It’s a nice day.
It’s a nice day, and Warlock’s parents aren’t home (as usual, he will soon learn), so he’s allowed outside. They’re sitting in the garden, he and Brother Francis, in the way that people sometimes sit when they’re comfortable with each other’s presence but can think of nothing to say. Brother Francis had been on another spiral about how meaningful life and all its creatures are, which Warlock had honestly only been half-listening to in favor of playing in the dirt, but it had sort of fizzled out.
So now they’re just sitting. Warlock’s hands are covered in dirt and his face feels sticky with sunscreen, but he’s content to sit here in the sun, listening to Brother and Sister Birds chirp. Brother Francis is watering the plants or something. Warlock isn’t quite sure what he does as gardener besides talk about nature, sometimes kill plants (and somehow magically restore them come morning), and eat lunch with Nanny Ashtoreth when he thinks no one’s paying attention.
“Oh, look, young master Warlock,” says Brother Francis, all of a sudden, “Sibling Earthworm has come to play.”
When Warlock looks, a coiled pink thing is sitting in the palm of Brother Francis’ hand. It’s speckled with dirt like Warlock’s hands. It wiggles, tail-like appendage past a band on its midsection flicking in Warlock’s direction, but it doesn’t move off of Brother Francis’ palm. Warlock almost reaches out to take it, but something stops him.
“What’s Sibling Earthworm?” He’s used to being told about all the sisters and brothers in the garden, but he hasn’t heard about any siblings.
Brother Francis brightens. He likes talking about this sort of thing, Warlock knows, so Warlock likes hearing about it. “Sibling Earthworm is a kind of worm that lives in soil all around the world. Some may think they’re gross, but like every living being, they do important work,” he says, gesturing to the soil.
Warlock continues watching the earthworm wiggle. “Is this Brother or Sister Earthworm?”
“Both,” says Brother Francis, seeming even more excited. “Earthworms’ anatomy is different from that of many other animals. So, while anatomy is hardly indicative of anything in, say, humans, earthworms don’t necessarily have genders by human standards.”
“Is it not?” Brother Francis smiles and extends his hand. “Would you like to hold Sibling Earthworm?”
Nodding eagerly, Warlock cups his palms and holds them out. Brother Francis taught him how to handle small animals like this months ago.
Brother Francis hums. “Oh, I think Sibling Earthworm will like being here,” he says as he tips the earthworm into Warlock’s hands. “It’s the perfect sort of environment earthworms prefer—the soil in this garden is simply divine, just the right texture and moisture. Though you’ll have to clean off all it before you go inside, I’m afraid.” He clicks his tongue.
The earthworm feels strange against Warlock’s skin. Strange, but nice. It rustles its way through the soil coating his palms, segmented body twisting as it does. Warlock giggles at the tickling sensation.
“You know,” says Brother Francis, all casual, “some people are like earthworms.”
Warlock shifts the earthworm into one hand so he can nudge it with the finger of the other hand. It’s almost as big as his palm, at least in length. “What do you mean?”
“Sometimes… hmm. One moment, Warlock, my boy, I’m thinking of how to put this.”
Brother Francis pauses while Warlock continues moving his hands around. The earthworm starts to crawl up his arm. He prods it back down.
“Ah! Sometimes,” Brother Francis continues, more confident, “people experience gender differently, like Sibling Earthworm here. Sometimes when people are born, others decide that they’re a boy or a girl—like you were called a boy when you were born—and the person decides later that that’s not right. Sometimes they decide that they’re neither a boy nor a girl. Or they’re both, or that they’re one sometimes and not others.”
“That’s cool,” Warlock says again, this time a little more breathless.
Brother Francis’ smile is as bright as the sun above. “Indeed.”
Eventually, playtime outside comes to an end, as all things must. Warlock sets his earthworm friend down in the soil, watching it burrow into the soft earth and disappear before waving to Brother Francis and running off.
When he goes inside, the dirt on his hands is gone.
“Nanny Ashtoreth,” he says as he’s being tucked into bed, “Brother Francis was telling me about worms today.”
Nanny Ashtoreth doesn’t visibly react. She doesn’t often react to anything, save for the slight twitch of her mouth into a half-smile and back again every time Brother Francis’ name comes up. “Oh? Can I assume he spoke about actual worms rather than the people you’ll crush like worms under your heel one day?”
“Yeah.” Warlock doesn’t wait for another invitation before barreling on, unable to help himself with jittery excitement, “Apparently worms aren’t boys or girls. They’re both.”
Nanny Ashtoreth hums. Warlock waits for her to say something.
