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Chosen and Unchosen

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In Soho, in an old bookshop with open hours that were only slightly less complicated than warranties for the latest mobile phones on the market, an angel quietly read as he sat on a worn fainting couch and vaguely noticed that he couldn’t remember feeling this relaxed before.

Six thousand years on Earth and Aziraphale could see in hindsight that he spent most of that time frame in a state of constant anxiety. He worried about Heaven finding his flaws like his indulgence in gluttony and coveting particularly rare and fascinating books. He worried about being a bad angel and not being good enough. And then he worried about them finding about Crowley, about their Arrangement and how cordial that Aziraphale was with his supposed adversary. Or how being cordial became friendship, a title for their relationship that didn’t quite cover it and yet was all that he could risk calling it at the time. He worried about crossing the line and Falling. He worried about Hell punishing Crowley or the demon deciding someday to avoid the cruelty of Hell’s fury with the contents of a thermos that Aziraphale reluctantly gave him. He worried about losing everything that he held to be precious. But mostly Aziraphale worried about what he felt radiating off Crowley, growing stronger with time.

While demons lost the ability when they Fell, angels could sense love. All forms of love. Aziraphale could tell when a location was well-loved and cherished. He could feel the love for treasured belongings. And he could certainly tell when someone loved or was loved by another. Whether that love was a form of friendship, familial, romantic, or unconditional devotion,[1] the angel could sense it.

When Aziraphale first felt the spark of warm affection coming from the demon, he thought that it must be a mistake. That he must have simply picked up something else from his surroundings or misidentified the sensation. The rumors that wove their way through Heaven went against what he sensed on the wall surrounding Eden.

But it was there. And it was there the next time that their paths crossed. And the next.

With each successive encounter, it grew stronger and harder to brush off. At least one demon could feel love. Aziraphale spent so long denying what he was sensing, trying to convince himself that maybe he was getting the type of love mixed up or maybe he had the target of Crowley’s affection wrong or dozens of other excuses. Then it grew too bright and intense for that. Aziraphale truly realized how deeply Crowley felt when he walked onto consecrated ground to help him and even saved the books that he knew the angel treasured, performing a small demonic miracle somewhere that would resist his efforts. But it was also the moment that Aziraphale realized exactly what he felt in return.

He didn’t develop those feelings that night. They’d been there for quite some time. But emotional self-awareness was not Aziraphale’s strong suit.

But even with that new discovery about himself, he couldn’t admit it. He couldn’t allow the idea to even truly form. Because Heaven and Hell would never forgive that level of betrayal and failure. And while he could Fall if he slipped too far, Crowley would face far worse. That was something that the angel could never allow. They needed to maintain plausible deniability. So Aziraphale ignored and pretended that he didn’t notice. He ignored his own emotions and those that he sensed from the demon. He tuned it out, acting as if he didn’t notice the love shining from Crowley like a giant neon sign. It was the safer option for both of them.

But then the Apocalypse nearly happened. Everything was dragged out and exposed for all to see. Heaven and Hell knew. About their relationship, their Arrangement, and that their loyalty and obedience was not as ironclad as assumed. The truth came out and they managed to survive anyway. There was no point in hiding and existing in denial any longer. The realization was both intimidating and overwhelming when it hit Aziraphale, but he also found it rather freeing. They were on their own side now.

That newfound freedom, no longer fearing reprisals after their respective “trials” and no longer communicating only through subtext, was the reason that they could be like this a little over a year later. Aziraphale reading on the fainting couch wouldn’t have been that unusual over the past century or so. But now he could do it with Crowley sprawled along the length of the couch, dozing lightly with his head resting on the angel’s lap while Aziraphale absently ran his fingers through his hair.

It only took one hand to turn a page, after all.

Reaching their current state of affairs was a difficult journey. Six thousand years of glacial-like progress that suddenly accelerated to lightspeed once several obstacles were removed, the change abrupt enough to cause whiplash. But without anything to stop them and without any threat hanging over their heads, Aziraphale didn’t see the point in holding back any longer. He didn’t want to waste any more time. Especially when he could feel Crowley’s intense emotions radiating off him all the time.

But what Aziraphale forgot was that Crowley was a demon. Well, he didn’t forget about him being a demon. He merely forgot one small difference and what it meant.

Demons couldn’t sense love the same way that angels did. The rumors that demons could no longer feel love after they Fell and lost their connection to Her grace were clearly false, but the part about not being able to sense love was accurate. From bits and pieces that Aziraphale gathered over numerous drunken conversations scattered across several centuries, the angel had figured out that their senses had been warped to detect darker things instead. Hate, rage, fear, pain, desperation… All things that would point to a human being vulnerable and open to corruption. But not love. They couldn’t sense its presence any longer.

The implications of what that would mean for Crowley completely escaped Aziraphale until five months after Armaged-Don’t. And that led to certain misunderstandings and adjustments before they could settle into what they had now.

But then, any type of relationship took some cooperation to create and nurture.

Crowley shifted slightly under Aziraphale’s fingers, pulling the angel briefly from his thoughts and his book. He glanced down at Crowley’s drowsy smile. Even with the sunglasses hiding his eyes, his expression was clear enough. Aziraphale wasn’t the only one more relaxed and at ease than before. He was too comfortable to care about how nice and wonderful Aziraphale found him in that moment.

“Angel?” he murmured sleepily. “Could you… say the thing?”

Five months after the Apoca-Oops, Aziraphale and Crowley were feeding ducks in the park. Not a part of a cover to discuss part of the Arrangement. Merely because they wanted to do it before dinner at the angel’s current favorite sushi restaurant. But when Aziraphale threw a tasty treat towards a particularly greedy drake, the duck abruptly sank with a startled quack.

“Crowley,” he scolded, causing the duck to bob back to the surface and the demon to smirk. Aziraphale shook his head ruefully and said, “Really, my dear, I love you, but do you have to torment the ducks every time we visit?”

He meant it in a gently teasing manner, but Crowley stiffened and made a small sound. As if all the air was driven from his chest at once, something still uncomfortable even if neither of them technically required oxygen. And Crowley stared at him with a shocked and overwhelmed expression, one that Aziraphale couldn’t recognize. His mouth opened and closed a few times without making a sound as the demon wobbled slightly on his feet. Then, after a few moments of struggling, Crowley managed to produce a strained croak.

“Could you… say that again?”

“I mean, I know that you’re not hurting them,” said Aziraphale awkwardly, not certain what was happening, “but dunking them like that is a tad rude.”

“Not that. The… The thing. The thing you said about…” He was breathing a little funny by that point. “Did you… Do you actually…”

Despite what his moments of naïve and foolish decisions might suggest, Aziraphale was actually very intelligent and could occasionally make use of that intelligence. And with that unsteady, choked, and uncharacteristically vulnerable jumble of words, Aziraphale abruptly realized what Crowley was asking. What small and simple phrase left the demon looking like he was on the verge of passing out. Why he seemed so shocked, timidly hopeful, and completely overwhelmed upon hearing those words. And that realization hit Aziraphale with all the gentleness of dumping a bucket of ice water over a sleeping cat.

Demons couldn’t sense love like angels could. That meant that while Aziraphale could tell how much Crowley cared throughout the millennia, even if he tried to ignore it for both of their sakes, Crowley could only go off of what the angel said or did. And while Crowley knew that the angel liked him, there had been enough mixed signals that Crowley never realized that his feelings were reciprocated.

Not until Aziraphale told him just then.

He really could be an idiot sometimes.

Taking his hand and leading Crowley to the closest bench in case he completely collapsed, Aziraphale forced him to sit down next to him and repeated firmly, “I love you. I have for a long time. And before you ask, I don’t mean a general love for all things. I mean a love that is specifically yours and no one else’s. And I should have told you sooner, but I thought that you knew and I’m sorry for that.” He squeezed Crowley’s hand, who was currently gaping like a fish that was yanked out of a tiny pond only to be tossed into a much nicer lake instead of the expected frying pan. “I could sense your love for so long. Constant, warm, and almost blindingly bright sometimes. But I forgot that you couldn’t feel mine in return.”

Crowley was blushing by that point, coughing awkwardly and his posture a bit stiffer than his natural slouch. He would glance towards Aziraphale before looking anywhere except the angel, only to repeat the process a few seconds later. But he didn’t try to pull his hand away.

“I don’t want to make that mistake again. I want you to know how I feel about you,” he continued. “I don’t want you to doubt for a single moment. So if you need to hear me say it, I will. I love you, Crowley.” He smiled warmly. “And I will tell you that any time that you want and as many times as you might need. I promise that I’ll always and happily tell you how much I love you. All you need to do is ask.”

Crowley continued his awkward attempts to look at the angel and not look at him through Aziraphale’s entire promise, practically wiggling on the bench in a way that perfectly balanced his unfamiliarity with this level of emotional directness and a carefully restrained desire for exactly what he was being offered. But Hell and his fellow demons had long since taught him caution when faced with what seemed to be exactly what he wanted. The light at the end of the tunnel could be an oncoming train. The high point of his existence could easily be proceeding a painful fall. While he’d managed to hang onto hope and optimism, experience had left him suspicious of anything that seemed too good to be true.

If it was anyone else offering, if anyone else had suggested that his angel might someday love him back, he wouldn’t trust it for a second. But this was Aziraphale saying the words. And with the angel, he often left himself more vulnerable and yet found himself safer. If there was anyone in the universe that he could trust this much, it would be Aziraphale.

And he wouldn’t lie to Crowley about this. That level of cruelty could easily come from Hell, Heaven, or humanity, but never from his angel.

“Angel, you know that… all of this seems rather sudden. At least from where I’m standing.” Crowley glanced down and corrected, “Sitting.”

“Too fast?” asked Aziraphale.

Crowley was always the one who pushed the boundaries. The Arrangement was proof of that.  Testing, questioning, suggesting, and slithering his way forward. He was the one who kept their relationship changing and growing closer, progressing by the tiniest increments as the angel slowly gave ground. But there was still a cautiousness to his efforts. He didn’t want to risk hurting Aziraphale or pulling him too close to the edge of Falling. Crowley was patient and understanding about his limits even as he pressed against them. He took it slow because that’s what his angel needed.

But this time, Aziraphale was the one taking the lead. He was the one pulling them into new territory. He was the one offering more than the demon could ever bring himself to hope for.

Taking an unsteady breath and tightening his grip on the angel’s hand, Crowley shook his head and said roughly, “No. Not too fast. Just give me a minute to catch up with…”

“With me loving you?”

“Ngk.”

“For longer than I realized. And in more ways than I can describe. But I’m willing to try,” assured Aziraphale. “I may not always remember to say it on my own, but I do love you. And there’s no reason to hide or wait any longer. We’re on our own side now.”

The bright and shining love from Crowley seemed to grow a little stronger, perhaps a little more confident. A fresh wave of affection radiated off the demon. The sensation returned the warm smile to Aziraphale’s face.

After a few moments, Crowley said, “You know, if you honestly plan to say… say the thing anytime that I ask, I’ll probably make you say it at the most annoying moments possible, right?”

“I wouldn’t expect anything different, my dear.”

And while Crowley did try to pester the angel occasionally, asking while Aziraphale was talking to someone else or when he was distracted or when he was busy, he would also ask in calmer moments. When he honestly wanted to hear the words. No matter how many times that Aziraphale told him, the demon always brightened at the reassurance. And the angel kept his promise to always tell him.

Which meant when Crowley asked if he could say it, the demon half-asleep on his lap, Aziraphale already knew what he wanted to hear.

Perfectly manicured nails running lightly along Crowley’s scalp, Aziraphale smiled and said, “Of course, my dear. Always.” His fingers paused in their efforts long enough to let him trace the curves of the snake design on Crowley’s temple. “I love you.”

He shifted under the angel’s hand, the sleepy grin widening a fraction and Aziraphale felt the familiar love radiating from the demon brighten a little more. Both the words and the calming touch seemed to be reducing him to a state of near bliss. The sheer difference between his current state and the last six thousand years proved that, even with his normal façade, Crowley hadn’t been this relaxed in a long time. And Aziraphale couldn’t help basking in the glow of his affection in return.

Lifting his head slightly from the angel’s lap, Crowley asked, “Again?”

Aziraphale paused briefly to slip a bookmark between the pages and set the book aside. Then he turned his full attention to the demon.

“I love you,” he said, speaking each word slowly and firmly.

With a breathy chuckle, Crowley asked, “One more time?”

The tone might be lightly teasing and casual, but Aziraphale treated the request seriously. He ran his fingers through the demon’s hair once more before cupping his head with both hands, pulling Crowley up as Aziraphale leaned over.

“Crowley,” he said before pressing a gentle kiss to his forehead. “I love you.”

And there was the smallest hint of a blush and quiet inhale that the angel was expecting from him. For all that he’d loved and wanted this for longer than either would admit, the demon still grew a little flustered when his love was returned. As if he still couldn’t believe that it was possible for Aziraphale to love him back.

He could understand it. Aziraphale didn’t know what he’d done to earn Crowley’s unwavering and constant love. Perhaps the original spark that he felt so long ago was the love of dawning friendship and admiration. And that friendship remained, a sturdy foundation at the core. But now his love was composed of so many different forms of love woven together like a beautiful tapestry. Bright, beautiful, warm, and beyond human description or labels. Some days, Aziraphale couldn’t understand how Crowley could feel so strongly or what the angel did to deserve it.  

But regardless of anything else, they were both happier like this.

In many ways, not much had changed between them. Even kissing wasn’t completely new. Depending on the time and place, it could be part of a standard greeting for certain cultures. But now they didn’t have any reason to hide or hesitate. Everything was in the open. And that made a difference.

Heaven and Hell were keeping their distance after the failed executions. Adam might technically still have powers even after denying Satan and their connection, but he’d locked away most of it from his conscious control and Aziraphale and Crowley drove down to Tadfield every month or so to check on him the same way that they would send letters to another child. No one was carefully scrutinizing their every move, waiting for a mistake or a hint of disloyalty. The only side that they belonged to was their own. The world was safe from outside destruction. Everything was going well and the future looked bright.

Perhaps it was overly optimistic, but Aziraphale would almost call it perfect.

 


 

The whiteness was shredding his nerves, ratcheting up his anxiety to almost painful levels.

White walls, white floor, white ceiling, white desk and chair made of what vaguely seemed metallic material, and white paper stacked and waiting for him. Even his semi-translucent form was dressed in white, his essence taking on the familiar shape that he wore for six thousand years even after they denied him his corporeal body to make escape more difficult.[2] The quill in his hand, because Heaven refused to give him anything more modern to use, was made from a white feather so similar to those on his wings. White surrounded him, the lack of color uniform and unbroken except for the ink and the writing on the paper. Even shadows refused to interrupt the whiteness.

Whiteness everywhere.

The whiteness was almost blinding and suffocating, pressing down on him in a way that he couldn’t describe. At times, his vision seemed to turn strange and unexpected colors and his hearing filled with high pitched ringing. Hallucinations concocted by the mind to fill the numbing and unending lack of normal stimuli. It wasn’t too bad at first. But it was too constant and for too long. He wasn’t even certain how long that he’d been trapped. And there was nothing else in the room. Only the endless white and the black words that moved across the pages.

There weren’t even sounds. The other angels put him in the silent room to “think about his mistakes without any distractions,” as Gabriel explained in what was meant to be an encouraging voice. A large room with distant walls and high ceilings. No windows and no doors, the only one vanishing seamlessly once Gabriel left. And as soon as it was sealed closed, Aziraphale couldn’t use any powers within the room.

His abilities came from Heaven. He drew power down from Heaven with every miracle. And he was technically in Heaven, so it should have been easy. But something about the space blocked him. He was cut off from everything outside the walls and couldn’t draw on any power for a single miracle.

The silence was unnatural, just like the lack of shadows. The room wouldn’t let him hear a single sound, just as it wouldn’t let him move further than a couple meters away from the desk regardless of how hard he tried to run or fly. He couldn’t reach the walls or ceiling just as he couldn’t hear the rustle of paper, the scratching of the quill, or his own voice when Aziraphale shouted uselessly. Smashing the furniture against the floor was equally useless: not a single noise produced and they always returned to their normal state as soon as he let go, undamaged and whole. He couldn’t even hear a heartbeat because they took his physical body.

The other angels didn’t understand exactly what they were doing was technically a form of torture. They realized that having an angel immune to hellfire would be an asset too useful to dispose of casually and decided that guilt would be the best way to bring him back to their side. They only needed to use time and guilt to force him to be obedient again. They had plenty of both. But none of them could understand exactly what they were doing by trapping him in the bright, white, and silent room.

Earth was never silent. Not like this. There were birds, insects, and other animals wandering around Eden from the start. There was the sound of the wind rustling the trees, rumbling thunder, falling rain, and running water ranging from trickling brooks to ocean waves. Later there were humans talking, moving, creating, and living their lives at breathtaking speeds. And then there were the inventions and machines that they gradually filled the world with. From distant cricket chirps to the traffic that moved constantly along the streets of London, there was always noise. Aziraphale couldn’t remember the last time that he heard complete and utter silence. Not like this.

But the other angels didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand the concept of sensory deprivation. Cutting off nearly all forms of stimuli could cause mental harm. Not as quickly or as intensely as it would affect a human, but Aziraphale was human enough after six thousand years among them that it was taking its toll.

He’d tried to escape. He couldn’t reach the walls or ceiling of the room, couldn’t use a miracle to get out, and he couldn’t even smash his way through the floor using the desk. Aziraphale eventually came to the unfortunate realization that he wouldn’t be able to leave without outside help. He knew that Gabriel and the other angels would keep him in the white and silent room, tucked away and forgotten by everyone as his mind tried to unravel from anxiety, lack of stimuli, and overwhelming worry. And the only way they would let him out is if he did exactly what Gabriel told him right before locking Aziraphale away.

Besides, it was the only thing that he could do to distract himself from his stressful surroundings.

The stack of paper didn’t look nearly as thick as it actually was. Six thousand years of reports should have been much taller. But it maintained the same height regardless how many pages that he went through. And the finished copies disappeared as soon as he set them aside. He didn’t know how many that he’d corrected or how many were left. There was nothing to judge his progress by, just as there was nothing to indicate the passage of time. But he kept writing because he needed to get out as soon as possible.

Correcting. That’s what Gabriel told him to do. Go through every report that Aziraphale ever submitted and correct them. The Archangel’s logic was that being faced with all his lies and “betrayal” would reduce the principality to a regretful and guilt-stricken soldier, obedient and eager to atone. And he had a specific way that he wanted the reports to be corrected.

A family was healed of illness and a general blessing was delivered upon the household” was the original report that he submitted ages ago. But now Aziraphale wrote “The Principality Aziraphale was ordered to heal a family of illness and deliver a general blessing upon the household, but the Principality Aziraphale failed in his duty and betrayed Heaven by not fulfilling that order correctly. The Principality Aziraphale allowed the demon known as Crowley to tempt him into disobedience and the demon known as Crowley performed the tasks for unknown evil purposes. The Principality Aziraphale will atone for his mistakes and will be loyal and obedient to all future orders, never straying from the path of good again. The demon known as Crowley will no longer be a factor, unable to tempt or deceive the Principality Aziraphale because Hell does not share Heaven’s kindness, grace, and forgiveness.

Every report that Aziraphale ever submitted, they wanted him to correct them and admit if Crowley was involved or even if he was present. And he had to write exactly the way that Gabriel instructed or else the words disappeared when he finished.

He hated it. Aziraphale hated the words that he was writing, twisting the facts until it painted a cruel picture. He hated the silence, the whiteness, the helplessness and the feeling of being trapped. But as bad as it was, the worst part was knowing that this was nothing compared to what was undoubtedly happening to Crowley.

Crowley was in Hell’s hands. And Aziraphale might not have quite the imagination as his demon, but his mind could conjure plenty of horrible possibilities. Heaven might try to pull their rogue angel back into the fold, to attempt to make him into an asset for the war that they desperately wanted, but Aziraphale knew that Hell would be brutal. They wanted to make him suffer. And while Heaven and Hell remained fooled regarding their “invulnerability” to hellfire and holy water, that would only prevent attempts to execute the demon. There were still ways to make someone suffer without destroying them with holy water.

And the angel knew that Crowley was suffering. Hell didn’t give out rude notes. They didn’t put traitors in a quiet corner and tell them to write lines. And every moment that Aziraphale was trapped, Crowley was in danger.

He wrote, hating every word on the endless pages. Aziraphale wrote because it kept him sane, it gave him purpose, and because he needed to get out and he’d tried every other way to escape. He wrote because it was the only thing that he could do.

He needed out. He would do whatever they wanted. He would endure it. As long as it got him out. Once he finished, they would let him out of the silent, white, and horrible room and he would find him. He would find Crowley.

Even if he couldn’t produce a single sound, Aziraphale kept silently begging Crowley to hold on and that he would find him. He would reach him somehow.

 


 

Crowley didn’t know where the pack of demons had spawned from. They had simply appeared without warning all around them, angry and vicious. Black and red eyes gleamed from faintly human-looking figures, the scent of fresh sulfur and brimstone too strong to ignore. The demons had clearly come straight from Hell, itching for a fight.

And then there was no time to think further.

Dark figures dashed forwards, slashing at him with occult blades. Most were on the ground, but a few had pulled out their wings to gain the advantage of flight. They were everywhere around him. And all of them were intent on tearing him apart. Crowley couldn’t escape them all.

But most of his attention was on the pale shape that he could only catch short glimpses of after the mob of demons separated them. A single speck of white in the dark crowd. Like a dove trapped within a murder of crows.

“Aziraphale!” he shouted desperately, exposing his own wings and trying to reach him.

Rough hands grabbed at him, pulling out dark feathers in painful bunches. Scratches and cuts appeared on him whenever he couldn’t dodge fast enough. And he was already tired before the fight began for some reason. The other demons dragged him back to the ground, battering and beating at him. But Crowley kept clawing his way forward. And his eyes never left the white shape weaving through the dark mass.

“Aziraphale!”

He had to reach him. That single thought pounded in his head like a drum. He had to reach his angel. Pain and fear for his own safety were left far behind. Crowley could only see Aziraphale in danger, flashes of white barely glimpsed through the crowd of attacking demons. And every instinct in him screamed that he needed to reach his angel now.

Crowley tore his way past a few more of the demons, ignoring the feeling of slime and grime as he shoved at them. Then there was a break in the crowd and he could finally see Aziraphale’s face. Crowley met his eyes, watching the angel’s worried expression relax a fractional amount and smiling a little in return. For a moment, Crowley felt a spark of hope.

Then a pair of demons tackled Crowley to the ground, pulling and twisting his wings in painful directions. A snarl of pain was all that he could manage as the wind was knocked out of him. And he lost sight of Aziraphale.

