As it turned out, they hadn't changed much of anything.
The skies had not fallen, of course. Nor had the seas boiled. The sun had not become black like a sackcloth of hair and, to the disgruntlement of numerous entities both ethereal and occult, the moon had not become as blood. The scheduled plague of locusts never made it past Cornwall; they lost their sense of purpose somewhere over St Ives Harbour and decided, after a brief tour of Tintangel, to head some place warm -- perhaps Majorca -- for the remainder of their brief, insectual lives, and the obligatory rain of fish had been short-lived and mostly confined to the general vicinity of the M25.
A bad show all around, really.
On the dawning of the first day of the Earth's new lease on life, an Ask Not Lest Ye be Asked policy was hastily adopted by both sides. Good and Evil's rank and file carried on as it always had, and the subject of the Apocalypse that Rather Went a Bit Pear-Shaped was pointedly avoided at board meetings, policy briefings, and Heaven's semi-annual rummage sale. A blissful and untested existence stretched on, filled with mild summers, the occasional light rain, and a stubborn and embarrassed silence on either front, which in all honesty, lent to a false sense of security.
The denizens of Heaven and Hell didn't take defeat lightly. Failure was not an option; it was something that happened to other people, and they decided, upon reflection, that they shouldn't have let themselves be distracted by a neat bit of misdirection. Particularly when the sleight-of-hand in question was performed, in the main, by an eleven year-old boy hardly in control of his own powers, two rogue field agents who hadn't so much as sent a postcard to headquarters in six millennia (give or take), and sundry followers and hangers-on who had almost no significance on any astral plane.
Anathema Device was a bit of a sticking point. The psychic types always were, especially when they got away with it. Somewhere, Agnes Nutter was cackling as she rested in whatever she preferred to peace.
Which meant Aziraphale had been right, of course. When it came to ineffability, only fools rushed in. Mucking about with the Divine Plan was a bit like hang-gliding, or rock-climbing: extreme sports for the supernatural set.
No, they hadn't changed much of anything. They'd simply asked for a rain-check.
Someone once said it was better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Aziraphale would disagree, of course, on general principle. Crowley would also disagree, simply because he's been to Hell. The Devil himself can't find a place to park, and really, if you've seen one bubbling pit of sulphur, you've seen them all.
Once again, it wasn't a dark and stormy night. In fact, dark and stormy nights had been rather far and few between in the last six years. They seemed to be saved for special occasions, such as Halloween, horror film premieres, and winter solstice celebrations at Stonehenge. Presently, the blue-black night was clear, if a bit listless, and the stars, grateful that avenging angels had never been allowed to cast them from the sky, twinkled like tiny diamonds.
Crowley hurtled away from Elephant and Castle with the practised ease of someone who habitually exceeded the speed limit. The world was black and grey, and he took a deep breath, forcing the alcohol from his system. His head cleared, fleeing alongside the sour heat in his stomach, but nothing changed, really. Bottom-shelf tequila still coated his tongue, and he was still about to get buggered up a hill and sideways.
And so was the world, in a manner of speaking.
He blamed Piqar, mostly. Wishing discorporation on the messenger wouldn't fix anything, but it would certainly make Crowley feel better. And it wasn't like anyone would miss him. Piqar was a demon, after a fashion, but he was also as low on Hell's food chain as you could get without knocking on Heaven's door and asking if you could resubmit your application. Crowley didn't know who allowed the gormless fellow topside -- Piqar claimed to be on a routine possession, but Crowley doubted he could possess a Pot Noodle without a small army to assist him -- and when Crowley spotted him, menacing a letterbox with a rather unconvincing lurk, Crowley's first instinct had been to manifest himself elsewhere.
Piqar had recognised him right off, of course, six thousand years of no contact and a very stylish pair of sunglasses aside, and Crowley did hate to leave the Bentley to its own devices. Besides, refusing Piqar's offer of a drink would have been suspicious. Crowley had stayed off Hell's radar this long; he didn't intend for a fourth-rate incubus with no advancement prospects to line him up in the Devil's cross-hairs.
Not that it mattered, if what Piqar said was true.
"Can't be," muttered Crowley, taking care to use the roundabout the wrong way. "It can't be."
Sure, things had been a bit dull of late, what with Heaven and Hell keeping a low profile. Crowley didn't have an agenda most days, other than pottering around his flat and threatening his potted plants. He read some, and watched the afternoon serials on the telly. He had dinner with Aziraphale every Tuesday, and when he was in the neighbourhood -- and only because he was in the neighbourhood; demons didn't make social calls -- he dropped in on Anathema, who had somehow managed to house-train Newt, produce two children that looked nothing like either of them, and make Jasmine Cottage into something almost liveable. He tempted occasionally, because bad habits died hard.
It wasn't much, but it was a life. It was better than Hell, and Crowley liked it.
Crowley froze, slapped with the cold chill associated with being caught with your hand up the skirt of another man's wife. He snatched a cassette off the passenger seat, shook it free of its plastic case, and shoved it in the Blaupunkt. A muted click and whir was followed by the painful thud of the Velvet Underground. Crowley relaxed by degrees and slammed his foot on the accelerator.
"CROWLEY," The voice was reminiscent of sandpaper over pavement, and it cut through Lou Reed's drone like a knife. "I FIND YOUR SILENCE UNSETTLING."
"Sorry," said Crowley. "I was a bit distracted. I'm driving, you understand." Chances were this fellow didn't; Hell's more important types hadn't been above-ground since the favoured form of transportation was the beast of burden. Assuming, of course, that they'd ever been above-ground, at all. "Who's this, then?"
"YANDAR, INTERIM LORD OF THE FLIES, MASTER OF MADNESS, UNDER-DUKE OF THE SEVENTH TORMENT."
"Interim?" asked Crowley. It could've been worse. It could've been Hastur. Or what was left of Listur.
"DAGON'S ON HOLIDAY," explained Yandar. "HE'LL BE BACK ON SUNDAY. WE'VE BIG PLANS FOR SUNDAY."
Crowley swallowed, and slouched in his seat like an errant student. "Right. Sunday." He itched in a way that suggested he was supposed to know what these plans entailed. "Sunday is Christmas, isn't it?" Crowley wouldn't have remembered, except Aziraphale had roped him into some sort of party with Newt and Anathema. "I didn't realise you'd taken to celebrating the birth of Je-- the upstart down there."
"CELEBRATING ISN'T QUITE THE WORD," said Yandar, in a tone that passed for amused amongst demons.
"I'VE A BUSY NIGHT TONIGHT, SO I'LL GET ON WITH IT," continued Yandar. Crowley shivered. "ALL HAIL SATAN! I HAVE A MESSAGE FROM LUCIFER, YOUR LORD AND MASTER, THE MORNING STAR, BRINGER OF LIGHT, EMBODIMENT OF EVIL AND ENEMY OF GOD, KING OF HELL AND ALL ITS REALMS, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, RULER OF SERPENTS, TEMPTER OF ADAM AND EVE, DESTROYER OF EDEN, FATHER OF THE GREAT BEAST THAT IS CALLED DRAGON."
"You forgot Piper at the Gates of Dawn," Crowley muttered sourly. He was surprised the end bit hadn't been edited out of Satan's titles at the last propaganda round-table, since Adam hadn't quite lived up to His expectations, particularly in the seven heads and ten tails department.
"YOU, CROWLEY, HAVE BEEN SUMMONED TO JOIN THE ARMIES OF HELL IN THE FINAL BATTLE AGAINST THE HOSTS OF HEAVEN THAT WILL BRING FORTH THE DAY OF RECKONING AND THE DESTRUCTION OF MANKIND. LUCIFER, OUR LORD AND MASTER--"
"AHEM. OUR LORD AND MASTER REQUESTS YOUR PRESENCE IN THE NORTH OF SCOTLAND THIS SUNDAY, ONE FULL HOUR BEFORE DAWN. WEAPONS AND REFRESHMENTS WILL BE PROVIDED. YOU MAY ASSUME WHATEVER FORM YOU WISH, AND YOU MAY BRING ONE (1) GUEST, POSSESSED OR UNPOSSESSED." There was a short, tight silence, during which Crowley wondered if he could wish himself and the Bentley to Ibiza while leaving the Blaupunkt behind. "WHAT SAY YOU, CROWLEY, DEMON OF HELL?"
"Sounds lovely," said Crowley. He didn't have much choice, without access to a vial of holy water. Or an ansaphone. "I wouldn't miss it."
"I'LL LET HIM KNOW," said Yandar. "OUR LORD AND MASTER IS MOST ANXIOUS TO SEE YOU. HE HAS NOT FORGOTTEN THAT LAST TIME, YOU FAILED TO INTERVENE ON HIS BEHALF."
"When you say failed to intervene--"
"SUNDAY, CROWLEY. ONE HOUR BEFORE DAWN.
"Right. I'll be there."
With a hiss, Yandar became Venus in Furs, and Crowley switched off the Blaupunkt. Suddenly, Lou Reed was not fit company.
Agnes Nutter was never wrong.
Except for that one time. About the big one.
This bothered Anathema on occasion, in the strange stretch of peace that followed. Anathema had spent her life as a descendent, after all. Agnes' words had been a talisman. Scripture, in a sense. For generations, her family had viewed The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch as a set of principles to be followed to the letter -- when they'd been able to figure out what the mad woman was on about in the first place. That kind of faith wasn't far from religion when you got right down to it, and the idea that Agnes might have dropped the ball when it was important was a bit unsettling.
Anathema remembered. Not much -- bits and bats, mostly -- but she did remember. She remembered more than Newt, and more than the Them -- although, she suspected at least one of the Them knew more than he led on. She no longer had the book, but she did have the cards, and Crowley stopped in every few weeks, which helped a little. Sometimes, she poked at the memories like a sore tooth, sorted through them like jigsaw pieces jumbled on a table, and she always came to the same conclusion when she did: the events at the air base (of which no one seemed to know the details) did not play out the way Agnes had said they would.
But Agnes remembered something, too. She remembered that the future was malleable. Nothing was set in stone, except death, taxes, and Elvis impersonators having bad hair.
She had foreseen the end of the world and the destruction of mankind. But she had also foreseen that mankind would get a stay of execution, if the right people saw fit to be in the right place at, well, the wrong time.
She knew Anathema would burn her next set of prophecies, which is why, three days later, a second copy fell out of a kitchen cupboard and landed on Anathema's toe. She also knew Anathema would throw the second copy in the bin, which is why a third arrived by mail the very next week.
No, Agnes Nutter was never wrong. She was simply misunderstood.
Aziraphale's bookshop survived the near-Apocalypse unscathed. It was still hopelessly cluttered. It still smelled strongly of tea and disuse, and it was still the breeding ground for nomadic tribes of dustbunnies that skittered across the floor like the crisp packets littering the pavement outside. The only significant change was the inventory, a situation Aziraphale began setting to rights his first morning back in (almost) business. He still only sold a book if he had no other option, but he was steadily replacing the thin, brightly-coloured volumes Adam Young had manifested onto the shelves with things more to his tastes -- specifically; thick, ponderous, leather-bound tomes with yellowed pages and cracked spines.
Crowley ignored the sign in the front window, which said 'closed' with all the authority a square of plastic could muster. He also ignored the fact that Aziraphale had locked the door. He waved his hand in front of it, wiggling his fingers just slightly. Aziraphale's army of deadbolts retreated, and the door inched open with the sort of creak favoured by haunted houses and people wanting to scare off travelling salesmen. A handful of sleigh-bells jingled as Crowley stepped inside, loud in the dusty silence.
"Here, now!" shouted Aziraphale. From the back room, he sounded both distant and distracted. "I'm closed for the evening." Following his current trend, Crowley ignored this dismissal, too. After a moment, Aziraphale shuffled into the bookshop proper, armed with a cup of tea and a copy of Malleus Maleficarum so ancient it probably bore Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger's fingerprints. "Oh." He only sounded vaguely surprised. "It's you."
"Sorry to disappoint," said Crowley dryly. "Were you expecting someone else?" The Malleus Maleficarum was very old and brown against Aziraphale's fingers, and Crowley eyed it sideways. Pope Innocent VIII's mind had worked in ways the Devil didn't even understand. "The Univeralist Coven of South London, perhaps?"
"What, this?" Aziraphale asked, brandishing the book before tucking it under his arm. "A bit of light reading." He paused, frowning at Crowley as if Crowley had done him a personal wrong -- which, of course, was always possible. Crowley had blacked out the London Library's lending database yesterday. But only for twenty-seven minutes. "I was about to phone you."
Aziraphale never phoned him. Aziraphale didn't have anything against telephones -- although he did have something against ansaphones, and Crowley was not-home so regularly that when phoning his flat, a conversation with his ansaphone was inevitable -- but mobiles were out of Aziraphale's depth. He found the whole wireless thing unnerving, which meant, on the rare occasion he did ring Crowley on his mobile, that he shouted a lot, and put the receiver so close to his mouth he was practically eating it.
"I take it you've heard from your side."
"I did," said Aziraphale. "I went into the back after closing up, and found the Metatron helping himself to my biscuit tin. You just missed him."
"Pity," murmured Crowley. If he never saw the Voice of God again, it would be too soon. He headed for the back room, nudging Aziraphale into motion as he passed. "I should work on my aim."
Aziraphale's sigh was both patient and long-suffering, and Crowley pretended not to notice. He knew Aziraphale thought the Metatron was a self-centred flash bastard; he was just too nice to say it out loud.
"I figured you might have," continued Crowley. He waved a cup of tea into existence, and settled in at the table that pretended, when Aziraphale was actually doing work, to be a desk. "Someone from middle management possessed my stereo as I was driving home."
"You'd save yourself this sort of trouble if you'd just stop driving," said Aziraphale sensibly. "I know you're attached to that car, but you don't need it."
"I prefer it that way," said Crowley. His tea was too hot, and it wanted sugar. "If given the choice, I'd rather not find Beelzebub in my loo."
"Must you be crass?"
"Must you only have cinnamon biscuits?"
Sighing again, Aziraphale removed the biscuit tin from Crowley's reach. "What was the message?"
