It would be naive to think that humans were unaware of the supernatural. All manner of things had been discovered across the ages, from witches to sea monsters to skinwalkers, though the idea of making them common knowledge was unthinkable.
The thing about humans is, they wanted to understand all they'd found. It's a curse; a curse bestowed on them eons ago, by a serpent and a very particular apple. It wasn't long before an organisation was founded (the Supernatural Investigation Network, or SIN). It meant well, but its ethos was a deadly cocktail of the persistent human tradition of anthropocentricity, and the fashionable modernity of scientific detachment. Despite its feral need to defend humanity, it was not intentionally cruel to its research subjects. In fact, it was thanks to their ingenuity that they were able to revive unicorns, Jurassic Park-style.
Soon, though, they began to feel the strain of keeping the supernatural a secret from their fellow man. Resources became overstretched, their training centres understaffed... until some brightspark pitched a new idea at the board meeting that would cut manpower and streamline their operations.
"What if we began to collect specimens, to learn more about their habits and contain the most dangerous ones?"
That guy got a promotion, in case you were wondering. He's doing very well for himself, moving up the ranks of a secret organisation on the back of the one good idea he'd ever had. Good for him. His name is Terry. We won't be talking about him again.
The containment centre resulting from that idea was an enormous concrete honeycomb of underground cells, cheaply lit with neon lights and unfurnished unless otherwise necessary. Every specimen arrived there with nothing in their cell. The newest addition to the facility was no exception, but he was definitely not the norm. SIN called him a "human imitator"; it was their label for human-shaped things. He was thin, tall, and sharp-faced, with a ruffled head of ginger hair. His eyes gave him away for what he really was, glittering yellow and serpentine. The skeleton staff of the facility sat listlessly in the control room, watching their screens.
"Has he calmed down yet?" asked Martha, picking at the last of her lunch. The control room wasn't much more welcoming than the cells themselves.
"Nope. Three days now, and he hasn't even sat down," Ken replied. He was the senior manager of the whole complex. This was not impressive, as he only actually employed two other people. "I'm putting it in the report."
"He's a funny one. Have you listened to what he's saying?" she said, not waiting for a response before she clicked a button underneath his screen.
"OI! OI, you bastards! Let me out! I know you can hear me!" he screamed hoarsely, throwing himself at the walls, beating them with his fists. "Can't I at least make a phone call? Don't I have the right to a phone call?"
She turned off the audio again, chuckling. "He's been around humans a lot," she said. "He also says that someone's going to come find him. He's very sure of it."
"He's not the only one. Look at the other newcomer over here, in cell 0640," he said, tapping on the screen beside Crowley's. "He's hardly moved since he got here. He just keeps saying that this is all a misunderstanding and his friend will be here soon."
She leaned forward and frowned. "Are we sure he's a human imitator?" she said. The man in the other cell was rounder and shorter, with a head of white curls. His face might have been warm and friendly, if not for the malcontentedness clinging to it.
Ken scoffed. "That's a dangerous question. Yes, we're sure," he said. "He has magical capabilities that aren't consistent with witches, sorcerers or warlocks."
"Huh. He looks so harmless," she said.
"The worst ones always do," he replied darkly. "He's insanely powerful, this one. He's been on a watchlist for months, just so the boys in the collection squads could bring him in safely. They say he can manipulate reality itself - look, he's doing it now!"
Aziraphale stood up, dusting himself off. He huffed. His arse was getting sore, sitting on the stone for so long, and he'd had enough. Crowley was taking his time to come to the rescue on this occasion, but that was just fine. He'd just have to make himself comfortable. He snapped his fingers, and a velvet fainting couch materialised in the room. With a self-indulgent, melodramatic sigh, he collapsed down onto it, laying down with the back of his hand resting on his forehead.
"What a drama queen," she said, her fork half hanging out of her mouth.
"I know, but don't be fooled. He's very territorial. The boffins are drawing up a file on his species now, they think it's an undiscovered one," he explained, his chair squeaking as he leant back. "The best guess they've got right now is that it's a solitary species, the type that only come together to mate, like ghouls do."
"Oh. And this restless one, what's he supposed to be?" she said, gesturing at Crowley.
