It was a normal conversation between Warlock and their Nanny, right up until it wasn’t. But it was a conversation that, in the end, Warlock would remember for the rest of their life.
They didn’t know why, on that night, they said the thing that they’d been carefully not saying for as long as they could remember. But say it they did.
Nanny had been telling them that it was time to go to bed, and she’d called them my boy as she always did, and Warlock –
–Warlock spoke the words that had burned inside of them for what seemed like forever.
“I’m not a boy, Nanny!”
They hadn’t meant for the words to slip out, and the moment they heard themself saying them they wished they could take them back, waiting on tenterhooks for Nanny’s reaction.
If she laughed, or told them not to be silly because of course they were, then they didn’t think they could bear it.
But Nanny looked at them – properly, like she was seeing them, the way she always did – and went, “Oh?”
She sounded like she was listening.
Warlock took a deep breath.
“I’m not a boy, Nanny. But I’m not a girl, either. I just… am.”
Nanny was silent for a moment.
“Would you like to hear a secret?”
Warlock immediately nodded, because Nanny’s secrets were always the best kind of secrets.
“I just am, too.”
Warlock blinked in surprise.
“But you look–”
They stopped, because they looked like a boy, didn’t they? To other people, anyway.
But Nanny smiled a little.
“Oh, yes. Sometimes I look like a lady, sometimes I look like a gentleman. Sometimes I even look like a snake. But that doesn’t mean I actually am any of those things.” A pause. “Well, except perhaps for the snake.”
Warlock felt like a balloon was inflating inside their chest. They smiled at Nanny, and wondered how they could have doubted her. She always knew the right thing to say, even if it seemed bizarre to other people.
“A snake?” Warlock repeated.
Nanny grinned a little, and slipped her sunglasses down her nose.
To Warlock’s fascinated surprise, her eyes behind the sunglasses were bright yellow, with slit pupils. Just like a snake’s.
“Oh,” they breathed.
Nanny smiled, and pushed her sunglasses up her nose again, hiding her snakelike eyes from sight.
Warlock knew, without being told, that this was another of the things that they really oughtn’t to tell anyone about. Especially not their mother and father.
“I want you to remember something,” said Nanny. “Promise me you won’t forget.”
“I promise, Nanny.”
“People can find it difficult, to understand people like us. But no matter what people think they see when they look at you, that doesn’t change who you are, on the inside. Do you understand?”
Warlock’s brow furrowed.
“But why can’t people just see who I am?”
Nanny looked at them. There was a funny little twist to her mouth.
“Because that’s humanity for you.” While Warlock was trying to work out what her words meant, Nanny said, “Now Warlock, it’s bedtime for you, my child. Don’t dawdle.”
Normally Warlock would have kicked up a fuss over going to bed at the appointed time, but they were too busy beaming over the fact that Nanny had said my child and not my boy to bother.
“Goodnight, Nanny,” they said, as they were tucked into bed.
Nanny looked at them, and although Warlock knew she would deny it, her expression was fond.
“Good night, Warlock, my dear.”
Warlock Dowling was the first to admit they’d had a very strange childhood.
Between the gardener raising them to think of all living things as Brother or Sister (or as Sibling of Indeterminate Gender, for that matter – thanks a lot, Brother Francis), and Nanny Ashtoreth singing lullabies to them of the day that they would crush all the armies of the world beneath their heel, Warlock would be the last to dispute that their childhood was incredibly weird.
But – and this was the important thing – up until they were nearly eleven, they never doubted that they were loved and cared for. And for all Nanny’s and Brother Francis’ odd habits, the two of them seemed to understand the world around them in a way few people did. So many of the things they said to Warlock had stuck with them, not only because of their strangeness, but because they were right.
Usually the things that Nanny and Brother Francis had been right about seemed, on the face of it, to make no sense at all, or at least no sense that people would have admitted to out loud. But Warlock knew, from all their eighteen years’ experience, that when you really looked at the world, and faced its incomprehensibility full on… it was then that Nanny’s and Brother Francis’ teachings began to seem like truths that nearly everyone was determined to bury.
Nothing was more true than the advice that Nanny had given Warlock about their gender. Warlock would have drowned without it, in a world that insisted that they be male and manly – and especially with Warlock’s father being the most outspoken on the topic.
Warlock’s father hated their longish hair, their spindly build, the fact that the only sport they liked was fencing.
(Warlock had taken up fencing classes when they’d been shipped off to boarding school a few years after the awfulness that was Nanny and Brother Francis leaving. Everyone was astonished by how good they turned out to be at it. They didn’t tell anyone that Nanny and Brother Francis had each given them secret lessons on how to use a sword for years. That, they were certain, was another one of those things that would make ordinary people raise concerned eyebrows.)
Warlock’s father hated that Warlock, for all that they’d been a bit of a brat as a child, had grown into a polite and somewhat diffident young person, completely unlike the man that their father had expected – although why he’d expected Warlock to turn out like him when Warlock barely even saw him for most of their childhood was, Warlock thought, a fair question.
They didn’t voice it, however, because discretion was the better part of valour, and all that.
But when Warlock expressed an interest in studying international relations – to be more like you, Dad, they’d said, lying through their teeth – Warlock’s father had decided that maybe they weren’t so useless, after all.
Warlock had even talked him into allowing them to attend college in England. Which was how, finally, Warlock had found themselves half a world away from their overbearing, uncaring parents, with a plan to track down the only two people who had ever genuinely cared about them.
Nanny Ashtoreth, when she’d resigned, had put her home address on the resignation letter. Eleven year old Warlock had found it, going through their mother’s things, and promptly hidden it behind the headboard of their bed where no one would think to look for it. They’d kept it all these years, and when they’d moved to England to attend college, they’d brought the yellowing piece of paper with them.
Now, Warlock was on a bus to Mayfair, feeling fidgety and nervous, constantly checking Google Maps on their phone to make sure that they didn’t miss their stop.
