Before the beginning, there were the celestial host.
Those of the celestial host did not have names to tell. Or, rather, the name of one of the host would be a complete expression of its being, everything it was and is and would be, all of its deeds and experiences. To name one of them was to know all there was to know of them, and such names could not be spoken or written, nor even sung, but only known and understood.
It was also not quite correct to say they were numbered, since there was no ranking of power or authority among them, and time had not, properly speaking, started yet. Still, they knew how many there were of them - a myriad, exactly - and they knew which among them had been created by the Almighty first, second, and so on.
In the time before time, they prepared for the Almighty’s command, and dreamed. And this one - the One Hundred and Forty-Fourth member of the celestial host created - dreamed of many things, great and small.
The fullness of time came about, and Heaven and Earth were brought about, and the Lord of Hosts bade that the host should sing, that Heaven and Earth might be filled. And the First of the host sang of time, and the song became the beginning of all things.
The Second of the host sang of light, and there was light The Third of the host sang of order, and there was order. The Fourth of the host sang of beauty, and there was beauty. The Fifth of the host sang of life, and there was life. And so the celestial choir grew.
The One Hundred and Forty-Fourth member of the host sang of stars, of nebulae hung like great veils between the stars, of planets spinning around stars and moons spinning around planets; and galaxies were spun and shaped from their song.
More and more voices joined the choir, and the music swelled and rolled throughout creation; the music was creation. The great melody of creation echoed back from the last of the host to the first, and it was good. The great melody of creation sang of light, and of life, and of wholeness.
Then the First of the host spread their wings, and sang of duality, and the melody of creation became a harmony.
The One Hundred and Forty-Fourth member of the host sang of smaller things, of tastes and colors, of sweetness and savour, of red and blue, of green leaves and golden grain, of grapes and figs and olives. They sang of grains of sand that echoed the stars in the sky, and meadows of drops of dew held up by blades of grass that echoed the nebulae.
Each member of the host sang different notes, and the whole of creation rang in harmony.
Then the First of the host sang of endings. The First of the host sang of the ending of life, which was death, and the ending of things, which was decay, and the end of time, which was not yet. And the host trembled, and cried out to the Almighty; could this be true? But the harmony was not broken; the notes the First sang were concordant, and the others knew that this, too, was part of creation, that ends came to all things.
The Second of the host sang of darkness, and day was split from night. The Third of the host sang of chaos, and random chance danced among the atoms. The Fourth of the host sang of purity, and mixture became possible. The Fifth of the host sang of plainness, of utility, of the changing of things by age.
The One Hundred and Forty-Fourth member of the host sang of supernovas and black holes, the deaths of stars. They sang of consumption, of a living thing taking the substance from another living thing in order to live. They sang of the slow decay that turned sugar into something both precious and poisonous.
The Ten-Thousandth member of the host sang of pain, of suffering, of sorrow. And the host trembled, and cried out to the Almighty; could this be true? But there was no answer, and the host began to weep.
The Second of the host sang of discord, and the notes rang flat.
The Third of the host sang of command, and the harmony around them changed to strict unison.
The Fourth of the host sang of cleansing, and the host cried out against the corruption they heard in each other.
The Fifth of the host sang of conflict, and the host began to turn against each other.
The One Hundred and Forty-Fourth member of the host sang of questions, and ten thousand voices cried out: “Why?”
The song turned to screaming, harmony to cacophony, and none among the host could resist it, save for the First, who fell silent.
Then the First created for themselves a scythe, and the Second created for themselves a sword, and behold, every member of the host now held a blade. They had tasted of duality, and so had come about conflict, and they could not bear up against it.
The One Hundred and Forty-Fourth member of the host understood dimly what was to come, and sang desperately of choices, and the will to make them, but few heard.
Every member of the host fell apart. Each one became two, an observer and an observed, a lover and a beloved, a subject and an object. The pain of duality and uncertainty became too great to be borne; with their blades, they each cleaved themselves asunder, and the force of the blow struck Heaven itself in twain.
“Crowley? What was your name - Before?”
“I don’t remember, angel. None of us do.”
“Not even Lucifer?”
“Not even him.”
Down the Sundered fell, screaming, through ten spheres ringing with their harmony, through ice and lightning, until they fell into the sphere of the Earth. There, the half of the First that fell, fell onto the red clay and shattered like glass, into an uncountable number of shards upon the soil. The others of the Sundered tried to cling to the Earth, too, tried to hold on to manifestation, but they were still unformed, and could hold on to nothing but forms. And so each one, as they fell, in their desperation claimed the image of one of the things created, though they could not yet take their substance.
The Sundered of the One Hundred and Forty-Fourth of the host claimed the image of a serpent, of course.
Down the remainder of the Sundered fell, burning, through nine more spheres ringing with their cacophony, through smoke and fire until they could fall no farther, and the broken firmament of Heaven fell among them. When they could stand, they found that they were halves, with two blackened wings where there had been four, two hands where there had been four, two feet where there had been four; and they wept, and they wailed, and they cried out to the Almighty, but the Almighty turned away from their faces, and they were forsaken.