"That's the interesting thing. When he first showed up on the radar, we thought he was the same species as the white one, but he's not. The eyes are structured wrong, and his nesting behaviour is completely different," he explained. "He was in the same area as the other creature though, so the higher-ups are starting to wonder if they exist in the same food chain."
"What, like... one of them is...?" she said, miming taking a bite out of something.
He gave her a dry look. "One species probably hunts the other, yes," he said, shaking his head and taking a long swing of his tea. "My money's on the skinny one being the prey species. He moves around and looks over his shoulder too much to be anything else. I mean, just look at Mr Bowtie over here. He'd be a sitting duck for a predator, hardly moving around like that. He's either at the top of the food chain, or he's an idiot."
Crowley was furious. He'd been knocked unconscious, dragged about, thrown in a cell and now he was being ignored? The cheek! This reeked of humanity. He'd have gladly miracled himself free, but he had no idea where he was or even where the door of the cell might be. Everything was smooth concrete and hard lines. He would have miracled himself out, but to do that, he'd have to be able to visualise his journey perfectly from point A to point B, and that was impossible if he didn't know where he was starting from. He moved around constantly, afraid that if he dared to sleep, he could pass centuries by in this cold cell and still be none the wiser. He couldn't do that to Aziraphale. He had to get out, escape, break loose... and when all else failed, brute force was as good a bet as any.
Taking a breath, he faced a random wall and rubbed his hands together. He glared at it, imagining that it was as weak as a clump of polystyrene as he charged up a blast of magic. The ball of crackling energy, black and soul-sucking, lingered in his hands for a moment before he launched it at the wall.
It exploded on impact, throwing Crowley back against the other wall. He groaned as the concrete knocked the air out of him, hitting the ground with a few more bruises than he'd planned on. He looked up, finding a large vertical crater stamped into the wall. It was at least six feet deep in the middle and at least twenty feet across, but it didn't seem to have broken a hole into the outside world like he'd hoped. Jumping to his feet, he walked over to inspect the damage. The concrete had fallen away to reveal a scorched patch of steel, which he assumed encased the entire cell. He hummed thoughtfully, knocking against the metal. It was a staccato sound, lacking any echo, telling of yet more stone and earth beyond the boundary. With a growl of frustration, Crowley returned to his pacing. That blast had taken it out of him. He'd need to wait a while before he could try again, because he was not prepared to give in.
Martha screamed, both hands clapped over her mouth. "Holy shit. Holyshitholyshit," she said, her voice muffled. "Ken. Ken, did you see that?"
"Fuck. Yes, I did," he replied, leaning over the back of her chair to gape at the screen. The camera was perfectly placed to see the damage to the wall, which had taken out more than any other creature had ever done. "Nothing's ever been able to break through to the steel before, much less in one go..."
"What about the next cell along? What's inside it?" she asked.
He jumped back to his own station, hunched over to search the database. "Uh... lemme see... Cell 0668, that's a colony of flesh-eating sheep. What's their footage looking like? Did they hear anything?"
She pulled up the camera from 0668. "They look fine, not rattled at all," she said in relief. Her heart hammered in her chest, and nerves were beginning to dry her mouth. "What - what happens if he breaks through? What do we do? Is there a protocol for that?"
"No! There's six feet of concrete, twelve inches of steel and another six feet of concrete for a reason, Martha," he barked in return, collapsing pale-faced into his chair. "There's no way to handle this. If he can punch through steel as easily as stone, it'll only take one more strike before he takes down the whole bloody wall."
"Well - one wall isn't so bad, maybe," she said, staring in paranoia at the thin, slouched figure in the damaged cell. He looked tired. That was something, at least.
"Not so bad?" he snarled back, leaning forward on his knees, dragging her attention back to his agitated face. "One wall goes down and where does it stop, Martha? He could destroy this whole facility if we just let this happen."
She shrunk back in on herself, feeling nauseous. She was the new girl, and she barely knew the half of all the monsters that had been trapped in here. "Well... maybe the sheep will eat him?" she suggested with false optimism.
Ken's brow furrowed. "Hey... hey, you might be on to something," he muttered, stroking his beard thoughtfully. He rolled his chair to the screens, wagging a finger at her. "Not a bad mind you've got there, Martha."