"It wasn't a message, it was a summons," said Crowley irritably. He set his half-empty tea aside. He rather thought he needed a brandy. A large brandy. "It was my draft notice for the Armies of Hell. Final battle, this Sunday, north of Scotland."
"Mine was similar," said Aziraphale. "The Hosts of Heaven amassing. I'm to report to my Choir of Angels one hour before dawn."
Crowley shivered. He hated it when Heaven and Hell shared a brain. "Well, what are we going to do?"
The clocked ticked. The bookshop creaked as it settled in for the night. The Malleus Maleficarum glared up at Crowley balefully.
Aziraphale was dead serious.
"What do you mean, nothing?" demanded Crowley. "We've been through this before! There's no sense in testing everything to destruction just to see if it was made properly. There's no sense in endless Heaven or eternal Hell."
"Yes, we have been through this before." Aziraphale looked away and began absently shredding a biscuit into a pile of crumbs. "And apparently, it didn't matter."
"Of course it mattered," argued Crowley. "We learned something last time, didn't we?"
"Oh, what's that?"
Crowley smiled. Like a snake. "We have a choice."
And verily, change came to Lower Tadfield, albeit slowly.
Mrs Henderson, who was very old indeed, and according to some, had lived in Lower Tadfield since Christ was a child, decided one cold November morning that she wanted to spend the rest of her golden (and possibly platinum) years in warmer climes. She sold her property for a song and moved to Torremolinos, and with that act of greatness, Anathema Pulsifer nee Device, and her husband Newt, became the first permanent residents of Jasmine Cottage in recent memory. Two children followed shortly, a solemn boy and girl with dark hair and intent eyes. They were more concerned about things like the environment than people under the age of six had any right to be, and they often played witch trials in the front garden.
The Them gave this event due consideration, and Wensleydale muttered some about occultists, but Adam had long ago decided Anathema was the right sort of occultist. From this, they figured Newt must be the right sort of whatever-he-was, and that was the end of that.
Two years later, Greasy Johnson moved to Birmingham in pursuit of a fledgling American football league, and the Them viewed this upheaval in the natural order of things with mixed emotions. Greasy Johnson had been a steady point in the Them's daily life -- a fixture, like Jasmine Cottage and the air base and their parents overreacting about every little thing -- and his sudden lack was noted. Greasy Johnson was, well, greasy (and with the onset of puberty, spotty), and the neighbourhood was probably all the better for him leaving, but a good gang needed a rival; that was simply the way of things. The leftover Johnsonites held fast for a number of weeks, but they were rudderless without a leader, and eventually slipped into the obscurity of such after-school programs as the chess and botany clubs.
A highway that would bisect Lower Tadfield in an attempt to connect it with civilization was planned, but never approved. A passel of luxury home-estates that would cover the rolling hills like ants was approved, but the contractor lost his stipend on the horses and was never heard from again. A commercial development slated for a plot of land that was practically on R P Tyler's back lawn was miraculously relocated to Upper Tadfield before the first shovel broke ground, and no official reason was given.
Adam took no responsibility. Messing others around wasn't polite.
The Them, who had once been scruffy and difficult children, grew into awkward and difficult teenagers, and they still prowled Lower Tadfield in a pack, much to the consternation of the area's God-fearing adults. Over time, they traded their bicycles for bigger, more appropriate bicycles and eventually, on the rare occasion it could be convinced to start, Adam's elderly Saab 900. The Pit remained their headquarters and home away from home, but they often ventured outward, usually to a bohemian coffee shop in Norton, the type of establishment where the coffee was priced in pounds instead of pence, and a thin wastrel darkened the rickety, makeshift stage in the company of a guitar and beret.
It was at this coffee shop they now sat. They settled at an outside table, despite the brisk winter chill, because Adam had brought Dog, and because Brian had recently taken up smoking in what Adam was sure was an attempt to irritate his parents. He sat on Adam's left, which put Pepper across from Adam and Wensleydale on his other side. Pepper's mittens and scarf were the same dark green as the coffee shop's plastic outdoor furniture, and the smoke trailing from Brian's nose clouded around his head before curling into a grey haze that lingered against the awning.
"It doesn't seem right," said Pepper, aggrieved. A hot chocolate with extra whipped cream was trapped between her woolly hands. "You can't be havin' Christmas without proper presents an' a proper tree."
Pepper's mother had recently started going to church. It was a normal sort of church, as far as the Them could tell, not the wailing and snake-touching sort of church with funny ideas, but the years Pepper's mother spent as a godless, wandering heathen seemed to be weighing on her mortal soul, and she was having plenty of funny ideas on her own. This year, their Christmas tree was a sombre affair, decked with angels and crosses and fairy lights the same pale blue as the Virgin Mary's mantle, and denouncing the commercialised extravaganza that society made of the Saviour's birth, Pepper's mother had forbidden gift-giving above and beyond that of token appreciation on pain of, well, pain.
"I can't see as it matters much," said Adam, who was tired of Pepper's mother's church.
"No, it's not right," said Wensleydale, in the quiet tones of adolescent infatuation.
Wensleydale's loyalty was to Adam, and it always would be, but boys would be boys, and over the last year, Pepper had become a girl. She didn't act like one, and she rarely talked like one, but some days, she rather looked like one. On those days, dissension whispered between the ranks, particularly from Wensleydale. Adam ignored it because Pepper mostly did, and because it was only on those days.
"She's been readin' the Bible, again," said Pepper.
"Nothin' wrong with readin' the Bible," replied Adam carefully. Dog growled softly. "My parents read the Bible now and again."
"Sure, but they're not readin' the Bible the way she's been readin' the Bible," argued Pepper. "She's been takin' notes and such, and goin' on about the end of the world."
Adam shifted in his chair. "Well, I suppose not," he said stiffly, and Dog nosed at his shoe.
"Tomorrow Never Dies is playin' in an hour," Brian offered, in hopes of changing the subject. He coughed into his coffee -- black, with a splash of hot water -- and stubbed his fag in the disposable alfoil ashtray. "Right across town."
Adam shrugged. "I don't much feel like drivin' just now," he said, which was Adam-speak for my car is like to leave us on the side of the highway. He frowned for good measure, glaring at it where it was parked just up from the coffee shop. It was the sort of sun-bleached red that looked orange in the wrong light -- or on particularly grey days, like this one -- and it had temperamental heater which fogged the windows like anything and smelled strongly of wet cat. "Tomorrow, maybe."
"I work tomorrow," said Wensleydale importantly. He was the only one of the Them with a job, even if it was only seasonal work at the local green grocer's.
"I'm savin' my money, anyway," said Pepper, behind the latest NME. Adam ignored the unnecessary display of Oasis on the cover. "I'm wantin' to see Radiohead when they play next."
"By yourself, then?" asked Wensleydale, and Adam shifted again, because this was approaching dangerous territory.
"I might get two tickets," said Pepper quietly. Her eyes almost flicked to Adam. Almost, but not quite. Brian, who often noticed more than he led on, dove for the safety of his coffee, and Adam became very interested in Dog.
Three days ago, Pepper kissed him. It had been a quick, brief thing comprised of winter-chapped lips and too much tongue, and after, Adam had been decidedly warm, but also rather confused. She hadn't mentioned it since, for which Adam was profoundly grateful, because he wasn't sure how he felt about the whole thing, really.
"I was thinkin'," said Adam slowly, because Wensleydale looked a bit pink and someone had to say something. "Maybe we should do our own Christmas."
Christmas invaded St James' park quietly. Bright red bows topped the lamp-posts, and strands of fairy lights twinkled in the shrubbery. The sky was a heavy, battleship grey, and last night's light snow covered the ground like a soft, knitted blanket. As the new and improved Apocalypse crept closer, realpolitik carried on, flourishing alongside the second-oldest profession -- secrets. Used notes exchanged hands under the cover of crumpled brown bags and sleek alligator briefcases, and across the pond, the Dutch naval attaché strolled under the winter-frosted trees with a woman who strongly resembled a distant cousin of the Royal Family.
An ancient drake with a bum wing waddled over and pecked irritably at Aziraphale's shoe.
"Any luck?" asked Aziraphale. He clutched desperately a several slices of Russian rye.
"Depends on what you consider luck," replied Crowley.
"They mean to go ahead with it?" asked Aziraphale.
It being nothing less than the end of the World. And yes, they had every intention of going ahead with it. Crowley now had the full details of the plan, thanks to -- oddly enough -- Piqar. After another bottle of bottom shelf-tequila, Piqar had introduced Crowley to a friend, who seemed to know how things were going to unfold. A tall, blond fellow with a permanent sneer and the pale, waxy look of someone who just escaped from prison. Crowley hadn't liked him much, but Crowley hadn't needed to. Everyone was agreeable after a proper hypnotism, and Crowley had only needed to ask him a few questions.
Aziraphale considered for a few moments. He fiddled with the bread, which crumbled sadly under his nervous fingers. "Of course," he murmured. "Has your side provided for a... a--"
"Yes, him," said Aziraphale. "Rather necessary, unfortunately. I don't think either side can proceed without one."
Crowley shifted uncomfortably, frowning at the squabbling queue of ducks around Aziraphale's feet until they scattered noisily toward the pond. "Not as such. But they'll have one by Sunday."
"Oh? How's that?"
"Well, on the last go, the plan went south for the winter, didn't it?" asked Crowley. "The boy was meant to be the seed of Evil and all that, but he got attached to the place, after growing up in it. This time, they're not taking any chances. They're doing it the old fashioned way."
"You don't mean--"
"Possession," said Crowley, almost cheerfully.
"That's dreadful," muttered Aziraphale, brushing crumbs from his hands. "Absolutely dreadful."
"Yes, but it's efficient," said Crowley, with a broad, circular gesture. "Less room for error, if the poor sod doesn't have a choice." He stepped a bit closer to Aziraphale, because the angel looked positively distressed, and for some reason, Crowley was bothered by it. "They've not said much Below, of course, but I can guarantee you someone, somewhere, is a bit embarrassed." Aziraphale was rooted to the spot; Crowley linked their arms and moved, hoping Aziraphale would follow. "They conjure up none other than the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of this World, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness, wait patiently for eleven years while he grows into himself, and then when the day comes, he calls the whole thing off because his friends won't have a place to play."
"No, no, I see your point," said Aziraphale, as Crowley jerked on his arm again. He allowed himself to be herded away. "I just don't like it. I've always thought possession was a bit... invasive." He paused as the Bentley unlocked itself. "Do they have someone in mind, or will they just seize the first unfortunate soul they come across?"
Crowley smiled thinly. "Oh, they have a fellow."
"What do you mean, do our own Christmas?" Wensleydale demanded.
They returned home for dinner and regrouped outside Jasmine Cottage with full bellies, only to be chased out of The Pit by the weather, which Adam thought was a bit colder than was strictly necessary. They retreated to Brian's sitting room, which was not as brilliant as The Pit, but would do in a pinch. It had a old, black-and-white telly that's antenna was attached with Sellotape and lumpy plaid couches that were at least three decades out of fashion. Dog was banished to the garage, because Brian's older brother was allergic, and Adam had apologised with a ratty blanket full of interesting smells and a sound pat on the head.
"I mean, we should do our own Christmas," said Adam. "That way, we don't have to worry about other stuff. Just us."
"What other stuff?" asked Pepper, who was returning from the loo. She resumed her seat, which was as far from Adam as she could manage while remaining on the same couch. Wensleydale had opted for the couch opposite them; Brian was stretched out between them on the floor.
"Like your mum's church," said Adam sharply. "Or if Brian's mum is making tongue for dinner again."
"She only did it the once," argued Brian defensively. "It put my dad off, and my brother got hives."
"Everything gives your brother hives," Wensleydale pointed out.
This was true, so no argument was forthcoming.
"We'll just put our presents under our tree," continued Adam. "We've got 'em already, don't we?"
This year, Adam bought Wensleydale a book on the The Army, because he'd expressed interest in joining the territorials out of school, and Brian a carton of fags, because maybe he'd smoke the lot in one go, make himself sick, and do everyone a favour and quit. He dithered over Pepper's present for a full fifteen minutes before deciding on a jumper he rather thought she'd look nice in -- not that he cared what she looked like, mind -- but this was before she kissed him. He'd since been wondering if there was time to exchange it for something less personal, like a NME subscription, or a nice pair of house shoes.
Pepper and Wensleydale nodded, as did Brian, although a bit less decisively; he had the slightly guilty look of someone who'd been putting of his Christmas shopping until tomorrow, and had just realised that if he didn't get on with it, tomorrow would be Boxing Day.
"Have you got a tree?" asked Wensleydale suddenly.
Adam paused at this. He did not have a tree of his own, and he doubted his father would appreciate him strapping the family tree to the roof of his car and driving off to The Pit.
"Well, no, I don't," admitted Adam. "We can figure that bit out when the time comes, I guess."
"I just wish I had a normal tree," said Pepper sourly. "You know, red and silver with balls and bows and that."
"You know who has a tree? Anathema," said Adam. "I bet she'd let us borrow it, if we ask nice."
"Anathema is an occultist," argued Wensleydale, picking at a loose thread on a shockingly tartan throw-pillow. "Occultists don't celebrate Christmas. They celebrate Yule."
The Them gave this due consideration, until Adam cleared his throat.
"Christmas or Yule, it don't much matter," he said. He leaned forward, partially to keep Wensleydale and Brian's attention, but mostly to escape Pepper; she'd stretched her legs a bit, and her feet were now invading his side of the couch. "She has a tree, for the kids, I guess. I saw it in the window. 'Sides, she just might celebrate Christmas. She's havin' a party. On Christmas Eve. She told me."
"A party?" asked Brian, finally warming to the subject. "With food and such?"
"If you like," said Adam. "And a tree."
"If she's having a party, she won't want us over there, borrowing her tree. We're not invited," said Wensleydale.
"Says who we're not invited?" asked Adam. "She told me she's havin' a party. That's just as good, if you ask me."
"We'll have to get her gifts, then," said Pepper, drawing her legs up and frowning at Adam, although Adam didn't know why. "That's what my mother says. If you're invited to a party, you have to bring the host a gift. It's polite."
This earned more due consideration. Adam privately thought he didn't need etiquette lessons from someone who didn't have a proper Christmas tree, but he didn't say anything, because it would only get Pepper going about her mum's church.