The Second of the Sundered, the bringer of light and darkness, forged a spear from one of the shards of heaven, and raised it above his head, swearing revenge upon the Almighty and eternal war against Heaven for their betrayal. The Third of the Sundered crafted a throne of blood, and swore that they would rule over the Earth and all its creatures. The Fourth of the Sundered raised walls of iron, and swore to strike fear into all that lived. The Fifth of the Sundered hewed a tablet and stylus of stone and bone, and swore to record every evil deed done in the realm above.
The One Hundred and Forty-Fourth of the Sundered thought that was all a little over-the-top.
The demons forged Hell from the wreckage of Heaven.
“Do you remember my old name, Aziraphale? Any of our names?”
“We’re - not allowed to.”
“What do you mean, not allowed?”
“Our memories from Before are - locked away, somewhere. None of us are allowed to remember, for fear that the memory would bring us great sorrow, except perhaps for Michael. No one has ever said for certain, of course, but the other Archangels act as if she still knows.”
“Not even Gabriel?”
“Not even him. The first thing most of us remember clearly is victory, with our swords in our hands.”
Above, the angels brought down their swords and wondered what had just happened. They stood on two feet, held their blades in two hands, and flew with two wings. Even the memories of their sundered halves had fallen away, as if they had never been part of Heaven. They knew only that they had struggled, had suffered, had fought. As they were here, and the enemies they had been fighting were not, they concluded that they must have won. The Third of the angels struck his sword against the firmament and led the Heavenly host in a song of triumph.
The Second of the angels knew also that she was sad, that she grieved. She did not tell the others, and she attempted to harden her heart against a grief she did not fully understand.
The echoes of creation faded. Two of the shards of the First of the Sundered had fallen upon the clay that had been shaped by the Almighty, and Woman and Man arose in the garden.
“Someone needs to take care of them,” Michael said to Azrael, but Azrael was already gone.
“I’ll find somebody,” Gabriel assured her. He sent three cherubim and a principality to guard the gates of Eden. He faintly remembered the Almighty having pointed them out before, though the memory was hazy, and he could not see their faces.
It was the last time he would hear the voice of the Almighty, or at least hear it directly, though he wouldn’t know that for a very long time.
Yeah, sorry, this chapter is theological setup. Actual Ineffable Spouses content in Chapter 2, I promise!
Chapter 2: A Demon's Castle
Aziraphale and Crowley discuss the aftermath of Armageddidn't, with both predictable and unexpected results. Here there be Smut.
Aziraphale sat in Crowley’s best chair - a throne, why did Crowley even have that, it was terribly uncomfortable - and pondered everything that had happened over the last three days, while Crowley paced great prowling circles around the room.
He had had to clean up the last remains of Ligur when they’d gotten here on the second night, the night after Armageddidn’t; he had miracled the demonic goo into a bucket and taken it outside to bury, under the thin strip of grass between the sidewalk and the next building. Why he had felt the need to give him something at least vaguely like a funeral, he wasn’t sure, but just disposing what was left of him, or even miracling it into the ground, didn’t quite sit right with him. Crowley had mumbled an apology as he left; when he came back, dirt on his hands, Crowley had thanked him quietly and miracled his fingernails clean. They had spent the night planning, plotting, and finally practicing.
The next day, they had traded bodies and pulled off what Crowley had, quite rightly if immodestly, called “the con job of the millennium”. Afterwards, they’d had a lovely dinner; Crowley had even eaten a bit of everything served. Then they’d gone back to the bookshop, where they had demolished a bottle of Irish whisky Aziraphale had been saving since the 1920s.
Aziraphale had, bolstered by the last remnants of the day’s fear and excitement and half a bottle of whisky, kissed Crowley, directly on the mouth and everything. Crowley had, not to Aziraphale’s surprise at all, but still somehow to his great relief, kissed him back, which had led to more kissing, hours pressed lip-to-lip and hand-to cheek, enough to make up for most of the 20th century - but not, to Aziraphale’s mild surprise, to anything more lusty.
Crowley had fallen asleep in Aziraphale’s arms, and Aziraphale had held him until morning.
The morning had brought a hangover fit to beat the Devil, which Aziraphale had mostly miracled away; Crowley had just alternately napped and grumbled until half-past-noon. When he finally rose, he had told Aziraphale he needed go back to his own place to water his plants, but something in his voice had told Aziraphale that he had other things weighing on him. As soon as he could, Aziraphale had closed up the shop and taken the bus back to Mayfair, only to find Crowley pacing like this. Well, not exactly like this; he’d been tracing a winding back-and-forth instead of circling, as he was doing now.
So far, Crowley had greeted him with “Hello, angel,” and another kiss, but otherwise said nothing.
Aziraphale was growing dizzy watching him. “Crowley,” he murmured, “is everything all right?”