Their grip on him was firm, undoubtedly causing bruises, but it wasn’t enough to stop him. Crowley shifted into his serpentine form, forcing the change as quickly as possible, and they lost their hold as skin, torn clothes, and feathers were replaced by scales. Fangs sank into foul flesh as he struck out at them. Again. And again. At anything that came within range as he slithered.

Then he was human-shaped again, the change in shape just as sudden. Crowley was panting as he tackled another demon and kept going. The cuts burned and his body ached, but he kept going.

He couldn’t see his angel. He couldn’t see Aziraphale.

Eyes wide, Crowley scanned the dark mob of demons desperately. He couldn’t risk staying still, but he had to find him. He was in danger. He had—

There!

Horror stabbed through him as Crowley spotted a thick knot of demons clumped together. Attacking something in the center. Someone.

He dove desperately into the thick of it, grabbing and shoving the other demons away. Crowley barely noticed as they attacked him in return. They tried to tear him away, but they never had a chance once he spotted a limp hand and a pale coat sleeve.

Aziraphale!” he screamed, sore wings flaring out and slamming the other demons away.

Then it was silent. Crowley could only hear his own exhausted panting, his human-shaped body falling back on human behavior because he didn’t have the energy to do otherwise. The other demons were gone. He didn’t know where they went and the question seemed to flutter out of his thoughts before he could care. Crowley collapsed roughly to his knees next to a pale and still figure.

Dark stains. Crowley stared at the dark stains ruining his angel’s waistcoat and shirt. Wounds left by occult blades. Weapons forged to kill beings who weren’t limited to physical bodies, crafted to hurt on deeper levels. He knew what he was seeing and what it meant.

He tried to bury that realization.

Cupping Aziraphale’s slack face, pushing down the panic and desperation clawing at his chest, Crowley whispered, “Angel, look at me. I need you to open your eyes.”

He was shaking as he brushed back Aziraphale’s short hair, trying to coax out a response. His eyes burned and his chest ached sharply. He pulled his angel into his arms, cradling him close. Trying to pretend that he was wrong.

“Don’t do this to me,” he said with a ragged voice. “I know you’re a bit of a bas—” Crowley choked on the words and tears, shaking his head. “You can’t do this. You can’t. I’m supposed to protect you. I’m supposed to…”

Crowley barely noticed the ache and exhaustion of his body. All he could feel was the heavy weight in his arms and the sensation of something deep inside him cracking.

“Angel, could you… could you say the thing?” he asked, grasping desperately for anything that might work. “You promised, remember? I’m asking right now. Please say it. Please.”

He hugged the limp figure against his chest, trying to sense something. Anything. A speck of the angelic grace that he’d followed for six thousand years. Even the smallest sign would be enough.

He was supposed to protect Aziraphale. Crowley always kept him safe. Whether that meant reassuring him that handing over that sword was the right thing or dropping a bomb on the heads of a bunch of Nazis, Crowley always protected his angel. Because even before he recognized the feelings for what they were, he loved Aziraphale. But this time, he’d failed. And that knowledge felt like knives twisting in his guts.

It hurt. More than having Her grace and love taken away because he couldn’t stop asking questions. More than Falling.

“Please say it,” he whispered. “I’m begging you. Please say anything, Aziraphale. Please… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

And the last of his denial and hope crumbled, letting sorrow, loss, and grief wash over him like a tsunami. Crowley collapsed, clinging to his angel’s lifeless body. Tears streaked down his face unhindered. Something vital had been ripped out of him, leaving a ragged and agonizing hole where Aziraphale should have been. All the soft warmness that his angel sparked in him, his love, felt jagged and sharp as it sliced into him.

Loving someone meant letting that love be a part of you. Loving someone for six thousand years, letting those emotions grow and twine deeper like ivy until that love was buried into every corner of your essence, meant that it was part of the very architecture of your soul. But it also meant that when the person you love so deeply is torn away, it’s the equivalent of ripping out half the support columns, multiple load-bearing walls, huge chunks of the foundation, and even some of the door frames. You’re left with an unstable ruin on the verge of collapse.

Grief for what he’d lost mixed with guilt. It was his fault, whispered the thoughts in the back of his mind. Crowley didn’t reach him in time. Too weak, too slow, too useless to protect the most important thing in his existence. And that failure hurt.

It was the burning bookshop all over again. They took him. His best friend. His angel. Aziraphale. He was gone and Crowley couldn’t bring him back. And there was no convenient Armageddon ready to end the demon’s pain. No thermos of holy water to make it stop.

Holy water would be a soothing balm for the agony tearing Crowley apart.

Why?” he croaked, shaking with barely controlled sobs as he turned his face upwards. “Why him? Because of Your plan? Or because of me? Wasn’t Falling enough? Don’t take him to punish me.” Struggling through the tears and sorrow, Crowley begged, “Give him back. Take me. Not my angel. Not him.”

Words failed him completely, his throat too tight for the words to squeeze past. But the broken prayer continued.

Help Aziraphale. Mercy, please. Just this once.

But any answer that She might give, he could not hear. Grief, sorrow, guilt, and absolute hopelessness blocked out everything else. His entire world shrank until all that was left was the weight in his arms, the emptiness where angelic grace should be, and the visceral agony consuming him. Hell itself couldn’t have found a crueler torture.

That hazy thought, barely coherent or conscious, pressed a little harder. Crowley… was missing something. It slipped through his fingers, loss and heartache moving in to fill the space. And when part of him tried to pursue that stray and fading thought, it seemed to tear at him with claws and teeth. New pain to his mind to add to agony already in place. But he… couldn’t… let it… go…

Where… was he… Didn’t… notice his… surroundings…

Painful, hazy, and straining consciousness, hurting itself trying to follow the loose thread, stumbled as Crowley abruptly found his arms empty.

Where did…? He was holding something. Wasn’t he? Why was he gasping for air, like he’d been running? Or sobbing. Why did grief and sorrow weigh him down? He didn’t remember anything happening, but the emotions didn’t fade.

Crowley forced himself to his feet, exhausted and sore. Why? He glanced down. Everything seemed intact, though he felt like he should see cuts and ruined clothes. And his body seemed to ache.

Why did he feel so bad? So physically and emotionally drained? Aching on so many different levels? The questions kept trying to form, but would then flow away like water. He shook his head, trying to banish the weird feeling.

Then movement caught his eye and his head snapped up.

Crowley didn’t know where the pack of demons had spawned from. They had simply appeared without warning all around them, angry and vicious. Black and red eyes gleamed from faintly human-looking figures, the scent of fresh sulfur and brimstone too strong to ignore. The demons had clearly come straight from Hell, itching for a fight.

And then there was no time to think further.

Dark figures dashed forwards, slashing at him with occult blades. Most were on the ground, but a few had pulled out their wings to gain the advantage of flight. They were everywhere around him. And all of them were intent on tearing him apart. Crowley couldn’t escape them all.

But most of his attention was on the pale shape that he could only catch short glimpses of after the mob of demons separated them. A single speck of white in the dark crowd. Like a dove trapped within a murder of crows.

“Aziraphale!” he shouted desperately.

And once more, Crowley raced forward, unaware that this was not the first time that he’d experienced this and similar nightmarish scenarios nor would it be the last. And he did not realize that with each successful loop, he hurt himself further as he tried to tear his way out of a fiction fueled by his own imagination and made less progress towards the truth each time.

 


 

Hastur lurked outside the thick door, smirking at the pain, anguish, and distress radiating out from the room. This particular hallway in Hell wasn’t technically considered to be part of the Head Office, though it was connected by a narrow staircase and some back corridors. It was one corner of the building that wasn’t completely packed with demons. No one bothered to come down unless they had to since there wasn’t much to see and nothing much to do. The only ones who had a purpose to visit the long, dark, and dank hallway of rooms were demons assigned to the Soul Torture Department and most them operated outside of the Head Office where the human souls were handled.

For the moment, Hastur had the entire Annex to himself.

Hastur wasn’t a fan of the Annex. He was a traditionalist. He liked torturing human souls the same way that he preferred to tempt and corrupt them. Individually. Personally. There was a craftsmanship to doing things the same way that they’d been done for thousands of years.

But some human souls were stubborn. They resisted more traditional methods. It was frustrating until Malphas came up with a possible way to “soften them up a little” and he and Ose created the Annex.[3]

A dozen rooms behind thick metal doors, the metal glowing red in places from powerful wards and sigils. While occult and ethereal entities could directly influence humans and their souls to an extent, such as hypnotizing, teleporting, healing, controlling, and so on, that took concentration and personal attention that could be better used elsewhere.[4] It was far easier and more efficient to put the power into the room itself and let it work on whoever was placed inside.

And the spells crafted into the metal of the doors and the very walls of the chambers were designed for a specific purpose: to trap a soul in endless looping illusions of their strongest and most painful fears. The trapped souls powered the spell, their imagination shaping and strengthening it. They couldn’t break out because the only way was to break themselves. Each nightmarish loop felt completely real in every way and when the victim’s pain reached its peak or began to wan, the loop would begin again while the trapped soul didn’t remember the previous one. Each loop was like the first time. Only the emotional and mental exhaustion and pain accumulated. A week inside and even the most troublesome human souls would be weakened and vulnerable to traditional torture again. Not even the most stubborn or resistant humans could withstand a visit to the Annex.

The biggest downside was that none of the demons could witness the torture behind the door. Hastur would have loved to see what brutal and cruel torment that Crowley was suffering. He personally hoped that it involved having his wings torn from his body and his skin peeled off slowly. Hastur would have happily tried it in person on the Serpent.

But he wasn’t in charge of devising a punishment. Not after the failed executions and everyone needing a moment to consider their options. It took a couple years of debate, but it was the best plan that they could come up with. At least it was better than whatever nonsense that Heaven finally decided on for their rebellious angel.

If they couldn’t destroy the traitor in a public and painful method, they could at least imprison and torture him in a particularly unique fashion.

The pain and desperation that Hastur sensed through the door dimmed briefly, signaling the end of loop and the start of another. They weren’t completely certain of the effects that the rooms might have on a demon as opposed to a human soul. They just stripped him of his physical body and tossed him in, a bit like an experiment. Human souls and the essences of angels and demons weren’t exactly the same, after all. Human souls couldn’t be destroyed, not by holy water nor hellfire. A week in the nightmarish loops could leave a human soul mentally fragile and vulnerable, unable to resist further.

Crowley had already been trapped for nearly two months.

Hastur pushed himself away from the wall. He couldn’t stay there all the time. And it wasn’t as if he wouldn’t be able to come back and bask in Crowley’s suffering later. Unlike every other door along the hallway of the Annex, there were no door latches on his prison. Only a lock, the sole key in Beelzebub’s possession. The traitor wasn’t going anywhere. Hastur had all the time in the universe to enjoy his pain.

But if they ever decided to drag Crowley out for a few sessions of old-fashioned torture, Hastur wanted to be there to witness it. And not just because he was a traditionalist. One of the side effects of opening the door and interrupting the spell was the memories of all the previous loops would return at once. All those memories of suffering hitting at the same time could really take it out of a human soul. A final overwhelming blow as a parting gift from the Annex.

And considering how many loops that he’d already gone through, Hastur and a few other demons thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if they hit Crowley at the same time. Would he go insane? Would his mind crumble under the pressure, leaving him as a barely-aware shell of his former self? Or would he shatter on a more fundamental level? Maybe Hastur would find out if a demon’s essence could be destroyed by that much strain. Nobody knew, but it they wanted to find out, who better to try it on than the traitor who disrupted the apocalypse and who melted Ligur? If holy water didn’t do the job, Hastur could at least entertain the possibility that Crowley might rip himself apart or extinguish himself painfully somehow.

But any fun experiments along those lines would have to wait. They probably wouldn’t even consider dragging Crowley out and shaking up his torture schedule for at least a couple centuries at a minimum. For now, all Crowley had to look forward to was yet another loop.

“Have fun, Crawly,” he said with a sneer before walking back down the hall.

Things to do. Human souls to corrupt. He would visit the Annex again soon enough.

 


 

In America, in the home of an ambassador who abruptly moved his family back into the country two years ago, a thirteen-year-old boy sat up suddenly in his bed, breathing hard and blinking back the prickling of tears.

 


 

1 The ancient Greeks had separate words to describe these different forms of love. Philia, storge, eros, agape… None of these forms of love were considered lesser and all were important. Unfortunately, the English language just squashed them all together with the same word. But what can you expect with a language that gives off the impression that it mugs other languages in dark alleyways and goes through their pockets for random verbs? [ ]

2 Not impossible though. The Not-Quite-End-Of-Times had proven that much. Aziraphale was one of the first angels to figure out that possession was not only possible for them, but also wouldn’t cause them to Fall. Assuming that the human was willing and open to such things, of course. But lacking a physical body of his own would at least hinder him if he managed to make it that far. [ ]

3 It was the closest thing that most demons ever got to being creative, though an outside source was responsible for Malphas’s uncharacteristic moment of imagination. The inspiration actually came from a misfiled and unsigned memo that Malphas found that said, in shaky and wine-stained handwriting, “Humans are better at torturing themselves than we ever will be. No demon could come up with half the things they do to themselves on their own.” By sending the note during his week-long bender after glimpsing exactly what was happening during the Spanish Inquisition, Crowley managed to invent all the problems of drunk dialing someone before the creation of the telephone. [ ]

4 Demons and angels, however, could not use their abilities directly on each other. Not unless their target directly allows it and made themselves that vulnerable on purpose. An angel could not hypnotize a demon, a demon could not teleport an angel away, and an angel could not even heal another angel unless their patient allowed them. Otherwise Crowley’s faceoff against Ligur and Hastur in his flat might have gone differently if they could have used demonic miracles against him directly. The only exceptions to such a rule would be a particularly powerful demon or angel, one in a position of high authority, being able to influence those under their command and only within their own domain. Yet another reason why Armageddon was intended to take place on Earth. [ ]

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, almost exactly thirteen years ago, three newborn babies were shuffled around like a deck of cards. Let’s call them Baby A, Baby B, and the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness.

None of them kept those titles for long. They all received proper names very quickly.

The Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness was intended for the Dowling family, to be raised in the household of the U.S. Ambassador, but ended up raised by Arthur and Deidre Young. They named their son “Adam” and took him home. He grew up in Tadfield with no knowledge of his heritage as the Anti-Christ.

And when he came into his powers at eleven and the end of the world was nigh, he chose humanity. He rejected what the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, angels, demons, and even Satan himself told him, claiming that he had no choice except to destroy everything. He rejected his supposed destiny. He loved his family, his friends, and the world enough to resist. And with enough support, he held his ground and succeeded. Adam was chosen to bring about the end of times, but he rejected that role and any connection to Lucifer. His decision threw Heaven and Hell into confused and frustrated chaos and kept the world spinning.

Being the former Anti-Christ was a heavy burden and left him with doubts that he would occasionally discuss with his self-declared celestial and demonic godparents, but Adam did his best with the support around him and continued his life as a mostly normal boy.

Baby B was born to the American couple, Thaddeus and Harriet Dowling, before being quietly and anonymously adopted to another couple in Tadfield. While not his proper name, most people tended to call him “Greasy Johnson.” Other than an interest in raising tropical fish and a fondness for American football, there were only two real things of note about the boy. First, his mistake of sparking off the temper of a young Pippin “Pepper” Galadriel Moonchild once by making fun of her full name too close. A mistake that even he was reluctant to repeat. And second, for having an ongoing rivalry between his gang, the Johnsonites, and Adam and Them.

Of course, if studied closely, even this ordinary boy, a bit oversized and rough, with a fairly normal childhood would have his own collection of fascinating tales and adventures. Stories that could fill an entire series and maybe even inspire a movie in the hands of a proper author.

But he isn’t particularly involved in the current series of events and continued with his life obliviously.

The fate of Baby A, on the other hand, was extremely relevant. Born to Arthur and Deidre Young, he should have grown up with those parents in Tadfield. He was not intended to be involved in the exchange. But the ordinary infant ended up in the arms of Harriet Dowling instead of the expected Anti-Christ.

Nothing about the child should have been noteworthy. He turned out to be good at math. He liked his stamp collection and baseball. And his father once bought him a BMX bike without really considering the fact that there was nowhere that the boy could ride one. By all accounts, he should have utterly normal.

He was the Wrong Boy in every sense of the phrase.

But an angel and a demon believed that he was the Anti-Christ. They believed it strongly enough to spend a decade raising Warlock Dowling, trying to shape him into someone who wouldn’t destroy the world. They believed that he was the Anti-Christ prophesied to bring about the Apocalypse and because of that, they held certain Expectations.

While angels and demons can purposefully affect things with miracles, they could also do it subconsciously. Mostly small-scale changes or impossibilities that they wouldn’t even realize. Adam could do the same on a larger scale, the perfect weather in Tadfield being an ideal example of the phenomenon. When an angel or a demon had Expectations, reality tended to align accordingly.

Both Aziraphale and Crowley spent eleven years believing Warlock was the Anti-Christ. There were Expectations from them. And with the reports that they sent to Heaven and Hell, other angels and demons shared those Expectations to an extent.

It wouldn’t be enough to make a normal boy into the Anti-Christ, but those Expectations meant that reality did its best.

Those Expectations were the reason that Warlock bolted up in his bed, breathing hard. Blinking back the tears prickling in his eyes, the boy glanced at the clock as he waited for his racing heart to slow.

It was 2:07 AM on August, 22. The day after his thirteenth birthday. Other than a couple members of security, on one else would be awake.

Flicking on his lamp and causing Brother Hamster to scramble suddenly in his colorful plastic cage, Warlock reached under his mattress and pulled out a composition book. He didn’t call it a dream journal because he knew that his father had Opinions about what would be considered appropriate for a male boy son and a dream journal would not be on that list. But it was a journal documenting his Dreams, so it was definitely a dream journal. Warlock just decorated the cover in doodles of fire and spikes in order to disguise the purpose.

There was a difference between his dreams and his Dreams. He didn’t start having Dreams until the night after his eleventh birthday. And he only recorded his Dreams, the boy realizing their importance after a little while.

The Anti-Christ was meant to Know Things in order to fulfill his purpose. Warlock occasionally Dreamt them.

He turned to the next blank page. And after carefully writing down the date and time, he started scribbling what he could remember.

“Aziraphale (Brother Francis/Mr. Fell?) (“Azerahfell” is the wrong spelling) was in a white room, writing lots of things that seemed wrong and mean towards him. He was really upset and kind of see-through. And couldn’t hear anything at all. I don’t think there were any shadows either. The place didn’t feel right. Probably not Earth. I think they took him back and that’s really bad.

Crowley (Nanny/Anthony?) was somewhere else. Bad things kept happening to Aziraphale (Brother Francis/Mr. Fell?) and he/she was really upset about it. It was scary. But they kept happening over and over again. Like a nightmare. I don’t think what he/she was seeing was real.

Hastur (Poo Man) was in a dark hallway, standing outside a weird door with glowing symbols. I think Crowley (Nanny/Anthony?) was on the other side. Maybe the door is what’s causing the nightmare for him/her. I also don’t think they’re on Earth either.”

He paused, staring at the words on the page. Then, biting his lower lip, Warlock wrote one last thing.

“I think Aziraphale (Brother Francis/Mr. Fell?) and Crowley (Nanny/Anthony?) were taken and are in danger.”

After a moment, Warlock snapped the composition book shut and shoved it away. His breathing hitched a couple times as he wrapped his arms around himself. His head shook sharply, a furious whisper of “they left me” hissing out.

Warlock glanced around the room, trying to shove them out of his mind and ignore the storm of emotions churning in his chest. He tried to focus on anything else.

His room was large and filled with the various things that a fairly rich family could afford to give their only child. Expensive gifts from the previous day’s party, the guest list composed of the children of other important and influential families rather than anyone that Warlock would choose, were piled in a corner next to other expensive toys and electronics. Brother Hamster scurried through colorful plastic tunnels, too hyper to sleep at night even as he was a barely-mobile lump of fur during daylight hours. And on his desk was his laptop, the boy having completely unrestricted access to the internet. Which had led to exposure to certain topics that his less open-minded father would never approve of.

Thinking about his parents did little to calm his turbulent emotions. His father was a busy man, distant emotionally and physically. From the moment that the boy was born and shuffled into the family, he was disconnected from Warlock’s life outside of brief moments. He loved the concept of a son, but Thaddeus Dowling could not truthfully claim to know Warlock as a person.

And while Harriet Dowling was physically present more often than her husband, she shared his flaw of caring for their son without any real connection. She did love him. She loved him in small moments between the other various responsibilities and interests that consumed her day. She loved having a smart, handsome, and successful child that she could discuss with other spouses of powerful people. She loved him when she wasn’t distracted or busy. She loved him when he didn’t remind her of Thaddeus Dowling and whatever she was upset with the man over currently.

They loved Warlock, but only as an idea rather than a person.

Warlock was observant enough to know that he wasn’t what they truly wanted. Even with his fondness for baseball and the BMX bike that he was never able to ride, he didn’t match his father’s ideal image of a male boy son. And when his mother’s first act was to change his planned name to something strange and mockable out of spite for her husband, it sends a certain message. He grew up with the knowledge that he was only a trophy or a pawn to them. He was never what they wanted.

Hell had chosen this particular family to raise the Anti-Christ for a reason. It was the ideal homelife to produce a boy who would be taken care of, who would have all the opportunities and privileges possible, and who would not have those pesky emotional bonds with his adopted family that would make it harder for the boy to destroy the Earth. Hell chose the Dowlings because demons believed that they would raise the child and see to his basic needs, but would not make him feel loved enough to stop Armageddon when the time came. And just because Adam didn’t end up with them did not make Thaddeus and Harriet Dowling better parents to the son that they did have.

There were other people in the household. Other people that he sought out when he was younger. The security guards loomed in the background, rarely interacting. The housekeeper would let him talk as she cleaned, though she didn’t really pay attention. She didn’t even listen when Warlock told her that he could feed Brother Hamster himself since she always did it as part of her daily routine, meaning that he had to stop feeding him or else Brother Hamster would get too round to go through his tunnels. And the cook would always sneak him snacks, no matter how busy or distracted she might be. A small snack before shooing him out of the kitchen. But the two people who were always there, who honestly seemed to want him around, was his nanny and the gardener.

They always listened to him, always answered his questions, always had time for him, and always treated him like he was important. Like he mattered to them.

“You must love and revere all living things.”

“Someday you will ground your enemies beneath your heel.”

“Remember, your actions have consequences. What you do affects those around you. You don’t want to hurt someone on accident, do you? That’s why you need to be kind and patient with them.”

“If someone covets what is yours, don’t let them take it from you. If it is yours, fight back and keep it. And take what they have too, if you can.”

“You have a good heart, young Master Warlock. Listen to that goodness and let it guide you through life.