"Well, maybe if we all put in a bit, we could get her a together-gift, from all of us," said Brian. "Somethin' for the house."
"Sure," said Adam, slightly jealous he hadn't thought of it first.
"Hey!" said Brian suddenly, extricating his arm from where he'd shoved it between Wensleydale's feet and under the couch. "I found some tokens from the arcade. You feel like drivin', Adam?"
"Yeah," said Adam, smiling. "That'd be all right."
"I don't understand," said Aziraphale, as they sped toward Crowley's flat.
Crowley sighed. The Wizarding world was something Aziraphale deliberately chose not to understand. The whole idea -- humans who could do magic -- made him more than a bit nervous. The Bible spoke out against magic, at least in general terms, and Aziraphale seemed to think manifesting and miracling should be left to supernatural entities.
"What's not to understand?" asked Crowley. "I have to say, it's positively brilliant."
"You would," muttered Aziraphale, fiddling with a cassette. The glare of the headlights suggested it was Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd by the London Philharmonic, but Crowley was almost certain it was already the Best of Queen. "I must say, I'm bothered by one thing."
"Yes, one," said Aziraphale, missing Crowley's sarcasm entirely. "Why Harry Potter? Why not the other fellow?"
Crowley swerved, nearly clipping a lorry as he passed it. "Which fellow? Voldemort?"
"Yes, him," said Aziraphale, slipping the cassette into the Blaupunkt. A orchestral version of The Great Gig in the Sky filled the Bentley, although Crowley could have done without the impromptu vocals by Freddie Mercury. "He's more the type, wouldn't you think?"
Crowley shrugged and screeched down the exit lane. Down There approved of Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the same way and for the same reasons they approved of Satanists; because they couldn't not. Hell could hardly turn a blind eye to a group that held with murder, mayhem, and general mass destruction, even if they had embarrassing costumes and lacked anything approaching discretion. There was protocol to uphold, after all.
"He's a complete nutter," said Crowley, with all seriousness. "You know what I mean: wants to live forever, bent on obliterating half of the human race."
"Exactly my point," said Aziraphale, in a tone that was approaching smugness. "If I had to pick a... a... well, you know, I'd probably go with him."
"That's because your brain is stuck in the fourteenth century," said Crowley, turning so fast the Bentley rounded the corner on two wheels. "As an Antichrist, Voldemort would be expedient, yes, but he wouldn't necessarily get the job done. Not the way Below wants it done, anyway."
Aziraphale made that noise, the one that said he thought Crowley had landed on his head after the Fall, and Crowley sighed.
"I'm sure this Voldemort is a character, but from what I understand, he's only got a handful of followers, and they're bound by fear, not loyalty," explained Crowley. "Now this Potter fellow, he's a different story. His side's built him up as some kind of hero. A saviour, if you like." Aziraphale grunted disapprovingly, and Crowley snorted. "And he's been working up to this fight for years. If he wins, there's not much his people won't do for him."
"And?" asked Aziraphale.
"And?" Crowley repeated, a bit shrilly. "That's the problem with your side, angel. They can't think outside the box."
"I understand what you're getting at," said Aziraphale sharply. "I just don't understand how it applies to our situation. Once our fight it over," he added, gesturing between Crowley and himself, "it won't matter who wins his. The world will be over."
"Yes, but how will it end?" asked Crowley. He set to parking, squeezing the Bentley into a space between two lesser cars that wouldn't normally accommodate the type of scooter Aziraphale had ridden to the last Apocalypse. "Will we do it, or will the humans do it, themselves?"
"Oh," said Aziraphale said quietly. "Oh my."
"Exactly!" said Crowley, smacking his hand on the steering wheel. "I mean, I only know what I got from Piqar's mate, but it sounded like he's pretty high in this Voldemort's ranks. From what I understand, Hell picked the time and place, and Heaven agreed."
"They agreed last time," Aziraphale pointed out.
"By default," said Crowley. "They had to show up, because the Antichrist was already loose. Nothing else for it. This is different. This time, Belial went and poked Gabriel in the eye and said meet me in Scotland on Christmas morning."
"Just like that?" asked Aziraphale dubiously.
"Maybe," said Crowley, letting the Bentley idle so as not to lose the heater. "My point is, Heaven allowed Hell to pick the time and place, which means Heaven knows what's going on, as far as Potter's people."
"Yes, they must," said Aziraphale, slouching slightly in his seat. "They wouldn't have agreed to terms they didn't feel were advantageous. I must admit, the Metatron sounded awfully pleased with himself."
"I'll just bet," said Crowley, turning to face Aziraphale. "So our people get there, right? Heavenly hosts and Hellish armies as far as the eye can see. But lo! Good and Evil are already engaged below us."
"Yea and verily," muttered Aziraphale, favouring Crowley with a sharp frown.
"Heaven will back Potter, naturally," continued Crowley, ignoring the sudden curve of Aziraphale's mouth, "because he's fighting the good fight."
"And your people will back Voldemort," offered Aziraphale.
"At first. They have to at least look like they're trying," said Crowley, waving his hands about. "But at the last minute, they'll throw in their lot with Potter, so he wins. After he vanquishes his tyrant and earns himself a horde of slavering minions, a quick spot of possession will have him shouting about death and destruction."
"Right," said Aziraphale nervously.
"They've got those magical sticks, you know," said Crowley, leaning a bit too close. "People will be exploding right and left. With all that evil happening on the ground, Hell will take to the sky and leave Heaven in the dust."
"We're done for," whispered Aziraphale.
It was the 23rd of December, and the sky was as black as the Devil's heart. An angel and a demon sat in an illegally parked Bentley, contemplating the end of the world, while Freddie Mercury warbled through a strings-and-horns approximation of Nobody Home.
"Well, I should probably tell you, since we've naught but thirty-six hours," said Aziraphale, quiet and sudden at once. "I've always liked you. You're a right sort, even if you're from the wrong side."
And Crowley kissed him, because really, it had been six thousand years, and waiting rather wasn't an option any more.
"Have you ever made the effort?" asked Aziraphale.
"Only during the fourteenth century," said Crowley. It had been a defence mechanism, really; there hadn't been much else to do. "What about you?"
"Once," said Aziraphale. "But I'd rather not talk about Raphael right now."
"Raphael?" asked Crowley, pulling back slightly. If he remembered correctly, Raphael started the whole bit with miraculous healing by laying-on-of-hands, which quite honestly, made him responsible for things like street preachers and televangelists. "He's awfully flash, for you."
Aziraphale sighed. "Don't remind me."
"Come upstairs," said Crowley, shutting off the Bentley.
"Why?" asked Aziraphale. "Why now?"
Crowley paused, because he was a demon, and these sorts of things didn't come easily. His lip twitched, and he made a complicated hand-gesture. Aziraphale sighed.
"Well, that's all right, then," said Aziraphale. "I suppose I'd better. But we need to make an early start of it, tomorrow."
"I have an idea."
And Crowley kissed him again. They only had thirty-five hours and forty-five minutes to go.
It was a crisp, cool morning, and Jasmine Cottage hummed with Christmas cheer.
Anathema was a witch, but she was the sensible sort of witch. If the neighbours wished her a Happy Christmas -- which, with Lower Tadfield being Lower Tadfield, they did with alarming frequency -- she smiled and wished them the same. She didn't shout about Yule, because they probably wouldn't understand anyway, and she didn't start in on how Jesus stole another god's birthday, because frankly, she had better things to do with her time. The name of the holiday wasn't important. It was the spirit of the season that mattered, and in Lower Tadfield, the spirit of the season included Christmas trees and fairy lights and mistletoe above the door.
Besides, the children rather liked Father Christmas, and she couldn't argue with that kind of logic.
She'd never expected to have children. She'd never been maternal; she didn't play house much as a child, and only once did she take in a stray animal. Of course, this could neatly be blamed on her being a descendent. She'd been consumed with Agnes' prophecies before she could properly read. She'd had other things on her mind when other girls her age were pushing their dogs about in miniature prams and begging for dolls that cried and wet, but most importantly, she thought if she was meant to have children, Agnes might have mentioned it.
Her first pregnancy was a bit of surprise -- of course, most things after what didn't quite happen at the air base were a surprise, since she no longer had an unabridged guide to her life -- but it had turned out all right in the end. It came easily enough, after she figured out the important bits, and by the time she had the second one, she found she actually enjoyed it. Newt enjoyed it as well, but he lacked Anathema's ease. His heart was in the right place, but he took to fatherhood like a ostrich to surfing, and was at best, hopelessly awkward with the children in a way Anathema had learned to find endearing.
Anathema hummed quietly and adjusted the artificial pine garland strung across the mantle. She straightened the soapstone Nativity -- a gift from Newt's mother, and she'd be by later, make no mistake -- and rescued a bit of tinsel from the depths of Baby Jesus' cradle. Mary watched Anathema with a placid expression. Joseph stood guard next to a bough of holly, blissfully unaware of its pagan connotations. Anathema's youngest, Ruth, followed her as she worked, stumbling along with her clumsy, toddler feet, her small fingers caught in Anathema's trousers.
"I don't suppose you've seen your brother?" asked Anathema brightly. Ruth laughed in reply, with the delirious, bubbly giggle of the young and unconcerned, and Anathema swung her up, settling the child on her hip.
"I'm over here, mum."
Luke, who was not quite five, had developed an uncanny interest in books. He was currently cross-legged on the floor in front of the large set of shelves built into the wall, and wobbly stacks of books towered around him on all sides.
"Well, let's see what you're reading," said Anathema.
Here was the shop manual for Newt's Wasabi. There was a cookbook Newt's mother gave Anathema last Christmas, because she thought Newt and the children were too thin. In Luke's lap was something that made Anathema shiver.
Further Nife and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter
Concerning the Worlde that Is To Com; Ye Saga Continuef!
Newt had been right when he prompted Anathema to burn the first copy; she hadn't wanted to spend the rest of her life as a descendent. But Agnes, bloody-minded old woman that she was, had known Anathema would destroy it, and provided for another. And another. And another. The copy Luke was holding was the sixth -- possibly the seventh. Eventually, Anathema gave up and just shelved it, hoping Agnes would be content that the book was in the house, even if Anathema refused to read it.
"Give that here," she said. Setting Ruth on her feet, she extended her hand.
"It's got my name in it," said Luke proudly. "Twice!"
Anathema froze. The Further Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter slipped from her fingers and hit the floor with a solid thud.
Crowley wandered out of his bedroom at half-eight. The kitchen glowed with the weak and indecisive light of early morning, and Aziraphale was at the sideboard, frowning at Crowley's coffee percolator.
It wasn't really a coffee percolator. It was a French press and espresso maker, and like every small appliance Crowley owned, it was sleek and black and had more knobs, buttons, and levers than the current incarnation of the space shuttle. Aziraphale's hand lingered over the longest lever in a way that said he thought pulling it would set off a bomb, and if Crowley was the sort of demon who did things properly and by the book, it would. As such, pulling it would only scatter coffee grounds on his gleaming sideboard. Sighing, Crowley wished two cups of coffee onto the immaculate kitchen table -- one for him (black) and one for Aziraphale (milk, two sugars).
"Stop, before your hurt yourself," said Crowley.
Aziraphale started to reply with something sharp, but subsided when Crowley pressed the coffee on him.
"I'd almost given up on you," said Aziraphale. His tone suggested that in Heaven, good angels were up before sunrise, and got their quota of cloud-sitting and harp-playing in before noon. "I thought you might just hibernate until it's over."
Now, there was an idea. Crowley did like a good lie-in. If he was human, and had to worry about death instead of discorporation, that would be the way he'd want to go. It would be perfect. He could just go to sleep and never wake up. The world could explode into a hundred thousand million points of misdirected light, and Crowley could snore right through the whole bloody-minded and ostentatious ordeal. Of course, it wouldn't work like that. He'd wake up eventually, and when he did, he'd be Downstairs, and he'd have quite a bit of explaining to do.
Almost six thousand years worth.
Aziraphale frowned again, this time at the contents of Crowley's refrigerator, which managed to be expensive and gourmet as well as completely unappetizing.
"Really," murmured Aziraphale, setting a small jar on the sideboard. "Do humans actually eat caviare?"
"Not this early, said Crowley. He snapped his fingers. "Scone?"
Aziraphale shook his head.
Aziraphale made a small noise.
"Oh, all right," said Aziraphale. He took the plate, and after a futile search of Crowley's kitchen drawers, miracled a fork and knife. "I suppose I am a bit peckish."
With that, Aziraphale settled in and became the first person -- well, person-shaped creature, at any rate -- to eat a meal at Crowley's kitchen table. Or anywhere in Crowley's flat, for that matter. Crowley stared in morbid fascination. He'd seen Aziraphale eat a thousand times, but not in a situation where every bite threatened the blindingly pristine state he'd wasted countless manifestations to achieve.
"So, what's this idea?" he asked finally.
"You say your side plans to possess this Potter," said Aziraphale. "What does that entail, exactly?"
"It's fairly straightforward," said Crowley, sipping his coffee. "Reach into the fellow's head, root around a bit. Scramble his free will, so he's, you know, susceptible to new ideas."
"I don't know why you're asking," continued Crowley. "You know how it works."
Aziraphale looked up sharply. "I most certainly do not!"
"Of course you do," said Crowley. "Your side can do it, same as mine. We're from the same stock."
"That doesn't mean we do it," said Aziraphale, pointing at Crowley with his fork. A bit of eggy bread dangled precariously from the tines. "That's the fundamental difference between our sides. We don't do things just because we can."
"Balls." Crowley set his coffee aside sharply. "You're telling me that your people have never, in six thousand years, dropped a funny idea in some human's head? What about Divine Ecstasy and Prophetic Visions? What about those people who think God is listening when they talk to their budgie and see Jesus in their cheese sandwich?"
Aziraphale sighed. "You know as well as I do that some humans have questionable mental stability."
"So, when my side does it, it calls for a priest, but when your side does it, it calls for medication."
"We don't give people ideas," said Aziraphale calmly. "We inspire them, sometimes--"
"--inspire them to what, hold Spanish Inquisitions?"