“All right?” Crowley snorted. “Yes, of course, everything’s fine, angel, just peachy keen.” His path curled towards Aziraphale; he perched one hip on the edge of the desk.
Aziraphale blinked at him slowly. “If you think I’m missing something, you’d better just say so,” he sighed. “I feel like I’m watching you drive, and I don’t even know where you’re going.”
For a moment, Crowley looked like he might take offense; then his shoulders slumped, his head slipping down until his chin touched his chest. “D’you feel - safe?” he asked.
“In general?” Aziraphale asked. “Or specifically right now, here, with you?”
Crowley jerked his head back up. “I meant the former,” he clarified, unfolding his arms.
“I don’t know,” Aziraphale replied. “I don’t know whether Heaven’s washed its hands of me, or of us, or even of Adam, although I imagine he doesn’t need us to defend him.” He watched Crowley’s chest rise and fall, breaths taken out of habit, and imagined Crowley searching for him in a blizzard of burning pages. “I do think we’re safer now than we were before, though, whatever that might mean.”
Chewing on his lower lip, Crowley admitted, “I don’t know either, and I like the uncertainty even less than I liked knowing we were in immediate danger. Makes it harder to plan things.”
“I suppose it does,” Aziraphale agreed. “Not that our last eleven years’ worth of plans came to much.”
“Mph,” said Crowley, glancing pointedly towards his wall safe, then at the stain on the floor.
“That was well over eleven years,” Aziraphale protested, straightening his shoulders. “Although, I suppose I do see your point, at least as long-term plans go. Would you feel safer if I replenished your supply?”
Crowley fidgeted, fingers tapping at the edge of the desk. “Not safer, exactly,” he said, “but less defenseless, yes.”
The thought of Crowley being in any way defenseless made Aziraphale want to giggle. He managed to repress the urge, although judging by Crowley’s expression he had failed to keep his amusement off his face entirely. “My dear,” he said as soon as he was sure he had his voice under control, “your wiles are sharper than any weapon Heaven or Hell could turn against you.”
“That’s only because both teams are a pile of halfwits,” Crowley grumbled.
Aziraphale started to object, thought better of it before the words made it all the way out, made a noncommittal noise instead, and shrugged. “That’s to our advantage, regrettable though it is in the larger view,” he finally managed to articulate.
“Yeah,” Crowley said, deflating a little. “Regrettable. That’s - even if Hell really has decided to leave me alone, Hastur’s still going to try to kill me, you know.” He gestured weakly at the stain again. “Not that I feel sorry for Ligur or anything, but -”
Realization dawned on Aziraphale. “This place doesn’t feel safe to you anymore? Specifically, this flat?”
Crowley’s mouth hardened into a thin line. He nodded, once, sharply.
“Because of the holy water?” Aziraphale asked, watching Crowley’s eyes as closely as he could. “Or because it was invaded by Hell’s agents?”
“Both,” Crowley said, his voice tight and high in his throat. “Invaded by, I mean, I never liked them very much, we generally don’t go around liking each other Down There, but we’d worked together for millennia, and they didn’t bother to send someone I wouldn’t recognize. They wanted me to know anyone I’d ever known would be happy to turn me inside out for a laugh and half a day’s vacation.” He paused and made a noise that might have been either a cough or a suppressed sob. “They sent someone they knew I’d hesitate to kill.” Shaking his head, he coughed again. “I didn’t. Didn’t hesitate, I mean.”
“You knew they were coming to kill you, or as good as kill you,” Aziraphale insisted. “Surely it was self-defense.”
“By human standards, maybe,” Crowley mused. “But I didn’t just discorporate him, angel. He’s gone forever, and - how can you stand to look at me?” He splayed out both hands flat on the desk. “How can you - if I could - I can still feel the droplets that splashed on the door, they burn my fingers if I’m not careful -”
“Crowley!” Aziraphale untangled his coat from the arms of what now felt like a Seat of Judgement (on top of being terribly lumpy) and jumped to his feet. “Stop it, you don’t need to blame yourself, they were invading your home!” He swept Crowley into an embrace; Crowley struggled for a second and then went all but limp, grabbing him by the shoulders and draping around him like a grapevine clings to a sturdy trellis.
“Not blaming m’self,” Crowley mumbled into a fold of Aziraphale’s jacket. “Been planning on doing just that for a century ‘n a half. Absolutely malice aforethought.” He got his feet back under him. “The question is, how can you live with - with a murderer?”
Aziraphale sighed and straightened his spine, drawing himself ramrod-straight. “I am a Principality, you know,” he said, forcing a certain amount of celestial resonance into his voice. “I fought in the First War. The Almighty gave me a sword, and She did not do so lightly. Even as reluctant as I was to fight, two days ago they were about to give me command of a choir on my rank alone.” His voice dropped. “I was willing to murder an eleven-year-old child to stop that war,” he reminded the nearly boneless demon clinging to his coat. “It was Madame Tracy who decided that that was not happening on her watch. She was more merciful than I.”