“Never let them knock you down or control you. You’re stronger than that. When they push you, my boy, you push back harder.”

But when Warlock turned ten, his father decided that he was too old to need a nanny.[5] And when both Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis left on the same day, despite the boy alternating between heartfelt begging and graphic threatening to try and convince them to stay, he felt alone. As if the entire world was against him. So Warlock pushed back. For an entire year, he did everything possible to be a horrible, embarrassing, and rude brat, all cumulating in his chaotic eleventh birthday party.

He’d hoped that if he upset his parents, that if he made them look bad in front of their friends and other important people that they wanted to impress, it would fix things. He hoped that it would be enough for his parents to bring back his nanny and gardener because the two of them could control him. The two of them could keep him out of sight and out of mind, just like they used to. He’d thought that he could make everything right again.

Warlock didn’t know as much back then. He thought that Nanny and Brother Francis would come back someday because they wanted him. He thought that even if no one else did, they wanted him. And he had tried to get them back because he missed them.

Because he loved his nanny and his gardener. And he always believed that they loved him too.

He learned over time that not everything that he believed was true. That was part of the reason he kept his composition book up to date with his Dreams; he needed somewhere to put all the pieces together and work them out. There were big secrets about the world, but also smaller ones about people that he knew. And some of those secrets and lies hurt. But one thing remained true: Warlock still cared.

Trying not to think about what he was doing, because the hurt and jumbled emotions would get in the way, Warlock swung his legs around and climbed out of bed. With quiet movements, he walked over and started up the laptop. But as soon as he pulled up the internet, the boy shoved himself away and stumbled back, sitting on the floor next to his bed.

Sniffling slightly despite his best efforts, Warlock’s legs curled up and his head dropped onto his knees. His chest ached as doubts gnawed at him. Warlock knew that he shouldn’t act like a child. He was a teenager now. He didn’t think that he should be falling apart, his head and heart being yanked in multiple directions. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do though.

The questions kept rattling around in his head. What was he supposed to do? Could he do anything? Should he do anything?

After a few minutes, he shifted his position and managed to disturb the shoebox sticking out from under the bed. He pulled the box out and opened it almost against his will. Inside were numerous letters, two distinct handwriting styles making it easy to tell the difference between the senders. They’d been ripped to pieces in heartbroken fury before being carefully taped back together, then torn and repaired again repeatedly as his emotions continued to seesaw. Every month, two letters arrived with his name before being banished to the box. Every single month.[6] Brother Francis’ arrived like clockwork, but Nanny’s letter kept taking longer and longer. Like she was gradually giving up.

Warlock never wrote back. He couldn’t. Not after everything. But they kept writing, not forgetting him despite all the reasons that they should.

“They left me. And I’m not him. I’m not… I’m the wrong one,” he muttered, bitter and sharp. “I’m a mistake. They don’t want me.”

But he was already back at the computer, pulling up a list of flights. Thaddeus Dowling provided his son with a credit cared when he turned twelve. He also gave Warlock a rule to only use it for emergencies, but with the understanding that he would almost certainly use it to buy expensive video games or eventually rather adult movies that Thaddeus expected all male boy sons to hide from their parents. He would have considered such a purchase showing up on the bill at the end of the month as a sign that his child was becoming a proper man. Warlock doubted he expected the boy to book a direct flight to London leaving at 5:36 AM and quietly arranging a taxi to pick him up a short walk from his house in order to drive him to the airport.

He continued with that momentum. Warlock grabbed his old backpack and dumped the contents from the previous school year on the carpet. Then the boy stuffed a change of clothes into the bag. Then he yanked off his plaid pajamas and tossed them in too.

Warlock skipped past the school uniforms and the more expensive outfits meant for photo-ops with his parents. The dark jeans, the cream-colored polo shirt, and the gray jacket would attract less attention. He couldn’t completely deflect notice and suspicion to the extent the Anti-Christ could naturally, but Warlock could still make himself relatively easy to ignore.[7]

Digging through a few drawers in his desk and in some boxes filled with random junk, he managed to scrape together a decent amount of pounds that made it through the move. He had his credit card, but he wanted other options too. He didn’t want to use it too much People could track that stuff. He saw it in the movies. That’s also why he planned to leave his phone behind. Hesitating a moment, Warlock picked up a couple more things.

The first was a book. Probably the most boring and complicated book in the world as far as Warlock was concerned. He could never get through more than ten pages of “What We Owe Each Other” by T.M. Scanlon without getting a headache. He couldn’t understand most of it. But inside the front cover was a familiar neat handwriting. A short inscription that read “Young Master Warlock, I may no longer be there to guide you, but you are growing into a fine young man and I believe you are capable of finding the proper path on your own going forward. Yours truly and sincerely, Brother Francis.” Warlock doubted that he would ever read through the entire book no matter how old that he might get, but the message brought a smile to his face when he first read it.

He didn’t expect the package to arrive on his twelfth birthday. Nor did he expect another package, a different gift from across the ocean.

The second object that Warlock picked up was his black iPod. An older classic model, one that could only play music and needed to be hooked up to a computer to download more songs. It was actually older than him and Warlock would have an easier time using his phone to play music, but he kept it. He kept it despite how many of his other belongings made it obsolete. The iPod had a remarkable battery life to the point that he only charged it out of habit, it had more room for songs than expected, and Warlock could drop it hundreds of times without even scratching the Apple logo on the back. The oddest part was that, prior to Warlock adding his own music, there were only Queen’s songs on it. Even though most of them were labeled as other pieces of music on the screen.[8] But even if it was outdated, Warlock rather liked it. He liked it because of who gave it to him.

The times may have changed, but certain things continue to repeat. And the Serpent offering an Apple to humanity was one such example.

The book went into his backpack alongside the composition book and a pencil. The iPod slipped into his pocket, the cords for his earbuds already tangling into knots. He pulled on his sneakers from where he left them in his closet. Then he moved towards the door.

But as he reached for the doorknob, Warlock froze. Doubts, hurt, and jumbled feelings rose up in his chest like the kraken released from the ocean’s depths. Those feelings twisted into anger and heartache, prompting him to drop his backpack on the floor and fling himself back on his bed.

Warlock buried his face in his pillow. He tried to force himself to go back to sleep, his body a little too tense to succeed. His hands dug into the blankets.

He didn’t know what to do. Warlock was mad at them. They left. They lied. And he was the Wrong Boy. He should just go back to sleep. He wasn’t meant to be involved. He was a mistake.

But Nanny and Brother Francis needed help. And no matter how he tried to ignore it and even half-heartedly tried to convince himself that they deserved it, Warlock couldn’t do it.

Not good enough to let go of the harsh truth, but not evil enough to leave them in danger.

Growling in frustration, the sound muffled by the pillow, Warlock shoved himself back up. He snatched back up his bag and slung it on. He would have stomped out of the room in a temper if he wasn’t attempting to be stealthy.

Stealing his passport out of Thaddeus Dowling’s safe barely counted as stealing. Nanny would probably remark that he wasn’t living up to his potential. The passport was his after all. And the man’s idea of a secure combination was 1-2-3-4. It took less than two minutes. That was including the time needed to walk to the office.

And, doing his best to keep quiet, Warlock stepped out of the house and jogged along the path leading towards the edge of the yard. The decorative iron gate was under camera surveillance, ensuring that no one entered or left without close scrutiny by the security, but an old tree offered an easy way to climb over and drop to the ground on the far side. At least it did if you so happened to be a skinny thirteen-year-old boy.

Only then did Warlock slip his earbuds in. Thanks to his excessive exposure to Queen’s songs and Brother Francis’s enjoyment of classical music while he puttered around the vast estate, his own musical tastes were rather varied. But most of the songs that he’d added to his iPod were from before he was born.

Carry on my wayward son

For there'll be peace when you are done

Lay your weary head to rest

Don't you cry no more.

As the tune truly kicked in, Warlock started walking towards where he was supposed to meet the taxi. He hoped that he could get some sleep on the plane during the nine-hour flight. Some of his grogginess was beginning to return. And he vaguely hoped that he would get some more hints about what to do if he Dreamed again. But he was at least somewhat confident that between now officially being thirteen and his ability to be ignored, no one would bother him or ask too many questions about a young boy traveling to another country on his own in the early hours of the morning.

 


 

Once upon a time, Agnes Nutter wrote prophecies about the future. She was a witch, one with the ability to see hundreds of years into the future. It might only be tiny glimpses, like looking through a keyhole. And she couldn’t always understand what she saw, only able to interpret the future through the context of her time period. But her visions stretched far and she recorded everything that she could.

Warlock’s Dreams were more limited in scope than her visions.

At first, he didn’t realize what he was seeing. The night after his eleventh birthday party, Warlock Dreamt of people that he didn’t know and strange events. He couldn’t make sense of what he heard and saw. He only knew that his Dreams felt different than normal dreams. Fuller. Brighter. More intense. Solid. His entire week was filled with similar Dreams.

Then he slowly realized that at least some were coming true. He Dreamed about meeting the weird and smelly man in the middle of nowhere before his father announced the unexpected trip. And then there were later things, things after that, where he would Dream something that he couldn’t have possibly guessed only to see or hear something later that would confirm it.  It made him realize that those unusual Dreams were real.

There were limits. He couldn’t control when they happened or what he saw. His Dreams just came whenever they wanted. But not all of them were about things that would happen. Some were things that had already happened. But he could only Dream about things up to a day in the past or up to a day in the future. Even those random glimpses were useful though. Especially when he started writing everything down and putting the puzzle pieces together.

It took time to unravel enough. Snippets of conversation, vague references, faces and names, and unexpected moments with little context or explanations served more as breadcrumbs than proper clues. But he learned to solve several mysteries that he didn’t even know existed previously.

Warlock learned that many things that his parents would claim were imaginary were actually real. Demons, hellhounds, angels, witches, and the Anti-Christ were all real. Just like Nanny’s more interesting and violent bedtime stories. They were real and the world nearly ended a few days after he turned eleven.

He learned about Adam Young. Who he was and what he was. Warlock learned that this curly-haired boy was the real Anti-Christ, but ended up with a different family than planned. He figured out that Adam was meant to have the destiny that Warlock was promised. That the role that Nanny and Brother Francis were raising him for was actually meant for Adam.

It was all meant for Adam. When Warlock put those facts together reluctantly, when his denial failed, it hurt more than he could admit. All those days wandering around the garden, seeing cute animals that should have been more afraid of humans… All those bedtime stories, lullabies, and hours answering any questions that he asked… All the dried tears, kissed scrapes, and love… Warlock realized that it belonged to Adam instead.

Because Warlock was the Wrong Boy and Adam was the one that they wanted.

And he learned the truth about Nanny and Brother Francis. That was the tricky part. They were so different after they left. Warlock didn’t even recognize the magician at his birthday party until he was looking back months later. But he kept dreaming about a blond angel and the red-haired demon in black. The accents were different, the names were different, the angel’s sideburns and teeth were wrong, and the demon in his Dreams seemed drastically different than his nanny even with the same hair and sunglasses,[9] but he finally made the connection. Warlock learned that Nanny and Brother Francis were lies that Crowley and Aziraphale told.

Warlock hated that everything about them was lies. That he didn’t actually know them. He figured out what they were and that they only spent time with him because of a mistake.

They wanted Adam.

But even if Warlock wondered at times if they ever truly liked him even a little, the boy still cared about both of them. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be curled up in an economy seat, flying across the Atlantic Ocean while Bach played in his ears. If he didn’t care, Warlock wouldn’t have run away with only the faintest idea of a plan simply because of his Dreams.

 


 

5 It was a miracle of the most literal nature that Thaddeus and Harriet Dowling kept forgetting about their decision to let her go for as long as they did. [ ]

6 The lack of any letters last month should have been his first clue that something was wrong. [ ]

7 It would be nice to think that the reason for his parents’ aloofness was because of this ability, but his unusual talents only appeared after his eleventh birthday since that’s when he was Expected to come into his power. The Dowlings ignoring the boy during his entire childhood was their own fault. [ ]

8 Crowley originally gained the sleek black iPod back when it was the cutting edge and most stylish model on the market. But then he misplaced the iPod under the seat of his Bentley shortly before he was handed a basket with the baby Anti-Christ and didn’t dig it back out again until about two months before Arma-gonna-fail. That’s over a decade spent in the Bentley. The music on the innocent iPod never stood a chance. [ ]

9 Thanks to his unrestricted access to the internet, Warlock was reasonably familiar with the idea that gender wasn’t always as clear-cut as Thaddeus Dowling’s “male boy son” view of the world. He could wrap his head around the idea of his nanny looking more like a man now and being called “Crowley,” though he didn’t know what Nanny would prefer to be called. He wouldn’t want to be rude. Not to his nanny. What the internet didn’t prepare Warlock for was how to refer to someone who sometimes looked like a woman, sometimes looked like a man, and sometimes apparently turned into a giant black snake. [ ]

Chapter Text

Napping, snacking, and listening to classical music made the long journey jammed in a crowded plane a little easier to bear. But it was still boring. The most interesting thing was when a song labeled “Ride of the Valkyrie” by Richard Wagner turned out to be a copy of “Killer Queen” instead. But mostly the trip was boring and took forever. Eventually Warlock started doing the math just to keep himself occupied.

The flight would take about nine hours, but London was five hours ahead of the time zone where the Warlock left from. Finding a ride that would drive an hour outside the city would also take a little while, but he will expect that. Even having a credit card could only do so much to convince people. Warlock could make himself easier to ignore, but actively bending reality to summon a willing and ready taxi driver was beyond him at the moment. That would require a miracle, the authentic Anti-Christ and his powers, or at least more practice than Warlock had. Regardless, it would be close to nine o’clock in the evening before he reached Tadfield.

Almost an entire day after he left, Warlock would turn up on the Young’s doorstep. He would come face-to-face with the man who could have been his father if circumstances had been different. Arthur Young will even experience an odd feeling that something about the boy seemed familiar.

But Warlock’s arrival was still several hours away and there were others who were starting to ask questions.


 

When Adam woke up the day after his thirteenth birthday, a bright and cheery Sunday morning, he knew that something was wrong.

Not like how he Knew things during the Not-Quite-The-End-Of-Days. When whispers filled his head, knowledge crept into his mind, and his thoughts began to grow twisted and dark. When he nearly embraced the role that he was born to fulfill. When he almost became the Anti-Christ and came impossibly close to destroying the world.

No. Not like that.

Adam locked away most of that stuff. He buried it. He tried to ignore it and cut himself off from those abilities. Not all of it. He couldn’t change himself as easily as he could everything else. As easily as he could change everyone. What he did to his friends in his altered state still gave him nightmares. Even when he broke all familial connection to Satan, Adam remained the same. All that he could do was keep from using his powers as much as possible.

He was a normal boy. He wanted to be normal.

And as a normal boy, Adam realized that something was wrong through normal means and by noticing ordinary clues. The biggest clue was the absence of two figures during his entire birthday.

After Nope-mageddon, after they apologized for not being around sooner to guide him as intended and for trying to kill him when they thought that they were out of time and options, Aziraphale and Crowley tried to visit every month or so. It varied a little. Occasionally it would be three weeks between trips to Tadfield or sometimes it would be up to six weeks. But they always showed up eventually. Adam figured that they were trying to finally live up to their self-assigned task of being godparents.

Not that Arthur or Deidre Young knew about their son now having godparents. They seemed to believe that Aziraphale and Crowley were either friends of Anathema Device and Newton Pulsifer or were involved with some type of reading program connected to the school. But mostly they didn’t think about it too much.

It was nice having them around. Sometimes Adam asked them questions, the kind of questions that no human could answer. Other times they could reassure Adam when he was afraid that he was doing things.

No, you didn’t make your parents take you to the circus.

No, you didn’t make the girl in your class develop a crush and send you a Valentine’s card.

No, your friends aren’t your friends because you brainwashed them into liking you.

If anyone could tell or notice him shifting reality, consciously or subconsciously, it would be the local demon and angel. And while they confirmed that the weather was still bending to his desires despite his best efforts, they also told him that he wasn’t controlling people accidentally. At most, he kept them from noticing anything unusual about him and no more.

But they should have shown up for his birthday. Maybe not the party itself, based on some teasing comments from the demon. Aziraphale wouldn’t fit into a thirteenth birthday party very well, even if Crowley could adapt. But Adam asked them months ago to come and they’d promised to stop by. So when he woke up the next day and realized that they never showed, and that they hadn’t shown in a little over two months, Adam realized that something was wrong.

He made it through the morning, acting like everything was normal. After breakfast, Adam borrowed the phone and started calling. First Aziraphale’s bookshop. Then Crowley’s flat, which eventually went to his antique machine and the boy recorded a message asking the demon to call. Then Crowley’s mobile, which immediately went to voicemail and made Adam suspect that the battery was dead. Which didn’t make sense because Crowley always Expected his mobile to be charged. After that, Adam waited an hour by pacing in his room before repeating the phone calls. And then he waited another hour and tried again.

Adam repeated the process until lunch and the only thing that happened was that the tape at Crowley’s flat filled to the point that he couldn’t leave any more messages. No one answered and no one called back. And that feeling that something was wrong settled firmly in his stomach.

And while his father scolded him mildly for hogging the phoneline all day, Adam called his friends and asked them to meet him at Jasmine Cottage. He needed to figure out what was wrong and he knew that adults wouldn’t be any help.

Anathema and Newt didn’t count. Anathema was a witch and Newt was the least adult-ish adult that Adam could ever remember meeting. Besides, they were backup Them and knew about all the important stuff already.

Organizing everyone was a little trickier than when they were younger; too many parents thinking that they were old enough to take on some responsibility around the household and holding them hostage until chores were done. And while Adam briefly considered the idea that he could make them forget about wanting those chores done, he immediately shoved the idea down. Giving into temptation like that risked bringing back those whispers and sinking back into that toxic mindset. It wasn’t worth it to save a couple hours.

Which was why it was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon by the time that Adam rolled up on his bike with Dog padding next to him loyally.[10]] Pepper was already setting her bike against the bench.

“And you’re sure they’re not just busy?” she asked without preamble.

Nodding, Adam said, “Positive. Uncle Crowley never turns his mobile off.[11]] Especially if it could start ringing in a movie theater or whatever. Something’s wrong.”

Pepper frowned thoughtfully. All four of Them liked Aziraphale and Crowley when they visited Tadfield. Crowley could be dragged into any of their games, especially the ones that could turn out to be messy and get them into trouble. And it wasn’t so much that he was dragged into them as he kind of tempted his way into the middle before they could even make the offer. Games could get really fun when the demon got involved. And while Aziraphale was generally less directly involved in their games and might withdraw to Jasmine Cottage for tea or lemonade, he would still answer their questions and recommend the most interesting books. Which Wensleydale embraced enthusiastically.

Pepper surprisingly bonded the most with the angel over a shared common interest that no one saw coming.[13]] But she remembered him holding a sword when things went wrong and he remembered her facing down War without fear or hesitation, the first of Them to challenge the Horsemen. And when Pepper, being practical about the fact that she was best friends with the former Anti-Christ and weird things might happen again, asked Aziraphale to teach her how to properly wield a sword to make certain that she could protect her friends. To protect everyone if necessary. And because she asked how to defend rather than how to attack someone, Aziraphale ended up agreeing. He didn’t like fighting, but he could understand the desire to protect.

“Adam. Pepper,” shouted Brian as he and Wensleydale rode up. “Sorry we’re late. My dad wouldn’t let me leave until I helped finish cleaning the attic. He’s been putting it off all summer and Mum put her foot down.”

The dust, dirt, and cobwebs clinging to him and his clothes gave a fairly accurate glimpse of what his morning had been like. Brian was naturally a scruffy and messy boy, but he’d reached a new level. But the fact that his parents didn’t try to scrape the worst of it off before he ran out meant he was telling the truth about coming as soon as possible.

“And my mum wanted me to help straighten the house after church. She’s having company visiting this evening.” Wensleydale pushed his glasses further up. “Actually, the timing is rather brilliant. Mum wanted me to keep out of the way while they visited.”

“So if Aziraphale and Crowley are missing, how are we going to find them?” asked Pepper.

Trying to brush the dust off his face and only smearing it, Brian asked, “Is it like when you knew that we needed to go to the airbase? Can you find them like that?”

Adam shook his head. It wasn’t like that. They weren’t a direct part of the whole Apocalypse setup. They weren’t part of the knowledge whispered in his skull, where he Knew what he was Meant To Do. They were just people. An angel and a demon, but still people and not that tangled up knot of destiny and anthropomorphic personifications that the Horsemen were. And he couldn’t risk reaching out to the rest of the world like he did when he was trying to put everything back. That might let them find them, but Adam would have to unleash more power. And the more that he drew on that part of himself, the harder it would be to put it all back again. It could start spilling over and overflow until he wasn’t Adam anymore and he was the Anti-Christ instead. And he didn’t know if his friends would be able to help him come back again. The last thing that they needed was him reigniting another Armageddon.

“We need an expert,” said Adam. “Someone who knows how to find things and people. And Anathema moved here because she was trying to find me, so she probably knows how to find people.”

“Actually, she didn’t really find you.” Wensleydale continued, “You found her. And she had her book to help.”

“Doesn’t mean that she can’t do it,” said Adam.

Brian shrugged and said, “Not like I have any better ideas.”

With that decided, Adam knocked on the door. A few seconds later and Anathema opened it, smiling as she saw them.

“Good afternoon,” she greeted. “I didn’t expect to see you today.”

“Sorry,” said Adam. “There’s trouble. Big trouble. And we need your help.”

Blinking briefly in surprise before adopting a serious expression, Anathema said, “Come inside. We have lemonade. I’ll pour you a few glasses while you explain.”

As the Them shuffled inside and clustered around the table, the lights briefly flickered and a yelp immediately followed. Then some footsteps stumbled down the stairs and Newt appeared looking a little more frazzled than normal.

“Did you break the radio again?” she asked calmly.

“I was trying to get better reception so it wouldn’t be so staticky,” said Newt.

“It didn’t have static earlier.”

“Well, it certainly does now.”

Anathema shook her head with an indulgent smile, already mentally adding a new radio to the list for the next shopping trip. Then she gestured towards the table and he claimed a seat without a word. Another glass was pulled out of the cabinets and lemonade was passed around.

“All right,” said Anathema, leaning back against the counters and adopting the same focused expression that she wore when she used to decipher Agnes Nutter’s prophecies. “Tell us what happened.”

“When was the last time that either of you heard from Uncle Aziraphale or Uncle Crowley?” Adam stared at them firmly. “I know that you talk about books sometimes. Has Uncle Aziraphale called you?”

“Not recently,” she said, frowning faintly with concentration. “Maybe… two or three months?”

Adam, gripping the cool glass tightly, shook his head and said, “Same for me. But they’re supposed to visit every month. And they promised to come to my birthday. But they never showed up and I’ve been calling all morning. Something is wrong.”