The stop wasn’t very far from the apartment complex that Nanny had given as her address, and Warlock got off the bus and walked across the road on wobbly legs.
The apartment complex needed a key-card to get into the elevator, but there was a set of speaker buttons for each apartment set into the wall. Warlock took a deep breath, and pressed the button for the penthouse apartment.
There was a beep. Warlock said, “Hello?” When there was no response, they tried again. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
There was a click on the other end of the line, and then a voice that sounded nothing like Nanny’s demanded, “Who’s this?”
Whoever it was, they sounded loud and impatient, like they were ready to yell.
Warlock faltered at the unexpectedness of it, but reminded themselves that Nanny would expect them to crush any obstacles beneath their heel. They took another deep breath.
“I’m looking for Lilith Ashtoreth,” they said, more confidently than they felt.
There was a long pause. Then the male voice said, less impatiently, “Who’s asking?”
“My name is Warlock Dowling,” said Warlock. “Please, do you know her?”
This time, the pause was so long that Warlock wondered if whoever-it-was had wandered off without answering. But then the voice said quietly, “I’ll be right down, alright? Don’t go anywhere.”
The line went dead. Warlock stepped back from the speaker buttons, and waited around in the lobby, feeling awkward and anxious.
Three minutes later, the elevator went ding as it reached the ground floor, and the doors opened. A person swaggered out, and stopped as they saw Warlock standing there.
It wasn’t Nanny Ashtoreth – or at least, not Nanny Ashtoreth as Warlock remembered her. The person in front of them was wearing black skinny jeans and a black shirt, and looked masculine rather than feminine. But their hair was the same shade of red as Nanny’s, and the peculiar sunglasses were exactly the same as Warlock remembered.
Warlock thought of Nanny saying, a decade earlier, sometimes I look like a man. If there was one thing that Nanny and Brother Francis had taught them, it was to see what was really in front of them rather than what they expected to see.
So Warlock said quietly, “Nanny Ashtoreth?”
The person stared, and for a moment Warlock wondered if they’d gotten it wrong after all. But then the person said, “Warlock?” and Warlock knew.
A wobbly smile spread over Warlock’s face.
“Look at you,” said Nanny, and – his? her? their? – voice was wondering. “Come here, give your old Nanny a hug.”
Warlock was happy to do so. They stepped forward and were immediately enfolded into a firm embrace.
“What are you doing all the way over on this side of the world?” Nanny asked, when they’d both stepped back. “Wait. How old are you, now?”
“Eighteen,” said Warlock, beaming. “I talked Dad into letting me come to England for college. While I was here, I thought I’d try and find you and Brother Francis.”
“How did you find me?” asked Nanny, sounding curious. “Not that I mind.”
Warlock pulled Nanny’s resignation letter out of their pocket. Nanny took it, his eyebrows rising as he saw what it was.
“Are you telling me you kept this all these years, just so you could find me?”
Nanny sounded incredulous, but beneath that, Warlock could tell that he was touched. If he ought to be referred to as he, that was. Warlock should ask.
“Well, yeah,” said Warlock, because obviously. But maybe what was obvious to Warlock wasn’t obvious to Nanny, so they added, “I mean, no one else ever cared for me, the way you and Brother Francis did. You were always more like parents to me than my real parents, really.”
Before Nanny could respond to that, Warlock barrelled on.
“By the way, what pronouns do you prefer? I prefer they and them, but I’m not sure which ones you’d rather I use.”
Nanny stared at Warlock.
“Nanny?” Warlock asked, when the silence became uneasy.
“You know, no one’s ever asked me that before,” said Nanny, slowly. “He’s alright, really. I’m used to it.”
“But is that what you prefer?” they insisted, because they understood the difference between used to it and actually comfortable.
Nanny paused to think about the question, gazing into the middle distance.
“You know, I think it is.” Nanny looked back at Warlock, and smiled. “But thanks for asking.”
“No problem. I get it.”
“Yes, I suppose you do. So what are you studying, hmm?”
“International relations,” said Warlock, and they made a face. “Mostly to appease Dad. Although it’s not as bad as I expected. Some of it’s quite interesting.”
Nanny frowned, as though she could hear all the comments Warlock had refrained from making about their father.
“Is your father still…?”
“Oh yeah.” Warlock grimaced. “He’s decided I’m a disappointment, although not as much of one as he originally thought, now I’m studying international relations like he did.”
Nanny’s frown darkened.
“That man,” he said. “Don’t listen to him. You’re anything but a disappointment, Warlock.”
Warlock beamed again, because it was nice to hear Nanny say so. It made them feel all warm and happy inside.
“Tell you what,” said Nanny. “Why don’t I take you to lunch so we can catch up? My treat.”
“That would be great,” said Warlock, still beaming.
“Come on, then.” Nanny tilted his head towards the doors, and Warlock followed him as he swaggered outside to where an old-fashioned car was parked in a non-parking zone.
Nanny, Warlock soon discovered, drove like an absolute fiend. Part of Warlock was terrified at the speed they were going, but the rest of them, they discovered, rather liked going that fast. Even through central London.
“What should I call you?” Warlock asked Nanny as they went, because they knew how it would sound to other people, calling him Nanny. Not that Warlock minded, but Nanny might.
“Hmm?” Nanny glanced around, and somehow narrowly avoided hitting a pedestrian despite the fact that he was looking nowhere near the windscreen. “Oh. Right. My name’s Crowley.”
“Crowley,” Warlock repeated dubiously.
“Says the kid called Warlock,” said Crowley, and that was so unanswerable that Warlock didn’t even try. Instead they sat back, grinning.
As it turned out, their destination was none other than the restaurant at the Ritz, which wasn’t too far away from where Nanny – Crowley lived.