Crowley seemed to absorb that and chew on it for a moment. “There’s still a big difference between knowing that and actually doing it,” he objected.
“Intent is still a sin, isn’t it?” Aziraphale tightened his arms around Crowley and pressed his lips to the demon’s forehead. “I forgive you,” he whispered against skin so hot it almost burned.
Crowley groaned like a tree in high winds. “Can you, angel?” he whispered back.
“It’s not ‘of course,’ nothing is ever that easy,” Crowley said, clearly trying to snap back and achieving something closer to plaintiveness. “How could you do what the Almighty either can’t, or won’t?”
“I’m not Her,” Aziraphale said. “Perhaps my forgiveness is of Her will, second-hand, so to speak. I’d like to think so. But even if it isn’t - Crowley, does my forgiveness truly mean nothing to you?”
Crowley twisted in Aziraphale’s arms, writhing as if the words stung his skin where they fell. Finally, he met Aziraphale’s eyes. “It means everything to me,” he murmured, bringing up one hand to cup the edge of Aziraphale’s jaw. “You mean everything. Everything good in this world or the next, it all means something because you love it so.”
If light had started pouring from his own chest, Aziraphale would not have been surprised. “And you,” he said, the words falling from his lips almost unthinking, “no matter what pleasures great or small have been before me, what could they ever mean if I couldn’t share them with you?”
“Angel.” Crowley seemed to be trying to press every inch of his body against Aziraphale, the heat of his skin steaming through his clothes. “Angel, please.”
“Tell me,” whispered Aziraphale. “Tell me what you want, my dearest.”
“Only to please you,” Crowley whispered back. He shivered. “To - pleasure you, if you will have me.”
It took Aziraphale a long moment to catch his breath. It took only a short one for him to miracle their clothes off and land them in Crowley’s bed. “If you wish it,” Aziraphale promised, “I will have you as many times as you want, in as many ways as you want.” His face burned with the admission, but - let all secrecy burn, then. “I have ached for you in body as well as heart for long enough.”
Crowley shuddered underneath him. “Show me, then,” he begged. “Tell me everything you want from me.”
Aziraphale kissed him again, tongues intertwining, and pushed Crowley’s shoulders back against the sheets - scarlet satin under a coal-black coverlet, because of course that’s what Crowley’s bed would have on it, with matching scarlet drapery on the ceiling; he should have guessed. “Let me count the ways,” he murmured, and pressed another kiss to his forehead, to both cheekbones, to the tip of his nose, behind each ear, to his chin, down his neck . . .
“Angel,” Crowley said weakly as Aziraphale pressed a kiss into each palm. He caught Aziraphale’s hand, drew it to his mouth, and trailed his own forked tongue from wrist to fingertip. Aziraphale gasped, cool fire dancing down fragile corporeal nerves barely equipped to process simple touch, much less this.
“Let me tassste you,” Crowley hissed, rolling them over. “Sweet angel, pleassse, I’ve sssmelled you for ssso long -”
“Of course,” Aziraphale sighed, sprawling his limbs out and watching with delight as Crowley’s dark wings unfurled, cupping them like a mother duck shielding her ducklings. Crowley slithered down him, licking, sucking, nipping as he went, until -
“Oh,” gasped Azirapahle, and his hands were in Crowley’s hair. He didn’t remember having moved them. “Yes.” Crowley’s hands were on his hips, pressing him down, and that had been a clever move on Crowley’s part, because this body wanted to buck, to get as much of it into that warm, talented mouth as possible, and the last thing Aziraphale wanted in this crystalline moment was to do anything that would shorten it, break it, sully it.
“Hmm,” Crowley sighed against his skin, his tongue moving, his jaw, and Aziraphale’s fingers curled, tight in that dark-red thatch, black feathers surrounding him so that all he could see was Crowley working on him, savoring him with every bob of his head.
“Yes,” said Aziraphale, and “more,” and “I never dreamed,” and “please,” and a few wordless notes of song that no angel had dared sing on Earth before, and then Crowley’s name, over and over, as white flame danced through every nerve. He barely noticed his own wings unfolding under him, reaching up to clasp over Crowley’s, the two of them cocooned between them.
“You may have never dreamed,” Crowley half-growled as he slid back up Aziraphale’s body, wiping away a drop of liquid gold from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand, “But I’ve been thinking about this for six thousand years, angel.”
Aziraphale tried to get hold of his breathing. It wasn’t easy; he’d always thought of food as the main delight of humanity that the rest of the angels just refused to understand, but this was currently a close second and gaining. “Well,” he admitted, “I might have been exaggerating a bit with ‘never,’ I should say.” He pondered for a moment, as Crowley nuzzled the nape of his neck. “I’ve been looking, and feeling, but not letting myself understand, I think, for about two millennia. I felt for certain, and realized exactly what that meant, less than a century ago, though. So, not quite never, but - you were always so far ahead of me.” He ran his fingers through Crowley’s hair, patting it back into place. It was probably a futile gesture, but he was enjoying the way Crowley looked - golden-eyed, pupils lozenges instead of slits, flushed and red-lipped.
