involved directly in the process. The book is Further Nice & Accurate Prophecies by Agnes Nutter, and it shall become a key part of this story.
Ah ha, you're saying now, but that book was burned over a day ago! What about that, eh?
And we'd just smile, ineffably, and tell you not to judge a book of prophecies by its shabby old cover. Literally.
Nothing is ever quite what it seems.
See Author's Notes & Research after "Epilogue".
Chapter 2: 1:01 Glad Tidings
In which Newt receives an important message, and Anathema stops barfing.
IT WAS TURNING INTO A GREY and drizzly sort of Sunday, putting its name to shame.
There hadn't been any truly dark or stormy nights, or days either for that matter, since Almostageddon  happened, or failed to happen, or whatever semantics you want to use.
On this particular slightly drizzly Sunday, exactly two weeks after the forgettably unforgettable non-event, Newton Pulsifer was sitting in his small London flat, reading the local ads, and wondering just how he might get a job that actually paid anything, rather than returning to the dreadful services of United Holdings (Holdings) Ltd. and his position of wages clerk. He was feeling terribly gloomy about his abysmal prospects, and the weather wasn't helping at all.
Not that he'd made any extra money working weekends for Shadwell, and now that job was out of the question. The old man had completely retired, moved out to the countryside, and had left all his clippings and ledgers to Newton, who hadn't the faintest clue what to do with them. He hadn't the heart to burn everything, though it truly needed it.
So he did the best he could to pack it all away in boxes and somehow managed to shove them all into his flat. He hadn't bothered to file and catalogue, which also worried the clerk in his soul. Things being unorganised and in his flat gave him a metaphysically unscratchable itch. But for now it would have to wait. He only hoped that the landlord wouldn't consider him a fire hazard.
He had, at least temporarily, elected not to stay on at Jasmine Cottage with Anathema. He did rather regret not staying, because he liked her a great deal. More than a great deal, to be honest with himself. The real reason he wanted employment wasn't merely for the money – though that is, as they say, what makes the world go 'round * - but because he knew that getting married and keeping a happy home wasn't cheap.
Newt may have convinced Anathema to burn Agnes' second book of prophecy… but he was still stirred by the statement of the delivery man, who'd asked for 'Mrs. Pulsifer'. Meaning Newt's wife. Meaning Anathema. And Newt had found in that very instant that he adored the idea.
He'd known Anathema for less than a day at the time they had, er, become intimate and helped avert the end of the world (in ways that even now he had trouble recalling in detail). But he felt something about her that he couldn't properly put words to. The phrase 'soul mate' seemed rather trite and overused, but it was the closest he could come to describing it.
She hadn't actually asked him to leave her home, but he'd gone anyway after staying for another full day. They hadn't been, er, intimate again, though they'd certainly been very affectionate. The lack of serious intimacy hadn't really bothered him, because he'd realised straight off that whatever Anathema wanted to do was just fine by him. She seemed to truly value her independence and space. And she hadn't seemed to be forthcoming with furthering of the physical side of things. Yet, anyway.
Newt had had to leave largely because he had no change of clothes and no ready cash, and disliked seeming like the guest-who-wouldn't-leave. He had declared he would return soon enough because he was awfully fond of her, but needed to earn a living somehow and really wanted to have his own toothbrush for visits and so on. Anathema hadn't said much at the time, merely smiled and said she'd be quite happy to see him again. She'd said even less later on due to having her phone turned off, apparently because of money troubles on her end as well.
And now he'd been away much longer than anticipated. So far his attempts to get better work had fallen flat, though he was considering taking some sort of demolition job since everything he touched broke apart. In fact he was beginning to think that the relationship wasn't making much headway either, which was rather discouraging.
This all changed rather rapidly on the drizzly Sunday in question, when a knock came at his door. He opened it to greet a man delivering a telegram.
"Mornin'," the young fellow said cheerily. "Lovely weather, eh? Mr. Pullseefer?"
"Close enough, yes."
"Telegram for ya! Shall I read it aloud?"
"I can read for myself," Newt said, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh come on, please," the man said almost pleadingly. "Always wanted to do one of them singing telegram deliveries, like in the old movies, ya know? Can't I just do this one? You seem like a nice chap and it can't really hurt, can it?"
"Fine, all right! Go on then!"
"Jolly good! Ahem!" The deliverer cleared his throat and glanced briefly at the telegram, muttering to himself as he tried to work up a suitable tune. Sadly the only thing that came instantly to his mind was Beethoven's Fifth. Feeling rather stupid now, because he couldn't recall more than the opening bars, he began:
Newt wondered for a split second why her bike would have been important enough to send a telegram, then choked upon the remainder of the message.
The look in Newt's eyes was glassy and he wore an idiotic grin on his face. The delivery man looked at him briefly and then glanced over the telegram without trying to make it into a tune. His own eyes widened as he said, "Oh, er, maybe that was a bit too personal for me to be singing to a stranger, eh?"
"Never mind," whispered Newt as he took the telegram and tipped the man much more than he could afford to. "I'm going to be a father." Before the man had walked too far, Newt added, "Don't quit your day job. Really, trust me on that."
A few minutes later, Newt had thrown together a bit of luggage and was stuffing it unceremoniously into Dick Turpin. The sound of whooping joyous laughter could be heard clear up the street, as he began the drive through the suddenly beautiful drizzle toward Lower Tadfield.
ANATHEMA DEVICE WAS A BASICALLY PRACTICAL GIRL, for someone who believed in everything from aliens to zombies. After all, she'd personally seen many of those things in the recent past, and what was the point of not believing something when you'd dealt with it up close? She'd been involved directly in the end of the world, and still managed to remember most of it, largely because of her heritage.
Of course if she'd known the world really wasn't going to end on the night in question, she'd have stocked at least one condom in her home.
Growing up in a family who had studied The Nice & Accurate Prophecies for generations, most of them had saved money toward helping the supposed-final descendant get to where she was. They'd created a decent fund to support her until the end of the world, and though it hadn't been extremely large Anathema was fairly frugal. She had spent what was necessary until she'd blown the last large bit getting moved into Jasmine Cottage. Now, she was essentially broke.
Which, if the world had actually gotten on with ending, wouldn't be a problem. Of course, bloody-minded Agnes Nutter had chosen not to reveal that in her first volume.
For two weeks, Anathema had fretted over burning the second volume. Very basically, it left her utterly adrift in a world she hadn't even remotely prepared herself for. If she'd been one to simply drift before, this wouldn't have been too bad. But she had always lived purposefully, had used the Book as her direct guide to life until what should have been the end.
It was like being on death row and then, while sitting in the electric chair and feeling the wetness of the sponge trickling down over your eyebrows… someone comes along, switches it off, and releases you back to the world with your head still shaved and still wearing your hideous prisoner's uniform. Things just didn't work that way.
Now… She sniffled just a bit as she rubbed her still very flat belly. Things weren't ending, they were only just beginning, and speeding off in a direction that took her utterly by surprise.
And yet, deep down, she was rather excited. She'd never imagined being a mother, because in the past that was a waste of thinking time. Now it was inevitable. She already felt her heart swelling with love for the tiny life inside her. She'd realised her condition just this morning after losing her breakfast for the fifth morning in a row, and after counting on the calendar. And instantly she'd felt a lightness that she hadn't felt in the last two weeks since the not-quite-end-of-the-world. She did have a purpose now, though it was going to be quite different and came with absolutely no instruction manual.
She sent off the telegram to Newt, knowing he would return and very probably propose marriage, which she intended to accept. She could tell from the look in his eyes when she'd last seen him that he was the soppy, romantic sort who believed in happy endings. She knew he was likely not very wealthy, but he was also the sort who would put forth every effort to provide for what was his.
The morning had been a bit drizzly but as evening approached the skies had cleared nicely. She now sat in the fresh air on her porch, sipping at mint tea to soothe her stomach.
There came the faint sounds of an automobile splashing along the lane and, without having to look, she knew it was Newt. She stood and waited for him to pull up the drive and come to the porch. He looked rather rumpled as if he'd not stopped to get himself together before making the drive. His hair stuck up all over, his clothes were wrinkled, and he had a worried grin on his face.
When he reached Anathema, he didn't even have to speak before she caught him in a fierce hug. Suddenly, everything felt all right. She knew that this was what she'd been needing all along. He was warm and comforting and kind. And he was home.
* As well as left, right, back, forth, diagonally, and every other direction you can imagine. While this is not technically true, just try convincing the whole of humanity. Such strong belief can alter basic physics, and Heaven is a little worried about this sometimes.
 The term "Almostageddon" borrowed shamelessly from the wonderful fic "Twofish". Mea culpa.
Chapter 3: 1:02 Quick Studies
In which the Them contemplate - and roleplay - 'the miracle of childbirth'.
THE WEATHER TODAY WAS JUST LOVELY, and Adam Young's thoughts turned toward autumn.
He really liked autumn, because having a huge pile of leaves to play in was one of his absolute favourite things. The smell of them burning was brilliant and fit in just perfectly with the crisp air and knowledge that in another month or so, there would be snow to play in. The best part about being the Antichrist and having world-altering powers was that you could elect to just leave things exactly as they'd always been. If that was the way you really liked it – and for Adam, this was true – why go changing it all and ruining it for yourself?
School was starting again in a few days, along with its tedium and homework and not having nearly as much time for fun afterward. He supposed he could have banished school entirely from reality, but then he'd have deprived his good friend Wensleydale of going and Wensley loved school. His other best friends Pepper and Brian didn't love it quite so much, but Adam also knew that they'd be bored without it, and then Adam would have to work extra hard to think of exciting things for them to do. It was a tough job, sometimes, being in charge of the Them. So school could stay in the picture, so long as it still had summers and holidays off.
As he sauntered along the path leading back to his home, he pondered the world. He knew he'd probably messed up a few things here and there when he'd restarted reality. But did it matter? People seemed to be perfectly capable of adapting to changes. He certainly was, and everyone he knew personally was. So it stood to reason that everyone else in the world would have learned to cope. After all, it had been over two weeks already and that was practically an eternity.
At this moment, Adam was pondering the concept of babies. He'd never thought much about it before, of course, because he was the youngest in the Young family. Pepper had a little sister, but he'd been a lot younger when she was born and so hadn't bothered to connect the fact that their mum had gotten fat for half a year and then started getting thinner again after the baby arrived. It was one of those mysteries that didn't need to be solved, it just… was.
Now, he was determined to study the phenomenon, because Anathema was going to have one.
He'd just found this out from a visit to the witch's cottage. Newton had returned three days ago and, after nipping off to the Registry Office Monday morning to get married, was perusing the local paper for job ads. They were apparently a bit worried that neither of them had much money or real job experience to speak of. Anathema had been to university but not gotten a useful degree, and had otherwise spent her whole life working toward fulfilling prophecies. Sadly, there wasn't much money to be made in that field even if she took up reading Tarot for people (which Pepper's mum did on weekends, though in a very different way). Newt hadn't really done anything that panned out except clerking and part-time witch hunting. And now that he'd caught his witch –hah- he was entirely ready to settle down in Lower Tadfield and work toward the future.
Adam had found that when he'd looked at Anathema, who was smiling but obviously nervous, he could actually sense the tiny new life within her. And in the moment, he'd felt a burst of happiness and contentment, which radiated outward and filled him with a real glow. Even the enormous love he had for Lower Tadfield - love which had warped reality to protect it from harm - hadn't been quite like this. It surprised him, but also pleased him.
He liked Anathema a great deal, and was very glad that she'd stayed in Jasmine Cottage and to see her smiling and happy. And because she obviously liked Newt it was perfectly reasonable to like him too. Adam liked people in general, because they were so interesting. And one thing Adam never was, was bored.
He hadn't personally been responsible for the baby coming into being, but that was all right. He could make it his responsibility when it was born. This seemed very important to him, but he didn't analyse why. He just felt it. He internally appointed himself as the baby's personal guardian.
He mused over that a moment. Didn't babies get guardian angels and stuff? Maybe he ought to mention this to a certain angel living in Soho. He had the proper phone number and address, because of course he could get anything he wanted. He was sure the angel would welcome the opportunity, because his job of finding and watching Adam had sort of failed to happen and surely the angel would want to watch over something else that was important. It just stood to reason.
As for the demon… well, he would figure that out when the time came. Meanwhile finding something to keep himself busy might be the only way to keep the demon out of trouble. Adam had made it very clear that there would be no more messing with people's lives allowed, no matter how great the temptation, and he was quite sure the order would be obeyed. But he wasn't heartless about the matter. He knew the demon wasn't bad, deep down, just looking for something to keep him focused and interested. Adam could relate to that all too well.
Then Newt would soon get a good job and everything would be all right. Adam had already decided Mr. Young would be the best person to help the situation. His father worked, and though Adam had only the vaguest idea of what it was he did, it was surely something that Newt could manage. He would find a way to arrange matters for the couple, so they wouldn't lack for anything truly important.
Adam took care of his friends.
It would be interesting to see what a new baby was like, if it was really like on TV. Whenever a TV family had a baby, they acted very happy and would make silly goo-goo noises at it and feed it bottles. That seemed, if nothing else, quite amusing to watch. Of course there were the diapers, which he understood were a mess and no one liked to do it, but he was sure Anathema and Newt wouldn't shirk their duty. They were good people.
Adam and the Them would all figure out the very best ways to study this baby situation. Then they would welcome it and help take care of it. Though of course Adam himself would be themost involved, just because that was right. He smiled as he scuffed His shoes along the dirt path to his front door. He always got what it was he most wanted.
He called his friends and told them his general plans – discussion of babies and how to care for them. And only because it was Adam suggesting, they didn't scoff or laugh or be otherwise derisive. If he was suggesting it, it must be for a good reason.
After lunch, Adam spent a half hour flipping through the encyclopaedias to refresh his memory of what it was people did to get babies. He'd taken the first class two years ago, but it had seemed boring at the time. Now, though, he had a truly burning curiosity about the whys and wherefores. When he found the proper pages in the books, a sort of horrified fascination filled him and he wondered how much of this information Anathema and Newton themselves actually knew.
He doubted that Anathema would wind up having a see-through stomach like the drawings showed. Which was probably a good thing.
A couple hours later, the Them gathered at The Pit, having brought along various bits of necessary equipment. They seldom simply debated new and interesting matters. They had to act them out in order to explore all the possibilities.
Pepper had borrowed one of her little sister's dolls, the sort that drank and cried and burped and wetted itself. She had glared fiery daggers the moment she arrived, daring any of the boys under pain of near-death to snigger at the fact she was carrying a doll. They knew better.
"See, tending a baby isn't so different than a doll. I remember when my sister was just born, a little bit anyway," Pepper said in an instructional tone of voice. "Mum did it like this." She swung the doll, which had been dangling from her careless fist, up until it was marginally cradled in the curve of her left arm. "You hold 'em up close, so they can feel your heartbeat, she said. And you feed 'em from a bottle, like this." She fished out the plastic toy bottle from her jeans pocket and rammed it roughly into the doll's mouth. "Then they just suck it up and after a while you toss 'em over your shoulder like this." Once again the doll was swung about. "And you pat 'em on the back until they burp, and sometimes they spit instead and you have to wipe it off. It kinda looks likes old yogurt."
The Them shuddered in disgust at this. They'd tried yogurt once during their afternoon of Health Food dieting. The only keen part about yogurt was finding out it was full of real live bacteria.
Wensleydale, as usual, had done the most factual research, which Adam had counted on. "It's quite simple really," he said, shoving his glasses up on his nose. "The medical bits, anyway. We got that in school already. It's all about putting… things in the right places. Then there's an egg, though not like a chicken's. And this little wiggly thing that looks like a tadpole but it's not a frog. Then it squishes together and grows and splits apart a few times and eventually turns into a baby. It's called 'repo-duction' and it's how we all got made by our parents."
There was a hint of an odd look on Adam's face then. He wondered if that really was the case for him, personally. Not that it mattered now.
"My Granny's always saying the stork brought me," Brian said off-handedly.
"Don't be silly, that's just an old fairy tale," Wensley scoffed. "Storks have baby storks, not baby humans."
Adam gave the tiniest of smiles then. He'd certainly been brought to his parents by a winged creature, but definitely not a very stork-like one.
Wensely continued to Brian. "Didn't you ever pay attention in school?" He was affronted. For him, such a thing would have amounted to a cardinal sin.
"Not to that stuff, no," Brian sneered. "It was gross! All the kissing and getting sloppy with yourselves. Ugh!" He wrinkled his nose. "And then there's this whole 'nuther person stuffed inside a woman for months and months, and she gets all big and fat, and then it comes out of… you don't wanna say where!" Looking utterly disgusted, he declared, "I'm glad I'm a boy!"
Pepper growled a bit at this comment, and Dog, who had been sniffing about at her sister's doll growled in sympathy. He could feel the mounting tension in the air.
"Of course on TV shows," Wensley said, bringing the topic back to something more familiar and comfortable, "whenever there's a woman expecting a baby, I heard that they don't really have a baby in there. They just use a pillow stuffed in their shirts to make 'em look like that." He'd brought along a rather sad old feather pillow in order for them to act out the concepts. "Here, Pep, you try it on. Let's see what you look like pregnant."
Pepper's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Nuh-uh! I'm not gonna wear that thing."
"But on TV they wear 'em, and they're all famous actresses and stuff," Brian grinned, getting into the game. "And then they walk around groaning 'Oh my back aches!' and have to sit down all funny." He staggered around a bit, imitating the idea, then leaned backward to sit and fell over instead.
Wensley sniggered a bit. "Right, Pep should be the actress and play the woman."
"Nuh-uh! Don't see why it's always gotta be the woman who's gotta be preg-nunt, anyway," Pepper declared forcefully, shaking the much-abused doll in Brian's face. "You wear the ugly ol' thing and you look fat!"
"It's always the woman who's pregnant. You know that. Teachers AND parents AND TVAND encyclopaedias all say so," Wensley said knowledgeably.
"Oh come on, it doesn't matter that much," said Brian. "Here I'll do it." He shoved the pillow into his shirt and waddled about looking like an inflated penguin. "Oooh," he moaned in falsetto, "me achin' back! Oh dearie me! I do wish the baby would come out so's I can sit down normally again!"
Wensley, getting into the act, lifted the other things he'd brought with. Putting on a stylish fedora, and carrying a briefcase, he shouted, "Honey, I'm home! Work was awful today!" He stomped forward to Brian and patted him on the belly. "How's the baby coming along, my pet? And is dinner ready yet?"
Pepper snarled, her burgeoning feminist sensibilities already at the boiling point. She squeezed the doll so hard it's head nearly popped off. "That's not the way it really is! You guys don't know nothin'! None of you's got a little sister or brother, so you never saw your mums preg-nunt! It's not like that at all! You're so stupid!" She stood up and took a threatening step in their direction, and both boys squeaked in fear and backed away, dropping their props.
Adam cleared his throat, and they all turned to him.
"It's really not fair that only women have babies," he said, "but it's still the truth. And now there's gonna be a new baby, right here."
There was an instant change in atmosphere. The Them stopped squabbling and gathered round with interest.
"Oh?" said Wensley, "is your mum expecting?"
"No, not mum," Adam said, and a gentle sort of smile spread across his face. "It's Anathema."
"The witch?" Brian asked excitedly. "She's gonna be a mother? For real?"
"But she's not married to anyone, is she?" Pepper asked, looking confused. "You gotta have a husband, my mum says, to make a baby."
"She is married now. Just got married Monday. To that Newton guy," Adam said.
"Oh, well that's all right then," Pepper nodded, satisfied.
"And we're gonna make sure the baby is happy," Adam continued. "We'll be around to welcome it here. And sometimes we might watch over it."
"Oh yeah," Pepper said. "Babysitting. Mum says that's very important, so that the parents have time for themselves. Otherwise they'd go bonkers inside a month."
Wensley said, "I don't think we're old enough to be babysitters. Last time I had one, I was only eight, and really I didn't need it anymore, but my parents insisted."
Brian chimed in then, "But if we're all together, we're sort of old enough. As a group anyway. We could watch a baby sometimes, all together."
Adam nodded at this idea, though personally he was sure that he would be allowed to watch the baby alone sometimes. He lived the closest to Jasmine Cottage of them all, and so it made sense. That and, well, he just wanted it to be that way.
"Right," he declared standing up. "So we wait until it's born. And then we'll have another best friend."
Chapter 4: 1:03 The Devil You Know
In which Hastur returns, hellbent on kicking Crawly's ass.
NOT LONG AFTER THE WORLD DIDN'T QUITE END, a new entity came briefly to Mayfair and proceeded to skulk about, watching and plotting.
You could go so far as to say he was a demon hunter, and you'd be right on almost every permutation of the phrase. He was hunting a demon named Crawly *. He was also, himself, a demon in the process of hunting.
This new demonic entity was tall and thin, and basically man-shaped. The clothes he wore were fairly un-fashionable, unless you went for the 'slightly homeless vagabond, slightly pervert haunting the schoolyard' look. His battered mack was definitely of the flashing variety, though he'd never have bothered with such an activity unless it killed someone to see it (which was a distinct possibility). He had a hairstyle, if one could call it such, that couldn't even be called 'retro', unless you tacked on most of an extra century just to be sure, and it included a ridiculous overlarge mustache and pointed goatee. But, if one had chanced to look into his glowing red eyes, one would stop noticing other things about his person. One would very likely stop noticing a hell of a lot of anything after a few moments, except maybe how amazingly sharp his teeth and claws were and perhaps, if consciousness stuck around long enough, one might wonder just how he managed to contain so many maggots in such a lean body.
You could also say he was a Duke of Hell, but that might be more negotiable now that he'd left Hell without notifying those even superior to himself, and on a personal mission that he'd actually been instructed to abandon. His territory would have already been annexed by others and what rights he had to the title stricken from record. Hell was like that. The minute your back was turned, you could expect a very sharp and probably poisoned knife to appear in it.
Hastur, now-former Duke of Hell, knew this and though it annoyed him, he didn't really care at the moment. After all, with his skill and cunning he fully intended to waltz back into Hell with Crawly's discorporated self in a bloody paper bag and be handed another commanding position. Archduke sounded good. Or maybe Czar. He wasn't sure they used such titles, but he'd see about having it added.
He knew damned well that Down Below was still furious over Crawly's behaviour during the aborted Apocalypse. Yet, for reasons that absolutely no one was revealing, even under hideous tortures, Crawly had been declared persona non gratis. The lesser demon was free of Hell for the foreseeable future, left to wander Earth as he pleased and do the same old waste-of-time shit that he always had, and no one was to bother him. However, Hastur knew the way things worked in Hell. If he decided to take it upon himself to retrieve the wayward lesser demon, those in Lower Places would undoubtedly forget about the paperwork. Meanwhile, he was entirely on his own and officially in trouble.
Why, one might wonder, would Hastur give it all up and risk his own neck just to chase down another demon that even Hell didn't seem to care about? Did he miss his old buddy Ligur, and wish to wreak havoc on the one who destroyed him? Not especially.
First of all, 'buddy' was a very strong word to use. The phrase 'loathed compatriot in evil' was about as close as one could get to defining it. Ligur had been a Duke as well, but wasn't overly clever or even a good conversationalist, and he had had a particularly ripe smell of sulfur about his person at all times. When he'd been hit with the bucket of holy water Crawly rigged, he'd been not just discorporated, but completely obliterated. Vanished, to the best of anyone's knowledge. Nowhere to be found in all of Hell. This wasn't much of a loss for anyone.
No, Hastur's biggest reason for vengeance was entirely personal. It was because Crawly had made a bloody fool of him, trapping him inside an Ansaphone, for pity's sake. How humiliating and enraging it had been, having to listen to that blithering angel's voice over and over and over...
And the angel. What the sodding Hell was that about? Hastur knew that Crawly had 'gone native', given himself a new name and gotten very attached to the world's pleasures. But it was now clear that he was actually a sympathiser for the other side. Aiding and abetting and fraternising with the Enemy, bold as brass and without a qualm. Hastur had ranted and screamed about that detail Down Below, but had garnered only a deaf ear and blind eye from those in command. He was lucky, really, that they didn't arrange for him to assume that same condition himself, and only warned him to shut up and look the other way.
Crawly was simply a disgrace, which ordinarily wouldn't have been a bad thing except that it meant he was, by proxy, disgracing his superiors. For reasons unknown, they weren't seeing it that way. But Hastur did, oh yes, he saw it clearly. Crawly, when Hastur got through with him, would wish that he'd never Fallen.
No more than a few hours after the Apocalypse, Hastur had dug his way out of Hell. In Wales of all places, through one of the many old mining caves that had collapsed a century ago. He was now a renegade, which wouldn't be tolerated for long, but if he managed to get hold of Crawly and beat him into a crunchy red paste and deliver him Down Below soon enough, they might not be as harsh on Hastur himself.
And he'd made Plans, Big Ones, which he'd thought about for quite a while really. Since he'd delivered the Antichrist into Crawly's bungling hands, in fact. And after the world failed to end, he thought about it even harder. He simply couldn't understand why anyone, especially another demon, would want to save the Earth. It should have all been demolished years ago, paved over, and replaced with a pit of brimstone. If Hell made up their damned minds and tried for Armageddon Mark II, he'd be happy to help redecorate. Until then... his own Big Plans were all he cared about.
Once he had brushed off some of the worst of the coal dust and wiped the muck out of his hair, he made his way into a particular tiny Welsh town bearing a particularly ironic Biblical name. There he visited a small chapel in a small hospital, where he threatened a small priest who gladly provided what he needed. **
And thus Hastur was now officially masked from most otherworldly detection. At least, he'd hoped so. He had quickly made his way to London to seek out the one being he was sure would notice his demonic aura at close range.
A few days later, he was disgusted. Following Crawly from a reasonably discrete distant was pathetically easy. The other demon was so preposterously human in his daily behaviour that he might as well chop off his freaking wings and bathe in holy water. Come to think of it, that would a very pleasant revenge. Hastur added it to his list of methods by which he planned to dispatch the slimy snake.
But his Plans weren't taking shape as quickly as he'd have liked. The angel was about, almost constantly, and unfortunately it wasn't just any old ordinary angel. This was a Principality. The aura of holiness made Hastur ill. How the hell Crawly coped with it was a mystery that could really use solving. Later. Meanwhile he didn't dare go for direct assault on the other demon. The angel would be powerful enough to make even a former Duke of Hell sorry, and from all indications actually was fond of Crawly. Okay, so he'd have to bide his time and hope to catch the demon alone.
Less than a week passed, and he could see that it wasn't going to be simple. Demon and angel were practically attached at the hip. Which was not only annoying, but skin-crawlingly annoying. What the fuck was going on with these two?
Hopefully not that.
The only good thing was that his preparations for blending into the mystical background seemed to be working. Neither angel nor demon seemed to catch a whiff of his aura, even when he strolled right past them as they sat by the window in a rather fancy restaurant, sharing a bottle of wine and eating off each other's plates. Hastur had to stifle his own repugnance at the sight, and keep walking.
So the Big Plans would have to be put on hold briefly. And Hastur would have to hide a little further from Hell. He returned to Wales, as it seemed a bit less populated and far less 'modern' than London, and began to look for a decent lair.
He just wasn't comfortable or familiar with this new world. His last serious tenure on Earth was 1914 in Potsdam, where he'd done some lovely work convincing even reluctant European nations to declare war. As much as he could be fond of humans, he rather liked the mindset of those he'd encountered then. Simple, one-track, old-fashioned. None of this new-fangled bollocks like Ansaphones and computers and women voting. If he'd have wanted to stay on Earth, he'd have wanted it to be the Earth of that era.
The world had changed a lot faster than he'd have credited. Humans had come to rely greatly on even more advanced machines to live their lives. And he suspected that it took a hell of a lot more money to get these machines than he still had in his grubby pocket. Probably the wrong currency now, as well. They kept changing things, these bloody morons. Why couldn't gold and silver still be the standard? Why couldn't they still make things by hand, and kill each other the same way? But he was nothing if not cunning and willing to adapt to the situation, in order to achieve his end. If it became necessary, he'd even hock the impressive medals on his lapel, that's how serious he was.
Most demons are capable of reading human minds and influencing them to a degree. And it was especially easy when all you had to do was wave a hand and make their tiny brains wilt into submission. It was hardly sporting with most humans, they were so easily spooked. That is, hundreds of years ago it had been easy. They had lived in constant fear of ghosts and goblins and long-leggedy beasties. As one of those beasts, Hastur expected to be obeyed readily by every human he crossed.
During his few days returned to Earth, he'd seen things that hinted modern humans would be harder to influence. They lived in such a big world with easy access to books and motion pictures filled with images of Hell, that they'd gotten somewhat immune to dreadful visions of doom. The bloody English, especially, seemed to take it all with a boulder of sodium and a cup of tea, then went their merry old way. They were proud of their stereotypical stiff upper lips.
He worried for a moment that he could have appeared in hideous true demonic form, writhing and pulsing and twitching in the most unpleasant ways, and no one would have batted an eye and might possibly ask if he wished to have a doctor called. It could be that no one would credit the reality of something as fearsome as a demon.
...Except the priest had. A simple, one-track, old-fashioned mind that still dwelled on the horrors of Hell.
Yes,that would be the place to start. Amongst the fervently religious.
Hastur had supreme confidence in his abilities. He would find the right people to serve him, and to aid him in fitting into this new world. Minions, even human ones, were right up Hastur's dark and thug-filled alley. And as a former Duke, now deposed, he was still accustomed to a certain level of fawning from underlings.
All right then. First order of business, acquire suitable servants and the rest would follow: accommodations, creature comforts, and so on. After that, he'd work on the daily details of his Big Plans. He'd known he might be forced to stay on Earth for a while, and there was no reason to be uncomfortable doing it.
Because the Big Plans included bringing himself up in the world...and then burning it down and reclaiming his place in Hell.
* The flash bastard called himself Anthony J. Crowley now and even had legal identification declaring the same. In the beginning, he'd had to practice signing the new name a few times, because putting his real name in Daemonese on any sort of ordinary paper usually led to unpleasant amounts of smoke and flames, and it was just not fun explaining the special effects to beleaguered humans simply trying to do already thankless clerical jobs.
** After first fainting and then recovering and fainting again. Once Hastur left, he'd changed his pants in great embarrassment. And after that, checked himself into the psychiatric ward upstairs for a little lie down and something pharmaceutically calming.
Chapter 5: 1:04 Feathered Friends
In which Crowley is drunk and depressed, and Aziraphale nervously considers how to bring up a delicate subject.
IT HAD BEEN NEARLY THREE WEEKS since The Little Armageddon That Couldn't had happened, or failed to happen, or whatever tense you cared to apply to the situation.
Crowley the demon was having a rough time of it. The act of consciously not mucking with human lives was rather difficult. It was a long ingrained habit and stopping cold turkey was making him very restless. Who'd have thought one could suffer withdrawal pangs from trying to behave oneself? Frankly, it sucked.
But he was taking Adam's edict seriously, because in his experience when a Higher Power of any sort gave a direct order, you complied to the best of your ability and then some.
Which was another point that grated on his fraying nerves. He'd been worrying a lot whether Down Below was still coming for him. They'd sworn it on the day of the almost-but-not-quite-Apocalypse. They'd promised long and excruciating torments lasting all eternity for his failure to keep track of the Antichrist. That sort of promise was usually written in brimstone and delivered in spades *.
But afterward… there had been silence.
He'd checked his flat for traps and found nothing, not even the mess left behind when Ligur had disintegrated on his carpet. There had been no sudden interruptions broadcast over his stereo or TV, no exploding notes in his mailbox, nothing that seemed remotely Hellish (other than himself). He hadn't made any special effort to contact them either, because there was no sense in stirring an infernal hornet's nest. They were bound to still be angry with him. Wrath was one of the Deadly Sins and therefore encouraged Down Below. Forgiveness wasn't in their personal lexicon.
Crowley knew without a shadow of doubt he wasn't forgiven… but it seemed, for the moment anyway, that perhaps they were trying to forget he existed.
And now he was starting to get bored. He had already spent a solid week sleeping, just so he wouldn't be tempted to go out and perform any mischief, however minor. He had also drunk an awful lot of alcohol in an effort to erase heavy thinking, and had largely succeeded. Lack of sobriety tended to cause lack of muscle control which in turn helped to prevent lapses back into misconduct. If he could barely lift his hand to get a drink to his mouth, he would be very unlikely to lift it in an effort to interfere with a mere human.
Crowley was, in fact, currently a bit drunk while he drove to Soho to visit the angel. He wondered idly whether driving intoxicated counted toward mischief, then decided so long as he didn't get caught by the police it really didn't matter. The Antichrist never said he couldn't mess himself about, did he?
Weaving down the narrow street in his lovingly restored 1926 Bentley **, he located the tiny old bookstore a moment too late. Cursing, he threw it into reverse, screeched his tires, and managed to park with only one tire on the curb. Good enough, he thought, and staggered out onto the pavement, clutching the latest of a long string of bottles. This one was nearly empty already, and he hoped the angel's stocks were sufficient to keep him going. He was so drunk he didn't even think he could manifest more booze on his own right now.
He stumbled through the shop door – which was locked, but such things never stopped him before – and onward to the back room.
Predictably, Aziraphale was there, sitting on his battered old sofa with feet up and reading a book. He also had a pencil between his teeth and a notepad on his lap. He looked up at Crowley, not in surprise at his presence but at his condition. Taking the pencil out of his mouth, he demurred, "Bit early in the day to be so utterly pissed, isn't it, my boy?"
"S never too early, angel," Crowley said. He meandered across the room to the large cabinet beside the desk, opened it and rummaged for alcohol. With a happy sigh, he discovered there was plenty and selected a bottle of rum. "Yo ho," he chuckled and popped the seal, then waved the bottle at Aziraphale. "Wan' some?"
"No thank you," the angel replied. He carefully closed his book, marking the page, and put his writing instruments down on the small table by the sofa. "Crowley, whatever has you in this state?"
Crowley thought about that for a moment. "Hm, I think 's two bottles o' gin, one tequila, 'n now this 's my second rum." He grinned manically.
Aziraphale sighed. "I meant, what premeditated this particular bout of drunken excess? And do come and sit down before you fall down, please."
Crowley slid across the floor slowly, and managed to collapse onto the other edge of the sofa. "Oh sssame ol', sssame ol'. Nothin' better t' do with myself."
"Isn't it more like nothingworse to do with yourself?"
He saluted with his bottle, sloshing just a bit onto the angel's cardigan, which he vaguely noticed wasn't as hideously unfashionable as usual. "Hit th' … th'… carpentry thingie, made o' metal… 'sss not a ssscrew… nail, right on th'… on th'… top part. Ssskull. Brain."
"Yes, and you seem to have managed a good solid hammering yourself," Aziraphale muttered. "Come now, please. Do sober up and we'll talk about this. Things cannot be that terrible."
"Can too," Crowley whined. "Can't even… even messss with people a little bit. Can't even look crossss-eyed at anyone, f'r fear o' getting' sssmote down by Adam." He hiccoughed hard and bit his lip. "M completely… obsssho- osssbol- out of date. No job. No nothin'…"
"Oh dear," Aziraphale said. He reached out and patted Crowley on the shoulder in an effort to comfort and was startled when the demon fell over onto him. Then he realised Crowley hadn't fallen over but was clutching at him desperately, and whimpering on his shoulder in a rather pitiful way.
"Angel, 'm useless!" Crowley all but sobbed, and buried his head against the angel's chest. He wasn't really crying, just being utterly soppy and miserable. But it was distressing anyway.
"Crowley, Crowley," Aziraphale sighed gently, patting his back and trying to edge the demon over a bit, succeeding in having him slide down further. "I'm sure we can find something better for you to do with your time than this."
"No," Crowley said, voice muffled against Aziraphale's stomach now. "Can't do better. Demon's don't do better. We do worse, said so y'ssself…"
"Yes, well that was rhetoric, in your case. Er, Crowley, ah, could you move a bit?"
"Sssure," Crowley said, and slid down all the way until his head was resting on Aziraphale's lap and he was curled up in a mostly foetal position.
"Not what I meant," Aziraphale said rather helplessly. He hesitantly patted the demon's head, which was far too near certain areas to be truly relaxing. However, his friend was suffering, and his instincts to aid and comfort were stronger than his own discomfort. "Crowley, dear, I'm sure between us we can think of something… worthwhile for you to occupy yourself with. Something that would be interesting and fun and just wicked enough for you to feel good about it. All right? Now, please sober up enough that we can discuss this, and—"
Aziraphale was interrupted by a snore.
He sighed again, and gently slid out from under the demon's head, letting it rest on the sofa. Additionally he conjured a pillow and blanket, and tucked Crowley in for a bit. Taking the barely used bottle of rum, he swallowed a draught himself as he stood up. Things were going to be quite a trial, he could see, keeping Crowley out of trouble and out of the pit of depression. Aziraphale had already begun formulating an idea how it could be done… but first he had to be sure exactly what harm it would to to himself. He wasn't sure he was willing to Fall just to help the demon. And what he was contemplating might do that.
Picking up the book he'd been reading, he moved over to the desk. Most of his Bibles were strewn about there, along with several other religious and philosophical texts. He was really stretching himself to the limits here, trying to fathom the depths of the matter at hand. He had to be completely, totally certain of the consequences before he approached Crowley with anything. Otherwise, they might both be in big trouble.
He looked up at the wall above the desk and sighed again. In a new frame was a piece of parchment that virtually glowed, covered in ornate gold script: a commendation from the Metatron, for Aziraphale's efforts in locating the Antichrist just a few weeks ago. It was actually rather embarrassing in retrospect, and he wondered if he should have bothered having it framed.
He bit his pencil hard enough to leave teeth marks. Pity he couldn't simply ask Above for advice on the matter of the demon.
He was coming to distrust some of what those in Heaven said, as being too utterly black and white for practical use. They were far too out of touch with the rich variety of daily life on Earth and would never understand the complexity of this world and the people within it. Which was their loss, really, Aziraphale had long thought. He hadn't regretted his assignment to this physical realm, even though he'd become a bit tainted throughout the millennia amongst humans. They were so fascinating and in many cases very pleasant to be around. In fact, there were some who were so intelligent and open-minded that they could, on a really good day, sense the Will of God as well as the Metratron himself. And it was this sort of ability Aziraphale was counting on to help him research the current possibility.
Many zealous humans seemed to think it wasn't exactly lacking in sin and pointed out key Biblical phrases that upheld their fervent, and sometimes extremely rude, declarations. Of course, anyone who'd spent as much time reading as Aziraphale had knew how badly certain things could be mistranslated. Sometimes it was even done deliberately, just to press a favourite issue forward into standard usage.
Yet… as far he knew, it hadn't really ever declared in a specific and undeniable way from Above as being forbidden or a sin punishable by Falling. Surely, God would let him know if he was in danger of disobeying to such a serious extent. He'd have dearly loved to just have a serious discussion with his people about this matter. But he had a distinct feeling it would be frowned upon just on general principles, whether or not it was actually wrong in God's eyes.
No. It would all be disapproved of, on far too many grounds to be comfortable, regardless of Aziraphale's honest and heartfelt intentions. He was on his own in making a final decision on this issue.
On many issues, Aziraphale was beginning to have Doubts, which deserved the capital letter because of the sheer enormity of his thoughts.
Gazing back at Crowley, he sincerely prayed he was right. If, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux had said, the road to Hell was paved with good intentions and desires… then he might well be bunking Down Below with the demon when this was done.
He hoped Crowley didn't snore as much when he was sober.
CROWLEY SLEPT A LOT LONGER than Aziraphale had hoped, but he hadn't the heart to try and wake the poor dear. He seemed to need rest.
But it wasn't totally restful. The demon groaned in his sleep a few times, whimpering incoherent syllables. Aziraphale had sat beside him once when the dreaming seemed rather fierce and placed a calming hand on Crowley's forehead. The demon had shuddered violently, then gone still and quiet, and a tiny smile seemed to curve his lips.
Then Aziraphale left him briefly to tend to his shop outside. He'd taken a few orders lately, as he wasn't totally averse to parting with the books the boy had given him. It was honest money in the bank. Sort of.
Eventually, Crowley's eyes fluttered open and he yawned hugely like a cat. Stretching in the same manner, he sat up and was momentarily disoriented. He wasn't in his own flat, and now his whole body was aching from the lumpy sofa. He stood, twisting in ways that would have put a normal human on the critical list, and felt his spine crack into place once more.
Sighing with relief, he looked around the tiny office and wondered where Aziraphale had gone. He only vaguely remembered having come over, drunk and in despair, and everything else was a rum-gin-tequila-induced blur. He only knew that he'd probably humiliated himself in the angel's presence. Thankfully his pride was a bit haggard right now, and he didn't care as much as he might have a few weeks earlier.
And now he was realising he had a bit of a hangover, a rather rare condition for him.
Grumbling, he stood up and crossed the room to the corner that served as a kitchenette. Sink, mini-fridge, hotplate, tea kettle, cabinet. Nothing fancy there. Aziraphale didn't do fancy, unless it involved foodstuffs. Rummaging in the cabinet, Crowley found the expensive cocoa the angel always had on hand, and set the kettle to boil. If anything would settle his stomach and head, it was chocolate. He yawned once more, and shook his head, trying to clear the last cobwebs of sleep, frustration and alcohol.
Aziraphale returned then and smiled at the demon. "Feeling a bit better, I hope?"
"Somewhat. How long was I-?"
"Nearly two days. You were rather more drunk than you usually get."
"I was rather more depressed than I usually get," Crowley grunted, feeling the condition hovering around the edges of his brain. "Speaking of which… maybe a hair or two of the hellhound that mauled me…" He eyed the liquor bottles in the cabinet.
"I rather doubt that." Aziraphale's mouth pursed in a good imitation of an elderly school marm. "Do sit down and we can talk about things more rationally this time?" He sat on the sofa and patted the seat next to him.
"Oh, Go- Sa- Must we?" Crowley whinged. "All I need is a bit more booze and a few more years of sleep to feel the futility of my existence fade away."
"Along with what brain cells remain to you," Aziraphale grumbled.
"Goodness, that was harsh," Crowley grinned in actual delight. "What's making you so bitchy, angel?"
"A certain demon with a penchant for self-abuse."
"Rather I was out abusing others, would you? Well, me too," Crowley sighed and plopped down beside the angel. "So what are we discussing, besides my immoral impotence problem."
Lips pursed so tightly you couldn't have pried them apart with a chisel, Aziraphale's nostrils flared before he spoke. "You are going to have to face facts, Crowley. You cannot continue in the same way, anymore than I can. Things have changed. I haven't received any new orders from Above myself. The only thing we know for certain is that we cannot… mess people around in the same fashion we are accustomed to. We cannot manipulate and coerce, we can neither beguile the weak nor impel the strong to action. We cannot simply tempt and thwart anymore, as though it were our sole reason for existing. We must find other ways to deal with our situations, until and unless we are recalled which doesn't seem to be happening, and it would seem we are both virtually unemployed at this point, and it's just… just something we have to accept!"
Crowley's eyebrows had slowly raised during this speech. "Ah, so you're feeling a bit out of sorts too, then."
"Well, of course!" Aziraphale snapped. "I'm an angel, and I should be able to perform miracles and do good deeds and… and help people unlock the virtues within. That shouldn't be called'messing people around'." He crossed his arms and all but pouted.
Crowley hooted with laughter. "Wanna go tell the little Antichrist what you think of his orders? Or do you wanna just get on with being yourself? I guarantee he didn't mean that. He was more opposed to us working against one another and thereby sending conflicting signals to humans. I might not be able to do evil things anymore. But I know he didn't mean what you normally do…," Crowley waved his hand rather apathetically, "…preaching the Good Word, healing the sick, helping old ladies across streets, that sort of rot."
"I should hope not," Aziraphale sniffed derisively.
"You know, when you get right down to it, he's the epitome of the Great Battle, isn't he?" Crowley said reflectively. "Half demon, half angel, all human. He was given a different life than intended and grew up incredibly ordinary, all things considered. And when huge power fell into his hands, as it was bound to, all he did with it is what a truly good-hearted person should do. Nothing much. Keep things normal. He was shrewd. He passed the Ineffable Test with flying colours, I should think."
Aziraphale turned his head toward Crowley then, surprise on his face. "That was very perceptive of you."
"I like to think I'm clever sometimes," Crowley smiled and sipped his cocoa. "Except where it comes to what the sodding hell to do with my life for the next billion years."
"Well," Aziraphale began slowly, biting his lip and the bullet, "we could-"
"Don't try giving me any of that 'spark of goodness deep down' bollocks, angel," Crowley interrupted, sure that he was on the way to being recruited for a holy mission. "I'm a demon and shall remain so. We don't get redeemed, no matter what romantic notions you may have. We don't un-Fall." He leaned back and propped his boots on the rickety coffee table and earned himself a slight scowl. "Can't play for both sides more than I have already, without drawing further unwanted attention. And of course all I'm really doing is biding my time until the metaphorical other shoe drops. Right on my neck. And it's a really big shoe. Probably filled with cement."
Aziraphale frowned. His train of thought had been, temporarily, not so much derailed as reversed up the tunnel it was just beginning to chug out of, and trying now not to be noticed.
He realised that the time wasn't quite right yet for his ideas.
"Do you really believe they're going to punish you for losing track of the boy? Human fallibility was at fault there. It's not as if you knew where he was until just recently."
"Think that matters to them? They'll exact their own specialised brand of injustice, believe me," Crowley gulped the rest of his cocoa. "Probably go raiding the London Dungeon for inspiration. Or send me to live in Manchester."
"Don't you think," Aziraphale said reasonably, "that if they were really going to punish you, they'd have done so by now? I mean, I know everyone seems to be trying to pretend nothing happened. But if they were so keen on it being your fault, surely by now—"
Crowley shook his head. "It's just their style. Let me live in paranoia and worry until I'm ready to dig a hole Downward just to get it over with. I know it'll come. It's all a matter of when. And it'll probably be the waiting that kills me."
Aziraphale clucked his tongue. "Guerilla tactics."
"Hell learned it from humans. Freedom fighters," Crowley sneered at the angel. "Don't think for a minute that they're all on the side of good. Anyway. I have to have something to do, to while away my eons. I'll go barking mad without something to do."
"Idle hands, as it were." Aziraphale managed a small smile.
"Literally in my case." Crowley flexed his fingers meaningfully. "Can't stand to be bored, even if I'm doing absolutely nothing with my time. Maybe I should go into hibernation for a couple centuries, like I did back in the 19th… Or just pack up and travel, see the world again. It's been a long while since I was out of England."
Aziraphale looked pensive and slightly worried, making his words come out in a fidgeting sort of way. "I shouldn't like to have you out of the picture… not when I've gotten to used to your face. I enjoy our time together, really I do. And I think we can figure out something better to occupy your time… if we put our… our minds to it…"
For a moment, Crowley wondered exactly what the angel was driving at. If he knew the sorts of things that would run rampant through a demon's mind at such words, he'd have chosen them more carefully. Such things could be twisted into many shapes, some of them rather creative and crude and worthy of Hindu sculptors ***.
Trying to halt his now suddenly warming thoughts from pursuing such topics, he changed the subject. "Maybe I should find a job?" Crowley laughed. "I can just see myself now, a wages slave somewhere."
"Better than a slave to Down Below," Aziraphale said thoughtfully.
"Always will be. No, I'm not cut out for nine-to-fiveing it. Hmm." He paused for a moment and spoke the next line with calculation. "I guess I could stand around on the street corners here in Soho and see what kind of action I get…"
The scandalised tone was expected and delivered. "Honestly, Crowley…"
"Don't tsk at me, I'm only kidding," Crowley grinned. "That amount of superciliousness doesn't really look good on you."
Getting up, Aziraphale fetched a cup for himself and had some of the cocoa Crowley had made. He studiously avoided the demon's gaze for a few moments, keeping his own face as blank as possible while he stared unseeing at the stack of Bibles and other tomes of research on his desk. This was going to be more difficult than he'd thought.
And the silence was now drawing out more than intended and making things much harder.
Finally, grasping desperately at a thought that had been niggling at him for a few days, Aziraphale cleared his throat. "So, anyway… Do you really suppose that that… wasn't… that?"
Crowley lifted an eyebrow at the angel. "What what wasn't what? Stop speaking in riddles, angel or I'll have to check you for paws and breasts."
"What?" Aziraphale spluttered at this statement, flushing red.
"Sphinx. You know, thingy with wings, lion's body, boobs, usually a woman but I guess it doesn't matter in your case." Crowley grinned widely. "Riddle speaker. Get to the point, eh?"
"Oh, yes, right, the point." Aziraphale found that he was still slightly flushed and didn't like it one bit. "Yes. Do you think that our little bout of Apocalypse wasn't really, for lack of better words, the real thing? That we might be only starting?"
Ah, that again. Crowley sighed. "I dunno. It just didn't seem… finished, you know? Like it's just warming up. Like the fat lady only just cleared her throat. I just can't believe it would be… over so easily. If you can call that easy."
Reluctantly, Aziraphale sighed and nodded. "I hate to agree with the Enemy but… yes, it does all seem rather too pat, in hindsight. I realise that we should be grateful – and I am indeed, I would have been quite sorry to see the world gone – but… I, too, think it's not yet over."
"I shudder to imagine the next round. And I shudder more to imagine my role in it," Crowley grumbled into his once again empty cup. He stood up and passed the rather rigid angel to get a refill, then nodded at the pile of Bibles on the desk.
"Hey, it's been a while since I've bothered reading the text. It's a real pain having to turn such ridiculously thin pages when you're wearing rubber gloves and using tweezers. Can't touch holy items, though they sometimes come in handy." Crowley grinned hugely, remembering a certain recent use of holy water. "Is there something in Revelation about the End that we've missed?"
"I don't think so. Besides, it's largely nonsense, isn't it?" said Aziraphale, somewhat dismissively. "Very little of what John wrote actually took place. Sure, there was a lot of uproar and the Horsepersons did ride out, in their fashion… but there were just as many things that didn't happen or happened quite differently. I don't think we can really rely too much on his prophecies, in this case. He was a charming and sweet tempered fellow, really, but a bit of a… what shall I call it… hippie? Very fond of certain wild mushrooms, if you catch my drift."
Crowley chuckled dryly. "Only real prophet in all of history was good old Agnes Nutter. And she only got it right up until three weeks ago. Wish she could have written another book, one that gives a clue what to do after Armageddon."
"I think, my dear," Aziraphale said softly, "that she would have written something simpler. Such as 'live your life and be happy'." He smiled now, rather bittersweet, and reached out to touch Crowley's arm.
Crowley looked down at the angel's hand, the fingers of which were flexing nervously on his sleeve. What was happening here?
"I think that may be the whole point of the world, really," Aziraphale said, his clenching fingers somehow bringing them closer together. "And I just wanted to say… that I'm mostly glad the world didn't end because… I'd have missed you terribly, dear boy."
And when he took Crowley's chin in his fingertips, he felt certain he'd thought it all through properly, at least this particular point of the issue. After all, what harm could a kiss be?, he'd thought to himself. Men used to kiss each other in greeting and parting all the time. Even he and Crowley had done as much a few hundred years ago when such a thing was socially acceptable. But… that had been on the cheek. This was a few inches toward the front and squarely on the lips. It really didn't feel at all the same. And there was a significant distinction concerning intent.
The demon caught his unnecessary breath and opened his eyes very wide. He could only stand there and let it happen, so shocked was he at this point. The angel's lips weren't really moving, no more than the slightest flutter, hesitant, worried. Wanting. Or so it seemed to Crowley, who felt the coiled spring deep inside his very soul suddenly wind even tighter. He didn't stop the kiss, didn't respond fully, didn't even close his eyes. Didn't know what to do. He couldn't have described what he was feeling or thinking if you had pulled it right out of his head and pinned it to the wall before his eyes. It was completely new and foreign. Or perhaps… so very ancient that he'd forgotten the language associated with the idea.
After only a moment or two, Aziraphale stepped back, whispering, "You're my dearest friend, Crowley, regardless of what we both are. Sides mean nothing, when it comes to us, don't you think? Frankly… I don't know what I'd do without you. I've wasted a millennia by failing to tell you that, in no uncertain terms. And now… I'm not at all certain I'll have another millennia in which to do so."
Finding his breath again, Crowley hissed gently, "Ssss'okay." He was swaying just a bit on his feet and didn't have a clue what was happening or what words were coming out of his mouth, but they felt dangerously like the truth. "Oddly enough… feeling'sss mutual."
"Good, glad to hear that." The angel looked down now, afraid of further eye contact, even though of course he couldn't really see the demon's eyes behind the sunglasses.
"Right, um, yesss," Crowley said, licking his lips, which still held the flavour of angel.
Everything had suddenly changed, and the demon found his entire point of view gone askew. But it was aiming toward more interesting prospects. If the angel was willing to do what he'd just done, in the way it seemed very likely that he'd meant it… then there was a chance he'd want more. Eventually.