"Uh... thanks?" she said. The sheep thing had been a joke, she didn't think he'd take it seriously. Maybe old Ken had finally lost it. He had been working down here for the better part of ten years after all, it was bound to get to him eventually.
"Come on, don't you see?" he said, tapping on the feed from Cell 0640. "We need to get rid of him, and we could well have his natural predator sitting right here in another cell."
"But - but we aren't permitted to terminate a containment subject without, like, a thousand forms!" she protested, throwing up her arms. She'd had to fill in that paperwork only twice before, but it had taken her at least two days each time. "There's no way we'll get it done before he breaks through into the next cell, and maybe even the one after that - and I swear there's a winged pig in cell 0667, and those are endangered. We'll get in so much trouble if he kills it."
He grimaced. She was right. The endangered species were the most prized specimens by SIN, and anyone who let one come to harm was immediately fired without a reference. "There's a workaround," he said, opening one of the metal drawers under the desk. He pulled out a thick sheaf of papers, flicking through it. "Network policy on emergency situations... right, here. It says that the facility manager can order the unplanned termination of a subject in a state of emergency."
"What counts as an emergency?" she asked, lapsing back to the old habit of biting her nails.
"Who knows," he said, tossing the booklet carelessly over his shoulder. "But I'm saying this qualifies. Engage a lockdown protocol, quick. I'll use the override to steer old yellow-eyes in the right direction, and we'll let 640 take care of this."
She grimaced. "Look, Ken, I respect you, but is this a good idea?" she said anxiously, her hand hovering above the lockdown key. She wet her lips. "I mean, it's pretty brutal, trying to just feed him to another specimen. We don't even know if 640 eats... uh, whatever 669 is."
"One way to find out," he said, preparing the override commands he would need to guide Crowley through the halls.
"But 669 is just skin and bones, he'd hardly make a decent meal!" she said, and pointed at the screen. "And look at 640! Does he even look hungry to you anyway?"
"He'd better be, 'cause it's feeding time whether he likes it or not," he said fiercely. "Engage lockdown, that's an order."
With a sigh, Martha gave one last, pitying glance to the inhabitant of 0669. "Sorry bud, nothing personal," she whispered, and turned the key.
Red light flooded the cells. Crowley took a sharp gasp, looking up, gritting his teeth in anticipation. "All right, this is a thing now," he muttered, flexing his hands nervously.
A grinding noise behind him caught his attention. He whipped around, snarling, only to fall silent. A section of the wall began to slide back, revealing a small gap into a dim hallway. He edged forward, giving the air a cursory sniff, squinting at the shadows. He could see through them just fine, but he still had the horrible feeling he was about to walk into a trap.
Ken leaned forward, tense and wild-eyed, staring at the screen. "Come on... come on, you weedy little monster, take the bait," he muttered. Martha shot an unsettled glance in his direction, gripping the edge of her chair. Ken had never shown much compassion for the specimens, but this - this was insane.
With a sigh, Crowley finally squeezed through into the corridor. A steel barrier blocked the path on his left, with LOCKDOWN printed across it in big letters. He hummed thoughtfully, turning to walk along the clear path. Maybe something had gone wrong with their security system - or maybe Aziraphale had finally got off his arse and come to help. Either way, moving ahead was his best option.
"Right, this is definitely a trap," he grumbled after encountering the third crossroads. Each fork in the path was always blocked off in one direction, forcing him down the other path.
He rounded a corner, rubbing his temples as the red light began to hurt his head. As he walked, an almighty clang sounded from behind. He shouted unintelligibly, spinning around, only to be accosted by the same sound from the other direction. He looked back and forth in a panic. Lockdown doors had come down on both sides, trapping him in a featureless stone hallway.
"Shit. Shit shit shit shit," he said, pulling at his hair. Could he break through them? How thick were they? Another sound derailed his train of thought - the grinding of concrete on concrete. He froze.
Another cell had opened up. He groaned, knowing he didn't have a choice, and flattened himself against the wall to approach the opening in the wall. It was more slim this time, just barely enough for him to get inside. This room was pitch black. He peeked inside, his night vision unable to pick anything up, but he could only see a sliver of the room. With a nervous gulp, he slipped into the cell.