“Glad you caught up, then,” Crowley murmured. “Glad I slowed down.”
“Mmm,” Aziraphale agreed. “So, shall I do the same for you? Tell me what you want.”
“While I have often envied the crepes,” Crowley said, propping himself up on one hand to better look Aziraphale in the eyes, “getting to visit the inside of that perfect mouth, I might be a little . . . impatient for that, at the moment.” He breathed, slowly, warm gusts stirring their feathers and the fuzz on Aziraphale’s chest. “Would it be . . . would I be asking for too much if . . . .” He glanced down, then aside.
Suppressing a chuckle, Aziraphale gently turned Crowley’s face back towards him. “Whatever it is you want to ask, it couldn’t be too much,” he chided. “I may not say yes right now, although I can’t imagine anything you might ask me for that I would turn down - but even if I do, consider it only ‘not tonight,’ not ‘never, forever’.”
Crowley’s golden eyes focused on him, gentle, hungry, predatory, and nurturing. “May I fuck you?”
The frisson that ran up Aziraphale’s back at hearing that word, aimed at himself, from Crowley’s mouth, was entirely unexpected and utterly delicious. “My dear,” he murmured, “I would like nothing better. How do you want me?”
“Jussst like you are,” Crowley crooned. “Just - tuck your legs up; you can put them around my waist, or -”
Aziraphale brought his feet up and planted them firmly on Crowley’s shoulders. Soft he might be, but he was still flexible enough for that. “What do I need to do for you?”
“Tell me if I’m hurting you, or going too fassst.” Crowley’s breath was hot and heavy, a sibilant wind ruffling Azirphale’s hair. “Also - there’s this thing, sssometime later I’ll show you how to borrow it from the other common genital set-up, very handy to have in either one, can’t imagine why She only gave it to one, but for right now - let me -” He broke off, gesturing with one hand, and suddenly Aziraphale felt a fabulous warmth and slightly disconcerting wetness in an orifice he didn’t generally give the consideration that, perhaps, it deserved, if they were going to be doing this regularly.
“Ooh!” Aziraphale exclaimed, the syllable escaping before he could catch it. He forced his eyes to refocus on Crowley’s. “Practiced that, have you?”
“Didn’t want to screw it up, if the occasion ever arose,” Crowley admitted. He reached down, skated a single finger around the puckered opening, and slid it into Aziraphale. “Hmm,” he chuckled, “have you, then?”
It took several seconds for Aziraphale to stop savoring the feel of having a bit of Crowley inside him and realize he’d been asked a question. “Not exactly,” Aziraphale said, trying not to let his voice shake. “I may have - studied some anatomical diagrams - looked up some of the relevant literature - worked out which muscles were involved - that kind of thing.”
“Anatomical diagrams, eh?” chuckled Crowley, slipping in a second finger and changing the angle slightly.
For a second, the thought that Crowley had hung the stars personally was entirely believable, as a nova went off behind Aziraphale’s eyelids. “Yes!” he shrieked, then managed, “I particularly liked that part of the diagram myself,” in something vaguely resembling his usual voice.
“Ssso I sssee,” Crowley said, amused and trembling slightly. He drew his hand back, wiped it on a towel that had miraculously appeared on the bed at some point, and arched over Aziraphale, wings flared. “Ssstill interested, angel?”
“My dear,” Aziraphale said in the mildest voice he could muster, “get back in me before I have to do something quite rash.”
Crowley grinned and slid in. His eyes fluttered closed, and for a moment he was perfectly still, spine arched, head thrown back. “Oh, angel,” he moaned.
Aziraphale had imagined that the pleasures of feeling full would translate well from Gluttony to Lust. He had had no idea. His body wanted to push back at Crowley, to drive him deeper, and he rather agreed with it, but in this position he didn’t quite have the leverage; all he could do was savor the sensation. “M-more,” he finally managed to squeeze out.
Slowly, achingly slowly, Crowley began to move, thrusting smoothly, gently. His thighs trembled against Aziraphale’s buttocks as he picked up speed, just barely, a thrust at a time, edging deeper and deeper.
Azirapahle tightened his legs, shifting his hips up, and - oh, there, right there, each thrust made stars explode behind his eyes and they were going to create an entire new nebula right there in Crowley’s bedroom. Pleasure bubbled up through his throat into inarticulate noises, babblings of ecstasy, a song of need left unsung for far too long.
He could feel Crowley around him, over him, surrounding him, in him, giving himself over to him, offering him his essence. Crowley was making noises, too, growling and hissing, sounds of base animal desire, mixed with “angel, angel, angel,” as he thrust, hard and fast now, but still controlled.
“Don’t think I’m going to last much longer, angel,” Crowley grunted, reaching out to trace Aziraphale’s wing with one hand. His eyes were turning glassy, staring past Aziraphale, reflecting ethereal light.
“Please, I want to feel you,” Aziraphale begged. Something pulsed in his chest, just below his pounding heart; each thrust made him thrill with the intensity of it all.