The thought made Crowley smile. He wasn't very patient, but now he knew the door into Aziraphale was at least opened. And suddenly, powerfully, he realised that he wanted to step through that door and taste Heaven.
* The sort used by gravediggers.
** Lovingly restored by the efforts of the Antichrist, for which Crowley sometimes wondered if he ought not to write a thank-you letter.
*** The ones that make humans into living pretzels and feature inventive use of body parts normally kept covered in public.
Chapter 6: 1:05 Words to the Wise
In which Agnes' second book reaches its destination, and a woman named Ginger begins an arduous task.
HARVEY WINKLE'S HANDS HAD BEEN SHAKING for three weeks now, ever since he'd stolen the Book from his former employers Robey, Robey, Redfearn & Bychance.
He hadn't really wanted to steal it. But when you have another Boss, the sight of whom tended to make your brain melt out of your eye sockets, after which you dropped to your knees and possibly wet yourself in abject terror… you tended to promise them anything, and to forget about something as simple as a regular paycheck.
His hands had shaken badly the entire time he'd worked the bit of larceny. Even when he'd done as his Boss requested and opened a certain box… even when he'd read the three-hundred year old letter personally addressed to him, which detailed a rather illicit action he'd committed five years ago, and promised that he would live just long enough to regret betraying his company…
Even then, Harvey was more fearful of the one who stood just behind him as he lifted out the manuscript, carefully cut away the bulk of pages from the binding, glued them into a brand new cover, and glued a sheaf of completely blank pages back into the original cover *, then replaced that to the box and locked it up again.
Though he did crumple up that personal missive and shove it in his pocket first. No sense in inviting further trouble by leaving behind the evidence of his betrayal.
Harvey Winkle had then fled the firm, which was scheduled to deliver the package to a certain descendant in Lower Tadfield that very same day. He carried the stolen manuscript with him, his conscience sizzling like sulfurous fire in his brain. The letter had been very worrisome indeed, but he didn't credit its threatening tone. Much. Not as much as he credited the threat of his Boss.
Now three weeks later, he was finally delivering the Book to another person in a small town in Wales, and he would be immensely grateful to be shut of it. He even held out a fragment of hope that his Boss would let him go his own way afterward.
It was a rather silly thing to hope.
He had been told to wait this long to make the delivery, partly because of needing to hide out and let the trail go cold, in the event that anyone had bothered to try following him, but largely because the intended recipient was in Europe until today.
Now, as Harvey Winkle stumbled up the walk and into St. Collumae Hospital, he prayed that it was soon be over and he'd have no more worries.
Another rather silly thing to hope. But at least this time he'd be getting his wish.
VIRGINIA GLORIA TYLLUAN, FONDLY CALLED GINGER, was a sixty-year-old retired schoolteacher. She had just retired, in fact, and spent the last two weeks touring the Holy Land and visiting the Vatican. For some reason, it had seemed vitally important to be there. Ginger was very slightly psychic, as many people are, and though she didn't remember there being an Apocalypse, the deepest parts of her mind still registered something unusual having happened.
Now she had returned to England and home, and a new part-time volunteering job at the St. Collumae Hospital gift shop. Retirement didn't mean idleness to Ginger.
She was a tiny woman, silver-haired, dressed in tweeds, and always cheerful and ready to help. She was the perfect image of anyone's doting grandmother and likely one who has spent most of her adult life helping at church bake sales, voting Conservative, and cooking for her extended family every Easter and Christmas. For the most part, this was a frighteningly accurate stereotype.
She considered herself to be three important things: First, a good Granny to her adored grandchildren, Abner, Hannah and Ezekial, and brand new great-grandchild Zipporah. Second, a good researcher, specialising in language, etymology and translating difficult old texts (some of these skills had served her well during her thirty years of teaching small children to read and write). Third, and above all, a good Christian, devoted to living a proper life and preparing her soul for the return of Christ and Judgment Day. She was also happy to aid in whatever way she could to this last and greatest cause.
Running the till at the gift shop promised to be easy work, leaving her plenty of free time between sales of flowers, stuffed animals and other items to attend to her greatest passion: reading. Her dear late husband Matthias always said that if you could find Ginger without a book firmly in one hand, a pencil in the other with a notebook nearby, and word-induced bliss in her eye, then obviously the world had already ended.
This was virtually a prophecy in itself.
The really interesting thing was that Ginger could have given Aziraphale a run for his money. She might not have owned as many rare and valuable books, and she might not have been quite as adept at ancient languages, but she could dissect a book of prophecy nearly as well as he could. And she had found this unique skill to be useful.
Her latent psychic talent gave her the ability to read between the gibberish, and had shown her how to successfully place her money in the stock market. In her mind, this wasn't gambling by any means. The writings she'd borrowed tidbits from had been dead-on accurate so far, and betting on a sure thing wasn't betting at all. One might as well say it was gambling on God to be in Heaven and listening to all her prayers. That was just simple Truth.
Though Ginger did spend a lot of her gains on charity and other good deeds, most of the funds went to her family. Of course the true joys of life were immaterial, but she would be damned if she'd be called a bad grandmother. The upshot of her ability to translate prophetic rantings was that she was rich enough never to have needed to work a day in her life. But idle hands made the Devil's work and, again, she would be damned if she'd work for anyone but Christ.
Oddly enough, she was just about to start working for someone positioned squarely between the two. And that was close enough.
Her first day running the till in the gift shop was nearly done, and she was cheerfully waving at a departing customer when another came in the doorway. He seemed rather haggard, his clothes worn for days and his face unshaved. Ginger imagined he must have rushed to hospital for some medical emergency in the family, that the hunted look in his eyes was due to having been worried for someone's health and safety.
This was largely true, though it was his own life he feared for at the moment.
He angled toward her and slapped down a book on the counter. She looked at the slightly battered cover, which was Biggles Learns to Fly, and then looked back up at him with a puzzled smile. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't think this came from our store—"
"It's for you," he hissed, "brought it all this way, just for you. Please, please take it, so he'll quit following me!"
The hunted look in his eyes was now giving way to what more properly could be called madness. Ginger continued to smile politely, while reaching a casual hand under the counter and preparing to hit a special button to summon help, when the man collapsed to the floor.
And two minutes after that, his conscience caught up with him in the form of a massive embolism.
As he fell to the ground, vision fading, he heard a deep voice hovering over him. It was a voice so deep that it gave normal human minds the bends.
HARVEY WINKLE, Azrael said, THAT WAS YOUR LIFE. The Angel of Death paused, then said, SORRY, IT'S NOT A GREAT LINE, BUT WHAT DO YOU EXPECT?
And Harvey died knowing that he had topped the previous illicit act, in spades.
AN HOUR LATER, AFTER GINGER alerted doctors and the man had been removed (already dead, but at least not in the gift shop), she looked back at the book. How very odd. She'd read most of the Biggles series, and her grandchildren had inherited the first editions she'd collected for them. Perhaps she could at least donate this one to charity.
Relaxed now, a book in hand giving her a feeling of joy and control, she opened the cover. And got three of the bigger shocks of her life.
Firstly, the book was clearly not about Biggles or any other children's favourite.Secondly, it seemed, in fact, to be a very old and fragile manuscript called Further Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter. Thirdly, the first few lines in the book seemed to be directed at Ginger herself, which shouldn't have been possible.
The first passage of the book read thusly:
1: And know ye that thys booke sharle not be delivered unto thee handf of myne own blood but sharle be stolen strait away and sent to thee Dove's Hous of healeing.
2: Therein sharle be a Maidenly Whyte Owle who hath skillf aplenty to see signf & portents on parchment, & whom sharl read these wordes though they be hidden inside the shell of onne whom flyeth the desert shyppe and hath not yet met the one of her owne same name.
Ginger hesitated over these words, because any other person in the world would never have seen the significance. Her mind instantly translated the first sentence, knowing that the 'Dove's Hous of healeing' was St. Collumae Hospital. Collumae was from the Latin 'columb' and meant 'dove'.
The second sentence was the most incredulous. The meaning of her own name – Virginia Tylluan – meant 'maidenly' and 'owl' respectively. And alarmingly, her name previous to marriage had been White. More frightening still was the reference to the book cover that didn't fit the contents. The particular book had been the episode in which Biggles had flown a Sopwith Camel plane, and was a few volumes before he met his pal Ginger. Her own nickname.
She checked the book carefully, and was convinced that it was either a very good forgery or was indeed several hundred years old. Her instincts favoured the latter.
In which case… this was the most important thing that had ever come into her hands. She sat down, turning the book back to its first page, retrieved the notepad that always traveled in her large handbag and a freshly sharpened pencil… and, shivering with anticipation, read the next line.
3: The Owle Maid will read these wordes and sharl know that her olde life is over and a new onne begins, as she lookes up from these pagef to see Him that groweth wearie of waiting for thee Dove to Return; togeth'r they sharl fynd the Lamb and shepherd yt back into thee Tenth Circleing Fold.
This passage seemed to indicate more than just the return of the Christ, which left Ginger in absolute awe. It seemed to be saying, in no uncertain terms, 'Look up.'
What she saw made her brain threaten to melt out of her eye sockets with fear.
After a short, and surprisingly civil, conversation with the apparition she managed not to fall to her knees or embarrass herself in other ways. She also became convinced of the singular opportunity – nay, sacred duty – she had been given. If she translated the text brought before her, she would be very instrumental in helping to locate the returning Christ and bring the world to true peace.
How could Ginger possibly refuse?
* The rationale for this was deceptively simple: knowing Agnes' nature of being obtuse and under-handed, Anathema – upon opening the false volume and seeing nothing but blank pages – would assume the old biddy was pulling a grand joke, meant to be a statement of 'Gette on wyth your lyfe and stope relying upon ME to tell ye what to doe'. The funny thing is, if Anathema had actually gotten the book open, she very likely would have thought exactly that.
Chapter 7: 2:01 Eaten Alive
In which Famine returns and meets the first of Seven Sins, intimately.
EUSTACIA LIVIDEO SMOOTHED SLIM FINGERS over carefully controlled dark curls, which were pulled back and pinned securely at the nape of her long slender neck. She was ready for the greatest coup of her life and didn't wish a single hair out of place, literally or metaphorically. She lived for total control - of her surroundings, of her self. Yet she was never extravagant, never over-indulged. This time would be the exception to the rule, and it was making her quiver with nerves.
As her trim limousine pulled up to the building, her deep blue eyes took it in. Tall, dark and thin as a sword, very fitting of the man Raven Sable and his entire corporation. And since his odd disappearance some months ago, there had been a flurry of attempts to take the company over.
Eustacia had, through a unique ability of her own, appealed to certain base instincts of humanity and managed to shunt everyone else aside. Some had themselves been bought out by United Holdings Holdings Ltd., the very company that currently still owned Newtrition Corp. Some had fallen prey to heart conditions just waiting for the last bit of double-cheese pizza to strike. Many had simply been overcome by offers they couldn't refuse, mostly delivered by Eustacia herself in the form of her quite legendary cioccolatatiramisú.
The rest of the deal had been strictly financial. She was loaded, mostly because she never spent money on herself, but on her craft.
To say Eustacia was a good cook was to say that Hell is a bit on the hot side during the summer so if you were visiting, it might be best to pack shorts. She was, in fact, the very best chef, not only in her native Italy but in the world. Some would have gladly stabbed their own mothers in the ear with a fork, if dear madre had been found holding a copy of Signorina Livideo's recipes. Because there were no copies of her recipes in existence. She had so far turned down several exceedingly lucrative book offers, because she simply could not be convinced to give them up for public ownership. She'd even refused a television contract. Eustacia insisted upon staying where she was, cooking for special events for the extreme elite of the world famous, in her world famous ristorante, the only soul allowed in her area of the kitchen while assistants in another kitchen two doors away performed the simple tasks of preparing ingredients and sauces. When these things were ready, they were passed carefully through a hole in the wall and sent along a conveyor to Eustacia's private kitchen. But no one dared venture into her inner sanctum. One had attempted to peek inside a few years ago and had been seized by the large dark suited guards hidden in the unexpected alcove behind the door, and removed from all polite society (and very likely the mortal coil, though nothing could be proven).
Eustacia kept all her recipes heavily guarded… inside her own head. She couldn't have explained how she did what she did anyway. It was simply a part of her.
There would be great public speculation as to why she was now in America, on her way to purchase a company that specialised in questionable junk food. But she had a plan. Oh yes, she did.
Her expensive suit - in a shade of dark blue to match her eyes - hugged her slim form and she tapped along the hallway of the excessively modern building in high heels so thin they could have been used by acupuncturists. When she entered the board room, she kept a professional smile glued to her face so as not to betray the inborn disdain for some of those she saw there. Amazingly, a few people were overweight. She'd have thought, in such a place as this, it wouldn't be allowed. But no, there were gluttons in every walk of society, every company on the planet.
Fine, she thought in the dark, secret, silent part of her mind wherein the recipes churned and roiled, Let them eat cake... until they burst internally and are choked to death on their own vomit. When I own this company, I shall make it so.
She still smiled as she prepared to address the board members, but the woman at the head of the table stood. Not entirely apologetically, the woman said, "I'm so very sorry we've wasted your time, Ms. Livideo. We tried to phone you… But the company is no longer on the market."
Eustacia's carefully schooled expression barely flickered. "Scusa… What do you mean? I was given to understand-"
"I am sorry," the woman repeated, "but Mr. Sable has returned from his... sabbatical."
And then she saw him, sitting in the corner of the room. It was so cliché that she would have rolled her eyes if she were given to such a gesture.
"Signore Sable... I see. Well. What more is there to say?" Eustacia nodded in his direction. "I regret having lost my opportunity."
"Not necessarily," he said smoothly, rising in a fluid motion to tower over the others. "If everyone will please excuse us...?"
The board members exited, casting interested glances at them both but wisely making no comments.
His dark eyes raked Eustascia's lean figure with obvious approval. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Signorina," he approached her and raised her delicate hand to his lips. "I have heard such high praise of your talents, and not nearly enough of your beauty."
She twitched an eyebrow and very nearly smiled. "Signore Sable, what sort of... opportunity are you suggesting?"
Smiling more openly now, he met her firm gaze. "My company is very successful, as are you. A canny lady, to be sure. Undoubtedly you know enough of the... truth of what I sell, that someone with your interests shouldn't be considering acquiring mine. Binding your name and reputation to my products... Forgive me, but it seems rather out of place."
Eustacia stepped away from him, and approached the high, thin windows overlooking the neat grounds. "Ah, but signore, you do not really understand what I want. I know that you sell dietary items of astoundingly suspicious origin, masquerading as food. I know that your factories do not know what they are doing. That one produces the 'food' and ships it overseas to another that seals it in plastic, which in turn sends it to yet another that labels it with your name. An effective chain of deceit. I know, as well, that your most recent addition, MEALS ™, is actually," she pronounced her words carefully, "excessively counteractive to intentions. One would grow fat and starve to death on a month's worth of this product."
Sable chuckled lowly, clearly not at all alarmed at the extent of her knowledge nor caring how she'd discovered these facts.
She half-turned at the sound, knowing that he would not back down. She could not threaten such as him.
Inwardly, she began to tremble, feeling something without a name she cared to know stirring, rising, clawing its way out…
"Thus, I inquire," Sable continued smoothly, "as to why a world-renowned chef, creator of the most sumptuous foodstuffs on the planet, would want anything to do with this? Why you would wish to have your exquisite face and your peerless name on such spurious products?"
She turned back to him, her eyes glowing fiery blue with a glint of anger. And for the first time in her life, she lost her temper and began to shout.
"Because it is no more than the unwashed masses deserve! The so-called cream of high society are busy gorging themselves to sickness on my fine fare, wasting it! I cook the finest and most carefully designed foods in the world, meant to be savoured, meant to be enjoyed only once in a great while. This is why I work so exclusively! They say they appreciate my art, but they beg for more and more, beg me to sell to the masses and depreciate it! They callously indulge their appetites and are never satisfied! They eat and eat until they are soft and fat and would not even pass for a prime cut of meat in a butcher's shop! They are not fit to swill with pigs, Signore! They are disgusting gluttonous monsters, the lot of humanity! And if they ever declare they must lose weight, they turn not to proper food and exercise but easy solutions! More food, aimed at taking care of the problem! Hah! So I will give in and sell to the masses, who should be induced to buy the most expensive of diet foods in order to starve themselves to an early grave! Yes, I would help them to succeed at doing it, as they cannot control their own filthy urges!"
In the few moments of wild self-exposure, her hair had come slightly undone, and a hard flush had risen in her soft olive skin.
Sable himself had caught his breath, staring at her with a strange passion he had never shown nor experienced except during the aborted apocalypse. He recognized… kindred.
"My lady," he whispered darkly, "I would, this very moment, offer you my entire company on a silver platter with a tasteful spring of parsley. You are exactly what I have been seeking... I had been wondering why… It seems that you are the very reason I returned to this world..."
He slowly came toward her, as she stood there panting in a sort of muted fury, and placed one long slim fingertip to her lips. "Look into my eyes, Signorina, and see me for what I truly am..."
And she did.
And she saw
the world laid to ruin crops failed the soil dusty dry heaps of skeletal bodies near death children lying under bare tree bellies distended in the final stages of starvation
the entire world
in his bony hands
And she shuddered, but not entirely with loathing. "You... you are Fa… You're not human -"
"Shh," he whispered, stroking his fingertip along her lovely high cheekbone, cupping his hand behind her beautifully sculpted head. "My dear, neither are you, any longer. You have given in to Another, been hollowed out by something greater, for a higher purpose. Your own will and personality became the perfect home for a Force beyond what any mere human could encompass. The same happened to myself and my Immortal Comrades, many years ago…" His breath fluttered across her lips as he came closer still. "Ah, Signorina… So beautiful, so deadly... you are a Sin..."
Eustacia-Gluttony felt it now, clearly, for what it was. What it had always been, lurking deep inside her mind and heart. She shivered again as his fingers worked her hair lose from its confinement, tangling in the long blue-black waves.
He was the same as she. They could work together toward the same goal.
His thin lips were on hers as she finally abandoned all control... and virtually devoured him with her own eternal, damnable, and unappeasable hunger.
Chapter 8: 2:02 Home Is Where the Heart Is
In which Newt tries to read graphic material, and Anathema is given an odd prediction about their baby.
IT WAS AN UTTERLY PERFECT late October evening in Lower Tadfield (which Adam hadn't actually had anything to do with, this time). The air was crisp and tasting slightly of wood smoke and apples. The trees were in so many brilliant shades of red and gold that the sunset was jealous and doing it's very best to outshine the leaves.
One couldn't have dreamed of a better place to bring up a child. And Newt, the expectant father, was beginning to appreciate having moved here.
He was driving home this Friday from his new job in Upper Tadfield, and once again admiring the simple wholesomeness of the entire area. It was old fashioned in some ways but still urban enough to stay in business. All the shops and offices were tidy buildings clustered side-by-side along neat little roads. And there were still trees and parks in the area, for employees to sit in while having lunch. It was rather charming, and quite different from where he'd worked in London.
Once he entered Lower Tadfield, it became almost exclusively residential. The houses were warm and welcoming, the yards large enough for any child to play happily in, and there were several wooded areas with little trails worn through them by generations of kids and adults alike. People went for strolls and rode their bikes and walked their dogs and watered their roses like something out of a 1950s TV programme.
When Newt had met his nearest neighbours, the Youngs, the image was driven further home. He already knew Adam, of course, from the boy's frequent visits. Adam seemed completely fascinated with Anathema and her pregnancy, which Newt thought he could understand as the boy was reaching what his own mother had called "that age".
Mrs. Young (Deirdre) stayed at home and cooked and cleaned and read womanly magazines, and was always tidily dressed. Thankfully she didn't wear pearls and heels all day, else Newt would have suspected her maiden name to be Stepford. Mr. Young (Edward) was just approaching the title of 'stodgy' with his pressed pants, two-toned Oxfords, cardigan and bow tie, which he did wear almost constantly. He was a pleasant enough fellow though, and the family had happily welcomed the Puslifer-Devices to the neighbourhood with a hearty handshake, a tasty casserole, and most shockingly, a job offer for Newt.
So now he worked as a junior cost accountant still-in-training. The company was actually paying for him to take classes twice weekly to catch up to speed. In a year he'd have a certificate that declared he was worth a bit more money, and already the money was far better than he'd been making in London. He found that he took to the job like a bee to flowers: diving in, bustling about, and then returning to his neatly ordered hive with the day's gatherings. And his hive and home was filled with honey sweetness as well, making the simile more perfect.
And Anathema surprised herself by taking to her new life with a passion. She'd lost her previously ordered life as a Descendant, and was throwing herself wholly into housewifery. She kept the house tidy, she cooked balanced and delicious meals, read good books, did a bit of yoga to keep herself in shape for the impending birth, and stayed busy and happy. She didn't quite live up to the pristine example of Mrs. Young, thank heavens, but she did a good job. Jasmine Cottage may have been hundreds of years old, and re-patched so many times it had only a single brick at the rear of the back porch that was original material, but it was cozy and bright and attracted not only good vibrations (encouraged with judicious placement of crystals sparkling along the windowsills and herbs hanging from the curtain rods) but attracted also the neighbourhood children. Adam and his best friends.
She was terribly fond of them and surprised herself further by baking cookies when they came by, though for some reason the children didn't have as big an appetite for sweets as she would have thought. This might have been because her cooking was completely organic and contained almost nothing that a kid would think of as "food", such as sugar or cow's milk or flavour. But it was quite healthy. Healthier still, in their minds, to be avoided except when Adam insisted upon their politeness in the face of his dearest adult – and pregnant – friend.
Anathema also found that the sight of her new husband in a suit and tie ridiculously attractive. And if she didn't have company when he arrived home, she would often prevent him from taking off his business attire right away. In fact, she often removed it herself, on the way to the bedroom. It was adorable how Newt still blushed. You'd have thought he'd be getting used to such things by now. But apparently twenty-plus years of celibacy left their mark and it would take a bit more time to get him accustomed to regular, er, intimacies. He'd worried a bit about disturbing the baby, but she assured him that the baby wasn't far enough along and therefore would mind being nudged around. And he'd blushed again rather furiously.
Every morning now had a delightful routine. They'd wake, bright and early, and snuggle just a bit before crawling out of bed. He would get ready for work while she prepared breakfast. Now that she was holding food down, it was much more enjoyable to be domestic. He would praise her cooking, which actually was rather good despite its all-natural-whole-grained-goodness, and they would then kiss goodbye at the door. And it was a good thorough kiss too, not just the simple peck on the cheek. No, he'd get a solid snogging before walking out the door, which made his entire day a bit brighter.
As Newt turned Dick Turpin down the lane toward Jasmine Cottage, a now-familiar swell of somehow excited contentment made him sigh. He truly felt rather stupidly blissful most days, being married to such a fascinating woman, who actually seemed to find him interesting as well. How had he gotten so very lucky? It had all started with a 300-hundred year old prophecy. If he'd been able to find Agnes Nutter's grave *, he'd have willingly dug down and stomached shaking hands with her skeleton in thanks. Well, maybe not. But he definitely had fond feelings toward the old girl. **
Today, as he entered the drive, he saw another car. Parking to the side, he thought he recognised it as belonging to the mother of one of the neighbour children.
Indoors was a red-haired woman, who covered her freckles far better than her daughter by using lemon juice and avoiding the sun, sitting at the kitchen table and talking animatedly with Anathema, who was tending the supper already cooking on the stove. Martha Kirby was about twelve years older than Anathema, but seemed very girlish still. She was laughing brightly at something Anathema had just said, and Newt saw they had spread out on the table a deck of Anathema's tarot cards. He was sure he'd heard something about Martha reading cards semi-professionally, but he wondered what Anathema could possibly be learning as she was quite the expert herself.
"Newt!" Anathema said with a huge smile as he poked his head round the corner of the kitchen. She left the stove to hug and kiss him lightly. "Come on in. I was just reading for Martha and we've come up with an idea. Or rather she'd already come up with the idea and teasing me by letting me read her cards and see it all for myself. Cheeky thing," she nudged the other woman's arm and they laughed again.
Newt's blank yet puzzled face made them giggle again. "Dear, I'm going to be working. We do need the money and it's something I can do part time without having to leave the house." She smiled down at her friend. "Martha's given me her clientele for readings, and is making sure they understand the rates are the same as she charged – which, by the way, aren't shabby at all. Isn't that wonderful?"
He gaped briefly but recovered quickly. It really was an excellent solution to their still shaky financial status, and he thanked Martha heartily for her tremendous offer. Then he left the two of them to their women's chatter and went to change into comfort clothes. It seemed that any, er, intimacies were to be postponed but he would survive another hour or so.
He found himself staring at one of the copious books on childbirth Anathema had begun hoarding. They were new books with shiny covers featuring smiling parents cradling their rose-cheeked newborn, all of which cruelly disguised the horrors within, consisting of extremely graphic and colourful descriptions of what to except in another five months. He had attempted to read them but kept going pale and needing to sit down and put his head between his knees. His wife intended to be the most totally prepared new mother in the history of mothers, and considering that Agnes wasn't around to tell them what to expect, then Anathema would tell herself in no uncertain terms.
Newt suspected she was as bloody terrified as he was, but less willing to admit it.
The gruesome tomes beckoned to him in a grim whisper and he sighed, heeding the knell of doom. He was excepted to be just as prepared and really didn't want to create a row. So he got a glass of water and a damp cloth for his forehead, then retired to the newly organised nursery. He sat in the rocking chair beside the crib (both of which they'd gotten for a song at a recent estate sale Adam had heard about) and opened the first book.
A few minutes in, he closed it, put the cloth over his eyes and gave a soft, pathetic moan.
In the kitchen, Martha was helping Anathema by cleaning a few pots and pans. Suddenly she asked, "Do you want to know the sex of your baby?"
"Oh," said Anathema, "I thought I'd let it be a surprise, and we're stocking baby clothes that are completely unisex. We don't intend to develop a gender-defined bias so early. Although," she grinned, "I know it will be a girl. Instinct."
"Psychic, more like," Martha grinned back. "Hey, why not let me do a reading for her. Never done one for someone that young before. Let's see what happens, eh?"
"Yeah, why not." Anathema wiped her hands and they sat at the table again. Cards were shuffled and cut, and Martha began to turn them over in three sets of three.
"First let's see what she was in a past life... Ah, what an auspicious start! The Ace of Cups. Total love and healing, how wonderful. She must have been special indeed. And the Sun, how nice. Someone who enjoyed their life to the fullest and brought light to all they touched. Now theSix of Pentacles. A giving and charitable soul, making sure the less fortunate were taken care of. Seems like your child used to be a saint, dear." They both laughed. It was rather implausible, but a nice sentiment.
"Now to the present, the influences around her now, even before birth. First up is… Temperance. That's probably the calm way that her parents are trying to be, even though we know they're nervous. That angelic aspect could come in handy for keeping the balance. Next is the Six of Wands, a bright young man who has just returned victorious from battle. Hm, perhaps your Newt, having gotten a good job? Seems likely. And now there is the Hanged Man. Interesting. A great sacrifice made to gain something even greater, a big change in one's outlook and life. Can't quite imagine what that might be. Unless it's simply becoming parents."
"No," Anathema shook her head, thinking of how she'd given up Agnes' book willingly though regretfully. "I think I know what that's about. I'll tell you someday, I promise."
"All right then, luv," Martha gave her trademark broad smile. "Now let's look toward the future. This is the first time I've tried reading so far ahead. I mean, you've still got seven months to go, and my readings have never been for more than a month at a time. Not only is it hard to see further ahead, but it keeps 'em coming back more often, if you know what I mean." She winked.
Anathema laughed, though she knew well some people – long dead people – could indeed see much further ahead. She understood the need for letting the common masses believe otherwise. Scarcely a one of them had so much as a metaphorical toe dipped in the dark ocean of the universe, and were all firmly sitting on the beach well away from the tides, under an umbrella, sipping the icy margarita of psychic obliviousness. Lucky bastards.
"Okay, let's try it, shall we? First is the Seven of Cups. A bit of deception there, false hope or false promises, being offered suspicious things. Or maybe just head in the clouds. I'm not sure what to make of that one. Perhaps it's all the worried anticipation you've got to be experiencing. I know you and Newt are anxious."
"Who can blame us," Anathema sighed. "First time for everything. Nerve-wracking when, for once, you don't know what's coming."
"Isn't that the truth. Okay, next card… Six of Swords. Oh, how interesting. We've had three sixes now. Don't suppose that's bad news, eh?" Martha chuckled, obviously not at all serious.
Anathema smiled but it was a bit strained this time. She hadn't noticed 'til Martha spoke it, and somehow it didn't feel quite as funny as it ought to. Coincidences were not her fortè, and she really did remember far too much of Something that had recently Happened to the world. Not in detail, but more than enough to give her the shakes.
"Anyway, we know this card of course means a distant journey to an unknown shore, led by forces unseen. Well, that is likely just the birth itself. The baby can't really know what to expect, now can she? I'm sure that's what it's all about, eh?"
"I'm sure, yes," Anathema continued to smile, though now she began to dread the final card.
"And now the last one… I… Oh, dear. That's rather a turnabout from the first, isn't it? Ah well, I shouldn't have expected an accurate reading for a baby not yet born, and trying to see so far ahead. Clearly this can't be right, so... well, best not even think about it, right, luv?"
Anathema agreed softly, and smiled as she walked with Martha to the door. She assured her that she would be ready to take the first tarot client by the next evening, and would make a small sign for the front door. And they said their goodbyes.
She walked back to the table where her cards lay openly displaying the Devil at the end of the set.
Anathema knew perfectly well the traditional meaning of the card: self-induced limitations, being bound to old and bad habits, and so on. But the image of the Ultimate Evil dredged up further memories that had been buried somehow, and she wasn't mollified by tradition.
She sat staring at it until she heard Newt's footsteps coming down the hall. The cards were gathered up and stuffed back into their box and she stood and they had a wonderful supper and she made herself think no more about it.
The dose of valerian (safe enough even during pregnancy) that tranquilised her dreams from becoming nightmares helped a great deal.
* Which of course she didn't have, being scattered across half a mile along with everyone else in her ungrateful village.
** He might have been pleased, not to mention shocked and slightly freaked out, to find out that she knew this. (Ah, but we musn't get too far ahead of ourselves!)
Chapter 9: 2:03 Hazardous Guesses
In which Ginger must try a new technique for translating Agnes' prophecies.
GINGER WAS IN HER TASTEFULLY DECORATED, yet still entirely humble home, inside her personal library, hunched studiously over her 1837 cherry wood secretary desk. This sat beneath an enormous charcoal and pencil sketch by Chasseriau, of Christ kneeling before the cross, held itself by angels. The final image of Christ In the Garden of Olives was breathtaking, but this had been Ginger's first real art acquisition, and it was still her favourite.
She was currently puzzling over Agnes' book. The first three prophecies were extremely easy to decipher, as they were directed at Ginger herself. She knew that it meant the book was destined to be hers, and that she was undoubtedly the only one who could manage the task of unraveling the madness within.
But after those few lines, things became hideously more difficult. Such inanity as "55: Myne spirit ariseth throue smoke and flames and til my return I remayne in the black wode" and "82: Lo, the serpynt and thee healer seek a new passtyme that vexeth them both", were beginning to vex Ginger herself. After the first page, everything had become schizophrenic.
That sort of thing, according to her new Boss, was typical. And very possibly true.
But Ginger pressed on nonetheless, hardheaded as a rhinoceros and equally likely to stamp flat the fire of her frustration.
Yesterday she had, on a whim, abandoned her usual way of tackling a translation – which was start at the very beginning and trudge obediently through to the ending – and simply opened a page at random and try to make some sense of anything at all. She was shocked and a bit affronted to read:
278: Owle Maiden thinks she can easier guess my wordf by cheating. Tis not so. Go unto the final page and ye shalle find only another riddel.
Huffing with indignity, she turned to the last entry on the last page of the text and read:
4227: Once apon a tyme, theire waf an angel and a daimon and who liveth together in peace and harmonie in a cottage onne the Southernmost Downef. Thee rest of the storey sharl be found inn the Pagef of Life. So ye should back yerself up and read alle the wordf properlie.
Oh, Holy Spirit, the cheek of this woman! She was like the devil, leading Ginger deliberately down a path and then taunting her from beyond the grave with a fairy tale and chastisement. The very fact that she was capable of doing this gave Ginger a small and nearly imperceptible psychic jolt.
But Ginger stuck to things better than the toilet paper one never knows is on one's heel coming from the loo (at the Ritz, no less), until lifelong humiliation has already been ingrained upon the psyche and you can never show your face in public again.
So she would be forced to do what Anathema's entirely family line had done (though she knew it not). Start a catalog on note cards and cross-reference everything. She sighed to think she was becoming a librarian in her old age. Using note cards would make it more difficult to carry to her volunteer job. Opening a notebook was easier by far. But obviously Agnes didn't intend it to be easy on any level. Ginger must not only translate the text, she must determine the entire order of events from the mishmash, and she must do it strictly on her own time away from work.
Oh well, she squared her shoulders and fetched some blank recipe cards from the kitchen, sure that her cook wouldn't miss them, and made a note to herself to have the maid run out and buy some real note cards later. She turned back to the last passage she'd read and transcribed:
16: Upon the Great Circlef the Lamb hoppes and bends and hoppes again, and picks up thee stone that winf the game. The Disciplef are pleas'd whereupon they eat of sweet bread and sweeter wine the Dove hath made.
Ginger was pleased to know that the new Christ would have his Disciples back and they would be there to aid him, feasting upon bread and wine conjured by the Christ himself. It seemed to indicate that the Christ would move about from place to place, covering a great distance, and eventually triumph. She still wasn't sure about the Great Circle, but that would come with more research.
Then she turned the page and was immediately struck by the next passages.
17: In the Hous of Sweet Blossom the Lamb doth wait for its hour, as New Jerusalem lookest upon the open'd bellies of those gravid and falls ill.
18: The Ladie of God's Home lays out three Fates for the Dove and struck fear into the Accursed Plann'r, who rememberf more of World's Ende than she thinks.
19: When the date of Resurrection in the year after thif books finding cometh, the Antichrist and the Two Powers sharl shouwer down upon the Lambe.
Ginger couldn't yet fathom what all of it meant, but she was sure of three things:
1. The Christ was currently in a place of great terror, with a flowery name, where pregnant women were tortured. Ginger knew that New Jerusalem was the title to be given to the returned Christ's bride, which might mean this was set in the very distant future. She hoped not, as that would mean she could not locate the Christ until he was much older, and that thought filled Ginger with dread. Of course some scholars thought the wording was metaphorical, indicating New Jerusalem was to be a perfect city, as near Heaven as one can find on earth. And this might be a clue to his location. The Boss had only said that the child would be born somewhere within the United Kingdom, but that was all he had the ability to be sure of. *
2. That a godly woman would predict to another woman, a cursed and evil one, that the Christ was fated to change all her plans. Ginger couldn't be sure if this had happened yet or was destined to come – Agnes' timelines were proving to be as tangled as the Gordian Knot and the Minotaur's Labyrinth combined. The pagan bitch. However, if the scene were set in the future, then perhaps it might be a reference to Ginger herself, striking a blow of fear into the heart of someone evil. She felt an inward swell of joy. Certainly not pride, because that was a sin.
3. That sometime, probably around Easter, the Christ was in deep trouble indeed. Her Boss had told her the Antichrist was on earth already, had been for several years, and had already caused trouble enough the past summer, though the world didn't end, how fortunate. That explained what Ginger had sensed in August, the microscopic shift in everything that made her run to the Holy Land for spiritual confirmation. But who were these other Two Powers? Demons? Hellbeasts at the Antichrist's command? This was the only passage giving a definitive timeframe – next year. Approximately six months from now.
Somehow, she had to speed up her research and find this child before it was harmed. The world's salvation depended on the Christ's return. And upon poor, dear, modest Ginger's great abilities to cut through bovine defecation.
She would seek out houses with flowery names. Where in all of England to begin that search, she didn't yet know. Luckily her cousin Philip was a highly respected Post Master in Ireland and it was possible he could lend a hand, especially if Ginger reminded him ever so gently about the way he kept that bottle of 'medicine' and those magazines of 'prurient interest' in the drawer of his desk at home, which his properly abstinent (in every way) and extremely shrewish wife didn't yet know about.
* Ginger had once asked why her Boss didn't just take the book and read it himself. He had given her One Of Those Looks and said he couldn't touch the blessed thing so could she possibly shut up and simply do her Sacred Duty. She determined afterward that, no matter how personally embarrassing it might be to wear protective absorbent items in one's undergarments, it was far less embarrassing than not wearing them.
Chapter 10: 2:04 Laying Waste
In which Pollution returns, and makes friends with the second Deadly Sin
ENGINEERS TYPICALLY PUT IN RIDICULOUS HOURS, about 50-60 hours per week, working on their projects. Usually this is accomplished with 50 hours at the office and another 10 working on home computers. But most of them have families that, for some reason, demanded their attention as well. All in all, they average 108 hours not working on whatever it is they're being paid to do. That time is often used for recreational activities, such as boating, golfing, playing with one's children, intimate relations with one's significant other, and is even used for eating, sleeping, and bathing.
Virtually all of these things were considered wastes of time by Amelia Titian. She had no family, no hobbies, no desire for recreations. She worked almost inhumanly long hours designing software and various gadgets for a Swiss company. She averaged 120 hours on the job every week. She'd been doing it for nearly two years now. She did this of her own free will and at her own request.
Her co-workers were, in one capacity, grateful to her. This freed them up for even more time away from the especially tedious parts of the job. They were all already making more than enough money not to miss five or ten hours extra hours.
In another capacity, they thought of Amelia as a freak and an utter fanatic and were just as happy to be away from her as from the job. That, and she often forgot to bathe for a few days at a time until someone would leave a gentle but pointed note (anonymously) in her vicinity, knowing that she would eventually look up from her computer and see it and wander away to the toilet long enough to at least sponge down. She had the privilege now of her own bathroom just for this purpose.
Some of the kinder-hearted co-workers brought her lunch, also left for her to eventually discover. And someone had stashed a blanket and pillow beneath her desk, after having found her asleep there a number of times. She didn't sleep much, but when she did she scarcely had the ability to leave and go to her flat. There was some debate as to whether such a place existed, though the personnel department had an address, in a very seedy area, on file. Amelia was known to occasionally leave the building and return with a small duffle bag of extra clothes, so it was assumed she went somewhere that resembled a home wherein these things were kept. Although considering the state of them, she might just as well have taken them out of a dumpster, where it had likely been thrown by a homeless maniac. Even though there was a general dress code, her employers ignored it for her sake. She was never near the public eye, so it wasn't an issue.
The company tolerated her eccentricities because she was a bloody genius who'd made them more money than their fevered brains could conceive of. She was the top designer in their company, and rapidly becoming the top in Europe. She held numerous patents, and could have retired at age twenty-five but likely would have gone even more mad from lack of work. Her brain seemed to work in another dimension entirely, one that operated at speeds unheard of by mortal man.
Today, the last day of her normal life, Amelia had been slaving away for 15 hours and now her neck and back were stiff. She actually began to notice these things and her deeply buried and sadly ignored survival instinct bit her sharply. Coming back to something like the waking world, she blinked stupidly for a moment, took a deep refreshing breath to clear the staleness out of her lungs, and regarded her surroundings. Himalayan monks, had they even heard of her, would have been jealous of her ability to move so easily in and out of various states of consciousness.
She realized she was somewhat hungry and definitely thirsty. There were the always mysteriously present bottles of water and cooler of sandwiches present, and she made swift work of it all. Now that she was somewhat revitalised, or had at least staved off death for another day, she leaned back in her chair and considered what to do. Probably a quick rinse off, change her clothes, take a nap, then maybe a stroll outside to stretch her stiff joints. It had been a few days, and the blood was beginning to congeal. Searching under her desk for her change of clothes, she found the duffle empty. She'd forgotten again to go home and replenish her supply. Sighing, she stood, wobbled, then shambled out of her office. She not only ignored the sign some wag had taped to her door – declaring her as the Rain Woman – she actually failed to see it. She probably wouldn't have known what it meant anyway. Amelia hadn't watched television or seen a movie in twelve years.
She was pretty sure she remembered what direction her flat was in, and headed that direction. It was half a mile away, but she didn't really notice. A bit like a machine herself, as long as she was turned on, had enough power and the gears were functional, she just kept going. And eventually she reached the neighbourhood she nominally lived in.
It was not a good area. It was, in fact, an area that had decided good was a bloody nancy and had beaten up the very idea and taken its lunch money.
But no one would have bothered with her, the way she looked. Poor and shabby was an exceedingly polite description, though only one applied. Her jeans were so frayed they were held together by a single long thread and a few judiciously applied staples. Her hair, short and always tousled (not even artfully) was dyed a brilliant orange that looked like toxic Kool-Aid which quite possibly had been used in the colouring process.* She wore scuffed old boots that seemed to have been worn by many generations of soldiers who'd spent a great deal of time storming through the sewers. Accounts of her t-shirt were best left to the imagination, though it would have to be quite a sordid imagination. It had probably once been a shade of orange to match her hair, but had given that up for lost long ago. Her eyeglasses were covered with fingerprints and bits of electrical tape because taking them in for proper repairs was a waste of time that could be better spent at work.
Amelia came to a spot where a decision had to be made. Either go the long way around a curving block of flats, or wend her way through an alley between buildings as a shortcut. It was a terrible place, that alley, and if she'd been the least concerned about it she'd have kept her possessions, such as they were, in a better area. On hot days, it reeked enough to melt paint. Garbage overflowed the bins and dumpsters. Rats the size of quite large Chihuahuas called it home. There were a few sewer drains here, and it was fairly obvious that they didn't really transport waste so much as gather it into the alley for some nefarious purpose.
It was horrible. But, if you held your breath it was several minutes quicker than taking the far longer and healthier way around the buildings.
She didn't like wasting time on trivial things. She'd already wasted enough time on the walk home anyway. Work and production were what she craved. She made hay while the sun shone, and for her it shone like she was mentally living in the Arctic circle. In other words, a lot.
Taking a deep breath of already fetid air, she began the trek through the alley. And saw something that couldn't help but stand out in this particular scenery. Pure whiteness.
Yet this struck her as not being suspiciously, eerily out-of-place. Any normal person (which was a relative term, anyway, for someone braving the alley) would have backed away and chosen a different route. But this vision compelled her, pulled her forward. As she got closer, she saw it was a young man with pale flowing hair, dressed all in white. He was standing near a sewer grate, which burbled appallingly, and yet his shoes hadn't a speck of filth on them.
And she heard him speaking, softly and fluidly as though reciting a love sonnet. "So lovely... so lovely... oh, how I'd missed this decadent beauty... so blessed am I, to have returned to this world… this vision of glory..."
Her own voice somewhat croaky due to having mostly forgotten how to be used, she said, "Are you… lost?"
He raised his eyes to her, and she saw that his skin was also very pale and his eyes a misty grey. It was as though his entire being was bleached. And he was more than handsome, he was beautiful.
"No," he said quietly, smiling at her, "I am never lost so long as the world continues to rot. And we are all rotting together, aren't we? In one lovely cesspit, in an eternal brotherhood of corruption."
It was bizarre and oddly poetic. And said with such clarity, such focus. He saw the mess of the world and didn't believe it to be hideous... nor did he think it was redeemable. No, he saw it as part of the cycle of life and death.
Fascinated, Amelia came closer still. The boy's face was peaceful, almost angelic as he regarded her. When they were only a foot apart, he lifted a long-fingered artistic hand to touch her cheek. As she stood there breathing foul fumes that would probably kill her if she lingered, she shivered, aware of something deep and profound happening inside her soul.
His other hand came up and he removed her glasses. Beneath them, unlike in proper B-movie clichéd fashion, she really was quite plain. Her eyes were near-sighted and a sort of light reddish-brown.
In his gentle voice, he said, "Tell me... what does this world hold for such as you? What is it... that you see?"
Without hesitation she whispered, "I see decay and entropy. Humans who don't care what happens to anything or anyone, including themselves. They sit all day, wasting time watching television, playing video games, eating, drinking their lives away. All of their natural energy could be funneled, focused, used on better things. Making a difference in this world, creating, helping, healing. Sweating and working, saving their planet and themselves. But the majority waste their lives. They cannot be bothered to do anything the hard way anymore. If they could find some way to flip a switch and turn their entire lives off and on at will, they would do it without a qualm. In fact, they'd probably prefer a remote control. Even better, a thought-controlled device, so they don't even have to lift their lazy fingers. The world is apathy and atrophy. It's falling to pieces. And it's their fault. They created the mess... they have the power to clean it up. But they don't. They won't. They are lazy and selfish and don't really care. They all deserve to wallow in their own messes and suffer, crying in rage at the destruction of their world because they couldn't be bothered to stop it..."
And Something Else that had been long coiled inside her soul exploded gently.
Amelia shuddered, closed her eyes and clung to the young stranger's arms. He waited, patiently, kindly, until she opened her eyes again. She could see him for exactly what he was now...
…the sewage and trash overflowing bins rotting in the sun flea-ridden rats gnawing at the bones of discarded food heaps and piles and mountains of everything humanity no longer cared for...
covering the entire world in its own waste
killing it with disease and suffering
cleansing it of the wretchedness of humankind
He was everything foul and putrid.
And yet he was still, inexpressibly, beautiful.
"Welcome... my dear Sin, my friend," he whispered with a smile that spoke of affection and kinship, "together we shall aid in the downward spiral... we shall push the wheeled handbasket of humanity all the way to Hell's front door."
"Yes," she breathed in ecstasy. "Bring them to me, and I shall give them everything their slothful hearts crave. I shall make toys for them to play with, to waste themselves with, to rule their lives. Whatever they desire, they shall have... including the End."
His gentle fingers entwined with hers and he led Sloth from the alley. They felt as slick as oil and slime... but it was so wonderfully companionable that she couldn't be troubled to pull away.
* Sadly, she hadn't even done this to herself. An employee of her company had, upon being told his projects were being given to Amelia, had waited until she was unconsious beneath her desk, and done the job himself. And no, she never even noticed.
Chapter 11: 2:05 Dire Necessities
In which Crowley takes cold showers, Aziraphale worries he will go blind, and Hastur is nauseated.
THREE MONTHS HAD PASSED. Three sodding, dreadful, enormously tense months, like large white rather heavy seabirds dangling from one's neck. Crowley was virtually twitching, ready to explode with impatience and thwarted desires and, of all things, guilt. And all because of the angel. Though the angel himself hadn't personally done any of the thwarting.
"Blessed angel," he muttered to himself, fairly regularly, "What in fucking Heav- ngk's name possessed him to kiss me?"
He'd gotten no answer to that. Not that he'd actually gone about asking a question to get any sort of answer to.
Crowley felt like an idiot, which wasn't exactly his favourite thing to feel. Prior to all this, he'd have said that sensation belonged to several things at once. The Bentley as it drove along at top speed. Fine food and wine as it was savoured on his palate. Neat technological gadgets as he played with them. Fashionable clothes as they hugged his handsome frame.
Now the only driving, savouring, playing and, God help him, hugging he seemed interested in were aimed toward the damned angel.
And so far nothing had succeeded in duplicating the initial experience.
It wasn't entirely because Aziraphale now seemed shy. Actually he seemed rather oblivious, as if it hadn't happened. And it wasn't entirely because Crowley held back. Much. He didn't want to force himself in Aziraphale's face, though he certainly wanted to lock lips. He thought about that almost constantly now, much to his annoyance. The biggest reason was the freaking streak of bad luck with regards to repeating the encounter. Every time he came close, something bizarre happened during the attempt.
He waited a few days after that first kiss, mulling things over, before going back to the book shop. He barely slept, in fact, for all the thinking he'd done. It had hurt his head. Then he reached a decision. "That's it. Gonna do it. Gonna march right in, grab him, snog him stupid… see if I get discorporated…hope it'll be worth the effort..." And very nearly talked himself out of it.
But he did it anyway. Marched up to the door, fully prepared to grab the angel and express his desires in no uncertain terms. Threw wide the door to dramatically announce his intentions. And the door bounced hard against the wall, ricocheted back in his face and clocked him soundly. He'd actually briefly lost consciousness and was awakened by a very concerned Aziraphale, hovering over him on the sidewalk outside as he healed the demon's black eye and chipped tooth. This event flatly discorporated Crowley's desires for the rest of the evening.
His next attempt, about a week later, took them strolling through St. James Park. Aziraphale really liked his stupid waterfowl and Crowley had always indulged him. Winged things were drawn to the angel, small surprise. They went to the edge of the lake, Aziraphale tossed all his bread to the ducks and swans and grebes, and Crowley suggested they sit on a nearby bench to soak up the small amount of sunlight left before it disappeared for the entire season. Aziraphale joined him happily, and Crowley sat a bit closer than they usually sat together, and was slowly edging his thigh toward Aziraphale's thigh in a rather school-boyish effort to touch him. When suddenly the aforementioned waterfowl took it upon themselves to leave the water and swarm onto dry land. By the angry dozens. Aiming straight for the bench.
The reason, Aziraphale assured him (after Crowley miracled away the scratches from being pecked and the offending splatters of unmentionable bodily wastes on his shoes and trouser legs), "It's all because you've been, shall we say, less than hospitable toward them, dunking them and so forth, and they simply decided enough was enough. You really must learn to be kinder toward all God's creatures, you know." Crowley's ardour was as dunked as the ducks of the past, and he moped his way home, alone.
After that it was one blasted thing after another.
He took Aziraphale to an artsy film house and made the juvenile attempt of yawning and stretching his arm out to ostensibly put it around Aziraphale's shoulder. And punched a man solidly in the eye. The poor bloke had leaned forward to stand up, and was none too happy with Crowley's behaviour. Though he could have easily made the man forget the incident, he feared reprisal from Adam. There was very nearly a fistfight before Aziraphale forced him to apologise and they left the theatre quickly.
He went browsing with Aziraphale at an antique shop, feeling much abused by that very fact. The angel leaned over a glass case filled with trinkets and Crowley decided to lean over as well, hoping to brush his hand over Aziraphale's casually on the way. And his hand went straight through the glass plate and shattered several precious and expensive items, not to mention lacerating himself. He left his credit card with Aziraphale and excused himself out the door in order to heal things up without being seen. The angel paid for the damaged goods and gave Crowley quite a look of exasperation upon departing.
When he was very nearly flattened by a taxi in front of the Ritz, as he merely put his hand on Aziraphale's elbow after exiting the Bentley, Crowley began to think he was cursed. Well, of course he was already cursed, but now it was in a way that interfered with his libido. And that was not a happy thought.
Crowley had already taken as many cold showers as his quasi-reptilian nature could endure without inducing hibernation. He'd even tried a more hands-on method of reducing his frustration. But any hot-blooded (and he was, regardless of that snake-ish aspect) male-formed entity knew that was a weak substitute for the real thing. G-d, how he wanted the real thing. And G-d, how frustrating it was all becoming.
So he decided to forget it for a while. Just wipe the idea of touching Aziraphale from his mind. Concentrate on something else, anything else. And after a week of that, he realised it was not only futile but he really didn't have anything else to concentrate on. His existence to this point had been tempting and messing about, and it really had been a lot of fun. He'd been good at it. He was a pro. Being retired in his prime was tragic, a real loss to the world of wickedness.
There no other choice before him. It was either get into Aziraphale's pants… or get into someone else's.
Good old Adam Young hadn't said that would count as messing about, had he? Crowley wasn't about to phone the lad and find out. But he would happily test it for himself if it meant getting rid of this chronic irritation.
He hit the hottest Soho spot known for that sort of action, a fairly trendy (by Soho standards) night club. The girls were mostly dressed in space-age clothing that resisted gravity entirely. The boys apparently were all aiming for soprano in their church choirs, judging by the cut of their trousers. Crowley was easily flash enough to draw the eyes of both genders and he knew it. He first considered a pretty young woman who was chatting him up shamelessly at the bar, but brushed her politely off when an even prettier young man caught his attention. While Crowley had never been particularly concerned with how his orientation might be viewed, especially since he'd never really considered it to be an issue, he'd only ever tumbled with women. Suddenly he found himself with a pressing need to try the other side. And this boy was fair haired and blue eyed, but definitely not soft in any fashion. They danced a bit, bumping casually into one another, then retired to a dark corner to see what other sort of dancing might develop.
There was a bit of Frenching, a bit of pawing and petting, all very pleasant. And best of all, no bodily damage. Nobody's important fleshy parts getting dashed to bits by zippers, tongues getting pierced without it being deliberate, nothing Crowley secretly feared. It was all very promising… until Crowley felt a twinge of guilt. At first he mistook it for an odd bout of indigestion. But when it persisted through several minutes of heated making out, he lost his edge and had to concede defeat.