The first thing he noticed was the door sealing itself shut again. He hissed in frustration - he ought to have guessed! He gave another irritated grunt when the white prison floodlights came back online. His vision blacked out for a moment, straining to cope with the sudden change until he finally blinked away the aftervisions and met eyes with only other inhabitant of the room.
Martha let out a cry, spinning her chair around. "Oh, I can't look," she said, guilt washing over her like a freezing ocean wave.
Ken rolled his eyes at her, continuing to look at the 0640 screen. He tapped his foot impatiently. 669 had frozen entirely, no doubt as the gravity of his mistake began to hit him, while 640 only seemed a little dazed. He was sitting up slowly from his fainting couch, as if not to frighten the other creature. Ken hummed, making a note. Whatever this new species was, it must be a stalk-and-pounce hunter, not inclined to the chase.
"Is it over yet?" Martha asked, her hands covering her eyes. "I don't hear anything. Did you turn the audio off?"
"No, everything's on," he said. "They're having a stand-off. Looks like 640's still sizing him up... I wonder if he can unhinge his jaw. Maybe he'll swallow him in one go."
"Shut up. For god's sake, is this a joke to you?" she snapped back, taking her hands away from her eyes to glare at him. "You just sent a man to his death. At least have a little respect!"
"Not a man. An imitator," he replied glibly. "Hey, look, it's about to start."
Aziraphale stood from his fainting couch, taking a few tentative steps toward the familiar demon. "Crowley? Is everything all right?" he asked, fiddling with his hands. "I knew you'd come find me eventually, but you don't usually look so... so worried."
"I - I didn't even know they had you. I thought I was alone," he croaked, jaw slack. Shaking himself, he took three broad strides across the cell and pulled him into a tight hug. "I'm so glad to see you, angel."
"Oh! And you too, my love," he replied after a moment of surprise, returning the hug. They stood in one another's arms for a moment before pulling back, the rest of the world dissolving into a blur as their lips met.
Ken gave an indignant splutter. He'd expected a bloodbath, not a lover's reunion! Martha grinned broadly. "Awww, they're in love!" she cooed, her hands over her heart. "That's why they were found in the same general area, they already knew each other."
"But - but - !" he cried, taking out the preliminary report on 0669 and 0640. "They can't be the same species, it's - they have totally different physical characteristics!"
"Not totally different," she said smugly, her zoology degree finally coming into play. Ken had always hated that she was more qualified than him, yet only half his age. "They have the same basic build. I assume the differences must just be the sexual dimorphism of their species."
"Speak English, will you?" he snapped.
"It means that the members of a species have different physical characteristics based on their sex," she said, fiddling with a biro. "They're human imitators, so even if they both look like human males, one of them might be female. Or, better yet, their species might not even have males and females at all, or they might have more than two sexes. Don't you remember the SIN orientation lecture? Where supernatural creatures are concerned, for the most part, throw your standard logic out the window."
He huffed and didn't respond. He was angrily flipping through the papers, looking for an Unexpected Occurrences form. "Look, smart-arse, the emergency situation still stands. We tried to eliminate one threat, and we just went and doubled it," he said angrily.
"Maybe tripled. Or quadrupled, quintupled, sextupled... depends," she giggled.
"On what? What are on about now?" he said, slamming the paperwork down to fix her with a proper resentful glare.
"On the number of young they typically produce," she said, just to rile him up. "Say I'm right, and they're a male and a female - or whatever the equivalent is - of their species. You've just put the two of them in a confined space with nothing else to do but each other. How long is it going to take before we have a pregnant specimen on our hands?"
Ken blanched. In the history of SIN facilities, most things had happened. Escapes weren't unheard of, containment breaches were a precedented risk, and even emergency terminations happened every now and then. However, if there was one thing that SIN was very clear on, it's that specimens were never allowed to breed in captivity. It would be too easy for facility managers would sell the young on the black market; supernatural creatures could meet a much more grisly fate at the hands of smugglers and butchers than they would with SIN. If specimens were kept in groups, they were same-sex groups only (like the flesh-eating sheep), but otherwise they were kept in total isolation. If 669 and 640 mated successfully and ended up reproducing... he was done for. Not just fired with no reference; blacklisted. He'd never work again. He'd have every license to his name revoked, his name branded, and possibly even legal charges brought brought before him. It would all have to be handled in a mock animal cruelty trial to cover up SIN's existence, of course, but the result would be the same.