Warlock felt very out-of-place in their jeans and hoodie as they made their way inside, surrounded as they were by marble columns and sparkling chandeliers and the fancy statuettes standing in each of the alcoves, but Crowley walked in like he owned the place. Warlock followed after him as Crowley made his way right to the back, where a person in old-fashioned clothing was sitting at a table on their own.
“Crowley, finally,” said the person. They looked strangely familiar. “I was beginning to wonder if – who’s this?”
The person noticed Warlock trailing behind Crowley, and appeared surprised.
“Aziraphale,” said Crowley. “You remember Warlock Dowling? They paid me a visit, so I invited them along to lunch.”
Judging from Aziraphale’s flabbergasted expression, this was not something that had ever happened before.
“Warlock Dowling?” said Aziraphale, staring at Warlock. “But – wait, they?”
Crowley, who was busy pulling up a chair opposite Aziraphale’s, let out a groan.
“Oh come on, angel, don’t tell me I need to explain gender. Not to you.”
“Of course not,” said Aziraphale, but they – he, Warlock guessed – still look confused.
Angel? thought Warlock. Was this Crowley’s partner, then?
“Oh, bloody hell,” said Crowley. “Warlock, take a seat, and I’ll explain it to him.”
“I don’t see what there is to explain,” said Aziraphale, a little huffily.
“Exactly,” said Crowley, as though Aziraphale had just proven his point.
Warlock took a seat at the table. Tilting their chin up, they did their best to act as though they dined at the Ritz every day.
Crowley sent them an approving look, and then leaned across the table, gesturing at Aziraphale.
“Okay, so gender is like a coat.”
“It’s like a what?” said Aziraphale, blinking.
“Shut up angel, I’m trying to explain something. So, gender is like a coat. It’s too tight in some places, too loose in others, and it just doesn’t fit right. So you try on another coat, but that doesn’t fit either. So you keep both coats on rotation, because even though they’re both uncomfortable they’re uncomfortable in different ways, and sometimes one is a bit less uncomfortable than the other. But the point is, neither coat fits. And then you’ve got people calling you Blue-Coated Person or Green-Coated Person as though the coat is your defining feature, when you’d much rather not be wearing a coat at all, because neither coat is you.”
Crowley ran out of breath.
“Oh, Crowley,” said Aziraphale, into the silence. “I’m so sorry – I never realised it bothered you.”
“You mean it doesn’t bother you? Not even a little?” asked Crowley.
“Not really,” said Aziraphale. “To continue with your coat analogy, it might be someone else’s coat, but it’s warm and comfortable, and I’ve been wearing it for so long now that it might as well be my coat. I never realised you felt differently.”
Aziraphale’s words surprised Warlock.
“You’re nonbinary too?” they blurted. But Aziraphale’s brow furrowed, and they looked mystified.
“It means – it means you’re someone whose gender identity isn’t constrained by the gender binary of woman or man,” Warlock explained. “Personally, I’m not male and I’m not female, despite how my body looks to other people, so I’m nonbinary and agender. My preferred pronouns are they and them.”
“My goodness,” said Aziraphale, looking surprised and pleased. “What a wonderful term. Nonbinary. The things humans come up with!”
“It’s about time, if you ask me,” said Crowley. But Warlock’s mind was stuck on the word humans.
“Humans?” they repeated.
Crowley looked unbothered, but Aziraphale gave an awkward laugh.
“Silly me, making it sound like I’m not human. Of course I am. Perfectly human!”
Warlock burst into giggles at the despairing look that Crowley was aiming at Aziraphale around the sunglasses, like he couldn’t believe what a ridiculously bad liar Aziraphale was.
“It’s alright,” they said, still giggling. “I saw Nanny’s – Crowley’s eyes, once.”
“See what I have to put up with?” said Crowley to Warlock. “A five year old human can lie better than he does. And you’re right, we’re not human. I’m a demon, and he’s an angel.”
“Crowley.” Aziraphale sent him an accusing stare.
He , noted the part of Warlock that paid attention to pronouns, even as most of their mind was busy going, they’re what?
“You’re what?” Warlock blurted.
“Crowley,” said Aziraphale again, and the look of annoyance was what made it click for Warlock.
“Brother Francis!” they said in recognition, and then laughed. “I should have known it was you! What happened to your teeth?”
“Fake,” said Crowley, with relish, while Aziraphale looked flustered. “He wore those teeth for ten years, can you believe it?”
Warlock stared at Aziraphale, who looked embarrassed.
Warlock was reminded of how deeply, inescapably weird their former nanny and gardener were. Nice to know that that impression hadn’t changed over time.
“Are all demons and angels as weird as you are?”
“Excuse me, we’re not weird,” said Aziraphale, at the time as Crowley said, “Oh yeah, most are a lot worse. At least we’ve learned to blend in a bit.”
Crowley and Aziraphale looked at each other. Aziraphale looked offended, while Crowley looked like he was stating an obvious fact.
Warlock found themself giggling again, because the two of them were staring at one another like it was the other who wasn’t making sense.
“We’re not weird,” said Aziraphale again, sounding as though he was prepared to argue the point. But Crowley tipped his face to the ceiling like he was rolling his eyes and said, “Oh, for Hell’s sake, angel, just let it go.”
Aziraphale looked prim, but did let the topic go.
“Have you ordered yet?” asked Crowley.
“Not yet, I was waiting for you,” said Aziraphale.
“Then pass Warlock a menu so they can decide what they want to eat.”
Warlock busied themself with the menu, smiling so hard that their face hurt.
Things, they decided, were going just awesomely.
Some people have asked me about the coat analogy I used in this chapter - yeah, I came up with it, but feel free to use it yourself if you think it would be helpful!
After the obligatory round of so what are you up to these days? the food soon arrived, and everyone busied themselves with eating rather than talking.
Warlock was used to good food, of course, but the food at the Ritz restaurant was stupendous. And no wonder, at the prices they charged.