The truth was, he saw nothing but Aziraphale reflected before him in his choice of partner. Though Aziraphale may have recently confirmed his status as twixter, and though he wouldn't have been caught dead or alive wearing leather trousers, a mesh shirt, black eyeliner, or nipple rings... Crowley simply could not banish the vision.
He regretfully pushed away from the young man and stomped out of the club. Pausing under a streetlamp, he sighed into the cool night air, his breath blowing steam that looked more like smoke.
But he never noticed the steamy, indeed actually smoky, breath from the doorway behind him. Nor the red glinting eyes behind red tinted glasses, above a grinning row of fangs.
LITTLE TO CROWLEY'S KNOWLEDGE, Aziraphale was suffering terribly as well. At least, he told himself, he had lots of things to occupy his mind and his hands. Reading books. Fixing the binding on books. Selling a few books. Lots of things. Yes, lots.
Unfortunately, for the last three months since the Apocollapse [¹], he'd been reading books of a nature that only heightened his suffering, though he always hid them when Crowley came around. Allowing the demon to see such things would have been like tossing filet migņon into a den of peckish wolves – they didn't give a fig about the fancy cut of meat but would still eat it whole. And Aziraphale wasn't even close to a conclusive answer on the matter. He was still utterly unsure about how to handle the problem now developing, all thanks to his impulsive move.
What the hell had he been thinking, kissing Crowley like that? Had he really thought the demon would accept it as chaste and meaningless, just an 'old and dear friends' thing? He was losing his touch in his old age, entertaining that notion.
And he wasn't blind. He knew what Crowley was trying to do. It was getting stupid, all the feeble attempts at a pass Crowley was making. One would have thought the demon, he who had tempted Eve, was a tempting novice. But Aziraphale couldn't give in to that temptation, not yet.
Damn and blast, he had let his own libido escape its ancient and ironclad bonds, which had cleared rusted straight through. The wretched thing was constantly pestering him now, creeping up on him during the long nights he sat reading. It brooded like a cranky old hen. It whined like an newly weaned puppy. It hissed in his ear like, well, like a snake. Ignoring it was becoming more bothersome than indulging it.
And then one night he fitfully locked himself in his never-before-used toilet, turned out the lights so the right hand (and his eyes) didn't see what the left was doing, and ministered to a human function of very bawdy nature, for the very first time. It was certainly not recreational, far from it. The action had been purely necessary so he could concentrate on his normal daily routine. At least he'd assured himself beforehand that it wasn't a sin. If one wasn't expected to fulfill a command from On High to produce an heir for anyone (and since one didn't even possess procreative faculty in the first place) then it clearly didn't count. Probably. And anyway, it hadn't helped for very long. So he'd had to do it a few more times.
Damn and blast again, he didn't know how much longer either of them stand it before they simply gave up and assaulted one another, probably in some inconvenient place like the middle of Piccadilly Circus. Right under the statue of Eros [²], probably, appropriately. Bloody Angel of Christian Charity, his arse.
Truthfully, it was only fear of Falling, fear of missing some crucial but minute detail in Scripture, or something official he'd been told and somehow forgotten in the distant past, which kept him from simply throwing Crowley to the floor and ripping the demon's clothes off with his teeth. God help him, he was terrified of being wrong.
So now he had taken to actually getting out and exercising a bit, walking through the neighbourhood more often, taking more time to talk with people and less time just sitting about and enjoying his own company, because his own company was getting rather tetchy. Being around other people lifted his mood most of the time, and when he encountered anyone needing a morale boost, he felt the familiar happiness of simply being an angel, meting out his own special brand of encouragement. A little divine light was hardly amiss, even Adam would have to admit that it made the world a slightly better place.
Often, when he returned from his solo perambulations, there was a tall, thin man-shaped being that watched him from the shadows, long coat fluttering lightly in the chill night winds. But Aziraphale never noticed.
"BONCOS, BOTH OF 'EM. Pair o'nudgers. Makes ya wanna puke, dunnit?" The tall man grinned around his stub of cigarette, enjoying the acrid smoke in his eyes. Reminded him of homefires and brimstone.*
He was mostly talking to himself. There were a few street people lurking (not so well as him, of course) in the shadows nearby, but he hadn't directed the comments to them. They clung to his presence like psychic fleas, especially in the larger cities. It had surprised Hastur just how often the mentally ill saw him for what he was and didn't cringe. Pity they were useless twats.
He stood watching the bookshop as its lights went out for the evening, and put out his cigarette. He didn't stub it out, merely smoked it down to the final ember, after which he lapped out his slightly barbed tongue to pull it into his mouth. Smoke curled from both nostrils for a moment. Then he turned and walked away.
First he had followed the demon, then the angel. And then both of them together. He'd been doing it for months now, off and on, and hadn't found the right opportunity to strike. "Summat wrong with it all," he grumbled to himself, "summat tainted 'bout Crawly. Can't get through it, can't get the bloody bugger… Gotta be that jobby angel. Some kinda divine mojo he's worked. Bloody Crawly's halfway ta being rogered and halfway back ta Heav-t'Other Place. Pissin' me right off." He slashed out his claws at a nearby brick wall and left marks that would, the next day, be pointedly ignored because they clearly could not possibly have been caused by anything resembling a hand.
Watching these two was turning his stomach into marshland – squelchy, full of unseen wiggly life forms, and often a bit gassy. Normally this would have been fine. But he preferred to achieve that level of disgustingness on his own time. And since it was proving fruitless, it was time to move on, time to work on the rest of his Plans.
Hastur wanted to raise an army, gain control of the sort of people who could influence other people into giving him everything he wanted. Which was partly Crawly, partly the world. But his Big Plans weren't manifesting very quickly. Also pissing him off.
He'd counted on the blindly religious to be his key to success. It hadn't turned out as planned. True, they had all bowed before him. But a goodly number had suffered immediate heart failure or brain implosion, rendering themselves useless. A large part of the remainder had followed up by suddenly re-devoting themselves to the Other Side, making themselves even more useless. And most unfortunate of all, the few servants he had fully bound to himself were very nearly the most useless of the lot. Because they were poor. The only real patron he'd garnered was an old lady in Wales who had a bit of money and stronger heart than most.
Generally, the rich and well-off weren't nearly as religious as the poor, it seemed. Come to think of it, that was the way it always had been. The leaders of the Church were often the richest and the most debauched. He remembered the Borgias with great fondness. Some of his work, actually. He missed those days. Big money bred big wickedness. Whereas the poor seemed to get by on promises of glory in proportion with a life of pain. If that was the case, there were a hell of a lot of poor sods larfing it up Upstairs now. None of which remotely helped Hastur's current situation.
He wasn't nearly clever enough to have thought of robbing a bank. But that just goes to show how old fashioned he still was. Earth wasn't changing him, because he was too busy trying to change the world his way. He did, however, know that taking over the world in one fell swoop ** would raise alarms that he wanted to keep silent for a while longer. And the worst part was he couldn't use as much of his normal powers as he'd have liked for the same reason. Short bouts of changing appearance was virtually all he dared do. Causing mass damage and teleporting were right out, would be noticed instantly. Thus he'd learned the annoying way about buses and trains and hitching rides. Pissing him off still more.
He was, however, clever enough to have read a few newspapers and listened to a bit of gossip. There was a lady who might be of use to him, and she didn't need to be religious for him to get what he needed. She just needed to be less clever than him.
* Except they didn't allow it inside the Gates, to the continued bafflement of most Hell dwellers. Perhaps management considered the usual smoke to be adequate for ruining one's lungs… not that anyone used them anyway.
** Which he was utterly convinced he could do, thanks to his Great Hellish powers. Also utterly failing to remember that a young boy in Lower Tadfield would have known faster than even Hell and sent him back there with all due haste. The former Duke hadn't become a duke through mental prowess.
 Borrowed from whom, I truly don't immediately recall, but I think it may have been Vulgarweed. Mea culpa, yet again.
 Actually this statue is Anteros, brother to Eros. Seriously, do a bit of homework, not kidding here.
Chapter 12: 3:01 A Change of Pace
In which Adam has a slightly more grownup dream than he's accustomed to.
AFTER DINNER, ADAM YOUNG went to his bedroom to ostensibly doing his homework. It would eventually get done. But right now he was lying on his stomach, sprawled across his bed, watching a rerun of an old cartoon and absently scratching Dog behind the ears.
It was December and the weather was getting quite cold, and as his parents had consented to Dog becoming a member of the family, they had to admit it was too cold for him to stay outdoors. So he was allowed a special bed, a bowl, and the privilege of waking people when he needed to use the facilities, i.e. not the kitchen floor, thank you very much, or there would soon be a doghouse outdoors with his name on it. Dog had learned quickly to control bladder functions until one of the humans responded to let him out, with the knowledge they would let him back in again. It was worth the concession. Former hellhounds weren't that fond of sleeping in the cold.
But Dog hung out fairly often in his Master's room anyway. When he could find a place to burrow under the copious piles of crap, that is. Sometimes it was easier just to stay in the laundry room where his own stuff was kept. If he brought any of his own toys into the room, they seemed to vanish into a black hole. He still hadn't located that chewy rubber bone and he'd spent quite a while digging. Even underneath Adam's bed. He was fearsome, but not enough to brave that again.
Dog rolled onto his back, legs comically curled in the air, and was rewarded with a tummy scratch. Ah, life was good.
Adam smiled at his fearsome beast from Hell. All of the world and everything in it was his. But everything was already just fine the way it was. No need to go changing stuff.
Especially since Christmas was just weeks away.
He was looking forward to vacation and presents. He idly flicked through the channels on his television and marveled at the newest, coolest toys being advertised, as well as the items being marketed toward adults. His own parents didn't usually indulge in such things as expensive and trendy colognes or glittery diamond tennis bracelets *. He'd only ever seen his dad get things like a new tie or a pair of hedge clippers, and his mum something like a waffle iron. And the older his sister got, the more she received nothing more interesting than a fluffy looking jumper. He couldn't really understand why they bothered giving each other things they could just go and buy any old day down at the shops. Especially jumpers, geez.
But toys and electronic games and new bikes and sporting gear… those were things he instinctively knew were true Christmas gifts. They were things you didn't run out and buy every old boring day. Firstly because they were too expensive for casually plonking down that much cash, which mum and dad weren't made of, you know, as he was often told. And secondly because you got to spend all year gazing worshipfully at them in the stores or on television, coveting them will all your heart, hinting at your parents for months, leaving out catalog pages, and finally begging rather pathetically to do extra chores for eternity, or at least until Christmas, to get them. It was worth the effort to see what you wanted arrive almost magically on Christmas and feel as though your anticipation, all your wishing and hoping and pleading, had paid off.
He knew that two of his friends still believed in Santa Claus, even though they denied it a bit. Wensley was too educated for that sort of silliness. And Adam… well… he knew Santa didn't actually exist, not in the real world at is was. And he also knew that if he wanted Santa to exist, that he would. But that would just be too complicated in too many ways, so he allowed for continued non-existence. Better for everyone that way. It was simpler believing in one's reliable old parents to come through once more.
Adam was whiling away his homework time by reading an old comic he hadn't read for a few months, listening to the television in the background, and contemplating what he wanted for Christmas this year. He was fond of a particular game that featured ninjas battling pirates. Ninjas were a fairly new concept for Adam and he vowed that, come spring break, he and his cohorts would be playing a lot of them outdoors. The idea of being able to sneak up on anyone, totally unseen until you struck your deadly blow, was an appealing one. Not that he actually would do that, even though he could. Wasn't polite, really.
He yawned slightly, and realized he'd better get to his homework before turning in. He rolled off his bed and sat at his desk for half an hour, actually working.
If he had especially boring work, such as math, he still used just a tiny part of his powers to enhance things. The teensiest tweak of the universe to have bits of the hardest problems drop into his head, and then he worked out the rest of the it by himself. He didn't entirely cheat, and he never used the ability while at school or taking tests. Unless one of his two friends who weren't so in love with school they'd studied for everything in a previous lifetime (i.e. Wensleydale) were in danger of totally failing a class, sometimes he would nudge enough of an answer into their heads to get them through. Because failing would mean being grounded and thus not being available for anything fun, and Adam wanted his friends to have fun. That was all he did. Just the littlest, itty bit nudge. Nothing to feel awfully guilty about.
Tonight it was only a bit of geography and history, easy enough. The first subject never changed unless someone decided to rename a whole country again, like they did in Western Europe a lot. The other subject never changed at all and therefore was incredibly boring but pretty easy to remember if you really wanted to bother. Names and dates. It was 'written'. He probably could have found a way to go back in time and change things that didn't suit him… but the thought was a little overwhelming, even to him. so he declared it off-limits entirely. Let the world get on with living and making new history. Safer.
When homework was finished, he killed another hour doodling ideas for his own comic book. He'd been drawing again since August, a lot more than before. It was an outlet for all the things he thought about but wouldn't let himself do. The newest comic featured ninjas and pirates. It also included little bits of what everyone had experienced four months prior and couldn't recall. He didn't think he'd be showing it to anyone for a long time. Didn't want to jog any memories that might actually be able to remember.
Adam hated that he had to play it so safe. But he also knew it was necessary. Maybe some day he could fully be himself again... No time soon, that was certain.
He yawned once more, hugely, and gave up drawing for the night. He turned out his light and crawled into bed, still thinking of Christmas vacation and presents. And decorating the house. Decorating was one of the 'chores' he actually enjoyed. He made cut-out snowflakes and glued cotton balls onto construction papers as snow or a beard for Santa-shaped figures. And he helped his mum decorate the tree with lights and coloured balls, and handfuls of crinkly silver stuff nominally called icicles **. Last year had been the first time he'd been allowed to climb the ladder to place the angel on top.
Hm. Christmas. Angel. That was something he needed to take care of, and soon.
He got out of bed again and opened the door. "Dog, go on, you better leave the room," he whispered so his parents wouldn't hear. "Dunno if you're gonna be comfortable with what I'm 'bout to do, being what you sorta still are…"
Obediently, Dog jumped off the bed and walked out. He was lucky to have such a thoughtful Master. And he was looking forward to some alone time for gnawing on his favourite rawhide anyway.
Adam went back and sat on his bed, cross-legged. He breathed deeply, the way Anathema's books on meditation said to do, and worked on centering himself. But as he was always perfectly centered anyway, he just skipped over that and went on to the humming, which also didn't make much sense.
He gave up, opened his eyes and looked straight upward.
His mind's eye looked a very long way past his bedroom ceiling. And his mind's voice spoke a tiny and exceedingly polite request quite softly.
An infinitesimal line, impossible for Anyone to notice that wasn't meant to notice, opened in the aether. And a message of Biblical proportions flew faster than light to another realm beyond the world. And an answering Smile was sent back.
Adam smiled too, with a sort of gentle satisfaction. All would be well.
The last thing he did before going to sleep was construct the mental bubble he'd been putting around his bed since late August. After seeing what his dreaming mind could do, bringing his entire imagination to life, he'd decided it really was best to seal himself away. He drew a circle in the air with his hand, creating a sphere that hissed and sizzled in the unseen aether for a moment, then sighed. It really was quite sad to have to do this. He loved the world though, and wasn't willing to have dinosaurs and aliens and other things the average person couldn't handle going around scaring them.
Tonight, when Adam dreamed, it was a very good thing he had kept it locked inside.
HE WAS WALKING THROUGH A FOREST. The scent was something like the woods around Lower Tadfield, but the sounds were very different. Bird calls he'd never heard before. Small animals running the brush that he'd only glimpsed in books and couldn't remember the names for. And, he realised, trees that didn't really look familiar either.
He came through the woods to a beautiful wide meadow. Four brilliantly coloured figures, too bright to see any features, were hovering above the meadow, one at each corner, slowly floating across it and away into the distance above the treetops. The sun shone, bright but not overly hot, on strange plants and strange animals. He was surprised to see so many varieties in one place. There were common animals like dogs and squirrels and cows, but they were right alongside antelope and penguins and tigers. There were animals he didn't have names for. It was a zoo without any cages and nothing was eating anything else. At least not that he could see.
When he saw a pack of wolves – which he knew perfectly as being carnivores from watching nature shows – were eating grass amongst a flock of perfectly delectable sheep instead of regarding them as the buffet they obviously were, then he knew something was amiss. Well, not exactly amiss. In fact, it seemed oddly normal.
One of the sheep stepped away from the flock and came toward him. It looked up and he patted its soft white wooly head. Then it changed shape beneath his hand, unfolding into a girl with soft dark curly hair. The girl stood upright and it became instantly clear she was not a girl but a woman. Taller than Adam by nearly a head.
And, he noticed with sudden heated embarrassment, totally naked. Even though her nearly black hair was very long and covering virtually everything really important, he still blushed furiously and turned his head.
He'd never had this sort of dream before. It was disconcerting. But in a somehow appealing way.
The woman reached out her hand and took his chin in her fingertips, turning his face back. She smiled the most beautiful smile, her eyes warm and understanding, but somehow innocent. They were beautiful eyes too, a shade of bluish grey that held a shade of violet when the light hit them just right.
Then she spoke, and her voice was like music.
"Adam. You have come back to me. I have come back to you. Will you not hold me again? Kiss me?"
He shivered but he wasn't the least cold. He knew he was too young to be thinking about such a thing, especially with someone clearly about twice his age.
But she was perfect. She was his, truly a part of him.
When he reached out his arms, he saw they were changed. Larger, more muscular. Older. In the way of dreams, he saw his entire self and it was grown-up. He had gained two feet of height. His hair was longer but still blond and curly. He had a beard. And he, too, was naked.
This time, it didn't embarrass him, not even when he noticed a certain outstanding feature below the waist that he'd read about but never witnessed before.
He stepped into the woman's arms and when they enfolded one another, it felt as if the entire world sighed along with them. Nothing could possibly be wrong about this feeling, because nothing had ever felt so perfect. The world was theirs. They were the world. It held secrets they hadn't yet discovered, because it was so new and not everything had been named yet, but they had time. All the time in the world…
As they were falling gently onto the grass, just as he was about to discover what other secrets could be discovered, just as he was whispering her name against her lips…
… There came a hideous cacophony of words and music in his ear that shattered the perfect world. His alarm clock blared in his ear, announcing it was morning and he was back in the more familiar world. For a fraction of a second he thought he could see the woman, just beyond the edge of this reality, watching him… but she faded with the glare of cold sunlight and the warbling of the latest pop diva on the radio.
He slapped the clock fiercely. He was grumpy, truly grumpy, for the first time ever. He felt it deep inside, too. Somehow, he'd lost his perfect center between last night and this morning.
This was not a good development.
As he kicked off the covers, he noticed another development. He was sporting the same outstanding feature as in his dream.
He blushed furiously again, and began to hyperventilate just a bit. No wonder he felt off-balance. This signaled something he knew he couldn't avoid any longer. Or what he could have avoided entirely if he'd thought about never letting it happen, never changing.
Puberty had marked him. It had trekked into his body, carrying its knapsack of hormones, and would soon build a campfire and roast marshmallows over his fevered brain.
Damn. He was growing up.
* Why anyone would wear such a thing while playing sports, he couldn't fathom. One of the mysteries outside of his personal universe.
** He figured he ought to keep Dog away from the icicles, because he'd heard a story from one of the boys at school who also had a dog. The animal had eaten a few of them and it came out the other end in a rather unpleasant way, stringing together a set of decorations his mum was very unhappy to see beneath the tree on Christmas morning. The dog wasn't very happy about it either.
Chapter 13: 3:02 Under His Wing
In which Aziraphale is given his ultimate assignment, and Crowley pouts.
NEARLY THE END OF DECEMBER, Aziraphale mused, his cheeks red as he puffed out steamy breath into the frosty air. Snowflakes were gently falling, light and fluffy, it looked like bits of Heaven drifting down to Earth.
Somehow, he and Crowley had patched things up. Not a word had been spoken about their mutual difficulty, of course, it just wasn't the right time. But by silent agreement they were getting along as before the kiss, and even managed to look one another in the eye again.
Of course they hadn't resolved the real tension, meaning they hadn't given in. It was merely a matter of time before the tea kettle boiled over again.
Speaking of which, a nice hot cup would be marvelous just about now.
He entered the bookshop, shaking the snow off his shoes at the door. Trundling to the back room, he quickly prepared his tea and curled up on the sofa with a blanket. He should probably turn the heat up and bit, as he was actually planning to open the store today. Christmas was a week away, and there were more frequent shoppers actually wanting his wares, and especially gifts for children. There were plenty on the shelves now, thanks to Adam, and if they could be afforded, he would sell them. He was still a businessman, after all.
Aziraphale rather enjoyed Christmas time. Even though it reminded him with a small twinge of the unpleasantness two thousand years earlier. And it had become incredibly commercial and trite and overdone. And families, shut in during bad weather, had a tendency to bicker more than usual. Nevertheless, there was a general feeling of good will and anticipation of enjoyment. Some people did still manage that, for short periods.
And decorating was fun.
He had hung garlands of greenery and bright red ribbons at the windows, and a sprig of mistletoe over the door. He knew very well that most of the symbols were pagan, but it still seemed so festive that he couldn't be troubled to worry. God wouldn't mind his nailing a few bits of leafy material to the walls in honour of His only Son. At least he'd stopped short of buying figurines of Santa and the reindeer. That entire myth still baffled him.
His tea nearly finished, there came a knock at his door, and Aziraphale rose to attend his customer. It was instead a delivery man.
"Morning!" he said cheerily, wiping his boots on the rug. "Lovely day, isn't it? I mean we're getting a bit of snow, but it's nothing like a couple years ago. Quite a storm then, eh? I remember how nice and clean it all looked, then it all turned to black slush in about an hour, thanks to traffic. Darn shame, that. And it was muck to walk in, that's for sure. And me having to get in and out like I do, delivering-"
"Er, is there something you wanted?" Aziraphale interrupted as politely as only a British man can.
"Oh! Goodness, yes," the man grinned sheepishly. "Courier message for Mr. Fell."
"Ah, yes, that's me." Aziraphale took the clipboard, signed his name, and took the envelope. He kindly tipped the man, who touched his cap with a big smile and departed.
Aziraphale tossed the envelope onto the counter for later and would have returned to his tea, when he saw the envelope's edges were glowing very slightly. His heart fell into his stomach, then rose to his throat, then couldn't decide which way to go and bounced painfully throughout his thorax.
A message from Above. Probably not good. Was it a reprimand? A commendation? Was he still on the payroll? Was he being recalled Home?
Was he in deep shit?
He would never know unless he managed to brave the very long three steps it took to walk to the counter and pick up the envelope, open it, and read it.
It felt like the Green Mile.
Carefully tearing open the seal, he took an actual breath to bolster himself. Inside was a glowing piece of parchment. He gingerly unfolded the paper. He read it. He paused and read it again. And again. Well. Perhaps this wouldn't be so awful after all. Though it was certainly puzzling.
He would have to tell Crowley. Though he wasn't sure he wanted to.
And speaking of the demon, he appeared. The doorbell jangled cheerily and he snarled upward at it "Blessed bell, blessed cold...," he muttered.
Then he spotted the decorations. And more specifically the mistletoe. Oh now, that couldn't be left alone. He decided to break the strain, the last two weeks of pretending he wasn't dying of horniness, and speak up. If Aziraphale took it as a joke, or if the ceiling fell in on his head because of his strange bad luck, then he would risk it.
He grinned, quite serpentine, and looked toward the angel. Who hadn't even looked up when he entered. Crowley's mood took a sharp dive. "Aziraphale, you're breaking a very old, very sacred tradition here."
"What?" Aziraphale glanced up, then seemed to finally register Crowley's presence at the door. "Tradition? Sacred?"
Crowley grinned again, pointing upward to the leaves and berries overhead. "Don't want to anger the Christmas gods, do we?"
Pursing his lips, Aziraphale snorted. "If you think references to paganism will accomplish your goal, you'd best recall to whom you are speaking, serpent."
"All too well," Crowley grumbled. To be contrary, he refused to move from the doorway, even when it was obvious Aziraphale wanted him to follow to the back room.
Eventually the demon reached up and ripped the mistletoe down and snarled at it like it belonged in his flat. "You traitor," he hissed. Leaves in fist, he stalked to the back room where Aziraphale was brewing a second pot of tea, and re-reading a letter that glowed suspiciously.
Crowley's libido was suddenly halted. "Oh, shit. That's from Above, isn't it?" he breathed.
"Yes, dear, it is," Aziraphale sighed, and poured a cup for each of them. He knew exactly how Crowley preferred it now, and added far too much sugar and a dash of milk before setting the cup into his hand. "Are you planning to keep the plant, another victim to harass?"
The demon sighed as well, and laid the mistletoe down on the counter. "What the hell do they want?"
"Not that, I assure you. It's... it's an assignment, actually."
Secretly greatly relieved, Crowley sighed. "I guessed as much. Doing what?"
"Well, it's odd really." Aziraphale was just about to sit down on the sofa, when the front bell rang again. "Oh bugger," he breathed, surprising Crowley, "I should have turned the Closed sign." He excused himself and went out, leaving Crowley to snoop at the letter himself.
The demon didn't risk touching the paper, because he wasn't sure just how holy even a memorandum from Heaven might be. This meant that he had to grab the mistletoe and nudge at the paper to turn it over. When he read it, his eyes popped open wide. "Bless me," he whispered. Then he tucked the mistletoe into the breast pocket of his coat and went out into the store.
Where he promptly turned pale, stunned at the view.
"Oh, Crowley, ah, you should probably meet Mr. and Mrs. Pulsifer-Device," Aziraphale said with a rather harried expression. "It seems that we're all going to be seeing a lot of each other for a while."
Newt and Anathema stood in the middle of the floor, looking shocked. Anathema less so than Newt. He had suddenly recalled a specific piece of his previously blurred memory of Armageddon.
"You... you're... both of you were..." Newt sputtered and pointed back and forth between the two other men, nearly dropping several packages he carried.
"It's all right Newt," Anathema said softly, shifting her own packages over a bit, making it more obvious that she was four months along in her pregnancy. "I think they're angels."
"But..." Newt's jaw flapped a bit, then snapped shut when Crowley laughed aloud.
"Half right, miss. Er, Mrs.," Crowley said. "He's an angel. I'm a demon. You're a witch. You're... I'm guessing, a chartered accountant or something." He grinned toothily. "Now that we've all been re-introduced, more or less, I think I'll be leaving. Aziraphale," he turned to the angel who looked quite worried. "Have fun with your new job and I hope we run into each other now and again over the next eighteen years or so though it's not bloody likely since you'll be playing nanny for these two and don't call me when you need help changing nappies, eh? Arrivederci."
And the demon stomped out the door, slamming it rather harder than necessary.
"... Demon...?" Newt whispered, finally giving up and dropping a few packages.
"Yes, but he's really not so bad," Aziraphale said. "Just a trifle rude sometimes. Er, perhaps you'd both better come into the back room. I've just made some tea, and I think... we should talk."
"SO, YOU'RE SAYING THAT YOU'VE BEEN given instructions, by Heaven, to be a guardian angel for our baby?" Newt asked several minutes later, halfway through his fifth cup of tea.
"Yes. Well, not a guardian, so much as the Guardian, capital letter. Apparently it was a request from... a young neighbour of yours." Aziraphale wasn't sure how much he was supposed to be telling them, because it was not only his first time playing guardian, but he'd been under the impression it was supposed to be done secretly in the first place. They'd spoiled it by showing up and actually recognising him for what he was.
"Oh," Anathema said suddenly, "it must have been Adam. He seems rather taken with the idea of this baby."
"You... know about him?" Aziraphale asked, even more startled.
"Somewhat," Anathema frowned, as if trying very hard to push a memory forward. "I know he's different... important... He's got something to do with the world nearly ending, or not ending. Just like you and that other... one."
"The world nearly ended?" Newt said quietly. "Well, that explains a lot." He wasn't handling this as well as he'd have liked. It probably had something to do with the fact that he was about to take his new wife to Dorking to visit his parents for the first time.
"Yes, he was... is... er, the Antichrist. But that doesn't mean he's a bad person," Aziraphale said, hesitantly.
"No, I think I'd know if he was. A bad person, I mean." Anathema smiled. "It all makes sense now. I think, somehow, we'd been made to forget a lot of what happened, weren't we? Just to protect us and let us go on living normally."
"Yes, precisely," Aziraphale nodded. Thank goodness the young lady was sensible. She definitely had her ancestor's mindset about things. "You know, I really didn't expect to be given this assignment. I'm not sure what to do, really."
Anathema smiled again. "Well, I shouldn't think it will be too hard. We're going to be fine without a guardian angel."
"Oh no!" Aziraphale said urgently. "I can't not do the job. Even if you don't want it, it's already been Decreed... And Adam asked for it, a child's prayer, and from a child of great power. I'm not sure it's wise to ignore it."
Newt said slowly, trying very hard to digest such bizarre things, "Okay. Adam Young is the Antichrist. And he prayed to God, whom I'm not sure I even believe in. For an angel. Which is supposedly you. To come and watch over our baby."
"Er. Yes." Aziraphale could see this was going to be harder than he'd hoped.
"Um. I know that I saw you just a few months ago. You and the man with the sunglasses. And I remember... strange things happening, though I suppose I might have been delirious from bumping my head when I crashed my car. But seriously... an angel?" Newt tried desperately to look skeptical. Yet he was having troubles allowing himself to disbelieve. He believed that Anathema was special, and that she fancied herself a witch, and was certainly rather psychic... but that sort of thing was easily acceptable somehow.
Aziraphale sighed. "Very well, I suppose it had to happen eventually. You understand I'm only doing this because, well, I'm going to be the child's guardian whether any of us like it or not. And there's nothing in the assignment that says I can't be up front and open about what I am. Usually, we're supposed to be more, er, subtle, but... Fine."
He stood up, shook his shoulders briefly, and with a wince as his shirt ripped along the back, unfolded enormous wings. They weren't white, but a soft dusty blue-grey with white speckles and golden-brown bars on the longer feathers. But they shone with heavenly light anyway. They were a tad messy as he hadn't opened them since the Apocalypse, but undeniably huge and real.
"Does this satisfy you, Mr. Pulsifer? I can perform a few tiny miracles, but I'd rather not show off too much more, if that's all right by you. I'm basically a very, er, modest sort overall, if you couldn't tell by the environs I inhabit." Aziraphale gave a kind and hopeful smile.
"I think," Anathema said, a bit breathless herself at the display of wings so huge and strong that they could well have broken a fragile human body, "that we're fine with the situation. Thank you. They're, er, lovely, Mr. Fell, very impressive."
"Aziraphale is actually my proper name," the angel said, folding his wings away and making them vanish. Just because he didn't have a spare shirt downstairs, he gave in and miracled his clothes repaired.
Newt was pale and goggle-eyed. "Wow," he breathed, "should I be, uh, dropping to my knees and praying, or something?"
Aziraphale chuckled gently. "Goodness, not to me, no. I'm just a messenger, protector, and healer. I'm not God."
Anathema cleared her throat. "Um, well, I guess that's settled." She looked toward Newt for confirmation but he was still staring at Aziraphale. "Anyway. Er. I don't suppose you'd care to visit us at home? We're having a sort of Christmas celebration. Several of the neighbourhood children seem to be very fond of us, and as it's our first season together and the first in town, they were all keen to welcome us. So we thought we'd have a little open-house sort of thing. Bring a goodie, bring a gift, whatever. But, um, I don't know what angels think about parties and Christmas..."
"Oh that sounds delightful!" Aziraphale genuinely beamed at them. He sat down across from the couple and smiled with all the warmth he possessed, which was a considerable amount, leaving them with a deep down feeling of contentment. "I would very much like to join your celebration. And I shall bring along a housewarming gift. I haven't been really closely involved with a human on such a level in, oh, just ages. Rather detached influences, that's all I've had for such a long while."
Anathema actually felt herself feeling sympathy for the angel. She too had been detached from normal society most of her life, and though she hadn't missed it due to her calling, now that it was over... she was finding that she rather liked the people she was getting to know. She leaned over and patted his hand, surprising and pleasing him. "You're welcome to come by for more than just Christmas. Naturally, as you're the Guardian now… Er," she looked to Newt then, and bit her lip, "unless there's a problem."
Newt finally seemed to notice her, and smiled. "Do we have a choice? By which I mean, of course, he's always welcome."
CROWLEY DROVE FOR SEVERAL HOURS, fuming to himself. The Blaupunkt was now blasting AC/DC, as he'd discovered lately how angry he could get and how refreshing it was to shout along to obnoxious noises. It felt liberating. He'd stocked the Bentley's glove box with a wider selection of tunes in the last couple months - The Who, Sex Pistols, the Kinks, Rolling Stones, etc. For some reason, he'd found it more and more necessary to listen to loud music. It used to be classical, to soothe himself when he got annoyed. Now he wanted to let it out and scream.
Why was he so angry? Damned angel didn't care if he was angry. Damned angel had an assignment now, one that would keep him busy for nearly two decades. Guardian Damned Angel. And all Crowley had to do was screw around without actually getting laid. Maybe he should do what he'd said months ago, get some kind of job.
He hated to admit it, but he was angry with himself most of all. Wanting Aziraphale had become an addiction. Crowley had seen humans with addiction problems and been incredibly grateful not to be one of them. The tension, the sweating, the abandoning of personal ethics *. The isolating, the betrayal and lying to loved ones, wrecking of lives and abusing everyone in their path. All just to achieve the next high.
Crowley now understood. He didn't think he was getting bad enough to attack anyone... except maybe Aziraphale.
The thought of being patient enough for the angel to come around nearly made him bite through his steering wheel. That could take eons. Crowley's libido might well spontaneously combust before that happened. He'd dropped enough hints, for Anyone's sake. What did he have to do? Drop his damned trousers and say, Lunch is served, have a bite, and there's plenty for leftovers.
Crowley drove on at high speed, his anger making him lose just enough control of the Bentley that it skidded in the snow. He jerked the wheel hard as the car spun wildly across the lane and ended up facing the direction he'd come form. For a few moments he sat there, breathing heavily from surprise. Then he pounded the steering wheel in frustration. He couldn't even drive away from London. He was doomed.
Leaning his head backward onto the seat, he sighed unhappily but he was thinking more clearly.
Aziraphale. Guardian angel. Oh please. He was hardly suited for such a job. He didn't know how to handle the children of this era, he'd proved that in August at Warlock's stupid birthday party. He'd lost control of them within minutes. And an infant? Just forget it. The angel was in over his haloed head.
Why… if Crowley didn't step in and either put a stop to it or help out, the angel would be pulling his hair out within a month. Crowley would have to bite the bullet and be a, pardon the pun, Good Samaritan.
The fact that Crowley knew even less about raising children than Aziraphale meant absolutely nothing. He could learn faster than the angel, who was slow and plodding in all his ways (which he was proving by his bloody ignorance lately). He would help out however he could, and such an effort was bound to mean something, anything, toward winning the angel over. Besides, it would ensure that he stayed close to Aziraphale. Maybe he could eventually knock some sense (or sensuality) into that stupid blond head.
Crowley carefully turned the steering wheel until the Bentley was settled in the proper lane, and slowly made tracks back to London. If he could concentrate enough to forget the snow existed, he might get back in time to accompany Aziraphale to dinner.
AZIRAPHALE SAID FAREWELL to Newt and Anathema, who were on their way to meet Newt's parents where they were spending the night. And Aziraphale himself would see them again next week in Lower Tadfield. He did wonder what the Antichrist would think of his plans to bring Crowley along. Of course, he'd have to ask Crowley first.
He rang Crowley's flat but got no answer, and didn't really feel like leaving a message. Sighing, he decided to go out and have dinner at one of the smaller restaurants nearby. A bit of casual company and conversation, a tad of warm food and drink, was just the thing on a cold winter evening.
As he neared the intended café, he frowned at the new shop half a block away. It had opened a mere month ago and had been utterly packed to the rafters since then. Even now, people were spilling into the sidewalk, regardless of the snow. It was yet another coffee shop, one of the franchises that seemed to be springing up everywhere, apparently founded a famous Italian chef who had finally gone commercial. The coffee came in literally hundreds of gourmet flavours and sizes with strange names like 'yocto', 'zepto', 'atto', 'femto', and the shops didn't serve any actual food but tastefully designed gourmet cakes and breads **. Aziraphale liked sweets, but he couldn't comprehend why anyone would spend so much time drinking coffee and eating non-nutritious tidbits. Certainly when they actually needed nutrition in order to survive. Which he didn't, of course.
The worst part, in his opinion, was the name. Mocha Dick? Seriously. Just because the sign featured a brownish whale in a sea of creamy foam, and just because that happened to be the name of a real whale, borrowed and altered by Melville for his book, didn't mean it was clever. Was it meant to be a reference to the enormous size of the coffee containers? Aziraphale was doubtful.
He continued on to his favourite little café, cosy and old and which served fabulous food. And he was just sitting down to enjoy a bowl of rather good chowder when Crowley came whirling in, dragging half the snow from the streets and plopped down in the chair across from him.
"Hello, dear boy. Care for some dinner?" Aziraphale smiled pleasantly and waved the waitress over.
Crowley ordered, and then took Aziraphale's cup of tea and refilled it from the pot, then drained it himself. He was shivering from the cold and from nerves. And now that he was in the angel's presence again, his nerve was cooling as fast at the weather outside. "Aziraphale, I... uh... we need to talk."
"Hm, that sounds rather like an ultimatum," Aziraphale said, raising an eyebrow. "Is something the matter?"
"Well, yes. Sort of. I'm not sure," Crowley huffed and ran a hand through his hair. "Are you really taking the Guardian gob?"
"Naturally. It's an assignment directly from On High. I'm an angel. I have to do what they say."
"Right, of course, no free will." Crowley sighed. "So does that mean you'll be... moving?"
"What? Oh, I shouldn't think so. I've chatted with the young parents-to-be, and it seems they quite content with the occasional visit on weekends and holidays. I'm looking upon it as a sort of honorary uncle position." Aziraphale beamed again, and Crowley could tell that the angel was quite honestly looking forward to the prospect. It was maddening.
"A baby. You really think you can cope with a baby."
"Of course. It's not as though I've never been around one before. Spend this long on Earth and you have to face it sometime."
"I haven't," Crowley admitted proudly. "Adults and teens only. Frankly they're still immature at any age, so what's the difference, I say. Babies are just, well, so little. And messy. And they can't do anything for themselves. You have to feed them, change them, rock them to sleep."
"Yes, and it can be very rewarding," Aziraphale smiled softly. "The bond between parent and child is stronger than any love I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a lot. There is a devotion that defies all troubles. And watching a child grow and develop, become a person of their own, go out into the world and bring their particular qualities and strengths to everything they do... It's wonderful to watch."
The warmth in the angel's face nearly singed Crowley. "Kind of putting a romantic spin on matters, aren't you?"
"Just as much as you're trying to put a dampener. It's typical of us, I suppose," Aziraphale said blithely, folding his napkin onto his lap as their dinners arrived. "By the way, I've been invited to Lower Tadfield for Boxing Day, a bit of a party they're having. Er... you could come along, if you haven't anything else to do."
Crowley nearly choked on his food. "Christmas party? Me? What sort of a horrible pun are you trying to set up here, angel?"
"Well, if you don't want to, you don't have to..."
"Right, and how else were you thinking of getting there? Flying? In winter weather? Miracling yourself there? Last time you tried that, you miscalculated where to appear and wound up smack in the middle of Vatican City. People still talk about it. Way to keep the faith going."
"Er, true. I'm not really in practice anymore. Do please consider coming along, Crowley. It's not as though anyone will be angry at your presence."
"I'm more worried about how far away to stay from the decorations."
"Oh, piffle," Aziraphale chuckled. "If that's all that's keeping you away, then you needn't fret. Christmas decorations, by and large, aren't really very holy. Perhaps the nativity scenes at very the most, and that would be pushing it. The trees, tinsel, and so on are no more holy than St. Patrick's day decorations. Honestly, Crowley." The angel was giggling in an infuriating way now.
"All right, all right. I'll go. But if I wind up with a rash, you're spreading the ointment on me, got it?"
Aziraphale smirked into his tea. "Of course, my dear, whatever you say."
Crowley found himself grinning in a lecherous way, though without being able to see his eyes, it didn't go over that way. Damn the angel, he was a flirt and always had been, now that Crowley stopped and recounted the millennia. And he was optimistic, once more, that somehow he would get what he wanted.
* Ethics were, in Crowley's view, not the same as morals. One implied a personal set of ideals to which a person tried to live his life, things that had already been consciously chosen and judged appropriate. The other was pushed upon one by religion and therefore was to be ignored.
** This was not, as many people thought, an attempt at being 'cute'. It was the ratio of real coffee to cream flavouring made of synthesized foodless material (also what the muffins were made of), which would eventually cause weight loss. Patrons were so thrilled by this fact they kept coming back and forgetting to leave long enough to eat actual food. And they were already so severely addicted to caffeine that they came back over and over to the shops until they suffered minor heart attacks. It was gratifying indeed to co-founders Sable and Livideo.
Chapter 14: 3:03 Blessings In Disguise
In which many characters enjoy a lovely Boxing Day together, and Anathema and Newt get a wonderful gift
FISH, IT HAD BEEN LOTS OF FISH. And bread, any sort. And grapes, though she really wanted wine but wouldn't allow it. Those were the things Anathema began to crave the past month. She liked wine and bread just fine. But she was vegetarian so the fish had troubled her sensibilities. Until Newt, dear thing, had pointed out most of her books said pregnant women often craved things they normally didn't eat. And some had gone for far odder things, such as paper, grass and even dirt. So fish was a small issue.
She was also somewhat concerned that she hadn't felt the baby move at all. But that, too, was supposedly normal until about the fourth or fifth month. It was simply hard to be patient. She could definitely sense its presence, but hadn't yet been acknowledged with movement.
At least today would likely take her mind off things. The very loosely-laid plan was to have some of the children and possibly a few adults come by later in the afternoon after they'd finished their own family gatherings. Adam had already expressed his determination to make it, and would do his best to drag at least one friend along. And Martha had promised at least a short visit to bring a gift she'd been working on.
Newt was nervous, though that was sort of a default state anyway. He'd been even more nervous, almost to the point of fainting, last week when they had gone to see his family *. But Anathema insisted that if he'd lived through that, which surely wasn't as bad as Armageddon, then he could live through a few hours of dealing with visitors.
Anathema had been cooking for two days, and for once she wasn't obsessing over how natural it was, thanks to her cravings and to the fact she'd finally begun to understand that normal children not raised on her type of food really didn't like her type of food.
Yesterday she'd cooked a turkey not made of tofu, stuffed with ordinary stuffing made of store-bought bread. The veggies were organic, however, as were the herbs she added from her own pots, but she found herself also seasoning some of them with bits of bacon. They'd eaten about half of everything, and the rest had been reconstituted into an enormous casserole to share with guests. And today she'd made a pie with white flour, white sugar, and non-organic fruit.
She felt slightly guilty, but also felt her mouth watering. She would live with it for now. Oh, she couldn't wait until the baby was born so she could return to her version of normal, and was bound and determined to raise the baby on the same foods. Newt secretly dreaded this, but not enough to protest and he certainly wasn't going to let the current fare go to waste.
In the meantime, he was still fretting over their expected guests. He was used to the kids, and Martha, and even if anyone else from the neighbourhood were to drop by he would be fine and dandy. It was the other one he was nervous about.
"Maybe he won't show up," Newt said hopefully as Anathema did the last bits of tidying up around the house. "I mean, it's Christmastime and he's sure to be very busy, being… what he is…"
"Oh, stop worrying. He may be a bit unusual, but he was very nice. And besides, he said we were his duty, so I see no reason to prevent his coming."
"Anathema," Newt said reasonably, as though he was merely quoting the newspaper's daily weather report, "the man has a twenty-foot wingspan. What if he were to, say, get drunk and open them in here, in front of guests?"
She stopped organising and looked at him oddly. "Newt, darling, he's not exactly one's Uncle Albert who has too much sherry and offers to show everyone the duck in his pants. He's an angel." She returned to fluffing pillows on the sofa with a huge grin on her face. "Firstly, his wings barely fit into his bookshop, and that was un-spread. Secondly, I doubt he'd be so utterly exhibitionistic. And thirdly, I doubt an angel would drink alcohol. That's rather a silly thought, isn't it?"
At least she was two-thirds correct.
There came a knock at the door, and Newt opened it to greet Adam, Martha and Pepper.
"Hi, Newt," Martha said effusively, "only brought Pep this time, Sally's down with the sniffles and stayed home with Charles. Thought it was best, not exposing Anathema."
"Oh, thanks for the thought. Sorry she's unwell."
"She'll be fine. Mm, that all smells so good, Anathema!" Martha had already moved across the room to help, as her friend was beginning to set things onto a table and lay out flatware.
Pepper was grinning too, and said hi to Newt, handing him two boxes. "Those're for you both. One's from me."
"Oh, well thank you. I'm, er, afraid that we didn't have gifts prepared for everyone. Things are a bit short for us yet, and –"
"Yeah, whatever," Pepper said, shrugging. "'S your house, so it's your gifts." She moved past and went to check out the goodies.
Adam was smiling at the entire scene, approving of its happy domesticity. "Besides," he seemed to continue Pepper's thought as if he'd spoken himself, "you guys're openin' your house and sharin' food. That's like your gift to us."
Newt blinked. He hadn't thought of it that way, but it did seem a reasonable idea. Adam frequently surprised one with his pithiness.
Adam handed Newt yet another package from himself. "I left Dog home, 'cause he doesn't like walkin' this far in snow and then he'd've dripped all over th' rugs anyway."
Half an hour of pleasantries passed by as everyone enjoyed company and food. Especially the pie, which Pepper and Adam had to admit was better than the sweets normally available at Jasmine Cottage. It seemed that no other guests would arrive, which was just beginning to relieve Newt, when his hopes were dashed.
There came a polite knock at the door, whereupon Newt was greeted by a warmly smiling angel in camelhair coat and tweedy sweater, carrying a pair of packages and (Newt grimaced) a bottle of wine. Behind the angel was a grouchy-looking demon wearing a long black wool overcoat and holding a potted plant. He gave Newt a look which, even behind sunglasses, said that if he were going to be invited inside it was in everyone's best interests that it be very soon because it was cold enough outside to freeze a snake's non-existent tits off. It was a very eloquent look.
Newt stepped aside, mouthing various welcomes, and the two mystical beings entered his home.
"Ah, dear boy," the angel beamed at Newt. "I haven't ever been to a gathering like this and wasn't quite sure what to bring along. The wine," he handed the bottle to Newt, "might be a bit showy for these circumstances, and considering Anathema's condition. But I must say it's one of my favourites and an excellent vintage. You can always keep it for later when she can safely imbibe. And these," he handed Newt the packages, "are for you both. I do hope they suit. Merry Christmas!" His smile was so bright it was a danger to passing planes.
"Er, we, yes, um. Thank you," Newt said, laying the gifts down and taking Aziraphale's coat.
The demon merely grunted, "House plant. Enjoy." He hung up his own coat.
"Ah, yes. Um…"
"Not here for your soul, if that's what you're thinking." It was, just a bit, Crowley could tell. He continued, "For me, that sort of thing went out with the Inquisition. Don't worry, just here with the angel. Can't ever seem to bloody get away from him…" The expression of puzzlement overlapping relief on Newt's face made Crowley relax a little also.
Until he saw who was inside.
The Antichrist was already greeting Aziraphale, who seemed a little surprised but quickly regained composure. The angel nodded and smiled, then moved along to the table and the edibles. Of course.
But Crowley was still riveted to the entryway, so that Newt had to squeeze around him, laden with all the gifts.
How had they not felt the presence of the Antichrist before arriving? Damn, the boy was still using his powers, masking himself from anyone who might be able to notice. That meant he had decided not to be entirely human. And that worried Crowley to his depths. Adam made him think too much of Hell, which then made him start to worry for the first time in months that Hell might not have entirely forgotten him after all.
Adam looked at Crowley with the same sort of piercing regard as he had that fateful Saturday at the airfield, and approached him.
To Crowley's everlasting surprise, he didn't back himself up and run for the hills.
Adam said in a soft enough voice that the others wouldn't hear, "'Glad to see you, ya know. Dunno why you'd think I wouldn't be."
"Er." Crowley felt what was left of his eloquence fleeing madly, as he wished he could.
"And you don't need to worry 'bout them Downstairs looking for you, either. That's all settled for now. Just c'mon in, enjoy yourself, for cryin' out loud." Adam's smile was meant to put the entire world at ease. He turned away and walked back to the table.
Even considering the minor mind-reading, Crowley felt a bit better. Then he saw something in Adam's aura that even the angel seemed to have missed. It was close to the ground and swirling like mist. Latching onto that movement, Crowley followed it upward. And then he grinned. The way that Adam kept darting looks at the red-haired girl at the table and finding someplace else to look when she turned his way, confirmed it. So, the boy was on his way to becoming a man. That was bound to be interesting.
Then again, it might be interesting in the way intricate wiring is interesting until you realise it's attached to a bomb. Raging hormones in a supernatural were clearly dangerous, as he was coming to understand. He backed up and was nearly through the entryway when Aziraphale looked up and called to him.
"Crowley, do come and try this marvelous strawberry-rhubarb pie Mrs. Kirby made! It's literally a slice of heaven."
And that was that. If he couldn't yet have a slice of angel, pie would do for now.
ANATHEMA WAS DELIGHTED BY THE potted plant, which was the most luxurious she'd ever seen. Its only flaw was a tiny brown spot on a single leaf, but she didn't notice at all, merely hung it near a window and praised its loveliness (the plant sighed in relief and relaxed for the first time in its entire life). She said that she loved growing herbs, and spoke longingly of someday adding to their income by selling them, either as home remedies or potpourri, she was flexible.
Pepper and Adam presented them with a pair of colourful blankets. They'd decided kind of together, Pepper explained, because she hadn't known what to get and Adam told her what he was getting and it just seemed easier to get two of the same thing and give it together because there were two people getting the gifts and besides Anathema was having a baby and they'd need to keep it warm too. Adam was surprisingly silent about it all, just ducking his head sideways a bit and nodding. Anathema thanked them both with a knowing smile. Apparently Pepper didn't yet have a clue what was happening.
Aziraphale's gift of an antique book on Lancashire history was greeted with momentary confusion. When he opened it to point out the very small passage mentioning her prophetic ancestor, Anathema nearly squealed aloud. His gift to Newt was a less antique book on computers and how best to handle them when you were rather inept at such things. Newt wasn't sure if he was supposed to be pleased or insulted. He believed it was meant sincerely, so he chose the former.
When it came to Martha's gift, they were all completely stunned. It was a box containing an envelope. She was almost unable to contain herself as they opened it and their expressions were virtually aghast.
"It's the deed to the cottage," she said, "I went over to Mrs. Henderson, who used to clean up here before you married. She didn't own the place of course, and I wasn't ever sure who did because it had been empty for so long. She checked her records and found out that it was owned by a man who had died a few years back. Ownership passed to his daughter, a Mary Hodges. I found her up at Tadfield Manor, that businessman's retreat thing –"
Crowley all but choked on the tea he was drinking, and Aziraphale patted him on the back. They looked at one another, knowing it could not possibly be coincidence.
"She didn't even realise she owned it, but I asked about her selling it anyway. Brought her around when you two were out and she went on and on and – oh my God – on and on about it. How lovely it was but what a fixer-upper and she couldn't believe it had slipped by her notice and what could she do to improve matters, ad infinitum. I began to fear she'd never give in, let alone give me a word in edgewise. So she went around back on her own – I was glad to let her – and when she came back to the front she was more than happy to sell it to me."
Here, Adam gave a small smile that went unnoticed by everyone but a pair of silently awed supernatural entities.
Neither Anathema or Newt could speak for several moments. Then Anathema gasped, "You can't – you can't possibly – the cost – we – I –"
"Dear, it was worth it to see that face!" Martha laughed. "And it didn't cost me anything, really. She didn't have a need for it, but thought you seemed like a deserving pair, so she sold it for the amount of a month's rent. I kid you not. It's still in my name, but I'm just about to sign it over to you this minute, and you can pay me back when you're able, no rush at all."
She pulled out a pen, scribbled her name on a line and asked Aziraphale to witness, which he did with a beatific expression, and then passed it over to the Pulsifer-Devices, who signed with shaky hands.
Anathema then immediately burst into tears and Newt simply sat there babbling incoherent gratitude. This seemed to be the signal for everyone to leave and they all gathered up their coats and hugged and kissed the couple at the door, promising to come by again soon.
The angel and the demon stood by the Bentley for a moment or two, and watched Adam come out the door. He smiled and shrugged as he went through the gates.
"Oh, he really has become quite a dear, hasn't he?" Aziraphale sighed. "He's not at all what anyone expected at all."