Martha shot a glance back to the screen as Ken struggled for words. "I mean, you might get lucky. Maybe it's praying mantis rules. 640 might still kill him when he's done, but... looking at the amount of cuddling they're doing right now, I doubt it," she said, pointing at the screen where the two entities snuggled on the fainting couch. "And you're still fired if he ends up with any little ones."
"Shut up. Just shut it," he said, covering his face and groaning. "This is going to be difficult enough to explain as it is, without you harping on about all that. We need to fix this - but how do we terminate them both? They were powerful enough on their own, nevermind together..."
She gawked at him. "Are you serious? You really think killing them is your best option?" she cried. He ignored her, and cut off the feed to cell 0640 completely. "What are you doing?"
"Shutting off the cameras and deleting the footage. They can't hold me accountable if they don't have proof," he said, already looking for the files. "We can figure something out, and no one needs to know that anything even happened."
"Ken, you can't do that. We have to tell someone," she said, getting to her feet in indignation. "Stop freaking out. We can fix this, and - I don't know, maybe we can even find a way for those two to stay with each other. This is the calmest we've seen 669 since he got here, it's obviously good for them to be together."
"Yeah, bet you'd love that. That'd really seal my fate," he said. He began to highlight the video files, and Martha gave an indignant cry.
"Ken, stop!" she said, grabbing his wrist. She pulled him back, the moment making his chair topple over, spilling him out onto the hard floor. "Oh god, Ken, I'm so sor - "
She was cut off by a sharp blow to the jaw. She clutched at her face, stumbling backward, pain throbbing through her head. Tears of shock welled in her eyes. "Ken...?"
Crowley pulled back, breaking their kiss. "Angel," he said, a note of excitement in his voice. "They aren't watching. They must have turned off the cameras."
"You’re certain?" he said, tilting his head.
"Yeah. I can always tell when someone's watching," he said, sending a hard glance toward the vacant lens hidden in the lightbulbs overhead. "We're alone now."
"Well, in that case..." Aziraphale purred, beginning to crawl into his lap.
"A - angel!" he said, pushing him off with a laugh. "You tart, I didn't mean that. I meant, now they're not watching, we can escape."
"Oh. Well," he said, blushing furiously. He cleared his throat, slightly embarrassed. "Yes. Good idea."
He laughed, standing from the fainting couch and making his way toward the featureless grey wall. He ran his fingers over the stone, finding the tiny indents that gave away the location of the door. "Tell you what, angel," he said when Aziraphale joined him by the wall. "Help me get this door open and you can do whatever you like with me when we get home."
He tutted, cheeks still pink. "You needn't bribe me, Crowley," he said, pouting slightly. The demon could still see the flicker of anticipation underneath his attempts at modesty, though.
"Yeah, right," he said with an obnoxious grin. "Come on. Imagine the door's unlocked and let's get going."
The door came loose easily under the pressure of their combined will, and they found the corridor open on both sides. The lockdown barriers were gone. Taking Aziraphale's hand, Crowley chose a random direction and started jogging. The tunnels seemed endless, twisting back on themselves with no signposts toward an exit and no evidence that anyone else was there at all. The angel began puffing and panting after the first few corners, and eventually forced Crowley to stop.
"S - slow down, dear, please," he said breathlessly, leaning on a wall. "Running is not my forte."
"Not your - ? Angel, you have legs, and we need to hurry up and leave before they notice we're gone and start dropping steel barriers in front of us - I've seen them!" he cried restlessly, flapping his arm at the roof. "Come on, get up. I'll carry you if you're that tired."
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows appreciatively, seriously considering that proposition for a moment. Then, he tilted his head. "Do you hear that?" he asked, looking up and down the hallway.
"What?" he said impatiently.
"That... that noise," he said, standing up from the wall. He took a few steps closer to a narrow off-shoot from the main corridor. "Someone's in trouble. Crowley, this way!"
"Wha - ngk! Angel, wait!" he cried, chasing after him as he darted down the hall. The demon found himself struggling to keep up.