As they ate, Warlock tried to get their head around the fact that Crowley and Aziraphale were a demon and an angel, respectively. Warlock hadn’t been raised to be religious, but wondered if they ought to start. Maybe they’d ask Crowley later.
Aziraphale certainly didn’t act as Warlock might have imagined an angel would act. For a start, he took far too much delight in his meal. But then Warlock thought back to Brother Francis’ teachings, and found themself better able to believe it.
That raised another question, however: why had Crowley and Aziraphale adopted such strange personas while working for Warlock’s parents? For that matter, why would a demon and an angel decide to work for them at all?
“I have questions,” they said, once everyone was done eating.
Crowley and Aziraphale exchanged a glance.
“Oh, I don’t know…” began Aziraphale.
“Of course you do,” said Crowley, cutting Aziraphale off. “Who wouldn’t?”
Crowley and Aziraphale had a stare-off, then, which Crowley seemed to win, because Aziraphale sighed and said, “Oh, very well. Warlock, would you like to come back to the bookshop with us? For tea,” he added to Crowley, with emphasis.
“The bookshop?” Warlock repeated.
“It’s Aziraphale’s,” said Crowley. “And it’s less of a bookshop and more of a… whatever the opposite of a bookshop is.”
This explanation didn’t help Warlock any. But they wanted to spend more time with Crowley and Aziraphale, and perhaps even get some answers, so they said, “Alright.”
“Lovely,” said Aziraphale. “Shall we go, then?”
The journey to the bookshop was made in Crowley’s car, and it was just as hair-raising as the first trip. Aziraphale was obviously of a similar mind to Warlock on this (although he seemed to enjoy it a lot less than Warlock did) because he sat rigidly straight the entire way there, his fingers interlocked in a white-knuckled grip, shouting things like, “Crowley, watch out for that pedestrian!”
Crowley usually responded with comments such as, “It’s his own fault for crossing against the lights, angel!” But Warlock noticed that Crowley didn’t actually hit anyone.
They pointed this out to Aziraphale, but Aziraphale only said darkly, “This time,” to which Crowley went, “That was one time! Will you let it go already!”
Which rather made Warlock feel less confident in Crowley’s ability to navigate London traffic at ninety miles an hour, but before they could really think about it, the car was slowing to a stop.
They were pulled up in front of a small bookstore with the sign A.Z. Fell Antiquarian and Unusual Books. Crowley parked the car, and they all got out.
Warlock didn’t know what to expect from a bookstore owned by Aziraphale. They wondered, with a little trepidation, exactly how unusual the books inside it were. Were they like The Monster Book of Monsters, from Harry Potter, where the books would bite you if you didn’t handle them correctly? Or were they more… tomes of unspeakable power, containing knowledge beyond human comprehension?
As it turned out, the bookshop was full of perfectly ordinary, if rather old and expensive books. Warlock felt relieved, but also a little cheated. They followed Aziraphale and Crowley into the back room, which looked very comfortable.
Warlock took a seat in a large armchair, and waited as Aziraphale made tea for them all. Finally, however, all three of them were seated.
“Alright,” said Crowley, his voice more serious than it had been all afternoon. “Questions. Go ahead.”
Warlock sorted through the different questions in their mind, and finally picked what seemed like the most logical question to ask.
“Why would an angel and a demon decide to work as a gardener and a nanny?”
Crowley and Aziraphale exchanged a look.
“Well, the thing is–”
“We thought you were the Antichrist,” said Aziraphale.
Warlock stared, because that… was an even odder thing for Aziraphale to say than they had expected.
“We know you’re not, now,” Crowley added. “There was a bit of a mix-up. But we were supposed to each be influencing the Antichrist to our respective sides, at the time.”
“Respective sides?” said Warlock.
“Heaven and Hell,” said Aziraphale helpfully. “Although, we’re not exactly on either side, anymore. We helped the actual Antichrist to stop the apocalypse, you see, instead of helping him to carry it out, which didn’t make us very popular.”
To anyone else, the story might have seemed… well, fantastical. But wasn’t Warlock’s life like that already? Instead, they thought that it all made a horrible kind of sense. They skipped over the part about the apocalypse – wasn’t that a scary thought – and narrowed in on one point in particular.
“How old was I when you realised I wasn’t the Antichrist?”
Another look was exchanged.
“We’d had our suspicions for a while, but we knew for sure on your eleventh birthday,” said Crowley. “The Antichrist was meant to receive a hellhound – a sort of gift from Hell, you see – and you didn’t get one. That was when we knew.”
Warlock’s eleventh birthday. Right after Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis had left the Dowling’s employment for good, leaving Warlock alone and disconsolate.
Warlock could put two and two together. All their happiness from earlier was gone, leaving a feeling like a leaden weight in their stomach.
“Is that why you left?” they asked in a small voice. “Because I wasn’t the person you were meant to be looking after?”
“Well–” began Aziraphale.
“We left because the world was ending,” said Crowley, his voice gentler than before. “And we had to try and stop it.”
That, Warlock acknowledged, seemed like a pretty good reason. But–
“You never came back, though,” they pointed out.
“Come now,” said Aziraphale, in what was probably meant to be a heartening tone. “You had your parents–”
Warlock gave that the bitter laugh it deserved.
“Shitty parents,” they said, and caught Aziraphale’s frown. “They were, though. Still are. I wasn’t their child, not really, I was a – a half-hearted hobby that they only took up in the first place because that was what everyone else was doing. They never cared about me. They don’t even know me. They never bothered to try.”
To Warlock’s horror and mortification, their vision misted over with tears. They sniffled.
“Oh now, none of that,” said Crowley, but still in that gentle voice. “I’m not saying you’re wrong about your parents, because I’m not about to insult your intelligence, but – we’re here now, aren’t we? We’re here, and you’re here, and that’s what matters.”
Aziraphale pressed a lace-edged handkerchief into Warlock’s hand.
“We did care about you, dear child,” said Aziraphale as Warlock mopped at their eyes with the handkerchief. “But considering the mess we’d already made of things… it seemed best to step away.”