"Nope, just winning the world over one town at a time," Crowley mumbled as they got into his car.
When they'd gotten about a mile from the cottage, Crowley waited until Aziraphale was looking elsewhere while still going on about Adam, and the demon made a complex gesture with his hand. If Aziraphale was impressed by Adam's second gift, maybe he'd also be a bit pleased with Crowley's and find it in his heart to open up a bit more.
Back at the cottage, they would soon enough be surprised to find that a greenhouse had been added onto the back, fully stocked with everything a professional herbalist could possibly want.
But the best gift came later that evening, when the parents-to-be both felt the baby move for the very first time.
* His mother Edna had been gracious and warm, but obviously sizing up his wife and finding her ever-so-slightly wanting. Of course mothers always did that over their sons. His father, being the jovial type, had welcomed Anathema with open arms and asked about her interesting name, and told her the big family joke about having named Newton because his own name was Isaac, and how it turned out to be even more ironic since Newt aspired to be a sort of scientist, even though that had gone bust. Newt merely sighed at the old chestnut. Thinking on it, he did rather regret having given up computers as a hobby. He had discovered through his job, however, that his cursed touch had miraculously disappeared after the Apocalypse. He was hoping he could convince Anathema to let him start tinkering again, as it was now far less likely that he would cause anything to explode.
Chapter 15: 3:04 From Rage to Richest
In which Hastur meets the next Deadly Sin, but doesn't realise it.
NEW YEAR'S EVE. The entire world was celebrating. But Kogane Kabutihan was sitting by the window in her bedroom, nursing her rice wine in silence and darkness. To her, it was merely another year of being without what was rightfully hers.
She sat there sighing over what should have been. All her deepest desires and fantasies were as cherry blossoms. Beautiful to see, fleeting, and quick to decay.
Kogane was twenty-one, of pure Oriental blood, and very beautiful in a pristine way. Her dark hair was long but tidy and often pinned aside. Her eyes were golden-brown windows to nothing, as she kept everything to herself. And for tonight's occasion she wore a brand new, personally tailored Chinese-style golden silk dress, sewn exquisitely with a dragon on front and back.
She was rich, young and beautiful, sitting in a thirty-room Wiltshire manor as a hundred drunken party guests whooped it up downstairs, so why was she feeling depressed? True, some of the rich and famous are so jaded they might sulk alone at a party, especially if prone to depression while also drunk. But this was not the case for Kogane.
She had only recently become rich and wasn't exactly famous. She'd grown up in a small drafty flat in Manchester with her mother. Poor and unhappy, shabbily dressed, and embarrassed to go out due to the taunts of children only slightly less poor than herself. Life had seemed like a tunnel where there with no light at the end, not even the typical train. It was an unfinished tunnel, dead-ending in a stone wall. Fairly often, it seemed someone was trying to brick up the single open end while she was still inside.
Growing up, her mother had fed her largely on stories, told under the influence of much alcohol, about her noble heritage and the shame and dishonour brought upon them by Kogane's father. Kogane soaked this information up but was sworn to secrecy, as there was no valid to be taken to the world. Kogane, being a child well-taught in the ways of silence, held her tongue and remained forever demure in all ways.
What her mother had told her was this: As a teenager she had been engaged to Kogane's father, who was brother to the king of Shimane-Sugana, a small island nation in the Philippine Sea. Shortly before their marriage, he managed to seduce her, and when she was discovered pregnant he disavowed any knowledge. She was sent away in disgrace to England to raise her child. Meanwhile, the current king's wife seemed to be infertile, and he himself was in increasingly poor health. By their laws, only a firstborn child, of either sex, was allowed the privilege of rule unless they died or abdicated. Kogane's mother had kept track of all this through the years, reading international papers. She prayed every day that her lover would come to his senses and return for his firstborn child before taking the throne, to restore their honour.
Kogane had grown up dreaming of her elusive father, both glorifying and despising him. One fantasy had her sailing to her native land and coming before her father, head held high as he granted her a rightful place beside him, declaring to the world it has all been a dreadful mistake, that Kogane's mother had been mentally ill and tragically kept their child from him all those years, but now everything would be fine. The other was envisioning herself wealthy and famous, buying an army to invade his country and bring him to his knees and, as he begged forgiveness, she would laughingly decline and strike his head from his pitiful body, then display the foul thing upon a spike outside her new palace. But alas, Kogane knew these only to be fantasies.
Then Kogane's mother had died a few months ago, and left her everything. Which turned out to be a very large amount of money, enough to successfully raise the well-plucked eyebrow of aristocrats. To Kogane's eyes, it was a fortune so huge it made the Queen Mum's look like a child's candy money.
She didn't know what to say. Her former life was gone, but the training of her mother to be polite and decorous in all things came to the forefront, and she schooled herself. The prim but poor young lady smiled at the trustees who presented her with her new fortune.
"Might I humbly request as to why it is only now that I become aware of this money? And from where the money came?" she asked softly.
"Oh, yes," replied the equally polite trustee, who thought he was getting an easy ride with the naïve girl. "There is a Swiss account, which was apparently set up a year before your birth. An arrangement was made for a certain monthly stipend to be sent along to your mother, for necessary expenses and so on. And upon your mother's demise, bless her, the full remaining amount would be released to you, her daughter."
"Ah, I see," Kogane nodded, continuing her façade of well-bred gentleness. "And the remaining sum is so very large that an entire family could live quite comfortably for the next forty years. So may I inquire as to why the monthly stipend we received was so very small, thus forcing my dearly departed mother and I to live so meagrely that we rarely had heat in the winter, and my clothes even now are frayed at the seams?"
The trustee began to sweat just a bit, sensing a piranha beneath the surface of the peaceful koi pond. "Er, well. There are of course expenses in hiring trustees for any account, and we were retained to follow instructions set up by the patron of that account. I'm sorry to say that expenses do keep rising over that many years, and of course taxes rise with them, and… well… the economy being what it is… darn that Maggie Thatcher…and…" He stopped talking altogether when the expression in his diffident client's eye swam up and tore the flesh off his face.
"You will please excuse me, won't you?" Kogane said with perfect aplomb. "Might I use your telephone?"
He fumblingly agreed, and listened in horror as she phoned the police to report a grand theft and embezzlement in one call, and went on to hire a lawyer in the next.
When she replaced the phone and stood up, smoothing her simple skirt down, she bowed her head smoothly and said, "I shall look forward to devouring you in court, sir. Have a pleasant afternoon."
She won a further £1,000,000 and the satisfaction that her former trustees were now shamed and dishonoured as she had been her entire life. Her new, and very reputable, solicitor helped her to put money into stocks, prime real estate, and technological research companies. Her fortune tripled within a month, and that doubled again in another. She bought her manor and reclused herself with a host of armed guards and attendants to cater to her every need.
Yes, the glass slipper was on the other foot now and she would crush underfoot whomever she needed to, with exceptional grace and propriety of course.
Since the former trustees weren't lying when they said they didn't know the source of the Swiss money, Kogane hired an investigator to track it down. Initially he found the name of an Italian company. He went to track that down, and was led further to another company in Colombia. When he finally found a connection in the Bahamas, she began to suspect he was less than sincere, and ceased funding him so that he had to find his own way back to England. After his return he was privately addressed by her guards, whereupon he coughed up the remaining funds, every scrap of information, and very nearly his spleen. Being very proper and genteel, she did not sue him over his misconduct, but she did successfully besmirch his name for the next three lifetimes.
And now she was bored. She wasn't used to living like this. It was almost worth thinking about giving all the money to charity, changing her name, and just moving away.
She had never truly believed what her mother told her about her father, which was a pity. Being the princess of an island kingdom was a very appealing fantasy. But her poor mother was very likely mad, having spent too long in the bottle that eventually ended her life. The trail leading to what might have been her father was cold, if it was even valid. And even if she'd had all the money in the Western Hemisphere, that would not buy his acceptance. She had no proof, and the pudding it lay in was nowhere to be found.
Now, the last night of the year, she looked out of the window of her third floor bedroom to see the party had spilled onto the law as everyone prepared for the fireworks show. They were all so drunk that they'd either blow themselves up or light her house on fire. It didn't matter. Her money would fix both people and homes, or buy new ones. It wasn't as though any of those people were her friends.
There came a flash of light outside and a boom as the night sky became a gold and green flower. She turned away and blinked back her tears, frustrated at herself for even being frustrated in the first place…
And jumped in alarm to see a figure by her fireplace. A tall, lanky man in dark overcoat and sunglasses stood there, smoking a cigarette. The tip glowed too brightly in the darkened room. He smiled slowly and from a distance, in the flashing lights of fireworks, his teeth seemed very sharp.
"Hallo, Meez Kabutihan," came the smarmy voice.
Kogane blinked in shock, and then spoke with most exquisitely cultured outrage. "Sir, I shall give you two seconds to remove yourself, though of course my guards are already on their way. Who are you?"
He smiled rakishly, not afraid. "I ahm Duke Rosz Eldughaz." His clearly affected accent was nothing that belonged anywhere on earth *. "Your guards are all dahnstairs, drunk as zhe rest. Don't vurry, dear lady. I undersztand your troubles. I too, ahm deposed and disregardedt."
Kogane's mental eyebrows were dancing in different directions, and her inward mouth twisted oddly as she tried to follow what the hell this strange man was saying with his unfathomable and atrocious accent. Outwardly, not a single muscle twitched. Until his last sentence.
"Wha-?" she inquired, almost losing composure. "My troubles? And you are…," she latched onto the key word, "deposed…?" Her eyes glinting strangely, she whispered, "Do please, tell me more."
"Ah, yes, a sadt sztory." He came closer and as he did he turned on a nearby lamp. He was very tall and thin. His face and nose were also thin and he was not precisely unattractive, but a bit unnatural. It was as though this wasn't his true face, but one that he'd decided was what a human ought to look like and had fashioned it to wear for the occasion **. There was wavy auburn hair on top, and a dark reddish-brown goatee and sideburns. And instead of sunglasses, as it had seemed when the room was dark, he wore pair of glasses with bright red lenses. One could see his eyes through the tinting, and they were narrow and sharp as a switchblade. "I vill tell you of my troubles. Please, let us szit."
They sat on the sofa before the fire, and he began. "My sztory is quite like your ahwn, in many vays. I vas born to a higher placze, then cast dahn into Hell, forgoetten. I crawledt und clawedt my vay to a poszition of power, vas a Duke for zo many years. Then trouble came und I hadt to flee my landt, Hastravania, for fear of death. It has szince passed to other hands, forhever out of my reach." He paused to sigh and take a deep drag on his cigarette, waiting to see her reaction. Which was interested but not yet convinced.
"And I alszo have… grand news for you. Grand news indeedt. News thot vill solve many of your current problems andt create zhem for others upon whom you vish revenge. I hafe watched you for szome time now, und I know… your szecret," he continued in a low and persuading voice. "You hafe a path to zhe throne in Shimane-Sugana, do you not? But no szolid proof, eh?"
Kogane's eyes flew wide. She had not told anyone, not ever, and knew that her mother had not spoken of it to anyone else. She knew that she would have been taken for mad, just as she had believed her mother to be mad. Until the money came. "How do you –"
The Duke smiled, and his teeth did seem just a bit on the sharp side. "My dear girl, I hafe my vays. I hope you do not mind thot my people investigahted your old home und found szomethink hidden avay by your mother, rest her szoul. Beneath zhe floor vas a small box, andt in zhat box were letters, szeveral years of correspondence between herszelf und your father. I hafe them in my pozzession." He reached into his coat's breast pocket and produced several sheets of paper.
Kogane grabbed them eagerly. They were in her mother's native language, which she had been taught to read from childhood. And she definitely recognized her mother's handwriting. The other was unknown, but the gist of the letters were all too clear. Her mother confessed undying love even though she had been tossed aside. Her father declared he was sorry that she felt there had been anything special between them, but he simply could not be responsible for the fact she had seduced him before their arranged marriage and thus dishonoured herself, and he could not be held accountable as it would endanger his entire country's honour as well. Thus, he said, she should be very glad indeed that he bothered to make sure she was cared for at all.
When she'd finished reading, Kogane was shaking with rage. Everything her mother had said was true. Her father was a complete bastard, shutting them out and denying them both, leaving them to suffer for twenty years. Kogane's father was recently married and had a very young son. Regardless of legitimacy, she knew that with real proof, given publicly, he would have to admit the truth. And she could pressure her way to be next in line for the throne.
Suddenly she wanted it as nothing before in her life. It was meant to be hers. She would have her deepest desires, and would make her father pay in ways that would become horror tales to frighten small children into the next century. And the letters were proof.
Except… now that she looked closely, there were merely photocopies. They could easily be fakes. And there were no envelopes.
She frowned at the Duke and said, "Where are the originals for these?"
He smiled that sharky smile again, and said, "My princess, ve are both in needt of our birthright. It shall take usz both szome time to achieve zhis goal. I suggest a joint effort. I hafe no money und you hafe no szolid proof…"
"You bloody charlatan! You fiendish fraud!" She lost her cultured composure and leapt to her feet, screaming in rage. "You will leave this minute or I'll –"
"Yoooou'll whaaaat?" he growled, rising. He seemed to have grown massively, his faked accent melted away like his polite demeanour into something all too real and unpleasant. "You'll do nothin' but what I say, human. I'm not what you think…" His eyes glowed brightly behind his red glasses, and when removed showed their colour to be the same as the lenses. His hands grew talons, his grin did not hide his fangs any longer. There were ripples underneath his skin that reminded one far too uncomfortably of maggots. And in one final burst of anger, wings burst from his back. They were smoky darkness hovering above, flickering ember red underneath.
Hastur continued speaking. "You want somethin' greater than you ever had, what you always deserved. Me, I only want what was mine anyway, what was taken away. And a little revenge on the side for both of us. Just work with me, chickie, and we'll get it all."
She was momentarily aghast at the vision of hell before her, but gradually realised it was just one more conman looking for a deal. "Why should somethi – someone like you care about working together?"
"Because unfortunately I can't use all my powers without givin' 'em a target Downstairs. Gotta lay low, ya see. Sucks. But I can also work for you, cheaper than all them guards I ate – whoops." He grinned so broadly it nearly cleaved his head in half. "So tell me, princess… what's it gonna be?"
In the midst of her fear, Kogane thought she felt something writhing inside her chest, like the maggots under the skin of the demon before her. No… more like silk worms that had spun and spun for years, staying cocooned and silent, and now were slowly peeling back the layers for a swarm of razor-winged butterflies to emerge.
Her mind was buried in the haze of desires. She wanted everyone who had cheated her and stolen from her to suffer. She wanted the country that would pass to her father. She wanted to enjoy her wealth, and she wanted more of it. She wanted to grind someone else into the dirt for a change.
She wanted the entire fucking world.
Kogane gasped in alarm, panting desperately, and for just a moment her eyes flashed a hot burning yellow, then closed. And Something Else opened them to look at the demonic Duke.
Hastur was staring at her with one brow raised and his lip lifted in a snarl. He was waiting to see if she would comply or become a midnight snack. Either way was fine with him, because he would just work on locating her cash and take his Plan to the next step. If he could just figure out this system of 'stocks and bonds'. He'd always thought it had to do with torture devices, but apparently things had changed in more ways that one.
The girl took a deep breath and smiled shakily up at him. And lied. "Goodness… I was a bit overwhelmed there. Such… big teeth you have." I was clear from his face that he didn't even get the joke. Oh my, she thought, he is a big dumb one, isn't he? That made things so much easier. "Anyway," she continued, making herself sound intimidated but calm, "I think we have a deal, my… friend. You can have all the money you need, if you can help me onto my throne. And, uh, leave me there. Alive."
Hastur sneered. "Fine. Not big on makin' deals, but I need a sort of guide to this bloody stinking planet. 'S all too…new."
Ah-hah, she thought. "Well, I think I can handle that, if you can handle replacing my guards… with yourself, perhaps? Though of course we'll just refer to you as the Duke of Hastravania. We can travel together as… wealthy eccentrics."
He grinned hugely then. "Yeah, I could just about do that. Should be all right, so long's I get to eat a few people here and there."
"Only those that won't be missed," Kogane-Greed assured him, thinking, Or those who piss me off. "But first things first… If we are to pass you off as being an Eastern European dignitary, might I suggest we hire a dialect coach for you?"
He had no idea type of carriage that was, so he shrugged in agreement.
* Or Below either, where they'd have been rather embarrassed to hear it.
** Pretty much the truth.
Chapter 16: 3:05 Methods In Madness
In which Ginger just about loses her marbles trying to decipher more of Agnes' book.
Ginger was getting dangerously close to throwing Agnes’ book in the trash. If not for the fact her Boss would have been extremely displeased (and she truly did not want to see what he might do then), the book would already have been burnt, as other people already believe it to be.
There were 4227 prophecies, arranged with absolutely no rhyme or reason. Okay, there actually were a few rhyming verses, but that just made it more annoying.
She had been carefully writing out all the prophecies onto notecards, and translating as many as possible along the way. So far, she was up to 247. She had recognised the passages referring to herself and to the Christ (all cross-referenced). There were many references to the Two Powers, as well as an angel, a demon and the Antichrist. But there were just as many others she had no clue about, nor understood why they were even mentioned.
She was tinkering with further interpretation. There were far more prophecies in random order than any adjoining, following one after the other in sensible fashion. Those that seemed to work together, she was focused on for the moment. The more she’d read through them, the more she seemed to understand. Or so she thought.
34: Christsmas passeth and the Healer is called by my blood kin who givef thanks unto thee Serpente; the angel lashes his tongue doun upon the deamon, yet no mis-fortun befalls the Serpynt.
(The healer - angel / Descendant - still unknown / Serpente - demon / Lashes his tongue doun -? (if it’s what I think… no it can’t be, he’s an angel… must mean speaking a blessing - ‘no mis-fortun’)
35: The wytch of my blood shalle grow Fine Herbes; from these she maketh sweete and bitter potions and stuffte pilloues for others of our kind
(Agnes’ descendant makes poisons? … / Stuffte pilloues - poppets? Potpourri? Can’t be… then again, this isn’t the Middle Ages… / for other of our kind - witches, making a witches’ brew?)
36: Thee demon returneth to the angel grasping an Argent box for fyne snous; demon bringf his mouth down upon the angel, when frome on high, dusty Knouledge of many years raineth down up-on the deamon, felling him. The Serpent sharll depart to plot again.
(Demon returns with a bribe? “snous” - Swedish snuff - poison/ Demon kissed angel, sure of that now… /Ah, but he gets his just desserts)
37: Many years shall pass before the scalef fall from theyr eyes; then the Daemon and Angel fall upon one another wyth flashing eye and wrestleing hand.
(Who knows exactly when, this woman is never clear on dates… / Wrestling and fighting, the angel will surely win, as “lo the scales fall from theyr eyes”… / Scales possibly also reference to serpentine nature)
51: The Dove shalle makef its self known too soon, thee tyme is not yet nighe. The Accurs’d one must struggle whiele New Jerusalem waites in fear for the Two Powers.
(Sooner! Let us hope it does not take 30 years, as it did when He first arrived/ Let her struggle/ The Two Powers must be other demons, if NJ fears them)
52: Upon the form of life, The Lamb shaell be perfect, yet the Dove shall be flawed, as the Accurs’d one lies sleepeng and New Jerusalam’s minde grows weak.
(Form of life? Oh dear, this is not good / Let us hope this means ‘sleepeng’ forever? Oh dear, again)
97: The Four open’d and lo came the Antichrist to closeth them. The Four open again and lo comest the Christ to oupen the Three One by One.
(First four seals closed by Antichrist, thus preventing Christ from saving world/ Christ eventually opens the last three seals, thus saving the world! At least all my Good Works shall not be in vain.)
98: Upon the Tenth Circle doth the Lamb face Pride and Love, and knowf whoe wins by whoe lifts thee stone.
(Tenth Circle - sephiroth? Kether? Tree of Life/ Facing Pride - Lucifer? Love - God/ ‘lifts thee stone’ - the dead shall rise?)
217: Throuh wyre and borde does the Industr’ous work together with thee Foul whiteness; their union shalle bring forth a clear vision’d toy which stuntes the wourld’s motion and maketh them care not for life’s needs.
(Circuit board/ Electronic games? Always knew they were evil – do not buy any for granchildren / …Please tell me that Bill Gates is not the Antichrist?)
218: Saint Valentine’s daye within the year, dost herald the end of Them. The Son of Earth shall give to the Moonchild a token on parchment, which shalle in tyme sparketh jealous hearts.
(Who? What? Sounds like children given valentine’s cards… how is this important?)
231: He is not whaut he seemes to be. He is thee One who wishest Armaegedon two come, the ende of alle things. But trust him ye shaell until thee end of the wourld.
(Not certain… could be the Antichrist? But why would I trust him? Be on the watch for new man, charismatic… A politician?)
232: The blacken’d blood sharll release the truth upon Him. Throu thee grove of the Singel Blinded God shall the truth come. God’s Appointed One shalle release thee truth.
(Blacken’d blood - blood pudding? Highly doubtful / Release the truth - let us hope so / Blinde God - Odin…? Hm more godless pagans / Someone chosen, probably not the Christ)
She also spent a few moment puzzling yet again over one of the most bizarre prophecy she had yet come across.
132: The Seven sharll hold the seven, and the Two and thee Oune shall argeu; and while the Ten and Ten growe wearie of waiting, the One sharle start the game as thee Three and three and three stand watcheng. When thee finael one doth appear, the game falleth apart
(…? This woman is completely barmy, and probably was taking suspicious herbs.)
Sighing, tired of racking her very tired brains. But the Boss had been dropping by frequently of late, and this made her exceptionally nervous and very eager to push ahead. But she needed the odd breather and a cup of tea. Sighing, she turned the next page and was preparing to mark it with a fresh card, when the words caught her eye.
248: If Owel Maid readeth 750, line 2… 1296, line 2… 92, line 3… 421, wordes 7 and 8… 234, word 7… and 2242, word 8… a secret shalle be hid therein. Heed these words well unto youre heart, for they be thee truest of true, else thou bring thyself unto madnesse
Her heart leapt so that she forgot to write it all down, instead copying out the references. Then she eagerly flipped through the book to find the proper passages and wrote down the specific words. When she finished, she sat in awe and then bashed her head upon the desktop in despair.
Owl Maid, ye shaell… fynd the Lamb… when it be… tyme and …not one ….minute… soonere.
Oh, that evil bloody bitch from the past.
Her Boss was bound and determined to find the Christ and undo what the Antichrist had done, and if Ginger herself hadn’t been so vital to that plan… She shuddered to imagine what he would do to her when she presented this last prophecy to him. It was possible that, like the servant before her, the man who had delivered the book to her directly and then dropped dead… she too would live just long enough to regret it.
Ginger’s Boss checked on her progress that evening, and sighed heavily. She was horribly nervous, for which he didn’t blame her in the slightest. But he assured her that she was necessary. How else was he to find the Christ and bring about the thousand years of peace the world needed and deserved? She was relieved, though she always shuddered at his presence and rightly so.
But he really was tired of being patient. Pity he could not touch the book himself, nor even look upon it without the words blurring. Agnes Nutter had put a very good curse upon it, against such as himself.
And he cursed her from beyond the grave, knowing she heard him and was laughing in her rich and charming voice. The complete bitch.
Chapter 17: 4:01 Sly Manouevres
In which Crowley suffers bodily harm for the sake of testing a theory.
BY THE FIRST WEEK OF MARCH, Crowley had it figured out. If he made the first move on the angel, he suffered for it. Everything from mere embarrassment to serious concussions and contusions had been his reward. It was probably just some damned ineffable bullshit, but there was a way around it. The two times Aziraphale had made the effort first, there had been no resulting dilemma. Crowley simply had to find a way to get the damned angel to hurry up.
Seeing Aziraphale's delight and appreciation for Crowley's 'selfless generosity' with Anathema's gift, the demon was sincerely hoping that further 'selfless acts' might get the ball rolling.
He'd also been pondering why he was even interested in the angel.
It's not as though the thought had really crossed his mind before that first kiss. Well, maybe vaguely so, because you don't get to know someone as well and as long as they had without thinking, at least once, What if...? It had probably crossed his mind a few times in the last six thousand years, passing through like a mildly curious pigeon, pecking at the crumbs of novel notions. But he'd always shooed it away in annoyance at the sheer, unattainable absurdity of the concept, and it would strut casually onward to something more reasonably achievable such as (figuratively) crapping on someone's head.
However, now Crowley began to wonder just how long the idea had fermented in the angel's brain before execution. Knowing Aziraphale, the very thought was even now sitting on a shelf in his head, a subconscious bottle of especially fine 50-year old Bordeaux waiting to be opened and savoured slowly… but with the cork still firmly intact. It would take some subtle manoeuvring to get the screw in there and pop the top. And the metaphor alone was making Crowley's mouth water.
Aziraphale had of course expressed academic intrigue about matters of sexuality before, especially in ancient Athens and Rome and Gomorrah. But as for indulging those interests… highly unlikely, Crowley was sure. Being a Principality just made it less of an issue *. It seemed he was now becoming interested in indulging. And Crowley was quite happy to help him indulge.
Crowley had indulged. He was a sensual being and he enjoyed the sensuality of the world, including sex. But sometimes it was a bit much of a trial. There was something too intense about demonic or celestial beings for mortal flesh to cope with, and they often passed out or freaked out after a while. And good Anyone, there was no way in Anywhere that he'd have considered sex with another demon. But demonic and celestial flesh... together? He didn't know what the results of such an experience might be, and doubted Aziraphale did either. It could be they'd obliterate themselves in a blaze of orgasmic glory… or they might just wind up pleasantly sticky and wishing for a cigarette.
Crowley's flesh reacted to the idea, making the walk down the stairs of his flat a bit more challenging. The thought of that fuddy-duddy, good-two-shoes angel, in all his pudgy, pale, naked glory… Crowley nearly tripped over the curb as he reached his Bentley. Damn, if he started having accidents merely thinking about Aziraphale, he was going to be discorporated before the day ended.
The demon wasn't going to waste a chance at the hot and heavy, however remote. He knew he'd have to seriously woo the angel first. Aziraphale was definitely a romantic heart. If the angel could sigh in wonderment at how the Antichrist had become a good person simply by being allowed to be human... then the angel would surely be the type to want flowers and fancy chocolates and expensive theatre tickets before he wound up bent over Crowley's bed.
He grimaced. Intriguingly sweat-inducing as the thought had been, he'd just trivialised the angel's feelings, and had made himself feel a twinge of guilt in the process. Bless that spark of goodness or whatever it was inside him.
First things first. One small flick of his wrist, and he had in his hand a little something that might begin to pave his way further along the golden path to Aziraphale's heart. Or whatever was inside his cardigan.
He parked the Bentley along the curb and entered the tiny store, but saw no sign of the angel. Then a voice came from the back room, saying, "Be there in a moment," with such a tone of reluctance that any customer hearing would know that 'in a moment' translated to 'never in your lifetime'. Crowley grinned again and let himself into the back room very, very quietly.
Aziraphale was seated at his cluttered desk, hunched over a pile of books, reading and scribbling notes so intently that he didn't hear the demon creeping up behind him. Crowley stood just a step behind the chair, looking down over the angel's left shoulder. Aziraphale's head was tilted forward and just a bit to the right, soft sandy hair curling just below his ear, the pale curved nape of his neck exposed so invitingly above his shirt collar...
And Crowley found himself leaning down, unable to resist temptation.
Aziraphale jumped up as though a snake had bitten him. Okay, no teeth were used (this time) but it was still a rather accurate simile.
Crowley fell back onto the floor, howling in pain, because the angel's shoulder had ceased being alluring when it bashed him solidly in the nose.
"Fvugk'n 'Ell!" he bellowed, cupping his face with both hands as the blood started to flow.
"Good Heavens, Crowley!" Aziraphale's voice was rather high-pitched and desperate. "You scared me half to death! I had no idea that was you!"
"'Oo dtha Ell'dja fvingk idt wuz?" the demon shouted as he removed his sunglasses, and attempted to pinch off the bleeding without hurting his nose further. "'Ow munny odthur peeble ya godt ligk'n yer negk?"
"Oh Lord, here," the angel said with exasperation, crouching down next to him. He conjured a cold damp cloth and handed it over. "Tilt back. Some ice will help until you can get control of yourself and stop it on your own."
Crowley winced as he stuck the cloth on his broken nose. His watering eyes met Aziraphale's disdainful gaze. "Gkontroll'n m'sselvf wuzn'dt enny fvun." Then he winked.
Aziraphale sighed a bit, but smiled anyway. He reached out to the demon's face, touched the bridge of his nose gently with one finger, and it was healed. "There. Now, from now on do you suppose you could give fair warning before you sneak up behind me?"
Standing up from the floor, vanishing the spattered blood from his clothes, Crowley put his shades back on and cocked an eyebrow. "'From now on'? So, does that mean you want me to continue where I left off?"
The blush that spread across the angel's face and down to his throat was worth it, he thought.
"Anyway," Crowley went on, "I did come here with more noble intentions in mind." Barely, he thought without apology.
"You? Noble, dear boy?" Aziraphale looked amused.
"It's all relative. I'm here to invite you on a museum tour you can't refuse." Crowley presented a pair of printed tickets. "Two passes to The Relics of Obscure Saints & Prophets show at the British Museum, one evening only."
"Oh, my goodness!" Aziraphale gasped and a truly heavenly smile spread across his face. "I'd heard it was sold out!"
"It was. Until now." Crowley grinned.
"Oh, now really," the angel tsked. "That's hardly fair to others."
"Well, okay... if the only way you'll go is through legitimate channels, I'll just make 'em disappear-"
Aziraphale held the tickets closer to his chest when Crowley reached out. "Of course since you went to such trouble... But Crowley," he said, looking suddenly puzzled, "won't it be hard for you to go into such a place? I mean, it will be filled with holy items. The energy alone should give you at least a migraine."
"Yeah, I know," the demon nodded. "But I knew you wouldn't make your own ticket, so I figured I'd take it on the chin for you this time." He grinned wide again as the angel just looked at him with soft eyes, speechless. "Anyway, I already took it on the nose for you, didn't I? What's a couple inches lower?" Or a couple feet, he thought, and mentally smacked himself.
After brushing off Aziraphale's whimpering apologies, they got into the Bentley and went off to the museum.
CROWLEY BEGAN TO REGRET HIS DECISION to accompany the angel within half an hour. He'd almost literally bathed in a tub of the highest SPF sunblock available before he left home, but rays of holiness emanating from the displays were still giving him a nasty all-over burning feeling.
He bore up though, because it was quite the worthwhile entertainment to watch Aziraphale. The angel flitted from one spot to another, crowds parting before him without notice, and all but squealed with child-like delight at each new item. The look on his face, the shining eyes and brilliant smile made Crowley smile too, even through the pain.
But after another hour, he was sweating and shaking from exertion. He swayed along behind Aziraphale (now going into waves of rapture over yet another tiny sliver of bone from the left index finger of some old git who'd snuffed it centuries ago) and wished desperately for a place to sit down. The place was far too packed with people. He couldn't even lean against a wall because they were covered with displays of virulent blessedness. The only area that was reasonably clear held a fire extinguisher, and his bloody luck it would contain holy water. Or foam, or whatever was in them.
He turned to wave at the angel, hoping to indicate he was ready to leave, but Aziraphale wasn't looking.
"Oh, my goodness," Aziraphale breathed in stunned ecstasy as he gazed upon a box that held a two-inch chip of heavily charred wood. "I cannot believe this, it's from a stake where a witch was… burned in… Lanc – oh my dear, I think this might be – "
The exclaiming voices behind him made him turn around then. Crowley had collapsed to the floor and was curling into a foetal ball, shivering. People were standing about, and a couple crouched down to try to help.
"Crowley!" Aziraphale dashed to his side. He put a hand to the demon's head and found it a surprisingly mixture of fiery and clammy. "Oh my, I'd better get him out of here," he said.
Someone nearby suggested an ambulance, but the angel shook his head. "No, no, trust me, it's better I just take him home. It's just, ah, religious fervour, you see, he's very sensitive, yes." Aziraphale hated outright lying, so he just left it to the imagination what should be inferred.
He got Crowley to his feet, slung the demon's right arm over his shoulders and tucked his own left arm around Crowley's waist. "Come on, dear, let's walk now... that's good... left, right, left, right... we'll take care of you..." Aziraphale spoke soothingly until they were outside the museum gates, where he leaned Crowley leaned against a lamppost. He was wheezing a bit by now, not having realised just how heavy his friend would be as near-dead weight.
The demon was already looking a trifle better, his colour more hale, but he still wasn't entirely coherent. He moaned and gabbled weakly, and pointed a shaky finger toward the street.
"What is it, Crowley?" Aziraphale asked, the picture of concern. "What do you need?"
The hand withdrew, fumbled in his pockets for a moment, and then came back out. He held out the keys to his Bentley.
He must be feeling terrible, to trust anyone else with the car.
THE DRIVE BACK TO THE BOOKSHOP was achingly slow and cautious, and created more barely-restrained road rage in the minds of fellow drivers than Crowley had ever managed in all his career. If he'd have been entirely himself, he'd have been jealous. Aziraphale drove like a heavily sedated arthritic snail...but it was probably safer that way, as he'd never done it before. The gear box would never be quite the same again.
Aziraphale himself was trembling quite a lot by the time he parked the Bentley, rather crookedly, in front of the store. Crowley was recovered enough to make it to his own feet and hobbled slowly inside while Aziraphale fretted about.
The angel fetched another cold cloth and forced Crowley to recline on the old sofa. Crowley didn't argue, just let himself be pampered. Until he was feeling entirely normal again, he really didn't care what happened. He was in the angel's hands, and that was the best place to be right now.
Aziraphale eventually spoke, sighing, "Oh Crowley, how could you be so stupid?"
Lifting the cloth from his eyes, Crowley frowned in his direction. "Stupid? Excuse me?"
"You knew this would happen, and you went anyway!" the angel said, running a hand through his hair and casting a look of utter frustration down at his friend. "You harmed yourself for no good reason!"
"For you," Crowley muttered, putting the cloth back over his eyes. "You wanted to go, I wanted to see you smile... but that's no good reason, you're right, whatever..."
There was dead silence for a few heartbeats. Crowley heard soft footsteps coming closer and the intake of breath before speaking... then silence again. Curious, he tugged the cloth off his eyes once more and looked up to see those heavenly silver-blues shining at him again.
Uh-oh, he thought. Is this going to get unnecessarily soppy?
Aziraphale knelt down beside the sofa, rather breathless. "Crowley, I... I don't know what to say-"
Crowley decided he shouldn't speak at all anymore, and leaned over to shut him up. Fortunately the angel seemed to find it hard to speak with someone else's tongue in his mouth. Crowley felt fully justified in the action, since he'd already gone through the requisite torment and was due a decent snog.
Aziraphale's head was swimming pleasantly and he allowed Crowley to do as he wished for a few minutes. The demon's hand, the one that had reached out and cupped the back of his head, was moving slightly. Fingers were twining in the soft curls and making the skin below tingle, fingers that seemed to massage every possible nerve ending at the nape of Aziraphale's neck in a very personal way. Fingers that were now spreading, and were joined by the fingers of the other hand, placed in conjunction behind his head, and which were somehow managing without any effort at all to lift Aziraphale off the floor and onto the sofa beside Crowley's still reclining form. Fingers that were very gently caressing his neck and the sides of his face while the demon's mouth thoroughly, tenderly explored his own.
And now there was a trembling sort of panic in Aziraphale's brain. He was almost lying down. With Crowley. On the couch.
The couch, so named because it was an archaic word meaning 'intercourse'.
The panic squawked like a startled budgerigar and went fluttering right into his mouth, which suddenly pushed away from Crowley's lips with an over-loud exclamation. "Oh, dear me! Look at the time! I really must be getting on with my book cataloguing! Thank you for a pleasant evening, Crowley, and I'll see you again later! Good night!"
Before the demon could even begin to protest or make sense of things, he'd been manhandled off the couch, his jacket draped over his arms and shoved out onto the sidewalk. The door was locked and bolted and quite possibly nailed shut behind him.
"Fuck it," he whispered, "One step forward, several dozen back..."
Reluctantly, but seeing little alternative, he got into the Bentley and departed. At least Aziraphale hadn't told him to get lost and never return. And for a while there, he was most definitely responding properly. So why the sudden panic? Too much, too soon? That was all Crowley could figure.
Operation Temptation was getting to be a very big pain in too many regions of his anatomy. They might be immortal, but his patience was not.
Damn. Now he needed another cold shower. And a drink. Maybe he could fill his tub with ice cubes, pour a few bottles of whiskey in with it, and have a wank on the rocks.
* The reason people make fun of Principalities – or Elohim – is because of what the name means in its original language, that being 'of neither gender, androgynous ones'. Of course, among humans, this is generally misinterpreted as 'flamingly gay'. While it's true that Aziraphale had started out more or less genderless, once he'd set foot on Earth in a mostly human body he had become decidedly male beneath his modest clothes. It's also a mistake to think that 'usually sexless' equals 'genderless'. Not the same thing at all. Angels have the proper equipment below the waist when residing in the purely physical realm of Earth. The charming incident with the Nephilim should lay the 'genderless' issue to rest. Angels merely have much better control over their hormones than humans do (especially after God decreed they'd darn well better keep their nether bits to themselves around mortals), and thus they are generally 'sexless' in their behaviour. Most demons found this to be a rather archaic (and boring) attitude, very quickly discarded.
Chapter 18: 4:02 Early to Rise
In which Anathema and Newt's baby decides its time to arrive, and there is a special cameo.
"ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY SURE this trip is a good idea?" Newt asked for the 9th time (Anathema had been counting) since they'd left Lower Tadfield.
"Yes, dear, it's a good idea. I'm fine, the baby is fine, we are all fine. Except maybe you because you keep fretting your way to an ulcer." She smiled and patted both her bulging stomach and Newt's hand on the gear shift.
They'd borrowed a van from Martha's husband in order to cart along all their supplies for the trip. Anathema had booked a small space at a huge fair being held at the western edge of Brecon Beacons Park in Wales. It was the largest of its kind this early in the year, and she really wanted to advertise her new business in the biggest way possible.
She had made judicious and liberal use of the new greenhouse and her herbal crop was spectacular before spring had arrived. She had also managed to convince quite a number of her tarot clients that specific herbs – fresh, of course – would help them with health issues, both ingested and as aromatherapy. Naturally, she was right, and the extra money certainly hurt no one.
The last several weeks had been spent up to her elbows in herbs, gathering, drying, stuffing into pre-purchased decorative pillows, making various perfumes and actual spell potions for the discerning. She had been aided by Martha, Newt, and Adam and all his friends. Pepper had secretly put a bit of the perfumes on her neck, then blamed her strong scent on having worked so hard at bottling things. Adam just smiled and said it smelled nice to him, and they had quickly busied themselves with other things while they both blushed. The other two boys were still, thankfully oblivious and gagged at the perfume and made faces, occasionally nibbling at various herbs to see what they were like, then making more faces.
Now, at the end of March, Anathema and Newt had a considerable amount of boxes filled with herbs. If they had been stopped by police and rolled down the window, they'd have likely been searched for anything other than legally saleable items. The scents were almost overpowering, and so they had to ride with the windows down most of the time. Fortunately the weather was lovely.
The trip took nearly two days over winding terrain, but they arrived on Thursday afternoon and set up both their booth and their sleeping tent. Anathema made it through the unpacking, then needed a nap. Newt continued to fret, but he figured she must know what she was doing. All those books that made him faint seemed to indicate that as long as there were no previous complications, travel was fine until the last month. So far it had been a literally textbook pregnancy so far, and Newt hadn't been spared a single detail.
THE FOLLOWING TWO DAYS were wonderful, they both had to admit it. Newt had never imagined so many people existed with similar tastes to his wife's.
It was surprisingly financially gainful. Anathema cleverly set up a small burner and kept a steady supply of delectable scents wafting across the area, thus ensuring they did brisk business. They sold nearly as much as the food vendors. By Saturday afternoon, when things were slowly winding down, they had a fine wad of cash in hand.
It had been endlessly entertaining. Every person seemed to be in costume, even if it were their everyday wear. There were ragged hippie types with unkempt hair (who smelled rather more herbal than even Anathema's booth). There were folk in simple blue jeans who walked about strumming guitars and taking requests, so long as you knew the works of Simon and Garfunkel. Which Newt didn't. There was a strolling jester in faux Medieval garb who juggled anything he could lay hands on, and who Newt had to forcibly refrain from Anathema potion bottles. There were plenty of young people wearing all black with fishnet stocking in strange places and so much eyeliner that Newt couldn't imagine how their eyes stayed open (they barely did, actually). He even saw one or two sporting fangs, which he sincerely hoped were fake. One never knew, after having met a genuine demon.
There were many others wearing all black and not so much eyeliner. She generally looked more like Anathema, who wore black because she was a real witch and it was just proper. The other witches (wiccans, they mostly called themselves) seemed to wander around alone or in groups of three. Newt was sure he'd been told why this was, but couldn't remember. Something about the moon, though it was daytime now so he wasn't sure it counted. He hoped to high heavens that, come nighttime, none of the particular threesome walking toward the booth right now would take off their clothes and dance around anywhere within his line of sight.
Between the two old ones, it was hard to tell who was the eldest. The tall, thin severe one, whose steel blue eyes were even now laying Newt's mind bare from twenty feet away, looked like she could have been anything from sixty to a well-preserved five hundred. The other was short and squat and round, and her face was more wrinkled than the coastline of Norway. She smiled toothily at everything, or rather she would have if she'd still had more than three teeth left. But at least she was cheerful. The third was the youngest, somewhat short as well, and also the fattest. She had a distinct waddle to her gait. She also had the most beautiful head of hair. She probably had a very nice personality or two, which Newt had to concede was a very odd thought to be having.
He also thought it was rather stereotypical of them to be wearing tall pointed hats, but he wasn't about to argue it.
The three stopped before the booth and the short ones poked amongst the wares, the older with great enthusiasm. The tall one merely looked at Newt and Anathema. Then she spoke at both of them at once.
"You'll be due 'bout now," she said of the baby.
"Um, actually, in another month," Newt said rather squeakily. He couldn't seem to look away from the imposing woman.
"Bit sooner, I thinks." She nudged the older of the remaining two and nodded in Anathema's direction.
"Oh, dear me," the wrinkled face smiled at them both. "Much sooner. Better starts to packin' up all this lovely stuff. But not before I takes one of them aphoredizzical potions you got here. Gal never knows when she'll run into a reluctant gentl'man."
"Er." That was all Newt could manage.
"Why are you trying to scare them?" the young witch asked softly, but with a worried look herself. "They've got plenty time… to… make it to the nearest hospital…"
Anathema had had enough of this. "Okay, look," she said, standing up. And then she gasped in pain. "Oh, God," she moaned. "Newt… oh holy hell, they're right. I thought I was just having a big of indigestion!"
"But-but, it's a month early!" Newt yelled in panic. "Oh hell oh shit oh damn!"
Quite a crowd had gathered by now, all curious and worried. Everyone was shouting helpful hints when the tall thin witch barked out an order no one could resist following. The crowd quickly organised and packed away everything in Anathema's booth, took down the tent, and stored everything neatly into the van within a matter of three minutes.
Meanwhile Newt was freaking out so much he couldn't function. The youngest witch took his arm and guided him toward the van while she sang very softly to him. It almost managed to calm him down, though he knew he was hallucinating because he swore he heard two voices coming from her mouth.
The elder witches had gotten Anathema into the passenger seat of the van already, and had commanded someone to draw a map to the nearest town with a hospital. The eldest pressed a single bag into Newt's hand. "You gives her this right now, it'll stem the tide and won't do her no harm. Get yerself there in one piece, got it?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said obediently, then he floored it.
ANATHEMA WAS PANTING IN DESPERATION, trying to hold off the contractions. The herbal concoction, one she hadn't made, was helping a bit though she knew it was only temporary.
Newt was virtually flying along the winding and unfortunately slightly bumpy road. He reached the main road around the edge of the park. He also utterly failed to notice the name of the road was Bethlehem road, or that it was the day before Easter. His mind couldn't have handled those two facts, on top of his wife being in the midst of labour, without a minor brain implosion.
The tiny town they came to was Baracroywannedd *. Just another unpronounceable Welsh village, but one of the more picturesque which meant lots of tourism advertisements. Fortunately that meant a large sign toward the hospital.
Which was really a hospital-nee-manor-house, but it was fully equipped to handle a birth. If any complications arose, they were just a doddle down the road from Llandeilo, which had a larger facility.
Newt screeched to a halt in the parking lot, and dashed to the door yelling for help. A nurse who was rather more relaxed than Newt would have liked her to be came out, inspected Anathema and nodded, then went back inside. She came back a moment later with an orderly and together they got Anathema out of the van and into a wheelchair, and finally into the hospital.
Fortunately things were very slow busy-wise, or Newt would have screamed in frustration at the slowness of everything else. They took Anathema to an ordinary room and for a moment he did scream slightly.
"Why aren't you taking her to delivery now! There's something wrong! She's a month early! Do something!"
"Sir, please calm yourself. Are you quite sure that the delivery date was correct?"
"Yes!" he shouted, "We know the precise date and time of conception, trust me!"
The doctor raised an eyebrow that clearly asked what sort of sex life the couple had, but then lowered it. "Sir, we are right now placing a call to your usual doctor to ask for records. We do have fax machines, even if we are a bit off the beaten track. Meanwhile, we've given your wife a medicine to slow the contractions."
"Why is this even happening?" Newt gasped, running a hand through sweat-dampened hair. "It's so early…"
"It's not at all uncommon for early contractions, especially since you took such a very long trip by van, over such terrain…"
"Oh, God! I knew it!" Newt groaned and all but collapsed.
"But I'm sure we can keep this under control, sir, with the medication. And her water hasn't broken so- "
"OH, YES IT HAS!" Anathema gave a growling shout. "Just now, but it has! Ohhh, Godddd!"
"Ah," said the doctor. "Well I suppose we'd best get on with things." He signaled for several nurses to get prepped and they wheeled Anathema into delivery.
Newt was nearly white as death, so when he tried to follow a nurse insisted he was going to do nothing but get in the way. His desperate gaze caught Anathema's eyes, and she shouted, "Call Aziraphale! I need him here!"
Nodding, Newt ran to the front desk and called the angel in Soho. And said a prayer to the God he still wasn't sure he believed in.
* This translates to "House of Unleavened Bread". Guess what "Bethlehem" also means? Yeah. Ineffable all right.**
** Not at all to be confused with the actual town of Bethlehem which exists in the same location on genuine maps of Wales. Nothing like it at all.
Chapter 19: 4:03 Signed, Sealed, Delivered
In which Aziraphale plays midwife, baby Rachel is born, and names are debated poorly.
"CROWLEY, DAMN IT! Can't you drive any faster?" Aziraphale shouted. "Newt called over half an hour ago, and I'm sure that Anathema won't want to wait another half hour! She needs me!"
Crowley grumbled as the Bentley blazed along doing just under the speed of sound *. "Angel, we started out with a hundred and fifty miles to go. If you think you can get there faster than the Bentley, I suggest shaking out those dusty old wings and giving it your best." Before Aziraphale could protest, he sighed, "Yeah, I know, your chubby cherub arse can't fly faster than about fifty." He ignored the indignant splutter. "Which I have to say, as a supernatural being, just seems ludicrous. But that's aerodynamics for ya. Anyway… what's the big deal? It's just another baby being born into an over-populated world full of fun things to do – like get diseases, starve, and die."
"Life is a precious gift from God," the angel insisted, his knuckles whitening on the dashboard as Crowley veered sharply around a turn in the road. "I, for one, am rather excited! A new life! A wee little baby, and it's the offspring of dear Anathema and Newt."
"Right, spawn of a witch and a former witch-hunter, and each the descendant of more of the same. Can't wait to see what sort of mutant the kid will be," Crowley sneered, ignoring Aziraphale's pointed glare. "Let's just hope it's the only one they have."
"Well you may scoff, but I think it's rather sweet. They make a lovely couple, and they seemed very happy about the blessed event."
"Yeah, yeah… I'm sure she's really happy right about now…" Crowley had never witnessed a birth, though he'd seen more than his share of deaths, tortures and mutilations. He was aware that the birthing process was also bloody and gruesome, and therefore it fell into the same category as the other situations – i.e. things he could possibly force himself to watch if it were completely unavoidable, but Somebody forbid that it ever happen to him directly.
Approximately half an hour later, regardless of Aziraphale's annoyance, they screeched to a halt at the small Welsh hospital. It was a church-operated hospital, as are many others, especially when in tiny towns.
To Aziraphale's relief, it turned out to be Christian rather than Satanist, at least upon cursory glance. There were no subtle bits of artwork featuring creatures with goat's feet, and all the crucifixes seemed to be right side up with a gloomy Christ nailed on the proper way. But to Crowley's dismay, it all made him just a tiny bit uncomfortable. Fortunately there weren't any nuns. He was sick of nuns for the next few centuries.
Newt was pacing the floor frantically, and barely noticed when the angel and the demon came alongside him.
"Newton, dear boy!" Aziraphale said happily, slapping the young man on the back and nearly knocking his glasses off. "How are things?"
"Er, not quite right, it seems. She's having a bit of difficulty. It's a month early, you know, and first birth and all." Newt was looking quite worried. "That's really why I called you. She's just so scared. I don't suppose there's anything you could do, is there?"
The angel smiled with confidence. "I should think so. Leave it to me." He strolled off in the direction Newt pointed, casually changing his clothing to doctor's scrubs (he normally didn't bother with disguises, but this was a bit of a rush job).
Crowley raised an eyebrow at the departing angel. This was bound to go well. He grinned toothily and turned to Newt again. "Shall we get a drink?"
"I, uh, don't think they serve the sort of thing you're used to drinking," Newt said nervously, imagining it to be virgin's blood with a splash of brimstone.
Crowley sensed that, but decided the poor guy was already too freaked out to try conjuring exactly what he was thinking. Besides, virgin's blood was really hard to find, even manifested from thin air.
The demon smiled. "Coffee, my man, or tea. Something along those lines. The real imbibing can wait 'til after, along with cigars or other celebratory tokens. Is there any other traditional thing I'm forgetting? Party favours? Sacrificing poultry? Anything fun?"
"Uh," Newt hesitated. "I think I will take that coffee now."
"Good man," Crowley said. They found a small alcove where coffee was brewing for those in waiting. Crowley poured, but before he handed the cup to Newt he reached into his coat pocket for the flask of whatever he'd been carrying lately, and poured a bit in, just for medicinal purposes of course. Just doing his part to help out.
"There we go," Crowley patted him absently on the shoulder as Newt sipped the hot spiked drink. "Why don't we visit the gift shop over there. Might take your mind off things."
AZIRAPHALE ENTERED THE BIRTHING CHAMBER with confidence that instantly sprouted wings and zipped out the nearest window like a swallow on steroids.
Anathema was surrounded by several nurses and technicians and a doctor, and was looking rather unhappy to be propped up on a table with her legs akimbo. The moment the angel entered the room, she turned her head and screamed, "About bloody time you got here! Some Guardian angel you are, you poof!"
"You're not the father," a nurse said testily. Taking in Aziraphale's scrubs and suddenly gawking face, she continued, "Nor a member of staff…"
"Er, no but I was called for. I'm the, er, midwife, as it were." He was actually sweating, which bothered him.
"Ah, so you're the one she's been on about." The nurse grinned behind her mask. "Well, we're all prepped and ready, but we've been having a bit of… trouble getting her used to the idea of sedation. We've explained the risks, considering this is an early birth but…"
"Angel, get over here andhelp me!" Anathema howled as another contraction hit her. "I've already been at this for hours, and I want it out of me!"
Squaring his shoulders, Aziraphale stepped forward. The moment he was in reach, Anathema grabbed his hand and squeezed until he squawked and nearly fell to his knees. Bloody hell, a woman in labour had a grip that could crush diamonds.
"Aziraphale," she panted, her face going red then white, "please, it hurts and I'm afraid…"
He nodded, finally getting his bearings. This was his purpose, to aid and to comfort. He sat beside the trembling girl. "There, there, my dear," he said, his voice at its most soothing. "I'm here now. Crowley is waiting outside with Newton. You're in good hands…" To make his point, he reached out his spare hand to her swollen belly and passed his fingers over it gently in a swirling motion. "Just breathe for me… that's good… everything will be fine… soon…"
All he would be able to do was keep her calm and take away some of the pain. A baby wasn't to be rushed, not by divine means, unless both it and the mother were in serious danger. His mind gently pushed into her aura, just a bit, and he could tell they were both doing fine so far. So all they could do was wait.
However, he wasn't about to tell her that. Keeping her under control was enough.
