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The Haunting of Hext House

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No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

 

Aziraphale did not dream, because he did not sleep. He’d been unconscious rather more times than was quite seemly for an angel of his rank – most recently that very morning, brought down by a blow with a crowbar that would have killed a human – but he had not willingly slept, which was, for him, an important distinction.

 

Dancing, for instance, was Not The Done Thing, for angels. They didn’t feel the need. Being caught dancing would have marked him out as almost unforgivably queer, but he doubted it would have appeared on any official forms as a reason for a given punishment.

 

But sleeping, on the other hand… “Stay awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come” – that was the standing order. Gabriel liked to pop in on him when Aziraphale least expected it, in the hope of catching him out in the middle of something really egregious, and Aziraphale knew that sleeping would count as such.

 

Especially when he’d been demoted for his lack of vigilance in the Garden.

 

So whenever Crowley went on about how much he enjoyed sleeping, what a relief it was to allow one’s mind to fall still, to fall into a warm, forgiving darkness – whenever Crowley went on about how restful it was, how clear his head was once he’d properly woken up, how much more stable his moods were after a good long nap – Aziraphale looked up to Heaven, thought of his two remaining wings, and gave some rote answer about the watchman and the city.

 

He could sleep, now.

 

If he wanted to.

 

He didn’t. For in that sleep what dreams may come…

 

No, it was all right. He was all right. Aziraphale snatched whatever moments of unreality he could, from novels and stories, the opera and the theatre, art and daydreams. Denial. It had kept him sane thus far.

 

Besides, it wouldn’t be safe for both of them to sleep, and Crowley was already nodding in his chair before they finished their bottle of champagne in the Ritz. Aziraphale felt the warm, heavy bloom of protectiveness in his chest. The familiarity of the sensation was a comfort to him – not that he needed comforting! They were free! He had never been so relieved, so happy, in all his existence.

 

So. Not a comfort. A delight, instead – to pay for the meal, to guide Crowley into a taxi, to bring him back to his flat. Aziraphale opened the door to it now like an old hand, like he’d been there a thousand times. Not for the first time just the night before.

 

Aziraphale had cleaned up the holy water remnants, and now all the evidence of Saturday were the empty bottles and glasses on the coffee table. A little potted plant with white flowers. He couldn’t bear to look at the sofa, lest pure embarrassment discorporate him for the second time in two days.

 

He had thought they were going to die. He had thought he’d gone mad with the fear of it. He’d started sweating blood. And Crowley…

 

“Where do you sleep, my dear?” Aziraphale said, and Crowley indicated the direction with a graceless nod of his head.

 

“M’m fine.”

 

“You are quite clearly exhausted. Sleep. It’s all right now. I won’t leave. I’ll keep watch.”

 

Crowley shivered against him, and let his chin fall to rest against his chest.  He dropped down onto the bed, asleep before his head hit the pillow. Aziraphale had read those words many times but had never seen it in the flesh before.

 

He unlaced Crowley’s shoes reverently. Took his time removing them. He didn’t want to wake him. He placed them neatly by the bed, and wondered about whether he ought to remove Crowley’s socks as well. Probably best not. He didn’t want his feet to get cold.

 

Demons can change every part of their body except for their feet. As far as he knew, Crowley was the only one who had ever even made a dent in that particular limitation; he tended to save energy by making them look like shoes, rather than disguising them entirely. Aziraphale remembered smoothing Balm of Gilead onto the scaled soles of those feet in 1941.

 

He’d kept Crowley’s socks on, even in the bathtub. Just in case the feet within were too straight, too smooth. Just in case they’d changed, the more time an angel wore the body instead of a demon.

 

The thought of Hell and its bathtub made him stare at the wall for a long time. He didn’t realise he was wringing his hands until the skin of his little finger was raw underneath his signet ring.

 

He looked at it in confusion. It was a solid hand. Not shivering in and out of sight, like it had yesterday. It was solid, he told himself. And warm.

 

That was what he’d been thinking about! How to keep Crowley warm while he slept. Crowley hadn’t moved at all, so leaden was his exhaustion. It made Aziraphale’s heart ache.