“So can you track them down?” asked Pepper.

Hesitating a moment, Anathema said, “I’m not quite certain that any of this is enough to know that they’re in trouble.”

“Right. I mean, they are an angel and a demon,” said Newt, still looking a little awkward even calling them that. “How much trouble can they be in?”

Staring at him with a deadpan expression that she'd perfected long before reaching the start of her teenage years, Pepper asked, “Have you even met them?”

“And there’s loads of things that could get them in trouble,” said Brian. “One of the Horsemen is still around and I don’t know if what we did got rid of the other three forever.”

“I don’t think it was permanent.” Adam frowned thoughtfully and continued, “They came from people and our minds, so they can always come back from there.”

“See? They could be causing problems. We don’t know.”

“Actually, the other angel and demon, the one who called Adam a ‘brat’ and the one who had the weird fly hat?” described Wensleydale. “They seemed upset with them and Adam too. Maybe they came back.”

“That was two years ago,” argued Pepper.

Pushing up his glasses, Wensleydale said, “So? All of them are supposed to be thousands of years old, right? Two years is probably like… a couple weeks or something to them. That’s not too long to be mad at someone.”

“Or maybe it was aliens,” suggested Brian. “Or maybe they could have gotten hurt or sick. They probably can’t go to a normal doctor.”

“Can angels or demons get sick?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Brian shrugged and said, “Lots of things are possible. Maybe a witch captured them. There’s probably nice witches and bad ones. Got to be a reason why witchfinders started looking in the first place.”

“Maybe because an old man promised a job and they didn’t have any other options?” muttered Newt.

Please.” Adam met Anathema’s gaze firmly. “Can you find them? Is there a spell that you can use to tell us where they are?”

She slowly nodded. It was a little hesitant and uncertain, but it was a nod.

“I have an idea that we can try. It’ll need to be adjusted because the spell was designed to locate humans instead of someone occult or ethereal. And since thy aren’t in Tadfield, I’ll need to use one of the more long-distant versions. Less accurate, but it should still give us a general location.” Anathema started pacing around the room, deep in thought. “The only issue is that it’ll take a while to set up properly and that it works better if we had something connected to whoever the spell is trying to locate.”

Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale reached for the leather cords around their necks and exposed identical charms from under their shirts, the movements almost synchronized with each other. Each one held a white downy feather and a black one, carefully tied together with by wrapping thread around the tips of the quills.

Adam was mostly protected from supernatural retaliation by his very nature, but his completely human friends didn’t share that protection and spent a lot of time around the former Anti-Christ. And Crowly always hated the idea of kids being hurt. Which is why he and Aziraphale came up with at least a small safeguard. A little piece of something demonic and a little piece of something angelic, bound together into pure protection. All three were gifted with these charms and wore them constantly.

But more importantly, the soft downy feathers came from Aziraphale and Crowley.

“All right,” said Anathema. “Newt, could you go upstairs and get the big roll of paper from the hall closet? I don’t want to write all of this out on the floor or table. It would be a nightmare to clean up afterwards. And if you four want to stay, you should probably call your parents and tell them that you’re staying for dinner. It’ll be several hours.”


 

Pepper knew that she wasn’t the most patient person in the world, but anyone would be tired of waiting by that point. The entire thing was taking forever and was turning out to be boring. She always imagined that proper witchcraft would be exciting or at least interesting. Though Anathema did warn them.

They did their best to pass the time. Newt made sandwiches for everyone. They were pretty good and Anathema managed to eat her while she worked, kneeling on the floor and trying not to drop crumbs over the project. Pepper and the others helped clean up afterwards. But mostly they were stuck waiting awkwardly as their local witch prepared her spell.

It looked complicated. On a huge roll of paper spread across the floor, Anathema drew careful designs and what might be letters in a language that Pepper didn’t recognize. Every couple of minutes, she would doublecheck her research. Dusty old books and New Aquarian magazines were scattered around her, which she consulted equally. Non-smear markers, a compass, a protractor, and a level were all included as part of her tools. And even when her fingers were stained by the black markers, the characters were nice and accurate. Not even a smudge out of place.

And as the sun began to set, Anathema placed several clear crystals at different points around the intricate design. Then she held out her hand for the feather-based charms and added them to the setup. Only after she completed the circle did she straighten up and rub the soreness out of her neck.

“That should do it,” she said. “All we need now is a map and something to burn it with. Whatever isn’t burned up will be the location of one of them.”

Anathema dug through a couple desk drawers before pulling out a folded map. Newt vanished briefly before reappearing with some rather old-looking matches. She raised a questioning eyebrow and he shrugged sheepishly.

“Standard issue witchfinder gear. Like the pin.”

She accepted the offered matches before unfolding the map and placing it in the center of the design. It depicted all of Britain quite nicely, showing several of the smaller villages and smaller roads. But Pepper noticed that Adam was frowning.

“Do you have a bigger map?” he asked. “It needs to show more.”

Glancing at him, Anathema said, “The more area it show, the less detailed the map will be. And the less accurate the results.”

“It isn’t showing enough.”

“How big does it need to be? All of Europe?”

“I don’t know.” Adam frowned with thought. “Just… more.”

Biting his lip briefly, Newt said, “When I moved out, my mum packed a bunch of my stuff from when I was a kid. I think there’s an old poster that shows the entire world. Would that work?”

“…Maybe?”

Pepper could tell from Anathema’s expression that she thought they were going overboard, but she exchanged the smaller map with the one that Newt retrieved from a box in the attic. Anathema whispered something over her intricate designs and Pepper felt something prickling at the back of her neck, reminding her a little of the power that gathered on the airbase two years ago. Then, striking a match, Anathema brought the small flame to the corner of the poster.

And it instantly ignited in a bright fire before crumbling into ash and soot, not even scorching the paper that she prepared the spell on. It was a rather impressive display. But it didn’t distract Pepper from noticing that not one speck of the map survived.

“What does that mean?” asked Wensleydale. “Where are they?”

Anathema shook her head and said, “I don’t know. Maybe I did something wrong. It wasn’t meant to track down angels and demons, after all. I could have made a mistake.”

Pepper tried to ignore the heavy weight settling into her stomach. She tried to ignore the fluttering fear that the spell couldn’t find Aziraphale and Crowley because there was nothing left to find. That they might be gone. She ignored it because it wasn’t true.

And while everyone quietly tried to figure out how to proceed from there, the tense silence was broken by a sharp rapping at the door.

The interruption startled them and caused Dog to wake up from his nap under the table. A short growl gave way to a series of sharp barks. No one should be at the door at this hour. Tadfield didn’t have much of a nightlife. The only people who might have a reason to visit Jasmine Cottage so late would be their parents checking on Them and they would probably call first.

Newt broke out of the startled state first, glancing between everyone awkwardly before answering the door. On the other side was a dark-haired boy standing in the falling darkness. Pale, his hair approaching long enough that R. P. Tyler might feel an urge to write to a letter on the current hairstyles of today’s youth, and with faint dark circles under his eyes, he looked like he could be a vampire. Though that impression died a swift death as he shoved his way past Newt and walked into the cottage like he belonged, not a single invitation issued.

Tadfield wasn’t a big place and everyone knew everyone. Pepper should have recognized a boy who looked around their age. But he was a stranger. A strange boy arriving at night and who apparently had no manners.

She already didn’t trust him.

Hey,” called Brian, just as surprised by the intrusion as everyone else. “Who are you?”

The boy glanced between Them, silently sizing them up. But Pepper could see recognition in his eyes. None of them knew the strange boy, but he seemed familiar with them. Then his eyes locked on Adam and his expression darkened momentarily before he shook it off.

“Your dad said that you were having dinner with Ms. Device and Mr. Pulsifer,” he said, dozens of emotions flashing across his face. The strange boy glanced at Anathema and asked, “What kind of spell is she doing?”

Wensleydale, unable to resist explaining, said, “Tracking spell. Actually, it was supposed to cover the entire world, but it messed up.”

“Because they aren’t here.”

“Who are you?” snapped Pepper.

The boy shrugged, one hand tugging on his backpack. That did nothing to lessen her annoyance.

“I remember you,” said Adam wistfully. “Or… I remember remembering you. When I knew… almost everything. Now it’s fuzzy, but… We met a long time ago. You were with my mum before they took you away.”

Shrugging again, he muttered darkly, “I don’t remember, but sounds right. At least from what I overhead in my Dreams. They mixed us up. Wasn’t even supposed to be there. Made a real mess of everything.”

“It’s better now, right?” asked Adam. “You live in America now. Your dad works there most of the time, so you should get to see him more now. And there’s supposed to be thirty-nine different flavors of ice cream. Sounded nice to me.”

You’re why we moved?” he snapped, the mixed emotions shifting towards something darker and angry.

“Excuse me,” interrupted Anathema. “I’m sorry, but who are you and what are you doing in our house?”

The boy blinked and shook his head. Then he turned away, purposefully ignoring Adam and locking those churning emotions away somewhere. He instead stared at the complicated design and soot.

“I’m here because you won’t find Na— Crowley and Aziraphale on Earth,” he said, as if it wasn’t a shocking thing to hear from a stranger who shouldn’t even know about them. “Heaven and Hell have them. They’re trapped and in trouble.”

 


 

10 Dog was still a hellhound in the same way that Adam was still the Anti-Christ. There were fundamental aspects that couldn’t be erased. But they could be buried and suppressed, Dog’s name and Adam’s decisions ensuring that those parts were hidden away. So most of the time, Dog was an ordinary dog just as Adam was an ordinary human boy. Only on rare occasions were they something more. [ ]

11 While Adam and the rest of Them had to call the two of them “Mr. Crowley” and “Mr. Fell” when talking in front of their parents and other adults who didn’t know about everything, it seemed wrong the rest of the time. Especially when he accepted their offer to be his godparents. Adam settled on “Uncle Crowley” and “Uncle Aziraphale” in private as a reasonable compromise. The reactions from the angel and demon to the names was relatively subtle, but positive.[12]] [ ]

12 No, they did not cry when they left. Must have been a trick of the light. [ ]

13 Except for Agnes Nutter. But very little could ever surprise her. [ ]

Chapter Text

As everyone reeled over the strange boy’s unexpected announcement, Anathema decided to find out a little bit more about the person they were dealing with. Carefully pulling her glasses down slightly so she could peer over them, she examined his aura carefully.

Everyone possessed an aura, though Adam’s was too vast for her to actually see and the Horsemen were unnerving blackholes. But the others in the room were familiar colors. She knew them very well after two years. She knew how they looked and the different fluctuations to expect from Them and Newt. That familiarity made it easier to focus on the new one.

Different colors meant different things. Most colors could even have multiple meanings. In this case, the dark-haired boy shone with vivid shades of violet, royal blue, and a cloudy muddy green.

The latter hinted at deeply rooted jealousy, resentment, bitterness, and insecurity. Not surprising for a teenager and perhaps it was situational rather than a more permanent part of him, but it was still something that Anathema felt bad seeing in someone so young.

But the other two colors were unexpected. Blue could have a variety of meanings. But that specific shade, especially combined with violet, pointed towards some rather unique possibilities. Both royal blue and violet individually could indicate someone with clairvoyance, so having both made it nearly a certainty. And that bright violet shade could sometimes mean that a person might also be magical and have the ability to create vibrations that lead into reality.

The kid not only knew about things that he shouldn’t. He also showed signs of possible powers.

“Could you back up and explain a bit more?” asked Newt. “Like how you know where they are? Or how you know about them at all?”

Or,” snapped Pepper sharply, “maybe you could tell who in the world you are? You just storm in here and… What? Start talking about Heaven and Hell and whatever you and Adam are going on about? We deserve some answers now.”

Glancing at her briefly before looking at Newt instead, the boy said, “I saw it. I Dream of things that are real. Have for a couple years now. And I know what’s happening to my— to Crowley and Aziraphale because I saw it last night. Aziraphale is stuck in Heaven, locked in a quiet room and writing things that make him upset. And Crowley is trapped in Hell and… he keeps having nightmares that feel real, over and over again. That’s why your tracking spell didn’t work. They’re not on Earth.”

“So you’re psychic or something?” asked Brian. “Can you move things with your mind? That would be brilliant.”

He shrugged and said, “Not really. Can’t really do that much. Not as much as was Expected of me anyway. But when I Dream, it either just happened or will happen soon. That’s how I knew most of this stuff. Like they were in trouble, who all of you are, and where to go.” The boy took a moment to look at Adam before turning away again. “I know you’re probably the only ones who can and will do something to help them. So I came to tell you where they are and what’s happened.”

“All the way from America?” asked Wensleydale. “That’s pretty far.”

“Had to do it,” he said simply.

Running a hand through his hair, Newt said, “Okay. You’re a bit like Agnes Nutter then. Didn’t see that coming.”[14] He shook his head slightly. “But seriously, what can we call you?”

The dark-haired boy shifted his feet awkwardly, not looking at any of them. He tugged at the straps of his backpack, repositioning it to something more comfortable. Then he took a deep breath, lifted his chin, and straightened his posture.

“Warlock,” he said firmly.

Pepper snorted and said, “Liar. That’s not a real name. You can’t just make something up to make yourself sound cool.”[15]

Glaring, he snapped, “Whatever. Call me ‘Lock’ then. I don’t care.”

“Like ‘Sherlock’?” asked Wensleydale.

No. Not like ‘Sherlock.’ Don’t be stupid,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You wanted a better name and now you’ve got one. Happy?”[16]

Taking a moment to glance at the clock, Anathema said, “Okay, there’s a lot going on and we need to sort things out, but your parents are going to start wondering where you are. I suggest that you head home and get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll see if we can figure out how to proceed from here.”

Because she could already tell that they were facing an impossible task. How were they supposed to retrieve an angel and a demon? If Heaven and Hell were trapping them, Anathema doubted that she would be able to use a summoning spell to bring them back to Earth. Not that she was very experienced at summoning angels or demons. But she couldn’t think of any alternatives. Outside of dying, humans couldn’t exactly waltz casually into Heaven or Hell.

But they couldn’t leave Aziraphale and Crowley in trouble.

Noticing the boy’s dark and sullen expression, Anathema asked, “Lock, do you need to contact your parents and tell them that you made it to Tadfield safe? I’m guessing you made up a reason for the trip.”

“I don’t need to call,” he said shortly.

“All right then. If you need somewhere to stay the night, we can fix up the couch for you.”

He shrugged, but slid his backpack off like he intended to stay. Pepper continued to look at him suspiciously while Brian and Wensleydale seemed to be relatively fine with him. Dog kept glaring at him from under the table, like how he might stare at a strange cat.[17] And Adam kept looking at him with an expression somewhere between discomfort, guilt, and a desire to be welcoming and friendly. Adam knew something more about the American boy than either of them were explaining. But the boy, Anathema still uncertain if she should call him Warlock or Lock, was angry and resentful of Adam. His aura flared with the signs whenever he glanced at him, but she could also see the boy trying to suppress it.

She briefly wondered if Agnes Nutter would have offered any insight if Anathema kept the second set of prophecies. She had a feeling that by the end of all of this, she would regret not having any guidance.

 


 

Warlock shifted awkwardly on the lumpy old couch, trying to get comfortable and failing. Even if he was still relatively small and gangly, he needed to curl up slightly to fit the length of the couch and his tossing and turning ran the risk of him tumbling off the edge. Somewhere a clock was ticking, distracting and annoying. The pillow and blanket that Anathema gave him before disappearing upstairs with Newt weren’t too bad. They were at least soft and warm. But everything else about his sleeping arrangements bothered him. The entire setup felt like quite a step down from his spacious and expensive mattress back home.

He rolled over and stared up into the darkness. Seeing Anathema, Newt, and the others in real life instead of his Dreams… Seeing Adam… It was rougher than he expected. He’d finally met the person that Warlock was supposed to be. He met the Right Boy. The Anti-Christ. The one that was everything that Warlock could never be.

He shifted again, sniffling quietly while pretending that he wasn’t. The brief encounter with Mr. Young was enough for Warlock to realize that he was completely different than the father that he ended up with. And Adam had confirmed what Warlock had suspected for almost a year and a half: he was supposed to grow up here with a very different family until things got mixed up. Warlock didn’t get the family that he was born into nor the role and powers of the Anti-Christ that he was raised to expect. Adam got both. He got everything.

Warlock tried not to think about it. And he tried not to blame Adam. It wasn’t fair. Adam didn’t do it on purpose.

It still hurt though. The dull ache of old pain made sharp again.

He flopped over, tired and frustrated. He couldn’t sleep. A stray thought, one about missing an old lullaby sung in a soft voice, crossed his mind before the boy buried it for being childish. He needed a distraction. Warlock quietly slipped his earbuds in and turned the volume down low. Then he started up his iPod.

Soft and slow, recorders and guitar music drifted through his ears. He knew that the latter part of the song would build towards something fast-paced, loud, and exciting with an intricate and iconic guitar solo. It was a nice song. And in that moment, listening to Led Zeppelin soothed some of his frustration. A few songs later and Warlock finally drifted off.

 


 

Telling his parents that he and his friends were planning on a busy day with Anathema and Newt, which wasn’t even a lie, Adam left bright and early with Dog. He was a boy on a mission. Like one of the heroes in a book or in the movies. They knew where Aziraphale and Crowley were now. They were going to save them. They would fix everything. They knew exactly where to find their missing angel and demon.

Because Warlock came and told them.

Adam didn’t exactly remember everything that he Knew as the Anti-Christ, especially when he was trying to undo and fix everything that was messed up during the Almost-Armageddon. It was too much to hold if he wanted to be normal. But some things he could remember remembering. And one of those things was faint memories from when he was a baby. Which meant he knew who Warlock was.

He did try to do something nice for the boy when he was putting things back. Since Warlock’s father worked in America a lot and there was supposed to be so many different flavors of ice cream, Adam thought he would be happier there. It seemed logical to the then-eleven-year-old boy. But he didn’t seem happy when Adam met him. He seemed grumpy and sullen.

He did wonder sometimes… since Warlock was originally Adam’s parents’ child, did that make them almost family? Adam didn’t know.

Pepper’s bike came up next to him, the girl dressed in her newest red jacket and a stubborn expression as if it was that day at the airbase again and she was ready to face the Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Round Two. Brian and Wensleydale were coming from a different direction. They wouldn’t run into those two until they reached Jasmine Cottage.

“Ready?” she asked, pedaling steadily.

Adam nodded. He wasn’t completely ready, but he couldn’t admit that. He was supposed to be the leader of their group. Besides, the longer that it took for him to feel prepared and less nervous, the longer that his godparents were in danger. He couldn’t do that to them. Adam would help them. And if that involved him drawing on more power than he would prefer, enough to scare him, he knew his friends would be with him to ground him.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that though.

A rational and mildly-concerned adult, if they were to become aware of Adam’s thought processes, would likely reassure the boy that everything would be fine. They would also go further to explain that a thirteen-year-old child shouldn’t need to worry about such things and he’s placing a far too heavy burden on himself. That of course the adults would take care of things and that he should go play with his friends while the grownups talk. And that adult might even shake their head at the amusing idea of a child thinking that he can save the world outside of the works of fiction.

Such a theoretical adult would be an idiot.

Adam and the rest of Them had long since become aware of the concept of individual responsibility and how everyone needed to work to improve things together. And they had also come to grips with exactly how powerful the Anti-Christ could be and what he could do. It just so happened to come at the cost of his humanity. Without Them and Dog, Adam would have lost himself on that Saturday where the world nearly ended.

Most of the time, none of them thought about it or only did in a general “yeah, that happened” type of way. But occasionally at night, when their thoughts wandered too far, those fears would surface. Adam feared what he was capable of, what he could do to everyone and everything if he lost control of himself, and did his best not to become that person again. Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale feared for Adam and what could happen to him.

But most of the time, they simply played games and tried to guilt everyone in Tadfield into recycling. Because despite everything and the heavy burdens on them from their knowledge of the universe, they were still children.

A thought curling around the back of his head, Adam asked, “Pepper, could you try not to fight with Lock when you see him today?”

“I’m not making any promises,” she said. “He showed up out of nowhere, pushes his way in uninvited, and knows way too much. And he’s keeping secrets. I don’t trust him.” Giving Adam a side eye, she said, “I know you know something about him. Who is he?”

“He’s… almost me. Except without… everything.”

Adam knew that his response didn’t really explain anything, but the entire thing felt too complicated to put into words properly. Besides, the lovely garden in front of the Jasmine Cottage had just come into view. And Brian was already there, waving at them as he set his bike against the bench. Adam would just have to explain later. Or maybe let Warlock explain. It seemed like something that the other boy should talk about instead. It would be wrong to expose his secrets.

“I’m here,” called Wensleydale, pedaling into view. “I’m not late.”

Climbing off his bike, Adam said, “Then let’s see if Anathema, Newt, and Lock have any ideas on how to rescue Uncle Aziraphale and Uncle Crowley.”

Since Brian was already closest, he was the one who knocked on the door. And this time, it was Newt opening the door and ushering them in. They found Anathema in the kitchen, several thick books and magazines scattered across the table as she read. And Warlock was on the couch, still half tangled in a blanket and scribbling in a composition book with a scowl.

Glancing up slightly, Warlock asked, “Did any of you write on a bunch of rocks and bricks in the woods yesterday? Then you put them on the ground like a path?”

“No?” said Brian slowly, rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth in an attempt to dislodge some sticky bits of jam from breakfast. “Why would we?”

Shrugging, he said, “I guess it’ll happen today then.” He closed his composition book and slipped it into his backpack. “We’re all here now. Anyone know how to get them back yet?”

“I’m researching possibilities,” said Anathema distractedly. “It’s not like we can march right into Heaven and demand to speak to the manager or something.”

“She’s been up since five.” Keeping his voice down, Newt said, “I’d ask if you want to help look, but she’s got it organized… somehow. Maybe you can hang out in the garden for a bit until she finds something useful.”

Newt did not intend to sound like he was brushing Them off. He was mostly concerned with keeping an eye on Anathema and making certain that she didn’t burn herself out with her research binge. Because he’d been living with her long enough to know that she could get consumed by projects, channeling her previous focus and obsession from being a professional descendant into other hobbies. And sometimes that meant Newt needed to remind her that she was only human and had limits. Which was a task easier to accomplish with fewer distractions in the room. But it still meant that he shooed the children out the door before trying to convince Anathema to eat some breakfast.

While the phrase “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” didn’t exactly apply to them in this situation, the small group was left to their own devices and it could only end one way. Especially with a group including a former Anti-Christ, a not-quite Anti-Christ, a hellhound, and the rest of Them.

“Why not?” asked Brian abruptly.

Tilting her head, Pepper asked, “What?”

“Why can’t we just march into Heaven? Can’t be that hard.”