"Chop chop, dear!" he called over his shoulder, finding a staircase and bounding up without hesitation.
"Oh, now he can run," he puffed, taking the steps two at a time to keep pace. Aziraphale came to a door, and didn’t hesitate before bursting through it. Crowley stumbled in afterward, getting an eyeful of the scene for himself.
Everyone froze. An older man with a thick, greying beard stared at them, horror rapidly setting into his expression. He held a younger woman by her hair; there had already been a struggle, judging by the mottled bruises flowering across her jaw and cheek. She was trembling, her dark eyes glazed with shock. Crowley immediately felt a flash of protectiveness over her.
“Let her go,” he said, his slitted pupils glaring daggers at the attacker.
He didn’t seem to hear. “H - how did you get out?” he stammered, and tightened his grip on the young woman. She whimpered, her scalp already raw. “You shouldn’t be able to get out!”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes, and fixed him with a deeply scornful glare. “And you ought to do as you’re told,” he said, snapping his fingers. The man’s face turned slack, and the woman dropped onto the floor with half a sob.
The jolt of her landing seemed to snap her back to reality. She drew in a sharp lungful of air, pushing herself back across the floor. Aziraphale stooped down slightly, offering his hand as he walked closer to her. “You poor thing, let me - ”
“Stop! Stay back, don’t hurt me!” she shouted hoarsely, cowering and shielding her face with her arm.
The two entities shared a worried glance. “We aren’t going to hurt anyone,” he said kindly. “Please, let me help you. You must be in pain.”
Her breath hitched, and she tentatively lowered her arm. A red-rimmed eye peeked over her sleeve. As he reached out to help her to her feet, she flinched, but didn’t pull away as he lifted her back onto a chair. He began to move his hands over her face at a respectful distance, murmuring to himself.
“No bruises, no fractured bones,” he said softly. To her surprise, her pain flickered and snuffed itself out like a dying candle, and she had no doubt that she wouldn’t find any damage to her face when she looked in the mirror later. “There. All better.”
She nodded blankly. He spoke to her as if she was a little child and somehow, when she looked into those wise blue eyes, she felt like one. She’d never been face-to-face with an inhuman before. She’d seen plenty of pictures, read plenty of case files, and she’d spent her working life watching video feeds of their small lives within the cells for almost three years now. At the back of her mind, she knew that somewhere along the line, she had forgotten they were living beings, too.
“Thank you,” she said in a tiny voice. It sounded so far away, so unlike herself, she hardly recognised it.
“Don’t mention it,” Crowley said, walking in circles around the bearded man. He wore a distasteful sneer. “Who’s this? You know him?”
“That’s Ken. He’s my boss,” she replied. Maybe she shouldn’t tell them this, but they had protected her, and she at least owed them her trust. “We work here. It’s a - a place where supernatural creatures are - um - contained.”
“Creatures like us, I suppose,” Aziraphale said sourly. She ducked her head apologetically and said nothing in her own defence. He shot her a curious glance as he paced around the confined space. “Why did he attack you?”
“Um... he - he was - trying to destroy evidence,” she said haltingly, avoiding eye contact. “He wanted to ter - I mean, to kill you both. He knew he’d lose his job and get in heaps of trouble for letting you two in together anyway, and he didn’t want anyone to find out, so he was - I don’t know what he planned to do. I pulled his arm away from the computer and he just snapped.”
“Bastard,” Crowley muttered, kicking Ken sharply in the shin. He flinched, but didn’t break out of his hypnosis. “Why let me into Aziraphale’s cell then, anyway, if he knew he’d get in trouble?”
She couldn’t suppress an awkward laugh, scratching the back of her neck. “Heh, about that... You really spooked us when you almost blasted out of your cell, and we thought that - er - Aziraphale, was it?” she said, looking at the angel. He nodded. “We thought Aziraphale would kill you if we left you alone together.”
The principality gasped, pressing a hand to his chest. “Good Lord! What on Earth gave you that idea?”
“It’s kind of a - look, we took our best guess at what you might be, and cause we found you two nearby one another, we thought that maybe one of you was the predator and the other was the prey,” she said, face flushed with embarrassment. “It seemed to make a lot more sense when Ken said it.”