“But you didn’t make a mess,” said Warlock. “At least, not with me. Maybe my childhood was… unconventional,” and they heard Crowley snort, “but at least I had people who cared what happened to me. After you left, I didn’t have anyone. That messed me up a lot more, believe me.”
“Well, we’re very sorry,” said Aziraphale.
“Really,” said Crowley. Warlock thought that he looked sincere, but it was a bit difficult to tell around the sunglasses.
Warlock was still upset, but the fact that Crowley and Aziraphale seemed to mean it when they said they cared about them, made them feel a little better. Crowley was right – the two of them were here now, and that helped.
Silence fell, and Warlock sipped at their cup of tea. They’d never actually had a proper cup of tea before, because as a child Crowley had always said it would stunt their growth, and then they’d moved back to America with their parents where everyone drank coffee or iced tea instead. It turned out that with a little milk and sugar, the taste was not unpleasant.
“If you’re not working for Heaven or Hell anymore,” said Warlock into the silence, “what do you do?”
Aziraphale looked relieved at the change of subject.
“Oh, this and that,” he said. “Mostly I look after the books and spend time with Crowley.”
“About that,” said Warlock. “Are you two friends, or are you…?” They made a vague gesture.
Aziraphale looked politely confused.
“Nah, it’s not like that,” he said. “We’re best friends. Nothing… physical about it.”
But he aimed a fond look at Aziraphale, and Warlock thought that just because things weren’t physical didn’t mean that it wasn’t like that, no matter what Crowley said.
Aziraphale beamed back at Crowley, and they shared a moment of open affection, whether they meant to or not.
Warlock smiled as they watched them both.
Whatever else they might feel, they couldn’t regret finding Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis. They only hoped that Crowley and Aziraphale wouldn’t mind Warlock visiting on a regular basis.
But Warlock had a feeling that they wouldn’t.
In the months that followed, Warlock spent a lot of time at the bookshop with Crowley and Aziraphale. For all that Crowley had said that he and Aziraphale’s relationship wasn’t like that, they seemed to spend nearly all their time together, and Warlock never saw them hang out with anyone else.
“Don’t you have any other friends?” Warlock asked, once.
Crowley only sent them a baffled look.
“What would I need other friends for? I’ve got Aziraphale.”
Aziraphale, who was over the other side of the bookstore, paused halfway through putting a book back on the shelf. Warlock wished that they could see his face.
“Besides,” Crowley went on, and Warlock looked back at him, “my only options for friends are, first of all, angels, which obviously isn’t going to work, demons, which doesn’t really work either, and humans – and most humans aren’t exactly…”
“Adapted,” Aziraphale supplied, once again going through the books.
“…adapted to comprehending our, whatsit, ethereal natures,” Crowley finished.
“I do just fine,” said Warlock.
“Yeah, but you grew up with the two of us around all of the time, putting out holy and infernal energies all over the place. It’s made you more sensitive to that sort of thing. You see what’s really there, instead of what ought to be there. Makes you different from most humans.”
Warlock thought about that.
They were still thinking about it when, one Tuesday evening, they went along to a social meet-up of the campus LGBTQIA+ Alliance. They’d been to the meetings a couple of times before, but hadn’t really talked to anyone, too scared to put themself out there.
This time, though, Warlock had thought of Crowley, and the advice he’d given them as a child, and the way that Crowley himself just sauntered forward into every environment as though he expected reality to bend to his will. Ignoring the fact that possibly it did, Warlock decided that they could do far worse things than emulate him.
So instead of wearing their usual shapeless hoodie and equally shapeless jeans, Warlock turned up to the meet-up wearing a smart button-up shirt that was dark red in colour, black skinny jeans that could easily have belonged in Crowley’s wardrobe, and with their hair freshly-cut in a style that wasn’t easily categorised as either male or female.
Heads turned as they walked in, and Warlock remembered Crowley telling them to always walk with your head held high, so that the armies of the world will prostrate themselves before you. Maybe the advice had been meant for the Antichrist, but it was, still, surprisingly helpful advice.
People were chatting in groups around the room. Warlock looked around for anyone who seemed out of place, and saw an anxious-looking young person standing on their own. They made a beeline for them.
“Hi,” said Warlock, when the other person looked up at them. “Have you been to any of these meet-ups before?”
“Um, no?” said the other person, trying to smile back, but mostly looking even more anxious than before.
Warlock could relate. Somehow, this realisation made their own nervousness recede a little.
“I’ve only been to a couple, so I don’t know anyone either,” said Warlock, aiming for insouciance. “Did you come on your own?”
“Yes. I don’t really…” and they shrugged helplessly, abandoning that sentence to begin another one. “I tend to deal more with books than people. They’re less… stressful.”
“That’s valid,” said Warlock, and the other person gave a strained laugh. “I’m Warlock, by the way.”
The other person blinked.
“I’m Amy. Did you… choose that name yourself?”
“Nope. My Mum chose it. I think she did it to spite my Dad for not being there when I was born. He wanted me to be named after him.”
“Oh,” said Amy, a little uncertainly. “That’s…something.” They changed the subject. “What’s with the badge?”
Warlock glanced down at the They/Them badge pinned to their label.
“Those are my preferred pronouns. Because I don’t identify as either a boy or a girl, but as a nonbinary, agender person. Which pronouns do you prefer, by the way?”
Amy’s brow wrinkled.
“She and, um, her, I guess.”
“Hey! Fellow nonbinary person!” a voice shouted joyously, and both Warlock and Amy glanced around to see a person with purple hair standing there. “High five!”
The other nonbinary held their hand up to Warlock, who, after a second’s hesitation, high-fived them.
The other nonbinary person beamed.
“I saw your pronoun badge,” they said, because apparently they felt compelled to explain why they’d come over to talk to Warlock. “It’s so nice to have another nonbinary person here! I’m Ollie.”