"My people had nothing to do with the Spanish Inquisition," said Aziraphale briskly, and Crowley snorted. "You'd believe me," he added, "if you knew the kind of trouble we had putting a stop to it."
"Torquemada wept, I'm sure."
"I'm telling you, we didn't know," said Aziraphale. "It was completely unexpected."
"Of course. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition," murmured Crowley. "What about the Crusades, then?"
"That," said Aziraphale slowly, "was a misunderstanding. Gabriel suggested -- in a perfectly standard vision, as standard is described in the Handbook of Divine Intervention -- that the Church should take a more active role in spreading the Word. We had no idea Pope Urban II would sanction such... lengths." Pausing, he popped the last bit of eggy bread in his mouth. "This isn't getting us anywhere. We're only wasting time."
This was true. They had twenty-two hours, give or take a few minutes.
"Right. Where were we?" asked Crowley, a bit guiltily.
"We were... possessing someone," said Aziraphale. "Humour me, because whatever you say about my people, I've never done it. How does it work, on his end?"
"It's not all pea soup and spinning heads, if that's what you mean," said Crowley. "That's films. He might go a bit glassy-eyed. He might seem a little slow." His coffee was cold; he warmed it with a sharp sniff. "Honestly, they mostly look normal. You can't really tell until they start doing things they wouldn't usually do."
Aziraphale pushed his plate away. "Mmm."
"They can get twitchy, and that, but only when your demon's an amateur," continued Crowley. "They go in and try to take everything over, and you can't do that. Humans' free will is too hard-wired. If you blot it out completely, their brain shuts off, and they lose control of their baser functions. That's when you get flailing and speaking in tongues. If it's done right, no one will notice. Until it's too late, anyway."
Aziraphale considered this over a new cup of coffee. "Can they fight it?" he asked finally.
"I don't know, really," said Crowley. "I never went in for possession, myself. I did it once or twice in the early days, because that's how things were done, but I've found it's easier to just, you know, present them with options and let them make their own decisions," he said. "Most of the time, they come up with ideas -- all by themselves, mind -- that make my side look like a bunch of schoolgirls."
"Ideas. Such as the Spanish Inquisition?"
Crowley grumbled. "If you like."
"Get dressed," said Aziraphale archly. Looking down at himself, Crowley realised he was wearing a housecoat. "We're running out of time. We've less than a day left."
"Where are we going?" asked Crowley, standing. There was a dangerous gleam in Aziraphale's eye, a gleam that looked rather out of place on his supposedly-angelic face, and Crowley twitched. "You're not planning an exorcism, are you?" Crowley had never been to one, but the very idea of crosses and holy water and people quoting the Allegedly Good Book made him feel decidedly ill. "If you're going that route, you'll have to do it alone. That's bad business, for a demon."
"No, nothing so dramatic." Aziraphale's smile was almost conspiratorial. "If you want in on a trade secret, all that pomp and circumstance isn't necessary. All a good exorcist needs is a bit of holy water and good intentions. Which brings me to this -- we've not studied it much, you understand, but popular theory is that the average human can fight off the average possession, if put in the right frame of mind and surrounded by the right sort of people."
"Define average possession," said Crowley. "They'll not have some random incubus running this show. It'll be Beelzebub, if it's not Lucifer, himself."
"I figured as much, which is why we're going to Tadfield."
"Yes." Aziraphale smiled. "There's someone there who, if I remember correctly, is fairly persuasive."
Against her better judgement, Anathema read.
The first thing Anathema noticed was that Agnes correctly predicted the names of her children. Anathema deliberately picked Biblical names, as a mark of her new life as not-a-descendent. Agnes had been suitably fond of the old ways; she would have gone in for something like Cernunnos or Rhiannon.
The second thing Anathema noticed was that, according to Agnes, the world was ending.
In a little less than twenty hours.
Above the soapstone Nativity, a clock ticked. Outside, the wind rattled the windows, the beginning of the first proper storm Lower Tadfield had seen in years. Anathema made herself a cup of tea, and read a bit more. Then she phoned Newt's mother, and asked her to pick up the children so she could finish a spot of last-minute shopping. She rang Newt's mobile, but he didn't answer, just as Agnes said he wouldn't.
When Aziraphale and Crowley knocked on her door, she wasn't surprised.
As far as Agnes was concerned, they were fifteen minutes late.
"Wait. Explain this to me again."
Anathema looked stricken.
Crowley sighed. Aziraphale made a sound like a faulty tea-kettle.
"The Apocalypse is coming," said Crowley quickly. "Again," he added, in case, like many of the players involved, she didn't properly remember the last go. "Tomorrow morning, bright and early."
"I got that part, thanks," snapped Anathema, twisting a stray piece of artificial pine garland around her hand. "What I don't get is the rest of it. Who is Harry Potter?"
"I don't have time for a lesson on more than fifty years worth of magical history," said Crowley. He didn't really know fifty years worth of magical history; he got the short-short version from Piqar's contact, but that short-short version was an hour in the telling, and right now, the measured click from the clock over the mantle was as good as the tick of a bomb. "Suffice to say, Potter is big with witches and wizards, and the Devil is hoping to use this to his advantage."
"Witches exist?" asked Anathema.
Over the top of his sunglasses, Crowley gave her a pointed look. He then expanded it to include the hazel twig tied to the charred horseshoe over Jasmine Cottage's door, and the occultly-inclined theodolite resting jauntily in the corner of the room.
"I mean, witches," explained Anathema coolly. "You know, magic wands and pointy hats and flying around on brooms." She released the garland to flap her hand in front of her face. Bibbidi bobbidi bo, and that."
"That's fairy godmothers," supplied Aziraphale helpfully. Crowley's pointed look abandoned its previous targets to zone in on Aziraphale. He suddenly wished he had Beelzebub's ability to explode things with his mind in a way that kept them exploded for all eternity. "Well, it is," insisted Aziraphale. "We saw that film together. I'm sure you remember."
The other clock in the room -- a magnificent grandfather older than anything with a pendulum that would've given Poe fits of ecstasy -- chimed the hour with more doom and gloom than Crowley thought was strictly necessary. They had nineteen hours, give or take Heaven and Hell's sense of time. Crowley suppressed the urge to scream.
"How?" asked Anathema. "Why did he create humans who can" -- she flapped her hand around again -- "you know. He's got you lot for that sort of thing."
Crowley forgot himself, and hissed. He quite liked Anathema, but she was quickly becoming living proof of why women should never be invited to catastrophes. They couldn't just act; they had to ask a million and nine bloody irrelevant questions.
"Well, if you really want to know," said Aziraphale leadingly.
Crowley's immediate train of thought was heading down a line that included a rant on the value of every minute, but he let it derail momentarily because he was actually interested in the answer.
"It was an accident, mostly," said Aziraphale, wandering over to the mantle to fiddle with what appeared to be a Nativity. Crowley blinked; he hadn't thought Anathema the type. "Mind you, this covers thousands of years of Celestial history, but I'll do my best to be brief."
"Please," said Crowley.
"Our story starts after the Great Flood." Clearing his throat, Aziraphale adopted a lecturing tone that would've put most Oxford professors to shame. "The world was in a right state after the waters of His wrath receded. Noah and his family had quite a bit to be going on with, so the Lord sent a small host of angels to help with the clean-up. Seraphims to be precise," he said. "They stayed for some time -- longer, I think, than the Lord planned -- because the Earth was new, and they quite liked the change of scenery. As the years went on, there was some... intermixing with Noah's family. With the children of Jameth, in particular. These hybrid children inherited certain abilities, as a genetic trait, you understand, which they passed on to their children."
"Do Seraphims have to make the effort?" asked Crowley.
"I don't believe so," said Aziraphale.
"Why not?" Crowley demanded. "We do!"
"Seraphims are Upper Principalities," said Aziraphale, as if that explained everything. "You and I are Lower Principalities. Well, I am. You were, until you Fell."
"I didn't Fall," grumbled Crowley. "I ran with the wrong crowd, is all."
"I'm just surprised it was allowed," said Anathema. "The Bible's a bit down on magic, as I understand it."
"It certainly wasn't allowed, and believe me, He was not best pleased when He found out," said Aziraphale. "But there wasn't much He could do about it, after the fact. Done was done. If He destroyed them, He would have been going back on his word."
"And what word was this?" asked Crowley.
"That He would not again lay waste to the world because He was displeased," said Aziraphale, and Crowley made a strangled noise. "I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have done."
Crowley shivered. "What the Hell was that?"
"Genesis 8:21," said Aziraphale brightly.
There was a smart and rather insistent knock at the door. When no one moved, Crowley waved it open, and found himself staring at the Antichrist.
Anathema glanced at the clock. "Right on time."
Faced with three sets of unblinking eyes, Adam Young stepped inside Jasmine Cottage without an invitation. A small dog of the mongrel variety was hard on his heels -- a dog that, if he didn't know better, Crowley wouldn't have recognise as a Hellhound for anything. The door shut of its own accord; possibly because of the wind, possibly because Aziraphale blinked. Adam, the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of this World, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness glanced around the room, and frowned.
"What are you two doin' here?" demanded Adam, his gaze lingering on Crowley and Aziraphale. At his feet, the once (and possibly future) Hellhound whined. "I hope you're not still messin' people around."
Adam, it seemed, was exactly the sort of person you wanted to invite to a catastrophe. No fuss, no muss, and no irrelevant questions. Once Crowley explained the situation -- with incessant and (in Crowley's opinion) completely unnecessary interjections from Aziraphale -- all Adam needed was a destination.
"I suppose we should get goin'," said Adam quietly. The Hellhound, which he had apparently named Dog, of all things, cocked his head and thumped his tail against the balding brown carpet.
Adam had grown quite a bit since the last Apocalypse. Six years would do that to a human, Crowley supposed, but it was slightly unnerving, since Crowley's last proper memory of the Antichrist was an eleven year-old boy facing off with angry representatives from the opposing sides. He was taller, but lacked the lanky, stretched look teenage boys commonly took. His hair was the same unruly mass of golden curls, but it framed his face differently and curled around his forehead like a crown.
"What about your friends?" asked Anathema gently. "They were quite helpful, last time."
Adam shook his head. "This isn't their fight." He shifted from foot to foot. "'Sides, if I take 'em, I'll have to make 'em forget everythin' again, and I don't like messin' people around."
The grandfather clock chimed with the lilting, unconcerned bells of a fifteen-minute warning.
"Well, let's get a move on, then," said Crowley. He started for the door, although he wasn't sure where they were going, or what they were going to do when they got there.
"Wait," said Aziraphale urgently.
"For what, angel?" demanded Crowley, stepping closer to Aziraphale. "For time to run out? For the hosts of Heaven and Hell to amass over our heads?"
"For my contact," said Aziraphale.
Crowley and Anathema both stared. "You have a contact with those people?" Crowley managed.
"I hadn't spoke with her in years; I was worried she wouldn't remember me." Aziraphale was one breath away from wringing his hands, and in spite of himself, Crowley covered Aziraphale's nervous fingers with his own. "As it turns out, she does, and she knows a group of people that are working with Potter. She's meeting us."
"When?" asked Adam. "Where?"
"Here, and soon," said Anathema. She had a book in her hand. "She comes with fire when the storm in high; the Angel's friend, when time is near."
"Fabulous," said Crowley irritably. "I hope she realises we're on a deadline."
The wind whipped up, shrieking through the trees to hammer against the window. Jasmine Cottage shook, the walls creaking in protest, and the fireplace -- which was a docile-looking thing, all things considered -- erupted into an impossible inferno roughly the colour of glass. Crowley, who was fairly familiar with the properties of fire, had never seen such a stunt from one of those electric logs you plugged into a wall. There was a thump, and Aziraphale jerked against him, his elbow catching Crowley in the ribs. An unreasonable amount of ash billowed out into the room to reveal a tall, imposing woman who was briskly brushing soot from her cloak.
"Mr Fell," she said, in a voice that was both crisp and Scottish. She frowned at Aziraphale, and Crowley was immediately reminded of a schoolteacher, or an overworked nanny who'd reached the end of her patience. She turned her attention on Crowley, and clearly, she did not approve. Crowley drew himself up; for his part, he didn't approve of her absurd tartan hat. "This must be your colleague, Mr Crowley."
"Hi," said Crowley.
Her gaze swept across the room, toward Adam and Anathema. Apparently, she still did not approve; she made a harsh sound in the back of her throat, the kind of sound that likely spoke volumes to other Scots, but to everyone else, sounded like tch.
"They're Muggles," she said, pointing to Adam and Anathema.
"Adam's not a Muggle," said Aziraphale. "He's the Antichrist." The woman blinked; Crowley wondered what it would take to really ruffle her feathers. "And Anathema's not... she understands."
"Be that as it may," she replied. "The point remains: they are Muggles, and Muggles cannot use the floo." She sighed at Aziraphale's extremely blank look. "They cannot travel by fireplace, Mr Fell."
"Oh. Right. Of course not," said Aziraphale. He fidgeted, and Crowley realised they were still, for all intents and purposes, holding hands. He allowed it; it hardly mattered at this point, since the world would be done and dusted before this Scottish nightmare was done quibbling about incidentals. "We must bring them along," explained Aziraphale. "They are intrinsic to the plan."
"I don't see how it is possible," she began. "They can't use the floo, and I certainly can't apparate with two people, and--"
"Where are we going?" asked Crowley.
She frowned. "London."
"Well, that's easy enough," said Crowley, starting for the door. His brain was already on the M40. "I'll drive."
"Will your car fit all of us?" asked Anathema.
"It's my car," said Crowley darkly. "It will do what I tell it, if it knows what's best for it."
Piqar's friend hadn't bothered with a physical description of Harry Potter. Crowley hadn't asked, and the fellow hadn't offered because Crowley hadn't asked, but from the fear and loathing that had crept over his hypnotically-induced monotone, ebbing over his stilted words like the tide, Crowley had expected someone fearsome. Terrifying. Larger than life. At the very least, he had expected someone out of puberty.
It took all kinds, apparently.
"Don't touch anything," said Harry quietly, as he led them past a draughty, dusty hallway.