“Because we’re alive?

“But angels can come and go. And demons can do the same with Hell. And we know they mostly look like people, so why can’t we do it? There’s probably secret ways to get there,” said Brian.

Straightening his glasses, Wensleydale said, “So you think that we could find one of those secret entrances?”

“Sounds logical,” said Adam with a nod. “We just need to figure out where.”

Digging something out of his pocket, Warlock said, “Got an idea then. Was listening to this last night.”

He passed one earbud to Adam, who put it in his left ear. Then Warlock poked at an expensive-looking and old iPod, trying to find the right song.

“Where did you get that?” asked Pepper.

His voice distracted, Warlock said, “My nanny.”

“A nanny? What are you, super rich or something?”

“Kind of?”

Scoffing quietly, Pepper said, “Figures. Should have known we were dealing with the pushy and rude bourgeoisie.”

Adam was only partially listening to the background conversation. Most of his focus was on the music. He didn’t immediately recognize the song. Certainly not enough to name it. But the lyrics were starting to explain why Warlock wanted to share it.

“What’s the title?” asked Adam, just wanting to confirm what he suspected.

“The song’s called ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin.” Warlock reclaimed his earbuds and stuffed the iPod back into his pocket. “If Heaven is supposed to be above all of us somewhere, then any secret entrances would have to go up, right?”

“But a stairway? Not a lift?” asked Brian.

“Maybe the new ones are lifts and the old ones are staircases.” Adam nodded thoughtfully to himself. “Makes sense. And we’d want to use one of their older secret entrances because everyone will pay more attention and use the nice newer ones.”

Tilting his head, Brian asked, “But where do you think they would hide the stairway?”

“Actually,” said Wensleydale slowly, “if they wanted to make a secret entrance to Heaven, wouldn’t the logical place to put it be in a church?”

Adam’s eyes widened and he said, “That’s perfect. And doesn’t the church down the road have a thing over the entrance where they have a bell that they ring with a rope? And there’s this locked door underneath, but no one uses it? Bet there’s a staircase in there. And I bet that’ll go up to Heaven. The priests and pope or whatever probably know about those secret entrances and just can’t talk about them because of a vow of silence or something.”

And because Adam believed it and Expected it to be true, reality wanted to comply. But the former Anti-Christ had tamped down his powers too much. It wasn’t enough to twist reality and connect a physical path to Heaven in the nearby church. At least, not alone. Not unless he wanted to risk using it consciously.

But Warlock believed and Expected the same. And even if he had far less power available and far less experience twisting reality to his will, he was not alone.

The power of a former Anti-Christ united towards the same desire with the power of a not-quite Anti-Christ resulted in something a little more impressive than either could do alone. Which was why the staircase in the church now led to what was previously an unassuming broom closet in Heaven.[18]

“Okay, I guess we’re going to rescue Uncle Aziraphale first then,” said Adam, not noticing the dark and resentful look that briefly flashed across Warlock’s face at the affectionate address. “How about we go and get supplies and meet up at the church in an hour?”

As the rest of the Them nodded in agreement, Warlock asked sharply, “Why wait? And what kind of supplies could we need for a rescue mission to Heaven. Why would you need anything? You’re the Anti-Christ.”

“Not anymore,” said Pepper. “And what would you know about any of this? You weren’t there.”

“I know he’s supposed to be this great and terrifying force that could conquer everyone. Powerful and unstoppable. Destined to lead vast armies and crush your enemies under your heel.” His voice growing louder and angrier with every word, Warlock continued his description even as he began to blink more often. “You’re supposed to be everything they wanted. You’re supposed to be strong enough that no one could stop you. You’re supposed to be better. Capable of anything.”

And Adam shivered. The power that he’d locked away, the part of him that made him the Anti-Christ, began to press harder. Resisting and struggling to break free for the first time since Armaged-Didn’t-Happen. An unsettling sensation that he was forced to shove back down hard. Something was trying to pull it loose, like prying open an oyster to expose the pearl.

“I don’t want that,” said Adam firmly. “I never asked for that power and I don’t want to end the world.”

“Coward,” he snapped. “Too scared to use your abilities. You have everything, but you’re too selfish. You don’t care about them.”

Hey,” said Brian. “Back off, Lock.”

“And you do? You don’t even know them.” Pepper stomped forward until she was practically pressed against Warlock. “Why are you even here? Just wanted to pretend you’re a hero for telling us something we’d figure out ourselves? We don’t need some rude rich kid around, acting like he’s better than us. We handled the Horsemen of the Apocalypse without you and we can handle this too.”

Warlock and Pepper glared at each other stubbornly, the girl’s expression fiercely protective and the boy’s a storm of wounded fury. Then his expression closed up and he turned away, shoulders hunched.

“Whatever,” he said sullenly. “No one wants me? Not exactly a surprise. Shouldn’t have come in the first place. Waste of time.”

Then, before anyone could react, he took off. He disappeared from the garden and out of sight. As abruptly as he’d arrived at the doorstep the night before, Warlock had left just as suddenly.

Despite how uncomfortable and heated things had spiraled towards the end, Adam still felt a wave of regret that Warlock left the way that he did. But he didn’t know if going after him and trying to fix it would make the situation worse or better. It was a complicated mess.

Adam quietly decided that they needed to save Aziraphale and Crowley first and then smooth things over with Warlock later. Rescuing the two of them took priority. And it would let him cool off a little.

“Right,” said Adam slowly, his discomfort leeching into his voice despite his best efforts. “Everyone find something useful and meet up at the church in an hour. Remember, we’re trying to be sneaky about it. Nothing loud or flashy.”

“Actually, should we tell Anathema and Newt?” asked Wensleydale.

Adam nodded and said, “Me and Brian can tell them. If they aren’t too busy. We’re in a hurry and we don’t need to distract them if they’re close to figuring out how to get Uncle Crowley back. We still need a plan for that.” He glanced towards Wensleydale and Pepper. “Go on. We’ll catch up.”

Slipping back inside, Adam and Brian found a thoroughly distracted witch and a former witchfinder trying to tempt her with whatever fruit that he could lay his hands on. Adam did his best to describe casually what happened while Brian wandered aimlessly around the ground floor of the cottage, poking at whatever caught his attention as he apparently grew bored. Unfortunately, Anathema’s mind wasn’t exactly easy to drag out of her distracted state. She mumbled “mmhm” and “uh-huh” as Adam tried to explain things, but he essentially gave up as he reached the point about Led Zeppelin. Besides, he wasn’t putting as much effort into it as he could have.

Adam had long ago decided that sometimes it was better to ask forgiveness than permission. And he suspected that Anathema and Newt would try to convince Them that invading Heaven themselves was a bad idea. But it wasn’t like this would be the first time any of them dealt with angels. They had experience. They could handle this.

 


 

14 He might have if he and Anathema didn’t burn the second set of prophecies, which included the prediction “The young Warlock will fly across the sea to thy door, bringing ill tidings of the fate of the Serpent and the foole of a Principality. The Warlock be Young and not the Anti-Christ, though long believed to be otherwise. Offer hospitality and beware hys moods. [ ]

15 Pippin Galadriel Moonchild didn’t acknowledge the hypocrisy of calling an unusual name “fake.” After all, her mother named her after a couple characters from her favorite books, “The Lord of the Rings.” Nor did she recognize the hypocrisy of claiming that someone couldn’t just make up a name it they wanted even though she chose to go by “Pepper” instead. But then, no one ever claimed that a thirteen year old was always fair. [ ]

16 Warlock did not actually have a problem with his name. It was the rest of the world that seemed fixated on how unusual it was. And they always seemed determined to inform him of exactly how strange it was, as if it was a brand-new revelation that must be brought to his attention immediately. Occasionally he found it simpler not to argue. [ ]

17 Dog did not like this boy. He knew who his Master was, the giver of belly rubs and thrower of sticks. And yet this other boy, who smelled of fear and unease whenever he glanced at Dog, also seemed faintly like his Master. But only a little. Like a shadow of his Master. That was wrong. He only had one Master. [ ]

18 Most angels did not notice or think about the existence of a small broom closet in Heaven. It was tucked slightly out of the way, similar in location to broom closets in countless office buildings across the globe. But there were no celestial janitors pushing around mops or emptying trash cans. There was no practical reason for a broom closet to exist in Heaven. Its presence was impossible to explain like so many things, especially when they connected to the Ineffable Plan. But there was indeed a broom closet in Heaven. And it had now been converted into the entrance to a stairway that led to Earth. [ ]

Chapter Text

As they stepped out of the garden and prepared to go their separate directions,[19] Wensleydale said something that made Pepper stop in her tracks.

“I think you went a little too far.”

She glanced at him, her finger tightening on her handlebars. Wensleydale scuffed his foot on the ground before continuing.

“Lock didn’t have to come here and try to help. But he did. All the way from America. Maybe he doesn’t know Aziraphale and Crowley like we do, but he came to help.”

“He wanted Adam to be the Anti-Christ,” she said firmly. “He doesn’t know what that almost did to him. And he even called Adam a coward because he didn’t want to be like that again. I think Lock can handle a few hurt feelings.”

“You’re right. He didn’t know. Doesn’t mean he deserved that.”

Pepper glared a couple more seconds before looking away. Wensleydale was right. She just didn’t want to admit it. She let her temper and annoyance with the boy get the best of her, boiling over at the worst time possible.

Sighing tiredly, she said, “Okay. If he hasn’t disappeared forever, I’ll apologize the next time we see him.” Pepper climbed on her bike. “Hurry up. We’ve got an hour.”

 


 

“What do you think you’ll bring?” asked Brian.

Pushing his bike, Adam shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I mean, you guys and Dog are coming with me. What else do I need? I mean, ropes and stuff are pretty standard for an adventure, but that’s not much. Maybe Lock was right about not really needing anything.”

“Then why did you tell us to find supplies?”

“It’s what people do in books and shows before they start a quest. And this is almost like a quest.”

He was correct. After all, a quest was just a type of adventure. Usually the sort of adventure that involved magic or at least an evil king ruling over a kingdom, but still an adventure. And four kids and a dog were just the right number for a proper adventure. They were practically traditional.

“Well,” said Brian, digging into his pockets. “If you don’t have any ideas yet, I suppose that it’s a good thing that I picked up a few things.”

He wouldn’t call himself a pickpocket, a thief, or a rogue. That sort of thing took a lot more practice and stealth than he could manage. But Brian did like those types of characters in books and movies. They were clever, sneaky, and charming people who were just bad enough to be interesting, but still considered to be the good guys. They were anti-heroes.

And maybe he wasn’t particularly skilled when it came to being a rogue, but Brian was clever enough to pick up a few things while wandering around Jasmine Cottage and waiting.

“That’s stealing,” said Adam, not entirely disapproving.

“Borrowing. I’ll give them back later. Not like they’ll miss them.”

Adam frowned, but took the long and pointy crystal that Brian borrowed from a drawer in the house. When Wensleydale lost a library book almost a year ago, Anathema helped them find it with the crystal tied to a string. By dangling it, she followed it like a compass and they found the book in time. Which was lucky because the librarian was terrifying even for children who faced Armaged-Didn’t-Happen.

“I thought, even if it wouldn’t work long distances, it might help us find him when we get there,” said Brian with a shrug.

“But none of us are witches.”

“Technically, no.” Brian grimaced apologetically. “But you’re… you know. You. And even if you aren’t doing that anymore, that’s probably close enough to make it work.”

Adam stared at the crystal for a moment with an unreadable expression. Then he slipped it into his jacket pocket. He apparently agreed with his logic. Though Adam gave Brian’s other option a questioning look.

“And Newt’s witchfinder matches?” he asked.

“We might need a distraction,” said Brian. “And nothing beats a distraction like something catching on fire.”

 


 

Wensleydale crawled out from under his bed, glasses askew. He didn’t seem to be having any luck finding supplies for their upcoming rescue mission. Not that he really knew what he was looking for. What exactly would be useful for invading Heaven to break out an angel who was being held prisoner?

Brushing off the lint and dust bunnies, he sat down and tried to consider his options logically. They needed to be quiet and sneaky, so he would wear sneakers. But what else? What else could they use? Snacks? He could put a few apples in his pockets for them. Aziraphale might be hungry when they find him.

Well, if the other angels locked Aziraphale up somewhere, they would need a key.

That was enough to spark an idea. Wesleydale scurried to his dad’s office and headed for the desk. He dug around the back of a drawer for a bit before finding what he was looking for.

Old, darkened by tarnish, and rather ornate, Wensleydale pulled out a skeleton key. The name was much more interesting that it actually was. Adam had been mildly disappointed that it wasn’t made of bone or even looked like a skull. But according to all the stories, skeleton keys could open any lock.[20] And if that was true, it might work on the locks in Heaven too.

“Hey there, Youngster.”

He glanced up and saw his father in the doorway. Wensleydale shoved the key in his pocket. Then he grinned awkwardly.

“Looking for something?”

Wensleydale shook his head and said, “Actually, I’m good. We’re going on an adventure today. Practically a heist.”

“Have a good time then. Try not to get into too much trouble.”

“Of course not. We’ll be good enough to get into Heaven.”

 


 

Pepper kicked a rock, sending it tumbling across the leaves. She’d ended up in the woods where the four of Them tended to play. She considered going home to find supplies, but she couldn’t come up with any good ideas of what to bring on the rescue mission.

She’d eventually wandered down to their usual spot to retrieve her wooden sword, but even she knew it wouldn’t be enough to protect her friends. At the end of the day, it was a toy. And no matter how much she was learning about sword fighting, she could only do so much against armed angels with her wooden sword.

She needed a real weapon. She refused to be powerless. This was a dangerous rescue mission and her friends needed her protection. Pepper needed something to help keep them safe.

Well, maybe she could figure something out. The wooden sword would be better than nothing. And she halfway remembered that Brian left his slingshot around somewhere. That could do some damage with some decent-sized rocks as ammo. That might keep the other angels at a distance if she could find it.

She would protect Them. Somehow.

Pepper kicked another rock, but it didn’t go as far. She scowled in disappointment. But she couldn’t go after another because the crunch of leaves made her spin, the girl falling into a defensive posture with her toy sword.

Startling visibly at her reaction, a strange man stood in the middle of their normal corner of the forest. He didn’t belong among the leaves, the dirt, and the landscape of their childhood games. Not in his neat and tidy uniform. He didn’t belong there because there was no reason for someone to make deliveries away from everyone’s houses. And he was there, flinching at her raised wooden toy.

“Sorry, Miss,” he said. “Didn’t mean to startle you. Bit off the beaten trail, I’ll admit. But I’ve always been the one called to deliver the special packages and those tend to be more difficult to track down.” He gestured with his clipboard towards the long package tucked under his arm. “Are you… Pippin Galadriel Moonchild?”

Scowling even as she nodded, she said, “Call me ‘Pepper.’ No one really calls me by my full name.”

“Then I found the right person then.” He held out his clipboard. “If you could sign on the line, please.”

Pepper eyed him suspiciously, but she was growing relatively used to weird things. At least she was fairly certain that this didn’t have anything to do with Adam. She took the pen[21] and scribbled down her name.

“All right then,” he said, handing over the long package. “Have a nice day, Miss.”

“Wait. Who sent this?”

Shrugging as he turned and started walking away, he said, “There wasn’t a return address and I didn’t ask. I’m just the deliveryman.”

Pepper stared at him for a moment before turning her attention to the random box. She sat down on the ground and set her toy sword aside. The package was long and thin, wrapped in brown paper and twine. It looked rather ordinary. But she didn’t receive that much mail on normal days and certainly not packages dropped off in the middle of the forest. Curiosity pushed her forward as she started untying the knot.

She wasn’t really certain what she expected to find inside, but the familiar short bronze sword certainly wasn’t it. The last time that she saw it was at the airbase in the hands of Aziraphale. And it was on fire then. She wasn’t likely to forget that. The sword in the box wasn’t on fire at the moment, but Pepper still recognized it.

This didn’t belong to her. That was her first thought. The sword wasn’t hers; it belonged to the fussy angel who loved books and the resident demon. But it was an actual weapon. One that she could use. And if she brought it with her, then she could give it back to Aziraphale when they rescued him.

Pepper gave the blade a few practice swings, trying to familiarize herself with the weight and length. It was a bit different than her wooden sword. Which made it a little different than how she’d practiced. But she could adapt. She could protect her friends with this.

Grinning, Pepper said, “Time to break into Heaven.”

 


 

The church in Tadfield was one of the oldest buildings in the village, though it had been expanded, renovated, and repaired numerous times over the years until it barely resembled the original structure. Generations of faithful members of the congregation had passed through the doors. Love, devotion, and belief filled every corner. Weaker demons would blister as soon as they drew near and more powerful ones would at least be hopping on stinging feet.

Oddly enough, there was no problem with the Anti-Christ setting foot inside. Probably because he was more human than anything else. And after two years away from Hell and Adam’s firm conviction that Dog would be fine, the hellhound could follow his master with only some cringing and whining.

The front door was unlocked even outside of service in case someone needed to visit for any reason. You can never tell when someone would be in the middle of a crisis of faith and need reassurance, after all. Slipping inside the building was easy. And as long as they kept their voices down, no one would even notice Them lurking around.

“Where did you get a sword?” asked Wensleydale.

Pepper grinned and said, “A deliveryman brought it. I’m taking it back to Aziraphale.”

“I think you won on finding the best rescue mission supplies,” said Brian.

“It’s not a contest. We all found some good stuff.” Adam reached down and scratched Dog’s ears in an attempt to comfort him. “Hopefully we won’t need to use the sword. We’re going to be sneaky about this. If we do this right, none of the other angels will even know we’re there.”

Adam may be a clever and imaginative newly-turned thirteen-year-old with the capability to warp reality when he put his mind to it, but there are a few things that he had not quite learned yet. And one of those things was the danger of tempting the universe.

“Come on then,” said Adam, unaware that he’d already invited disaster to strike their mission.

The door in question didn’t look that impressive. Just an ordinary wooden door with an old-fashioned lock that likely had not been opened in years. But it was the only one that could possibly lead up. And thanks to the combined Expectations, it now led somewhere far more interesting than the bell. The only problem was that, unlike the front door of the church, it was locked to keep random members of the congregation or eager teenagers looking for privacy from ducking inside.

“Here,” said Wensleydale, reaching out a hand. “Try the skeleton key. It’s supposed to unlock anything.”

Adam took the offered key from him. He knew all about skeleton keys from books, so he wasn’t surprised when there was a soft click and the door swung open. A wooden staircase, the planks smoothed by age and time rather than machinery and polish, spiraled upwards. They twisted up, the angle making it impossible to tell how far that they might go.

“Stay close, Dog,” he ordered before taking the first step.

Up the creaking wooden stairs, they moved slowly. Adam took the lead with Dog, Pepper close behind with the sword. She looked ready to stab anyone that popped out of the shadows. Brian and Wensleydale brought up the rear, moving side-by-side. The farther up that they went, the darker that it seemed to grow. He certainly regretted not grabbing a torch for the rescue mission. Adam almost considered asking Brian to break out the matches to give them a little light. They’d been going up for far too long. They were definitely higher than the church could possibly be.

Then they rounded a corner and found another door. One white and nearly gleaming, light streaming from underneath.

“Guess that’s it,” whispered Brian. “Thought it would be more impressive.”

“Supposed to be sneaking in the back door.” Adam reached for the handle. “Back doors are never as impressive as the front one.”

He opened it slowly, hoping that it wouldn’t creak. The other side was a huge, white, and empty room with shiny floors and tall columns. The whole place was bright to an obnoxious level. And something seemed to grate against Adam’s nerves like nails on a chalkboard.

So far, he wasn’t that impressed with Heaven. The only good thing was the view, an entire wall lined with windows. And the landscape below was beautiful. Though Adam was fairly certain most of those structures among the trees weren’t anywhere near each other on Earth.

“Why does Heaven look like a really empty and boring building?” whispered Pepper. “Isn’t it supposed to be fluffy clouds and nice dead people?”

“Dead people are probably down there with the pyramids and trees and such.” Wensleydale straightened his glasses. “Actually, I suspect that this is just where the angels do paperwork and keep their files.”

“Would they keep Aziraphale prisoner up here then,” asked Pepper quietly, “or down there?”

Pulling out the crystal, Adam said, “Let’s find out.”

He let it dangle on the string, the crystal spinning lazily. He remembered what it looked like when Anathema searched for the library book. And as much as Adam didn’t want to consciously draw on his abilities, he focused on wanting to find their angel. They needed to find Aziraphale and get back out before someone noticed. They needed this to work and that meant pushing things a bit.

Adam concentrated on wanting to find Aziraphale. It felt harder than it should have been, like he was moving through water. As human as he was and though he cut all ties with the devil, his powers came from a rather demonic source originally and he was literally standing in Heaven. It was more difficult to achieve the same effect as on Earth. He had to push a little harder than he would normally risk.

But the crystal finally stopped spinning on the string, pointing in a very deliberate way. Like a compass needle aiming them in a specific direction.

“This way,” he whispered. “Keep together and keep quiet.”

They hurried down the white and reflective hallway, keeping close to the columns since they were the only sources of cover and the children knew that they might need to hide in a hurry. But there was no one in the large space, too wide to be called a hallway and too vast to just call it a room. It seemed to stretch endlessly, but the space did have edges. Their sneaking eventually brought them to a staircase, a sleek and modern one made of glass and steel.

And the crystal pointed up.

“Great,” complained Wensleydale quietly. “More stairs.”

They didn’t run into anyone as the four kids and an uneasy hellhound climbed three more flights of stairs. Their footsteps echoed through the emptiness. It was like they were all alone in the entire building.

Adam wanted to do something to mess up their perfect order. Maybe playing some loud music or splattering some paint around to interrupt the white boring place. Anything to distract him from the unnatural perfection. And from the faint whispers that seemed to be trying to creep back in. He couldn’t make them out properly and he knew that they were just in his head, but Adam also knew that they weren’t good. He was treading into dangerous territory again. The more he used his powers, the easier it was to slip back.

But at least he was aware of the whispers. Last time, he didn’t really notice their presence until it was almost too late. He knew that they were there and that he shouldn’t listen to them. And his friends were around him, brushing against him as they climbed the stairs. As long as he focused on them and saving Aziraphale, Adam hoped that he wouldn’t slip too far.

The group kept moving forward, quiet and cautious. None of them noticed the dirty and scuffed footprints that were left behind.

The crystal eventually led them to a floor that didn’t have a wall of windows. The high ceilings didn’t make up for the change. Everything about the place made Adam feel trapped. No windows, no columns, and still no angels. The only feature was a speck of gold glimmering on one of the white walls. It was only when the crystal led them closer did Adam recognize it as a keyhole.