“I’m Warlock, and this is Amy.”
Amy sent Warlock a grateful look for including her.
“Cool, cool,” said Ollie, shoving their hands in their pockets and nodding rapidly. “Cool name. I like it.”
“Ollie, did someone give you sugar?” a new person interrupted. They were wearing a flannelette shirt.
“Nope,” said Ollie, grinning. “I had four cups of coffee!”
Everyone within hearing distance groaned.
“Sorry about them,” said the person in the flannelette shirt.
“Don’t worry about it,” they said, and decided that maybe this whole situation wasn’t as frightening as it had first seemed.
“What were we talking about, before?” asked Ollie. “I’ve completely forgotten.”
“Before you ran over to meet your new friend?” said the person in the flannelette shirt. “You were telling me about the weird bookshop you found in Soho.”
Warlock blinked. He wondered if Ollie was talking about Aziraphale’s bookshop.
“Oh, yeah,” said Ollie. “So there’s this antique bookstore in Soho, right? Only it’s the weirdest place I’ve ever been. The owner is seriously unfriendly – you’d swear he doesn’t actually want to sell anything – and get this, there’s an actual, live snake living there, among the books!” And Ollie made a dramatic face.
Definitely Aziraphale’s bookshop, then.
“To be fair,” said Warlock, “the snake is only there sometimes.”
Everyone who was listening in turned to stare at them.
“Excuse me, what?” said one of the listeners.
Warlock smiled, because the looks on everyone else’s faces were pretty funny.
“I know the owner,” said Warlock, in answer.
“But what do you mean, it’s only there sometimes?” said Ollie. “Where does it go?”
“Forget that,” said the person in the flannelette shirt, “why is there a snake in a bookshop?”
“He likes it there?”
Everyone stared at Warlock.
“You’re messing with us,” said someone else. “You have to be. There’s no snake. You’re both making it up.”
Warlock, in answer, pulled out their phone, and brought up a photo. Then they held out their phone so that everyone could see the screen.
About a week ago they’d stumbled across Crowley in serpent form – which had required an explanation all on its own – asleep on a pile of books. They’d ended up taking a picture of him, because the sight was far too funny not to.
Everyone stared at the photo.
“What the hell.”
“I told you!” said Ollie, in tones of triumph.
“Why,” asked the person in the flannelette shirt, rather plaintively, “is the snake wearing sunglasses?”
Warlock shrugged, because they didn’t know the answer to that, either. Crowley usually wore the sunglasses to hide that he was… well, The Serpent in human form, but there didn’t seem to be a point to him wearing sunglasses when he was a snake. Habit, maybe.
“Who is this person?” Ollie asked Warlock. “The owner of the store, I mean. What kind of person owns a shop like that?”
Warlock thought about it.
“You know,” they said, thoughtfully, “I don’t think I really have the words to explain.”
There will probably be one more chapter.
Here it is, the last chapter!
Also, there's a content warning for Warlock's father misgendering them at the beginning of the chapter. You have been warned.
Also, I don't know how the 'hellspawn' nickname for Warlock started, but I am Here For It.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Warlock wasn’t all that surprised when, a week before Christmas, their father rang to say that there was no point in Warlock coming home for Christmas. The only thing that surprised them was that their father rang them himself, instead of making one of the staff do it.
“Your mother and I are going on vacation,” Warlock’s father said over the phone, his voice jovial. “Apparently the beaches in Australia are lovely this time of year. We can’t wait to find out!”
“Right,” said Warlock.
“And we thought, well, you’ll be busy with studying, and with all your new friends–”
What new friends? thought Warlock for a second, before remembering that they were, kind of, friends with Ollie now. The two of them had been texting each other and meeting up for coffee, anyway, and Warlock was fairly certain it was a friend thing and not a date thing. They hoped so, at least: otherwise things were going to become pretty awkward at some point.
“–and having yourself a good time over there,” Warlock’s father went on, and Warlock dragged their brain back to the conversation with some difficulty, “and we won’t be home anyway, so really, you might as well stay in jolly old England for Christmas.”
“Right,” said Warlock, again.
There was an awkward silence, but for only about a second before their father rushed to fill it.
“How are you finding college generally? Joined any clubs or societies?” Their father’s voice turned conspiratorial. “Met any hot girls?”
Warlock stifled a sigh so that their father wouldn’t hear it.
“Sure,” they said, because that was the answer most likely to speed the conversation to its end.
Their father laughed.
“Good to hear! We’ll make a real man of you yet!”
He didn’t seem to notice that Warlock’s only response was silence.
“Anyway, your Mom says I need to decide which suits I ought to wear to dinner while we’re on vacation, so I’d better be going!”
“Bye, son! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do! Which leaves a lot, ha ha!”
Warlock heard the beep of their father ending the call. They tucked their phone back into their pocket, and sighed again.
Parents are awful, they texted Ollie. Then, after a moment’s thought, they texted Crowley as well.
It looks like I’m staying here for Christmas. My parents are going on vacation without me. Big surprise.
A couple of seconds later they got a response from Ollie.
What did they do? Ollie asked.
They’re going on vacation without me, AGAIN – so guess who’s stuck here for Christmas? Warlock sent back. Then: Not that I’d want to go with them, because they really are awful, but what am I going to do?
That sucks, Ollie texted back. But I think Rose is organising a thing for LGBTQIA+ Alliance members who can’t go home. I’ll double-check, but I can ask her if you can go, if you want.
Thanks, said Warlock.
A couple of minutes passed. Warlock’s phone beeped. Warlock checked their messages again.
Rose says sure, you can go. It’s at her flat, from 10am Christmas morning. She says the only obligation is to bring a plate of food if you can afford it. Let me text you the address, said Ollie’s text.
Awesome. Tell her I’ll be there, Warlock texted.
They were about to put their phone away when they got another two texts in quick succession. One was from Ollie, with Rose’s address.