Harry Potter, at the rather improbable age of seventeen owned a rather improbable house. And Crowley used the word 'house' lightly. It looked like a house, in that it had walls and a roof -- of the type that would have the masters of gothic architecture spinning in their graves -- but houses, in Crowley's experience, were unobtrusive things that sat quietly by while the occupants got on with their lives. This house, however, seemed to move and shift, seemed to be watching. Crowley wouldn't be at all surprised to discover it was breathing.
Aziraphale was out of his element. Crowley would've felt bad for him, if demons went in for that sort of thing.
Harry stopped, and herded them into what Crowley supposed passed for a sitting room in a place where mouldy drapes and peeling wallpaper done in repeating keys was an acceptable form of décor. The couches were heavy, black brocade, and a handful of youths Harry's own age had already staked their claims. The boy and girl sitting opposite each other shared similar features -- red hair and an astonishing quantity of freckles -- in a way that said they were related; there was also another boy, who was nervous-looking and slightly plump, and another girl, who had extremely unfortunate hair and a very serious expression on her face.
Introductions were made, during which Aziraphale as much as said that he and Crowley were both angels, what with all his talk of heavenly beings, and a series of sceptical looks forced Crowley to unfurl his wings. Aziraphale made no mention of Adam being the Antichrist -- probably for the best, all things considered -- and in his hurry to get on with things, he forgot about Anathema entirely.
"What about her?" asked the girl with unfortunate hair, whose name was apparently Hermione.
"I'm a witch," said Anathema.
"Where's your wand?" This from the red-haired boy, Ron, who was sitting next to Hermione in a way that managed to be protective and reluctant at once.
"I don't have a wand," said Anathema evenly. "I have a bread knife."
"Right," said Harry, and in that one word, he sounded exceedingly weary. "What's this about the Devil?"
Crowley explained -- once again with incessant and (in Crowley's opinion) completely unnecessary interjections from Aziraphale.
Silence. Harry studied his lap. Adam slouched into the shadows of a corner, Dog curled quietly at his feet. Ron watched Harry, drumming his fingers on his knee. Hermione frowned, and her expression suggested she was running a series of difficult mathematical equations in her head.
"So, what your saying is, Heaven and Hell have arranged the Apocalypse to coincide with a mortal battle of similar intent," said Hermione finally.
"Pretty much," replied Crowley.
"What are they playing at?" asked Ginny, the girl Crowley suspected was Ron's sister.
"Proxies," said Aziraphale. "Theoretically speaking, if they support their aligned armies, what takes place above will also take place below."
"They want a big, showy finish," said Crowley, translating that rubbish for anyone who didn't speak Aziraphale. "If they do it this way, everyone will see it. You won't need an invitation to a different astral plane to get in on the action. But the Devil is planning to play dirty. He means to give you a leg up so you win, then convince you to turn on the people you just saved."
"I'm curious... why Christmas?" asked Aziraphale.
"Christmas has nothing to do with it," said Hermione sharply. "It just so happens that tomorrow has astrological advantages for us."
Crowley frowned. "And this Voldemort" -- a choked sputter hissed around the room -- "agreed?"
"Well, no," admitted Ron. "We didn't owl him with the date, or anything. But he'll show. We have a couple of things we need to do, and once we do, he'll be there. He won't have a choice."
"Tomorrow would be the best," said Hermione. "Otherwise, we'll have to wait another four years for the proper astrological conditions."
Harry looked vaguely ill. "As if this wasn't bad enough," he mumbled. "What am I going to do about the Devil?"
"You just got to talk to him," said Adam, suddenly coming alive.
"Talk?" asked Harry.
"Worked for me," said Adam, shrugging. "I explained a few things to him, and he went on his way."
"Who are you?" asked Harry.
"Nobody special," said Adam. Rousing, Dog growled low in the back of his throat. "You'll just have to trust me."
Ron and Hermione bickered constantly over the course of the next hour, something Aziraphale found alarming and Crowley found endlessly amusing. Adam ignored it mostly, choosing instead to brood in the corner with Dog, while Harry, Ginny, and Neville seemed to view these outbursts as business as usual.
They would know, Anathema supposed.
The Further Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, however, was not business as usual.
Anathema arrived fairly late in the game on the last go, a mere nineteen years before things were meant to be over and done. By the time she got involved, the bulk of Agnes' prophecies had already been fulfilled, and most of what hadn't applied directly to Anathema or members of her family. This time, it was different. Very, very different. A bulk of what she was now reading concerned these people she had just met, and each time she turned the page, she was overcome with the squirmy, snakes-in-the-belly feeling usually saved for people who peeped in their neighbours windows at night.
"I feel like a pervert," muttered Anathema darkly.
These prophecies were as wandering and non-linear as the previous set, but this time, Agnes focused on incidentals almost as much as the task at hand. Anathema's father once told her that everything was relative, that small things were capable of altering the paths that led to larger events, but the more Anathema read, the more she wondered if by round two, Agnes finally followed the precedent set by some of her prophetic counterparts and introduced herself to ale, or some of the more interesting types of mushrooms.
For example: Anathema rather didn't need to know that Harry was a virgin -- which was about the only place Agnes could be going with her talk of untouched centref and puritie of bodye and minde -- and she certainly didn't know what that had to do with the price of tea, as far as the Apocalypse was concerned. Agnes seemed to believe the situation would sort itself out shortly after everything was over, which was a glimmer of hope in terms of the general outcome, but Anathema didn't understand how it mattered now. And a few pages later, Agnes devoted several lines to goode and evile cominge together, bound by the wingf of change, whatever that meant.
Anathema shivered, turned the page, and shivered again. She traced each line with the tip of her finger, following as Agnes' words bounced around the last six years like a giddy and misspelled rubber ball. Here, Agnes mentioned that it would rain and Newt and Anathema's wedding, information Anathema could have used before she decided to save a few pounds by having it in Newt's parents' back garden. There, Agnes noted that Ruth would be in the breech position when Anathema went into labour, something Anathema should have known before she spent twenty-three hours and seventeen minutes trying to deliver the child as nature intended.
Frowning, Anathema stopped at a passage that had given her pause several times in the last hour. It talked about diuifion of a soule mofte darke and deftruction of ye contentf, not ye trinketf, and it tugged at Anathema so strongly it almost made her skin crawl, but quite frankly, she didn't have the foggiest.
Six years ago, she just might have. Sure, Agnes had a long and bloody-minded history of being unusual and obtuse, but there had been a point when Anathema almost understood her. Perhaps she didn't have enough information. Perhaps she'd simply forgotten how to be a descendent.
The door creaked open. Ginny lingered in the hallway, framed in cobwebs and shadows, and Anathema closed the book with a snap.
"Sorry," said Ginny quietly. "I didn't mean to disturb you."
Anathema was in the sitting room, and save for Neville, who was dozing on one of the decaying couches, she was alone. Ron and Hermione had taken their most recent squabble upstairs after a quiet, greying man named Remus told them he couldn't hold with the noise. Aziraphale and Crowley were in the kitchen, whispering in a way that said only supernatural beings were allowed, and Harry had disappeared to do whatever it was heroes did in the uncomfortable hours before the final showdown.
"You're not," said Anathema honestly. Over time, Anathema had learned that if she was being particularly dense, or Agnes was being particularly difficult, it was best to walk away for a bit. "I rather needed a break."
Stepping inside, Ginny glanced at the book. "You didn't get that from here, did you?" She frowned, and waved toward the bookshelves lining the walls.
"No," said Anathema simply. "It's mine."
"Only, this house isn't very friendly," said Ginny. Neville snored in what could have been agreement. "They put dangerous stuff in some of the books. One of them spit Bubtober pus on my brother."
"Ron?" asked Anathema.
"Fred," said Ginny. "I've got five. Well, six if you count Percy, but nobody counts Percy except my mum and dad."
"That's a large family," said Anathema. "I was an only child, but I've two children, myself."
"You're young for it," commented Ginny, heading for the fireplace. The fire didn't so much burn as create pillars of acrid smoke that billowed up to cloud along the ceiling, and Ginny tried to prod it into proper behaviour with a wrought-iron poker that looked at least one hundred years older than she was. "Are you married?"
"I am," said Anathema.
"Where's your husband, then?" asked Ginny. "Men are usually the first to jump headlong into catastrophes."
"I phoned him before we left, but he didn't pick up," explained Anathema. This seemed to be a common occurrence when Newt went to visit Shadwell; either mobiles didn't work in Milton Keynes, or Newt left it in the car because Shadwell thought wireless communication was witches' work. "It's probably for the best. He's not... well... honestly, you people probably would've been a bit much for him."
They definitely would have been too much for Shadwell; Anathema privately thought loosing Shadwell in this house for an hour would've been a week's worth of fun. Assuming he didn't have an occultly-induced heart attack on the spot, he'd likely decide it was worth coming out of retirement, and call for the biggest book, bell, and candle to be had.
"What were you reading?" asked Ginny.
"Prophecies," said Anathema.
Ginny paused, and seemed to pale. "Real prophecies, or rubbish prophecies?"
"I'd have to say real," said Anathema. "She's never been wrong yet."
"Well, let's see, then," said Ginny, approaching the couch. She curled up next to Anathema, and leaned in as Anathema opened the book.
"This spans the last six years," said Anathema. "Some of it will happen between now and tomorrow morning, but most of it already has." She flipped through a few pages. "Like this one."
Deathe by irone
comef but falfe;
to ye prince of Briteigne
when under ye Earth.
"What does that mean?" asked Ginny. "Is that one that already happened?"
"As far as I can tell, yes," said Anathema. "A couple years a back, someone shot at Prince Charles. Death by iron is probably a gun, and the gun was loaded with blanks -- fake bullets -- which might explain comes but false," she added. "Now, Briteigne is an old word for Britain -- Charles is the Prince of Wales, but geography was never Agnes' strong suit. Not when it came to specifics."
"What about when under the Earth?" asked Ginny, tucking a strand of red hair behind her ear.
"He was in Austraila at the time," said Anathema. "They call Austraila 'down under', don't they?"
"Yeah," said Ginny. "Wow." She pulled back, blinked at Anathema, and leaned back in. "Do another."
"Well, here's one I don't think has happened yet," said Anathema. "It's been bothering me; I just can't work it out."
Diuifion of a soule mofte darke,
an ende muft occur afore Ye Ende;
deftruction of ye contentf, not ye trinketf.
Evile muft work with evile.
"I'm fairly certain she's talking about the end of the world," said Anathema. "I don't think she would have capitalised The End, otherwise." She sighed and underlined the words with her finger. "But the rest doesn't make any sense."
Ginny read it over again, mumbling under her breath. "The contents, not the trinket. Division of souls." She glanced toward the door, then turned her attention back to the book. "I don't know about evil working with evil, but you should tell Harry about the divison of souls bit. He might know what it means."
"Really?" asked Anathema.
"Yeah, Harry--" she broke off, shifting in a way that said she needed to change the subject, and reached over to turn the page -- "What's this, now?"
Fiue will go together and fiue shall returne;
ye brother and ye frende made,
ye other boy fpared and Ye One,
and Ye One that came Afore.
"I was looking at that one earlier," said Anathema. "I figure The One is Harry, but I'm not sure about the rest."
"The brother and the friend," repeated Ginny, her lower lip creeping between her teeth. "Ron and Hermione. Has to be," she added, at Anathema's quizzical look. "Ron's the youngest boy, so that's how he's known, really, as one of our brothers' brothers. Also, my mum considers Harry part of the family, and Harry's said Ron's like a brother to him."
"That could work," said Anathema slowly, slipping into the habit she had when she was still a descendent, that of looking at things from all possible sides -- including upside-down and diagonally. "But he could be the friend, and Harry could have a brother we don't know about."
"No brothers," said Ginny firmly. "His parents died when he was a baby. He hasn't got any family at all, except a cousin he hates and an aunt and uncle who hate him." She read it over again and nodded to herself. "Even if Ron isn't the brother, I really think Hermione is the friend, because it says a friend made. That's important."
"Oh?" asked Anathema.
"Yes. Ron and Harry were friends the minute they bumped into each other. They didn't even have to try," explained Ginny. "Hermione was different. They became friends eventually -- Ron made her cry, and there was some nastiness with a troll -- anyway, they rather didn't like her at first, and before she took up with them, she didn't have any friends, at all."
"Well, it fits," said Anathema.
"It does. Besides, they'd go with him, anyway," said Ginny. "I rather don't think he could stop them. He'd have to put them in a Full-Body Bind and lock them in the basement, and even then they'd find a way. That's just the way they are. Now, what about The One that came Before?"
"Oh, that's Adam," said Anathema.
Ginny frowned. "How do you know that?"
"I just do," said Anathema. "It's Adam. Which leaves the other boy spared."
"I don't know," said Ginny slowly. "The other boy spared." She sighed, a sound that was both hollow and long-suffering. "All I know is that it means he's leaving me behind."
Anathema smiled. "They always leave their women behind."
"I'm not his woman," said Ginny sharply. She hugged herself, and the shadows from the fire washed over her, catching under her cheekbones until she looked like a ghost. "Not any more."
"Men are funny creatures," said Anathema lightly. "And they don't get any wiser as they get older. You can trust me on that."
Adam had never seen such a house in all his life.
It had a basement and an attic and interesting-looking things that people kept telling him not to touch. And he wanted to touch them -- and not just because people kept telling him not to, but because things shouldn't be that interesting if they weren't supposed to be touched, especially the funny little heads mounted on the wall. It also had curtains that moved by themselves, and windows that showed a strange, swirly mass of blue instead of what was actually outside, and if Crowley could be believed, the older fellow that came through the fireplace a bit ago was a werewolf.
Adam paused at the top of the stairs as the floorboards creaked. There had to be a toilet up here. The possibly-werewolf said there was a toilet off the kitchen, but someone was already in it, and they'd been in there so long that Adam suspected they didn't plan to come out. Unless there was a ghost in there -- Neville said he thought the house had ghosts -- but Adam wasn't entirely sure he believed in ghosts. Wensleydale would say he couldn't not believe in ghosts if he believed in Atlanteans and Tibetans, but Adam had seen the Tibetans with his own eyes, and the Atlanteans had been on the telly.
Sky News mentioned the Atlanteans from time to time. The three international fact-finding delegations still hadn't turned up, but Adam privately thought they'd have found a way back already if they didn't want to stay.