“Yeah, Mr Psychotic over here really seems like the font of all knowledge,” Crowley said sarcastically.
Aziraphale still hadn’t gotten over her words. “I’m sorry, did I hear you correctly?” he said with a baffled frown. “Did you really think I was going to eat Crowley?”
Crowley snickered. “Hey, depending on how I play my cards later, he just might,” he said with a sly wink.
“Crowley!” he cried, scandalised.
He cackled, his arm snaking over his shoulders and pulling him close to press a kiss to his cheek. Martha looked away out of respect, feeling like she was intruding on a private moment. “Oh!” Aziraphale said, clasping his hands together. “My, I forgot to ask your name, my dear.”
She smiled. “Martha,” she said. On a whim, she held out her hand, and both entities shook it warmly. “I feel like I should apologise to you both.”
“What, over the whole locking-us-up thing?” Crowley said, nodding toward the control panel. He shrugged. “Not the first time, but apology accepted.”
She gave a heavy sigh, gripping the seat. “That’s nice of you, but I feel so awful. I mean, I didn’t lock you up myself or really have anything to do with that side, but I’ve been up here the whole time and I never did anything,” she said, running her hands through her hair with a stressed sigh. “I know you aren’t human, but you’re still people. I just - I can’t believe I lost sight of that.”
Crowley gave a low chuckle. “I’ve seen a lot of humans over the years who never learn that lesson,” he said, and Aziraphale nodded along with a bittersweet smile. “Listen, you’re a good kid. This place, it’s - well, awful. Have you ever been inside one of those cells?”
“No...” she admitted, hanging her head.
“Not fun,” he said dryly.
“Quite,” Aziraphale agreed. “Do you think you could try convincing your superiors to make some changes? We know as well as anyone how hard it can be, working in a rigid bureaucracy, but humans are so much more adaptable than our kind. More compassionate, too.”
“You think?” she said.
“Yeah. Give it a shot,” Crowley said.
The guilt began to lift, but her expression faltered. “I’d love to make a difference for everyone in the facility, but... what am I supposed to say? I need Ken’s approval to go to management with complaints about the organisation, and he would never allow it, not after what he did today.”
Aziraphale and Crowley both turned to look at the bearded man. “Oh wouldn’t he... ?” Aziraphale said.
Martha’s office looked very different than it had thirty years ago. It was large, airy, full of potted plants and family photos. SIN itself had changed a lot, too; for a start, they’d rebranded. It was now the Advanced Natural Science Collective, and their entire outlook had turned itself inside out. It had all begun in that soulless prison underground, where an angel and a demon had given one compassionate young zoologist the chance to make her voice heard. From there, she’d given many presentations to like-minded individuals who had been silenced by their perceived isolation. One by one, the call for the rights of their specimens grew. It had taken time, tears and hard work, but in the end, she had won.
Containment facilities were shut down, and the specimens within rehabilitated for release. For those whose minds had been warped for too long in their grey prisons, they were provided with their own safe spaces in comfortable, secure retirement housing, where they could live out the rest of their days peacefully. The ANSC hired both human and inhuman staff, working together as equals, finding ways for their species to coexist and cooperate with each other. It wasn’t perfect; Martha knew that there would always be people like Ken hanging around the the organisation, making things difficult, but they were now a minority. A good thing, too; she didn’t think she was capable of changing their minds quite as efficiently as Crowley and Aziraphale had in the control room, all those decades ago.
Some days, she looked back and wondered whatever happened to those two. They’d be in their seventies now, at the very least. She’d never encountered anything like them before, and nothing since. All records of them vanished after she let them out of the facility, and no one even seemed to recall where they’d found them in the first place. It was bizarre. She would have been left wondering if she’d ever really met them at all, if not for what they did to Ken*. She still wasn’t sure what exactly they had done, and didn’t really want to know, either.
By chance, she’d forgotten her umbrella one morning on her way back home from the office. She muttered curses under her breath, holding her ringbinder over her head to shield herself from the rain and looking desperately for a shop that was still open at this time in the afternoon. Miraculously (and it really was miraculous for anyone who knew anything about this particular shop’s erratic opening hours), there was a corner shop with an open sign in the window. She breathed a sigh of relief and bustled inside.