No visible door. No hinges or handles. No cracks to show the edges of an entrance. Not a single other feature. Just a golden keyhole.

Or, Adam noticed after a moment, almost no other features. As he stood at just the right angle, there was a slight golden sheen. At first, they seemed to be strange letters in a language that he couldn’t recognize. Then Adam blinked and the faint letters abruptly read “Principality Aziraphale.”

“Doesn’t look like a prison,” said Brian. “No bars.”

“No windows either.” Pepper shifted her posture, raising the sword. “And the door is part of the wall. Like you can’t even see it. Not easy to break out.”

“Then let’s get him out,” said Wensleydale, pulling the skeleton key back out.

 


 

After an eternity of silence and blinding whiteness, the soft click of a lock turning was deafening. The unexpected sound, an actual sound, caused Aziraphale to jump away from the stack of papers and knocked the chair over. Which clattered on the floor. Loudly. The angel covered his ears with a whimper. A whimper that he could hear.

Whatever power in the room that kept it perfectly silent was clearly no longer active.

He shivered, blinking rapidly against the burning sensation in his eyes. He couldn’t describe how much that he’d missed simply being able to hear. It hurt; even his nonrequired breathing sounded too loud to bear. It was too much hitting him suddenly. But hearing anything was better than the silence scraping across raw nerves.

Then a section of blank wall began to open, becoming a door. And as Aziraphale tried to pull himself together, struggling to stop shaking as he wiped the wetness from his face. He couldn’t let Gabriel see him in such a disheveled and unsteady state. Not if he wanted to reach Crowley. He needed to get through this. All he had to do was get through whatever Gabriel and the others had in mind. Then he could escape and find Crowley. He could endure it with grace and dignity.

But all his thoughts stumbled when it wasn’t an Archangel walking in. Instead, a cluster of human children came charging through the door while a small dog barked at their heels. And Aziraphale could only gawk at the surprise invasion while flinching with every sharp bark.

“Uncle Aziraphale,” shouted Adam, painfully loud. “You’re all right.”

Then Aziraphale was practically tackled by the former Anti-Christ wrapping his arms around him in a worried hug. And the others crowded around him. Loud, colorful, and wonderful. How? How did they find him? How did the children get there? How did they get past the other angels? Aziraphale tightened his grip on the small figure.

They shouldn’t have come. Anything could have happened to them.

But he was relieved to see them.

“Adam.” The angel’s voice came out rough, perhaps from disuse or perhaps from the strain of silent shouting. “Pepper. Brian. Wensleydale.”

“And Dog,” said Adam. “He’s here too.”

“How? How are you here?”

“We snuck in,” said Pepper.[22]

Crossing his arms, Brian asked, “Why are you see-through? Are you a ghost?”

“Actually, the proper word for him would be ‘translucent,’” said Wensleydale. “You can only see through him a little bit.”

“Discorporation.” Aziraphale was slowly getting used to sounds and colors other than white again. “I am not a ghost exactly. Just lost my body again. That’s how they brought me here.” Letting go of Adam so that he could gesture at himself. “I can still look like this in Heaven out of habit and you can touch me while I’m here, but I no longer truly have a physical body. Not one that can exist on Earth. If I leave Heaven in this state, I am stuck either sharing with the lovely Madame Tracy once more or wandering around as a blind and nearly deaf disembodied spirit.”

Adam frowned thoughtfully and said, “You need a body again? That’s worst than just locking you up. But I think I can still fix it.” He bit his bottom lip briefly. “I’m not really the Anti-Christ anymore and can’t do all the big stuff anymore, but I kind of remember what I did the first time. It just might take a little longer to do it now.”

“That’s quite all right,” Aziraphale reassured. “There’s no rush.”

Though the angel had to admit that there was a bit of a rush. He needed to get the children back to Earth and safe before something happened. He didn’t know what his fellow angels might do if they discovered the former Anti-Christ, a hellhound, and assorted other humans wandering around Heaven and freeing traitors. Aziraphale might have once tried to convince himself that nothing too bad would befall them, but he couldn’t wrap himself in that blanket of denial any longer. He simply didn’t know what Heaven would do and he couldn’t risk their lives with the gamble.

He also needed to get out of Heaven quickly before they noticed his escape. Because the moment that they realized the door to the room was open, news would undoubtedly trickle down to Hell. And the only way he could imagine being able to rescue Crowley was if the other demons had no idea he was on his way.

But he couldn’t properly leave Heaven without a body. Not if he wanted to be at all useful. And since Heaven was unlikely to issue him a replacement, that meant his only option was to let Adam take his time and fix things.

“Do you remember what happened?” asked Brian as he picked the chair back up. “We don’t know too much. This psychic kid named Lock told us that you were stuck here, but not much else.”[23]

Taking the offered seat as Adam reached for his hand, Aziraphale murmured, “I remember. I remember exactly what happened.”

He felt some form of power washing up his arm, not quite ethereal or occult. It tingled in a way bordering on uncomfortable, wrapping around his essence and growing sturdier as something seemed to settle. Aziraphale closed his eyes, trying to ignore the strange sensation of a physical body manifesting slowly. Unsurprisingly, his thoughts drifted back towards what happened to him and Crowley.

 


 

19 Because they certainly didn’t want to waste time waiting for the other two to finish up in the cottage. They had a rescue mission to prepare for. [ ]

20 Not completely accurate. They certainly didn’t work on car doors. But those rarely come up as an obstacle in the type of adventure stories that the young teenagers tended to read. [ ]

21 A nice pen attached to the clipboard with a chain. For some reason, pens are one of the most commonly stolen objects in the world even if they aren’t particularly valuable. But they are mighty weapons in the right hand. That is a known fact. A pen, however, was not the weapon that Pepper needed at the moment. She needed something that could protect her friends during a rescue mission to Heaven and would hopefully be slightly larger than a pen. [ ]

22 Aziraphale noticed his sword in her possession, but there were already enough questions on his mind without addressing that side mystery. [ ]

23 The angel briefly wondered about that last sentence. He assumed that it might be a relative of Anathema, another descendant of Agnes with a hint of foresight. Then he shrugged off the matter the same way that he did the question about how Pepper came to bear his sword. There were far more immediate concerns to address. [ ]

Chapter Text

“I still don’t see the appeal of those… Kindlings?”

“Kindles, angel. You— They’re, you know, sort of— For reading eBooks. Electronic books. You read them on kindles and such. Stores them all together. Like an imaginary bookshelf.”

“But what’s wrong with a good and solid hardback book? They’re durable and easy to use.”

 “They’re also heavy, bulky, and, at least for you, require an entire bookshop to hold them all. Besides, I would have thought you’d approve of making books more accessible.”

Aziraphale pursed his lips in a way that some might describe as petulant, earning a victorious smirk from Crowley. But both of their moods were actually rather bright. It was a playful argument similar to thousands that they’d shared over the ages. The pair were simply having fun as they walked down the sidewalk. Side-by-side, close enough for their shoulders to brush with every other step and their fingers to lace together loosely. They didn’t feel the need to hide. They kept closer than they would have risked a couple years ago.

“You weren’t nearly as resistant when they stopped using scrolls,” teased Crowley. “Or when they stopped using stone tablets.”

As they reached the corner near the bookshop, Aziraphale said, “Oh, hush now. I just prefer a physical book. Is that so wrong?”

He didn’t bother unlocking the door. He hadn’t bothered in years. The actual keys for the building were probably still buried in his desk, gathering dust. The door knew Aziraphale well enough by now to respond to his faintest wishes. Just like how Crowley could slip inside even when the angel locked the building and put the protective wards up for the night. The door opened easily at his touch, letting them step inside and Aziraphale picked up the mail that had fallen through the slot earlier in the day.

“Anything interesting from the post?” asked Crowley, peering over his shoulder as Aziraphale flipped through the envelopes.

Humming distractedly, he said, “Yes, no. No. Afraid not. I sent a letter out a week ago, but no response yet.”

“Angel,” he said gently, “if you’re talking about Warlock, you know he’s not going to write back. He never does. Give it up. Don’t know why you keep bothering him. We meddled enough in the kid’s life already.”

Aziraphale smiled sadly at his tone. He’d grown attached to the boy during those years he spent as a gardener watching over him, but he also knew that his letters weren’t the only ones still being sent. Despite his remarks about not wanting to meddle further and how they shouldn’t bother writing to someone who obviously wanted nothing more to do with them, Aziraphale knew that Crowley missed the boy. They both still cared. You couldn’t spend that much time around a child and avoid it. Crowley just didn’t want to admit that the silence hurt.

But he was right. They’d meddled in Warlock’s upbringing enough already. The boy deserved some space and normality after everything. A letter or two every month and a birthday gift was all the two of them would allow themselves now.

“You know me,” said Aziraphale. “I suppose that I can’t let go of hope that easily.”

Crowley’s hand slipped more firmly into the angel’s, a soft smile materializing as he circled back around until he was in front of Aziraphale. And the warm flare of love washed over the angel. Familiar and wonderful. Crowley’s affection made Aziraphale grin, just like always.

“No, I don’t suppose you can, angel.” Crowley squeezed his hand. “That’s just the way you are. Wouldn’t want you to change anyway.” He brought the angel’s hand up and, hesitating a moment to make certain it was all right, Crowley pressed a gentle kiss on Aziraphale’s knuckles. “Could you…?”

Already knowing what he was trying to ask, Aziraphale said, “Of course.” Tugging the demon over and pressing a short kiss to his cheek came far too naturally to him now. “I love you, Crowley. And I wouldn’t change a thing about you either.”

The faint blush and the tiny gasp that followed the words, Crowley still responding strongly to definitive statements of affection, warmed Aziraphale to his core. Then Crowley stiffened and a confused frown crept across his face. He tilted his head and took a deep breath. He didn’t move for a moment, focusing too strongly on whatever scent caught his attention.

“Something’s off,” said Crowley slowly. “Not sure… Put up the wards.”

While the angelic wards of protection were added the moment that he opened the bookshop, the demonic ones were only added a couple years ago when there was no point in hiding their connection. Neither set were strong enough to stop a determined assault from Heaven or Hell, but combined they would at least slow down most angels or demons. But Aziraphale didn’t normally bother raising them most of the time. Not unless they had a good reason.

Crowley’s tone and posture gave him more than enough reason though.

Aziraphale snapped his fingers and let the wards flare up protectively as Crowley stalked his way through the shelves. He knew that the demon would search the entire bookshop for whatever was setting off his defensive instincts. Including the second floor, which wasn’t accessible to customers. Crowley was thorough when it came to possible threats, especially after Fail-mageddon. There was a reason why the entire building no longer contained any candles.

Letting Crowley continue his search, Aziraphale briefly detoured towards his backroom. He planned to drop the mail off on his desk before joining the demon. Only a few moments apart. That was the plan. His plan didn’t include someone slipping behind him and pressing a blade against Aziraphale’s throat.

“Not a word,” hissed a vicious voice in his ear.

Aziraphale didn’t move, the sharpness biting into his skin even as his thoughts raced. He recognized that voice. He recognized the demon from the trial. Hastur. That was his name. Hastur, a Duke of Hell. Hastur snuck into his bookshop and was holding a knife to his throat.

A demon with a known grudge against Crowley was in the bookshop. And Crowley didn’t know about the danger.

As Aziraphale opened his mouth, fully intending to take the risk to warn Crowley regardless of the blade, another voice said, “I would listen to him if you value your demon boyfriend’s existence.”

Michael stepped into view, her suit perfectly neat and twin sheaths strapped to her waist. The business outfit and the weaponry should have clashed. The eras were too distant from each other for them to work as matching accessories. But she managed to give off the impression of control and professionalism as she turned the bronze-looking blade in her hands.

“We may not know why the two of you gained the immunities that you have,” she said in a low voice, “but this blade was forged specifically for the first War. Equally effective against angels and demons. It was made to wound our true forms, not just the corporeal ones. To harm and destroy on a deeper level.” She grinned, though the expression never reached her eyes. “I believe that makes it rather similar to the flaming sword that you lost, traitor.”

Aziraphale swallowed hard, wincing as Hastur pressed the knife a little tighter. He felt a thin line of pain that made him suspect that the demon had broken the skin.

“Now, you have a choice. You can try warning the Serpent and I will slaughter him with this sword. Slowly. I will take my time and we will make you watch every second of it. And if anything can still destroy him, I suspect it will be a weapon designed to destroy an angel or a demon equally. And even if he proves able to survive it as he did holy water, I doubt it’ll be painless when I drive my sword through his true self.”

Her words stole Aziraphale’s breath away. What she was describing would definitely kill Crowley. No, more than that. It would destroy him completely.

But it wouldn’t be fast. He wouldn’t melt away within seconds as demons would with holy water. He would suffer. Aziraphale had seen those who were hurt by those blades during the War. There was a reason that Aziraphale could never bring himself to harm anyone with his flaming sword and would rather give his weapon away to someone who needed it more.

Or,” she continued, “you can remain quiet. And I’ll use this instead.” Michael drew a thin knife from the other sheath. “A perfectly ordinary human blade. Discorporation, not permanent destruction. I’ll even be kind enough not to draw it out longer than necessary. Torture is outside my job description, after all. His punishment belongs to Hell.”

“And they have plans for him,” said Hastur in Aziraphale’s ear. “Not the type of torture that I would have preferred, but he’s not wiggling out of this one.”

Horror gripped his chest tightly. Aziraphale couldn’t let Hell take Crowley. What if they tried holy water again? Or some other form of torture? Crowley might complain about Hell’s lack of imagination, but torture and pain was their specialty. Aziraphale couldn’t let that happen. Every part of him rebelled against the idea of Crowley suffering. Aziraphale would turn himself over to Satan himself before he would allow them to harm Crowley.

But a small and pragmatic part of him point out that at least Crowley would survive. Torture, pain, and punishment would be awful and it broke the angel’s heart to even consider letting something happen to someone that he loved so dearly. But he would survive.

Michael was a warrior. One who embraced that role fully rather than handing over her weapon to the banished and vulnerable humans as they left the garden. Even if Aziraphale tried to warn Crowley, she would be on him before the demon reached the door. And she would tear through his corporeal body to his true self, using the angelic weapon to wound and mutilate him enough that there would be no hope of recovery. But he wouldn’t be immediately destroyed either. Michael promised to make it slow. And she would make Aziraphale watch it unfold.

If the choice was between Crowley being tortured and him being permanently destroyed, there really wasn’t much of a choice. Because if Crowley survived, then that would mean that Aziraphale could still save him. There was still a chance as long as the demon lived.

It was the smart decision. It was the only one that offered a sliver of hope.

“Angel?”

Crowley’s voice made Aziraphale stiffen. All those rationalizations that had flashed through his mind evaporated. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stand by and let them hurt Crowley. He loved him too much. Maybe if he lunged forward, ignoring the damage from the knife, he might be able to break free of Hastur and tackle Michael. They wouldn’t expect it from him. Aziraphale might be able to buy Crowley some time. Assuming that the stubborn demon actually took advantage of it.

“Cro—”

The shout and attempted lunge were interrupted by the sharp edge digging a little harder into his neck and Hastur’s free hand digging into Aziraphale’s hair, yanking his head back. A thin trickle of blood dripped down his throat. But even the aborted warning was enough to catch Crowley’s attention. Aziraphale heard racing footsteps.

Why? Why couldn’t he be running away?

“Aziraphale,” called Crowley as he reached the backroom.

Even through his sunglasses, his expression was easy for Aziraphale to see. He saw the shock and horror on the demon’s face when he spotted Hastur holding a knife to Aziraphale’s throat. Then the expression shifted into protective rage as he stalked forward. He clearly intended to risk a fight against a Duke of Hell to protect the angel. Because six thousand years had already proven that he would always protect Aziraphale. And just as obvious was that Crowley missed the Archangel tucked just out of his line of sight, letting her slip behind him.

The pained gasp, the thin blade stabbing into his back and sliding between the demon’s ribs into something vital with practiced ease, sounded deafening. An actual scream would have been less gut-wrenching. Michael stabbed him twice more before letting Crowley tumble forward and collapse on the ground. His clothes hid the spreading wetness, but the floor started turning red. Aziraphale couldn’t tell if the broken sound came from Crowley as he lay bleeding on the ground or from himself as he watched it happen.

No. Please, no. Even if it was only discorporation, seeing that much blood pouring out of him and hearing the gurgle with each choked breath broke his heart. He couldn’t bear seeing Crowley like—

Pain cut into Aziraphale, a straight line that sliced across his neck in a sudden motion. A horrified choked sound that might have been a name erupted from Crowley. Then Aziraphale fell as Hastur shoved him. The angel clutched at his slit throat, trying to stop the flow.

His head swam. Copper in his mouth. He couldn’t focus. Not enough to heal even if they allowed him to try. He was losing too much too fast.

Movement. Crowley pushed himself forward, towards Aziraphale. He’d lost his sunglasses in the fall, his solid yellow eyes barely able to focus and drowning in pain. But still trying to reach him.

Blood. So much blood spilling out. From both of them.

Then Michael planted a foot on Crowley’s back, driving a pained whimper out of him and pinning the demon in place. Her expression made it seem like she’d stepped on something foul and unpleasant, which she probably believed. She dug her heel a little harder into his back, where she’d already stabbed him. That didn’t stop Crowley’s hand from stretching in Aziraphale’s direction.

“No crawling away, Crawly,” said Hastur.

Sound had turned fuzzy and Aziraphale’s vision was growing foggy, the edges darkening with each passing gasp. Breathing was a struggle, pain throbbed beneath his clutching hand, and blood loss was taking a rapid toll. He knew that he would lose consciousness in a few moments. And his corporeal body would expire soon after.

If he was going to discorporate anyway, then he wanted… wanted…

Aziraphale reached out his free hand, but his red-stained fingertips barely missed Crowley’s…

The darkness at the edges of his vision crept over and swallowed Aziraphale completely. Darkness and silence engulfed him as his physical body succumbed, barely out of reach of his demon.

And then there was light.

Which was the start of Aziraphale’s prolonged and unwanted stay in the unnerving white and silent room. He was painfully discorporated alongside Crowley before being locked away. Not a single part of the entire process was pleasant. Somehow having his physical body shattered by stepping into a summoning circle without proper preparations was easier and less traumatic than having his throat slit. Aziraphale’s low opinion on the entire discorporation businesses had not improved and he would definitely do his best to avoid bleeding to death again at any point in the future.

The strange tingling, wobbly, and faintly nauseating sensation began to fade and Aziraphale felt more solid than he had in a while. He slowly opened his eyes as Adam released his hand. Aziraphale relaxed as the boy smiled. Adam seemed satisfied with his efforts and everything seemed to be in its proper place. Even if it was a brand-new and freshly crafted physical body, it felt exactly the same as the one that he’d occupied for six thousand years. And the last one that Adam made him during Fail-mageddon. Comfortable and familiar like a well-worn set of clothes.

“Feeling better?” asked Wensleydale.

Smiling, Aziraphale said, “Yes. Thank you. For everything.” Standing up carefully, he continued, “We shouldn’t linger. I don’t want to imagine how the other angels would react to your presence.”

And Crowley. He needed to find Crowley and rescue him. He couldn’t linger around Heaven while Crowley was in danger. The very thought made Aziraphale’s newly-restored heart twist.

“I won’t let those other angels do anything to you guys,” said Pepper sharply, raising the sword.

“My dear, while I appreciate the offer of your defense, perhaps it would be best for me to take the sword for now.” Aziraphale held his hand out towards her. “I know you are capable, but I happen to have a tad more experience with the blade. And to be honest, I would rather not encounter any of my former colleges empty handed. I am rather… miffed with them at the moment.”[24]

Pepper hesitated a moment, her eyes searching him carefully. Then she gave a short nod and handed over the short sword.

The moment that his fingers wrapped around the hilt, Aziraphale felt power hum through the blade. Familiar ever after so long. Like riding a bicycle. You never really forget. He gave the weapon a brief flick and flames ran along the length, earning appreciative gasps from the children.

“Let’s get moving then. I can’t imagine that the escape attempt will remain secret for very long,” said Aziraphale.

Adam nodded before glancing down and said, “Stay close, Dog. And if anyone tries to sneak up on us, let us know.”

The soft bark sounded like an affirmative and the boy seemed to accept it as such. Aziraphale didn’t know how a normal dog’s senses might compare to that of a hellhousnd wandering around Heaven, but he would accept any assistance possible. Then, for the first time since the other angels locked him away in the horribly quiet room, physics didn’t bend and twist to keep him trapped in the middle. He was able to approach the waiting open door.

Aziraphale didn’t need to breathe; even with his restored corporeal body, he was still an angel. But he couldn’t help sighing in relief as he stepped out of his bright and silent prison.

“The secret backdoor is a few floors down,” said Brian. Then we take the stairway back to Earth.”

“Oh… I… I would certainly like to know more about how all of you managed to find your way into Heaven,” said Aziraphale, an even mixture of nervous and curious, “but I’m afraid that will have to wait until we’re safe. Be sure to remind me to ask about the story later.”

The children clustered around Aziraphale, half-leading and half-following. And definitely trying to protect him. Their behavior made that intention clear. None of them were running, but they were moving a bit too quickly to be casual. Urgency seemed to nip at their heels.

Footsteps bounced and echoed around them. More glorious sounds. Aziraphale both appreciated hearing everything once again and dreading the attention that the noise might draw towards them.

Their journey down the staircase was unhindered. And that only ramped up the angel’s anxiety. He didn’t particularly want to run into anyone. He knew it wouldn’t end well. But the suspense was a new form of torture. Something was going to happen. Aziraphale could feel it. And he almost wished that it would happen already and let him face it.

Crowley. He tried to think only about Crowley. He was in Hell and needed Aziraphale. They needed to escape Heaven so that he could reach Crowley.

“This floor,” said Wensleydale abruptly. “It was on this floor.”

Brian asked, “How can you tell? Almost everything here looks the same.”

“I counted.”

They eased away from the staircase cautiously. Heaven always felt too big, too empty, too open, and too suffocating during all of his visits. He’d previously been ashamed by that feeling in the past since Heaven was meant to be his home and somewhere that all angels felt at ease. That discomfort seemed worse now. Aziraphale didn’t like it. He felt too exposed. Too vulnerable.

Adam tugged on the angel’s hand and said, “Come on, Uncle Aziraphale. We’re almost there. The exit’s on the other side.”

Sudden sharp barking, echoing loudly in a way that the angel was still growing used to again, was all the warning they had. But it was enough for Aziraphale to spin around and push the children behind him. He held his flaming sword up defensively, old instincts kicking in without thoughts. Aziraphale tried not to flinch as he spotted Gabriel, Michael, and Sandalphon stepping off the stairs where he and the Them had just been. Uriel remained back, watching cautiously. Their expressions were even mixtures of surprise, annoyance, anger, and confusion.