The first door Adam pushed open was not a toilet. It was a bedroom, with a gloriously old bed and curtains that seemed to be made mostly of holes. There were two portraits on the walls, and Adam peered at them through the darkness. Ginny said the portraits could move, but he had yet to see one do it. He wondered if they actually moved, or if they were like those 3-D pictures he once saw at Marks and Spencers' that looked like they were moving if you leaned back and crossed your eyes.
The second door was also a bedroom. An oil-lamp sputtered weakly on an overly-carved table, and Harry Potter sat in the centre of another gloriously old bed.
"Hello," said Harry quietly. "The loo's at the end of the hall on the left."
Adam smiled. "How did you know?"
"There's a Boggart in the one behind the sitting room, and Hermione hides in the one off the kitchen when she's been fighting with Ron," said Harry.
"What's a Boggart?" asked Adam.
"It this thing that turns into your biggest fear when you look at it," explained Harry.
"Neat," said Adam. "They fight much?"
"Constantly," said Harry. He shifted slightly, and Adam saw he had some bits and bats piled in front of him -- a necklace, an odd sort of cup, and and something sparkly that was partially hidden by Harry's hand. "I'm hoping once this is over they'll finally find time to sort themselves out, but I won't hold my breath."
The house took that opportunity to settle in for the night, groaning in a way that suggested it wanted the occupants to know they were disturbing it. The floor creaked, shifting suddenly, and Adam grabbed the door jamb for support.
"Sorry about that," said Harry. "This house is ghastly. I can't wait to be quit of it."
"Who's is it?" asked Adam, reaching out. The pinstriped wallpaper was textured, and it felt rough under Adam's fingers.
"It's brilliant," said Adam honestly. "My dad took me to a haunted house the Halloween before last, and it was nothin' like this. The cobwebs was fake and the ghosts was just people wearin' sheets, and the cassette with the creepy sounds shut off in the middle and I had to listen to my dad complain about it for twenty minutes. It didn't have a werewolf, either. Not a real one, anyway."
"What werewolf?" asked Harry, narrowing his eyes.
"The older fellow that just came in," said Adam, shifting slightly. He really had to pee, but for some reason, he found Harry as interesting as the stuff he wasn't allowed to touch. "Crowley said he was a werewolf."
"Which one is Crowley?" asked Harry. "I get them mixed up."
Adam laughed, which caused him to shift again. "Crowley's the one wearin' sunglasses."
"Are they really what they say they are?" Harry motioned with his hands, which could've passed for fluttering wings if you tilted your head and squinted. A lot. "Angels?"
"Crowley's a demon," said Adam, leaning forward a bit. The sparkly thing was apparently made of diamonds, and Adam desperately wanted to know what it was.
"What?" asked Harry, sliding off the bed.
"It's not nothin' to worry about," said Adam. "I mean, he's from Hell and all, but he's all right, when he's not messin' people about. Aziraphale can keep him in hand, anyway."
"Oh," said Harry. "Oh." He was suddenly very interested in the floor, and a slight flush crept over his cheeks. "Are they" -- he trailed off with a gesture which was both vague and explicit at once -- "are they--"
"-- don't know, really," finished Adam. "Not my business, I don't think." He shrugged. "Wouldn't be no harm in it, though." Harry seemed to relax a bit, and Adam took this as an invitation to be nosy. "What've you got there?"
Harry jerked and gave the bed a nervous glance. "Oh, it's just some old things."
"Important old things?" asked Adam. Harry drew himself up when Adam approached, but Adam just looked around him, leaning in until his chin was practically on Harry's shoulder. The sparkly thing was a bracelet, and it was made of diamonds. "Cursed old things?"
"Cursed," Harry repeated quietly. "Yeah, you could say that."
"And you gotta break the curse, right? Before tomorrow?"
Adam stepped back and they turned toward the door. It was Ginny; she favoured them with a hard look.
"Can you come downstairs a moment?" she asked. Harry stared at her blankly, which only served to carve her face from stone. "It's very important."
Harry sighed heavily. "Yeah, all right."
"And bring those," she said, waggling a finger toward the bed.
Harry studied the empty space where she had stood for several moments after she was gone.
"Is she your girlfriend?" asked Adam suddenly.
"No," said Harry. "I mean, she was, but she's not. Not any more. But sometimes... she's just... I'm not sure how I feel about it, really."
"Oh, that's all right," said Adam. "I understand."
"I'll just be downstairs, then," said Harry. Pausing, he smiled. "Last door on your left."
Every time Crowley thought humanity couldn't possibly find another way to make the infernal bureaucracy look like a bunch of gormless incompetents, they went and came up with something worse.
The Horcruxes waited patiently on the kitchen table, and all Crowley could do was stare. It was simply unbelievable. The human soul was a precious and fragile thing, and it was very important in terms of a person's final destination. Below was all for tarnishing souls, or weighing them down with the shadow of guilt, but there wasn't a demon anywhere who would've thought to carve one into bits, for whatever reason. If the Devil was the type to shriek with amusement, the baubles Harry just dumped into a pile would've had Him in absolute fits.
Aziraphale looked decidedly ill, which probably shouldn't have been a surprise.
"Seven pieces," muttered Crowley. He couldn't decide if he was disgusted or impressed. "Where are the others?"
"These are the only one's left," said Harry. He shrugged uncomfortably and studied the ground until Remus patted his shoulder and handed him a cup of tea. Harry tried to refuse it, but Remus pressed it on him in a way that said he would pour it down Harry's throat if he had to. "I'm not--"
"You haven't eaten all day," said Remus sharply. "Drink it."
Harry pulled a face as he did; Crowley suspected Remus made up for the lack of meals with an ridiculous amount of sugar.
Aziraphale cleared his throat. "And these must be destroyed before you can proceed?"
"Yeah," said Harry.
"Well, you should get to it," said Crowley anxiously. "Time's running a bit short."
Hermione made a noise like a stepped-on cat, and Harry sighed. "Sorry, but I rather don't know how."
"You said there were others. What happened to those?" asked Crowley.
"There was a ring, a snake, and a book," said Harry. "The snake... well, it's a long story, but the snake took care of itself. A friend of mine took care of the ring, but he's dead now, so I can't ask him how he did it."
"What about the book?" asked Anathema.
"I did for the book," said Harry quietly, exchanging a look with Ginny.
"Can you do what you did before?" asked Crowley.
"I would, but I don't have any basilisk's fangs just now."
Crowley winced. When you got down to it, basilisks were the reptilian answer to the Hellhound. Horrible creatures, basilisks. Crowley didn't really go in for being thankful, but he had to admit, he was quite thankful he'd only seen a basilisk once, and from very, very far away.
Harry took another sip of tea and turned to Anathema. "Read it again."
"Division of a soul most dark, an end must occur before the end," recited Anathema. "Destruction of the contents, not the trinket. Evil must work with evil."
Crowley didn't like the sound of that at all.
He didn't like the sound of that doorbell, either.
Everyone froze, except Remus, who reached for his wand. "I can't imagine who that could be," he murmured. "Anyone who can find this place wouldn't bother using the door."
"Death Eaters?" asked Ron.
"Unplottable," replied Remus, whatever that meant.
"Just ignore it," said Hermione. "Let them think no one is home."
"No!" Anathema shouted suddenly, consulting the book. "I think you'd better answer it."
Harry was the first to bolt for the door. Everyone else followed suit as quickly as more than half a dozen people could pile through a single-person doorway at once, except for Crowley, who did the sensible thing and willed himself into the entryway.
"FILTH! LOVERS OF HALF-BREEDS AND MUDBLOODS! BEGONE FROM THE HOUSE OF MY FATHERS!"
Crowley wasn't sure what to say to that. This house was certainly full of surprises.
"Remus?" asked Harry wearily.
"Right," said Remus, as he started down a dark, side hallway.
"BLOOD TRAITORS! HOW DARE YOU DEFILE MY HOUSE WITH YOUR--"
Harry opened the door and blinked at a small, bespectacled man in a smart, peaked cap. He had a large package under his arm.
"I'm horribly sorry to be knocking so late," he said, tipping his cap apologetically. "I heard someone shouting -- I'd hate to have caught you in the middle of supper. Well, but there's quite a few of you, isn't there? I hope I'm not interrupting. Parties are common this time of year, with the holidays, and all. Don't mind if I step inside for a bit, do you? Dreadful weather we're having. Like I said, I'm sorry to be knocking so late, but I must admit, I had a Devil a time finding the place."
Crowley twitched. He'd seen this bloke somewhere before.
"Funny thing is, I about parked my truck on top of it, only I didn't see it when I got out," he continued, shaking his head. "Don't quite know how I missed it, seeing as it's the largest house on the block. And a nice place it is, now that I'm having a look at it. I've been waking up and down the street for almost an hour, and the fellow next door gave me the oddest look when I asked him where I could find number Twelve, like he'd thought I'd gone 'round the twist. And I hate to say it, but I nearly gave up -- thought maybe I'd have better luck by the light of day. But as soon as I got in my truck, there is was, plain as the nose on my face. I still can't believe I walked right past it. Should've seen it straight off."
The house creaked. No one said a word.
"Well, best be getting down to business, so you can get back to your party. Lots of parties, this time of year." He paused, hefting the package, and produced a clipboard. "I've a delivery here, for a Mr Harry James Potter, Boy Who Lived and Chosen One, also known as the Adversary--"
"That's him," said Adam, giving Harry a nudge.
"Right," said Harry. "What is it?"
"Don't rightly know, sir. I don't get paid to ask questions, you understand. I just make the deliveries," he said, offering Harry the clipboard. Harry accepted it reluctantly. "I'll need your signature, sir. Right there at the bottom." Crowley peered over Harry's shoulder as he signed, and noticed someone had thoughtfully spilled tea over the return address. "Frightful weather, really. I don't remember it being half as cold this time last year. And this wind! Why, it's simply out of this world."
Crowley snorted. This fellow didn't know the half of it.
"Well, that should cover it. I believe everything is in order," he said, tucking the clipboard under his arm. "You're my last stop tonight, so I'd best be on my way. I must say, traffic's been a fright, what with everyone visiting family for the holidays, and more lorries than usual. I hate to think of Maud -- that's my missus -- waiting up for me with naught for company but the Christmas ham. Especially in this wind. Happy Christmas!"
"Happy Christmas," replied Harry, a bit woodenly.
Harry carted the box into the kitchen and dumped it next to the Horcruxes without ceremony. Remus returned, brining an extra lamp with him. The Horcruxes glittered balefully in the yellowish light, and Crowley peered at them with renewed interest as the others crowded around the box.
"What are you doing, my dear?" asked Aziraphale quietly.
"Looking," said Crowley. His hand snaked out, and he gave the cup an experimental poke. It wobbled benignly.
"You're touching," warned Aziraphale.
"If he can't destroy these, he can't defeat Voldemort," said Crowley.
Aziraphale pursed his lips. "If he can't defeat Voldemort, they can't have an Apocalypse."
"That's the problem with you, angel -- you're always so quick to sell Hell short," said Crowley, lifting the locket. "I don't think they'd call the whole thing off over a technical difficulty." It was heavy and etched with a stylistic 'S', and the chain spilled delicately over his fingers. "Believe it or not, Below is fairly resourceful. When they can't get what they want, they muddle through with what they have. For my money, if Potter can't put paid to Voldemort, they'll put paid to Potter, and possess Voldemort, instead."
"And we'll still have an Apocalypse."
Crowley set the locket down, it hit the bracelet with a soft chink. "I could be wrong, but do you really want to chance it?"
"Touch all you like," said Aziraphale. He smiled. "Evil must work with evil."
"Whatever. Get them out of here."
In the end, Adam opened the box, because the other's wanted to sit around and argue about it.
Ron thought they should shake it first. Hermione thought it should be checked for curses or hexes. Ginny thought it should be opened slowly, in case there was something alive inside. Neville didn't think they should open it, at all, and Harry quite looked like he wanted to chuck it in the fire. After five full minutes of this nonsense, Adam dragged the box a bit away from where the others sat cross-legged in front of the fire and attacked the tape with the sharp wing of a dragon-shaped candlestick.
When Adam peeked inside, he wasn't surprised. The contents rattled together as he heaved the box over and tipped them out onto the floor.
Ron was the first to notice; he waved the others off and shifted closer to Adam. Hermione followed shortly, as did Ginny and Neville. Harry was the last, moving slowly. His wand slid out of his lap as he settled in, and it rolled into Adam's knee. Adam scooped it up and considered it.
"Is this how you--" Adam broke off as the tip lit up rather brightly.
"I thought you were a Muggle," said Hermione, leaning forward to peer at him.
"How did you do that?" asked Harry, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
Adam shrugged. "I just wanted it to do something." He shrugged again and sat the wand on the floor, next to Harry's knee. "It wasn't nothin'. We need to worry about this right now."
This was the same crown, sword, and set of scales that turned up at the last Apocalypse.
"What are they for?" asked Ron. He reached for the closest item -- the crown -- but Adam batted his hand away.
"They're for tomorrow," said Adam. "And you can't touch 'em unless you're supposed to." He paused, drumming his fingers on his knee. "This one's for you," he said finally, handing Ron the sword. This dampened Ron's enthusiasm immediately; he left the sword where it lay and shifted around awkwardly. "And this one's for you," continued Adam, offering Hermione the scales. She silently tucked them into her lap and resolutely studied the floor. Adam frowned at the crown for a bit, and Ginny sighed.
"Well?" she asked.
"You, I think," said Adam, pointing to Neville.
"Oh, no," said Neville quietly. Ginny looked ill. "That can't be right."
"No, it's yours," said Adam firmly.
"Of course!" said Hermione. "Why didn't I think of it? The one who was spared, right? Think of Voldemort's prophecy. If it hadn't been Harry, it would have been Neville."
"Anathema's book said there'll be five," said Ron. "Who's the fifth?"
"I guess that'd be me," said Adam, and Ginny looked away.
"The one who came before." Hermione lingered over this, glancing at Adam and the scales in her lap by turns. "The one who came before. Oh." Her eyes widened. Her hands came up to cover her mouth, and the scales tinkled quietly as they slid into the valley created by her bent knees. "Oh. You. This happened before. Aziraphale said there was almost an Apocalypse before, and it was you." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "You were the Antichrist."