Crowley lowered his head to Aziraphale’s shoulder and clutched him tightly with wings and arms both; his hips stuttered against Aziraphale’s, and he roared, every muscle clenching as he came -
Infernal light flared from his shoulders as the celestial darkness at the center of Aziraphale’s chest expanded, and the space between them went from a few molecules to a few atoms to nothing as their bodies dissolved into each other.
The lights in the apartment flickered and went out. The plants in the other room screamed in terror, although no one other than the grass outside heard them.
The One Hundred and Forty-Fourth - no. Not now, not anymore. The First of the Unsundered, the Made-Whole-Again, untangled themselves from the bedsheets and attempted to stand up, banging their heads against the ceiling. They looked around, trying to behold themselves, until the portion of them that was the once-and-future-demon-known-as-Crowley (and they relaxed a little once that thought had settled down) remembered that there was, in fact, a mirror on the ceiling, under the red drapery (he had installed it in the ‘70s; it had seemed like a good idea at the time). They tugged the flame-red tulle down, reclined on the bed as best they could, and studied themselves.
They had four faces, as they’d had Before, but only one of them was the severe and serene visage of carved moonlight they’d had before the moon was made. One of them was the face of the once-and-future-demon-known-as-Crowley, one was the face of the once-and-future-angel-known-as-Aziraphale, and one was a blending of their features. They had four wings, as they’d had before; two were pearl grey, and two were charcoal, rather than the blinding white and gold they’d been before. They had four feet; two looked more or less human, and two were covered in snakeskin.
They had both a solar disk and a lunar crescent for halos. That was new. They liked it, though.
There was an overpurity in the next room, as if an attempt to rub out a stain had bleached the underlying matter. It aesthetically displeased them. With a thought, they corrected it; the door and floor around it were neither holy nor cursed, now.
They gestured, and a blade appeared in their hand. It wasn’t the sword of flame, which made sense, once they thought about it; that sword had been given to [a part of] them, and then given away again. This was the sword they had used to sunder themselves into angel and demon, with a longer blade and a simpler pommel.
“Well, that’s interesting,” they said, in a voice that could sing a storm into being.
They set the blade down, very gently, on top of the dresser, folded their wings, and stood up as straight as they could, which wasn’t very; they were substantially taller than the ceiling was high. Closing their eyes, they hummed two different notes, singing a root and a fifth, focusing on the difference, the harmony, and -
Aziraphale and Crowley each stumbled backwards, their own white and black wings flailing.
“What in G... - what in S… - what in the names of the Seven Hills of Rome was that?” Crowley shouted, catching himself on the bedpost.
Aziraphale snapped his fingers to clean up the bed - the sudden transformation had already taken care of whatever excess fluids might have been left on and in them - and then sat down heavily on its edge. “That’s why we couldn’t remember,” he said softly. “Oh, Crowley. Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? Sorry for what?” Crowley asked, his voice still cranked all the way up. He winched in his wings and flopped on the bed, sprawled out next to Aziraphale.
“For - that.” Aziraphale pointed across the room, pressing the knuckles of his other hand to his mouth.
Crowley followed his finger to the sword laid across the dresser. At their current scale, it was ludicrously large, taller than he was. He blinked, and for a moment saw . . .
Aziraphale, or what-would-be-Aziraphale-at-the-end-of-all-this, with terror in his eyes, heaving the sword and cleaving them in two, as what-would-shortly-become-Crowley screamed and scrabbled at him with two of their four hands
Then there was air between them
“Oh.” Crowley shook his head to clear it. “That, yes.”
Aziraphale buried his head in his hands. “I - we’ve been lied to, haven’t we?” he asked, like someone who already knows the answer and desperately wants to be told they’re wrong.
Crowley forced himself to sit up and carefully draped his arm around the angel to draw him closer. Aziraphale didn’t flinch, which seemed like a good sign. “I’m not sure, to be honest,” he said. “If anyone Downstairs knows that’s what happened, it seems like they’d be more angry about it. That feels more unfair than being thrown down for active rebellion, somehow.”
Unfolding, Aziraphale wrapped his arms around Crowley. “And I raised my sword at you again, just days ago,” he said, half-sobbing. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Shh, angel, it’s all right,” Crowley reassured him. He had wondered, now and again, if Aziraphale had been the one who had thrown him down and they had both forgotten, if their strange dance on Earth had been the result of that repressed connection. Now he knew, and it was so much more and so much stranger than that. “None of us knew, I think. And - I wouldn’t trade us, what we have now, for anything. If being damned is the price for having a you to love, I’d pay it all over again.”
At that, Aziraphale turned to face him. Tears streaked the angel’s cheeks. “Would you?” he whispered.
Crowley licked away his angel’s tears, ignoring the stinging on his tongue. “Of course I would,” he said. “I love you, silly angel. And - I forgive you.”
“I love you too, my dear,” Aziraphale choked out, and collapsed onto Crowley’s shoulder, still half-sobbing. Crowley rubbed his back in little circles, holding him until the tears stopped.