 

Rather than conjuring a blanket out of nothing, he spent a miracle to bring the duvet out from under Crowley without waking him. He closed the blinds. He removed Crowley’s sunglasses, and placed them carefully on the sleek, black-metal bedside table. They were Crowley’s shield. They, and he, now.

 

He tiptoed out of the room; standing there looming like a vampire felt impossible. Not that Crowley would have any trouble dealing with a vampire… No, it turned out that that was another subject he really ought to avoid.

 

The doors in the flat weren’t normal doors. They were swinging planes of concrete, cold and impersonal and dark. On the edge of his mind there was terror, like a sound too high-pitched for his human ears.

 

Crowley’s flat was so empty. He had seen it all last night, and there was now nothing new to distract himself.

 

He spoke to the plants. Told them all about what had happened. That helped, he thought. It made his heart beat less quickly, and the plants calmed down as well. So he told them again. And again. The damp, sulphurous smell of Hell. His fear. The worry that the holy water would dissolve Crowley’s body and leave him there, trapped, incorporeal, at the mercy of those sadistic, brutish, evil beings. Like Crowley had been. Like his poor Crowley had been.

 

(It took the plants until the second re-telling to realise whom the kind angel was referring to, and another before they were all willing to believe it could be the same demon they knew).

 

He was growing upset again. He could feel it, in his hands, like caught electricity. That wouldn’t do. He needed to be alert. He needed to protect Crowley.

 

He told the plants that he would be back with water later. He checked Crowley’s room, to make sure the demon was still there. He tidied the detritus of their evening away. He found a concealed bookshelf beneath the television set: mostly novels, a few books on astronomy or gardening. Organised alphabetically, the animal, he thought fondly. He sat cross-legged on the floor and put a more intuitive and useful system in place.

 

He hated this place. The gloominess made him think of Hell, he skittered away from that thought, and the emptiness of Heaven. And the thought of that was even worse. His stomach gave a horrible lurch, and he felt dizzy as he tried to hide from whatever emotion was about to smother him.

 

There was nothing here to fiddle with. He made cup after cup of tea, just to give his hands something to do, until the caffeine nauseated him and made his heart patter like a drum solo. He needed distraction. A crossword, a puzzle, anything. Something to occupy his mind. Something that he could solve, something to give his frantic, anxious brain purpose while he guarded Crowley.

 

Something to keep him from thinking about everything else.

 

*

 

When Crowley opened his eyes and turned on the lights with a gesture, the first things he saw were the flowers. A simple glass vase, in which there was a bouquet of myrtle branches and Queen Anne’s Lace, pure white and deep, bright green against the dark grey.

 

He stared at them for a long time, and could not remember how they had come to be there.

 

He stretched. He heard several clicks all the way down his body. He’d fallen asleep wearing his clothes, so he groped around his jacket pockets until he found his phone.

 

It was the 2nd of September.

 

Crowley sat up and rubbed absently at his nose. The last thing he properly remembered was drinking with Aziraphale at the Ritz. Vaguely remembered a taxi, and Aziraphale guiding him towards the bedroom. Had he left the flowers?

 

He quick-dialled Aziraphale, and with every micro-second that Aziraphale didn’t answer, his heart beat faster.

 

After two he was on his feet. After three he was out of the bedroom, snapping shoes onto his feet. At four, he was in the room which could charitably have been called his living room, staring in astonishment through to his office.

 

Aziraphale wasn’t answering the bookshop phone because he wasn’t in the bookshop. He was sitting in Crowley’s chair (throne), at Crowley’s desk, tapping away at Crowley’s 16-inch, space-grey MacBook Pro.

 

Fear had blown the cobwebs of sleep from his mind; he noticed that, engrossed as he was, Aziraphale nearly jumped out of his skin in fright when he heard Crowley push open the bedroom door.

 

Then he was beaming. His face shone like a star. “Hello!” Aziraphale cried. “You’re awake!”

 

“Yeah. Feel better now.” Crowley pointedly raised an eyebrow at the army of empty mugs on his porphyry desktop. “Have you been here this whole time?”

 

“Of course! I said I’d stay here, so that you could sleep without worrying.” Aziraphale’s smile had a hint of the manic to it.

 

“So… you’ve not been back to your shop?”