She doesn’t, so he tilts his head. “Normally you tell me never to listen to that man.”
“Well, he’s right. I don’t see why I should tell you not to listen to facts.” Nanny Ashtoreth shrugs. “Though I hardly think the genders of creatures matter will matter when you rise up to destroy them all.”
“He also said sometimes people aren’t boys or girls either, or they’re both,” continues Warlock as though she hadn’t spoken. “Is that true too?”
“Yes, indeed,” says Nanny Ashtoreth. For the first time Warlock can remember, she sounds surprised. “Did he tell you that sometimes it isn’t always that definite? That people can be different things at different times?”
“Hmm. Well, I’m one of those people.” Nanny Ashtoreth, after glancing at the door, lowers her sunglasses. Warlock likes her eyes—they’re pretty, looking similar to those of Brother Garter Snake—but she won’t let them show when other people are around, which he thinks is sad. “Sometimes I’m a woman—” she gestures to her dress “—sometimes I’m a man, most of the time I’m not quite either.”
“Oh, okay. Are you still my Nanny Ashtoreth when you aren’t a woman?”
She chuckles. “I’ll always be your Nanny Ashtoreth,” she says, reaching down toward Warlock’s hair before jolting back and deepening her frown. She stands, then stops. “Would you like a lullaby tonight?”
He’s already sleepy enough, so he shakes his head. “Not tonight, Nanny.”
“Very well.” Sliding up her sunglasses again, she walks toward the door.
“Nanny?” Warlock calls.
She pauses in the doorway. The light streaming in from the hallway illuminates only the edge of her face, and her back is still to Warlock, so her expression is impossible to make out. “Yes?”
“Is it okay if I’m not a boy?”
Another pause. “Of course, Warlock,” says Nanny Ashtoreth, her voice soft yet emphatic. “It’s okay to be whatever you wish.”
It’s not about wishing, it’s just about being, he wants to say, but Nanny Ashtoreth has left and closed the door behind her before he can.
In Crowley’s Bentley that night, two man-shaped beings have a conversation to the dulcet tones of Debussy’s “I Want to Break Free”:
“I don’t think the Anti-Christ’s parents will appreciate you teaching him about the existence of nonbinary genders,” says one.
“Wasn’t it you who told me you didn’t think I could actually do wrong?” asks the other.
“I meant morally speaking. And a lot can change in six thousand years.” He hasn’t the heart to mention that that had been the moment sarcasm had been invented. “‘Sides, much as I appreciate you turning the kid into a rebel against cisnormative human society this early, we don’t want him to get so tetchy about it that he grows up to destroy the world.”
A dignified sniff. “Well, I wasn’t going to lie to the poor child. He gets enough of that from his parents.”
“Yeah, well—” He can’t think of a proper rebuttal to that.
“Humans are so unnecessarily particular about this sort of thing,” his fellow man-shaped being continues. “And they try to use God to justify it. The absolute nerve.”
“Right? ‘S’not like even the Almighty can’t make mistakes.”
Thunder booms overhead, distant enough that it’s clear it’s not an imminent threat but a warning, much like a parent wagging a finger at a naughty pet sniffing around the trash. Both occupants of the car wince nonetheless.
One tries to save face: “She Herself is beyond their concepts of gender, anyway, so I don’t get the fuss about Her having to be a man and whatnot. Oh,” he adds, recalling a personal slip-up, “did you tell the Anti-Christ about your personal relationship with gender, by any chance? As in, your not having one?”
“No. He seemed to be having fun with—” a mild tone of amusement enters his voice “—Sibling Earthworm, so I let him enjoy himself rather than prattling on.”
“Really? I didn’t think you could restrain yourself from doing that.”
A pregnant pause.
“Did you tell him about your personal relationship with gender, then, Crowley?”
“Ehh… I might’ve let a little something slip, but he did ask if it was all right if he wasn’t a boy. Hopefully he won’t mention it to his parents.”
“Mm. Fairly certain they’d have to actually listen to him for that to have any effect.” A sigh, more irritated than weary. “I do wish I could have told him that if he decided he wasn’t a boy later on, the world would only ever treat him with kindness, and made that reality. It seemed too big a miracle for staying under the radar, though, and favoritism besides.”
“Hey, if he decides we’re worth listening to, he’ll be able to do that for himself someday. And hopefully everyone else.” He makes a left. “Back to yours?”
“Actually, I was wondering if I could convince you to get a bite at the Ritz.”
“Consider me tempted.”
Unnoticed by either of them, the track switches to Beethoven’s “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy.”