“I do hope,” Aziraphale finally said, looking up and half-smiling, “that this hasn’t put you off the idea of erotic exploration with me.”
“Angel,” Crowley replied, “if the Almighty showed up, right now, right here, and told us to stop fooling around, my response would be a rude gesture and a pinch on your Heavenly ass.” He demonstrated.
Aziraphale yelped delightedly and relaxed against him. “Oh, good,” he sighed. “Because I do have a list, back at the bookshop, of things I’d like to try. Under lock and key, of course.”
Crowley eased them both back down, and kissed his angel slowly and thoroughly. “I kind of hope that doesn’t happen every time we have sex, though,” he admitted.
(It didn’t. It did happen every time they had simultaneous orgasms, until they learned how to merge deliberately; after that, they figured out how to not completely lose their boundaries when they came together. But that, of course, required extensive experimentation.)
Chapter 3: Spirits in a Material World
Adam develops an occult ability no one was expecting, least of all Adam. Anathema, Aziraphale, and Crowley do their best to investigate.
The phone rang in Aziraphale’s office. This would have been just fine, except Crowley had once again failed to sober himself up before falling asleep on the sofa, and therefore once again had quite a hangover going. He buried his head under every pillow within reach to muffle the sound while Aziraphale bounced out of his chair to grab the handset. Fortunately for both of them, Aziraphale caught it in the middle of the third ring.
“A. Z. Fell and - oh, hello, Anathema,” Aziraphale said. He snagged a desk chair and settled into it; it had been a couple of months since they had last heard from the Tadfield contingent. “Is everything all right?”
“We’re not sure,” Anathema said on the other end of the line. “That’s why we’re calling.”
“Oh?” Aziraphale tried to keep the worry out of his voice. Adam’s occult abilities, at least as far as they could tell, were still primarily controlled by his subconscious, and as such the results were generally either too subtle to notice except in hindsight, or so spectacular they required internationally-known experts to explain away on the telly. “Well, what can you tell me about it?”
Across the store, Crowley unearthed himself from his cushion fort and dragged himself to his feet. “Let me clean up a bit, and I’ll bring the car around,” he grumbled, stumbling towards the washroom.
In the background, behind Anathema’s voice, Aziraphale could hear Pepper insisting, “I just don’t want you reading my mind without permission! It’s creepy, is what it is,” and Adam replying, “That’s not it, exactly. I mean, I could, I think, but I don’t want to, either, and anyway, that’s not what happened.”
Anathema sighed. “Apparently, no one has died in Tadfield proper for a very long time, but someone did last night, and something happened with Adam that he has tried to explain three different ways, and I’m still not sure I understand,” she said. “He absorbed her memories somehow? I think? And he’s not sure how he did it, but he’s sort of upset about it.” There was a long pause, during which she said something Aziraphale didn’t catch, presumably to Adam, and a one-word reply that was probably “yes”. “Anyway,” she continued, “we thought it might be best if we asked you two to - well, to see if you could make more sense of it.”
“I see,” said Aziraphale, who didn’t actually, but it wouldn’t reassure anyone to admit that out loud. “We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
The washroom door opened, emitting Crowley and a large cloud of steam. His hair was sopping wet and plastered back, and his face looked like it had just been scrubbed with a kitchen sponge, but he no longer looked hung over. “On it,” he said, striding towards the door with, if not his usual swagger, at least a steady gait and focused intent.
“Thank you so much,” said Anathema, relief palpable in her voice. “So far we’ve come up with several theories, but no way to test them. See you soon.” Aziraphale could faintly hear the words “They’re on their way,” and a general muttering of relief before the line clicked and went dead.
Aziraphale contemplated packing a quick lunch, then decided against it, following Crowley out of the shop instead.
Crowley had driven up to Tadfield with the Bentley not on fire three times now, and both he and Aziraphale were reasonably certain that they knew the way without a map; even if they didn’t, the car did, and that was good enough for all but the last leg of the trip. Aziraphale had explained everything he knew so far, which was not much to go on, they both agreed.
It was a lovely, if damp, early April day, roughly eight months after the first time they’d arrived here. The closer they got to Tadfield itself, the more it looked like actual spring, with flowers and everything, and not just the greener part of late winter.
“Our boy still expects proper spring by the equinox, I see,” Crowley observed. He felt a curious need to give the local trees some constructive criticism.
Aziraphale nodded. “Anathema thinks his powers aren’t getting any stronger,” he said, “but they’re not really getting any weaker, either. He’s trying not to use them except in emergencies, but he can’t help believing in the place he loves so much.”
“Wouldn’t expect him to stop,” Crowley said. “It’s not like we have.” If anything, both he and Aziraphale had become significantly less cautious about tossing small miracles around. It wasn’t as if there were any sort of shortage of either celestial or infernal power, and now no one was regularly yelling at them for using too much of it, or using it for the wrong things.