The other was from Crowley.
Those bastards. I don’t normally celebrate Christmas – demon, here – but if you want, the angel and I can take you out to lunch that day.
Warlock thought about it for a second, and then texted Ollie.
Ask Rose if I can bring a couple of friends to the party. They’re older people, but they don’t have families to be with either.
I can ask. Who are they? Ollie asked.
Warlock paused, trying to think of how to explain their complicated relationship with Crowley and Aziraphale. Finally, they simply said:
They’re the family I’ve found for myself.
Ollie’s response came immediately.
Rose says it’s not a problem, as long as they won’t give anyone shit for being queer.
They won’t. Tell her thanks from me, said Warlock, and then responded to Crowley’s text.
Actually, how do you feel about attending a party with LGBTQIA young people? You and Aziraphale, I mean. It’s for LGBTQIA Alliance members who can’t go home for Christmas. I was going to go, but it would be nice to see you and Aziraphale.
Warlock sent the text, and waited.
The minutes ticked over. Warlock bit their lip, feeling apprehensive. Finally they got an answer.
Aziraphale says that would be tickety-boo – honestly, he said that, I’m quoting word-for-word – and I suppose I don’t have anything else better to do. So we’ll be there.
Warlock grinned in delight. It would be lovely to spend Christmas with people they actually liked, for a change.
Plus, they couldn’t wait to see Ollie’s face when they realised who Warlock’s chosen family members were. It was bound to be epic.
As it turned out, the very first thing Ollie did when Warlock walked in with Crowley and Aziraphale beside them was gasp loudly, point an accusing finger, and yell, “Weird Soho Bookshop Guy!”
Everyone turned to stare at the new arrivals.
“Excuse me,” sniffed Aziraphale, “I’m not a guy.”
Warlock knew that it was the casualness of the term that Aziraphale objected to and not the gender of it, because they knew him well enough by now, but Ollie did a one-eighty from outrage to contrition.
“Sorry, sorry! I shouldn’t have assumed!” The outrage came surging back. “But you’re the Bookshop Person! Warlock, you little shit! You didn’t tell me you’d be bringing the Bookstore Person! How do you even know them?”
Warlock was grinning.
“Sowing chaos and discord, are we, Warlock? Nice work.” Crowley sounded approving.
Aziraphale elbowed Crowley out of habit, and said, “Oh, Crowley and I were Warlock’s nanny and gardener, when they were a child.”
“We raised them, really,” Crowley added.
Because this was a group made up of LGBTQIA+ Alliance members, there was no confusion and no uncomfortable looks at the revelation that either Crowley or Aziraphale had been a nanny. Only nods of acknowledgement.
Someone Warlock didn’t know asked, “Are you really the person who owns that bookstore in Soho? Why do you have a snake?”
Ever since Warlock had shown people the photo of Crowley asleep on the books in snake form, the rumours of That Weird Bookshop in Soho had really taken off amongst the LGBTQIA+ Alliance people.
Aziraphale blinked at them.
“Why wouldn’t I have a snake?” he asked, and everyone but Warlock and Crowley took it for honest confusion.
Warlock hid a snicker. Crowley, when they glanced at him, was doing a good job of hiding his own amusement. But then, the sunglasses always helped with that, for people who didn’t know him.
“Because it’s a bookshop!” Ollie threw out their hands in frustration. “People don’t expect to find a gigantic snake guarding the books like a dragon with its hoard!”
“His,” said Aziraphale primly. “Not its. Pronouns are very important things, you know.”
Ollie and half the room stared in disbelief.
The other half were trying to suppress laughter.
“Okay, time out,” said Rose loudly. “Warlock, why don’t you introduce your friends?”
“This is Crowley.” Warlock gestured towards him. Crowley gave a wave with two fingers. “He prefers he and his pronouns. And this is Aziraphale, who also prefers he/his pronouns. Like Crowley said, they basically raised me, since my parents didn’t care enough to do it.”
“Hello.” Aziraphale gave a bright wave and a smile to the assembled young people. “How do you do?”
“Are you always this much of a troll?” Ollie asked Aziraphale despairingly.
“A what?” Aziraphale looked startled.
“A troll, angel,” said Crowley, and Warlock saw several people relax infinitesimally as they made the assumption that Crowley and Aziraphale were a gay couple. “It means stringing people along to get a reaction.”
“I would never,” said Aziraphale, indignant.
Warlock saw Crowley raise an eyebrow at that piece of hypocrisy, but the demon didn’t say anything in response.
“Warlock, do them up a nametag, would you? And one for yourself,” said Rose. “Don’t forget to put pronouns on there, just in case anyone forgets.”
“Sure,” said Warlock, and they headed for the table where the stick-on labels and permanent markers were.
“Oh, don’t tell me I have to wear a nametag,” said Crowley with a groan, as he followed Warlock. “It’s demeaning, is what it is.”
“I don’t see why,” said Aziraphale, picking up a marker and carefully writing out his name and preferred pronouns.
“You need a nametag,” said Warlock firmly. “Either wear a stick-on label, or come up with an alternative.”
Crowley snapped his fingers when no one was looking. A second later, he was wearing a black enamel badge with golden letters that said CROWLEY at the top, and below that, in smaller letters, I’M A DEMON, I DON’T HAVE GENDERED PRONOUNS.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Warlock to Aziraphale. “Everyone else will probably find it funny.”
They were right.
Most people laughed or smiled politely when they noticed the badge. Only one person asked about it, and that was Mike, who said,
“What’s Hell like, then?”
“Dismal,” said Crowley, at once. “Like a dimly-lit basement with a leaky pipe running across the ceiling, and filled with demons, which, really, ought to say it all. And I once had to do a slide presentation on the evil deeds I’d accomplished in the last decade, so,” and Crowley shrugged loosely. “Dismal about covers it, yeah.”