For years, Warlock collects worm facts. They’re something he learns to hold to his chest—there, they’re safe. There, they can warm his heart when he feels sad or lonely or any other emotions lurking behind the fake camera-ready smiles his dad wants him to plaster on when he makes the rare public appearance.
For a few years, he even tells people his facts. Bares a little bit of his soul like Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis are always talking about.
For a couple of years, people listen. The friends—fleeting and few in number as they are—he makes are intrigued and ask more questions. Some Warlock has the answers to. Some he doesn’t but finds out so he can tell them tomorrow. He doesn’t tell adults, because Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis already know and they’re the only ones who pay any real attention to him instead of just saying, “That’s nice, dear” or “I’m busy, honey.”
And then, after a certain age, people stop listening. They start wrinkling their noses and saying, “Ew, worms are gross.” Warlock tries to sway them with the first one he’d learned, always something he falls back on.
“Earthworms aren’t boys or girls,” he’ll say.
“That’s weird,” they’ll say.
“You’re weird,” he hears, and he gives up and talks about something normal instead.
But at the end of a long day, he can still always go to the garden with Brother Francis or sit in his room with Nanny Ashtoreth. He can say, “Do you want to know what I learned today?”
And he knows that they’ll smile back—or at least Brother Francis will, Warlock doesn’t think he’s ever seen Nanny Ashtoreth smile proper—and say, “Tell me.”
Even closer to his chest than the fun facts about worms, Warlock keeps the knowledge that he might not be a boy. He doesn’t think he’s a girl, either, though. He thinks he’s like an earthworm. But not like Nanny Ashtoreth—he feels like he’s neither all the time.
He knows from what Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis say that that’s okay. He also knows that some people don’t agree. He takes the ‘some people’ to include his mother and father, if only because they’re never around him enough for him to get a read on their opinions. He doesn’t care what they think, but he does know that it would be bad if they found out, and not only for him. Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis would probably get in trouble too. And as weird as they are, as far as Warlock’s concerned, they’re the best thing in his life.
So Warlock decides to keep it to himself, like the things he learns about earthworms. He doesn’t even tell Nanny Ashtoreth or Brother Francis after that day. He thinks it, one day: I’m not a boy or a girl. He doesn’t say it. Can’t say it. Not yet, not yet, though he pictures one day when he’ll be able to and smiles.
He tells an earthworm, though, one day, sitting alone with it in the garden. It’s perched on his palm like the one Brother Francis found for him—Warlock wonders if it’s the same one. Most species of earthworms don’t live very long, and there are a lot of birds around to shorten that life expectancy, so it’s probably not, but the thought is comforting.
“Sibling Earthworm,” Warlock whispers, “I’m like you!”
The earthworm doesn’t respond, but its wiggles do get a little more frantic. Warlock, chest already feeling lighter, sets it back down in the dirt with a smile.
He keeps learning about earthworms.
If, in the process, he ends up learning more about himself, then that’s just a plus.
When Warlock is sixteen, Brother Francis and Nanny Ashtoreth come for a return visit. Except they look different—they don’t look older than the time he saw them last, which he doesn’t think is weird because he doesn’t think he ever saw either age over the years they knew him, but their new appearances—and voices—do take him by surprise. They’re still recognizable, though.
Brother Francis looks cleaner, more dapper, but he has the same bright smile and curly platinum hair. The only thing noticeably different about Nanny Ashtoreth is her hair, which is shorter—but still half-up in a bun—and her expression, which is softer. She’s even smiling before she sees Warlock, though it widens when he tackles them both in a hug.
Their names, as they tell Warlock over a lunch they treat him to, are actually Aziraphale and Crowley. Warlock tries them out in his mouth a few times. The fact that Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis aren’t their actual names isn’t too surprising on its own; when Warlock had had an imaginative phase a few years back, he’d dreamed up that they were spies, but he hadn’t accounted for their real names. These are weirder—and therefore better—than anything he could have come up with.
“Since I’m using this name, you might as well call me by he/him,” says Crowley with a shrug. “Still don’t mind if you use she/her or they/them though.”
Warlock, who has spent the past few years with free-range Internet access and fallen down a lot of rabbit holes, nods. “So what have you been up to?”
“Stopping Armageddon,” says Crowley, just as Aziraphale says, “Oh, nothing much, just taking care of my bookshop.”
They look at each other. Warlock looks between them. This is how he’s always imagined married couples are supposed to communicate.
“Technically neither of us are wrong,” says Aziraphale, looking a bit embarrassed anyway. “The Armageddon business has been over for a few years now, though. Er, it finished up not long after the last time we saw you, so my main focus as of late has been the bookshop.” He gets a far-off, almost teary look.