 

Aziraphale looked back at the laptop screen. “Couldn’t leave you alone. And too much to do here! I’ve installed Linux on your computer, I hope you don’t mind. I tried CP/M but it just absolutely refused; I found an emulator once I’d got onto the Internet but it was only for Windows, and then I realised that this was an Apple – I thought that this was something you’d put on it, I didn’t know it was a whole company! It’s very big apparently, I knew you must be behind it somehow. But my dear, you must buy a new one. This one doesn’t have anywhere for the floppy discs.”

 

“Satan save me. That’s a brand new Macbook Pro, Aziraphale, of course it’s not going to have anywhere for a floppy disc. What do you even have on floppies anyway?”

 

“All my records…”

 

Crowley took in Aziraphale’s woebegone face and sighed. “There’ll be some way of transferring the data. Onto your own laptop. What’s Linux?"

 

“It’s just like Unix,” said Aziraphale.

 

Crowley gave up. He shouldn’t have been surprised that Aziraphale would have been able to work it. He wasn’t stupid, after all, about most things, just a Luddite. Systems had become more and more intuitive, and Aziraphale had probably found a way to make it run on whatever pared-back system he was used to. The angel had learnt computing from books – extraordinarily thick, dry books, a whole shelf of them under the machine – on an ancient Amstrad PCW bought long before Crowley had introduced Alan Sugar to some BBC friends. He’d never replaced it, and it had chugged along, with various screams of protest, for the last thirty-five years, while Crowley replaced his with whatever machine was most expensive after jumping a release day queue. Given a week in Crowley’s flat, with no Crowley to speak to… “And you got onto the Internet?”

 

“Yes! It’s quite marvellous. There are so many rare book catalogues there, once you know where to look. And you can read the newspaper, or play chess. I can understand why you badgered me about it for so long.”

 

Crowley felt himself smiling. This was one of the things he loved best about the angel. Aziraphale always found some way to surprise him, just when he thought he knew he through and through. “And you’ve got it to work? Just through trial and error?”

 

“Trial and error and experience, my dear. And you can buy things! Anything, not just books! I ordered some flowers – I wanted there to be something nice for you, when you woke up – did you see them?”

 

Crowley conjured another chair, then sat down next to Aziraphale. “I did. They were lovely.” He waited for Aziraphale to smile before he continued. “You should have woken me.”

 

“But you were tired.”

 

“Yes. But I didn’t need to sleep for a week. Not with you on your own.”

 

“I’ve been fine. I’m sorry I took the computer out of the box, only I’d read all your books and… well, the television might have been loud. Might have woken you up.”

 

“Right,” Crowley said. He felt cold – like there was a lump of ice in his stomach, spreading its chill under his skin. “Don’t worry about the laptop. Have it, if you’ve got it working the way you want.”

 

“Oh, thank you! It’s all right, I can bring it back to its factory settings now, it’s far too flash for me to use every day! How they’ve come on! It took a while to get used to it, but it’s so fast! And it can show pictures! Absolutely amazing.”

 

“Yeah.” Crowley’s level of anxiety had risen with every audible exclamation point. “Aziraphale… have you really not been back home? To the shop, I mean?”

 

Aziraphale looked at him. “Where else would home be?” he said, and then in a different voice, “You were asleep. I didn’t want to leave you – you’re so vulnerable, Crowley, really, I just shudder to think of what could have happened all those other times-“

 

“Yeah, yeah, you said that. Right. Well, we can go over there now.”

 

Aziraphale looked shifty. “You’ve only just woken up, my dear. Why don’t we get something to eat first?”

 

“Why don’t you want to go to the bookshop?”

 

“Wait, before I forget, I need to call up the control box, type in the reset code – it’ll be just the way it was in the box-“

 

Crowley nearly shouted. Aziraphale was tensed, as though expecting Crowley to shout at him. That was why he didn’t.

 

Instead, he waited in silence while Aziraphale typed in some lines of code, selected a few options, and then he waited some more when the screen went black.

 

Aziraphale closed the laptop. “There. Good as new. Like it was never even touched.”

 

“Like your shop. So. Why don’t you want to go back?”

 

“It’s silly, really.”