IT WAS QUITE A WHILE LATER, around one in the morning, that Aziraphale stumbled out into the waiting area, very pale and shaken.
"Why, angel, you look positively ghastly!" Crowley smiled with glee. "What's the matter? Glorious wonder of birth too much for you?"
"Good heavens, no," Aziraphale wheezed as he collapsed into a chair. "It's a beautiful, natural process, part of the cycle of life… and… my dear, you wouldn't happen to have—"
Crowley instantly pulled the flask out again and passed it over.
"Bless you," the angel gasped as he tipped it into his mouth. "My God, the screaming… the blood… and dear Lord in Heaven what a grip she has! Nearly broke my fingers and you wouldn't think that's possible!" He massaged his right hand gingerly and handed the flask back to the chortling demon. "Anyway, mother and baby are absolutely fine and resting comfortably. It's all over but the naming."
Newt was barely aware anymore, but he registered this information. "Ooh, yes, um… goy or birl?"
"Hermaphrodites are your only choice, Newt?" Crowley sniggered.
"Girl," Aziraphale said firmly. "And as Anathema has officially named both Crowley and myself as the child's godparents -– bit of a misnomer for you, demon dear, and I'm assuming she was slightly delirious when she made the decision – we are happy to help in any way we can. Including names."
"Oh, goodie. Another godchild. I'm really racking up the bonus points this decade," Crowley sighed. "Hell loves me, I can tell. Okay, how about Antonia Judith," he smirked. "Name her after me so people will wonder if I'm, heh, involved."
"No, they'll simply wonder at your extraordinary vanity. Naming her for you, indeed!" the angel sniffed in disapproval. "'Judith', eh? So what have you been using for that 'J.' all these years?"
"Judas," Crowley grinned hysterically. "Like it?"
"Oh dear," Aziraphale put his head in his hands for a moment. Then declared, "The child's name should be something that suits the nature of sweet, innocent little girl. Something like… Angelique Christina."
"Talk about advertising!" Crowley hooted. "And you call me vain?"
Another voice drifted by, speaking from the depths of darkness itself.
I'VE ALWAYS LIKED THE NAME YSABELL, it said. OR POSSIBLY SUSAN. [¹]
Two heads turned as the tall form in black glided by.
"Hey, Azrael, what are you doing here?" Crowley asked, raising an eyebrow.
JUST PASSING THROUGH, the spectre of Death said casually. I ALWAYS HAVE BUSINESS IN SUCH PLACES. NICE SEEING YOU AGAIN. TAKE CARE…
When the former Horseperson rounded a corner, Newt shook himself out of his stupor. He hadn't seen Death, which was definitely the best thing for his state of mind. He'd barely heard the angel and demon bickering, being rather used to it now. But he did realise that they were talking about names, and that rang a small bell in his head.
He said, "We'd already planned, if it was a girl, to name her Rachel. That's what my mother would have named me if I'd been a girl, so…"
"Lovely name!" Aziraphale declared. "A good solid Biblical name, too. It means 'lamb', did you know? Perfect for such a darling little girl." He was all smiles as Newt nodded, still a bit hazily.
A nurse was now approaching with a sheaf of paperwork. Newt had already filled out dozens of papers while Anathema was doing her part, but apparently the father was subjected to just as much work. He'd go home with writer's cramp bad enough to nearly match her labour pains.
This time it was the actual birth certificate, needing the child's full name. He'd gotten the first name already, but couldn't for the life of him remember if they'd decided on a second name. He considered leaving it off, but his accountant nature rebelled at leaving anything unsettled. The blank space stared at him accusingly, and he wracked his brain to think of something suitable. The low-level quibbling from the angel and the demon weren't helping, and he had a terrible headache from the coffee and a rather odd taste in his mouth. He was beginning to suspect the demon had done something to the drink.
Finally, in sheer desperation, he looked up at the wall of the hospital and saw the following:
St. Collumae Hospital
Sacred Order of the Returning Dove
The words simply seeped into his brain and dribbled down through his fingertips, becoming, thanks to near-delirium, 'Callamae'. Thus was his daughter named, and it could have been much worse. He signed his own name as badly as the doctors do, and passed it back to the waiting nurse. Then he slid backward in the chair and all but fell asleep.
"By the way," Crowley said to Aziraphale as the angel tutted over Newt's exhausted form. "Got this in the gift shop for you. Happy Easter."
And he thrust into a surprised Aziraphale's hand a stuffed toy baby duck wearing a tartan vest. He mentally dared the angel to resist that.
"Oh dear!' Aziraphale examined the toy with delight. "That's adorable, Crowley. But shouldn't you give this to the baby? I think that would be more appropriate." And he tucked the duck under Newt's limp arm.
Crowley groaned in exasperation and bit his lip until it bled.
NEWT WAS ALLOWED TO STAY IN Anathema's room that night. Crowley wanted to leave for London, but Aziraphale insisted he himself had to stay because it was his duty. So Crowley stayed as well, sighing like a martyr already nailed to his personal cross.
That meant they had to find a room somewhere, and in a town this tiny, even using his powers wouldn't help matters. So they drove to Llandeilo, which was hardly bigger, and got lucky with a small bed and breakfast. With a single bed
Both of them were privately nervous, but refused to admit it. Crowley refilled the flask and they both had another drink. Crowley was tired and horny and really would rather have been back in Mayfair so he could deal with those problems alone. But now he was stuck here, obligated to drive slowly back to Lower Tadfield while following the new parents in their van. Oh God, how had he sunk to such a level?
Because of the angel. The lousy bastard.
"Poor dear," the angel sighed as he poured some tea for himself, seeing that Crowley preferred his whiskey. "You really seem to be having a rough time of it lately."
"Huh?" Crowley grunted. "You mean, you've actually noticed that?"
"Well, of course, silly. You've been getting bumped and bruised and cut and all manner of things, including virtually killing yourself with holy items." Aziraphale sipped his tea then looked carefully at Crowley. "And I think I know why it's happening."
"Yeah, me too. It's anytime I get too close to you with more than friendly intent," Crowley grumbled, collapsing onto the bed. He was well into his own cups now with the flask having refilled itself a third time. "And it bloody well sucks."
Aziraphale lowered his eyes, thoughtful. "I realise that. I, uh, wonder if it's for a reason."
"Huh?" Crowley asked again. "It's just coincidence, ineffability, or some crap."
"I think… it might be more."
"What do you think?" Crowley sat up on the bed, and looked intently at the angel.
"Well… it might simply be because of what we are."
Crowley frowned at that. "You mean, demon and angel? Is that it?"
Reluctantly, Aziraphale nodded. He was thinking something else in addition, something to do with virtually identical anatomical areas, but refused to admit it.
"Bullshit. We've spent thousands of years in each other's company. We've gotten used to one another's auras. Accustomed to every nuance and fluctuation of divine and demonic energies. Getting tainted by each other." Crowley frowned even harder at the angel, who avoided his gaze. "Our differences haven't gotten more different. They've gotten more similar."
"…That really made no sense."
"You get my damned point."
"…Yes," the angel sighed.
Crowley stared at Aziraphale with true concern now. "You really do think that we're incompatible on some metaphysical level."
Aziraphale smiled apologetically. "It's possible. It could all be due to our very natures. Yes, we've gotten used to one another over the millennia. Yes, we've tolerated each other's... intrusions into personal space and come away without much damage. But there's nothing in all of history with which to compare our current, er, situation, so we really don't know what might result from it. No angel and demon, before us, have ever... kissed one another."
Crowley blinked for a moment. Then he shouted, "Oh. How I fucking love being a guinea pig for the Ineffable!" He rose and began to pace, waving his arms about and growling at the ceiling. "It's just stupid! I'm not that bad a guy. I have held myself back from doing truly evil things many, many times. I've even backed up and repaired things I've done, mostly because this angel made me feel guilty about it. Demons don't do personal guilt! I've never been that bloody evil, and everyone bloody knows it. I'm practically St. Fucking Crowley of Assisi compared to the rest of Down Below."
Aziraphale winced at the rant, and said quietly, "Preaching to the choir, dear."
"And you," Crowley turned and pointed at Aziraphale. "You're not exactly Mr. Sparkly Pristine yourself! You've done plenty of not-so-pure-and-perfect things. Yes, yes, we've got the Arrangement. But you still did everything of your own free will. And we do have free will, you know. They'd like us to think we don't, but it's a crock. Propaganda to keep us in line. But right now, especially now, we can do damned near whatever we want! I can bloody well kiss you if I want!"
He strode over to Aziraphale, gripped his waist, pressed him full-length against his own body, and planted their lips solidly against one another. For a few moments, there was no sound but muted whimpering and a soft smacking. Then they parted and Crowley waved his hands about defiantly. "See? No lightning bolts, no rain of toads, no spontaneous combustion... Yet. Is there any reason why I can't kiss you?"
Aziraphale licked his slightly bruised lips. "Er. Not… especially, no."
"Well then, consenting adults, that's what we are! No reason not to. And I refuse to believe it's just because you're an angel and I'm a demon that trouble keeps befalling me. In fact, we could probably go well beyond snogging without that sort of trouble. We could skip right over groping and go straight on to sweaty sheets, and still experience nothing worse than a few sort spots, strained muscles and a bit of morning-after embarrassment!"
Aziraphale's face flamed redder than any neon light in Soho. His fingers gripped his teacup hard enough to crack it as his knees sent up signals indicating imminent collapse. He couldn't seem to look away from the demon, even though his voice failed him due to the large knot of panic in his throat.
Crowley didn't notice the angel's condition as he continued his tirade. "No, my difficulties are just Ineffable bloody-mindedness." He smacked his palm against the wall, making Aziraphale jump. "Or it's Hell, taking their fucking revenge on me! I don't know, but something has got to give here because I want-"
The wall he had smacked crumbled under his hand. His hand pressed through and made contact with fairly old and shoddy electrical wiring.
Crowley only avoided discorporation by aforementioned spontaneous combustion through Aziraphale's extremely swift interaction and a true miracle.
The fire was pretty, if you weren't really fond of the building.
* More like 130; any faster and he'd have had trouble convincing the car to cooperate.
 If I have to explain this inside joke… why are you even reading this story?
Chapter 20: 4:04 Gifts Before the Altar
In which the Three Other Magi appear, and Crowley thinks he will die.
"OKAY, I DON'T SEE WHY I have to come inside. I drove here and back. Again. In two days time. I haven't slept more than 4 hours in two days, I've nearly been fried, and I'm getting very purple hazy. The world is starting to look like Fellini shown in 3-D, but without 3-D glasses or subtitles, and while taking peyote, and maybe with my eyes crossed. I need to sleep, Aziraphale." Crowley was quite grumpy.
"I've said it before… Oh, never mind, you're addicted to sleep, that's all." The angel smoothed his cardigan and handed Crowley a wrapped gift. "Here, I know you didn't get anything so I got two things. This one can be from you, all right?"
"Oh for Godwin's sake, this is all stupid." He couldn't help it though, he followed the angel obediently up the path to the door of Jasmine Cottage, which they saw no long had its cheery old sign on the door.
"Hm, I wonder if the wood finally gave way," Aziraphale mused as he knocked.
"Nah, they're just changing the name," came Adam's voice behind them. "Since it belongs to them now, they thought it ought to be their choice. They haven't decided yet, but they'll get a new sign when they do."
Aziraphale turned with a greeting smile, which froze when he saw that Adam's Dog was there. He was instantly aware this was the hellhound, even in such a tiny and harmless looking package. It had a look in the very back of its eye, a faint reddish glow, that made it clear the dog wouldn't mind a bit of angel tartare if only his Master said 'chomp'.
Crowley had taken no chances, and had instantly shuffled to the side so that Aziraphale's bulk was between him and Dog.
Who was beginning to sniff around their ankles, a low growl stirring in the back of his throat. He was small and scruffy and cute, but he knew supernatural beings when he smelled them and his Master was supposed to be the only one in town. He thought, anyway.
"Dog, cut it out, will ya? Giving me a bad rep, here," Adam said, nudging Dog gently with his foot. The hellhound whined but backed away and sat at his heel, surprisingly well-behaved.
At that point the door was opened by a tired looking Newt. "Oh, hello. Er, thanks for dropping by, but I think we'd best keep it relatively short. Anathema's still quite worn out."
"Oh goodness, of course," Aziraphale smiled, "we won't be long, I'm sure. Such joyous events can be quite taxing. But we truly wanted to bring a few things by, both for you and the baby."
Newt let them all in. Crowley walked up to Anathema where she reclined in a large chair and handed her the present. "Here. 'S nothing much. Not even sure what it is, some kind of candle from the stink of it. Enjoy."
"It's actually sandalwood and myrrh, two of my favourites," Aziraphale said tersely. "Ignore my companion's poor manners. He's simply not accustomed to infants. Or children. Or animals. Or anything else he's spent a lifetime avoiding."
"Bottles of wine are the only hair of the dog I like, thank you very much," the demon muttered. "And babes are just fine if they're over age sixteen in most countries…"
Aziraphale pretended he didn't hear this. "I think you ought to at least attempt to take this somewhat seriously. It's an honour to be named a guardian in whatever form. We must do our best to help care for this child."
"Like you're Mary Bloody Poppins, all of a sudden," Crowley grumbled, folding his arms and leaning against the wall.
"Perhaps not. But at least I intend to give it an earnest try," he sniffed. "Oh there's the baby now!" His face illuminated as he stepped toward the crib. He leaned over the tiny form. The baby had been dozing but awakened to look up at her angel. She gurgled just a bit, and tried to focus her eyes on him. "Oh hello, little lambie," he cooed, "precious little dove… it's Uncle Aziraphale… I'm going to watch over you, yes I am…"
"Oh, for pity's sake, angel," Crowley muttered, embarrassed. "Can you not make such noises? I might lose my lunch, and keep in mind that was quite a few hours ago. Could be very bad."
"And this," Aziraphale said, dragging the demon over by his arm, "is your Uncle Crowley who will also be watching over you. Though he won't be as polite about it, and hopefully his influence won't rub off and blemish you."
Crowley hissed as the baby's eyes swiveled toward him. "Thanks, now she's seen me and knows my name. It's imprinting, like animals do in the wild!"
Aziraphale smiled smugly. "You are going to be a significant part of her life." Then in lower tones, he murmured, "Especially if you're planning to be a significant part of mine…"
"Dirty pool, old man," Crowley grumbled, but smiled a bit more.
Adam stepped up and peered into the crib as well, grinning at the pair of squabbling supernatural beings. They were rather pathetic, but deep down they seemed to have best intentions. Even the demon.
He gazed down at the baby, his first actual view of her, and was suddenly overwhelmed. He just stood there in awe, taking in the slightly curly black hair, the tiny hands with little fingernails. He cautiously reached out a fingertip and brushed her cheek, which was softer than anything he'd ever touched. She opened her eyes again, and looked right at him. They weren't blue, like he'd been told all babies' eyes were. They were a dark grayish-blue, with a strange hint of violet at the edges. They seemed to look right into him, to see through him into infinity.
He knew who and what she was. Knew that he'd really known all along. She was the woman from his dreams. And she was the most important thing on earth. He felt an utter peace then, and a love almost greater than even his love for Lower Tadfield. He felt he could bask in this feeling forever.
"Rachel," he whispered, leaning over the crib so that his face was only inches from the baby's head. "You're perfect Rachel… welcome back."
Aziraphale had meanwhile managed to shush Crowley and turned back to the young couple, handing Anathema his package. "This is for Rachel as well as yourselves. Found it at an estate sale a few months ago and I hope you all enjoy it." He beamed with delight as she opened the wrapping to reveal an antique gold-leaf edged book of a child's Bible verses, complete with charming coloured illustration plates. "Of course she's a bit young for it yet, but you can always read to her. Or I could… when I visit…" His voice was hopeful.
"Of course you can," Anathema said carefully. "But you must realise… we're not planning to raise her especially Christian…"
"Oh." Aziraphale's eyes widened, and he wore a slightly bewildered expression.
"Well, see, we're not exactly Christian ourselves," Newt added. "Not that we're against it or anything, just… well…"
"I mean, we understand that your God certainly exists, how could we not, after last year's events," Anathema rushed on, "and of course we will teach her proper values – love thy neighbour, be kind to animals, eat your veggies, don't pollute, and so on. But as for religious teaching… well…"
"We'd rather Rachel decided for herself," Newt finished, firmly but apologetically at once.
"I understand," Aziraphale said, nevertheless biting his lip and looking rather anxious. "I wouldn't dream of …forcing anything on her, of course. But surely… reading these little stories wouldn't do any harm…?"
"No, I'm sure that will be fine," Anathema smiled and patted his arm. "I believe it's the intent rather than the content. You are her Guardian, after all." He looked so utterly adrift that she felt the need to reassure him.
Adam cleared his throat then, and they all turned to him. "Seems that Rachel will be taught everything she needs to know, by her parents and her godparents. And maybe by me, if that's okay…" Anathema nodded mutely. "So, if she gets that much educating, she'll be pretty smart and can figure out what's important and true for herself with no problem."
Once again, Adam had summed it up so nicely and neatly that no one could argue. Crowley shivered a bit. He never liked it when Adam used even a bit of those powers of persuasion. Yet the boy didn't ever seem to use it for evil. That must just burn his Father up, in a literal sense. And that made Crowley grin.
"Anyway, I got her a present too," Adam said, ducking his head a bit. "Probably something she can't use right away. 'S an Easter cake, 'cause it was Easter yesterday. 'S got raisins and almonds and stuff in it." His head turned a little to the side and he blushed slightly. "I borrowed a recipe from one of mum's old books, and I borrowed some of your herbs, Anathema, 'cause it was important to make somethin'. You can eat some now, if you like."
Completely stunned, Newt asked, "You baked this yourself?" He unwrapped the box and inside was a lovely cake shaped like a dome. It was more properly like a bread, but it smelled like heaven. Everyone sighed when the aroma filled the room.
"Yeah, we have to take a class 'bout cooking an' saving money and stuff pretty soon, I guess so we know something about livin' on our own, so I decided to start early. Just for you guys."
"Well, thank you, Adam," Anathema smiled, "we're truly touched. And it does look delicious. We can have some now and freeze the rest for when Rachel is able to eat solids, okay?" Adam grinned with delight.
She waited in her comfy chair, still a bit too sore for casual movement, while Newt and Aziraphale brought plates, forks and a bottle of Anathema's homemade pomegranate-peach juice.
As everyone took a small slice of the cake, which smelled divinely of cinnamon, nutmeg, and rosemary, there was an odd feeling of peace in the room. Anathema was reminded of something she'd read about a old witching ritual; how the breaking of bread was meant to represent something important, a bond of some kind… But she couldn't quite remember the details right now. It wasn't terribly important, she was still tired and could always do some reading later and figure it out. Plus the cake was delicious. It had raisins, dates and almonds, and wasn't too hideously sweet to give her sugar shock. She might try experimenting on a recipe for herself…
Aziraphale was humming and rolling his eyes in pleasure over the flavours and agreed with Newt that Adam should go into baking if he could manage something this good, to which Adam laughed and blushed yet again.
And suddenly Crowley began to choke, quite violently.
His face had turned a ghastly puce, and Aziraphale was momentarily too startled to do anything. Before he could react, Newt had stepped behind the demon and was performing the Heimlich, until Crowley coughed and spat out the offending bit of cake, his sunglasses flying off. He gasped and stumbled to the sofa with Newt's aid, and laid back. His face was now very white and he was wheezing.
"I don't understand," Aziraphale said, leaning over his stricken friend. "He doesn't actually need to breathe, he shouldn't be having such trouble…"
"It's almost like he's having an allergic reaction," Newt said helpfully. "He's not allergic to nuts or anything, is he?" He leaned over the demon and declared, "Look, his eyes have gone all yellow… Oh wait, that's normal for him…" Newt leaned back and stepped closer to Anathema, disturbed despite himself.
"No, I don't think we're capable of being allergic to anything," Aziraphale fretted, quite worried now. "The only thing that ever troubles him is holy obje-" His eyes flew wide and he looked at the cake. "Oh, dear me… it's an Easter cake. Oh, poor Crowley, it must have been like putting a Eucharist wafer in his mouth!"
Crowley groaned. Newt had quickly fetched him a cold cloth and gotten him to swallow a bit more juice. He waved Newt away, then croaked, "Hate to say it… but I think the angel's right… Stupid me… blessed cake…"
Adam frowned, and stared at the cake. It didn't seem especially sacred to him, it was just a cake made for Easter time. It wasn't like a priest had come along and sanctified it or anything. In fact, it had been made by his own hands, and he was the Antichrist, therefore it should have been perfectly fine for a demon to eat. This bore investigating. "Is he going to be all right?" he asked the angel.
"I think so," Aziraphale said though he didn't look very convinced. "Crowley…?
He croaked, "I'll… live. Just a good thing… I didn't swallow." The demon sighed and pulled the cloth down over his eyes. This was becoming a theme, him being in holy pain and flat on his back. He was going to have to find something really wicked to do soon to cleanse his system. And he had an idea what that should be… if only he could get the proper cooperation.
"Er, should we perhaps make up the sofa for you tonight?" Anathema asked, though there was reluctance behind the words.
"Goodness, no," Aziraphale said airily, "I think I can heal him a bit and we can make our way home…" He touched Crowley's forehead, which was clammy, and muttered softly to himself for a moment. "A bit better now…?"
The demon nodded and sighed. It was obvious that they'd overstayed their welcome already. "Let's go, angel…. I'll let you drive a while, if you promise not to grind the gears…" This, too, was becoming habit. Trusting Aziraphale with his most prized things. Damn.
Adam agreed it was getting to be time for him to head home as well, and Dog was getting restless on the porch. He hugged Anathema goodbye, shook Newt's hand, and smiled in Rachel's direction one more time. "See you all soon," he said and went out the door.
Aziraphale also hugged Anathema, and Newton - enthusiastically enough that Crowley figured it would count for him as well – and together, demon and angel left the Cottage.
Before Aziraphale could get Crowley into the Bentley, Adam approached. "I'm really sorry you got sick there, I don't know what happened."
"Adam, what did you use to make the cake?" Aziraphale asked solemnly.
"Usual stuff," Adam frowned, recounting the ingredients. "Flour, water, milk, eggs… some olive oil, some fruit juice in place of sugar… almonds, dates, lemon peel, raisins… cinnamon, nutmeg, rosemary… only I couldn't find rosemary in my mum's cabinets, so I came over here to borrow some from the greenhouse, and I found a label saying 'can be replaced with rosemary for rituals' so I used that instead."
"Can be replaced with… Oh dear." Aziraphale turned nearly as pale as Crowley. "Do you remember what it really was?"
"I think it was frankincense, like you get at Christmas."
There was dead silence for a moment. Then Crowley groaned.
"You just tried to murder me!" he shouted hoarsely. "That shit's deadly poison to a demon!"
Adam's eyes flew wide. "I didn't know that! Honest! Why would I do that on purpose? I don't wanna kill you, or anyone!"
Crowley was just shaking and clawing at the door handle. "Please, can we get away from here, Aziraphale, I need to be away from here."
"Oh, yes, of course," Aziraphale said as calmly as possible. He gave Adam a look that said We can discuss this later, but I know it wasn't on purpose… on your part. There was definitely something going on with all these accidents.
CROWLEY SLEPT MOST OF THE WAY BACK to London, which was a slow and labourious drive. Aziraphale had to keep stopping to check whether the demon was alive or not, and was relieved each time. He knew that he'd never get Crowley up all those stairs to his flat, so the bookshop sofa was going to be his home until he recovered.
Two days passed with Crowley in a fever and Aziraphale in a tizzy. When he was just at the verge of calling Heaven and begging for Raphael's help, Crowley opened his eyes and croaked for a drink of water.
"Oh, my dear boy," Aziraphale's relief was almost bringing tears to his eyes. "I wish I'd known, I'd have stopped you eating that cake…"
"Yeah, I know…"
"And it truly wasn't a conscious act on Adam's part. No matter what you may think, he means you no harm."
"…Yeah, I know. It's something else entirely. Already got that established." Crowley looked up at Aziraphale. It was hard to tell, as his eyes were nearly entirely reptilian, very little area for whites, but they were definitely bloodshot at the far edges. He looked ghastly in every way – hollowed, ashen, drawn and quartered. "Still don't believe it's just you and me, though, not for a minute."
Aziraphale put his hand on Crowley's cheek and rubbed the thumb over it. "I don't know either. But too much evidence is pointing that way…"
"Don't buy it. If you'd just… take initiative. We'd find out for sure, wouldn't we?"
"I just. I don't. I can't…" Aziraphale stopped and took a deep breath and dropped his hand. "I really don't think I can."
"Of what? Think it'll hurt to pop the cherry?" Crowley managed a grin. "That's for humans, believe me."
Aziraphale shifted uncomfortably. He knew it was true, he could have manipulated his body enough to be fine with anything. But he was still terrified and not willing to discuss the reason. This was going to be difficult to get out of, and he was sick of concealing. Though he still felt the need to lie a little bit. "Well… how do I know that it won't. I mean, I'm not naïve, I've read some… books… but still…"
Crowley grinned bigger and raised his brows. "Some 'books'? Oh, have you now? Is that what all those new-looking paperbacks falling all over themselves on your desk are about? Hm, research." He gently rubbed the angel's thigh now. "Aziraphale, you're just a big damned tease, is what you are. You keep letting me get near, you started this whole thing yourself months ago. Convince me that you don't want something more."
"I'm not teasing, Crowley. I just don't… know what to do." The look on Aziraphale's face was miserable and desperate.
"Thought you'd been reading books that tell you what to do."
Aziraphale's face turned red again, and was beginning to think it would just stay that colour and avoid having to bring the blood up every time. "That's not the issue."
Crowley sighed and wrapped his arm around Aziraphale's waist. "For once, can you just do what feels good," he said softly and squeezed the angel's hip. "What feels right."
And Aziraphale really wanted to, he did. Even though he was afraid... it really did feel right, and he knew it would feel good. So he leaned down and kissed the demon. As always it was wonderful, and it gave him that certain tingle from head to toe. And, as always, it also tugged hard at his heart and spirit.
Then it tugged too hard and made him jump backward.
"I'm sorry Crowley, I simply… can't. I don't know if I ever can, to be honest. I just don't know…"
And Crowley's eyes glinted dangerously, in a way they hadn't done for over a millennia. "You ca-… Fine. You deny what you want. I'll have to do so as well. What choice do you give me, after all? I think I feel well enough to go home now so thanks for taking such good care of me these last couple days, angel, and it's been loads of fun nearly dying in your presence countless times these last eight months but I have better places to be and less agonising things to do."
The demon staggered out of the book shop. The sound of tires viciously squealing on the curb covered the sound of Aziraphale's little sob of pain.
A WEEK LATER, AFTER TRYING TO CALL Crowley on all of his phone lines, Aziraphale went by his flat. When the door wasn't answered, he asked the lady downstairs, but she hadn't seen him in quite a while after he left with a few suitcases. Panicked, Aziraphale asked the building manager. Who said that Mr. A. J. Crowley had paid in advance for a year, and then declared he would be somewhere on the planet until he felt like coming back.
Aziraphale walked back to his shop, walked upstairs to his never-used bedroom, lay down, and wept for real.
Chapter 21: 4:05 Fast and Furious
In which War returns and meets yet another of the Seven Sins.
IN A CERTAIN COUNTRY IN SOUTH AMERICA, one could find (if one was very unlucky) what was considered to be the world's most violent and bizarre prison. Within its walls had grown a hierarchy unlike any other society on earth. The guards only guarded the doors leading outside, and mostly avoided going any deeper than the first level of hallways. Inside was another world, almost another dimension of cruelty and savagery unlike anything a relatively normal human could conceive of. Let's not try to get into details here. It's hard enough to imagine, let alone describe. Let's only say that if you were a prisoner there, and had a strong enough will to survive, you might live through your sentence (if it weren't eternal already) managing to lose only a few teeth, a limb that you probably didn't need anyway, and all sense of whatever it means to be a virgin.
There were entire societies within the walls of the prison. It wasn't much different than a rough inner city filled with thugs fighting over turf and other petty things, such as the desire to keep their blood in their own body. The biggest difference was the inability to open a window in prison, especially in the inner areas. The stronger members of the gangs took their pick of the weaker ones as servants, brides, and other entertainment. For punishment, the stronger herded the weaker into a small area and built invisible walls around them, daring them to break free. The smart didn't resist. The smart bowed down, bent over, and grabbed their ankles.
This was not the sort of place an intelligent, attractive, sensitive person would ever venture willing. At least not expecting to come away with sanity, looks, and soul. It explained why the police officers were all nearly as mad and violent as the prisoners.
And yet, here was to be found Vermeil Vreediger, born in The Netherlands and trained as an officer of the law, as well as being a four-time black belt. She was tall and pretty, with spiky pomegranate-red hair just above her collar, a smile that normally would melt hearts, and a figure to melt loins. Vermeil had always done what she could to protect and to serve. She had taken her oath seriously when she first pinned on her badge.
Even working in earth's version of Hell (though in fact it's worse than most areas of Below) she kept that oath. She never used excessive force against an inmate unless they touched her first. Which only happened once, per inmate. After that, their instinct for survival kicked in once they regained consciousness.
She had worked diligently for Holland's National Investigation Service for four years, making her way up to Chief Constable in record time, before deciding to transfer to South America. She had a burning desire make a real difference in the world, and her country simply wasn't as volatile. When she put in her request, she was not surprised to find that they frowned upon women in uniform, and that there existed only one agency for women. In fact, it was all women. The jail they served was largely women as well, though other jails kept female prisoners without concerning themselves over such an inconsistency. She hoped to set that right.
Eventually the transfer to the Federal Police came through. After two years, she was swiftly promoted to the virtually the same ranking as she'd had in Holland. And then she began to make subtle changes.
She convincingly got enough of the scarce funding available to open a second women-only agency, and worked very hard to get as many female and child offenders transferred there. She was so persuasive that within another year, she herself transferred to the largest all-male prison facility. Though she was now of high ranking, just below the city Mayor, she often walked the halls and chatted with prisoners.
Her influence was nothing short of amazing. Even being a beautiful woman, which normally would have incited at least the nominally heterosexual prisoners to loudly invite her to osculate their manly bits, her presence was calming. They liked her. They didn't fight or yell or complain when she was nearby. They called her 'the Chieftess'.
But she detested each and every one of them with all her heart. Keeping them calm just made her life smoother, and so she worked hard at it.
And one fateful evening, after her shift, she met someone who changed her life.
She was driving through town to her favourite bar, looking for a rowdy night of getting drunk off her arse and probably getting laid by whomever she chose. After a short while, she knew was being followed, even through heavy traffic. A large motorcycle, looked like a Harley. When she arrived at the Ter Ogulho Tolo, the bike parked beside her. It was the same shade of red as her car. And it was being ridden by a tall woman, dressed in clinging red leather.
The woman pulled off her helmet and tossed incredibly long hair the colour of blood over her shoulder, and she smiled with lips like rubies. Fluent and flawless Dutch came from between them. "Hey, hot stuff. Wanna go for a drink?"
Slightly surprised, but recovering quickly, Vermeil said, "Sorry, I don't swing that way. Try Ipanema.Lots of hookers down there." She smiled sweetly and walked into the bar.
The grinning red stranger was right behind her, swaying on high heeled boots. Every head turned in sheer awe.
Vermeil sat on a barstool and ordered a beer. She was greeted by other several regulars. They were on their best behaviour whenever Vreediger was around. After having their teeth handed to them in an ashtray a few times, they learned. Even violent drunks can be taught when something is slammed into their craniums like a jackhammer. A female jackhammer was just embarrassing, and therefore not to be repeated.
Red came to sit beside Vermeil, who turned to say something but caught sight of the woman's face in the mirror behind the bar, clearly for the first time. She paused. The two of them, side-by-side…
"Hey, Senhora Chefe, you didn't mention you had a twin sister. Gonna introduce us?" the barkeep asked, grinning and leering broadly.
"Carmine Zuigiber." The stranger held out her long-nailed hand, which the barman actually kissed. Speaking in perfect Portugeuse, she said, "Just got into town and I'm looking for a fight. Got any?"
He laughed. "Oh, have you ever come to the right place, lady. Just give us a few more minutes and some dumbass who's just gotten off work, got a little money to throw around, and doesn't realise the Chefe is here… Well, you'll see. Hope you can hold your own as well as your sister, here."
"You'd be surprised," Carmine laughed back.
"Excuse me," Vermeil said quietly when they were alone again, "but who the hell are you. For real."
"Your sister," Carmine turned to face her directly. "And together, we are about to make history. I've watched you for about a month now, after waltzing into that sty you call a prison. You are something else, darling."
Vermeil raised her eyebrows, then frowned. "No, if you had come into that place, I'd have known about it."
Carmine smiled smugly. "Doubtful. I have a way of hiding myself when I want to."
"What the hell are you, a ninja?" Vermeil scoffed and downed her second drink.
"Could be. They're deadly enough, but they don't wear my usual colours." She looked Vermeil up and down. "You do, though."
It was true. Vermeil wore mostly darker reds, wine-colours. It was soothing to her, even though the colour should never be soothing at all. It should be something that bulls and bull-headed men charge at, and they often did when they saw her. But red shouldn't have been the colour for her, especially with red hair and mahogany eyes. She shrugged. It was inconsequential. It was their far-too-similar faces that disturbed her. Maybe her parents had had a second daughter they hadn't mentioned? It was eerie.
"Come on, Red One," Carmine said, "let's fuck 'em up, good."
Vermeil's eyebrows went up and down again. "Don't you mean Two?"
Carmine laughed. "Why on earth would I mean that? You're the older of us. Trust me."
"Whatever. It can't be more than a couple years."
"No, probably not. Not since one tribe took away another tribe's fire. Yeah, not much younger at all." Carmine smiled and her teeth seemed to glint.
For the first time, Vermeil noticed the other woman's eyes were the oddest colour, a bright orange. Must be contact lenses. And she wasn't sure why she was entertaining the notion of a sister. It was utterly surreal. She drained her third drink hastily, and turned to look at the roomful of men.
Carmine turned with her, and surveyed the crowd of sweating men, the limitless violence simmering below the surface. She inhaled deeply and exhaled with satisfaction, as though smelling a field of pungent and unwashed roses. "Ah, nothing like it, eh, sis? So what would you like to do about it?"
"About… what?" Vermeil's vision was going woozy. Too much liquor? She usually could put away twice as much.
"About all of this. About the world…"
"Well… first I would like to beat the living shit out of everyone in this room, even the ones who act like they're nice. They only do it out of fear of me, not because they're good people inside. Then I would like to go to the prison and sit back to watch them all tear each other to pieces like lions devouring Christians, like gladiators in an arena of death. They would anyway, given half the chance. There isn't a decent excuse for a human being in the entire place. Hell, in most of the world. Humans are foul creatures. Created by a so-called perfect God, they are the most flawed things alive. Animals kill for food. People kill for fun. They are constantly torturing, raping, killing. Why don't they all just give in to it, become the beasts they are inside, what they used to be before they started to walk upright? I want them all to die screaming with spears in every orifice…"
Vermeil twitched, gave a tiny gasp, and slumped backward onto the bar. Trembling, she turned to look at her 'sister' and understood.
"War," she breathed softly. "Oh, is it good to see you. I thought I'd never get to see you up close again."
"Sis, you've just been boiling beneath the surface of humankind for a while, and now you've found your new host." Carmine squeezed her sibling's hand in sympathy. "I was gone for a little while too, but never for long. Neither of us ever are."
"Seems like forever…" Vermeil breathed shakily, then sat up straighter. "So I'm back, you're back. I sense most of the Others are back…"
"Yep, it's coming again. Won't be for a few more years. But meanwhile..."
Vermeil-Wrath grinned, her teeth like a row of sharpened bone blades. She was indeed older. People had always known her, since before War was conceived.
"Meanwhile... what were saying about fucking 'em up?"
"I could just use some real action again. It's been a while just inspiring and inciting, but not indulging, you know?" War smiled her bullet smile, and waved her arm gracefully at the crowd like a game-show spokesmodel demonstrating a fabulous prize. "Shall we?"
The ensuing battle in the bar left seventeen dead, twenty-four wounded seriously, destroyed the place utterly and catching it and the surrounding buildings on fire. It also spilled out onto the streets, killing and maiming forty-two 'innocent' bystanders, and swarmed throughout twelve city blocks and hit triple digit casualties before anyone even tried to contain it. The police force were reluctant to get involved, and eventually called the army, who had to give in and call outside countries for aid. Within a few days, it had become a death zone.
It made the prison look like a safe haven in comparison.
War and her Sinful Sister walked away, arm in arm, heading for another town. Maybe next they could play cowboys and Indians, instead of cops and robbers.
Chapter 22: 5:01 Covering Tracks
In which the Them play ninja, and there is a secret kiss.
"OKAY, HERE'S WHAT WE DO TO PLAY NINJAS," Adam said in a conspiratorial way. "So long as you keep yourself invisible, you can sneak up on anyone."
"There's no such thing as invisible," said Wensley plainly. "Nothing is ever not seen unless you close your eyes, and you can't go 'round expecting everyone else's eyes to be closed just so you can sneak up on 'em."
"Air is invisible," Brian said with a grin.
"Course air is invisible," Adam sighed, "if it wasn't then you'd wouldn't be able to see through it."
"Oh," said Brian, scratching his head. "Yeah, didn't think of that."
"Anyway," Adam pressed on patiently. "What I mean by keepin' invisible is just making sure nobody can see you. You gotta believe you're invisible to make it work. It's a zen mind control thing, like in Anathema's magazines, remember?"
"Oh, yeah," Pepper nodded. "That was where you sit down with your legs crossed and put your hands on your knees and go 'Uuuummm' like a vacuum cleaner." She giggled.
Wensley looked thoughtful. "But it's just Tibetan monks and stuff that do that, right? Not ninjas. 'Cause ninjas are killers and they don't have time to sit around umming, especially since then people would hear 'em and that doesn't help being invisible."
"Hey, maybe it's the deep breathin' zen thing that does it," Brian said with another grin. "Get enough air in you, you turn invisible."
"Oh, knock it off!" Pepper smacked him hard in the arm. "Adam's tryin' to get a game going, and you're being a pain."
Brian rubbed his arm, and shut up.
Adam sighed yet again. "Yeah, okay. So we're agreed that ninjas can't exactly be invisible, not really truly, because only air is invisible. And they probably don't sit around going 'umm' either. I mean, they're not monks after all, they're assassins."
"'S a funny word," Brian snickered. "Arse-arse-ins."
"Oh, shut it," Wensley grumbled, "or you'll get whacked again, and I'll help out."
"Anyway," Adam said pointedly, "they kill people, and they do it without being seen 'cause they hang out in the dark, or at nighttime, and they were black clothes and cover their faces up 'cept for their eyes so they can see."
Brian politely raised his hand, as though in school.
"For cryin' out loud," Wensley groaned. "What is it?"
"If it's nighttime, how do the ninjas see anything either? Are they part cat?"
Pepper threw a rock at him, which he successfully ducked.
"Just askin'. It's a serious question!" he insisted.
"All right, all right," Adam continued. "They train themselves to do that, just like train on all kinds of weapons and fighting. That's the kind of meditatin' they do, it's a special type they do very quietly that helps 'em learn to see in the dark. Okay?"
Brian was satisfied. So long as it made some sort of sense, he was fine.
"So if we play ninjas, we have to get all black clothes," Wensley said reasonably, "and then we do some weapon training here in the Pit, and then find someone to sneak up on, but not to kill 'em. I read that ninjas were sometimes spies too, just gathering information because they were so good at sneaking around unseen."
"Why would they need weapons, then?" Brian asked.
"Well, dummy, what if they got seen by another ninja working for someone else? They'd have to fight each other." Pepper snorted in disgust. "That's obvious, isn't it?"
"Yeah, all right, I knew that," Brian conceded.
"So anyway," Wensley continued with lesson, "we can play ninja spies instead of killers, can't we? I mean, there's loads of interesting things to hear and see in Lower Tadfield. And then we can come back and report to each other."
"Sounds good to me," Pepper said. "I like knowin' what's going on."
"Same here," Brian nodded. "Never know what sort of secrets people are keeping."
Adam looked pensive. He had a secret or two he wanted kept, and he knew they had some too. But they weren't yet afraid of those things.
"Okay," he said, "but we need some training first. We need to practice weapons and get ninja clothes an' stuff. We'll meet back here after school tomorrow and get started."
And the meeting was adjourned.
THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON WAS INTERESTING, to say the least.
Not a one of them had any black clothes, for starters. Brian was wearing a green jumper and blue jeans. Wensley wore a blue long sleeve shirt and jeans. Pepper had on a purple sweatshirt and jeans. And Adam could only find his brown turtleneck and jeans. But at least all the colours were very dark.
"Well, it'll have to do for now. We can still blend into the shadows when it's darker," he said.
"But don't we have to be home before it's too dark?" Brian asked.
"Not if we're playing ninjas. And b'sides, it's Friday. No school tomorrow, so they can't complain if we're out later," Adam responded reasonably. "So does everyone have a mask?"
Wensley's was the best. He'd secured a large bandana in a blue so dark it nearly was black. Of course it had a white pattern around the edges, but he wrapped it up so it mostly didn't show. His bespectacled eyes peered out and Adam looked pleased.
The others didn't fair so well. Brian had an old dishtowel of an ugly green that nearly matched his jumper, and it wasn't the best fit around his head. Pepper's idea was clever but looked silly. She'd taken an old faded-red pillow case and cut a slit in it for her eyes, then rolled up the bottom and wrapped a ribbon around that. She also threatened to take her playing level to 'assassinate' if anyone so much as breathed the fact it was a ribbon in her presence.
Adam's mask wasn't the best either, but he put it on the best. He'd gotten a piece of cloth from his mum's sewing room and, after studying some ninja drawings in his comics, he wrapped it around a few times and it came out looking pretty accurate. Of course it was inside out because, while it was mostly black, the front side had flowers on it. And he wasn't quite manly enough yet to not mind that sort of thing.
So, thus prepared, they began to spar with their 'weapons', which were just as sad as their costumes. Pepper had a wooden sword which was really just a broom handle, and she used it a bit harder than was really necessary, and gleefully at that. Brian's throwing stars made of tiny Frisbees he'd cut up didn't really go far enough to do any damage, as if they could do anything other than make one crack a rib from laughing. Wensley had made something like nun-chucks, which were fairly convincing for all that they were the ends of a jump rope with the rope between them cut short and then tied back together. He didn't really work them very well either, but you didn't want to be too near when he was swinging them, so it was still effective.
Adam's contribution was a handful of 'throwing knifes' which his mother would kill him for later, no doubt. He'd taken them from the kitchen drawer, but not from the cutting block. These were merely butter knives, because the other type had wooden handles and were too unwieldy (and sharp). The butter knives were one solid piece of silver and slid easily between the fingers. He tried three at a time, like he'd seen in the comics. They flew everywhere and missed everything. So he went down to two with the same result. Finally settling on one, he did manage to hit Brian in the hip, which thankfully didn't hurt very much.
"Okay, I think we've had quite enough practice," Adam declared after twenty minutes. They'd all gotten sweaty and dirty and slightly bruised from the training. Especially anyone on the receiving end of Pepper's sword. "Let's go into the woods and try practice sneakin' next."
"The woods?" asked Wensley. "Shouldn't we be getting back home for dinner?"
"Yeah, my granny's over for the weekend and she's made her yam pie," Brian said petulantly.
Adam's eyes flared for a moment. "Fine. If you guys wanna wait on training 'til tomorrow night, that's a whole 'nother day between, and we'll need more weapon training first, because ninjas train every single day and night, then that's just fine with me." Adam said, throwing up his hands. "I mean, here we are, things getting a little dark already, the woods are just across the road, and we can practice for ten whole minutes or something and be back in plenty time for dinner. Dunno about you, but my dinner's not for another hour anyway."
That was the first time they'd seen Adam in a snit, since… that thing that happened last summer, that they never discussed and which they weren't entirely sure what it was anyway.
When he saw they'd stepped back a little, he sighed and was genuinely contrite. "I'm sorry, it's okay. I'm just… lately, things are getting' weird. But I'll be okay, I promise. If you don't wanna play anymore today, then we'll just do it earlier tomorrow. Though we really ought to do the sneaking at night."
Pepper came closer then, because on some level she was catching on. "Adam, it's okay, we can play a little longer. I can anyway, because mum knows where to find me." She turned to glare at the other boys. "All our mums know where to find us, they always do. It's like mum radar."
It was true. The reason they were hesitant was they, too, were picking up on something different going on within Adam. The hidden memory of Armageddon couldn't help shifting and stirring kraken-like underneath beneath the waters of their nearly-pubescent psyches. It was making them wonder just what was happening with Adam, not that either of them were brave enough to ask.
"All right," Wensley said, "I guess I can stay another hour. And we do need to practice if we're gonna get this right."
"Right," Brian agreed. "Especially if we're gonna sneak up on people like… Mr. Tyler."
They all grinned at that thought. Mr. R. P. Tyler was the stuffiest, nosiest, most easily-annoyed person in all of Lower Tadfield, and nothing delighted the Them more than annoying him. Because he was so easily-annoyed, they had to constantly find new and interesting ways to get that vein to pop out on his temple and then listen to their parents read aloud the latest newspaper's 'Letter to the Editor' about how children today can't be allowed to run loose stealing a person's toupee, or whatever.
Annoyance on a ninja level would be the best thing they'd ever thought of.
They walked to the woods, and then split up in different directions. It was something like hide-and-seek, what they were doing, but with no one being 'it'. They would walk as far away as they could, at least as far as they knew the woods (which was about as intimately as they knew their bedrooms), count to fifty, then slowly start hunting for each other. If anyone found you, you had to do a staring contest, because a fight would alert others. Whoever blinked first lost and had to join the winner in hunting for the remaining ninjas. They would probably be done in less than an hour, especially the way Brian was crashing through the underbrush.
Adam felt his heart pounding, because he wasn't playing the game. He was deliberately using his abilities. He sensed where they all were, but most especially Pepper. And he was automatically tracking her, because he wanted… to… see what she was thinking. Or something. He stayed out of people's minds now. Actually, he really couldn't see into them. The only people he'd ever read weren't even people, exactly, since they just wore human flesh but were actually angels or demons.
But humans… No, he could make them do things, he could push them around all over the world, all at once, if he wanted to. He could literally move mountains. He could push Mohammed, whoever he was, onto the mountain. He could even make Mohammed say what a lovely mountain it was and make him build a fortress on it and stay there for decades. But he couldn't make Mohammed's mind think that on its own. People had free will, even if everything else was being manipulated. And Adam's friends had shown him that during the Apocalypse. He respected that and was glad he didn't have the power to change it.
He didn't care that it was the one thing he couldn't do. He just knew he had to know this particular something and it would drive him crazy until he found out. So he tracked Pepper, and when he found her, she looked very annoyed at having been found so soon. They stared and stared and eventually Adam blinked because she was an amazingly fierce starer. She grinned in triumph and slipped her ninja mask down for a breath of air.
Adam was going to ask about that something, he really was, but instead he gripped her hand and pulled her into thicker cover, and knelt down as if to hide them from the others. Then he pulled his own mask down and kissed her, straight on the lips.
For a half second, Pepper's eyes went wide as saucers, then her face went so red it made her hair look pink. Then she close her eyes and leaned a little closer to enjoy the kiss. It was so different than she'd read about in those girl's magazines she hid under her bed and was convinced her mum knew nothing about. It didn't feel exactly 'magical'. It felt more wet and weird and it was hard to figure out where to put your nose. But it had a very pleasant undertone, and that was what she decided to concentrate on.
Adam was literally breathless when he finally backed away. He licked his lower lip, which tasted just a bit like fruit juice. "Were you wearing… lip gloss?" he asked.
"You only just noticed that?" she accused with a puzzled look.
"Er, I was kinda busy," he blushed and she instantly forgave him with a returning blush.
They would have said, and possibly done, more, but they heard Wensley and Brian coming. They jumped out of the bushes immediately, and did the youngster's version of straightening one's clothes after having been caught together in the broom closet at a social gathering.
"There you are," Brian sighed. "Do we need to stare you both down? Seems silly to keep staring when we've all found one another."
"No, it's fine. We can consider it a draw. It was just sneakin' around practice anyway." Adam sighed and rose to his feet, putting out a hand to help Pepper without thinking about it. Fortunately it didn't seem like anyone noticed, except her. This time.
They all trudged from the woods to go home for dinner, agreeing to meet the next day for a bit more practice, and then a full ninja spying session that evening when Mr. Tyler was out walking Shutzi. If they could sneak about without him noticing, then they would later move on to following him home and listening through his keyhole and windows.
ADAM FINISHED HIS DINNER and his homework (best get it over with before the weekend, so it's not ruined) and then went back outside. He shuffled around the yard for a while, then decided to take a walk over to Anathema and Newt's. Seeing the baby was a big cheerer-upper for him lately.
He'd been getting moodier and twitchier. And today he'd not only yelled at his friends, he actually gone and kissed one of them. He'd known Pepper since they were five, for crying out loud. It was weird, but in a disturbingly nice way. And so far, it didn't seem like she minded stuff. He hadn't yet been able to voice it to her, the Valentine's card itself was rather vague. But she was catching on, thank God.
When he arrived at the soon-to-be-former Jasmine Cottage, he saw they already had company and it seemed a rather grown-ups-only situation, just from the aura of the place. Being still dressed in his brown ninja jumper, and still having the flowered mask in his back pocket, he put it on and snuck up to the side window to see what was happening.
Inside was the angel, sitting on the sofa and drinking a cup of tea with shaky hands. Adam couldn't really hear words, just the buzzing of their voices. But it was clear to him that the demon had left the angel, possibly forever.
Adam frowned. This was a bad development. He knew that the two of them were meant to be together, in whatever way that happened. It was simply the truth. And Adam was somewhat responsible for that.
He stepped away from the window and sat down in the bushes to think. Sighing, he crossed his legs, put his hands on his knees, palms up and fingers touching, breathed deeply… and sent his aura out further than Lower Tadfield, which he hadn't done in a long while.
Somewhere in America was the demon. There were no other demons nearby, or infernal entities of any kind anywhere near him, and no avenging angels either. So he was in no immediate danger, other than damaging his liver and lungs with outrageous amounts of alcohol and cigarette smoke, all of which he could repair himself. But he was very unhappy. So unhappy that being aware of Crowley was making Adam depressed.
Adam began to pull his aura back home, and he sighed. Why was it that soul mates had to go through so much pain and trouble? Why couldn't the angel and demon admit it and justget on with their lives and be happy? Anathema and Newt had found each other and they were pretty happy. Why couldn't everyone else be the same? Even Adam had found his. But he would have to wait sixteen years to admit that.
Love was going to suck, he could just tell.
As his aura shrank down it brushed over something that suddenly didn't feel right. It was very near the spot where Rachel had been born. Exactly where she'd been born.
Someone was looking for her. Specifically her. And they had a clue already how to find her, the name of the cottage.
In a panic, Adam wished he could use his powers to push his will on whomever it was and make them forget. But he had made a promise not to. If he broke that promise, it wouldn't be just him that paid for it.
Somehow he would have to ensure Anathema and Newt settled on a new name for their cottage, right away, and it couldn't include anything to do with flowers.
Chapter 23: 5:02 What's In a Name
In which Aziraphale has a troubling dream and a revelation, then helps Anathema name her home.
ANATHEMA AND NEWT GLADLY LET Aziraphale stay overnight. He hadn't anywhere else to stay while in Lower Tadfield, had no way back to London until morning (he'd taken a bus). And he was simply too forlorn for them to, in good conscience, insist that he leave. Besides, he didn't sleep anyway, so they didn't even need to make up the sofa as a bed.
The couple had already bunked down for the night, and Aziraphale had contented himself to sit in the main room, thumbing through a book. It was the first time in ages he found it hard to actually read the words. And he knew why that was. Everything he saw, everything he read, everything he ate or smelled or touched or heard, reminded him in some way of Crowley.
He'd come to define himself, his existence, around Crowley. Around a demon. And now he was paying for it. It was as though half of himself had been torn away and the tattered edges were being sucked at by an unseen wind. He didn't like that sort of metaphor. And he didn't know what to do.
Another week had passed after Crowley's departure, and he'd done everything short of hypnotise everyone in the demon's flat to see if they knew something they weren't able to consciously remember about where Crowley had gone. He couldn't bring himself to that, no matter what. Instead he watered the plants for a few days, then was told by the old lady downstairs that Mr. Crowley had arranged for her to do that until further notice. Feeling useless, Aziraphale left.
A few days later, it had begun to seem very silly. How could he believe that Crowley had paid his rent for a year and simply left. Firstly, he found it hard to believe Crowley paid rent at all. Secondly, he would never go that far and leave his Bentley behind. The demon loved that car like he loved… nothing else.