“Give him a minute,” Crowley mutters to Warlock. “He’s still not quite over it burning down.”
“It burned down?” repeats Warlock.
“It got better,” says Aziraphale. “And that wasn’t what I was thinking about. No, I was thinking about the rather involved process that moving your belongings into the bookshop was.”
“Ah.” Crowley adjusts his sunglasses. “I hold that we could’ve just miracled everything in. Would’ve been less back-breaking.”
“What, and risk damaging even a leaf on one of the best-grown houseplants in London—nay, I say, the world?”
“Shh, not so loud! They’ll hear you being nice to them.”
“Plants don’t have ears, Crowley, and even if they did I imagine houseplants all the way in London wouldn’t be able to hear a conversation here in America—”
“Well, how do you know plants don’t have ears, huh? Sssecret, plant-y ears?” The twitch of Crowley’s mouth implies he’s aware of just how ridiculous what he’s saying is but refuses to back down. Warlock, who had eavesdropped on more than one meaner conversation of Nanny Ashtoreth’s, isn’t surprised by the hissing.
They break out into bickering that’s not even interrupted by the waiter bringing by a check. Aziraphale even pays and signs it without pausing. It’s kind of impressive—and endearing how they care enough about each other to argue over something so dumb while not even making any cheap attacks on each other’s persons—but Warlock is getting lost.
“Um,” he says. When Crowley and Aziraphale keep talking, he raises his voice. “Um.”
“Oh! Terribly sorry, we’ve just been ignoring you, how rude,” Aziraphale says with a pointed glance in Crowley’s direction. There’s a thump that might be Aziraphale kicking him in the shin under the table, though it doesn’t seem to have any sort of effect. “How have you been, my dear?”
“Fine,” says Warlock, shrugging. “Same old, same old.”
“Really?” Crowley’s eyebrows raise. “That doesn’t seem right. Aren’t you supposed to be coming to all sorts of realizations at this age? Going through all sorts of moods?”
“Well, uh. There is one thing.”
Aziraphale and Crowley are silent, watching him with silent anticipation. Warlock swallows. He’s never worked up the nerve to say it out loud before, has barely been able to say nonbinary online without panicking even not in relation to his personal gender, but—
“I’m not a boy or a girl,” he says, and it feels like a release. “I’m like an earthworm,” he adds with a sheepish smile.
“Oh, I told you that was a good decision,” Aziraphale tells Crowley with a brilliant smile.
Crowley takes a long, pointed sip of… Warlock doesn’t know what’s in that cup or being sucked through that comically oversized bendy straw, actually. “Never said it wasn’t, angel. You were the one all concerned about how the world would treat poor old Warlock if they came to any sort of realizations.” He pauses. “Oh, are you going by another name now?”
“No, Warlock is fine. And so’s using he/him still.”
“Well, if you change your mind, just let us know,” says Aziraphale. “We’re here for you.”
If Warlock’s eyes water, it’s only because Aziraphale’s smile is as bright and dazzling (and painful) as the sun. “Thank you.”
Warlock Dowling never changes his name.
He likes his name, after all, and the biggest power move he can think of is to exist as he is and still use the name his parents gave him (with the help of a couple of Satanic nuns of the Chattering Order of Saint Beryl, as he later learns from the convoluted story of his birth). It’s already neutral, and more importantly, weird. Warlock wouldn’t want to fit in for an instant.
He also doesn’t care much about pronouns, though he opts for he/him most of the time. He messes around a lot with his presentation in his teens and twenties, not least because Crowley and Aziraphale have a seemingly endless supply of cash (including American dollars, for some reason) and have taken it upon themselves to keep acting as his so-called godparents. He’s not sure they ever fit that role in the first place, but he’s happy to be doted on.
He becomes a biologist with a focus in annelids. He gets a Ph.D. in part because it means people will have to call him “Dr.” instead of struggling between “miss” and “mister” (as fun as that is to witness) and he can shut up people who try to tell him his existence goes against science. He also gets it because, as it turns out, he likes learning and putting in hard work when it’s something he’s interested in.
All those worm facts paid off after all.
And someday, Dr. Warlock Dowling will stand ankles-deep in the soil before a class of children on a field trip. And he’ll find an earthworm. And he’ll think of a nice day in the garden of his old house that wasn’t really a home except in those moments, and he’ll smile, and he’ll hope the world has changed enough for these kids to be excited rather than disgusted.
And he’ll say, “Look, it’s Sibling Earthworm.”