"I suppose I was," said Adam quietly. "Didn't seem right, though. Them wantin' to end the world before I was done discoverin' it."
"Did they possess you, too?" asked Harry. His wand was still on the floor, and he inched his hand toward it.
"No. It was different last time," said Adam. "They did it by the book."
"The Bible, you mean," said Hermione. "You were born for it."
"It didn't seem right," Adam repeated, shrugging.
"What are we supposed to do?" asked Neville, turning the crown over in his hands.
"You'll know when the time comes," said Adam. "If you don't, I'll just tell you, like I told my friends the last time."
Crowley was alone in Harry Potter's kitchen with three bits of Voldemort's soul, and the Apocalypse was scheduled to start in less that fifteen hours.
He began with the locket, because it opened. It wasn't much, but it was something.
It was very large and very gold, except where it was tarnished from long years spent pickling in someone's attic, and Crowley was not impressed. If Crowley ever decided to preserve part of the soul he didn't really have inside an object, he'd certainly pick something a bit less tacky. Crowley was familiar with nice things. He had a watch that worked so deep under water a kraken could use it to tell time and pens the average human had to pay for in instalments. Crowley was also familiar with cursed artefacts. He'd seen the Hope Diamond and the odds and ends pulled from Tutankhamen's tomb and the mummy that may or may not have sunk the Titanic. Those things had style. This thing was just unfortunate.
As far as instruments of doom went, Crowley gave it two stars out of five.
A large, squiggly 'S' marred the front, and Crowley traced the marking with his thumb. On the subject of cursing, Crowley would've cursed any jeweller who suggested such an embellishment. It was quite heavy, which could've been put down to the chunk of megalomaniac soul stashed inside, but Crowley figured this was because more gold had been used to make it than was needed to get the job done. It was cool to the touch, and no pictures were revealed when Crowley thumbed the clasp.
The clock ticked. The Apocalypse slithered closer, and the locket's empty frames watched him like vacant, unblinking eyes.
Crowley turned the locket over in his hands. Gold wasn't the strongest metal around, but from what Anathema said, hammering the gaudy thing into a bookend wouldn't solve anyone's problems. Crowley suspected Harry wouldn't want Voldemort on his mantle any more than he'd want him around his neck.
And if Harry did want Voldemort on his mantle, well, there was always the cup. Crowley didn't even want to get started on that cup. All he knew was that somewhere -- possibly even beyond the grave -- there was a goldsmith that deserved a sound flogging.
The locket hit the table with a solid chunk. Crowley took a deep breath he didn't actually need and prodded at the thing with his mind.
At the end of the day, demon magic was just angel magic dressed in black and stood on its head. And if Aziraphale was right, wizard magic was also angel magic, only cut in half and twisted by genetics and time.
Crowley prodded it again. Harder.
A chill crept over his skin. He narrowed his eyes, and forced himself to focus. The locket began to heat, glowing like it had been thrust into a fire and charring a black ring into the table. Crowley remembered to breathe again. Something wet slid off the end of his nose, and he realised he was sweating for the first time since the last Apocalypse, during that stilted moment of silence when the only thing standing between he and Hastur was a Sainsbury's plant mister.
With a shift of thought, his mind touched something inside. It was a mist. A notion. An idea. But it was alive, and it was really, really irritated.
Crowley pulled back with a hiss.
The resulting silence was stubborn, and Crowley blessed. He manifested himself into the sitting room, because Aziraphale had probably taken a break from the Apocalypse to fondle the bloody books.
Aziraphale looked up somewhat guiltily. He was perched near the fire with Remus, and just as Crowley suspected, an incredibly decrepit and ponderous tome sat open on the small table between them. Its pages fluttered sadly in the face of Crowley's outburst.
"Holy water," said Crowley, nearly choking on the words. "Do you have any holy water?"
"Well, no," replied Aziraphale, looking somewhat at loose ends. "I rather don't carry it with me." Crowley pushed his sunglasses up to favour Aziraphale with what passed for the evil eye Topside, and Aziraphale paled considerably. "If you must have some right this minute, I suppose I could make some."
"Yes, I suppose you could, at that," growled Crowley. "There must be taps in the kitchen. Come along, there's a good angel."
"There's no need to get cross," said Aziraphale shortly. "I can't even imagine what you-- oh. Oh, my."
Crowley shifted uneasily and let his sunglasses drop back over his eyes.
"You have good intentions!"
"Sure," muttered Crowley. "Rub it in, why don't you?"
That night, Adam slept in the second room that wasn't actually the toilet, in a bed that was really meant to be Ron's.
Evil never sleeps, and when faced with evil, good usually can't find time for a kip. But Adam, who didn't consider himself either, pulled Ron's bright orange blanket up to his chin and slept like the dead.
And that night, Neville had a cup of tea with Ginny, and Neville said a few things he'd been afraid to say before. Maybe it was the right time. Maybe he was just tired.
And also that night, Ron sneaked in to Hermione's room. Maybe they had a few things to sort out. Maybe Ron didn't have anywhere else to sleep.
And there was one more thing, which happened just as what started out as a spot of cold and wet turned into a dark and stormy night. In the second room that wasn't actually a toilet, a very anxious and very nervous Harry Potter stopped worrying long enough to fall asleep.
Maybe -- just maybe -- someone across the room thought he needed a bit of rest.
Crowley couldn't help but watch Aziraphale make the holy water. He tried to look away, but his gaze always returned, drawn by the same magnetic force that made people stare at fatal lorry accidents and ask to see another person's surgery scars. When it was over, Crowley felt like he'd missed something important. He'd expected a song and dance of Biblical proportions, but -- efficient as ever -- Aziraphale did whatever needed to be done with minimal hand-waving and a distinct lack of speaking in tongues.
"There," said Aziraphale proudly, setting a large ceramic basin on the table. The basin was hand-painted with tiny pink flowers -- Crowley considered himself lucky it wasn't tartan -- and inside it, the holy water lapped innocently at the sides. "I still don't understand what you mean to do."
"I mean to use that to destroy this," said Crowley, pointing from the basin to the locket.
"Obviously," said Aziraphale. "How?"
"I'll have to let it out," said Crowley.
"And then what, you'll throw the basin of water at it?" asked Aziraphale.
"Yes, because you can't make more."
"I'm not concerned about waste," said Aziraphale. "I'm simply concerned. What if it evades you? What if it attacks you?"
Crowley lifted an eyebrow. "I didn't know you cared," he mumbled.
"Mmm," replied Aziraphale. His expression was irritatingly neutral. "I don't suppose you could start with the locket already submerged?"
Crowley waved his hand over the water, but didn't see scale nor webbed toe of the toad he tried to manifest at the bottom of the basin. The water rippled placidly. "No good."
"What if I did it?" asked Aziraphale. "If you tell me what you did, I'm sure I could manage it."
"Evil must work with evil, remember?" Crowley shook his head. "Besides, my powers and its powers understand each other. All your goodness and light will just upset it."
Aziraphale waved him on, and with that, Crowley set to work.
It was easier the second time, now that Crowley knew what he was looking for. The locket heated, just as it did before, and Crowley lifted it by the chain as it started to scorch the table, dangling it over the basin. He prodded at it, with complete and dogged persistence. The thing inside stirred, and it was still irritated. Crowley prodded the thing directly -- which caused a spot of biospatial feedback so strong it rather felt like a shovel to the forehead -- and slowly, the thing started to follow the steady pull of Crowley's thoughts.
The thing began to leak out, whispering like a blood-red fog, and Crowley dropped the locket in the basin. The basin shattered, a veritable wall of holy water erupted toward the ceiling like a geyser, and Crowley barely managed to get under the table before the kitchen started to rain.
One down, two to go.
For Adam, the worst part of the battle was the waiting. He'd never been good about waiting.
He'd also never been to Scotland. Of course, between his father's reluctance to travel and his own car's sour disposition, Adam had never been much of anywhere. Aside from two day-trips to London with his mother, and the occasional visit with his father's family in Luton, the bulk of Adam's trailblazing was mostly concerned with the two-lane road that connected Tadfield with Norton.
As it turned out, Scotland was rather boggy and wet. At least it was in the north, but Adam figured most anywhere would be boggy and wet an hour before dawn. Early mornings, in Adam's opinion, were right up there with waiting, and shouldn't have to be done by anyone, ever. At least Scotland was interesting. Harry's school was a castle, which -- if you asked Adam -- was exactly what a school should be. School was another thing people shouldn't have to do, but if they had to do it, they should do it in a castle, not a boring, poky bungalow that rather looked like an abandoned shopping centre.
There was a loud bang, followed by a series of colourful explosions; red and blue and yellow and orange. Hermione was screaming. Ron bellowed something about linked wands and guarding the rear. Remus strode into view, framed by the bruised horizon. His wand burst with something darkly purple, and in the sleepy half-light, Adam caught a glimpse of what made him dangerous. Ginny, who'd decided to come despite being denied a part in the important bit, stood up to a man in a hooded cloak and hit him with a spell that knocked him arse over tea-kettle.
Adam sighed and leaned against a turreted wall.
Anathema was safe, tucked inside Harry's brilliant house. She wanted to come, but the others decided against it. Harry didn't think it was safe to drop her in the centre of a magic battle when she couldn't defend herself. Adam couldn't defend himself either -- at least, that's what Hermione said, and Anathema agreed, once she discovered Harry was leaving her behind -- but Adam wasn't interested in that kind of talk. He always did all right. Things seemed to work out for Adam, in the end.
One of those creatures came around. Adam considered it; he didn't see them the way the others did. Neville said something about a skeleton in a coat, which would've been better than what Adam saw, which was a vague and dark grey haze. Of course, Hermione insisted he shouldn't be able to see them, at all. It drew closer, and suddenly, Adam felt cold. Ice formed heavily in his stomach, and his skin started to crawl.
Adam told it to go away, and it did.
There was another bang, the loudest, most determined bang Adam had ever heard in his life. The castle lurched away from his shoulder, and Adam stumbled as the ground shook under his feet. He pushed himself up with his hands, wet grass slipping between his fingers. The battle was cloaked in a strange, greenish fog, and everything was silent.
Adam straightened, and brushed grass and dirt from his hands and knees.
At least he didn't have to wait any more.
It was Christmas morning. The Apocalypse had been under way for about two hours, and in the sitting room of Twelve Grimmauld Place, one angel, one demon, and one part-time (but still professional) descendent were completely pissed.
Firewhiskey had a smell that stung the eyes and it tasted like petrol going down, but Anathema had to admit, it got the job done.
"I'll be fine," mumbled Crowley, in a drunken attempt to placate Aziraphale, who was upset about missing the end of the world as only an angel would be. "They might not even notice."
Anathema sighed lazily, and relaxed deeper into her armchair. It was mostly comfortable, except for one loose spring, which poked at her arse if she moved the wrong way. Aziraphale and Crowley were across from her, piled practically together in the centre of the smallest couch. It was very black, which made them look very pale.
"They will," said Aziraphale wretchedly. "I sus... sup... susp... I rather think they're still mad about the last time."
"Maybe it wasn't your fault," said Crowley, as sensibly as someone could after knocking back a good quantity of something decidedly worse than tequila. "Maybe you had a late start, and it was done with by the time you got there."
"That's a lie," said Aziraphale. He pulled Crowley's hand into his lap and began absently toying with his fingers, behaviour Crowley seemed content to pretend wasn't happening. "I won't make things worse by adding a lie."
"Could be true," said Crowley. He leaned forward, reaching for the bottle, and Aziraphale slumped without the support of his shoulder. "Could be that if we left now, we'd get there to find it's all over."
"How will we know?" asked Anathema. "When it's over, I mean."
The house groaned, and gave a violent shake.
"What was that?" asked Aziraphale.
"That wasn't the end," said Crowley, putting the bottle to his lips. "That was just the beginning."
They rode forth on something Hermione called a Thestral.
Thestrals were apparently what you got when you crossed a horse with a dragon, and Adam apparently couldn't see them because he hadn't witnessed death. They only had four, even though Ron swore he brought five, but for some reason, Adam seemed to think four was exactly the right number. Adam doubled up with Harry, because that made the most sense, all things considered, and he went out to meet the Apocalypse with his chin on Harry's shoulder and his hands at Harry's waist and Dog bringing up the rear.
The sky was dark and dangerous, and it rippled under the weight of the armies of Heaven and Hell. Harry said he could feel them, but the others apparently couldn't see them because they weren't Adam.
The battlefield, which had been a snowy but cheerful field when they arrived, was now a bleak stretch of scorched earth and blood. The aftermath of magic hung heavy and close; it made Adam's skin itch, and the air smelled like the sulphur-sting of a just-struck match. Remus and a woman with pink hair kept watch over a thicket of captives who screamed in silence and struggled against invisible bonds.
Ron took the front, with War's sword flat across his knees, and he lead them -- as if lead himself by something unseen -- toward what must have been what was left of Voldemort: a blackened trench strewn with scraps of charred fabric and the splintered remains of a wand. Adam studied the spot with interest as they approached, and once they were in spitting distance, Harry lost his mind.
"We should kill them," said Harry quietly. His body stiffened; he didn't seem to be breathing. "We should kill them all."
"You don't really want to do that," replied Adam. He tightened his grip on Harry's waist. "That wouldn't be right."
"They should die," said Harry. He twisted around, glancing back at Adam with vacant eyes as the others formed a line in front of him. "Die."
Ron was pale, and his hand slipped to the hilt of War's sword. Hermione, with Famine's scales slung over her knee, watched Harry openly, biting at her lower lip. Terrified, Neville shook, holding Pollution's crown on his head with one hand and clutching at his Thestral with the other. Dog paced an anxious circle over Voldemort's grave.
"Harry," said Hermione. Her eyes were wide and wet, and Ron looked away from them both.
"They should die," said Harry firmly. He laughed, but it was low and rumbling and mirthless. "A sacrifice befitting the end of the world."
"Harry." Ron paused, working his mouth like the words were caught in his throat. "Harry, you don't know what you're saying."