“Well, this is a fine mess you’ve made of things, Aziraphale,” said Gabriel. “I thought we were making some real progress on your rehabilitation. Then you decided to toss away this chance that we’ve offered you to make things right.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “And what are these small humans doing here, leaving everything so… sticky and scruffy? They look familiar.”

“You showed up on the airbase,” said Brian helpfully. “After we got rid of the Horsemen.”

Pepper added sharply, “You called Adam a ‘brat’ and tried to make him end the world.”

Aziraphale considered pulling out his wings. Just to give the children a bit more cover. A little more protection. Though it wouldn’t work if they insisted on trying to antagonize the other angels. And he was familiar enough with these specific children to know that nothing that he could possibly say would keep them from speaking their minds. Kids who back down in the face of authority or confrontation did not stop the Day of Reckoning before puberty.

He would protect them. They came all the way to Heaven to free him. Aziraphale would do everything in his power to ensure they would make it home safe.

“We’re here to take Uncle Aziraphale home,” said Adam firmly.

He spoke as if he was merely stating an obvious fact. The sky was blue. Pears were delicious. The Serpent of Eden was curious, creative, and wonderful. And they were taking Aziraphale back to Earth.

No arguments. No exceptions. And no changing his mind.

“Depending on snot-nosed children to assist you?” Gabriel grimaced slightly, as if he was uncomfortable with the entire confrontation and wanted it to be over soon. “That sounds… How would you describe it, Sandalphon?”

“Pathetic,” it said.[25]

Dog was growling at their side. A low and dangerous sound. Or at least as low and dangerous as a small and friendly dog could produce. He recognized a threat. And despite what he might have become when Adam named him, Dog intended to protect. Not merely because he started as a hellhound. But he was the very essence of a dog and dogs were the very concept of loyalty given a furry shape and a wagging tail.

“Unsurprising,” said Michael. Even without a weapon in her hand or in a sheath at her side, Aziraphale shivered at her ruthless gaze. “He couldn’t handle a single demon on his own and was in fact tempted by him into disobedience. Needing the protection of children is merely further proof of his weakness.”

Aziraphale didn’t care what Heaven thought of him. That’s what he told himself silently as he stood between the other angels and the children under his protection, sword in hand. He didn’t care what Michael accused him of or how weak she saw him as. He wasn’t on their side anymore, so it didn’t matter.

But thousands of years of trying to be what they wanted and expected of him meant it still stung a little.

“Now, I know that you don’t want to turn this entire thing into an unpleasant mess,” said Gabriel, grinning a little too brightly, “because despite your interference and mistakes, you like to think that you’re a good little angel. You want to be a proper one. You want to be good. So here’s what we’ll do to sort this out. We’ll send the small humans away and we’ll settle you back in that nice quiet room to contemplate the mistakes that led you astray. And maybe in a century or two you’ll be ready for us to forgive you for those mistakes. Then you can redeem yourself properly and we can welcome you back into the fold.” He spread his hands in front of him. “Now doesn’t that sound nice?”

His suggestion, which Gabriel spoke as if it was the most reasonable idea in the universe, didn’t exactly work as planned. No one immediately fell to their knees, begging for forgiveness and mercy and the kindness of Heaven. And some of his dignity immediately crumbled as a small red apple smacked Gabriel right in the face. Aziraphale glanced briefly over his shoulder to see Pepper with a glare and an outstretched arm from her rather accurate throw while Wensleydale finished passing out fruit to the rest of Them.

“You will learn proper respect,” said Sandalphon, starting forward with a scowl.

But a localized and small-scale version of the retribution that it delivered on the doomed people in the past did not have the chance to come to fruition. The angel didn’t manage more than a couple steps before Dog’s ominous growls became barking and snarling. Dog lunged forward.

And for a moment, he wasn’t a mortal creature of flesh and blood. He was darkness, hellfire, fangs, and power. He was what he began as before he was named; larger and stronger than his normal canine shape. The hellhound snapped at the angel, driving it back.

The change only lasted a moment. Barely a heartbeat. But that moment was enough. Sandalphon stumbled back to Gabriel’s side before Dog returned to his position at Adam’s heel.

“We know all about respect,” said Brian, apparently unconcerned by Dog’s brief transformation.[26] “Don’t think you do though. And I don’t think you’ve really thought this out properly either.”

Adam nodded and said, “You see, we’ve talked with Uncle Crowley a bit over the last couple of years and if you don’t let us and Uncle Aziraphale go, we could cause you a lot of trouble.”

“Even if you still have some of your abilities as the Anti-Christ, you are standing in Heaven itself,” said Michael. “There is a limit to what you can accomplish here. What form of ‘trouble’ do you believe that you can cause that we cannot counter?”

Tossing the apple in his hand and catching it a couple times, he said, “We can ask you a few questions.”

 


 

24 The term “miffed” in this case was not the most accurate word for Aziraphale’s feelings concerning his fellow angels in general and several Archangels specifically. But the more appropriate wording was not one that Aziraphale felt comfortable using, especially in front of a group of children. Perhaps in other circumstances he would have used the correct term for his emotions, which would have completely stunned Crowley in the process due to the demon missing the first instance of Aziraphale cursing in six thousand years. But it wouldn’t be fair to make Crowley miss a second chance at hearing it. So for now, “miffed” would have to do. [ ]

25 Human pronouns and gender didn’t exactly translate accurately when it came to angels and demons. They didn’t technically have genders naturally and human pronouns tended to be too limited to fit. This resulted in a variety of reactions and attitudes towards the concepts. Some picked a favorite to go by, finding one that was the closest to suiting them and not having any interest in adjusting it further (Gabriel). Others chose one merely out of convenience and never bother to change because they still didn’t have strong feelings for any of them (Aziraphale). Some adjusted their preferences over time as new possibilities were introduced, zeroing in on the ideal fit (Beelzebub). Others liked to shift through a variety depending on their mood, enjoying all the different ones available (Crowley). And yet other just preferred to avoid the entire mess entirely. Sandalphon was one of the angels who held no interest in accepting human pronouns or gender even when forced to deal with humanity, finding the entire concept to be pointless. [ ]

26 Compared to the rest of the strange parts of their lives, it was barely worth mentioning. [ ]

Chapter Text

The whispers at the back of his mind, tempting Adam with power and glory and a blood-soaked destiny ruling over a broken world, were louder than he felt comfortable with. But he could still ignore them. Not block them out, but at least ignore them. With Dog pressed against his leg, with his friends clustered around him, and Aziraphale standing protectively in front of him, Adam could remember who he truly was. Adam could hold onto himself even as he tossed an apple a few times, trying to look like he knew what he was doing.

He had a plan. One that Crowley would probably enjoy.

“Questions?” asked the rude angel with the purple eyes.

Raising a hand, Brian said, “Yeah, we’ve got a few questions for you guys.”

“Like who are you?” demanded Pepper. “You try to end the world a couple years ago and kidnap our angel, but you don’t even take the time to tell us a name or something?”

“Gabriel, Michael, Sandalphon, and Uriel.” Aziraphale pointed his sword at each one as he identified them. “My… old bosses, I suppose you could say.”

Frowning in confusion, Wensleydale said, “Michael? Isn’t that a boy’s name?”

“That’s sexist,” said Pepper. “Girls can call themselves whatever they want.”[27]

“She’s not a girl.” Adam tossed the apple to his other hand. “They’re not boys and girls. They’re angels. That’s different.”

“Humans and their obsession with gender and which dangly, squishy parts they’ve got,” sneered Sandalphon, practically rolling its eyes.

“And we’re getting distracted,” he continued. “I’ve got a bigger question for them.” Adam crossed his arms. “Why did you lock Uncle Aziraphale up? Who told you that’s what you were supposed to do?”

“He betrayed Heaven and the Great Plan.” Michael’s voice was cold and even. “He turned against us and ignored thousands of years of preparation. He is a traitor. There needs to be consequences.”

“But no one told you to do that,” said Pepper, “did they? Were there rules that told you to do that? Written down somewhere in a rulebook? Or did you decide to do it on your own?”

Wensleydale straightened his glasses and said, “Doesn’t the bible have some important stuff about judging people? It’s supposed to be God’s job. Not yours.”

The four resident angels didn’t look particularly happy listening to the children and their questions. Gabriel wore a professional, clinical, and cold expression but there was a sharpness in his eyes and a tension around his mouth like he swallowed a lemon. And the sharpness wasn’t hidden quite as well in Michael, Sandalphon, and Uriel. The only reason that they were probably still listening to Them was the presence of Dog and Aziraphale holding his sword at the ready. But Adam thought there might be something else. Not yet doubt, but close enough for him to keep going.

“And if God was angry about the world not ending and Uncle Aziraphale wanting to be on Earth’s side, wouldn’t you know?” asked Adam. “He didn’t though. He didn’t… He didn’t tell you to kidnap Uncle Aziraphale and trap him in that room alone. Or to do any other punishment. Like… Like…”

“Like Falling.” Pepper glared at the other angels, looking like she was considering throwing another apple at the increasingly uneasy audience. “You probably want to try that next. We won’t let you make him Fall.”

“We can’t.”

The other angels spun around to glare at Uriel.[28] They flinched slightly under the intensity of the group’s combined disapproval, but Uriel was left with no choice except to continue forward. They’d already broken the angels’ united front of silence and superiority.

“We cannot make the traitor Fall. Only one can cause an angel to Fall and our Lord has not yet done so,” said Uriel.

“There. You see? If Uncle Aziraphale was really that big of a traitor by not wanting to destroy the world, if he went against the…” Adam frowned in confusion. “What’s the word again? The one from the airbase? The one you like saying a bunch and Uncle Crowley rolls his eyes?”

“Ineffable,” said Aziraphale, his wings relaxing slightly as they folded against his back. “The ineffable plan.”

“Right. That’s it. If he went against the ineffable plan thing and it was that bad, Uncle Aziraphale would have Fallen. Every other angel that did something really bad or disobeyed God or rebelled against God or questioned God or stuff like that ended up Falling and becoming demons. Messing up really important plans would qualify, right? But he didn’t Fall, so that means it wasn’t wrong.”

Brian nodded and said, “Sounds logical to me.”

“It was wrong,” said Gabriel firmly. “Why are we listening to children?”

“Actually, you’re listening because you know we’re telling the truth.” Wensleydale handed his apple to Pepper. “And that’s the problem. You know what we’re saying is true and it makes you second-guess a bunch of stuff.”

“If God didn’t make Uncle Aziraphale Fall, then all of you couldn’t kill him and Uncle Crowley after that, which you also probably did because you were mad and not because someone told you to do it, and then we get in here even when living people aren’t supposed to do it, then that probably means God isn’t that mad at him about the whole thing in the first place. Too many impossible things helping him out. Can’t be just chance. Someone doesn’t want him punished. That’s just logic too.”

Adam took a bite of his apple, using it as an excuse to look around. He spotted a few more angels further up the staircase. They must have gathered there to see what was going on. Everyone liked poking their nose into things. They weren’t approaching further. Just subtly eavesdropping.

Good. The more people who were listening, the more people who might start thinking. And the more reasons for Aziraphale’s old bosses to want them to leave sooner.

“Claiming to know for certain what She wants is treading on the edge of blasphemy,” said Gabriel. “Unsurprising coming from the Anti-Christ, but dangerous none the less.”

“Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Adam stared firmly at the angel. “Or maybe you just think you know better than God.”

“How dare—”

“You keep trying to punish Uncle Aziraphale even when God doesn’t want him to Fall and when something protects him from hellfire,” interrupted Adam. “You keep doing that because you’re mad. Because you think God was wrong not to punish him and you know better.”

Aziraphale said, “Pride goes before the fall.”

“We do not think that we know better than our Lord,” said Michael in a scandalized tone. “We are trying to obey Her plan and to prevent further interference.”

“At this point, it sounds more like you are following your plans rather than God’s,” he said, Aziraphale raising his sword a little more as he stared them down. “I never turned against Her Plan. I couldn’t do that even if I tried. Only Heaven’s plans for the world. And your plans are merely an excuse to fight a pointless war and your claim that it is Her will is an increasingly flimsy façade.”

Brian pressed something into Adam’s hand, causing him to glance down. He recognized it instantly from before and it gave him an idea of a backup plan. Looking back up, he could tell that other angels appeared uncomfortable and more were carefully edging down the staircase quietly. They were listening to the questions and observations. But Gabriel, Michael, and Sandalphon still held their stubborn anger. Adam knew that he might have to use that backup plan.

Crowley would approve of any backup plan that involved a lot of bluffing.

“We could stand around here all day, asking questions about why you’re trying so hard to cross the line and Fall,” said Adam before taking another bite of his apple. He gestured towards the eavesdropping angels on the staircase, drawing everyone’s attention to the unexpected audience. “Of course, the longer we’re here, the more that everyone will hear about that stuff and start wondering. And maybe they’ll start doubting all the angels in charge.”

“Things could turn a little,” said Aziraphale slowly, “rebellious.”

“Or you can let us and Uncle Aziraphale go home and leave everyone alone from now on,” he continued. “That’s better, right?”

Sandalphon took a step forward, eyeing Dog cautiously, and said, “Or we could silence you permanently. Humans are rather fragile.”

Adam lifted the small object that Brian gave him. The one that he “borrowed” from Jasmine Cottage and from Newt specifically. He saw several eyes widened as they recognized what it was and drew the obvious conclusions. And when the boy lit the match, Adam tried not to feel completely like the Anti-Christ as several angels took a frightened step back.

“I don’t know if I can create hellfire,” he said, holding the burning match up. “Never tried. Never wanted to. Never wanted to be the Anti-Christ in the first place. But it seems like something I could probably do. And if you try to hurt my friends or family, we’ll find out if it works.”

The threat, the menace, and the ruthlessness of the boy’s words fed into the darker parts of him. He could feel the power trying to answer, metaphorically chomping at the bit. The whispers in his mind to destroy them, cast them down, raze everything in sight, slaughter your enemies refused to stop. Adam knew that if they called his bluff, he might be able to live up to his threat. But he didn’t know if he would be able to stop afterwards. He needed to get back to Tadfield. Brian and Wensleydale drew a little closer, brushing against his arms enough to remind Adam of home, family, friends, and a wonderful world that he loved. But he still needed to end this soon.

Adam didn’t know if it was the threat and the lit match, Pepper’s death glare, Brian and Wensleydale holding up the remaining apples in a silent promise, Dog’s quiet growling, or Aziraphale still aiming his flaming sword at them. But the four angry, uncomfortable, and stubborn angels slowly eased out of their aggressive stances. Thy exchanged looks until Gabriel turned back towards the group with cold disdain.

“If the traitor refused to accept our kind offer of redemption,” he said evenly, “then we won’t waste any further time on the attempt.” Gabriel met Aziraphale’s gaze firmly as he did his best to ignore the suspicious glares from Them. “Even though no one truly believes their childish fantasies, the small humans might have a minor point concerning a lack of clarification about handling you. We cannot destroy you or make you Fall for your actions currently. Instead, we will be merciful. We will leave you alone as long as you, the rebellious Anti-Christ, the hellhound mutt, and the gang of brats—”

Hey,” snapped Brian. “That’s rude.”

“—leave right now. And once you return to Earth, I recommend that you remain there. For your own safety, of course. If you return to Heaven, you may not find a warm welcome.”

Taking a step back and urging the kids to start edging towards their secret exit, Aziraphale said, “I find those conditions more than acceptable.” He lowered his sword a little and finally tucked his wings out of sight, but Aziraphale didn’t completely relax his guard. “Earth and humanity are actually quite preferable to your idea of hospitality.”

 


 

The nightmarish loops weren’t identical. Crowley’s imagination was vast and elaborate. Even being unable to remember the previous versions didn’t prevent a wide variety of horrible fears and emotional trauma. But even when the scenarios changed, the ultimate outcome was always the same.

The current loop began with Crowley trapped in Heaven, strapped to a chair and unable to move.

He didn’t wonder about how he ended up restrained or in Heaven. His mind stumbled away from the circumstances and left him focused solely on the present. Tight ropes bit into his arms, his chest, his wrists, and his legs. Perhaps he would have been able to wiggle free if he shifted to a more serpentine shape, but that transformation remained beyond him at the moment. For reasons that he couldn’t seem to explain, everything ached deeply and his energy had long since melted away. He was too exhausted to shift into a different form.

He didn’t wonder about his condition. His thoughts avoided it. He couldn’t focus much beyond the immediate. Though if he did try to rationalize his current state, Crowley would have likely blamed it on the Archangels in the large white room.

There were several angels present. He’d glimpsed Uriel behind his chair, one hand braced to keep him from doing something idiotic like knocking it over with his struggles. Pacing slowly back and forth across the polished floor in front of Crowley, smug and self-righteous, was Gabriel. Neither held his attention much. Not when Michael and Sandalphon were slowly dragging a limp and unconscious figure towards a tall pillar of fire.

A pillar of hellfire.

“Did you really believe that we wouldn’t figure it out?” asked Gabriel coldly, his voice cutting through the roar of the flames and Crowley’s desperate shouts towards the motionless Aziraphale. “I didn’t expect him to be such a good actor though. He almost pulled it off. But you made a mistake. You’re the reason we realized it in the end.”

“Let him go,” he snarled. “Take me if you want. Angels are supposed to kill demons. Do it. Go ahead. Just leave him alone. The whole thing was my fault anyway. He didn’t do a thing to mess up your stupid apocalypse. Blame me, not him.”

As exhausted and sore as he felt, Crowley twisted and wrenched at his restraints as they kept dragging Aziraphale closer and closer to the hellfire. What the ropes didn’t bruise on him, they tore and scraped at his flesh. But they didn’t loosen. And Uriel didn’t let the chair fall over.

He couldn’t let this happen. He couldn’t let them hurt his angel. He had to break free. Or convince them to let Aziraphale go. Maybe they would force the angel to do paperwork in Heaven for all eternity, which would break his spirit and turn him into a dull shadow of his wonderful angel, but he would be alive. That would be enough. If that’s all that Crowley could do to save him, then so be it. But he needed to do something to protect Aziraphale.

He couldn’t let this happen. He had to save him.

Then he saw it. Aziraphale’s lolling head started to rise. A weak movement, but a deliberate one. Then his eyes fluttered a few times. He was waking up.

Horror and helplessness clawed desperately in his chest. He didn’t know if it was better or worse that his angel was waking up. Because Crowley still couldn’t break free and the other angels weren’t stopping. He couldn’t save him.

“Aziraphale,” he called, his voice raw and broken. “Angel, please.”

He couldn’t save him.

Crowley threw himself forward as much as possible, jerking sharply against the ropes holding him to the chair. Pain shot through his left shoulder at one particularly violent attempt, causing him to snarl out a three-thousand-year-old curse. He suspected that he dislocated or at least wrenched it badly. That didn’t stop him from lunging against the restraints once again. And again. The physical pain didn’t matter.

Aziraphale!

His foggy eyes starting to clear, Aziraphale managed to meet Crowley’s frantic and terrified gaze. Time seemed to stop, the moment suspended like a raindrop on the tip of a leaf on the verge of falling. He could see every detail of his angel perfectly. His ruffled clothes from their manhandling, his pale hair frazzled and messy, and the way that the bright flames cast deep shadows across his face. The hellfire reflected in his eyes in a way that made them shine even brighter than normal. Crowley took all of it in. Then Aziraphale started slowly opening his mouth, a word already forming on his lips.

Then Sandalphon and Michael yanked Aziraphale upright just long enough to shove him forward into the roaring pillar of hellfire. And the screaming started.

Two screams of absolute agony, one physical and one emotional. Deafening, broken, wretched, and inhuman. They seemed to continue for an eternity. The sounds wove together until no one could tell where one ended and the other began. Only one united force of raw and endless pain.

Until one voice fell silent, leaving Crowley crying and screaming out alone in grief, horror, guilt, and loss. The strained and heartbroken sound gradually crumbled into broken sobs.

He slumped weakly against the ropes. He couldn’t even collapse to the ground from misery. The restraints wouldn’t let him. His breathing hitched as Crowley wept weakly. His body shook with painful sobs. There was no use fighting it.

His angel… Not his angel… Aziraphale

There was nothing left. The pillar of hellfire scorched away every trace of the angel. He saw it happen. He could smell it.

Crowley felt the intense heat pressing against his face, but he felt cold. Like ice forming in his core. Ice cold enough to burn through Crowley and sharp enough to stab like a dagger.

“He didn’t have to die,” said Gabriel, not a hint of mercy or sympathy in his voice. “If you had never corrupted Aziraphale from his purpose, there would have never been a reason to do this. Or if you could have managed to keep your little switch a secret. But you failed and we found out. You let this happen. But what else should we have expected. A demon could never protect anything important. They can only corrupt, taint, ruin, and destroy. And you destroyed this angel. Not us. You.”

Crowley shook his head violently, choking and sobbing brokenly. Tears fell unhindered. His face was soaked with them.

It hurt. Everything hurt. A raw and gaping wound filled with jagged ice. He couldn’t breathe, his throat strained from screaming and exhaustion dragging him down. Crowley silently begged for the other angels to stop waiting around and destroy him too. He wanted the pain to end.

He failed Aziraphale. He couldn’t protect him. But it was more than that. Crowley lost his angel due to his own stupidity.

The only thing that he wanted now was to follow his angel’s fate.

But that mercy didn’t come. Crowley was left to drown in his own misery without any sign of relief. There was no escape.

Eventually exhaustion began to overcome the heartbreak, loss, and sorrow. And as that balance shifted, his thoughts and memories grew foggy, indistinct, and confused. Tears slowed as he forgot their cause, though the emotional agony and all forms of exhaustion lingered. They weighed on him heavily.

 Too heavy. The accumulative damage was breaking him in ways that neither angels nor demons could normally encounter. Though none had experienced the self-destructive limits of Crowley’s imagination turned against himself either. Even forgetting did nothing to slow or diminish what was happening.

And thus the 1,529th nightmare loop drew to an end. Which marked the start of another attempt to save Aziraphale that was doomed to failure.

 


 

If someone chose to stand across the road from the church on that mildly overcast day in Tadfield, they might see a group of four energetic and relieved children pulling an overwhelmed bookshop owner out the door while a dog barked eagerly at their feet. Then they might see them hug the blond man, chattering between each other with an air of victory. Witnesses might be too distracted by the heartwarming scene to notice the strained and tired expression on the man’s face or the sword[29] dangling from his weak grip. Of course, if someone were to stand across the road to watch their return to Earth, he would also be in plain view of Them as well.

Unless his minor abilities to affect reality included a talent for making people ignore him.

Warlock stared at the angel, blinking rapidly against the burning and prickling sensation from his eyes. Outside of his Dreams, this was the first time that he’d seen his old gardener in years. The last time was at his eleventh birthday and he didn’t even recognize him as the magician until afterwards. Seeing Brother Fra— Aziraphale… It made his chest ache. Something twisting and squeezing deep inside him, hurting in a way that he didn’t want to consider.