“Oh? And what evil deeds did you have to do a presentation on?” he asked jokingly, either ignoring or not noticing Warlock’s slightly too-wide eyes.
Crowley eyed him with an expression which, to Warlock, suggested that Crowley thought that Mike was bit of an idiot. But all he said was,
“Well, the construction of the M25, mostly.”
Mike made an impressed noise.
“That is evil.”
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it. And those bastards Downstairs wouldn’t even give me a wahoo.” Crowley sounded disgusted, and maybe a little bitter about it.
Ollie, who had been listening in with a vaguely perturbed expression, edged further away from Crowley (and incidentally, closer to Warlock) and hissed into Warlock’s ear, “Meeting these people explains so much about you.”
Warlock only nodded serenely, because they’d made peace with that fact a long time ago.
Meanwhile, standing on the other side of Warlock, Aziraphale and Rose were exchanging historical facts (Rose) and pieces of ancient gossip (Aziraphale) about Oscar Wilde, who Rose was currently writing an assignment on and whom Aziraphale had apparently known personally, if his thinly-veiled personal anecdotes were any indication.
Once all the food was eaten, Rose got out her laptop and lined up a music playlist. Before long, half the room was dancing.
“Do you dance?” Warlock asked Crowley and Aziraphale.
“I can do the gavotte,” said Aziraphale, before Crowley could answer.
“What’s the gavotte?” asked Ollie loudly.
Aziraphale’s face lit up.
“Awful,” Crowley interjected. “Don’t listen to him.”
“Do shut up, Crowley,” said Aziraphale. “It’s a great deal of fun. Let me show you – Crowley, will you–”
But Crowley was already going “Nope, nope, leave me out of this,” and backing away from Aziraphale, as fast as if he’d been in snake form.
Warlock didn’t think to do the same.
Hindsight was 20/20, after all.
Somehow, five minutes later, Warlock’s arms were linked with Aziraphale’s, as part of a dance that made them feel like a – like an energetic penguin, trying frantically to obey Aziraphale’s instructions on the dance steps while following the fast beat of the music (which had miraculously changed to something old-fashioned played on piano).
Several other people had joined in and linked arms with Warlock and Aziraphale, under the complete misapprehension that it looked like fun. Meanwhile, Rose was filming the entire thing on her phone, and Ollie looked like they were going to actually cry if they laughed any harder.
Aziraphale beamed merrily through it all, obviously having the time of his life.
“Help me,” Warlock muttered to Crowley as they swept past him.
“Better you than me,” was Crowley’s unhelpful reply as Warlock was swept away again.
By the time the music finished, Warlock was out of breath, their feet had been stood on at least three times by different people, and Aziraphale was finally willing to let Warlock escape his clutches.
Warlock took refuge behind Ollie, as Amy took Warlock’s place at Aziraphale’s side and was promptly bombarded with conflicting instructions as to what she ought to be doing.
Ollie, as Warlock had predicted, had laughed so hard that tears had run down their face.
“That,” said Ollie, “was priceless. I take back everything I said. Please, tell me where your parents found these people.”
Warlock went with the truth.
“Honestly, I’m pretty sure they just showed up at my parents’ house one day, and were somehow hired.”
Ollie nodded sagely.
Warlock went off to collapse in a chair for a while, because it turned out that gavotting was exhausting.
Much later, when everyone had finally left Rose’s place, and Warlock and Crowley and Aziraphale had climbed into the Bentley so that Crowley could drive them to the bookshop, Crowley said,
“We do have a present for you, you know.”
Warlock blinked themselves awake from where they’d been nodding off in the backseat of the car.
“Well,” said Aziraphale. “We thought that you’d much rather have something – well, meaningful, than something material for Christmas.”
“Oh,” said Warlock. Then: “What does that mean?”
Crowley cleared his throat.
“Well, since we live here in London – and you’ve made your opinion of your parents quite clear, not that I blame you – we pulled a few strings here and there, and–”
“You’re now a British citizen,” said Aziraphale, his voice cheerful as he interrupted Crowley. “So you can stay here as long as you like, with Crowley and I. You never have to go back. Unless you want to, of course.”
Warlock stared wide-eyed at Aziraphale and Crowley. Crowley was watching them in the rear-view mirror, his expression watchful and still, but after a second Aziraphale slewed around in his seat to look over his shoulder at Warlock.
“That is alright, isn’t it?” Aziraphale added.
Warlock blinked away the mistiness gathering at the corners of their vision.
“That’s – that’s great,” they managed. “I–” A sob escaped.
“Oh dear,” said Aziraphale, instantly fretting. “Are you alright?”
“I’m f-fine – it’s just…” Warlock swallowed. “It means a l-lot. To me. That you want me to… stick around.”
“Of course we do,” said Crowley, his voice matter-of-fact.
“We’re both very proud of you,” added Aziraphale. “You’ve grown up into a wonderful young person.”
“So try and trust in the fact that we want you around, no matter what the dark corners of your brain tells you – alright, hellspawn?”
Warlock choked on a laugh, both because Crowley was as perceptive as ever, and because they hadn’t heard the nickname hellspawn in years.
“I’ll try,” they said, because it was difficult to out-think their own brain sometimes, after years of the dark little voice inside their own mind saying that they were abandoned and unwanted by everyone. Even though, logically, Warlock knew that Crowley and Aziraphale meant what they said, and genuinely wanted them around. Convincing their heart of that was going to take effort, sometimes.
But Crowley nodded in response, as though he understood what was going through Warlock’s head – which, being a demon, he probably did. Falling couldn’t have been anything but traumatic for him, Warlock thought. Like being kicked out of home by the people who were supposed to love you best.
So Warlock wiped their eyes on the back of their hand, and managed a watery smile.
“Thanks,” they said, and Aziraphale went,
“You’re very welcome.”
“What he said,” said Crowley, as the Bentley turned into the street where the bookshop was located.
Warlock thought that there was nowhere else they’d rather be.