Wiping the rainwater from her eyes, she noticed that she’d walked into a bookshop. She hummed appreciatively. Independent shops like this were rare these days. “Must sell a lot of books to keep this place open,” she murmured, trying not to drip water on any books as she glanced around. They all looked so beautiful, she’d hate to ruin them.
“Can I help you, miss?” someone asked. The voice rang a dim and distant bell somewhere in her memory.
She looked up, and that bell became a crash of cymbals right beside her ear. “Aziraphale!” she cried immediately.
He looked a little taken aback. “Oh, er - I’m sorry, have we met?” he said, fiddling nervously with his hands.
“Only once,” she replied warmly. She hadn’t realised how much she’d missed him, even from that brief meeting all those years ago. He’d changed her whole life. “I’ve aged since then, but you definitely haven’t. You look exactly the same as I remember.”
He looked down at himself. It was true, he’d been wearing the same outfit since the nineteenth century. Crowley kept nagging him about changing it. “Ah, are you sure? I’m sure I’ve got a few more white hairs these days,” he said skittishly, trying to deflect suspicion.
“Don’t play human. I know you aren’t,” she laughed, crossing her arms. She saw a flash of panic on his face. “Relax. Don’t you remember me? It’s Martha, from that time you got locked in an underground prison for a few days, about thirty years ago.”
His brow furrowed deeper for a moment before lifting all at once. “I do remember!” he said, his face lighting up. He came over to her, looking at her face in a new light. “My, how different you are now. Age becomes you, my dear.”
She ducked her head, unused to such praise. She’d never had too much time for her appearance in her line of work, and only her spouse ever seemed to like the way she looked. It was nice to have a compliment from someone else for once.
“Thanks. Is Crowley around, too?” she asked, eager to see the redhead as well. “I’d love to tell you everything I’ve done since you left. I’ve made such a difference in the organisation, all thanks to you two.”
“Crowley is always around,” he said, taking her arm and guiding her toward the back room. “Let’s go wake him up, and you can tell us all about your achievements. And don’t think he’ll miss that wedding ring on your finger; he’ll be prying into all your personal business, too.”
She gave a snort of laughter, feeling like she’d come to visit her nosey grandparents. “Hey, you noticed it too,” she pointed out.
“Oh, I don’t deny, I’m just as terrible as he is,” he replied with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “You won’t believe the sorts of gossip we’ve heard over the years.”
Crowley lifted his head as soon as they walked into the back room. “Did I hear the word gossip?” he said, then squinted. “Wait, who’s that?”
“You remember Martha, from when we were both kidnapped a few decades ago,” he said. She gave a little wave.
“Oh, her. Back already, are you?” he said, sitting up properly on the sofa. “Take a seat, kid. Got some tales to tell, eh?”
“Yeah, and too many wrinkles to be called a kid anymore,” she said, amused, coming over to sit beside him. Aziraphale chuckled slightly, gathering up the used tea set and taking it away to brew a fresh pot.
“We’re thousands of years old. You’ll always be a kid to us,” he said, leaning back. Before she could express any kind of shock, he tilted his head and craned his neck slightly, his eyes catching a glint on her finger. “Hm... married now, are you?”
She glanced at her wedding ring - the very one Aziraphale had warned her he’d pick up on - and she couldn’t help but laugh. “Yep,” she said. “Twelve years now. If you could tell me what the secret to a perfect relationship is, I’d be really grateful. Looks like you two have held it together for a hell of a long time.”
“The secret?” he said, arching a brow and sharing a glance with Aziraphale as he came back with the tea. He laughed, shaking his head. “Well, I’d tell you, but I’m afraid it’s... ”
“Ineffable, dear,” Aziraphale finished when Crowley trailed off expectantly, setting the new tea tray on the low table. The two of them shared a knowing look, and she knew that was a window into a very old inside joke. She rolled her eyes, taking a biscuit from the tray.
“You guys are just as ridiculous as I remember,” she said fondly, and dived into a retelling of the last thirty years.
*Ken was fine, but shortly after promoting Martha to his own position on a whim, he left SIN, began regularly attending church, and opened a rehabilitation centre for abandoned kittens. He was a changed man. After being shown Hell itself, anyone would be.