He wanted to run over there. Warlock wanted to wrap his arms around the angel like when he was a little boy. He wanted to shake Aziraphale and beg him to explain why Warlock wasn’t good enough for them. He wanted to scream, to cry, to throw things and break stuff, to do something. There were too many things that he wanted to do.

But he didn’t do anything except stand there, struggling with the tightness in his throat and chest.

He knew why they left. The reason was the curly-haired boy being hugged by Aziraphale, the angel giving him a fond and thankful smile. Warlock was the Wrong Boy. Adam was everything that Warlock wanted to be and yet could never be. Adam was the one that they wanted. The one that they loved; the angel held him close the way that Brother Francis did when Warlock tumbled into some thorny plants, trying to calm the child until Nanny arrived. Aziraphale clearly loved Adam and the feeling was mutual.

It was Adam. It had always been Adam. Warlock was just the result of a simple mix-up and should have never been involved.

He shouldn’t intrude. They didn’t need Warlock around. Adam and his friends could handle everything. And Pepper had already made it obvious that he wasn’t wanted. He wasn’t even completely certain why he’d lingered as long as he had, though part of him knew the answer. Warlock had wandered around blindly for a couple of hours before being drawn toward the church for a single reason: he needed to make sure it worked.

But it did. Aziraphale was safe. Because of the others. Why did Warlock even come in the first place?

Warlock watched them gradually move down the road vaguely in the direction of the Jasmine Cottage, Aziraphale looking overwhelmed and twitching at every sound. They saved the angel without needing him. They would save Nanny too. Because Adam was the right one. He was the one that everyone wanted and who possessed all the power promised to him by destiny, even if Adam took all of it for granted. He would fix everything. There was no reason for Warlock to stay.

There was no reason for him at all.

He didn’t immediately leave. He watched Aziraphale until he was out of sight. Then Warlock scrubbed some of the dampness from his face and settled his earbuds back in place. The familiar rhythm of “We Will Rock You” pounded in his ears. He tried to focus on the music and nothing else. He especially tried to ignore the aching pressure in his chest, like a tight fist squeezing on his heart.

Then, shifting his backpack a little and burying his hands in his jacket pocket, Warlock stomped away in the opposite direction. He decided that it was time to start searching for a way back.

 


 

27 Yes, they can. And so can boys. Dogs tend to have less say in the matter, but they rarely worry about their names too much anyway. Just as long as they are told that they are Good Dogs. [ ]

28 The kids did wonder why their face looked like it was covered in golden flecks. Several of the angels looked not quite human since they didn’t bother hiding the signs as much in Heaven, but Uriel’s traits were the most obvious to Them. It was a true testament on the seriousness of the situation that no one asked why Uriel apparently dunked their face in a vat of glitter. [ ]

29 Currently extinguished. [ ]

Chapter Text

As the William Tell Overture came to an end, Warlock tugged his earbuds out and took a moment to glance both ways expectantly. He'd been sitting on the bench for a while and there was still no sign of a bus. And he was left waiting around as the skies continued to grow more and more overcast. It wasn't as if he had anything else to do. As soon as he could catch a bus to somewhere with an airport, Warlock could put this entire thing behind him. Just as everyone put Warlock behind them once they found the real Anti-Christ.

He knew that he must look like the picture of misery. His knees were drawn up and he couldn't stop sniffling. And while Warlock knew it made him look like a little kid instead of a recently-turned thirteen-year-old, his cheeks were covered in drying tears and his eyes were red. He couldn't help it. He looked like the picture of misery because he felt miserable.

Warlock scrubbed his eyes frantically with his sleeve. He couldn't stop picturing Adam hugging Brother Francis— Aziraphale. Warlock never knew their real names, what they truly were, or anything real about his nanny and gardener. All he had were the lies and his Dreams. Adam was the one who they wanted. He was the boy who actually knew them. This was how it was supposed to be. Warlock wasn't supposed to even be there. He didn't matter.

He was just the mistake. The Wrong Boy. He didn't matter to any of them.

"Excuse me. Are you all right?"

His head snapped up in surprise. A blonde woman carrying a pair of cloth bags of shopping was staring straight at him with a worried expression. After a moment, she sat down next to the sniffling boy.

"I don't think I've seen you around before," she said gently. "Are you new to Tadfield?"

Warlock shrugged and mumbled, "Visiting."

"Are you visiting family?"

He hesitated a moment before giving a slow nod. It was the closest explanation that anyone would believe.

"Is that why you're upset?" she asked, maternal concern filling her voice.

Warlock shrugged again. But he uncurled a little, letting his feet drop to the ground. He wrapped his fingers around the strap of his backpack and shifted awkwardly.

"Do you want to talk about it? It might make you feel better."

"It's complicated," he mumbled.

But he wanted to try. Warlock couldn't explain it, but something about the woman made him want to open up. A warm and inviting feeling surrounded her. She felt comforting, like a human personification of a hug from Nanny. He didn't know the woman, but she seemed to care. She seemed to care enough when she saw a someone sitting on a bench and crying like a little kid[30] that she stopped to check on him. And Warlock wanted— needed to untangle the complicated knot of emotions in his chest.

He needed someone to talk to.

"If you help me carry my shopping, I'd be happy to listen," she said. She smiled kindly. "Or I could stay here with you until your parents or a bus comes by. My conscience won't let me leave someone clearly upset sitting alone."

Hesitating the moment, Warlock said, "I can catch a different bus."

The woman handed over one of her bags and they started a casual pace along the road. Warlock tried to sort things out in his head. He wasn't certain how to start. Maybe the beginning would be best.

"I was born near here. No one knew back then, but there was a mix up with the babies and I went home with another family."

She was quiet a moment before asking, "Are you in Tadfield to meet your birth family then?"

Warlock shifted the groceries to his other hand, but didn't immediately answer. A slight breeze made him shiver. It wasn't raining yet, but it felt like a storm was on the horizon. Or maybe it was the storm brewing inside him.

"It explains a lot really. I wasn't my parents' kid. I wasn't the one they wanted. I wasn't the one that anyone wanted," he muttered darkly. "I'm the Wrong Boy. And the right one, the one that ended up with my birth parents? He's perfect. Everyone loves him. Everyone. He's everything that they wanted. And he's everything that I can't be, no matter how hard I try." Warlock's eyes were burning again and his voice came out choked. "Everyone wants him more. They love him and not me. And I don't blame them."

After a few moments of silence, she said, "I'm sorry that you're going through something like this. I can't imagine how confusing and upsetting this must be for you. I don't know you or any of your family members, so I probably don't know everything about what's going on in your life. But I know how I would hope that I would react if I found out my son was switched as a baby." She smiled at him. "I hope that I would react the way that all parents should. But I believe that your parents love you. Both sets do."

"Do not. They never wanted me. They wanted the other boy."

"A mother always loves her son. Whether that means the one that she's never met before and is now meeting for the first time or the one that she adopted without realizing that she adopted him. Both of your mothers love you. And no amount of baby swapping will change that. Just because she found out that you weren't the son that she gave birth to doesn't mean that she would suddenly change her mind. Not after everything."

"They don't care me. Not really. I'm the Wrong Boy."

"Do you honestly believe that anyone could raise a child for years without loving them? That someone could take care of you, watch you grow, teach you, encourage you, and love you for your entire life and then just stop one day and love another boy the exact same way instead?"

Warlock opened his mouth to snap that if she knew anything about the Dowlings, she would know that they didn't really care. They didn't really notice him or even know Warlock. They barely spent time around him. They didn't raise him, so their love was distant and vague. It would be easy to replace him with someone else because they didn't even know who he was. Warlock prepared to snarl all of that out venomously at the maternal and kind woman, the boy hurting and frustrated.

Then he stopped. Thaddeus and Harriet Dowling didn't raise him; they didn't form the loving bond that the woman was describing. But Nanny and Brother Francis did.

They were the ones who were there. For as long as Warlock could remember. Brother Francis would follow him around the garden, introducing him to all the creatures; once he even convinced a deer to let the child pet her fawn. Nanny would read him stories of gruesome murder and vicious demons that would lay waste to the world and then she would look over his schoolwork. They taught him to ride a tricycle, to write his letters and numbers, how to tie his shoes, and the proper way to vanquish an opponent without mercy. There were lullabies, kisses on skinned knees, hugs, kind words and encouragement, and proud smiles. They were there for holidays, bedtimes, sickness, tears, tantrums, nightmares, bright days filled with sunshine, laughter, and everything in between. Maybe they thought he was the Anti-Christ and had to keep an eye on him, but they didn't have to do the rest of it.

And afterwards, when they knew the truth, they didn't have to keep sending letters. They didn't need to send him birthday presents. There was no reason for them to do it. No reason except one.

Could anyone raise a child for years without loving them?

Warlock's free hand brushed against the earbuds of his iPod dangling out of his pocket. His backpack held the weight of a dull book with a reassuring inscription. Both served as physical proof that they never forgot him.

"You think they love me and the Right Boy?" asked Warlock softly.

"There's no right and wrong boy," she said. "There's just two boys who are loved by twice the number of people now."

"I can't be him. I can't be the person that they expected or wanted me to be."

"Then don't be. You don't have to be anything other than what you want to be. No one can decide who you are except you." The woman smiled. "And I'll bet that whoever you choose to be, they'll be so proud of you."

Not everything that the woman was saying was right, but enough seemed to be. And that left Warlock sniffling for a different reason. He didn't know why it seemed to make such a strong impression coming from the blonde woman. Maybe because no one else had told him that he was loved, wanted, and didn't make him feel like he was a mistake. At least, not for a long time. And not from someone who seemed honest.

Or maybe it was just because she felt so maternal, caring, and warm to be around. His own mother didn't feel like this when he was around her. The blonde woman felt like someone who would welcome a hug outside of photo shoots and wouldn't ever be too busy for them.

Warlock hoped that her son appreciated that approachable and open feeling.

"But if you still don't feel certain about all of this, then I think that this is something that you need to talk to them about," she continued. "Your family deserves to know what's going on with you. I'm certain that they would want to help. They love you and would probably want to reassure you themselves."

Warlock nodded and said quietly, "I should probably go find them then. They… They need me. I don't want to let them down."

Nanny and Brother Francis were there for him while Warlock was growing up. Maybe they kept secrets and didn't tell Warlock everything about them, but he knew enough. He knew the important parts. They taught him, supported him, encouraged him, and loved him. And while the gardener might be safe, his nanny was still in trouble. Nanny needed him.

They made him who he was. Both of them. Even if they made some mistakes, they did so much.

Warlock could do this. He knew who he wanted to be.

He carefully handed back over the shopping and muttered a thanks to the woman for her time. Brother Francis always encouraged manners, even if Warlock didn't always listen. He slipped his earbuds back in and let his iPod play.

"Well, I won't back down,

No, I won't back down,

You can stand me up at the gates of hell,

But I won't back down."

A plan already forming in his head, Warlock took off running. Nanny's bedtime stories were about to be very useful. He had a few stops to make first though.

But he knew what to do. He knew how to make this work.

"No, I'll stand my ground,

Won't be turned around,

And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down,

Gonna stand my ground,

And I won't back down."

He knew how to be the person that Nanny and Brother Francis raised him to be, even if he wasn't supposed to be that person after all. And if destiny didn't like it, then that was too bad. If destiny wanted to be his enemy, then it would be crushed under his heel like the rest of his enemies.

"I won't back down. Hey, baby,

There ain't no easy way out.

I won't back down. Hey, I

Will stand my ground,

And I won't back down."

She watched the no-longer sniffling boy run down the street before turning a corner. She smiled, hoping that he would be all right and that he would sort things out with his family. Then Deidre Young shifted her grip on the two bags and continued home.


After interrupting Anathema and Newt's research session with the news of at least one successful rescue[31] and causing the witch to subject Them to a lecture about how dangerous their stunt was,[32] Aziraphale quietly excused himself. Of course Anathema and Newt were both thankful that he was safe and sound. Neither of them was callous nor heartless. But the children putting themselves in danger took priority for the moment. She was still describing exactly how badly it could have gone and the angel needed a little space. A chance to catch his breath and deal with everything that had happened. He slipped out of the cottage and claimed the bench in the garden.

It was overwhelming after apparently two months of Heaven's hospitality. The bright colors of the flowers, the grass, and the sky left him blinking uncomfortably even as he tried to soak it all in. Even the softest sounds seemed impossibly loud. Loud, but welcomed. The wind rustling the trees. Birds singing Distant traffic and aircrafts flying high overhead. Anathema's muffled scolding and Newt's occasional comment, their voices drifting outside. Both the sights and sounds helped reassure him that this was real, that he was actually free.

After everything, it wouldn't have been unexpected to hallucinate the entire rescue and escape.

He sat there silently, breathing in and out. Aziraphale didn't need to breathe, but he wanted to. It was grounding. Just like the sensation of a heartbeat in his newly-restored corporeal body. All the sights, sounds, and feelings helped.

Aziraphale knew that he didn't have much time to straighten out his head. They didn't have much time at all. Heaven would probably hold enough of a grudge to tell Hell what happened. Which meant they could make it harder to reach Crowley. The longer they waited, the harder everything would be. Aziraphale could take a moment to reclaim his footing after everything, but no more than that.

Crowley needed him. While they both watched each other's backs for thousands of years, Crowley was always the one pulling off the more dramatic or dangerous rescues. He was the one protecting Aziraphale over and over again. But this time, Crowley needed him. His demon was in trouble and suffering every moment that they left him there. Aziraphale needed to bring him home.

His hands fiddled and tugged at his coat. There had to be a way to get Crowley back and quickly. Aziraphale knew where the main entrance was, but it would be better to be stealthy. He needed to get in, find Crowley, and get out. He couldn't relax until Crowley was safe.

"Uncle Aziraphale?"

He looked up. Adam sat down next to him on the bench, slumping slightly. The boy scratched Dog's ears briefly as he stared at the angel.

"Are you sure you're all right?" he continued, kicking his legs slightly.

Nodding, Aziraphale said, "I will be. Once Crowley is safe, I'll be fine." Smiling weakly, he asked, "Is Anathema still trying to explain how dangerous it was to run off without a plan?"

"She moved onto telling Brian why he shouldn't 'borrow' things without asking," he said with a shrug. "And we did have a plan. And it worked, right? We got you back."

"You did. And I'm very grateful." Aziraphale closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. "I don't suppose you have any insight on how to sneak into Hell like you did to get into Heaven, do you?"

"That was Lock's idea," he said, which clarified nothing. When Aziraphale glanced at him, Adam was frowning thoughtfully. "But he mentioned something earlier. Something about writing stuff on rocks…?" He bit his bottom lip for a moment before continuing. "Wasn't there some funny saying about paving roads and Hell?"


Bailey's Toys was one of the small second-generation family stores that tended to be choked out of existence by large corporations and internet shopping. And in most places, it would have been driven out of business a little less than a decade before. But just as their ice cream shop was a small business instead of a Baskin-Robbins, Tadfield tended to support a simpler way of life and discourage big-name chain stores from moving in. And that was even before Adam's birth. After his arrival, he subconsciously maintained his idyllic childhood and that included keeping the local toy store in business.

Tiffany was watching the register for her uncle when a dark-haired boy came in. With a stubborn expression, he marched straight in and asked where the summer toys were. Then he examined the merchandise closely, carefully comparing the different versions of the toys. He treated the entire process with the utmost seriousness. She thought it was rather adorable.

"Spending all your birthday money in one place?" she asked, popping the bubble gum in her mouth.

He shrugged as he stacked the different models of brightly-colored molded plastic on the counter.

Tiffany raised her eyebrow at the larger one that he'd picked out. That one could be rather expensive. Kids always drooled over it; multiple settings, ideal for distance, accuracy, and strength. At close range, that model could even sting a little. And it was big enough to last a while, even if it was a bit annoying to prepare.

But parents usually went for the smaller cheaper ones instead. Not the best range or power, but faster and less bulky. And it was ideal for stealth because they were small enough to hide. Some kids like that. Mostly though, it was a question of whether someone wanted quality or quantity.

But this kid seemed determined to have the best of both worlds. The boy had picked out one of the expensive model and two of the smaller versions, pulling out a handful of money from his backpack. And after a moment, he ran back and grabbed a jump rope.

Tiffany considered it further support for her birthday money theory.

"Planning something with your friends?"

"Rescue mission."

"Sounds fun, kiddo. Do you need a bag?"

He shook his head and asked, "Can you help me take off all the tags though? I need to use them almost immediately."

Pulling open and digging through a drawer, Tiffany said, "Sure thing, kiddo. I think I've got some scissors around here."


There was a relatively common figure of speech. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.[33]

Working off the metaphor, Aziraphale found himself at Hogsback Woods where the children enjoyed playing during less stressful times. He, Anathema, Newt, and the rest of Them had gathered down there with markers and paint. Brian and Newt[34] were gathering stones and the occasional random discarded brick. The others were focused more on writing on the provided rocks.

I picked up my toys so my parents didn't trip.

I came to Tadfield to help stop the apocalypse.

I walked Dog to make him happy.

I followed prophecies to save the world.

I recycled to save the whales.

Dozens of actions made with good intentions were carefully written down. The handwriting varied from neat and immaculate to barely legible. Then they arranged the rocks into a short and narrow path that might be referred to as a "road," but only if one was feeling especially generous. But it would be good enough. As long as it was enough for Adam to believe, then it should work.

He managed to reach Heaven after all. And he was far more closely connected to Hell.

A road to Hell. A more subtle path that would let them slip past the other demons. That's what he needed. Because if this didn't work, Aziraphale would simply march through the front entrance, carving through any obstacle with his flaming sword.

Crowley would not remain in Hell's possession for a single day longer.

"What do you think, Adam? Looks pretty good, right?" asked Brian.

"Considering that none of us are professionals," said Newt, brushing off his hands and then taking off his glasses in a futile attempt to clean them on his shirt, "and we don't really know what we're doing, I think it's at least a decent attempt."

Adam nodded slowly and said, "I'd call that a paved road, even if its rocks."

"Actually, all roads used to be dirt or paved with stones called cobblestones," said Wensleydale. "So this should count."

He continued, "And that's a lot of good intentions." He nodded again. "I'd say it's ready."

And as the young teenager spoke, Aziraphale felt reality adjust. Not a lot. But he felt something hellish and saw the air ripple above the stones like a heat mirage. Their secret entrance to Hell now existed where it didn't a moment before.

"Well, then let's get going," said Pepper. "Aziraphale, got your sword ready?"

Her words sent a chill down Aziraphale's spine. Bringing humans, bringing children, into Hell was unacceptable. It was dangerous enough for them to wander around Heaven, but Aziraphale had no say in the matter. The kids were wearing their charms again, but that protection wasn't perfect. He couldn't risk them. None of the humans should be put in the line of fire.

They were lucky in Heaven. Demons didn't have to pretend to be polite or nice. The humans might not be lucky a second time.

Aziraphale raised his hand up before yanking it down with a snap. Abruptly, several limp bodies crumbled on the leaves. Unharmed, but asleep. None of them would be put in danger.

This was a personal matter; not something concerning the fate of the world.

"You know, if you didn't want us to come along, you could have just asked."

Aziraphale turned to find Adam and Dog standing among the unconscious figures. Somehow the angel wasn't surprised. If anyone would be resistant to the angelic miracle, it would be the former Anti-Christ and his hellhound.

"Would any of you have actually remained behind if I had asked?" remarked Aziraphale dryly.

Shrugging, Adam said, "Probably not. Pepper seemed pretty excited about storming Hell. She's going to be upset if she misses out."

"It'll be safer for everyone." Aziraphale straightened his coat nervously before picking up his not-currently-flaming sword. "I don't suppose that I could convince you to stay, could I? I'm not certain how well you and your powers will react to being there."

"Sorry, Uncle Aziraphale. You're stuck with me and Dog."

He stared at the boy for a few moments before slumping in resignation. Then Aziraphale nodded and reached out. Adam took his hand.

"Stay close," said Aziraphale. "And try to keep quiet. I don't know if we can avoid attention down there. It was crowded in the parts that I visited. But if we can slip in and out without notice, that would be best."

"No barking, Dog," he ordered firmly. Then Adam turned his attention back towards the angel. "We'll keep quiet."

Walking along the improvised road, they passed through the rippling air and started sinking with each step. Like they were descending a staircase and the ground was an illusion. Aziraphale closed his eyes as the feeling of demonic influences washed over him. He didn't particularly like the sensation. Hell didn't share the same feeling of comfort that Crowley's presence did.

Aziraphale eventually opened his eyes to find them in a dark, dank, and narrow stairwell. Fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered in a way to guarantee to cause a migraine. They didn't truly seem to help illuminate anything. Mostly they cast harsh shadows. Along the mildew-and-mold-covered walls were occasionally posters, but they did nothing to improve the atmosphere. And the temperature matched that of any office building.[35] No demons in sight, but it was certainly Hell. The feeling made his skin crawl; Aziraphale was as far from Heaven and Her as physically possible without Falling and he could feel it.

But he could feel something else. Something bright, warm, and familiar. Love. Crowley's love. Aziraphale would recognize it anywhere.

For a brief moment, he basked in that warmth and the sheer relief of feeling Crowley again. Then Aziraphale realized that something was different. Wrong. The sensation seemed weaker than before. Not as if the love that Crowley felt for him had lessened and he didn't care as much anymore. It felt more like the source of that love had weakened. And the love was tinged with sorrow and pain.

Whatever they'd done to him, Crowley felt weak. Hurt. Fading.

But as much as it worried Aziraphale, the fact that he could sense that spark of love was good. It meant that they had a way to track his demon and rescue him. All they had to do was follow Crowley's love for Aziraphale.


30 At least some of Mr. Dowling's influence managed to leak through when Warlock was in a negative mood and the man had Opinions about boys and emotions. [ ]

31 Startling the pair quite strongly since they never noticed that the children had left the garden or how much time had passed while Anathema searched for a plan. [ ]

32 She felt obligated to act like an adult and voice of reason. Adam and his friends accepted the scolding without complaint. That didn't mean that any of Them regretted their decision or believed that it was the wrong one. It was just polite to let her pretend to be an authority figure. [ ]

33 If anyone asked a demon about the concept, they would deny it. The road to Hell, while easy to bypass, was actually paved with frozen door-to-door salesmen. But thankfully Crowley had never mentioned that to Adam. Otherwise their current plan wouldn't work. [ ]

34 Who was happy and relieved to have a plan that didn't involve electronics or magic. He really did want to help and so far, he'd been limited. [ ]

35 Too cold for short sleeves, but too hot for a jacket. Ideal for making everyone miserable. [ ]