When Aziraphale came back to Crowley's flat again, and asked the manager if he knew where Crowley had stored his vehicle, he was told Mr. Crowley had made a special point of taking it with him, as he'd intended to do a lot of driving. Aziraphale skulked away again, feeling lower than Mr. Crowley's original scaly abdomen.
After that, he hadn't known what else to do. He had no desire for much of anything left. Even gourmet food became rather bland. Wine was nice, but drinking by himself was probably a bad thing. And boring. The park was pleasant enough until he ran out of bread, and though he could have conjured more, it wasn't really good for the ducks to be so stuffed. Even the bookstore no longer held the same charms. Nothing had much meaning anymore. Because Crowley wasn't there to create the balance, the other side of every petty little issue, right down to whether salad cream should be kept refrigerated or left on the shelf (Aziraphale preferred the latter).
He missed his devil's advocate more fiercely than he'd have ever thought possible.
When he started doodling Crowley's name, with little horns and wings, in the margin of his first edition Dante's Inferno,he knew that if he didn't spend some time away from London, he might lose his mind.
So he'd come to Lower Tadfield, hoping and praying that they wouldn't mind him simply showing up. They hadn't. They had in fact treated him like a member of the family, which had brought further tears to his eyes.
Sitting now in the darkened cottage, he realised he was being called in a silent way. He heard nothing out of the ordinary, just the gentle murmuring of the baby. Ah, that must be it. His newfound Guardian status was telling him to attend his duty. Smiling, he went to her crib and stroked her soft cheek. Even in the dark he saw her clearly, as if they both glowed with a heavenly light. But of course he would think such a thing. All babies were God's gifts, but she was his personal charge and therefore even more special.
He carefully picked Rachel up, cradling her in his right arm. "Oh, hello dearie. Uncle Aziraphale is glad to see you. Would you like to hear a story? Well, let's see what books we have in here…"
As silently as possible, he sifted through the shelves. There were fairly typical picture books that any parent would own, teaching about colours and letters and shapes. And a few more likely to be found in the home of someone like Anathema who had virtually been teethed on Agnes' book. Such as A Witch's First Familiar and Baby Chthulu Goes to Town. He chuckled at the very idea, then predictably chose the book he had bought for them himself. The children's Bible.
Sitting back in the rocker, he began to read to her. Then he began to simply talk to her about the things he read. After all, he had been there personally for a large number of the events in the book. And when one gets to a certain age, one spends it largely in reminiscence with others who have 'been there', as he had done so very often with... well, never mind that right now. One must push on...
"Well, I can assure you," said Aziraphale conspiratorially, "that, had I been the one making the lists, Noah would have gone to a little more trouble about how he filled up the ark. He completely missed the unicorns, for one thing. And those poor things weren't good swimmers like the dragons, and couldn't fly like the griffins. So they're extinct now," he shook his head and sighed. "Of course, Noah always did like his after-dinner drinks – before, during and after dinner – so he might well have thought they were figments of his imagination. He did think he saw pink elephants a lot."
Aziraphale could have sworn the baby giggled. But that was impossible at only two weeks of age. It didn't matter, he was feeling happy for the moment. A beatific smile on his face, he looked down at her and said with utmost tenderness, "I'm so glad that I was given this duty. I think we will become very good friends indeed. Much better company for an angel than… a demon."
The damned tears were starting again. And he couldn't seem to put the baby down, like it was vitally important to hold her. So he rocked and fought the tears, while he muttered words that were far too appropriate...
"Who will pity a charmer that is bitten with a serpent, or any such as come nigh wild beasts? …So one that goeth to a sinner, and is defiled with him in his sins, who will pity?... For a while he will abide with thee, but if thou begin to fall, he will not tarry…
"An enemy speaketh sweetly with his lips… but in his heart he imagineth how to throw thee into a pit: he will weep with his eyes, but if he find opportunity, he will not be satisfied with blood… If adversity come upon thee, thou shalt find him there first… and though he pretend to help thee, yet shall he undermine thee. He will shake his head, and clap his hands, and whisper much… and change his countenance.."
Aziraphale caught his breath painfully, and pressed on. The last few lines of the passage became about someone other than He for Whom they had been written. "Come unto me… all ye that be… desirous of me, and fill yourselves… with my fruits. For my memorial is sweeter than honey… and mine inheritance than the honeycomb. They that… eat me shall yet be hungry… and they that drink me shall yet be thirsty…"
Then he dissolved into weeping, and had to put Rachel into her crib before she started to cry as well. To avoid disturbing the household, he went out the back door for some fresh air. The sight of the greenhouse made him sob harder. Walking further back and discovering himself in a small grove of six apple trees undid him entirely.
He fell to the ground beneath them, and let the tears simply flow into the earth. It seemed like there was no end to the amount of salt water in his body.
Then he looked up and saw it was daylight, and the grove had become a lush and roaming meadow, with a forest around it as far as the eye could see. He sat up, startled, and looked with awe at the multitudes of animals and plants around him.
He recognised it. It was the Garden. But how could he be…?
"It's a dream," came the hissing sound beside him. He looked down and there was the man-shaped snake. Crowley was nude and beautiful, and typically wicked. "It's all a dream. We could make it a wet dream, if you want." The demon grinned and licked his lips.
"Don't be ridiculous," Aziraphale said, his own lips going very dry. "I can't be dreaming, because I don't sleep."
"Oh, for Christ's sake," Crowley said, rolling his slanted eyes. "You are the only person in all of Creation who would debate with the reality of a fantasy. Get over it, and come get over me." He leered again, grabbed Aziraphale's arms and rolled until the angel was lying atop him.
Aziraphale gasped and flailed to get away, especially when he realised he, too, was naked.
"C'mon angel, have a taste of forbidden fruit," Crowley sighed and reached down to grab something that would have made further debate utterly impossible, when Aziraphale managed to fling himself upward and away.
"Stop it! I am not going to Fall for you!" And he ran, without wondering why he didn't fly instead.
When he couldn't seem to run anymore, he fell to his knees again, wheezing. He began to pound the ground with his fists, and howl with incoherent rage and loss.
And then he saw the bare feet approaching. But they were not Crowley's.
"Poor angel. I remember you always were just a bit different than the others." The voice was soft and sweet, like the music of the meadow itself. "Much more amiable, for a start."
Aziraphale looked up into the lovely face, framed by black curling hair. She was like a nymph in the Garden, she who was the First Woman. And that brought a fond smile to his face. "Eve," he said as she sat beside him, "Imagine that."
With a smile like sunlight, she said, "But if you can imagine something, you can experience it. And once experienced, can it be just imagination?"
"Ah, good question. Very zen. I would have to say, no. If you experience something, it is real. Even if you are the only one to experience it." He paused and looked at her oddly. "How on earth did you get so wise, Eve?"
She laughed like a gentle breeze. "I did eat the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, didn't I? Some of that must have stayed with me."
"The Tree…the Serpent," Aziraphale grumbled and pulled his knees up. "I don't want to think about him."
"Yet he's all you've thought about in a very long time."
"A waste of time!" Aziraphale said plaintively. He rose and began to pace the meadow in front of her, wringing his hands and silently begging for help. "I've spent more time on being friendly with a demon than I have in trying to help humanity, as is my job! We worked together to keep the world from ending, but to what end for ourselves? I thought I could offer him something myself, something he might see as precious and worthwhile. But bad things kept happening, and I came to see it was the wrong decision, and by then he was determined to have what he wanted regardless of my feelings… Oh, Eve, I was foolish beyond words to imagine he could feel what I do! But not as foolish as imaging that I felt it in the first place!"
"But if you imagine something, you can experience it. And once, experienced, can it be just imagination…?"
Aziraphale turned his head swiftly in her direction, thinking to declare she was being needlessly cryptic and even a bit trite, when his eyes snapped open and the darkness of night flooded into his skull.
"Damn," he swore softly, sitting up. He was beneath the apple trees in the simple garden behind the cottage. He really had fallen asleep. And he had to finally admit, aloud…
"I've fallen in love… with a demon. Oh… bugger it all, that's it, I've gone stark raving mad."
He sat there with his head in his hands until the sun came up, and Newt found him there, covered in dew but not tears.
"Er," said Newt cautiously, "we've got tea and toast made, if you want something? I've got to be at the office soon."
Looking up at the human, Aziraphale smiled a sad but gentle smile. He felt more distant than he had in ages, less a part of the world he was committed to. "Yes, thank you. A spot of breakfast would be grand…" He rose and drifted past Newt, into the kitchen.
When Newt was walking out the front door a bit later, he kissed Anathema on the cheek and asked in a whisper, "So do you think it's safe to have him around? I mean, he's acting a lot differently than before."
"He's better here than anywhere else," she said sagely. "He's in pain right now, a sort he's never had before, but I think Rachel may help him. He's her Guardian angel, yet it may work both ways."
"But it's so strange," Newt insisted as Anathema forced him outside on the pretense of walking him to his car. "I mean you'd think that an angel would be happy a demon went away."
"Yes, just like this witch would be happy her witch-hunter vanished into thin air."
"Hah, very funny, comparing them… to… us. Oh.Ah. I hadn't considered… Is that even possible… I mean, demon… angel…?"
"Have a nice day at work, dear." She kissed him again and pushed the car door shut.
A FEW HOURS LATER, ANATHEMA was sitting in the main room, nursing Rachel and watching Aziraphale read. Or rather watching him stare blankly at a book while occasionally turning pages. It was sad enough to watch in a human, but almost unbearable in a celestial being dressed up in a human body. She was beginning to realise that angels could rejoice and grieve and praise and smite more powerfully than even the most severely bipolar human.
Anathema got up, placed Rachel in the portable carrier and stretched. She really needed to do some more yoga soon, as she wanted as much of her figure back as it was possible to get. Maybe some exercise would help Aziraphale too, as it was good for relieving depression.
She looked at his numb face with eyes that saw back through millennia, and knew they would see forward into many more. And thought again.
Then her own eyes lit upon the old wooden sign they'd taken down from the front porch recently. It really was time to re-name the place and get that sent off to the post master's. Maybe that was a task for Aziraphale. He desperately needed something to think about.
"Hey, want to help me load some mulch?" she asked with a smile.
Several minutes later, Aziraphale was in the small orchard, wearing heavy gloves and using a shovel to move a pile of rotten leaves and other things he wasn't sure he ought to think about. It was definitely a new experience. Anathema had been planning on having the fertilising of her garden outside the greenhouse done by now, but the baby had come rather early. He was happy to help, even if it meant being near the apple trees. He could forget certain things by busying himself with other things, and was grateful to her for providing that opportunity.
While they mulched, Anathema talked.
"The cottage, the grounds… It's such a lovely old place, isn't it? I moved here because Agnes' book said I would, just for the last three days of the world. But then of course she was yanking my chain. And I'm kind of glad, because this place is utterly me, you know. It's natural, it's eclectic, it's steeped in its own sort of history that is still a bit of a mystery to me. Yet I can tell it's home, it's meant to be." She sighed and straightened up. Her body was still sore, but it was a good kind. "Have you ever been in a place that felt that way to you? Comfortable but exciting at the same time?"
Aziraphale tried not to think about it. Because the only thing he could have said was, Crowley's presence.
She saw the shift in his expression, guessed what he was thinking, and moved on. "What I'm saying is, something that special needs a name which really captures the feeling. And we're stumped right now, bit caught up in taking care of Rachel and whatnot. So… do you think you could help us think of a good name for the cottage?"
Aziraphale closed his eyes and breathed the morning air, deeply. It was apple-scented amidst the tang of mulch. It was warm and cool at the same time. It was dreadful and wonderful, and he wanted to fly upward as high as possible and then stop and let gravity take him down into the bowels of the earth.
"Love," he said softly. "What you said sounds like love."
"Well, yes, we love the place –"
"I mean, the things you said. They are about love." He opened his eyes and looked down at her, and the eons in them were never more clear. "What should you name the home of love?"
Anathema was entranced by what she sensed, the truly inhuman beauty behind the stuffy English shell. "I…I'm not really sure…"
"Then what is love, precisely. What does it mean?"
Without hesitation, she answered, "Wholeness."
Aziraphale nodded. "Completion."
"Yes. Essential," she continued.
"Heaven?" she inquired.
He laughed softly. "No. Earth."
She smiled. "Truth."
"Alpha and Omega."
Together they sighed, as though a breeze had blown through both of them. He nodded again. "So. Now. What is home, precisely?"
"Sanctum sanctorum?" she grinned.
"Probably not. Haven."
They were interrupted by a small sound from above, and both looked up. In the branches of the apple tree, was a dove.
Simultaneously, they said, "Nest."
Looking back at one another, they both said, "Dovecot."
Anathema laughed in awe. "That was amazing, how we…"
"Connected. Yes. I don't think it's ever happened to me, with a human being." Aziraphale smiled. "This place is truly blessed. Not by me, I mean. Just… by itself."
She nodded, and then curved her arm onto his. "Aziraphale, you are an angel, in every way you can be. I am glad you were sent to us, and I hope that you will stick around. Even if your other half is missing for a while… I believe he will return. Because he won't be able to stay away from his other half forever."
Aziraphale smiled, though his eyes began to mist again. He sincerely hoped she was right.
In her basket, tiny Rachel smiled.
Chapter 24: 5:03 Destiny's Date
In which Ginger finally gets a break with Agnes' prophecies, small though it be.
EASTER HAD PASSED, AND GINGER had spent it in church, praying for the newly returned Christ to be safe. The predictions of an Accursed One and the Antichrist had kept her on pins and needles for months.
But Easter came and went with neither the world ending nor becoming a haven of peace and love. And so she realised she had misread that part of the prophecy. At least it meant the Christ was alive and well, which she felt in her bones that she would have automatically sensed if it were otherwise. Yes, she was meant to find the Christ. Alive.
She was so devoted to finalising the cards, copying each prophecy carefully, taking apart every word for its etymology and connection to other words, and cross-referencing every mention of names and titles and situations and items, that she scarcely had time even for her job.
Ginger had cut back her hours to only ten per week, and even that seemed like a dreadful chore. Beside, the job wasn't nearly as important. She could only stand to sell so many mass-produced teddy bears masquerading as the perfect flame-retardant-polyester-fluff-filled symbol of well-wishing to a relative suffering in a hospital bed.
It had all become utterly pointless and irritating in the face of her Holy Burden.
The Bible declared that humanity would never know when the Christ would return, and thus should live their lives properly every day so that, when he did come, they would be prepared and ready to enter Heaven immediately. And right now no one but Ginger knew that the Christ was already here. That He would soon open the Seven Seals. That very act was where the phrase 'sealing one's fate' had come from. Her fate was already assured, a place in Heaven among the angels and saints.
But everyone else… they continued in not only ignorance but sin. Did the world believe such a thing was not possible? How dare they? So many people in this sad little world were as aware of their Maker as a chair was of its carpenter. They had as much true substance as a packing crate of Styrofoam peanuts. It seriously pained her to see them, a baaing herd of brainless sheep, ignoring their Shepherd, lost in the fields of pain and desolation. Thus is was her Divine Duty to bring them all to light, to show them the Christ in the flesh.
More and more time was spent at her home desk, copying passages from the book, digging through her large library for clues to the prophecies. She was up to number 610 now, and new perfectly well that it was going to take her years to finish. Hopefully she keep her sanity that long.
Some leapt up and grabbed one by the throat, such as:
357: When the Healer is loos'd of the Serpente, he shall leave Londonton and moveth to where the Lamb doth nest, the better to be on Guarde.
This made Ginger sigh hugely with relief. The demon had been dispatched, and the angel was watching over the child Christ. He would obviously be safe until Ginger herself could reach him.
And she knew that she would actually be there, in person, to speak to the Christ at some point, because of this:
421: It is thru the Owle's efforts that the Christ be found. She sharl hold the very hand of the Lamb onto the Circlef of Lyfe. If not for the Owle Maid, this would not be, nor would there be Peace upon earth.
That alone kept her going, filled her with a bonfire of righteousness. She would be not only at the right hand of Christ, but literally holding it. Her entire being shivered with delight. When she found the Christ, when she helped Him in whatever way it was that she was destined to help… then she would watch from on high as the godless masses who never repented were punished, devoured by the Pit. They deserved it, the lot of them.
But Agnes' book could be very puzzling as well. Her labyrinthine methods aside, she included many things about the world in general and specifically about other individuals to which there were, as yet, no real connection to the Christ. For instance:
453: The Black thinne one and She who cooketh the finest join themselfs together. They sharl sell the seed of caffea with alle manner of spices and cow's milke, and they selleth with grate haste. Yet they deceive into death.
She knew this referred to the almost unholy speed with which the Mocha Dick's coffee shop chain was advancing, a hoard of vampiric baristas sucking the caffeinated lifeblood out of trendy nineties yuppies everywhere. Then again, maybe the two famous food-mongers were doing the world a favour there. But how these people were connected to the Christ was still a mystery.
Number 217 regarding 'wyre and board' had also cleared itself up in the last month. There was a young woman, a brilliant software designer from Switzerland, who had joined efforts with a young man who appeared to be an albino. He was apparently the inventor of a revolutionary and extremely durable plastic. Together they had created the SloLutions Company and released a high-tech toy called a Vis-A-Vive. Initially marketed toward the upper echelon of high business, it was of course claiming a hold on the youth of the world as well. The Vis-A-Vive was ingenious but disturbing. It consisted of a tiny earpiece and microphone, along with a postage-stamp sized see-through viewing screen showing images of news, entertainment, and movies created by laser and sent by satellite feed. Touted as being 'science fiction come to life' and 'cyberpunk' (whatever that was), it was quickly turning to mush the brains of those who used them. Just because one could walk and talk and use the item at the same time, didn't mean one should. It was quickly becoming a hazard. There had been a number of catastrophic accidents by drivers watching the view-screen while pretending to watch the road. And since it was virtually invisible to other people, even children were playing with the gadget in school rather than learning. The Vis-A-Vive was creating an instant age of idiots.
Ginger prayed even harder that this trendy new toy would vanish from the face of the earth. Perhaps she could write to the company and appeal to their Christian sensibilities. If they had such a thing.
Whatever reason this was in the prophecies, and whatever these people had to do with the Christ, was also still a mystery.
Her concern over the prophecy of Christ being in a terrifying place with a flowered name had been laid to rest later though a prophecy she'd just found.
602: The Home of the Dove sharl cease to be the Floweryng Place, by my blood and the Heal'rs help.
She had nearly wept in relief. Of course that meant her cousin Philip had wasted months on compiling a list of UK homes with floral names. He'd finished it just last week and sent it to her, and it was truly impressive. Oh, well, at least it had kept him busy and out of the usual trouble, and Ginger hadn't had to carry through her threat. Though he would probably pay for it anyway when he faced Christ. Drinking and pornography were still frowned upon by all those who followed the True Path.
Now, continuing her project, she came upon this passage:
611: From thy husband's book ande that of hif brother, read thee twenty and five-teen, ten to six-teen, twenty-seven to thirty-two. These are the thingf which maketh Him of the Darkness most angry, which maketh Him plot againft the world.
Her husband had been Matthias. His brother was Lucius. This was, of course, reference to Bible verses, Matthew 20:1-16 and Luke 15:11-32.
Ginger had always prided herself on her vast Biblical knowledge, having large portions virtually memorised. But her memory lately seemed to be focused too much on Agnes' book, which rankled just a bit. Conceding defeat on her memory, she retrieved one of her many Bibles and read the passages.
They were both parables, concerned with how one gets into Heaven regardless of how one has lived. If only one repented sincerely and declared their belief in the Saviour, they would be saved from Hell. Even upon one's deathbed, the grace of utter forgiveness was bestowed, allowing a person to sin and sin until the last breath of their lives.
Ginger had always thought it a rather poorly thought-out idea, but who was she to dispute what Christ had declared? She thought about this a moment, then wrote on the side of the card with the prophecy:
Is this how the Antichrist feels? Does he resent that others may ascend when he will never do so?… Now that he has failed once to destroy the earth, he will try again, no doubt, and only the good grace of the Christ shall save us all.
It was all rather pleasant, knowing the Christ was here and would be found by herself, of all people. It humbled her while also making her proud. How remarkable it all was. If only…
If only she had some clue to the timeframe, and to where or even how she would find Him. Of course she knew she would 'fynd the Lamb when it be tyme and not one minute sooner.' But still, a little clue would be nice to have.
Agnes must have known that, and taken a single moment of pity upon Ginger, because the next page contained this rhyming prophecy:
622: Upon the day of Bread Mass, it sharl cometh to pass;
623: In the year of nyne-teen and ninety and eighte, then sharl we alle know the world's fate;
624: The world sits in the hande of the Dove, to send it unto the hande of Love;
625: One moment of Peace sharl all harts feel; the fate of us alle this peace sharl heale.
Ginger sat for a second as her brain absorbed this poetic prediction, utterly stunned that Agnes had been so very straightforward. She had a date, a precise date. If she could figure out what the day of Bread Mass meant. But the year, oh heavens, there was a year! 1998, just seven more years!
Seven years. The Christ would still be a child!
That changed everything. No wonder it was so vital that Ginger be present to take His hand. He would need an adult to help him accomplish the goal. Her heart swelled with joy yet again, almost becoming more than she could contain.
Ginger sat back in great satisfaction, knowing how very blessed and special she was to be given this gift.
She felt, for just a moment, the weight of the past wrapped around her shoulders like a mantle of heritage, the knowledge of the Prophets of old. Perhaps… she too was a Prophet. They needn't all have been speaking directly to the Metatron or well-known angels to receive such messages. They might have used other means to read the future. Her Boss was her method, having brought unto her the book of Agnes Nutter, however mad the woman had been. The last passage would save Ginger herself from madness.
The year was now available and she would discover the date. And she had the list of floral named homes to delve into. She might be able to convince her Boss to investigate these places, as he had far easier means of traveling than she did, and far more time on his hands. Still it would help if they knew the general area. Hopefully the prophecies would contain that answer as well.
Energy for her project renewed, she turned the next page and continued writing.
Chapter 25: 5:04 Moving Along
In which R.P Tyler makes known his disapproval of an obviously gay bookseller.
TINA MOORE, UNDER-SECRETARY TO THE COPY EDITOR of the Tadfield Advertiser was combing through today's mail. Her title was one of those things that get glorified and tacked onto the truly menial jobs. Basically, she was a mail sorting machine on two legs. But it was work.
She didn't even open the letters with Mr. R.P. Tyler's return address any longer. Those went into a special bin all by themselves. She'd have liked it to be the wastebin, but alas someone much higher up was beholden to acknowledge them. It had become quite the 'issue'.
Today there were only two, thank God. Tina finished sorting and delivered the normal stack of letters to the copy editor. The Tyler letters, those she marched straight over to the office of Gordon Marsden, editor-in-chief. Let him have fun with them. She'd happily stick with under-secretary status if it meant leaving that decision to someone else.
Gordon sighed to see her approach, but knew there was nothing for it. The newspaper owner had been called by Mr. Tyler once upon a time, and such an uproar resulted that they now had to kowtow to all of the Tyler letters unless they were dangerously inflammatory. For the most part they were ironically humourous, and the staff often got a kick out of the man's overwhelming sense of self-importance and apparently omniscient wisdom. Pity they couldn't have hired the man for their 'Laugh At Life' column, because he was perfectly serious.
Apparently he had a double-edged axe to grind today, and both sides had to do with a certain newcomer to Tadfield. Gordon quietly read the letters, translating to himself as he went.
While I, for one, shall always welcome with open arms a new resident of our beloved town, offering up fellowship unless they prove themselves unworthy, I must protest the business practices of a recent London transplant. Perhaps this individual is accustomed to his ways from living in, of all places, Soho, but it would be best for all concerned in our fair village that he come to understand our ways are simpler and more wholesome.
(Riiiight, Gordon snickered. Only you and your wife think so, while the rest of us go on with real life. We might be less exposed to true crime and corruption, but we have our moments.)
"This gentleman is a purveyor of used books in a downtown shop. For the most part, his books have no great offence to a sensible-minded person. It is well-organised place and the prices are reasonable. There is a Children's section, a Religion section (which also contains possibly subversive works from Eastern and 'New Age' so-called religions), a General Fiction area (even though it sports many a modern romance novel, dubious in content), and a Non-Fiction department. It is to this last area that I draw your attention, dear readers, for it contains such filth as I've never seen in our God-fearing town. High upon a top shelf, in the basement of the shop, I discovered books of such a nature as to shock one into speechlessness."
(One could only hope it would work on you, thought Gordon, and returned to the letter.)
"The books in question were of such moral degeneracy that I cannot even repeat their titles or content, but let it be said that they obviously would appeal to the sensibilities of a person such as the bookshop owner.
(Ah, must be about the gay lifestyle, Gordon grinned. Well, there were bound to be a few residents interested in that. His sister, for example, would probably find it of interest.)
"The most frightening aspect of this situation is how it will affect any children who frequent the shop. Though obviously some are delinquent already, exposure to such material will only further their decay and lead to immoral and criminal behaviours.
(Must be talking about Them again. What a silly sod, Gordon shook his head. Besides, the books are on a high shelf with a ladder as the only access, for the very reason of keeping children away. A ladder that Tyler undoubtedly had had to climb to reach said books.)
"In conclusion, I implore the good people of Tadfield to boycott this establishment, and thus to let the owner know that we, as morally upright and responsible individuals, will not stand for this. Shut him down, I say, send him back to the pits of sinful London.
R. P. Tyler
Lower Tadfield Resident's Association, Chairman"
Gordon laughed, and then sighed. Poor Mr. Fell. Not in town three weeks and already Tyler's target. Oh well, they'd all faced it at some point. Literally. At least the charmingly swish bookseller would take it with a grain of salt. Fell was so easy-going and likable you could have put a pair of wings and halo on him. Nothing to find objectionable there unless you had a very closed mind.
He moved onto the second letter, also about Mr. Fell.
I must start by saying that our local churches are fine places, devoted to God and family. They tend to our souls and our bodies on a weekly basis, all with charity in their hearts. Unfortunately they are, by nature, supported largely by the good will and donations of the community and must sometimes rely upon various events to bolster their needs and pay for repairs to the stained glass or to buy new books. This past week, St. Cecil and All Angels was to hold a bake sale, with delicious dishes donated by church members and offered to the public through a raffling system which, although rather close to being gambling, is still a suitably wholesome and effective technique. The church raised enough money, in addition to a sizable charitable donation from an anonymous person, to buy sixty new hymn books. Praise God.
(And I'll bet I know who did the donating, Gordon mused. Mr. Fell has a passion for religious works. Probably bought the books himself, wholesale, and let the church keep the remaining cash for other things they need.)
"However, it is to this bake sale itself I must draw your attention. While personally volunteering my scant free time to aid in this sale, I was thrown together with a local businessman about whom I have written recently. While seeming an amiable chap when trying to ply his wares, he is secretly terribly rude. When I pointed out that the baked goods were rather disorganized, and would he be so kind as to arrange them by type and perhaps alphabetically by content, he begged my pardon. All well and good, but when I went on further to point out the obvious, that pies and cakes should be separated so that rafflers could more easily discern the choices available to them, he declared that they probably had eyes and enough schooling they could read the labels and tell for themselves. The cheek of the man!
(Gordon laughed uproariously, something he hadn't done over Tyler's letters in ages. He was beginning to like Mr. Fell even more. His staff lifted their heads, and wondered if their editor-in-chief had finally gone 'round the bend with the pressure.)
"That said, I should like to declare that we not only demand better organisation of all future volunteering events, but also that only those willing to follow its rules be allowed to participate. In addition, I must in good conscience request that this businessman be barred from taking place in any further volunteering activities, as he cannot respect the simplest and most logical needs of the community.
R. P. Tyler
Lower Tadfield Resident's Association, Chairman"
Gordon wiped his eyes from the laughter. He filed the letters away in the large envelope marked 'Tyler Tattlers' and stuck it in his desk. These he absolutely wouldn't print, but nor would he throw them away. Someday he might use them as a basis for a book. Until that time he would keep them around for grins on really bad days.
Mr. Fell had better watch himself, or Tyler might make a point of walking slowly past his store and frowning seriously in through the windows. Or perhaps, to be spiteful, entering the store and tutting loudly over what he found, and possibly even shuffling a few books out of alphabetical order. He was an enemy to be reckoned with.
AZIRAPHALE WAS FULLY AWARE OF Tyler's dislike, but it didn't bother him in the slightest. He really didn't care terribly much about the attitude of people who, in the long run, were destined to be not only a gnat buzzing in the face of humanity but also a private laughingstock. It was that person's choice and wasn't it all about Free Will, after all? So long as their immortal soul wasn't in danger then Aziraphale ignored them and let them go on their merry – or, in this case, psychically constipated – way.
He had already dealt with harsher things. Making the decision to move to the edge of Upper Tadfield two months ago had been wrenchingly difficult. But he couldn't face London without Crowley. It wasn't home right now.
The storefront had come available a month ago when the previous owner retired. Aziraphale sold at auction all the priciest of his books - those that weren't his personal collection - and made a very pretty sum which he used to buy the store and all the things to set it up as a bookshop. The old shop in Soho had very little left inside when he'd closed up. He kept the shop though, because he had to make sure Crowley could find him. If indeed the demon ever returned or wanted to find him. He wrote a note, placed it on the counter, drew a protective ward around the shop, and locked the door.
His new store, also called 'Fell's Slightly Used Books' because he was lazy about such things, was doing a fair trade though it would never be truly swamped, which suited him fine. He had, in fact, changed his entire business acumen. Instead of his shop being a façade for his private collection, he kept those things upstairs in his flat and kept only saleable books downstairs for the public. And they actually were buying and selling.
Most remarkably, the shelves were organised. But type, by genre, by author and/or title, for heaven's sake. The older, lesser known books had their own special section in the basement. But otherwise he carried mostly newer works, even paperbacks. There were reprinted classics, best-sellers, children and youth books. He even included modern romance novels, which he had never before bothered carrying because they seemed rather tediously identical and because the paper felt cheap under his discerning hands. There was, however, quite a steady stream of lady customers who enjoyed them and he did a brisk business of selling and re-selling and re-re-selling such tripe. And he would have rather have his perfectly manicured nails ripped out with red-hot tongs than to admit he occasionally read one in bed.
Bed, that was also a new thing. He'd bought one, first of all. It was in the flat above the shop, which was only moderately furnished and still halfway filed with book shelves. And he'd actually begun sleeping, just a bit, now and again. In fact, most nights. He really couldn't see any reason to stay awake all the time anymore. He'd read everything he could possibly want to of older works. He didn't care much for most modern works *. And there was no further reason to sit up for days dwelling upon the prophetic works, because they were invalid now. He had better things to do, and they all seemed to be during the daytime when other people were active, so… he slept at night.
For the most part, he settled quickly into a pleasant and simple existence. He bought and sold used books. He found charming little restaurants to eat in. He shopped in small local shops. He sometimes had a drink at the Bull and Fiddle pub and listened to the patrons debate various sport-related or political issues. He met Newt now and again during the day when Newt had his lunchtime break. He walked to the little downtown park and fed squirrels and songbirds, as there was no pond and therefore no ducks. He volunteered at the church and at the two local schools when he could. He spread general, unfocused good will.
And he spent every weekend with Rachel, both with and without her parents, who sometimes needed time for themselves. He had become her official uncle, as explained to the community. He was the closest she would ever get anyway, as neither parent had any siblings.
He did his best to be happy. For the most part he was. Though of course he still had a gaping wound inside that wouldn't completely heal. It seemed the only way to cope was to ignore it and hope it went away. He couldn't waste time moping about when the world was still here, while he still had a duty, while he was still an angel.
And he sometimes saw Adam and Them when they came biking through town to buy ice cream, comic books, fresh supplies of teeth-rotting candies, or whatever they blew their allowances on. They would sometimes stop by the store, but only briefly to say hi as they saw him often enough around Dovecot Place. They'd all said they wouldn't mind babysitting for Rachel, but so far none of them was really comfortable dealing with a baby that small, so it was just as well Mr. Fell was around. Grown ups were better at that stuff, especially when it came to diaper time.
Today Adam came in alone, looking slightly pensive. He nodded his head at Aziraphale and then wandered through the stacks, occasionally tugging a book out and flipping through it. Slowly he made his way to the stairs and down to the basement. And when he heard Aziraphale talking to another customer upstairs, he quickly crawled up the ladder to reach the books in the section called 'Personal Relations', which was a fancy term for 'Sex'.
He'd had the classes of course. The next was coming this year. But they only ever covered the very basics – this is what this part is called and this is what it does and this is what happens if you use it so please try not to until you're much older. Boring and unhelpful when a person needed immediate explanation about how to deal with the opposite sex. Understanding the mechanics wasn't the same as being able to get your hands on the parts and make them into a working machine. He wasn't sure that was the right metaphor, but it was good enough for now.
"Something I can help you find, Master Young?" came the wry voice from the bottom of the stairs.
Adam squawked in a terribly undignified way and stumbled down the ladder, dropping a book. He hadn't sensed the angel, let alone heard him on the stairs. Damn, he'd really been distracted.
"Ah," said Aziraphale, picking up the book. "I think this one might be a bit too grown up for you, just yet. Needing to know all the many and varied positions a consenting couple can twist themselves into isn't really something you're planning to do this weekend, is it?" Inside, the angel prayed the boy wasn't going to ask for more than a book. Giving advice about sex to the Antichrist when one is, oneself, a six thousand year old virgin... not an easy task.
Adam blushed harder than he'd ever done in his life. It was nearly like sunburn, it actually hurt a bit. "Er, no, of course not. I just… I wanted to know… about…" He swallowed and straightened his shoulders and reminded himself this wasn't just some judgmental adult, this was an angel who understood everything. "There's a girl I like and… well, I dunno what to do anymore. Not that," he pointed at the '101 New Positions for Partners' book in Aziraphale's hand, "but more like, y'know, how to ask her out. Officially. And where to go and stuff."
Aziraphale smiled warmly, and with relief. "Dear boy. It's good to see that shining newness of youth realising it's becoming adult. And thankfully seeing it comes with responsibility as well. So, we'll just put this book back… and concentrate on the 'Young Adults' section over here." He riffled through the books and found a couple. "Here, these might better suit your needs."
Adam took 'Dating Guides for Young Teens' and "What to Ask and Where to Go: Your Very First Date' with extreme gratitude and fear.
Before he left, he turned back to Aziraphale. "You know who it is, don't you?"
The angel smiled, noncommittally. "Yes, of course. Do… the rest of Them know about this development?"
"Suspected as much. Do you think you can keep the secret?"
"…Maybe a while longer."
"What do you suppose their reactions might be, if they found out?"
"Probably not terribly happy. We're all friends you see, been friends for half our lives. It would be… weird, I guess. It is weird, really, but I like Pep. She's fun and smart and she understands me pretty well, and she's, well, getting kinda pretty… And I know her."
"I know the feeling. Completely." Aziraphale gave a slightly pained sigh. "But I also know that if you were to be found out and your friends didn't approve… it might be worse than if you'd never tried to date her at all."
Adam cocked his head. "Yeah, I know. But I also think I'm willing to take the risk. See, me, I only get one lifetime to deal with this stuff. Yeah, that's true, one normal human lifetime, though I expect it'll be a really long one if I can work on it. So I figure I can work through it, keep my friends no matter what, even if we hit some bumps." He stopped and looked at the angel, realising that his feelings weren't shared. "I s'ppose… it's probably harder when you've been down a road as long as yours, and there's no end in sight, and you don't even know where the other person is or what they feel."
"You have no idea…" The voice was resigned but deeply sad.
"I think you're lucky though, in a way. You're eternal. And what goes 'round, comes 'round, right? It's a round world, after all." Adam got less philosophical and more practical then. "I think he's gonna wander the world for a while, then circle right back home. Because this is home for him. England. You."
Aziraphale's eyes were getting that familiar hazy look like fog was rolling in, and he turned away slightly. "Yes…yes, I suppose that you're right. Thank you, Master Young. I do hope you find the books helpful."
Knowing he was dismissed, Adam went down to the park and sat under a tree to read. The books weren't nearly as pulse-poundingly exciting as the one he'd dropped in the shop, but it definitely held some of the clues he needed. Pepper liked girly things, even though she'd pull out someone's fingernails with hot tongs before admitting it. But finding she could confide these things in Adam was a definite plus toward going out on a real date soon.
As for Wensley and Brian figuring things out… it was bound to happen in time. He would just deal with it when the time came, because he was still young enough to be driven by creativity and hormones and didn't want too much planning ahead to get in his way. In the long run, what mattered was friends, and Adam always took care of them.
* The cheap romances were brain-numbing. Along with a cup of chamomile, they were the ticket to rapid sleep. Cheaper than sleeping pills for one who wasn't used to sleeping in the first place.
Chapter 26: 5:05 Weird Sisters
In which two further Sins are awakened by another Sin, and bad puns ensue.
QUEEN KOGANE WAS ENTERTAINING AGAIN, one of her favourite things to do. After her initial fortune, she knew how easily people could be bought and sold. With an entire country's wealth at her disposal, it was almost obscene not to do so.
Still she kept herself dressed graciously and simply so as not to appear the spendthrift, wearing only her smallest of diadems in public. Her people already adored her. She was young, pretty, and personable, frequently speaking to the public and hosting fund-raising galas for charitable causes around the globe, which attracted hordes of the rich and famous.
Her country, while already fairly wealthy from natural resources, trading and tourism, was now the hotspot to see and be seen. And to this end, the queen would select one or two people each time there was an event, those who became the elite of the elite because they got to stay in the palace itself.
She had been watching a certain two persons on the television in recent months, and had sent private invitations. They would, of course, be unable to decline. One was already a huge celebrity, the other an up-and-coming news reporter. Both responded instantly to their RSVPs. And now Kogane sat back and waited for them to arrive.
IONA McDERMOTT HATED POPULAR PEOPLE. Ever since school days, she had resented and despised those who acted like their shit not only didn't stink but smelled like prize-winning begonias. There were so many people in the world with fame and money, and only about a tenth of them had talent to back it up. The rest didn't deserve their grandiose lot in life.
Cheerleaders were her very first hate. All through school, they'd teased and laughed at the little nerdy girl with glasses. They didn't even have the decency to do it behind her back most of the time. One had stolen her only boyfriend away, just to prove she could, then dumped him. Iona was left alone for junior prom night. She vowed revenge.
Which she got after befriending the daughter of the cheerleader's mother's maid, who gleefully gave away secrets. And those secrets got out in the form of anonymous letters left in every locker of the school, pointing out other people who had been hurt by the haughty bitch until there was no way the secrets could be denied. In short order, she tearfully confessed to her friends who then abandoned her, and eventually she begged to be sent to private school in Europe. Rich-bitch got that wish granted but only after mass devastation, all based on her own real sins. Iona walked away without a whiff of suspicion in her direction. Everyone simply believed it was justice or karma that had paid a visit to the other girl. And it stayed that way.
Yes, Iona had a gift, and gifts were meant to be used and enjoyed. So she was utterly thrilled by Queen Kogane's invitation.
Iona was an international news reporter now. She'd been carefully, subtly, and coldly undermining her fellow reporters for years, and was so adept at exposing their weaknesses that no one ever thought to blame her when suddenly a piece of scandal leaked and a career was ruined. While Iona was the soul of sympathy after such events, still she moved one more rung up the ladder. She had risen to the top like the last good apple in a barrel of fermented cider.
All of this was because she had an uncanny knack for getting people to trust her implicitly. Perhaps it was her winning smile, just a bit crooked in a fetching way. It could have been her open and inviting gaze, coupled with stunning and surprising eyes like dusky amethysts. Her typical reddish-brown 'anchor woman' hairstyle spoke of a simple and honest young lady. And her very slight Southern accent, gained from living most of her life in Louisiana, aided in soothing nerves and encouraging conversation. The real winning touch was when she put on her darling little glasses to read something up close, and when her makeup was just thin enough that the freckles across her nose began to show through.
Of course, everything she did was coolly calculated to persuade others to entrust her with their deepest secrets. This technique had ensured the most exclusive interviews with the hottest, or the most reclusive, or the biggest of the wigs. She was now, in her own way, a star.
Yet it wasn't quite enough. She might have stormed over the ranks in her own profession to reach the pinnacle. But she wouldn't rest until she had trashed the reputation of someone at the top of their game, all without looking the least guilty. She wanted to give someone a length of rope and an instruction manual, and videotape it while the world watched a self-induced public hanging.
The Shimane-Sugana queen had risen to glory amidst tragedy, The king, her father, had lost his wife and only other child in an accident that also robbed him of his health, mere weeks after the future queen appeared at his palace, and mere days after she was acknowledged as his first child. Barely two months later the king himself had died. There had been no evidence of a connection in these events, but Iona's inner shark scented blood in the water. She wanted to be the first to win the truth from the situation. She could easily cuddle up – figuratively – to someone in the palace, if not the actual queen herself, and get the dirt. A breaking news story of such amazing scandal would put her right on the top for certain.
Iona knew that keeping up with the Joneses was pathetic and a sign of an empty soul, that the constant battle for the spotlight eventually led humanity to the darkest places in their souls. People craved to be something they weren't, something someone else was, so badly that they spent their lives and money emulating the famous. They begged and borrowed themselves into poverty just to own things that made them look popular, hoping it would fill the void. How they could stand to look in the mirror every day knowing they were nothing and always would be, that they were insignificant motes in the eyes of a blind, uncaring world, amazed Iona.
She also knew it was ironic how she wanted to be the person others envied for her fame. She wanted to be loathed and reviled and copied. She laughed at herself, for wanting to loll about in her ill-gotten fame and laugh down at the masses. But if she could have that, then she would use it. If the world couldn't bear to be in her shadow, then they deserved to be swallowed by it.
And best of all, she didn't have a single skeleton in her closet that others could pull out and use to damage her. Because bones are very hard to dig up when they are in another dimension existing only in a person's mind.
SAFFET YESIL WAS A VERY MODEST young lady. Though no one believed it upon first glance.
This was because she was a megastar and all her talents were very real. She sang like an angel *, danced more gracefully than a nymph, played five different instruments, and even on a bad hair day she was more beautiful than Aphrodite. She had hair like a pale golden primrose, skin of clover honey, and eyes as green as sunlight through fresh spring leaves. Her heavenly voice held a trace of Mediterranean accent which made people swoon, if they weren't already in a dead faint over the rest of the package.
To say they'd broken the mold when Saffet was made, is insufficient. It was as though she was a priceless work of art and the maker had, immediately upon finishing her, been killed so that another of her kind could never be made. She had a beauty so potent it should have been illegal. But she lived in Amsterdam so that was all right.
To the world she was the most perfect, most desirable woman alive, in this or any age. In private she was the princess of planet Hoth.
As was to be expected, she had briefly dated nearly every male celebrity available, going though them like tissues in flu season and leaving them just as ragged. She didn't do relationships, nor did she do casual flings. What these men found out almost instantly was that a kiss, a hug, a beautiful woman clinging to their arm for public appearances was all they got. And it wasn't them, she explained, it was her. She simply couldn't do more until marriage. Thus she had been engaged, briefly, fifteen times in the last six years. And of course, long before there could be a marriage, she would catch her significant other in flagrante delicto with another woman who didn't say 'no' so readily. An excuse to break things off was virtually guaranteed. Nevertheless, many of her fiancés and hopeful hangers-on were still devoted to her.
Saffet was disgusted with human physical desires. Because she had been raised where men felt they were the masters of the world and all they saw within it, who reached out their filthy hands and took whatever was in their line of sight and claimed it and ruined it. Women were among those things. And as she grew up, her beauty became her danger. Men eyed her covetously and she knew she must escape or be owned.
So she stole what she could for passage to another country, and busked for her meals. It wasn't long before she achieved the typical performer's dream. She was 'discovered' and rode the rocket to fame, though she despised the phallic metaphor.
And now she was the peak of perfection and everyone's most powerful desire. Which was, of course, the same as it had always been. Men just had to be more polite about it or her bodyguards (who may well have been eunuchs) would teach them the number of ways a person could be in pain and still live.
It was such desires, the sort that stopped the brain and the heart from working, in order for the body to possess and ravage and toss you aside when the next pretty thing caught their magpie eyes… that was the sort that was unmaking humanity.
But it was also such desire that kept her in business. The world focused on sex. It sold products through every medium. It was in your face at every turn. Her appeal had sold records, concerts, magazines, perfumes, clothing, cosmetics, shampoo, jewelry and cars. Her deep limpid eyes had convinced the men of the world that she looked into theirs and saw their undoubtedly beautiful souls. She was the face, and cleavage, that had launched a billion fantasies and fulfilled none.
And she was willing to keep doing it until she was old enough to need plastic surgery. After that she would literally change her entire face to be unrecognisable and become someone who could vanish into a crowd.
She hoped, with this invitation by Queen Kogane, that she might find someone who understood. The queen was in control of her own world, where men were secondary. Perhaps she could gain refuge, at least for parts of the year, in a society that let her relax.
IONA AND SAFFET WERE SITTING IN THE queen's private drawing room, waiting. Each was dressed in their finest, the newscaster in lavender silk, the star in emerald green brocade. They clashed. In more ways that one. Iona would have killed for an interview with the star, and Saffet would have gladly killed the reporter to make her go away.
When Kogane entered the room, she saw the sparks in the air. Though both were immensely civil and smiled warmly, there was a powerful storm cloud hovering in the aether.
"My friends. Welcome," Kogane said graciously, offering them both refreshments. They accepted, and she dismissed her servants. "We have much to talk about before the grand events taking place tonight."
"Oh, your majesty? What sort of things?" Iona asked politely, though her inner bloodhound was baying eagerly. "Will it be possible to conduct an interview with you later?"
"Perhaps so, though it will of course be scripted by myself and slanted to make me look good," Kogane grinned, quite playful but serious. "I know you believe you can make me trust you, but I know something about you that no one else does…"
Iona was momentarily taken aback. The queen was bold as brass, and very worrisome. What could she possibly know that Iona hadn't buried deeper than the earth's core?
"And my dear Ms. Yesil," Kogane said, turning her attention to the beautiful but silent star. "You, too, I know your secret. Which, if Ms. McDermott were to have her way, would also be on the evening news."
Saffet froze, her expression betraying little but inwardly she shivered upon her icy pinnacle. What could this woman be talking about? And why was she so frightened?
Kogane rose regally from her seat and approached them both, a smile of kinship on her face. "My friends, you meet your destinies tonight. I knew who you were months ago, and now you are here, and together we shall rule the world. Very soon. True, we have to share it with a few others of our ilk, but… it shall be ours, nonetheless."
They both were beginning to doubt the queen's sanity. Saffet wanted away, and Iona wanted a microphone.
"You know, deep inside, you both know…What you are…" Kogane reached them and placed her hands upon theirs.
And the sparks rent the storm cloud over them, savagely tearing through their bodies and souls, leaving them charred inside. They both cried out almost soundlessly then went silent as death. When the metaphysical smoke cleared… two Others looked out from their eyes.
They smiled slowly at Kogane. Iona-Envy spoke first, "Hello, Sis, long time no see. So… does this mean you'll share the palace with me?"
"Consider it your home. Fame is now yours, so you can freely take down the highest. Except me, of course," the queen smiled.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Iona winked.
Saffet-Lust laughed gleefully, free of her own frigid chains at last. "Oh, it's wonderful to be here again." She stretched and ran her hands up and down her perfect body. "You know what I've been needing for years?" she asked coyly.
"A really good lay?" Kogane laughed. "Well, I have… someone I can share with you both, if you want him. He's dumb, but he's a demon in the sack."
The three cackled in delight like witches over their cauldron, and began plotting the ways they would ruin the world. They only had a few years to work on it, so the sooner the better.
* This isn't to say that a singing angel was the epitome of bliss. Sure the highest choirs could harmonise all day long, bringing an overwhelming feeling of love and peace, and tears to the eyes of whomever heard it. But after several hundred years of that, it rather tended to grate on one's nerves and send the hearer fleeing to Hell or earth just for a break. The point is that though an angel can sing or even that they sing well, it's not necessarily a good thing. So what people should have said about Saffet's singing was that she sang like an angel who knows when to stop.
Chapter 27: 6:01 The March of Time, 1
In which four years pass, characters progress, repress, and digress, while Horsepersons and Sins are very busy in the world.
1992. A famous singer faces a lawsuit for child molestation. Members of the US Congress embezzle millions. British monarchy is divorcing each other left and right, most notably the best-loved princess of all time. The same princess admits to being bulimic. The CDC reports 43 percent of high school girls are taking diet pills, skipping meals or purging to stay thin. The first internet virus makes itself known.
RACHEL HAD BEGUN TO WALK and was now taking two or three steps all by herself. Newt and Anathema were in constant delight of course, and Aziraphale felt just as proud. It was as though the little girl could do nothing more impressive in the world.
Until she said her first clear words. She looked up at Newt and said "Dah", and his heart nearly exploded. Then she looked at Anathema moments later and said "Muh", at which time her mum nearly burst into tears.
When Aziraphale came to visit, they were so ecstatic that he wondered if Anathema's herb garden had grown something new they might be overusing.
"Oh, listen to her! It's wonderful!" they said, pulling him into the nursery where Rachel played on the floor. "She said 'dad' and 'mum'! Come on, Rachel, dear, say 'dad' and 'mum' again…"
The toddler looked up at Aziraphale, then pointed and said, "Ahn-sul."
Jaws dropped all round.
"Did she sort of just say… 'angel'?" Newt asked in a daze.
"I do believe she did," Anathema responded, equally surprised.
Aziraphale knelt before Rachel and cocked his head. Her eyes, bright and clear, looked into his, then flicked noticeably from left to right, just where his wings would be if they were visible to human eyes. He blinked in surprise. "She knows exactly what I am."
"She must have that from your side of the family, then," Newt said to Anathema.
"Indeed. I wonder what she would say looking at another of my kind, or a demon, or even… well, the Antichrist does live down the road…" Aziraphale looked pensive. "Perhaps we should find out…"
On his own, Adam arrived a moment later. "Hey, uh, mind if I hang out with you guys a while?"
"Sure, is something the matter?" Anathema asked as Adam took a spot on the floor with the baby.
"Nah, not really… Um. Pepper and I have been sorta hanging out without Brian and Wensley for a while, but still hangin' out with them too, of course. But we… finally told 'em about it."
"Oh dear. And they were angry?" Anathema said.
"Not awfully, no. They both said they'd noticed somethin' happening. And they've been noticin' other girls too," he grinned. "Since they never though of Pep as a girl so much, it really didn't matter, I guess. Anyway, this weekend everyone's got lots of other stuff to do, and so we're all doin' our own thing, ya know."
Looking at each other over his head, Newt and Anathema gave sad smiles. They knew it was only a precursor.
Adam was helping Rachel with her blocks when she looked directly up at him and said clearly, "Ah…da. Muh."
Everyone in the room stopped everything they were doing and stared at her.
She giggled, went back to the blocks, saying, "Ada… ada… muh."
No one, not even Adam, could speak for a while, so they let the baby do all the talking.
CROWLEY HAD BEEN GRADUALLY MAKING his way through America. He wasn't happy, but he really didn't expect to be. He tried not to think about it. Most of what he did was sheer avoidance of thought. Crashing parties. Getting stinking drunk. Picking up evening companions when he felt like it (which was not as often as he let on).
He also carefully avoided as much of the beautiful countryside and majestic mountains and mighty rivers as possible, as they made him think too much about Creation which led to thinking about Eden and the damned angel. Big bustling urban areas, that was his style, his thing, his niche. Such as it was.
He'd done New York. He'd done Chicago. He'd done New Orleans. He was in the middle of doing Los Angeles until a huge freaking riot broke out. Pillaging and burning and normal people becoming animals, the likes of which he hadn't seen in civilised society since the fall of Rome.
Screw it, he wasn't willing to risk the Bentley getting damaged, so he hightailed it out.
1993. A religious cult compound in Texas is raided and nearly a hundred men, women and children die as government agents try to draw them out. Internet 'spiders' become a problem, even while internet usage picks up exponentially. A new computer notebook is introduced, attempting to make pen and paper obsolete. There are rumours about cell phones causing brain cancer, while usage soars. A battered wife takes a knife to her husband's most precious asset and disposes of it miles away, and though he later has it reattached surgically, the message is clear.
"DID YOU HEAR THE NEWS?" AZIRAPHALE said brightly as he helped Anathema pack the baby's clothes in a suitcase. "Mother Theresa was granted an honourary American citizenship. So very kind of them."
"Er, yes, all very nice. Come on, Rachel, hold still please, we have to get you dressed." Anathema struggled with the toddler. "We're driving down to Dorking to Newt's parents this weekend, and she has been in such a mood for two days, I just don't know why."