"I know exactly what I'm saying. It will be just the four of us, when this is over," said Harry. He glanced back at Adam again. "Five," he added, and his lips brushed Adam's temple as he turned back to his friends. "Everything will belong to us. Everything."
"No, Harry," said Neville. "You shouldn't talk like that."
"They should die," insisted Harry. "Them," he said, pointing to Remus and the pink-haired woman. "And them," he added, indicating a slowly growing gathering of people who'd come to gawk at the carnage. "And them." He waved toward the hulking shadow of the school, which from what Hermione explained earlier, was full of women and children and old folks; the type of people who had no business playing at war. "Everyone!"
"That's not you talkin'. That's not you at all," said Adam. "You don't want that. It wouldn't be no fun, only havin' five people in the world."
Harry twitched. He slumped, and his head dropped back onto Adam's shoulder. "No, you're right. You're right." He took a deep, shaky breath, the sort of breath that came after being underwater, or after holding it in for a long time. "Wrong. You're wrong. I want them to die."
"No," said Hermione. She was crying now, tears cutting wet tracks through the dirt on her face.
"You've been tryin' to save these people all your life," said Adam, twisting his fingers in Harry's shirt. "It wouldn't do to go killin' them now." Harry nodded, shook his head, nodded again. "You don't want to kill no one," continued Adam. "You didn't want to kill him, really," he said, slipping his arm under Harry's to point at the bit of earth that had once been Voldemort. "You didn't want to kill him, at all. You only did it because it needed doin', and you had to be the one to do it."
"Everything will belong to us," said Harry. Again, he didn't seem to be breathing. "Everything.
Adam itched. On a different astral plane, someone was desperate to throw the first punch.
Ron threw the sword on Voldemort's grave and started to ride away.
"Where are you going?" demanded Harry. Barking, Dog nosed at the sword's hilt.
"To die," said Ron simply. He checked the Thestral with his knees, guiding it toward Remus.
Hermione hurled the scales so hard they should've broke when the hit the ground. The crown followed shortly; it landed on it's side and wobbled in a lopsided circle before rolling into Dog's leg.
"They should die," said Harry. His voice was both wooden and sad. "It's just you and me, now. Just you and me."
"It would be just you," said Adam. "If you do this, I'll have to die, too. You'll be the only one. That doesn't sound good to me, at all. That sounds lonely and boring, and you don't really want to be lonely and bored."
"But it would be mine."
Adam hesitated. He hated messing people around.
Adam caught Harry's hand and squeezed. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and thought.
The sky rippled again, and Harry simply stopped.
"Ron?" asked Harry tentatively. "Hermione? I'm fine. Everything's fine. Neville? I think it's time to go home."
The sky rippled once more. Lightning struck the ground to the right of Voldemort's grave, just as a spot of ground to the left began to bubble like a saucepan left on the stove too long. Everything glowed with a bright and sickly light, plumes of red and gold separated by a stretch of blackened earth.
"Oh, no. No," said Adam sharply, before either of the figures of flame could get a word in. "It's over." Suddenly, Adam was really angry. "It's over, and you'd best just go away, 'cause you've no business comin' around here. I told you the last time I wasn't gonna destroy nothin', and he's not gonna destroy nothin', either. And you can't make him destroy nothin'. I'm not gonna let you. It's not right, you messin' people around like you do." Adam frowned. "You'd best just go away. And you can take those with you," he added, pointing to the sword, scales, and crown jumbled on the ground. "They shouldn't be here any more than you should, and I'm tired of lookin' at 'em. It's over, and we're goin' home."
He squeezed Harry's hand again, and that, apparently, was the end of that.
Newt had a problem.
This, in and of itself, was not unusual, because Newt was the sort of fellow that always had a problem. Problems so often frequented Newt's daily life that they'd almost become a constant. If it wasn't the cheque he sent to the Electric getting lost in the post, then it was a mix-up at the dealer's involving the Wasabi's new water-pump, or Newt's library books disappearing during the ten-minute drive to the library, or Newt's wallet not being where he swore he left it last, or Newt being mistaken for an escaped criminal when he was making a withdrawal at the bank, while he just so happened to have one of Luke's toy guns in his jacket pocket.
No, Newt having a problem was not unusual. This time, it was the problem that was unusual.
Visiting Shadwell was a tradition, of sorts. Newt didn't remember exactly how it came to be a tradition, much like he didn't remember much of his career with the Witchfinder Army; it simply was the way it was. Twice a year -- shortly before Christmas, and on the first of April, which was Shadwell's birthday -- Newt made the somewhat arduous drive to Milton Keynes to give Shadwell a token gift and exchange a stilted round of pleasantries. He never stayed long, because Shadwell couldn't abide people in his house for more than fifteen minutes at a time, and he never brought Anathema, because Shadwell rather thought she should be burned at the stake.
Things started off normal enough. Newt arrived Saturday afternoon, with every intention of returning home well before Anathema served supper that evening. Madame Tracy answered his knock, just as she always did, and from his armchair in front of the fire, Shadwell demanded to see Newt's nipples before Madame Tracy was allowed to let him through the door. Madame Tracy made him a cuppa, which he drank while Shadwell smoked one of his invisible cigarettes and nursed a can of sweet condensed milk, Shadwell gruffly thanked him for the gift -- a utility knife this year, with a miniature bell attached, in case Shadwell happened across any witches -- and Newt said his farewells.
Which was when the problem started: he stepped out Shadwell's front door, and stepped into Shadwell's kitchen.
Undaunted, Newt tried again. And again. And again. He could see his freedom when the door swung open -- Shadwell's neat and snow-covered lawn, the windswept pavement, his car parked along the street -- but he was unable to reach it. His left foot hit Shadwell's doorstep, but his right foot came down on the kitchen's faded, fleur-de-lis lino. He tried taking it at a run, taking a funny sort of leap toward his car, but he only succeeded in sliding headlong into Shadwell's dinette. He tried exiting through the back, but instead of walking into Madame Tracy's vegetable garden, he walked into Shadwell's sitting room.
Newt had seen a film like this once.
Somehow, the whole of his world had narrowed to Shadwell's bungalow in Milton Keynes, and there didn't seem to be anything Newt could do about it. He suspected leaving through the window would only bring him back in through the chimney. He also suspected indulging in that sort of behaviour would prompt Shadwell into another nipple inspection.
With this in mind, he told Shadwell the weather wasn't fit to drive in, slumped down onto Shadwell's lumpy, plastic-covered couch, and asked Madame Tracy for another cuppa.
It was now Christmas morning. He still couldn't leave Shadwell's bungalow, and as far as Anathema and the children were concerned, he was probably in quite a bit of trouble. He wanted desperately to phone her, but his mobile was in the car, because Shadwell didn't hold with wireless communication. He also apparently didn't hold with wired communication now that he was no longer in the Witchfinder Army; as far as Newt could tell, the bungalow didn't have a regular phone.
It did have a rather large telly, which got every channel known to modern man and which Shadwell seemed to watch in shifts -- possibly for evidence of phenomena. Newt had tuned out sometime during the Fawlty Towers reruns, and was currently ignoring his fifty-seventh cup of tea.
"Ach!" said Shadwell, uttering the first word either of them had said in hours. "Would ye lookit that, ye great Southern Pansy!"
That was a blonde and thirty-ish field reporter from Sky News. She was wearing a bright yellow rain-slicker, and she was using a large, tartan umbrella as a shield against a deluge of what appeared to be frogs.
"This is Molly Mitchell, reporting live from the A40, just outside of Denham," she said, in a tone so calm and light one might think air-assaults of frogs were a perfectly normal occurrence. Just over her head, a flock of geese flew through the amphibious rain. Backward. "Local residents say the frogs have been falling for over an hour--"
"Witchcraft!" barked Shadwell. He leaned closer to the telly; Newt suspected he was trying to count the field reporter's nipples. "Froogs fallin' oot o' the sky! On yer feet, Private!" Newt stood, knees popping, and Shadwell gave him a quick once-over before stomping toward the kitchen. "Wumman, whair are ye?"
"I was just in the garden, love," said Madame Tracy, coming out of the kitchen, and Newt wondered how she'd escaped the house. "What's all the excitement!"
"Witches," said Shadwell. "Thair be witches 'n Denham."
"Oh, that's a bit of a drive, dear," said Madame Tracy calmly, laying her hand on Shadwell's arm. "And the weather's a fright. Perhaps when the wind has let up a bit."
"Are ye mad, wumman?" asked Shadwell. "Thair are froogs fallin' oot o' the sky!" Newt wisely didn't mention the geese. "Witches! Whair's me book, and me bell, and me candle! I tole ye not to 'ide 'em awey, wumman!"
"Well, let's see." She sighed softly. "I put most of your army things in the box room," said Madame Tracy. "I was just sure you wouldn't be needing them, now that you're retired."
"But the froogs!" shouted Shadwell, pointing at the telly.
Madame Tracy followed the trajectory of his finger, and blinked.
"What frogs would you be talking about, love?"
Molly Mitchell was still on the telly. She was still wearing a bright yellow rain-slicker, but her umbrella, now folded, hung limply at her side. She looked slightly confused. Perhaps because of the distinct lack of frogs, alive or otherwise. Frogs no longer filled the air, and the stretch of the A40 Newt could see was decidedly frog-free. The sky, which was previously black and tumultuous, was now clear and calm, if a bit grey.
Shadwell looked at telly, then at Newt, then at the telly. His shoulders slumped. "I'm needin' a tea, wumman."
"Of course, love."
As Tracy disappeared into the kitchen, someone knocked on the door. Newt answered it, because Shadwell seemed disinclined to move. He rather seemed disinclined to do anything but stare at the telly in disbelief.
It was Anathema.
"I'm sorry," Newt began, because it was Christmas morning. "You'll never believe--"
"It's fine," she said. Smiling, she stepped inside. "Everything is fine."
She hugged him. Just as the door closed of its own accord, Newt saw something -- the flutter of feathers, the rustle of wings.
He wisely didn't mention that to Shadwell, either.
The door swept open with a wet scrape, and a man stepped inside. He escaped the blustering chill of Christmas afternoon only to be confronted with a sweltering blast of an over-eager furnace and the saccharine tones of a fast-food jingle.
If asked, he would tell you he was at Burger Lord because it was the only place open, other than Denny's.
"Hello-my-name-is-John," said the cashier through his plastic smile. "How-may-I-help-you?"
The man paused. His hooded cloak was a bit much -- even for this weather -- and its heavy folds bulged over what might have been a scythe. His eyes darted from the pict-o-gram menu suspended from the ceiling and the cook flipping burgers behind the counter. A greying cowlick struggled against the cook's paper hat, and he hummed as he worked, dancing to the beat of a percussion section that was wholly his own. The man looked back at the menu, and Hello-my-name-is-John waited on his decision with the patience of a saint. His smile never slipped.
"... y'aint nuthin but a hound-dog," the cook sang, "cryin all the time..."
The man sighed, a sound like dead leaves crumbling into dust. "I'LL HAVE A TRIPLE BLASTER SUPER THUNDER BIGGUN, MAYO ON THE SIDE, EXTRA-EXTRA FRIES, AND A CHOCO-CREME CAKE." He debated the beverage selection, and decided his robes were a bit tight around the middle. "AND A DIET COKE."
"... y'aint never caught a rabbit and y'aint no friend of mine..."
One of these days, the man thought darkly. One of these days.
On the dawning of the first day of the Earth's second new lease on life, Crowley had breakfast in Venice. With Aziraphale.
After, they stopped by the Palazzo Ducale, because Aziraphale likes decaying art almost as much as he likes decrepit books. Of course, the whole visit could be blamed on books; Aziraphale had insisted because, at the time, the Palazzo was displaying a copy of the Vulgate that appeared to be three days older than Moses. He promised to swoon over the book and leave, but Aziraphale's attention span being what it is, he got distracted by a series of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, the artistic world's favourite religious weirdo, and Crowley wasted another thirty-three minutes of his (admittedly eternal) life.
Aziraphale smiled at Ascent of the Blessed and Terrestrial Paradise, and grimaced at Fall of the Damned and Hell. Crowley rolled his eyes at the lot. At Hell, in particular.
The average artist's rendition of Hell depicts a dark, cruel wasteland where lost and tortured souls suffer through various types of raging infernos, bottomless chasms, and nameless beasts both vicious and foul, and decapitated sinners wading through boiling rivers of blood while deflecting advances from naked succubi. Medieval illuminators were the worst; in your typical fourteenth century painting of Hell, you can't move without tripping over a demon flashing his bits.
Crowley, of course, finds this extremely amusing. Demons don't have bits unless they make the effort, and they don't hang around Hell if they can help it, The weather is much better topside. That's the funny thing about humans, really -- reality is never as bad as the stuff they create in their own heads. Crowley has often thought he should paint a picture of Hell, because he knows exactly what a picture of Hell needs.
Less demons, and more cowbell.
Hell is empty. All the devils are here.
The future, of course, is anybody's guess.
Nothing is set in stone. Anything is possible.
Maybe, Harry Potter went on to be respected and revered, perhaps holding a powerful political position amongst his people. Maybe, Harry Potter slipped into obscurity, perhaps moving to the States to raise dairy cows in the wilds of some place like Vermont. Maybe, Harry Potter decided on an ordinary life, where after an ordinary day at his ordinary job, he went home to his ordinary wife and kids and his extremely ordinary dog.
Maybe, after Adam Young went home, he phoned Pepper, wished her a Happy Christmas, and asked her if she'd like to see a film after supper.
Maybe he didn't. Maybe he sent an owl to Harry Potter instead, and asked him if he'd like to come down for a cup of coffee, because you could get a good cup of coffee at this one place in Norton, and since it was Christmas, the wastrel with the guitar probably had the night off.
Everything is possible.
Right now, Adam might be watching Tomorrow Never Dies with a tub of popcorn in his lap and his arm across Pepper's shoulders.
Right now, Adam might be sitting in a coffee shop in Norton, with one hand curled around a steaming mug of hot chocolate and the other hand on Harry's knee. And after, Adam might drive them back to Lower Tadfield and to The Pit, because Adam wants to show Harry something brilliant. Because it's Adam's favourite place, and Adam wants to share it.