 

“Okay. That’s fine.”

 

“It’s not. I really oughtn’t be so silly,” Aziraphale said. He’d begun to twist his fingers again.

 

Crowley didn’t lose his temper. He didn’t change his voice. “I won’t tell anyone. Better silly and honest. ‘S all right, angel.”

 

Aziraphale’s face crumpled, just for a second. Then he sighed, and calm settled on it again. “It’s silly, but… I died in there. That’s where I was discorporated.”

 

Crowley had suspected as much. “In the fire?”

 

“No – no, I only knew there’d been a fire when you told me.”

 

Crowley frowned; he hadn't expected that. But at least Aziraphale hadn’t burnt to death… “What happened, then?”

 

“I used the contact circle. Sergeant Shadwell must have knocked one of the candles over when he left.”

 

“Shadwell – the Witchfinder?” Crowley said. “Why the heaven was he at your bookshop?”

 

“I don’t know why he came round. Probably for money. He always comes across some extra expense or two, but normally I ring him. He’s my contact in the Witchfinder Army – you remember them? I thought I ought to keep a close eye on them after all the unpleasantness in the 17th century.”

 

Crowley rather fancied going back to bed. He’d bring Aziraphale up to speed later. “So. He’d come round to ask you for money?”

 

“I suspect so. I’d used the circle. Made contact with the Metatron. He’s after your time – he was Enoch, you know, the human that brought up news about Shemhazai and the rest of the Watchers. God apparently took a liking to him, and he’s stayed on as Her official spokesman ever since. Anyway, he said, um. Point wasn’t to avoid the War, you know, but to win it. You were right.”

 

Aziraphale’s gaze was pinned to the floor. His voice was very quiet.

 

Had this been about something unimportant, a discussion about whether dolphins were fish or not, Crowley would have crowed and pointed in Aziraphale’s face, demanded some kind of prize or forfeit. Instead he touched Aziraphale’s sleeve with his fingertips.

 

This brought Aziraphale back to himself; he blinked, and sniffed. “In any case! In any case… They wanted me up there as soon as possible, so they left the gateway open. Probably to make sure I didn’t make a run for it…  I rang you. To tell you that I’d found Adam. Um. Sergeant Shadwell must have picked the lock, because suddenly he was in the shop, ranting and raving about how I was in league with the forces of darkness and possessed by a demon and all sorts-“

 

“Nmh,” managed Crowley.

 

“Seducing women to do my evil will! I told him how utterly ridiculous that was-“

 

“Well, yes,” Crowley said bravely.

 

“- but he simply would not listen to reason. I think he tried to exorcise me, can you believe it? But he’d mixed it up with the rite of excommunication. In any case, I was trying to keep him from stepping into my contact circle, I knew it would kill him. And I ended up stepping into it instead.”

 

“I didn’t know any of this,” Crowley remarked casually. Nonchalantly. It had been absolutely ages since he’d murdered anyone.

 

Aziraphale twiddled his watch fob. “Well. It was rather horrible, really. No need to dwell on it. I would have been fine if it had been instantaneous, you know? But they pulled me up, and it was like my- my- my corporation was snagged on something. Or too large to fit through the portal – don’t joke!”

 

Crowley was confused; joking had been the last thing on his mind. He felt rather sick. “Wasn’t going to. Physical matter, isn’t it? Won’t go through a spiritual gateway.”

 

“No. No. I don’t know how long it was – probably not even a second. But it’s like when you can see something falling, and you know you won’t reach it in time to catch it, but you have to try-“

 

“Ngh. Slow-motion.”

 

“That’s it.” Aziraphale swallowed. “That’s it. In any case, they- or the portal, it might have been an automatic thing, probably was- my corporation blew up. Was suffused with a celestial light which burnt the bonds holding every atom to another, if one wants to be technical… So. In any case. You said that it’s all fine and not burnt down… You went there, even after you said that you were leaving.”

 

“’Course I did,” Crowley said. “What would there have been for me anywhere else?” The corner of his lip quirked up. “If you’d said no again, I’d have kidnapped you.”

 

Aziraphale hummed in laughter. “I’d like to see you try, my dear,” he said, and suddenly blushed bright red.