"Poor lambie," Aziraphale said, putting his face closer to the little girl. "Can you tell Uncle Zirfal what's wrong?" Since Rachel had first said his name reasonably clearly, it was what he called himself in her presence.
Rachel looked at him and seemed to sigh. It was hard to communicate when even the angel didn't understand her.
But the angel was distracting her enough that Anathema got her dressed. "Here, can you take her while I finish packing up?"
"Absolutely," Aziraphale smiled brightly. Walking about the room with her, he hummed aimlessly. "There's a good girl, a smart girl. Where shall we go? Oh, here's the mirror you like so much. See? Pretty Rachel."
Rachel reached out to the mirror's surface and looked deeply. She saw, all right. But she saw far more than even the angel did. What she saw wasn't scary, but it was odd. Different than when she looked outside the mirror. And she couldn't get anyone to understand. Yet.
CROWLEY HAD LEFT THE U.S. for Mexico, and was enjoying the sun and the beaches, and the ever-flowing spring of margueritas andsenoritas. He fit in surprisingly well here, and was really considering staying for a few decades. This culture had even started out with a serpent god, and he had to respect that.
Unfortunately, they were also now very Catholic. Every damned place he went was spilling over with icons of the Virgin Mary and crucifixes hung on every available wall. The only hotels he could comfortably stay at were the very new and expensive, and catered to the international traveler who didn't care for religious symbols on their walls outside a church.
Normally he'd have preferred the fancy places. But the damned government was in the process of devaluing their entire currency system so he had to scramble to get enough money just to pay for a cheaper hotel, where he had cautiously removed the crosses with a thick towel and shoved them in the bottom drawer of the dresser along with the requisite Bible. Crowley had loads of money tied up in stocks and bonds, but money in general was such an intangible thing, it was hard for even him to snap his fingers and simply make it appear. He had little choice but to wait for money to be wired or be sent to his credit account.
Meanwhile, he sighed and sat back in the shade of a palm on a white sand beach. He'd gotten over the Eden issues for now. Besides, Eden never looked like this. Though the mostly naked female at his side would have fit in pretty well. He grinned like a snake and licked a bit of salt off his lips. Then a little more off the girl's.
1994. Banner ads and spamming appear on the internet, annoying everyone. An Olympic hopeful skater is attacked by a rival, and though she makes it to the competition she only receives second place. A famous sports figure is on trial for killing his wife and her lover, and the case drags on for a year. Country music becomes the most popular on the radio
RACHEL WAS PLAYING WITH HER newest favourite toy, modeling clay. She sat in the backyard, pinching and shaping and humming a soft tune. The sound of her humming attracted the doves that nested in the apple grove, and they came very near her, cooing. She smiled but didn't reach out to them. Instead, she was using them as a model for her creation.
When she had finished shaping, she sat back to admire her work. It was surprisingly accurate for her age. Whenever she hummed those tunes, it seemed to put her mind in a different place. It was something she couldn't explain to anyone, partly because her young body couldn't come up with the words, and partly because she knew it wasn't right for anyone to know just yet. It had to be her secret.
The doves came closer to her clay creation. They were nearly the same colour as the clay. If she thought about it hard enough, the clay dove might turn real and fly away…
"Rachel, where are you?" Anathema's voice came from the kitchen. "Lunch is ready, sweetie. Oh there you are." She smiled at her little girl, sitting on the large canvas they'd spread on the grass. She crouched down and smoothed Rachel's long hair back from her face, so like her own. "Still sculpting are you? Oh, look! The doves are so close. And how odd, there are three of them now. Aren't they pretty, dear?"
"P'etty bird," Rachel agreed softly.
Up beyond the trees where the birds alighted, she saw the face again. The woman who looked so much like mommy was smiling down, and Rachel smiled back.
CROWLEY WAS ON THE RUN. He gunned the rented jeep to well over 100, far faster than it was actually capable of driving, and still it didn't seem fast enough. Because he couldn't outrun the things he'd just seen.
Bored of Mexico after nearly a year, he'd gone to Africa. He hadn't been there since the days of the pharaohs. While it was warm and sunny, which he liked, it was also dry and boring. The beer had been good back then, but the downside was all the damned crocodiles. They were the roaches of that time, honestly.
These days it was a tourist thing to come to Africa. That, or you were involved in some Christian charity organisation that brought food, medicine, and conversion to the poor and huddled masses. Parts of that gig were good, the rest was just the same old crap.
He couldn't do the latter bit, but Crowley had done the tourist thing, just for kicks, taken the drive into the wilderness to gawk at beasts and indigenous peoples, though at least he didn't take a picture to make it last longer, because his memory was thousands of years old and he unfortunately didn't forget much unless he got distracted or simply chose to ignore something lurking about in his head. Like he'd been trying to do for three years now.
And then came the insanity. He had hired a jeep of his own (he certainly wouldn't take the Bentley into this terrain), and was just driving all over the place, through dusty town after town. Bored.
Until he happened upon the mass killings and the jeep didn't want to move through the mud made of dust and blood. He was in real danger of being discorporated then and there, so he turned and fled. When the engine burned out, he abandoned it and flew, wings a darker red than the blood he'd just escaped spearing the air. Thankfully the men with their armloads of automatic rifles had fallen far enough behind that he wasn't seen.
As soon as he made it back to his hotel in South Africa, he booked passage on the first ship out and headed for the Orient.
1995. A government building in Oklahoma is bombed. London's oldest merchant bank fails after making a deal with a Singapore trader, losing billions. A condition know as "internet addiction" is identified. Live events are broadcast on the internet, reducing people's desire to get out and attend actual concerts. Olestra is invented.
AZIRAPHALE WAS NEVER GOOD WITH computers but he'd bought a newer, faster one for his shop as it seemed he needed to keep better track of his inventory. People were actually beginning to request orders for things he didn't carry. With great dismay, he realised he was running an actual business now.
But his real annoyance came when he finally got onto that internet thing. Adam had laughingly told him it was the only way to really work in the new world, and it wasn't so difficult to get around as it had been just a few years ago. So Aziraphale had consented, Adam helped him set things up and get an online account for email and so on, and he'd gone 'surfing' through the 'web', and other terms that made no sense to him at all.
Firstly, he was greatly appalled by some of the things he saw, but he could simply avoid them by the 'filter' that Adam showed him how to use. Secondly, he was troubled that apparently entire books and newspapers were now available online. That meant people might stop buying real books and papers, things they could hold in their hands and take with them to bed and carry to the park. It was disheartening.
And worst of all, the Vatican had put up their own website.
ADAM AND THE THEM ARGUED, heatedly, for the first and last time.
Wensley had actually raised his voice. "You've been bossing us around since we were kids, and we just let you. But we're older now, old enough to make decisions for ourselves, if you hadn't noticed. This isn't playtime by the Pit anymore."
"I'm not bossing!" Adam argued. "I'm just saying we should try to hang out more, because we're starting to lose touch and –"
"We have lives, that's why. I've been taking extra classes and I'm graduating earlier than all of you, and then I'm off to college, not just sixth form either. I'm going to London. I'm a grown up, and I don't have time to hang out and play now." Wensley stiffly turned and walked away.
Adam shuddered in pain, but that wasn't the end of it.
"Y'know, I agree." Brian said in a low voice. "You guys didn't let me bring my new girl 'round when we were still hangin' out most of the time. Now I think if she can't be there, I don't wanna be either." And he walked away too.
Pepper just sighed and twisted her fingers. She'd really grown up in the last year, and though she was still dating Adam it wasn't what it used to be.
And now Adam tensed for the final blow.
"Um, I really love you, you know?" she said worriedly, "but I think it's time to sort of, move on. Wensley's right, we're all going away pretty soon. You're going to London for art college. Wensley's going there too, for history and science. And I'm just staying here for now, going to Norton Polytech where mum lectures. I dunno what Brian's doing, because he's not been around much lately-"
"So, you're breaking up with me," Adam said flatly. He hadn't wanted to face the idea, but it had been lingering in the back of his head for months now.
"Yeah, um. But I still like you, Adam, you've been my friend for ages, so… we're still friends, right?"
"Yeah, sure, friends to the end of the world," Adam said dryly, then walked away. He was now alone.
ADAM HAD BEEN GIVEN PERMISSION to walk with Rachel outdoors now, and today they were strolling a bit of the way into the woods, down near the local pond. Dog was bounding around, chasing bugs and frogs and whatever else happened to be foolish enough to get in his way. Adam largely ignored him, as he was far more concerned with holding Rachel's hand so that nothing happened.
They reached the pond and he showed her how he could skip a rock across the surface.
She laughed with delight and leaned down for a rock of her own. She found one she liked, held it for a moment as though wishing upon it, then tossed it out. It sank. She frowned.
"Here, it needs t'be a really flat stone, okay?" Adam laughed gently, "Lemme find you one…" He bent over to hunt for one, and momentarily wasn't looking at Rachel.
Dog barked madly in alarm, and Adam looked up swiftly. Rachel wasn't there. He began to panic, but saw the direction Dog was barking and found Rachel. On the lake. Not in it. On it.
She looked back at him, smiling and waving her hand, then walked carefully back. Her shoes and pants were wet and a bit muddy from the pond's shore, but everything else was dry. In her hand was the stone she'd dropped into the water, somehow retrieved from the bottom. "Got it," she declared happily. "'S a special one."
Adam regained control of his motor functions and his throat. "Yeah, um, I think you'd better not do that… too often. And I think we better get you cleaned up, or your folks'll be upset." He held her hand and took her to his house, where they washed her shoes with the hosepipe.
He sat down on the back porch and looked at the stone. It was reasonably smooth and flat, and had a finger-sized hole in the centre. He'd never seen anything like it except out in the countryside where the giant stones were, the sort people hundreds of years ago had dragged into alignment to show seasons or sacrifice other people on, or whatever. This little stone had something in it he could feel, but not identify.
He handed it back and nodded. "Yep, that's a special one all right. You keep it safe."
She smiled and crawled into his lap. "Love you, Adam. 'M gonna marry you."
He was too stunned to speak for a long while.
CROWLEY ENJOYED ABSOLUTELY FRESH, completely authentic sushi in a real Japanese restaurant. Nothing like the real thing, in the real place, with the real atmosphere all around at far as the eye could see. Tokyo was the London of the East, and even more expensive. Plus it was open all night, unlike London. He thought maybe this would be the best place to settle for a while. It would keep him insanely busy.
He was strongly considering that tonight he might visit one of the sleazier areas, find someone, anyone, and check into a love hotel. Why the hell not. Right now, it was still daylight and he was waiting for a subway so he could return to his regular hotel for a little shut-eye as he'd been up and about all night. But when a huge crowd of hysterically screaming commuters began running toward the exit and he was very nearly crushed in the stampede, his plans changed.
Moments later, he realised there had been an explosion of some sort and he briefly inhaled something toxic. He ran just as fast as everyone else, and even helped carry a couple of people who appeared to be fainting from the gas. He was never more glad that he didn't need to breathe.
Japan quickly lost its appeal. You could get decent sushi just about anywhere.
Chapter 28: 6:02 The March of Time, 2
In which a further three years pass, Disciples are met, Horsepersons and Sins continue their fun, and final preparations for the Apocalypse begin.
1996. A musician is arrested for drugs after another band member is found dead in a hotel room. The Unabomber strikes again and again, but is finally caught. There is a bombing near the Olympic stadium in Georgia. The Middle East is criticised for its program of oil-for-food.
AZIRAPHALE HAD BEEN FAIRLY DEPRESSED about the fact that many libraries and schools were beginning to install computers with internet access. It was so dreadful to think books could be utterly replaced by electronic media.
Then along came one particular children's book by an unknown British author. It was quite charming on its own, with a wonderful moral lesson, but the best part was how it had renewed the interest of children worldwide to actually read a solid book made of paper. He foresaw good things for the boy wizard throughout the following six sequels. His hopes for the future of readership were renewed.
But otherwise, he was still fairly depressed. Especially since he'd been thinking of Crowley almost constantly lately. Dreaming too. Painfully erotic and distressing dreams due to years of pent up desire and, he still had to admit, love. But knowing that he might well not see the demon again or, if he did, maybe centuries from now… was it was possible the feeling might fade away, that he might let it go just to stop hurting…? That thought depressed him most of all.
It felt as if his heart was being stabbed over and over with tiny needles of ice, trying desperately to either freeze and preserve the love for all time, or to kill it and spare him the pain that eternity alone would bring.
ADAM AND RACHEL WERE AT THE PIT, and Rachel was crying seriously for the first time since she'd been a baby. Adam was leaving for college. He'd tried to explain that he needed to go, because Tadfield didn't have a school for art.
"You dunt need a stupid ol' school, you're already good 'nuff," she begged.
"Yeah, maybe so. But I'm trying to fit into this world, just like you are," he said pointedly, "and sometimes you have to just give in and play the game. You go to school, even though you know way more than anyone else there. You also know that you have to be quiet about it."
She sniffled. "So what? You could jus'… you could… make it all change."
Adam sighed. "I could, but I can't. It wouldn't be right. It nearly happened once, and it might happen again for all I know. But it won't be because I do it. I just can't."
"Okay," she whispered sadly. "But you hafta come back. You hafta."
"I will." He smiled and hugged her close. "This will always be home to me, it's my Garden and you're… my best girl. You know I'll always be around, and I'll always protect you." He gave her a very serious look then. "You're important. I have to watch out for you."
Rachel hiccoughed a little, but her tears stopped. "Never toldya what I see…"
"What you see?"
"When I look at people. When I look in the mirror, or at you."
He raised an eyebrow. "You see something besides people?"
"Sometimes I see what they really are. The lights an' darks."
"Their auras? Like your mum?"
"Different. She dunt see everythin'. I do… And sometimes 'm not sure what to do…"
She took a deep breath and backed away, sitting down on the ground by the Pit. She was trying to find the words to explain what she'd been seeing since she was two.
"Okay, 's like… I see the person all the time. But sometimes I see the light 'round 'em too, layin' on top of 'em. 'S all different colours, an' sometimes one's brighter than the others. So I know what's happening to 'em. Like, my mum's blue and purple, but when she's mad 'bout something it goes kinda orange, like opposite of her normal colour… Anyway, I can also see inside the person. I still see the outside but it's like they're… open, I guess, sorta see-through. I see all the stuff they really are, not just what they feel. They have all sortsa colours there too, and it gets all messy if they don't take care of themselves or do what they needta. Like I see… when I look at Uncle Zirfal… 's like he doesn't even have room for everythin' anymore. There all this white light but it's mixed up with everythin' else, like somebody finger-painted all swirly. Right 'round his heart there's a pretty red-purple spot, and that's where he loves Uncle Crowley… but 'round the edges he's getting' these little black thorns, and it keeps hurtin' him. It hurts me to see… but I know Crowley'll come back 'fore the thorns make the purple spot go away... He's gotta." She took another deep breath and fell silent.
Adam was spellbound by her recounting, but when she stopped he said, "What do you see… when you look at me?"
She gazed past him with distant eyes. "Same thing as when I look in the mirror."
EXCEPT FOR THE BIG CITIES scattered around the edge of the continent, Australia was so much like Africa that Crowley didn't see the point. He began to understand why Aziraphale thought it 'uncivilised'. True they had that lovely opera house in Sydney, but going there wasn't much fun alone.
He'd begun to admit he was missing the angel. And that meant trouble. He didn't dare go back. It would be too hard. It had been years now. Aziraphale was undoubtedly pissed at him, and would be cold and prissy and they might even be enemies again… And his circular reasoning was driving him insane.
Besides, lately he'd been having dreams about the damned angel. Intense and sticky and beautiful and happy and fruitless. It hurt. It ached like he'd been punched somewhere deep inside where he couldn't see it or heal it. That made him mad enough to keep running away.
Australia was about as far away as he could get and still be on the surface of the earth. But they had an amazing array of deadly poisonous wildlife. Going on a tour here was virtually asking for discorporation. Trying to discuss things snake-to-snake wouldn't get him very far with that sort.
Then a mad gunman went on an eighteen hour killing spree along the coast, and Crowley figured it was the sign to get the hell out. Indonesia looked good and was relatively close by.
1997. Blogs and MMORPGS are introduced. A religious cult in California commit mass suicide. New York police severely beat a man in handcuffs. A well-loved princess is killed in an accident, and the former 'other woman', who bad-mouths the dead princess, is the only one not allowed to attend the funeral. The first death connected to the Breatherian diet makes headlines.
RACHEL STARTED KEY 1 YEAR AT Edengarth school, and though a little nervous at first, she quickly saw something special. There were six girls sitting in a row and together their auras overlapped one another, making a perfect rainbow of colour. This was very important, Rachel could tell. So she would have to meet them soon, in the right way.
The instructor directed them all to draw, after which they would take turns telling a story about their home life. Rachel drew doves, and crosses with circles on the middles, and the teacher asked if she knew a lot about Jesus. Rachel nodded silently, not wanting to tell anymore about it. She knew that she could only trust one person right now, and that was Adam.
Rachel told her story about home. She said how she liked to help her mother work in the garden, how they dried herbs for her mum to sell, and how her dad held her up on his shoulders so she could pick apples straight off the trees. She showed everyone the stone with the hole she'd found last year, which she now wore on a string around her neck. She told about the doves who nested in the trees every year, and about her nice uncle who owned a bookstore downtown, and that she had another uncle who was traveling the world but she hadn't seen him in years. She didn't talk about Adam just yet.
The six rainbow girls liked her story, and during break they gathered to her. Everyone had gone out onto the playground and Rachel was painstakingly drawing a large hopscotch on the pavement. She drew it with all circles instead of squares, in a slightly different configuration, and this intrigued the other girls.
"That looks fun, c'n I play too?" one girl with reddish-brown hair asked. "M'name's Mikaela, but I dunt like it very much."
"I'll call you Miki, then," Rachel smiled up at her. "You can play first, if you want."
"Thanks, I like that name." She found a rock and began to hop along.
A girl with blonde hair came forward, "Um, hi, um, I'm Chloe, and, um, I like hopscotch too, um, and I think 's a really good game, and…"
Rachel smiled. "Then you can go second, Chloe. We're all gonna be friends anyway. Right?" She looked at all six, and they all beamed delightedly.
Finally, one by one, they got into line and were having a wonderful time, though none of them made it to the top circle. Yet.
Miki wasn't very good at first though, and she was unhappy that she could barely get halfway. The smallest girl, a dark-skinned brunette name Selina, was very kind and told Miki that if she kept trying she'd make it. Belle, the smiling one with black hair and dark almond eyes, gave Miki her turn twice so that she could keep trying. Lexa, auburn-haired and tall for her age, made it to the eighth or ninth circle every time, but never pushed when the other girls took too long. And Chloe, the talkative one, hopped and skipped very daintily, making sure her skirt never flipped too high.
The only who stayed aside was Deedee, a brunette who was slightly heavier than the rest. Rachel tried to encourage her to play, but Deedee was too shy and said maybe next time. Rachel nodded silently.
Then she took her final turn. It was time to reach the top and open the circle. She hopped and skipped, she bent over carefully on one leg, she picked up the stone, and she reached the top circle. Which was named Heaven.
And she felt the surge of energy that the others wouldn't feel until they made it that far. As soon as they could, she would know they understood, and they would be with her at least until the end of the world. Beyond that… she could not tell.
Finally Deedee took the stone, determined to try. She made it halfway then fell over. The others encouraged her to get up and keep going. She cried a little because she'd skinned her knee, but she continued and made it to the top. There, she felt an odd tingle in the air. When she opened her mouth to explain, she suddenly caught Rachel's eye and didn't speak a word. Everyone else was cheering that she'd made it, but Deedee simply smiled and went to Rachel.
"Thanks for helping me," she said softly.
Rachel bent down to examine her knee, and said, "There, it's not as bad as you thought."
The bloody scrape was entirely gone. No one else but Deedee noticed.
ADAM SELF-PUBLISHED HIS FIRST COMIC BOOK based on the Apocalypse, with ten more issues to come. It went over very well, due to what his instructor called 'psychic resonance of Jungian archetypes'. Whatever. They sold like mad, and he was quickly approached by a professional publishing company. If he could do what he really liked doing and make money already, school was just a formality. He would complete the year, get the first part of his degree, and continue to sell his comic.
Then he would move back to Tadfield forever. And wait for Rachel to grow up.
BRIAN WENT TO ONE YEAR OF NORTON POLYTECHNIC, where he and Pepper ran into one another. They began to hang out, and realised soon that they still had a lot in common. And then they began to date seriously. Brian left school and began working for the Tadfield Advertiser (replacing Tina, who had finally moved up to junior copy editor), but he had higher ambitions, one of which was to silence R.P. Tyler's nonsense. Pepper continued college, but her future desires were starting to revolve around her old friend Brian.
WENSLEY HAD BEEN WORKING PART TIME in storage at the British Museum, when he'd met the owner of an interesting private collection of reliquaries. The collection was often loaned out to various museums, and the owner asked Wensley if he would be interested in assisting him. It was indeed a fascinating collection, bits of saints and prophets dating back many centuries and even millennia. It was the sort of history he found intriguing, and the methods of preservation on some items was also science that appealed to him. He accepted the position. And then he left school.
What he didn't see was the virtually invisible spectre of an attractive woman hovering amidst the collection. She had hated pushing his mind, just a nudge, but it was worth it and necessary. Soon, she would be going home. At long last.
1998. Viagra comes to the market, declaring massive and embarrassing cases of impotency. A US president is discovered to be having an affair and later faces impeachment hearings. In Texas, three KKK members drag a man to death behind a car. An upgrade to the Vis-A-Vive is announced, which will include video games manipulated solely eyeball movement. The ten thousandth Mocha Dick's is opened and a new set of specialty drinks called the Seven Sins begins to sell like wildfire.
THEN THINGS SHIFTED. The Time was coming. Or rather Time was coming to an end, again.
WENSLEY'S BOSS SENT HIM, quite by surprise, to Tadfield's small museum of history. They had requested a few pieces only, those that belonged to any saint or prophet that had lived in the British Isles. It was all part of a school project for the older classes, their final grade in local history. Wensley was sent alone, as there were only a dozen pieces.
He was glad to be back home. Especially when others found out he was back and they told him the news of Brian and Pepper's engagement.
RACHEL AND HER FRIENDS WERE PLAYING inside Lexa's house, on a rainy Sunday. And unlike normal days, Rachel was brooding.
"What's wrong? Rain is a big bummer, huh?" Selina laughed gently.
"'S not that. It's… something big is comin' soon…"
"Yeah, Deedee's birthday!" Miki said, poking the arm of the girl in question. "She's gonna be eight before all of us."
"Old lady!" Belle giggled. "We'll buy you a cane."
"And, um, a zimmer frame, and, um, a manky old wig, and-"
"Chloe, only your old granny wears a manky wig," Lexa sighed.
"Um, okay, then… fake teeth!" Chloe laughed and fell over, delighted by her own jokes.
Deedee rolled her eyes, and went over to Rachel by the window. "C'mon. What's really goin' on? What's comin' that's upset you?"
"I need to… I need you all to listen, okay? And to believe me, please."
Hearing the seriousness of her voice, they all stopped being silly and gathered around, sitting on the floor below her chair. Rachel sighed deeply, then said, "It's gonna happen on the week of Deedee's birthday. Not sure the exact day, but… some people are gonna come and… It doesn't matter about that yet. I just need you all to trust me on that day. To help me."
"We'll always help you, Rachel," Miki said, patting her knee and looking worried.
"Of course, you're our friend," said Belle.
"But there's more… I need to show you all something. And you can't tell anyone, okay?"
They looked at each other with further unease. But they all nodded.
"Okay…" She reached out to the window sill where there was a dead insect, some sort of beetle. "One of you pick that up. Make sure it's really dead."
Lexa picked it up and they all looked closely. "Yep, it's dead all right."
Rachel inhaled deeply, closed her eyes, and held out her empty hands. "Give it to me." The insect was dropped into her hand. She closed it and breathed gently through her fingers. Then opened them again.
The beetled flickered its wings, spread them and flew away.
She looked down at their stunned faces, hoping she wouldn't see fear or disbelief, or that they would think it was just a party trick.
Instead, they all declared excitement. "That was so cool!" Selina yelped. "I wish I could do that. I have a hamster than died a week ago."
Rachel shook her head. "I'm not sure I can teach you that one. But… one day you'll all be able to do something big, even if it seems really small. If you can trust me. I'll show you, when the day comes."
CROWLEY HAD LOST A GOOD DEAL OF HIS MONEY, thanks to a bad investment. He'd been in Indonesia for about a year. There had been talk of a brand new gold mine and he'd thought it a great idea to be in on the ground floor, so to speak. But it had been a hoax. And now he was very strapped for cash. He barely had enough to keep his Bentley stashed away safely, and he would rather sell himself before selling it.
It was starting to look like a distinct possibility. And he sighed, preparing himself.
Fortunately, he could still scam his way into parties with no effort. He was handsome, he was well-dressed and groomed, he knew it, and he didn't need to worry that others knew it because, duh, they had eyes.
So he attended a very high-tone party, and with little effort caught the attentions of two lovely ladies. He recognised the blonde right away, as her face and body were plastered everywhere around the island and most of the world. The other was vaguely familiar, but since he didn't watch the news as much as entertainment, he didn't know her instantly.
But he got to know them both fairly intimately within a short while.
They were permanent guests of the queen, which honestly impressed him. Saffet and Iona chatted him up successfully, not that it would have taken more than a piece of cobweb tied around his pinkie finger to pull him. He was ready to say any number of affirmative words in whatever languages they spoke, from the minute they looked at him.
Now they were in Saffet's suite, naked, in the ten person-sized Jacuzzi, drinking champagne that looked like liquid gold and was five times as expensive per ounce.
Crowley leaned his head back in bliss. Oh, how he would like to stay like this forever. And the feel of lips and hands all over him wasn't a bad bonus. Between two mouths and four hands, they were successfully finding all his erogenous zones and making up a few more. He simply could not manage to keep up with them, and that was saying something indeed. And this was all before they even left the Jacuzzi.
Boneless with exhaustion, Crowley felt himself dragged out of the water and onto a huge bed, and saw they were preparing for Who-only-knew what further carnal adventures, when the queen herself entered the room. Crowley lifted his head, and wondered briefly if she would join in and thus reduce his flesh to helpless sponge, but she merely spoke to the others and they left together.
He wasn't sure whether to be insulted at being left so casually, or grateful for the reprieve. Two seconds later, draped face down over the edge of the bed, he began to gently snore.
THE MUCH-BELEAGUERED DELIVERY MAN from International Express had been traveling the globe again, delivering odd packages with uncertain contents to people of deeply suspicious origin. But he was a professional and always kept up his cheery façade, even in the face of the exceptionally terrifying individual who had hired him for these deliveries.
He'd started a few days ago by going to the United States. There he had arrived at a tall office building and delivered a set of silver scales to a terribly thin man (whom he was certain he regonised), and a sceptre lined with sapphires to an equally thin woman. They had thanked him, signed the delivery forms, and then excused him just before they all but molested one another. The International Express delivery man tsked at such impropriety, which was just another sign of the decay of morality in this day and age, my word.
Not long after that delivery, he traveled on to South America. Things had been pretty dodgy down there for a while, mob actions that bordered on being civil war. But he traipsed unharmed toward a bombed-out building that might have once been a prison. Here he delivered to a pair of gorgeous red-haired twins an iron sword and an iron scourge. The two women licked identical pink tongues over their red lips and thanked him kindly in voices that sounded like the slide of metal being unsheathed. He hurried away to his next job.
Europe was less turbulent, thank the good Lord, but he had to get past a lot of security checks before being allowed into the factory for his next delivery. Once he'd gotten to the main office, he signed over a silver circlet crown to an albino boy and an orange cloak to a scruffy looking girl. They held each other's hands and smiled serenely. The International Express man backed away when it seemed that their hands were beginning to fuse together. Must be exhaustion from all the traveling.
Then came the next-to-last location, an Indonesian island kingdom. The security there was almost penetrative and he felt very put upon by being searched so thoroughly. But it seemed the queen knew he was coming, and the packages themselves were not touched. A little miffed at being so treated, the delivery man nonetheless kept his professional smile in place as he signed over a hexagram necklace to the queen, a copper lamp to the blonde beauty, and a silver censer to the wholesome looking one in glasses. They thanked him seductively, and he felt quite lucky to get away intact.
Now he had two more deliveries to make, and he knew without doubt they would be the last ones he ever did.
Mostly because he was going to retire immediately thereafter. He was getting way too old for this shit.
GINGER HAD FINALLY CRACKED THE CODE, though it did her little good. Her Boss hadn't been around in a while and she had no way of contacting him.
She knew everything she needed to about where and when the Second Coming would take place. She knew also that the Second Coming had not been the birth but the Call to Destiny taking place this year.
The date had finally been determined as 1 August 1998. She'd had to sully herself by reading pagan works, to find the day and month was called Lammas, meaning loaf-mass. The 'Bread Mass day' of the prophecies. The year she'd been handed on a platter. The Boss had been informed of the precise date, and had left immediately to prepare other matters, he said. But he hadn't returned since.
Now she had gotten enough clues to determine a town. These prophecies had seemed rather pointless and random until she combined them together.
798: The apple falleth not far from the tree.
2833: Far from the tree the Felled one falls ynto the hands of Lyfe.
3891: Lyfe becomes Lighte and groweth in the garden.
4012: A garth wherein falles the apple doth enfold the Six and One.
4199: The Circle, the apple, the stone, are Lyfe.
The first had seemed remarkably trite. So she had searched her cross-references for the word 'apple', 'tree', and 'garden', and together they had seemed to fit a pattern, though disjointed when separate. They indicated the Christ existed somewhere like Eden, and was probably already with his Disciples. The word 'garth' was old English for 'garden', of course. And this was especially of interest, as she had searched a map and found there was indeed a town called Edengarth, right here in England. If only she could get there, things would be fine.
But she was due to be somewhere else the same weekend, and she simply would not break her promise on this matter. It was her great-grandniece's birthday weekend, and she had vowed to be there. Her own sister had died ten years back and never met the child, so Ginger was determined to play granny instead. She had already missed a number of important events in this child's life, but her pride in being world's best grandmother extended to all members of her family. She would be there.
Besides, Ginger figured, if it was already pre-destined for her to be at the proper location, and since her Boss had greater means of ensuring that she get there… then it would happen. She would be there too, even if it meant being in two places at once. She would have Faith, something she worried she was beginning to lose.
Therefore, without a clue, she was driving even now toward Lower Tadfield.
ADAM HAD A SUDDEN OVERWHELMING URGE to be back in Lower Tadfield. He sensed, however vaguely, that Rachel was going to need him soon. There was a storm in the air. He rented a car and began his journey.
HE WHO WISHED THE WORLD TO END was also in Lower Tadfield. He'd taken the information given him by Ginger's work and solved the rest of the puzzle for himself. He might not have been able to touch Agnes' book, thanks to the spell the old witch had put upon it, but he could certainly handle Ginger's note cards without trouble. The clues she was unable to fully decipher led him to the very hospital where she worked, and into the birth records. From there it was all mapped out.
He wished he could be rid of Ginger, the arrogant, annoying old bat, but she was still a crucial fixture of the plan. Fortunately, it seemed ineffably designed that she be in the right place at the right time. So he sat back and waited.
Chapter 29: 6:03 The Prodigal One
In which the Seven Seals of Armageddon are opened, and a demon and an angel finally get their ends away.
CROWLEY WAS LYING IN A TREE, comfortably coiled along a sturdy branch. Then he suddenly realised that he shouldn't be doing that sort of thing, as he was supposed to have arms and legs and non-scaly skin.
He lifted his serpentine head in a flash, wondering what the bloody hell had happened. Then he saw where he was. Apple tree in the middle of a beautiful, lush meadow, animals co-existing peaceably. Eden looked just as he recalled. Maybe better, since it was only a dream.
"Hello, demon," came a sweet feminine voice. "Whatever are you doing up there?"
Familiar line, and a familiar response seemed to be called for. "Oh, just hanging around, haha." Crowley cringed to think he'd ever been that lacking in smooth. "Say, Eve, don't you ever wonder about what's outside the walls, what your Maker must have made besides the Garden?"
"Hmm, not really. Especially since I've already seen it all. I mean, this is your dream, not mine," she smiled wryly. "Come down from there, Crowley, and let's have a talk and take a walk."
"Uh, yeah." He was puzzled as to the purpose of the dream, but he figured what the hell. He slithered down along her arm, over her soft shoulders and down to the ground, where he took on his favourite form. The fact that he was naked too he attributed to it being Eden, where clothing wasn't even an option. "So, what are we talking about?"
"This and that. About Creation. About Life and Love. But mostly about you and why you're torturing yourself so much. Crowley, you've been a restless little bee these last seven years. Flitting around the world, sucking up what sweetness you can from the experience, and moving on. But with no hive to return to, you've just gotten fuller and fuller and that sweetness is fermenting in your soul. And one day it will burst."
"What in the world are you talking about?" he crooked his mouth in confusion.
"Crowley, why do you think that every time you tried to get nearer to your angel that you were harmed?"
"What, that? Oh, Ineffability. Infernality. I'm not sure which of the two, or both. It was revenge from one side or the other." He shrugged, annoyed by being forced to think about it.
"Oh, poor dear," Eve reached out a hand and patted his arm. "It was you that did it. Your own powers caused those accidents and injuries. A little infernal, a little ineffable, but mostly you."
"So you're saying I was beating myself up so I wouldn't boink an angel? See, that's just stupid. I should have just gone ahead and done what I wanted. I could have, too, when he was first being all swoony-eyed at me. Could have played it the right way and… yeah, I could have." Crowley trailed off, frowning.
"Hm, but you didn't. Because of your own nerves, your fear of being found inadequate, even in the face of Aziraphale's true interest. Fear, in fact, that you might make him Fall, just as he himself fears to this day. All og that caused you to lash out at yourself. Of course doing it from the outside was quite a trick. Bad for your health, though." She laughed lightly. "So, if you had the chance again, what would you do?"
"C'mon this is Aziraphale, my best friend for thousands of years. All I wanted to do was have a taste of something more. He wanted it too, you know. I wanted to… feel him… make him happy, and…" Crowley stopped and put his head in his hand. "Oh, God! I wanted to make it so wonderful for him, and I barely had to fight any demonic instincts to just take or harm. He's gotten to me, changed me, damn near redeemed me, the rotten bastard!"
"Now, now. You were never so awful. Really, you were the best choice Hell could have made, simply because you were rather sweet about tempting me to eat the apple. And it was all an Ineffable Test, as you would say. Which we, in fact, have mostly passed. But now you're fighting the last one, the most important one of your life Crowley, and no matter whether you Fell or Sauntered, God doesn't love you any less."
Crowley scoffed in a rather desperate way. His eyes shifted around, looking at anything but Eve. "Love isn't something I understand, you know. You forget that when you're in Hell. You forget your name and you forget love…"
"And how long has it been since you were actually in Hell?"
"Can't have been that long, uh, lemme think…" His eyes screwed up as he thought. Then he said slowly, "It must have been about… two… thousand years… at least."
"Hm, and with that much time away, you got quite used to earth. You enjoy earth."
"You love it."
"… Might say that…"
"So you can love. Therefore…"
" ... "
"Creation is Love. Love is inherent in everything in Creation, even if it is hidden. But once it comes to the surface, it cannot be ignored."
Crowley gasped piteously and crumpled to his knees. "I love the angel." Eve put out her hands and steadied him. "I do, don't I?" She nodded and smiled. "Damn it! How the hell could this happen? I don't know how this happened…"
"Because you are part of Creation, dear. Love is inherent. Falling doesn't remove it, just hides it."
The demon whimpered on the ground. "Why does it hurt so much? It's worse that the Pit!"
"You're torn in half, that's why. When you left Aziraphale, it split you both in two. Some folk belong together, are incomplete without each other. I am that way with Adam…" She sighed restively.
He all but sobbed, "Yes! I've been aching inside for years now. I didn't ache before he kissed me. I didn't ache before I thought we were going to die in the Apocalypse. I didn't ache because… I was with him, even if it was just as friends. I… loved him… all this time."
"Yes dear. Now wake up and go to him. You're both in great pain and great need, and you'd best deal with it before the world ends again."
"Yes, yes, now." He gasped hard.
And woke up in a strange bed. Two seconds later he was scared out of his mind by the sight of Hastur leaning over him with a cup of something that steamed.
"Gaaaaah!" he screamed, frozen to the spot.
"Rise and shine, snake," Hastur grinned with slightly sharp teeth. "You need some coffee?" The Duke sipped his own cup and smiled. "C'mon, already, get your lazy arse up. I have to catch a plane, and I figured you should come along. I mean, if you want to see your poofy angel sometime soon. I'm heading to England."
Crowley scrabbled at the sheets, covering himself. The previous evening crashed down on his head like the Berlin Wall, only without the cheering and relief afterward. "Gaaaaah!" he yelled again. "What the hell! They did send you after me, I knew it!"
"They don't even know I'm here, idiot," Hastur rolled his eyes and finished his coffee. "Get dressed already, would you, I'm not interested in what you've got to show me." He tossed Crowley's clothes at him, but Crowley had already snapped his fingers and dressed himself. "Fine, just come on. It's a long trip, we can talk on the way."
Twenty tense minutes later, they were airbourne and headed toward England.
Crowley hesitated to take it all at face value, but since the other demon had consented to transport his Bentley as well, he was feeling a bit more disposed to acceptance. "So… you're the consort of the queen. And you've been on earth since right after the Apocalypse, hiding from Hell and all other demonic and celestial notice, by using… that?" Crowley pointed at the talisman around Hastur's neck.
"Yes, indeed. Rather proud of that bit of work." Hastur grinned and held up the item. It was an oval of thick Plexiglas, and in the middle was a hollowed cross shape filled with holy water. "See, it's so tough it can't break. Even if it did, this isn't enough to do more than give me a nasty burn on the chest. Had this priest in some dinky Welsh town make it for me, way back when I returned. So far, it's kept me safe. It's been canceling out my own aura. I mean, you didn't notice me hanging around last night. Of course you were pretty busy there," he chortled, "but still, a demonic presence should have been clear."
"So… you're not going to kill me?" Crowley asked cautiously.
"Oh, for crying out loud. You're lucky my lady interrupted last night, or you'd already be dead. Those three together are like the brides of Dracula, I'm tellin' ya. Suck a guy dry before he can take a breath. Fortunately we don't need to breathe, eh?" Hastur laughed uproariously. Crowley winced. "Nah, ya stupid git. I'm taking you to England, not killing you. Though living there would be the death of any sane person, if you ask me. Anyway, my lady left this morning to go there and I'm supposed to meet her. Not sure exactly where, but the pilot has directions. We'll be there in a few hours, and we'll drop you off at Heathrow. Why don't you just chill and have a drink or something. Your nerves are getting on mine."
Crowley did so, gulping down several glasses of champagne (damned fine stuff, he noticed), before venturing to speak again. "So... If you're not interested in me, what the He-athrow are you doing up here? And with a queen?"
Hastur laughed devilishly. "Ya know, it really doesn't matter what I came up here for. I thought of trying to take over a country, or the world, just to kick its arse into Hell. Killing you and dragging what was left back Down to achieve a medal or something would have been a great plus. It was my Big Plan. How silly. But when I got here, nothing was right. Until I met my lady. And suddenly... well, I dunno what happened. But now she's what I'm up here for."
Crowley gawked at the Duke for several minutes. It was beyond surreal. Not only had the other demon become acclimated to the earth in such a short time, but it was clear he was genuinely... in love.
Perhaps the world really was ending again after all.
THE BENTLEY WAS UNLOADED FROM THE PLANE onto the tarmac in record time, and Crowley flew like a bat out of hell toward Soho. He tried phoning from the car, but there was only an automated message saying the number was no longer in service.
And now he was praying – yes, actually praying – that the angel was there. Or that the bookshop was still there. He wasn't at all sure that Aziraphale would have stuck around, much as he loved London. Or England. Or – please, God – the earth. The thought that Aziraphale might have just packed up and left altogether terrified Crowley in ways that he couldn't express. His brain just sat in a corner and gibbered at the thought.
The car screeched to a halt, half on the sidewalk, narrowly missing both a lamppost and a pedestrian who scrambled away in fear. Crowley heaved a monstrous sigh of relief to see the familiar old shop, it's faded books-of-no-consequence in the windows, the door firmly locked and showing the perpetual 'Closed – Please Call Again' sign. If the store was existent, then Aziraphale was somewhere on earth and almost certainly still residing in England.
Trembling with nerves, knowing that he might well be facing death or, worse, rejection, he strode to the door. 'Closed' meant nothing to him of course, but he did feel a slight tingle as he entered. There was a protective ward on the place, something that he shouldn't have been able to cross unless it were arranged so that only he could cross. He had still been a welcome presence when the ward had been set, but it might have been a very long time since Aziraphale had been here himself.
The inches-thick dust proved him right. The angel wasn't there, and there was no way of knowing where…
There was a note on the counter, glowing slightly. Also covered in dust, though perhaps only a week's thickness. Crowley approached it fearfully. Last time there'd been such a note it had been from Above. But no, this one was in Aziraphale's neat handwriting, and addressed to Crowley. Ah, the glow had been to make it visible in the gloom.
He read it, and was so relieved that he briefly collapsed against the counter. Then, clutching the note as a talisman, he ran back out, slammed the door to reset the ward, threw himself into the Bentley and nearly flattened a police officer ready to ticket the car, in his haste to reach Lower Tadfield.
NEWT WAS AT WORK FOR THE DAY. Anathema was busy at Martha's, helping her prepare for Pepper's special event. Therefore they'd asked Aziraphale to watch Rachel.
They were sitting in the garden, favourite spot to them both, and she doodled in a notebook while he read. Or stared at the book, anyway. Rachel sighed. The angel was being silly, and now the demon was on his way. Someone had to do something, especially since the world was about to end anyway.
She rose and went into the house, and Aziraphale hardly noticed. When she returned, she came with a Bible. She opened it to a particular page and passage, plopped it onto his lap and pointed at it until he noticed. "Here, read this to me."
"What? But dear, I've read most of it to you already-"
"Just this part. Now, I really need you to."
"All right," he said, looking quite puzzled. He looked where her finger pointed and spoke:
"Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and mind.' This is the first and greatest Commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love thy neighbour as thyself'." He looked up at her, still confused. "So, why did you-"
"You love Uncle Crowley, right?"
He was taken briefly aback. "I- I love… everyone."
"But not like you love him. Not like you love God, and then him. God's the first, and Crowley's second, above everyone else on earth. Right?"
The pains in Aziraphale breast nearly made him gasp aloud. "I… I do, but it's not… It's not right to feel it."
"Says who? And why? Because he's a demon? Or because he's male?"
Aziraphale blushed hotly. "Now, young lady, this is not appropriate to talk-"
"I'm not stupid, you know," she answered tersely. "We had the classes this year, and I know more than you think anyway. Chloe's older brother has a boyfriend and they're pretty happy. And don't tell me it's all that stuff about it being a sin, 'cause I've heard that too. Some people with stupid heads, like Mr. Tyler, say things about you and I hear them and it makes me so mad because they don't even know you!" She was red-faced now and getting desperate. "So you just have to decide. Believe that piece of writing there, if you can, all right, and make up your own stupid mind!"
Aziraphale gaped at her behaviour. "You… why are you so very upset about this? Why does it matter? I mean, Crowley is probably never coming back anyway, so-"
"He is coming back! He's on his way right now! Don't ask how I know, I'm just tellin' you! So tell me, do you love him or not? Are you ready to just be with him? You're afraid, I know, but what part of it are you afraid of? Oh, it doesn't matter what part, because all that does matter is love! Tell me what you feel!"
The angel sat there, bewildered and shaking. The sheer force of Will the girl was demonstrating felt terribly familiar, but he wasn't thinking clearly at all. "I love him… I love him as a friend… as a companion… as an individual… as…," he swallowed slowly, and tried to focus. "As a man. And… heaven help me, as a demon. He is what he is. He's Crowley. And I love him."
"Good." Rachel sighed heavily and stepped back. "Now at least you can be happy. You'll be happy, and I need you… to be happy." She sobbed suddenly and threw her arms around his neck.
Baffled and twisted inside, Aziraphale held her and let her cry, though it lasted but a moment.
She stood up again and smiled, wiping her face. "It's all going to be fine now. You'll see. He'll be here in just a little while."
And Aziraphale felt hopeful butterflies in his stomach break from their chrysalis and fly up, freeing his heart again.
CROWLEY DROVE UP TO THE formerly-Jasmine Cottage, didn't even notice the name change, and spun the Bentley's tires in the grass, damaging quite a few flowers. All of which he would no doubt be forced to replace, as long the world didn't truly end.
He dashed to the door, pounded on it a few dozen times in desperation. When there was no immediate answer, he gave a frustrated whimper and dashed around to the back. He scanned the yards, while his inner gardener noted how lush and typically English the gardens looked. But most of his conscious brain was searching for his angel.
And there he was, standing beneath the apple trees.
For a split second, there was great silence, except for the soft sound of a dove cooing.
Then an incoherent psychic noise like two great birds flapping frantically toward one another on a collision course.
They came together in a pounding rush, overlapping one another like perfect puzzle pieces, arms clasped as chain links, never to be separated. And within a few seconds, there were mouths coalescing in tearful joy. They kissed like it was the last day of the world all over again, and this time they would do what they'd both been thinking the first time around.
"Oh Crowley," the angel gasped, barely lifting his lips, "oh, Crowley… I thought I'd… never… see you again!"
"Me, neither," Crowley breathed heavily. "I… I don't… know why I… didn't come back…sooner."
"You're home," Aziraphale was almost in tears now, as his lips moved to Crowley's cheek and then to his shoulder. "Don't ever leave."
"Staying," Crowley declared simply, and put his head down upon the angel's shoulder as well.
Then he opened his eyes to see a small face smiling gently up at him.
"Er," he said, embarrassed. He tried to step back from Aziraphale, but the angel's arms were wound so tight he knew he'd already been bruised. "Uh, hi kid." He grinned nervously.
Aziraphale blushed and stepped away when he realised they were being inappropriate in front of a child. "Oh dear, ah, got a bit carried away."
Rachel just continued smiling. It radiated and warmed them both to the core. "Glad you're back, Uncle Crowley. It's good to see you both happy. That's all that matters in the whole world. Well… I need to go inside and get ready. Remember, the gang and I are going down to the playground in a while. Deedee's auntie is going to drive us."
"Oh, right, right, I'd nearly forgotten," Aziraphale was going to walk with her, but she shook her head, indicating she could not only take care of herself but that he had other, more important, obligations at the moment.
Nervously, he turned back to the demon. "Heavens, she's so grown up. Truly a wonderful child."
"I can tell… you and she are very fond of one another," Crowley said, also nervously. "So, this gig really suits you, doesn't it?"
The soft glow around the angel answered for him.
"You do realise, she's left us alone deliberately." Aziraphale managed not to blush very hard.
"Er, yes. Precocious thing."
"And… amazingly wise for her years," Aziraphale ran his fingertips up Crowley's arms to the shoulders, then to his neck.
Crowley shuddered deliciously. "Must… get that from… her 'uncle'…"
"Not really. If not for her, I wouldn't have the sense to tell you this…" Aziraphale's lips brushed Crowley's ear, and murmured something that made the demon's entire body shiver nearly hard enough to rattle.
"You, you, want, now, yes, really?" Crowley babbled. "Why now?"
Aziraphale smiled. He nodded upward at the apples hanging over their heads. "It's rather like the fruit. Some of them are at the top, getting touched by the sunlight, growing ripe and ready quickly. Others are hidden beneath leaves and it takes more time, they must wait until another apple falls out of the way, or the leaves are blown aside by wind, just to get the sun on their skins. They go at a slower pace, but… they get there. The conditions eventually become right, and when it's time for them to be plucked...," he reached up and pulled a reddened apple from the branch, "…they are the most delicious, sweet, tender and perfect apples you'll ever hope to taste since the Garden itself."
Crowley's mouth had slowly dropped open at these words. Aziraphale took advantage of the moment to push the apple into the demon's mouth. Reflexively, Crowley bit down and the crisp skin broke beneath his teeth, the soft flesh inside sent a burst of sweet juice into his mouth and dribbled down his chin. He very nearly experienced the same reaction in his trousers.
Grinning at the flummoxed demon, Aziraphale removed the apple and shockingly licked the juice from Crowley's chin and mouth. "You see what I mean, now?"
"Guh," was all Crowley could manage to say. He watched as Aziraphale nibbled at the apple, slowly devouring the white flesh. It was only by the most extreme force of will that he managed not to either molest the angel as swiftly as possible or to faint from lack of blood in the brain region.
"Guh," he repeated.
"My dear, we need to take a drive to Upper Tadfield. I have a shop there with a small flat above. I have… I have a bed now." Aziraphale found himself blushing anyway. "We really should… As soon as possible."
"Guh. I mean, yes, you, please, want, yes, now."
"Duty first," the angel said softly. "Must attend to Rachel, be sure she's off safely…"
WHILE HER UNCLES WERE BUSY in the garden, Rachel prepared.
She took her chalk and drew on the hardwood floor of her bedroom something very nearly the same as a hopscotch. Then she took the candle and Bible she'd been given at her birth, along with the Easter cake that had been frozen all these years. She sat carefully inside the highest circle. She lit the candle and was enveloped in the scent of myrhh.
She felt the world shiver as the Fifth Seal was opened. She sensed the Sephiroth being drawn in its destined spot, where she would soon be standing. The deepest core of the earth trembled, rending itself painfully.
Sighing, she took a bite of the cake, tasting the strong and slightly sweet frankincense.
The Sixth Seal opened, and the psychic world shook. With the exception of a notable two, she sensed multitudes of angels and demons beginning to stir, preparing.
Silent for a moment that seemed to stretch into infinity, she opened the gold-edged Bible to the necessary passage and read aloud hurriedly:
"The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put a hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea"
And with a bone-deep groan of the earth, the Seventh Seal opened. She felt the Horsemen, the Sins, hovering at the edges of town like vultures, ready for the true, final End.
Her breath hitching just a bit, she looked upward, her eyes piercing the Veils between this world and the next. "Please, Father, let this all be true. Please…"
THEY ENTERED THE COTTAGE AND SAW that Rachel was sitting by the front door, ready for her day out with friends, and within moments a car pulled up to the gate and several small girls inside it were waving and giggling at the house. All six of Rachel's friends were there, along with a white-haired older woman who must be Deedee's auntie. Rachel gave both her uncles a quick hug and kiss – which surprised Crowley even more when he felt pleased by the action – and ran down to meet them.
When she'd driven away, Crowley turned back to Aziraphale. "So," he breathed anxiously, "how far is this flat of yours? Or should we just borrow the bed here and hope they don't come home in the next three days?"
Laughing gently, Aziraphale took Crowley's hand. "We'll make it to my place. Barely, but we will."
They got into the Bentley and drove as swiftly as the streets would allow. They arrived at the flat. Aziraphale took his hand again and led Crowley up the stairs, into his bedroom, and shut the door behind them.
Chapter 30: 6:04 The Final Equation
In which the entire cast and crew are gathered, and the final player steps onto the stage.
THE FIFTH SEAL OPENED, and Agnes smiled. She looked down upon the fair-haired young man carefully arranging the reliquaries and artifacts. Then she spoke, because now she knew she would be heard.
Wensley jumped straight back in alarm, and stared at her translucent form, his hand clutched to his throbbing heart. "DearGod!" he screamed softly, "Who are you?"
"I be Agnes Nutter, young manne, you who art nam'd Appointed by God. And I needeth be taken strate-way to where the Christ sharl be very soon."
"Er. Aren't you supposed to have gone toward the light, or something like that?" he squeaked. Nothing in his science classes had prepared him for an event like this. It was more like the movies he'd watched as a kid.
She laughed gently. "Goode sire, there be no such thyng, I am sad to say. Now, please, takest my relic down and rush thee offe to where I tell ye. It be verie urgent indeed."
Wensley, hands shaking, removed the case with the blackened piece of wood, a remnant of the stake to which Agnes had been tied, and fled the building.
THE SIXTH SEAL OPENED, and volcanoes erupted, shaking the earth. The air filled with molten rock and ash. The sky turned red hundreds of miles away from each volcano. Three massive hurricanes built within seconds and flattened everything in their path. Two major fault lines shook and great gaps opened in the earth, sucking entire cities down into its maw.
Those who weren't killed instantly ran in terror, crying it was the end of the world. Tragically they were right.
In both Heaven and Hell, there was very nearly as much commotion. This had caught absolutely everyone off guard.
THE SEVENTH SEAL OPENED, and for a moment there was silence that stretched to every corner of the earth and beyond. Then chaos once more erupted. The seas were thick with ash from the volcanoes, and everything within began to die.
The kraken chose to stay in the deep this time. It had had enough of trouble.
ALL THIS TOOK PLACE WITHIN MOMENTS, and none of it happened where Lower Tadfield could see it or feel it. It was, as before, a haven of utter calm. It had to be.
The little girls arrived at the playground of their Primary school, as per Deedee's request. It was her birthday weekend, and this was her favourite place.
Rachel first gathered them together and gave them each a small package. "I know it's your birthday, Deedee," she smiled, "but this is for everyone. It's something small, but it can always become somethingbig. You remember that, okay?"
They all thanked her for their gifts and hugged her. Then they went to play, for though they knew Rachel was special and interesting things always happened around her… still they were just kids and this was a playground.
While the girls played on the swings and jumped rope, Ginger set up the refreshments on the nearest table, then sat despondently on the bench. She was unsure what to do anymore. Her Boss hadn't made an appearance at all. It seemed her destiny was falling apart. The last seven years had been a waste.
The pretty young girl with the black curling hair had come over and was sitting beside her now. Ginger smiled down at her and asked, "Aren't you going to play with the others?"
"Not yet," Rachel said. "I think you need to know some things…" She pointed toward the school sign.
Ginger looked that way, and gasped.
Edengarth. Oh, dear God…
Then Rachel said of the refreshments, "There's only enough for seven here. Not enough for all the people coming…" She reached out her hands and Ginger watched in shock and awe as the crisps, biscuits, cheese, fruit and punch multiplied to cover the entire table. "There. I doubt anyone else will bother eating it though, so I've probably wasted my time. Just like you feel you have for all these years… But you've found me. Aren't you proud?"
Ginger gaped. "You… you're a girl…"
"I know, my parents told me so, plus we just had our classes about that stuff.."
"But… I wasn't expecting…" And the woman felt a shiver as the air around them seemed to grow colder and hotter at once. From the edges of her vision, she believed she saw more people were arriving, hundreds more.
And then, most remarkably, a man dressed in an International Delivery uniform was in front of her. "Mrs. Tylluan, nee White?" he asked. "Package for you." He held out the form, which she blindly signed. "Have a good 'un, I'll just be off and moving to Hawaii, if it's still there." And he ran, calling out, "Come and seeeee! Bugger all this!"
In a daze, Ginger opened the box and found a diamond circlet, which she placed on her head. And then she knew What she was.
She rose and stared coldly down at Rachel. "You are my destiny, child. Your destiny is to bring Peace to this world, and to die for our Sins."
"Really? I don't remember anyone tellin' me all that. I knew about the peace part, and I'll do my best. But I dunno 'bout the other part."
"Yes, you shall. If anyone would know, it's me." And roughly, Ginger-Pride took Rachel's arm and hauled her toward the hopscotch board in the center of the playground. "Girls!" she shouted. "We're going now! Look at the sky, it's going to rain. Come along."
They stopped their games and ran toward her.
And they all disappeared into thin air.
Around the edges of the playground, Others came striding forth. Three Horsepersons and Six Sins stood around the spot, with empty air that flickered like great heat rising, and smiled. With a nod, the Horsepersons stepped back and the Sins walked forward, and vanished.
Famine took a deep breath. "Pity, this time it seems we are to stand aside and let others do the real work."
"Well, it was bit strange last time, too," War responded. She'd really wanted to stab something. "I'm sure we still get to ride out after they're done. That's what we were told before."
"It's okay, they'll do a good job," Pollution smiled dreamily. "We really prepared them, I think. I do hope they make it out of there, though. I rather liked my Sin. She was a real slob, that one."
CROWLEY AND AZIRAPHALE LAY TOGETHER in the angel's bed, glowing in more ways than one.
The experience hadn't been at all what either had been expecting. But as neither had ever before been so intimate with another being of their own calibre (and one of them hadn't been with anyone, of any sort, at all) there was no way they could have anticipated the intensity. The way they'd fused together, it had clearly been beyond bodies. It had been their very essences that had merged.
It had been damned good. It had been divinely wicked. And they had done it twice in twenty minutes, unable to stop. They were strongly considering a third go at it, when something else got their undivided attention.
"Shit!" they both yelped simultaneously, sitting bolt upright.
"Christ!" Crowley shouted.
"Eve!" Aziraphale yelled.
Looking at one another in terror, they breathed, "Rachel."
They were dressed in less than a second, and winging their way toward the school in another.
ACROSS TOWN, ANATHEMA'S HEAD SHOT UP IN ALARM. "My baby!" she screamed and ran from Martha's house. She got as far as two blocks on foot when Pepper and Brian found her and pushed her, still screaming, into Pepper's car and drove her wherever she babbled for them to go.
IN HIS OFFICE, NEWT REPEATED THE SCENE. Except he remembered he had a car, and used it.
WENSLEY DIDN'T HAVE A CAR, but the museum wasn't that far from the school. Panting he was halfway there when Adam's rented car screeched to a halt beside him. "Get in, damn it!" Adam shouted, "She needs us!" He nodded politely to Agnes' spirit. "Glad to see you again."
"And you as well, Young manne. You hafe turn'd out fyne."
"Thanks ma'am. Now let me concentrate before I kill the rest of us." Adam drove like all of Hell was behind him.
CROWLEY AND AZIRAPHALE ARRIVED FIRST, fluttering heavily to the ground. Neither had flown a great distance in many years, Aziraphale for more than he cared to count. Breathing heavily he said, "Now… what? Where… is she?"
"Some…where nearby," Crowley panted. "Can sense her…"
Then they saw the Three sitting on the bench, having refreshments.
"You've got to be kidding me," Crowley declared flatly. "Famine, didn't think you'd eat anything, let alone jaffa cakes."
"They're empty calories, of course I don't mind," Sable smirked.
The Horsepersons rose and War drew her sword threateningly. "Think you're outnumbered, boys. Even if you had weapons, I think… yes, I know… you're both far too, hah, shagged out to manage a decent fight."
"That was exceptionally tacky, madam," Aziraphale winced, but he and Crowley began backing away. What War had said was true, in every sense of the word.
The Three moved forward, grinning like evil itself. And when the angel and demon reached the center of the playground… they vanished.
"Damn, we keep losing people." Famine sighed.
"Oh, well," Pollution said, dropping a plastic punch cup onto the pavement and watching it blow away in the lazy wind. "Let's just eat the rest of the snacks and relax. I'm sure we'll have plenty to do once they've finished."
War sighed. "This is getting tedious, honestly. It's a waste of a good sword."
WHERE WERE THEY ALL? It was neither earth, nor Heaven, nor Hell. But it felt like a bit of each. And there was soft background music, very much like Rachel used to hum.
They all looked around themselves, and saw that they were separated into giant spheres, each one a different colour, and connected to one another through something like tubes, making a giant and very complicated unit. But try as they might, there was no passage between them.
In each sphere, save three, was a young girl and a Sin Incarnate. The only one not afraid and crying was Rachel, who stood in the highest sphere. This one was so white as to be unreal. It nearly blinded anyone who looked directly at it.
"Friends," came Rachel's soft voice, traveling through the pathways to each of the girls, "don't worry. I know what to do. It won't be long, and then we can leave and have the cake, you'll see."
They began to calm down and, sniffling, nodded. Rachel always seemed to know when things were going to be really bad. If she said this would turn out all right, they had to believe.
Suddenly, appearing in the two spheres nearest Rachel, came her uncles. She smiled at them both, knowing they were happy at last and could be in the proper frame of mind to do their jobs.
"OhhhmyyyygGoooodddd," Crowley whined. "We've died!"
"No, no," Aziraphale said, concentrating. "Someone has constructed a Sephiroth as a holding place between the realms. We're in… I'm in Binah, and you're in Chokmah. Hmph, I get the female Sphere? Figures."
"Heavenly Spheres?" Crowley panicked. "I'm going to be burned alive!"
"Nonsense. Were you burned alive touching me?"
"You're not that heavenly... Uh, not that it's a bad thing."
"Oh, my goodness!" Aziraphale looked around now. "Rachel's little friends and women… no. Sins." He turned toward Rachel behind him, in Kether. "Ah, a complete set. Dear, are you all right?"
She nodded. She didn't need to explain so much to the two of them.
They were silenced briefly by a new arrival at the very bottom of the Tree. Adam came barreling wildly into multi-coloured Malkuth, panting and yelling. "You!" he pointed at Aziraphale, and looked as though he would throttle him given the chance. "You were supposed to be watching her, guarding her from this!"
"Hey, back off!" Crowley shouted. "She sent us away, she might have known this was happening! Ever think of that?"
"No, no," Aziraphale sighed, "Adam's right, I should have been…"
"I knew," Rachel said quietly, but Adam still heard. "It's all right."
He looked at her in dismay. "But… why? Why do this? It's not necessary. I finished it last time, I- "
Her gaze was calm and serious, and suddenly he understood. He nodded, silent now.
And they waited.
STILL MIGHTILY CONFUSED, ANGELS AND DEMONS arose or descended into the Spheres, joining those already present. The young girls whimpered at the sight of these new arrivals, but Rachel sent a calming whisper and they grew silent again. The Sins were also silent, because they needed only to wait until the last One arrived.
The silence was broken by Crowley yelping in fear.
"Hello, zzsnake," said Beelzebub. "Fanzzy meeting you here."
"Ohshitohshitohfuck," Crowley whispered, eyes closed. "What did I ever do to deserve this?"
"I have a lizzst if you want it," the arch-demon laughed.
"Leave it off," said the accompanying angel. "He's here for a reason, and that reason must be fulfilled."
"Szztuff it Razzziel," Beelzebub sulked, but he left Crowley alone. For now.
"Oh, dear," Aziraphale said, eyeing his two new companions with distaste. He hadn't met Lucifuge before, but he remembered Tzaphquiel and how the angel liked to simply stare. It was a bit disconcerting. "So, er, how's Heaven?"
The angel stared at him. "Heavenly."
Down in Malkuth, Adam was having no fun either with his pair-up. The angel was actually having more trouble than him because the demon was Naamah, who was trying alternately to lick Adam with her long tongue and slash at the angel with her claws.
"Oh, get off it, would you!" the Antichrist finally shouted at them both. "I've had it with this shit."
The voice of her Master's son silenced the demon, but the angel said, "I am Sandalphon, and I do hope you shall come to our side."
"The hell with sides," Adam declared. "Sick of that too. Just stand there and shut up."
And the angel was shocked to silence.
In Kether, Rachel was calmly regarding the newcomers. Metatron stood there flaming, glaring at the arch-demon Moloch, who simply glared back. "Christ child," the angel said, "fear not. The Seals may be opened and the earth on the brink of destruction, but we shall prevail. Heaven is meant to do so."
"Hm. If you say so. Don't remember hearin' that part," Rachel mused quietly.
Metatron's head turned imperceptibly her way, brows raised. He hadn't been told that part, either, come to think of it.
OUTSIDES THE SPHERES, ANATHEMA AND NEWT came screaming onto the playground, barely noticing one another in their panic. Brian and Pepper ran to Wensley, who was already there and looking worse for the wear.
"What the hell is happening?" Pepper demanded.
"Not sure at all. But Adam's in there," he indicated the barely discernable wavering of the air. "And he went in with a ghost named Agnes Nutter –"
"What?" yelled Anathema and Newt together. They stormed over to Wensley, their eyes wild. "Is Rachel with them?"
"Er, as far as I understand any of this, yes. Adam and Agnes went in to help her… do something. After that, I have no idea."
"Oh God oh God oh God!" Anathema paced back and forth like a mad lioness unable to touch the Spheres, but seeing them slightly better than the others. "I can sense her in there! My baby!"
Newt walked around the playground to the other side, hoping beyond hope for something to help… and saw the Three.
"Who the hell are… wait a minute… familiar," Newt frowned.
"Hello, little man, care for a crisp?" Famine swept his hand over the table. "Fairly tasty, full of fat, entirely lacking in nutrition."
Anathema came dashing around the Spheres and yelled, "What have you done with our daughter?"
"Oh, for crying out loud," War sighed, standing up and hefting her sword over her shoulder. "Hey, lady, back off. Unless you think you can take me."
"Don't be stupid," Anathema grumbled, "I'm a pacifist." But she hauled her fist back and planted it solidly against War's jaw. "Now tell me where my daughter is!"
War shook her head in surprise. "Wow, that's never happened before." She straightened up and her companions stood beside her, ready to throw down. "I think we'd better try that again. You're a bit outnumbered, here…"
"Think again!" shouted Pepper, striding forth with Brian and Wensley.
"Yeah," Brian declared. "We took you on once, we can do it again."
"Uh, yeah," Wensley said, clearing his throat. "With no weapons or anything."
The Three laughed wickedly. "Even if you did have 'weapons', as you put it," Famine said harshly, "last time was different. Your Antichrist was calling the shots, and right now he's a bit busy."
"And besides… there may be more of you, but you're only humans." Pollution smiled an oily smile. "So you're still far outnumbered."
"No, I think we can call it fairly even," came a dark and deadly voice. Hastur crept forth, looking far more demonic than he had in seven years. "I know my lady is in there somewhere, and I suspect you Three are involved. So until she comes out and I can see for myself… I think I'd like to kick your asses for a while."
And he launched himself at the Three in a flurry of claws, teeth and, unfortunately, maggots.
The humans stood back and let him have fun.
FOR SEVERAL MINUTES, THERE WAS relative silence in the Spheres.
Finally, Metatron spoke up. "Okay. What now?"
"Indeed," Beelzebub hissed. "There zzhould be zzomething happening… right?"
"Maybe someone forgot to join the party?" Metatron asked.
And there came a great shuddering of the Spheres, heralding a final arrival.
"Oh, now you've bloody done it," Crowley whispered.
From the invisible Sphere of Da'ath, hidden beyond the connecting webs, directly between the top three Spheres, came He who had arranged the entire matter, He who desired the true End of the world.
GREETINGS, EVERYONE, intoned the Angel of Death. I DO HOPE I'M NOT LATE FOR THE PARTY. GET IT? LATE?... OH, NEVER MIND, HUMOUR WAS NEVER MY STRONG SUIT.
Chapter 31: 6:05 Alpha and Omega
In which there are truths, lies, announcements, deceptions, poundings, recoveries, and everything else imaginable. Also cake eating.
FOR ONE SECOND THERE WAS literally dead silence.
Then several voices yelled at once. "Azrael?"
WHOM ELSE DO YOU THINK? AN ANOREXIC SUPER-MODEL? NOW LET'S GET THIS SHOW ON THE ROAD, I'M SICK AND TIRED OF WAITING.
The Spheres began to move, some boiling, some shivering, some twitching, and all inhabitants shouted in anger or fear or confusion.
"What do you think you're doing?" Metatron shouted.
Azrael looked at him with all the contempt a skeletal face could muster. WHAT DOES IT BLOODY LOOK LIKE? I'M ENDING THE WORLD. YOUR CHRIST IS HERE, SHE'S OPENED THE SEALS WHICH WEREN'T OPENED LAST TIME THUS MAKING IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR THE WORLD TO COMPLETELY END. AND I'M FINISHING THE DAMNED JOB.
"But we were told last time was… it. Over. Done. This new event wasn't given to us know," Metatron said angrily. "We don't know what will happen if you do this! For all we know, this may end not only the world but Heaven and Hell as well!"
HM. YES, THAT IS A DISTINCT POSSIBILITY. WISH I'D THOUGHT OF IT SOONER, REALLY.
"How did you think of such a thing to begin with!" Metatron demanded.
IT WAS AMAZINGLY SIMPLE. THE TREE OF LIFE, THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL, IS BOTH THIS CONFIGURATION, he swept his hand toward the Spheres, AND THE VERY ESSENCE OF WHAT CREATION WAS ABOUT BACK IN THE GARDEN. THEY ARE LITERALLY ONE AND THE SAME. GUESS WHAT? THE ORIGINAL NAME FOR THE TREE IS ETZ HA-DA'ATH. GUESS WHAT ELSE? I'M IN CHARGE OF THAT SPHERE. I CONTROL IT ALL. I CAN CHOOSE WHETHER IT ALL LIVES OR DIES. IT IS MY JOB AND MY RIGHT. AND I'M EXERCISING IT.
Worried and furious voices piped up from all spheres, from angels and demons and frightened little girls. Even the Sins seemed a bit taken aback.
"Why would you do zzsuch a thing?" demanded Beezlebub. "At leazzt give Hell the chanzze to zzsucceed where it wazz denied lazzst time." He shot an acidic glare at Crowley, who was only inches away.
Crowley cringed further than he ever had, very nearly turning himself inside out.
"Now, see here!" Aziraphale shouted. The demon in his Sphere laughed heartily. "And you shut up, I've bloody well had it up to here with demons who can't be polite!"
WOULD YOU ALL JUST SHUT UP, said Azrael, loudly, I'M TRYING TO DESTROY EVERYTHING, IF YOU DON'T MIND.
"I think we do mind, thank you," Metatron gritted his teeth. "We need to know what will happen!"
WHO CARES? Azrael shouted at the top of his hollow, dirge-like voice. I AM SICK TO DEATH OF THIS JOB. I HAVE BEEN DEALING WITH THIS SHIT FOR FOUR MILLENNIA NOW, AND ALL THE HUMANS DO IS BITCH ABOUT DYING. MIND YOU, I DON'T HAVE TO DEAL WITH THOSE GOING TO HELL, THEY JUST DROP DOWN OF THEIR OWN ACCORD. BUT THOSE GOING TO HEAVEN? I HAVE TO SCHLEPP THEIR ARSES CLEAR UP AND THEN COME BACK DOWN FOR MORE. YOU'D THINK, WITH ALL THE SINNING IN THIS WORLD, THERE WOULD BE MORE GOING DOWNSTAIRS. BUT NOOOO. I HAVE TO HONOUR THOSE DAMNED CLAUSES IN MATTHEW AND LUKE, THE BLOODY WANKERS. 'ANYONE WHO REPENTS ON HIS DEATHBED, GETS A TICKET GOOD FOR ONE FREE SALVATION'. BOLLOCKS, I SAY. I'M KILLING 'EM ALL AND LETTING GOD SORT 'EM OUT, SINCE HE'S SO FRICKING KEEN ON THE JOB!
That was the longest, and most impolite, speech anyone had heard from Azrael. Ever.
"Now, look," Metatron said quietly, "there must be a reasonable arrangement we can make…"
SHUT IT, VOICE, I'M TIRED OF HEARING YOU WHINGE. YOU DO NOTHING BUT TALK ALL THE TIME, SOME TOUGH JOB. WANNA TRADE, JACKASS?
DIDN'T THINK SO. LET'S GET ON WITH THIS NOW…
"You can't!" Ginger cried out, suddenly, shaking off her Pride long enough to speak up. "You promised… this would all lead to a thousand years of peace, not instant oblivion!"
SO I LIED. GONNA SUE ME?
She gasped then fell silent. She realised now that her own ideals had led to this. And she began to weep.
Rachel reached over, took her hand, and squeezed it gently. "Don't worry, we'll fix it all. Just be patient." The old woman stared at her in awe.
Crowley looked over at Aziraphale. "Angel, if we don't survive this… I just want to say…"
"Yes?" Aziraphale asked breathlessly.
"It was… it was great, and I have no regrets, and I loooo- iiike to say it but I can't, in front of anyone else," Crowley stammered.
Aziraphale smiled, and ignored the noises of disgust from behind him. "Crowley, dear, I think I got that earlier today. And because of that, I intend to survive this. Just be brave, won't you?"
"Trying. Really, really trying." He eyed his demonic Sphere companion warily.
Beezlebub grinned in a gloating way. "Poof," he muttered.
Adam yelled now, where Azrael could hear him clearly. "You complain about doing your job for so long. But you haven't been doing it at all!"
"What in Heaven do you mean, Antichrist?" Metatron demanded.
"Why don't you ask one of his 'clients' personally?" Adam snarled, and opened his fist to produce the blackened chip of wood. From it came the ghost of Agnes Nutter. "Go tell 'em what he's done," Adam declared.
She moved forward through the Spheres, which could not hold her. Azrael didn't look at all concerned, as though he was humouring her.
But when she had entered the invisible Sphere, he felt it change. He stepped aside, as though to exit Da'ath… and could not.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? HOW HAVE YOU -?
"Yoor system if flaw'd, oh Grate Death," she pronounced with a knowing smile. "You setteth up this Tree to holde fast those you need for the proper energys. The Circles holdeth fast only when those of opposyt numbre be inside and bounden to one another. There must be a pure human, in this case a Virtuous childe, and the Foulness of Sinne together. There must be also a Heav'nly host and a Fallen One. Those two," she pointed at Crowley and Aziraphale, "and that one," she indicated Adam, "are each part earthley and part divine or infernal, and fulfyll the needs of thyr Circlef." She smiled broadly. "You keep yore Circle alone, as you art the One in control. But I am thy opposyt, being already dead. I balance thee and cancel thy Powerf of control. Thou art trapp'd as are we alle. Thou canst do naught if thou art stuck thus."
Azrael growled in frustration, for it was true. DAMN… DIDN'T THINK OF THAT.
"And now I reveal to alle what you hafe done to the dead, lo these many cent'ries past…"
DON'T YOU DARE…
"As if thou couldst now threaten me!" she laughed in delight. "Hear now, all from Heav'n and Hell. Check thou your numberf, see how few souls hath made it to your ranks in the last thousand yearf. Grate Death haf left them to rotte in their gravef, their souls still present and suff'ring. For he grew wearie of his job and decided to stop."
"What?" Metatron demanded. "If this is true-"
"Thinkest thou I be not proofe enouf?" Agnes demanded. "If not for a trick I knew as a wytch, then I couldst not be here to tell ye this! I split my soul in twain, preserv'd in both book and wode, so as to come hither and set thys to ritef!"
IT DOESN'T MATTER, ANYMORE, Azrael muttered. THE REST OF THE CYCLE HAS BEEN SET INTO MOTION, BECAUSE THE SEALS WERE OPENED. I MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO CONTROL WHAT HAPPENS TO HEAVEN OR HELL NOW, BUT THE EARTH IS STILL DOOMED AND WE ARE ALL TRAPPED, POSSIBLY FOR ETERNITY, INSIDE THESE SPHERES. ONLY GOD CAN STOP IT, IF HE WILL. AND OF COURSE WE ALL KNOW JUST HOW OFTEN HIS INEFFABLENESS BOTHERS TO CHECK IN.
Rachel cleared her throat softly. "I can hear you."
The Christ nodded to her friends then, and they reached into their pockets for the gifts she'd given earlier. Each had a small package of modeling clay, and they swiftly shaped as best they could something that resembled the tools of the Sins.
Deedee found the sceptre easy enough, and Miki just flattened her clay to represent a tiny cloak. Selina and Chloe fashioned basic semi-circle lumps and jabbed holes in them with their fingers. Belle thought about making the chain for the necklace, but figured the talisman was the real issue and just shaped a rough hexagon. Lexa grumbled that she'd gotten the oddest shape, because a scourge wasn't exactly something she'd ever seen before.
Rachel merely reached up to finger her stone necklace.
Turning to look up at Ginger, who saw the circle that matched her crown, Rachel breathed softly, "Now."
The young Disciples turned to the Sins, held up their tools and cried out, "By the power of the Christ, I repel thee!"
Each Sin screamed as the power of their opposite side lashed them. There was a minor implosion as they were cancelled out, and then an explosion as the energy of the Spheres collapsed, expelling humans, angels and demons onto the playground.
Anathema and Newt looked up and yelped with incoherent relief. They left off pummeling (with a metal cake pan and heavy Styrofoam cooler) what could be seen of the Horsepersons through the wriggling, shrieking mass that was Hastur, and ran toward their daughter.
They were preparing to scoop her into their arms, when she held up her hand and they were halted as if by magic.
"Mum, dad, there's something I need to do first," she said gently, and strode toward Adam through the ranks of recovering human and occult beings. "You know what we have to do."
"Yes, fix the world, before it dies," he nodded.
"And one more thing," she whispered.
"Yes," he whispered back. He knelt on the ground before her.
Rachel gripped her stone necklace tightly, and Adam wrapped his hands around hers. They bowed their heads together as if in prayer.
They literally held the whole world in their hands.
Then it listened.
For one infinitesimal moment, everyone in the world, human or otherwise, felt what Rachel felt all the time.
Utter, overwhelming love. For everything.
Then the feeling sank within their deepest psyches, because few people are prepared to feel such an all-encompassing emotion. But it was there for all time, a tiny diamond of truth and light glittering in the darkness.
Each woman who had been a Sin cried out once more, and fell to her knees. The essence of Sin left them, rushing and crawling and oozing away into the aether. Several of them began to weep, remembering what they had done.
And the Horsepersons trembled, feeling themselves decay. They had been alive so very long they shouldn't have been standing any longer. But three of the former Sins stumbled toward them, not wishing to see them leave. Rachel and Adam saw, and took pity, letting them live. But they were Horsepersons no more, never to be again. Gratefully, lover and friend and sister clung together, willing at that moment to give up the world for one another, still feeling the deep love of the Christ at their cores.
The two who were star and star-chaser sat despondent on the ground, unsure what to do with themselves. Rachel and Adam nodded, and let them forget everything so as to go back to their previous lives. The world would heal around them well enough.
Hastur re-congealed into the human shape he was accustomed to and ran toward his queen. "My lady," he gasped, gathering her into his arms. "Tell me you're all right."
"Yes… yes… My duke," she whispered, shocked at herself, "I have something to tell you…"
"Yes, I felt it too. I've never understood it… didn't realise… I felt it all along. I looo…" He took a deep breath, still finding the word difficult, being a demon.
"Not that," she said, looking him in the eye. "I have to tell you… I'm pregnant."
There was dead silence all around them.
"Oh. My. God." That was Crowley.
"My lady," Hastur breathed in awe. "I… I wish… I could stay here for you. But I fear that… they will take me back now they know where I am…" He looked toward the arch-demons gathering around him, snarling.
"No," said Adam, "we can fix that too. If you want. You can be human."
All eyes turned toward the Antichrist in astonishment.
"Wait, what?" Metatron asked. "How can you make such a promise? The Christ has won the day, and she is the one to make all such decisions."
"Actually," Rachel said, "Adam won, that first time 'round. He's just decided to share the world. I don't mind."
"…," was the response from nearly everyone.
Then Metatron cleared his throat. "I have been vouchsafed, at this moment, a message from Above. This was, apparently, one of the final tests of His Creation, that the Christ and Antichrist could work together toward one goal, cease to be opposed. Er. It seems that's been done. So. All is well."
"Good thing," Adam said casually. "Because we'd hate to muck things back up again. It's hard enough keeping our own lives straight."
"Seems the lines of communication are a bit better this time around," Aziraphale observed casually.
"Er, yes. Normally I can only hear God and Speak for Him. He does not hear through me. But," Metatron looked at Rachel, "she is both His eyes and ears upon earth. We have a two-way channel, for the time being…"
Then Metatron turned a fiery gaze upon Azrael. "I have also just received orders concerning you. You wish to retire? I can personally see to that." He raised his hands, filled with righteous flames, and prepared to smite the wayward dark angel.
"Wait," came the soft voice of the Christ. "I think he's just tired and wants to go home. I know I feel that way when I've had to do too much. Why don't we just let him go."
Metatron looked at her, frustrated. "But… there needs to be an angel of death, one to guide and comfort the souls of the dead before they ascend… and even when they descend. It is part of God's mercy."
"Yes, I know. But what about mercy on the angel himself?" Rachel inquired.
The archangel was silent then. He lowered his hands. "Very well, what shall we do instead."
"Replace him. Find someone new."
"And where shall I-"
"Just ask someone here. Might be someone who'd do it."
Metatron looked at the gathered angels. And one raised her hand.
"I'll do it. I think I'd like to," said Auriel. "I've always wanted to work down here." She changed her misty angelic appearance to something more earthly. Or rather her idea of earthly – thin and fearfully pale, with black clothes and black hair, and thick black eyeliner. She reached up to touch her face and smeared a tiny curl of black below her eye. It felt right.
The heavy sigh of the Voice was powerful. "Very well. Azrael, go home, and leave us alone already."
OH, YOU'RE SIMPLY TOO KIND, came the sarcastic response, as the former Angel of Death disappeared.
Auriel tapped the transparent spirit of Agnes Nutter politely on the shoulder. "Excuse me, I have a huge backlog, thanks to my predecessor… but I wondered if you were ready to go?"
Agnes chuckled. "Wait'd three cent'ries now, I hast, and I think we canst wait three minutef more." She floated to Anathema and Newt, who were gawking at her as though she was the only unusual thing on the playground. "My blood doth lyve on and maketh me proude. And the blood of myne un-doer, e'en more so. That one," she pointed at Ginger who was slowly meandering their direction, "hath the second book. Be sure that she givest it to ye." Agnes smiled once more, and vanished.
"You are… the parents of the Christ child?" Ginger asked tremulously.
"Um. Yes. But we normally call her Rachel," Newt answered.
"How… how did she come to be with you?"
"The hard way. I can show you the stretch marks, Anathema stared hard at the woman. "But I don't think you're worthy of it."
"And you… are the father?"
"Yes, of course," Newt said a bit tersely.
"But… there should have been… how did God…?"
Anathema cocked her head, considering. "Well, apparently he used the cover of our last Apocalypse to pop down for a quickie."
Ginger looked as though her brain might rupture, so the Holy Parents backed away.
"So...," Brian said, as he and the previous Them approached Adam. "Heard you've got a comic book out. That's pretty cool."
Adam grinned. "Yeah, second issue's coming next month. Probably gonna do a graphic novel collection by the end."
Pepper asked with a smile, "Bet they'll love the sequel."
Laughing, Adam gathered his three old friends into a hug, surprising the boys. "I don't think anyone sane would want to read about another almost-but-not-quite-entirely-unlike-Armageddon."
They knew the rift had been mended.
There came a mighty rumbling from beneath the ground, announcing another Presence.
"Shit, please, not again," Crowley groaned, and clung to his angel.
"Dear, I think this time he may be out of luck," Aziraphale patted him gently on the back. "Let's just wait and see."
The ground did not split open. But Beelzebub grumbled and said, "He izz zzspeaking through me for now. It appearzz he is not happy with thizz arrangement. There wazz a deal made with hizz zzson that time. A deal he feelzz hazz not been honoured."
"Oh, that," Adam said dismissively. "Yeah, I made a deal. Right at the turning point of the last Armageddon. In exchange for you guys leaving Crowley alone, I said I'd watch out for the Christ when he showed up."
Crowley raised his head from Aziraphale's shoulder, gaping. "...For me?"
"See, dear, you see how special you are?" Aziraphale kissed him on the cheek.
"Szzo you made thizz deal," Beelzebub continued, "and we left the zzsnake to his own devicezz… dizzguszzting though he hazz become… but that leaveszz your part of the bargain. You have not turned the Chrizzst over to uszz."
"Never said I'd do that. I said I'd watch out for the Christ, who wasn't even a 'he', by the way. I did watch out for Rachel. Every day, I watched out for her. Because I love her." Adam brushed his hand through her dark hair, and smiled. "No one said watching out had to mean finding her and turning her over to you guys."
There was, again, dead silence.
The deep rumbling below the ground began to sound like laughter.
Beelzebub blinked in surprise and said, "Ah, it zzseemzz that you are… within the boundzz of the deal. He iszz actually pleaszzed with your dezzception. Er. Congratulationzz."
Adam grinned broadly. "Thought he might be."
"Aziraphale, however," Metatron declared, "we still have a score to settle. Your interference last time was a bit of a sore spot for many of us. While He insisted upon a commendation, we're still not so sure that you should walk away this time. You have," he gazed with contempt upon Crowley, "been quite busy sinning in ways I hesitate to speak of."
"Oh, come off it," Aziraphale scoffed. "I love him. And that's what matters. If you really feel the need to smite me, do so, but leave him out of this."
"Nooo. No smiting," Crowley grimaced, tugging the angel's sleeve. "Smiting it a bad thing, causes lots of death."
"As I was trying to say," Metatron ground his teeth. "He has Spoken to me on this matter, and the decision is up to… His daughter."
"What decision?" Rachel asked, shrugging. "Aziraphale is fine just the way he is. I like him."
Metatron sighed. "Yes, thought you'd say that. Very well, go and fornicate with your demon. I…" He fell silent for a moment, frowning, listening to On High. Then he raised his brows in shock. "Really? Oh… well, then." Turning back to Aziraphale and Crowley, he said, "Apparently you have passed the final Ineffable Test of Creation, that an un-Fallen angel and an unredeemed demon could come to love one another. Therefore His Creation is judged, er, acceptable. Ah… congratulations…?"
Aziraphale smiled as only an angel can and inwardly danced on a universe-sized pinhead. Not even the Gavotte but a breathtakingly fluid waltz, with a handsome demon in his arms.
He turned to Crowley and said, "My darling, would you care to move in with me? I'm ready to give up London for something quieter, and I think I know just the spot…"
"Wait a minute," Beelzebub growled. "Crowley izz zzsafe from Hellzz grip. We'll never welcome him through the Gatezz again. He'szz dizzguzzsting, in love with thizz angel. Therefore… he zzshould be zzstripped of the right to call himzzself a demon!" The other arch-demons cheered the idea.
"Boy, you didn't feel much of that love for very long, did you?" Adam muttered. He turned to Crowley, who was cringing again. "Okay, we can make you the same offer as Hastur. If you want, you can become human. You've been on earth so long anyway, you might fit in, you know…"
Crowley blinked. "Human…?"
The gathered masses walked their separate ways, as the matter was discussed privately. They had had more than enough drama for one day. Besides, there were fences to mend, a wedding to plan, jobs to be gotten back to. And a birthday cake to re-bake, as a certain Threesome had already devoured most of it.
Chapter 32: Epilogue
Once upon a tyme, there waf an angel and a daimon who shared a cottage onne the Southernmoft Downes.
AZIRAPHALE WAS SITTING IN THE BRIGHT and comfortable kitchen of Eden's Fall, the charming cottage he shared with Crowley. He sipped his tea and read the morning post.
Ten years had passed, and it seemed all was well with the former Sins. Ginger had chosen forgetfulness and returned to her life as a doting grandmother and a far more humble Christian. Eustacia and Sable had long since turned their company successfully around, touting delicious and nutritious means of weight loss. White and Amelia had totally reconfigured their products to more educational and environmental causes. Carmine and Vermeil were very active in the Peace Corps. Iona and Saffet had discovered a strong compatibility, and were now an official couple much to the world's surprise. Most astonishingly of all, Kogane and Hastur had been delivered of a third child and were quite happily ruling their island country. All the young Disciples/Virtues were grown and off on their own, but still best of friends.
The angel smiled at the letters. Though the world was still unpleasant in far too many ways, these small examples were a true inspiration, offering hope for the future. Those billions of tiny diamonds in the soul were going to be impossible to ignore forever.
"Aziraphale," Crowley snarled, "you are such a bloody slob! Towels all over the bathroom floor, dishes in the sink, books falling all around –"
"My books had better not be falling anywhere, because then I'll know you'll have done it," Aziraphale said flatly, "as you seem to have no trouble whatever in tossing towels and dishes about, either."
"Shall I start tossing them at your head now?"
"Do, and you may live to regret it."
"Right," said Crowley, and he lobbed a damp towel, which hit Aziraphale soundly in the face. "Get your pudgy arse moving, would you? I'm already dressed and ready to go. We're going to be late, since you won't let me exceed the speed limit. Much."
"Fine, dear, I'm getting up." Aziraphale placed the towel in the hamper properly, then put the finishing touches on his clothes and hair. "Am I presentable, then?"
"Gorgeous," Crowley said with genuine feeling. "Especially since I've forbidden you to ever wear a bow tie in public again."
"Tsk," Aziraphale clucked and straightened his long tie. "Speaking of forbidden things… What have I said about wearing your sunglasses indoors. Outside is fine, but when you're in here, I expect to look you in the eye."
"Sheesh, it's just an old habit, hard to break," Crowley whinged, then removed them with a flourish. "Happy now?
"Blissfully," Aziraphale said, enfolding his lover in his arms. He looked up into the golden reptilian eyes and kissed Crowley softly. "I'm very glad you stayed just as you are. You wouldn't be my old serpent otherwise." All those years ago, he'd been presented an option that wasn't really an option, and so another deal had been worked out. Why fix what isn't broken?, it had been asked. And thus it was decreed. Crowley was still Crowley and God was in Heaven and all was right with the world.
"Like I'd turn human," Crowley chuckled. "I'd never be able to keep up with you in bed otherwise. Dead within a week."
"You," Aziraphale chastised fondly. "Now come along, love. We'll be late for Adam and Rachel's wedding. They've only waited six thousand years to be together."
"How well I know the feeling," Crowley said. Snapping his fingers to summon the wedding gifts, he took Aziraphale's hand and sauntered down the steps of their home.
See next chapter for Author's Notes and research.
Chapter 33: Author's Notes & Research
NOTE ABOUT THE FIC'S TIME FRAME:
Not counting the prologue and the scenes where Adam is born, all of Good Omens took place in a three day span in late August. Therefore the start of Bad Grace does as well. I also end the story in early August, because the children needed time to be prepared and school would have been out.
As for the years spanned in my story, see the next chapter.
I thought about these things for ages. Then the idea for this fic came to me in literally days. I began scribbling things down and had the basic plotline within a week. Fast and furious, that's the way my Muses worked. Of course, then I got 6 chapters done and it languished for a year, though most of the rest was on my hard drive the whole time. The Muses came back and kicked my arse until it was done, which took two weeks of NO SLEEP, and literally even waking up from dreams about it so I could write some more.
1:01 GLAD TIDINGS
- I, like the telegram guy, couldn't think of a decent tune that was recognisable to everyone. Thus Beethoven's 5th.
1:02 QUICK STUDIES
- Oh my gods, the Them were so hard to write for. I don't understand children, really, though the parts of the Book they were in are hysterical. Still... I think I managed to capture something of the tone.
1:03 THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
- I really didn't like Hastur in the original. But I found him easier to write about than the kids. Initially, I'd written that he wore a decent suit that was simply a century out of date. Then I re-read the first scene in the graveyard and saw he was wearing a dirty mack. Therefore, he's a bit of a shady bum, which sort of suits him.
1:04 FEATHERED FRIENDS
- One of the earliest chapters written and still a favourite. I love drunken C/A, and of course the slash factor is a must.
- I started out thinking that I would further expound upon all the types of books Azi was researching -- various religious works from all cultures with respect to homosexuality, modern works by gay Christians and Jews, 'The Joy of Gay Sex' and so on -- but I just left it open to interpretation.
1:05 WORDS TO THE WISE
- I really didn't like Ginger at all, but I did wind up feeling very sorry for her.
- Agnes is a delightful wench, and her prophecies were excruciatingly difficult to write for. I did my very best to give loads of hints through them without giving away any serious plot secrets. Such as the fact that her Boss shows up right here, in this chapter, just as Ginger is receiving the Book. That was a dead (hah) giveaway.
- Etymology for names plays a very big role in my story.
2:01 EATEN ALIVE
- I love the Sins, and writing for them was a treat. Almost every one of them speaks for my most seriously over-blown sensibilities, things that I have thought from time to time. But of course I am lazy and guilty of everything they either despise or stand for. It was quite funny for me to make some of them, like Gluttony, the opposite of what they normally seem.
- The Sins all have a specific colour, based on my placement for them on the Sephiroth. (I will eventually link up the diagram I used.)
- If you know anything about the Qabala, my placement of planets is a bit updated. The tools for the Sins is based upon expanded Qabalic writings.
- Eustacia = fruitful, Livideo = blue (Latin derivation).
2:02 HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
- Poor Newt, I hate looking at pregnancy books too.
- Martha was a clue to Anathema's role as the mother of the Christ, being the same name as one of Mary's friends. The name Kirby means "by the church".
- The meanings of the tarot spread are accurate, but deceptive. The first three, for past life, are indicative of the Christ of course. The second part is in reference to the "wise men": Temperance/Aziraphale, Six of Wands/Adam, Hanged Man/Crowley. The third set is true to Rachel's future: Seven of Cups/the Seven Sins (look at the card sometime, you'll be surprised), Six of Swords/entering the Sephiroth, and Devil/obvious.
2:03 HAZARDOUS GUESSES
The translation for Newt's name is actually frighteningly close. Newton = 'new town'. Pulsifer can be broken down as 'puls-' pulse = peas (instead of peace), '-ifer' from the Greek 'phoros' to bring. And 'New Jerusalem' = 'new city of peace'. Too ironic to pass up. And yes, it is called 'Christ's bride' in the Revelation.
2:04 LAYING WASTE
- The title isn't meant to say Pollution and Sloth were lovers. It's a pun. 'Laying' = slothfulness, 'waste' = obvious. I really have known engineers this insane (well almost). She is absolutely my favourite Sin.
- Amelia = industrious, Titian = a shade of orange (from the artist of that name).
2:05 DIRE NECESSITIES
- I never set out to have Crowley suffering so much, but once I started it was just so much fun!
- I also never planned to have Azi wanking, but it sort of wrote itself.
- Hastur's appearance is meant as a red herring, and apparently it worked for most readers.
3:01 A CHANGE OF PACE
- I feel so badly that I never figured out anything really good to do with Dog, plus I couldn't decide whether he should even be around by the time Adam was grown, but no way would I leave him out entirely nor kill him off at the end. Besides, he's not exactly 'normal', so he might live as long as Adam wants him to.
- The dream in Eden was quite fun to write, even though pubescent Adam kinda scared me.
3:02 UNDER HIS WING
- The poor mistletoe.
- No wingsmut, but still - wings! Love them so much.
- The story behind the name Mocha Dick is apparently true (see the Wikipedia article).
- The measurements are insane sounding, but really exist.
- The footnote about morals vs. ethics is something I really believe.
3:03 BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE
-The baby moving for the first time at Christmas seemed ideal, but is also appropriate for the trimester.
- I actually measured what a decent wingspan ought to be for Azi, and that was close enough.
3:04 FROM RAGE TO RICHEST
- The title is a little more specific than the original phrase.
- Avarice is someone I don't agree with, but I can understand her feelings anyway.
- Kogane = gold (Japanese). Kabutihan = charity (Indonesian)
- Unlike the Sins who meet Horsepersons, she discovered herself on her own, rather than through Hastur's influence.
- 'Hastur' = hidden. Rosz = evil, 'Eldug' = hide, 'haz' = house (all Hungarian). I had originally used incorrect translations, but a very nice Hungarian reader helped me on this and I am always happy to change something, even after publication, if it's not right.
3:05 METHODS IN MADNESS
- Damned near drove me crazy, really. #134 is the most insane prophecy of all, but refers to the Sephiroth scene as follows: 'seven and seven' = Sins and Virtues; 'two and one' = Crowley, Aziraphale, Adam; 'ten and ten' = angels and archdemons; 'the one' = Azrael; 'three and three and three' = Horsepersons, Anathema, Newt, Hastur, Pepper, Brian, Wensley; ' the final one' = Agnes
- Jeremy = appointed by God, Wensleydale = grove of Woden. I didn't make up 'Jeremy', it is mentioned in the Book: "It was widely believed that he had once been christened Jeremy, but no one ever used the name, not even his parents, who called him Youngster."
4:01 SLY MANOEVRES
- Origially placed just a couple chapters after "Feathered Friends', I felt it was simply too soon.
- Trying to figure out how one speaks with a broken nose was... fun.
- The reliquaries held a hint to Agnes' return, as did the previous chapter about Wensley.
- The footnote about 'sexless vs. genderless' is something I continually tout. Seriously, it makes sense.
4:02 EARLY TO RISE
- Did a crapload of research on the park, and hopefully found a place that was suitable. Used Google Earth to look at it for topography and roads.
- There really is a Bethlehem right there.
- Yes, that is Granny, Nanny and Agnes/Perdita. They insisted upon a cameo.
4:03 SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED
- Bad title, I know.
- Aziraphale is far braver than I would ever be. I can't even stand the thought of pregnancy, thus writing about it was really strange for me.
- Another huge clue here, Azrael being at the same hospital where Ginger works.
- Crowley. Electrocution. Ow. Libido dampener of the century.
4:04 GIFTS BEFORE THE ALTAR
- Yes, three more or less Wise Men. Each gift has one of the three original gifts. And because there are three, they became Seals 5, 6, and 7.
- There are pagan and witchcraft texts that declare frankincense is deadly to demons, very good for exorcisms.
- Rosemary and frankincense really are interchangeable, and there really are Easter breads baked with frankincense. I had a recipe at one point.
4:05 FAST & FURIOUS
- Various articles on Brazilian prisons that I've found relate something almost exactly like what I describe here. And it horrifies me. There is indeed a female officers only unit.
- Had to do some research on the levels and names of Netherland police.
- Vermeil = red; Vreediger = peaceful
5:01 COVERING TRACKS
- Ninja Them was very fun to write. Brian evolved as quite a little joker.
- I left it open as to whom Adam sensed with his aura overlapping the world, but I personally think it was Azrael and not Ginger he sensed.
5:02 WHAT'S IN A NAME
- The concept for the Noah story came from Disney's Fantasia 2, I am ashamed to say.
- The Bible verses made me cry the first time I read them. That is the only thing about this chapter that was pre-planned. Everything else wrote itself spontaneously in about two hours, at 3am. Probably explains why some of it got rather maudlin.
- When I got to the volley between Azi and Anathema, I actually had to sit down and really look for words. I had two thesauruses and a dictionary on my lap for half an hour. It was only through this that I came up with the final name. Felt good.
5:03 DESTINY'S DATE
- I think that the Vis-A-Vive is a very scary, and entirely probable, device.
- I had a serious, long debate with myself over the year of the story. But I discuss the Timeline at the top of this page.
5:04 MOVING ALONG
- I had an absolute blast writing Tyler's letters to the editor. This allowed me to use the most over-ripe language of my life.
- Hehe. I love the idea of Azi reading cheap romances. Had to carry that over from my "Outtake 2" comic.
5:05 WEIRD SISTERS
- Saffet = chastity, Yesil = green (both Turkish)
- Iona = purple (Greek), McDermott = without envy (Irish). (Kinda scary the Irish would have such a name ready-made.)
- I jammed Envy and Lust together with Avarice for three reasons: I didn't want to do an entire chapter for each one, I wanted them to spark off each other and not anyone else, and I wanted to set up the implication that there would be some off-screen HLA (hot lesbian action). Plus they would be Hastur's harem. Poor bastard.
- My footnote about angelic singing is based on Crowley's comment in the Book about 'celestial harmonies all day long' and how Azi cringes.
6:01 THE MARCH OF TIME, 1
- Loads of work finding yearly events. Left out names and so on, because this is rather an AU situation anyway.
- The clay dove came from a supposed book of the Bible (deleted chapter of course) which referred to the childhood of Christ.
- The Vatican really did start a website that year.
- Crowley cannot have a good time for very long, no matter where he goes. I'm shocked he left Mexico.
6:02 THE MARCH OF TIME, 2
- The young Disciples, I'd have liked to expand upon, but I simply didn't have the inspiration or energy. Maybe a side story later... dunno. Each of their names really are chosen for a reason. There were only six of them, but each correspond to something that traditionally comes in sevens: colours of the chakras (green = Chloe), musical notes (D = Deedee), wonders of the world (Library of Alexandria = Lexa), archangels in the Sephiroth (Michael = Miki), spheres of the Sephiroth (Beauty = Belle), traditional planets of the Sephiroth (Moon = Selina). And Rachel was the seventh of the group, of course.
- Betcha no one thought of Pepper/Brian. Everyone's too busy slashing Wensley/Brian or just sticking with Pepper/Adam. I liked mixing it up.
- Naughty, naughty Crowley three-way with the Sins. But if you're gonna do it, do it big.
- Seriously, I gave clue after clue to Ginger's eventual transformation. I hope there was more than one person who guessed before now.
6:03 THE PRODIGAL ONE
- Eve really turned into quite the therapist. Maybe that's what Rachel should be when she grows up.
- Hastur the red herring comes clean. The talisman necklace is what he got in chapter three, from the priest at the chapel of Ginger's hospital. That place was busy.
- As for what the last three Seals are about, see the Biblical Revelations. The fifth Seal explains also what Agnes is talking about in final chapter.
- For the deleted scene between Crowley and Aziraphale, see "Warp & Weft". Seriously mushy.
6:04 THE FINAL EQUATION
- Had to mention the kraken.
- I hope someone figured out the hopscotch = Sephiroth connection. The top circle was always called 'heaven' when I played as a child.
- The Horsepersons rather cracked me up during all this.
- Crowley finally got over being unable to say 'God' and other such words. And no he's NOT out-of-character for him to whine and cringe a bit. Read GO again, when he's being faced with threats of being dragged back to Hell. He cringes noticeably every time Hell contacts him, and shrinks into his seat when Beezlebub shows up at the end. It's very likely he'd still be afraid of the torture they've promised, isn't it? Just because he got up the guts to face Armageddon 1, it still took him a few minutes to deal.
- I had already chosen the placement of people in the Sepiroth, then found out Beelzebub was actually the arch-demon of Chokmah and therefore would be there with Crowley. That was too perfect.
- Hah. Azrael. A dozen clues, but I really hope it was still a surprise to everyone.
6:05 ALPHA & OMEGA
- Azrael, hoist with his own petard. But I don't understand why SO MANY PEOPLE keep confusing this Death with Discworld's Death. GO's Death was far more likely to fight as he stares Adam down and declares he'll be back because no one can make him leave. And besides, why must every character remain unchanging for all time? Unable to show a temper or to grow into something unexpected? Perhaps he's been suppressing this rage for millennia and it's finally broken free, is that not even a possibility? In my story, he does, and it's the most vital plot point.
- Didn't fix the world, but that would be 'messing people about' too much.
- Caught me by surprise that Hastur's a daddy, too. Didn't expect that one.
- Everyone better get the references with Auriel.
- Adam is a chip off the old block, sometimes. Prince of Lies (or at least Great Big Fibs).
- I hope no one really thought I'd turn Crowley human. That's just NOT right.
Chapter 34: Timeframe for the story
How I decided upon the timeframe for "Bad Grace".
This was initially linked to my website, which is now defunct, so I'm adding it to the end of the story here.
Okay, here's the way I ORIGINALLY approached it at the time I was writing the fic...
The book was published in 1990, and there's little indication that any future things -- advanced technology, political events, massive world changes of any sort -- were being described by the authors. Nothing in the book (other than the Apocalypse) is very different at all from the time period of the book's publication.
Aziraphale's take on the matter of dates: “You know’, said the angel helpfully, “’And thee Worlde Unto An Ende Shall Come, in tumpty-tumpty-tumpty One.’ Or Two, or Three, or whatever. There aren’t many good rhymes for Six, so it’s probably a good year to be in.”
I could find no solid evidence of the precise year Armageddon was taking place. There is no specific reference to a rounded year such as 2000, or something even more clichéd like 1999. "Turn of the century" could possibly mean anything from 2000 to a decade before, but I'm merely speculating that Aziraphale and Crowley themselves had 2000 in mind.
This seems most likely, as the Antichrist would then be an adult and ready to take on the challenge of ruling the world. Seems rather strange for them to assume he would still be a child. Since that is the case, the birth was likely meant to be up to a decade earlier than the publication date, i.e. in the '80s.
It appears that Crowley and Aziraphale are caught completely off guard, as well. They find out they have the wrong child, only after finding out about the hellhound the night before it arrives. Crowley says that once the dog is named, the end "is just around the corner", thus indicating it might be many years sooner than they expected. The rest of the book is them scrambling madly to find the real Antichrist before it all goes pear-shaped. Therefore they made a wrong assumption that it would be much later, when Adam was finally an adult.
Can't really say what the authors had in mind, as they never say a specific year in the book. But I'm going to stick with my original concept of the Apocalypse happening in 1990 and then moving on from there for my story. Otherwise my head might explode. If anyone find this destroys their enjoyment of the story, I apologise. An author has to make a decision, especially where they're only doing fanfic and the canon is a little loose in places.
Then, lucky me, I finally paid attention to Neil Gaiman's screenplay version of the story, and realised I was pretty much right...
The screenplay was written in 1992.
On page 4, it says: "The door opens to reveal a young woman, dressed in styles fashionable in about 1980". Then on page 10, it says: "...the thump-thump of late seventies/early eighties disco music..." is playing in Crowley's nightclub. All of this takes place the year Adam is handed to Crowley as an infant, i.e., his birth is in the late 70s/early 80s.
On page 72, eleven years later, it says: "... the nightclub (which now looks much cooler and more 90s --- it's been remodeled inside)..." This is the same time as the Apocalypse, i.e. early 90s.
Therefore, the year of publication for the book coincides roughly with the year of the Apocalypse. Hoorah for making decisions and sticking to them. (And *whew* I feel better knowing I don't have to rewrite two entire chapters of the fanfic!)