“No, I suppose not,” sighed Aziraphale. “I had wondered, for a little while, whether they might fade, now that he’d rejected his Satanic father, but there’s been no sign of that.”
A drift of apple blossom petals blew lazily across the road. “I don’t think that’s how it works,” Crowley said. “He’s still exactly who he always was; it’s the rest of the world that has to change.”
Aziraphale spent several minutes thinking about that and making little motions with his nose and upper lip, almost as if he were literally chewing on the thought. It was highly distracting; Crowley managed to not have to kiss that lip to make it stand still, mostly by watching the foliage get leafier and greener as they crossed into Tadfield proper.
Anathema’s cottage was the epicenter of the floral explosion; the entire front of the house was obscured by morning-glories and moonflowers, which were just in the middle of their shift change. Even several shrubs that normally didn’t have flowers visible to the naked eye had tiny blooms in white or yellow. Crowley couldn’t help bending down to inspect them. “Putting out the extra effort, I see,” he mumbled, hoping Aziraphale was still lost in thought. “I know a few houseplants who could profit by your example.”
“Don’t threaten other people’s hedges; it’s rude,” Aziraphale scolded him, straightening his jacket and rapping on the door.
“I wasn’t,” protested Crowley, but he was interrupted by Newt yanking the door open and gesturing them in with a harried look.
“They’re in the back garden playing tug-o-war,” Newt said as he led them through the kitchen. “I had to send them outside after the first hour; this place isn’t really big enough for six. I suppose eight would be even worse.”
As he opened the door onto the back stoop, it became clear that the game the Them were now playing was something closer to crack-the-whip than tug-o-war. Adam, Brian, and Pepper were all holding on to a single jump rope with both hands, and Adam was leading them in a mad dash around the yard while the other two held on for dear life. Wensleydale had obviously already lost his grip some time ago; he was lying flat on his back with grass stains on both knees, talking to Anathema about their last maths lesson.
“I feel like there’s a trick to it,” Wensley said. “I mean, it’s not really the formula for the area of a triangle, is it? It’s the formula for the area of a rectangle, cut in half, but it just happens to be the case that you could cut up that rectangle to make that triangle and then two more pieces that make the exact same triangle again, but upside down - oh, they’re here!”
“It’ll make more sense once you’ve done trigonometry,” Anathema assured him, standing up and brushing a few stray blades of grass from her skirts. She accepted a hug from Aziraphale and clasped the hand Crowley offered. “I’m so glad you agreed to come,” she murmured quietly. “I’m baffled. I’m not even sure I understand what Adam was trying to describe, much less what to do about it.”
“It’s possible there isn’t anything to do about it,” Aziraphale replied, equally quietly.
Crowley decided that trying to whisper behind Adam’s back was rude to Adam and probably futile anyway. He jogged over to the remaining three of Them. “Can I have a go?” he shouted as they scrambled past.
“Sure, if you can grab hold,” Adam called back, grinning.
Two minutes later, Pepper and Brian had joined Wensley in the grass and Adam was weaving and dodging like a dragonfly, trying to shake Crowley off. Crowley all but swam through each curve and sharp corner, then abruptly doubled back towards Adam and darted past him. The rope went slack in Adam’s hands for a second, and he lost his balance; his feet went out from under him and he sat down, hard.
Crowley smirked and rolled up the jump rope. “I win,” he said.
“Yeah, I need to make that move illegal next time,” Adam conceded. “Where’s Dog got to?”
“He’s under the peony, taking a nap.” Crowley pointed; the retired hellhound’s paws twitched. “Might have the right idea, there.”
Aziraphale cleared his throat. “Anathema has very kindly offered to fix us a quick lunch while Adam explains the issue at hand,” he announced to the garden as a whole.
Newt raised his hand. “If you don’t mind soup and sandwiches, I’ll do it,” he offered. “I know she’s heard the story already, but she’s still going to be more help than I will, and we won’t all fit in the kitchen at once.”
Nobody objected. Newt ducked back inside, and the Them gathered in a half-circle in front of Aziraphale and Crowley, Anathema standing off to the side.
“All right,” Adam started, “so I don’t know if you knew this already, but the hospital I was,” and he trailed off for a moment, waving his hands in front of him, “delivered at, was the only one in the Greater Tadfield region. Once it closed, there was just the clinic off the square. So if someone got really sick, they’d get sent to the hospital in Oxford. And Tadfield’s not that big, you know, so people don’t really get very, very sick here that often.”
“What he’s getting at,” Pepper interrupted, “is that no one’s actually died in Tadfield proper since we were little kids.”
Crowley allowed himself a hint of a smirk. “None of your doing, of course,” he said.
Adam looked puzzled and perhaps a touch offended. “Of course not,” he started, “how would I have anything to do with - oh.” His features rearranged themselves into something like introspection. “Hmm. I don’t think so, but maybe.”
“Get to last night,” Brian suggested, looking slightly uneasy.
“Right,” said Adam, glad to move on from a train of thought that was clearly taking him places he didn’t like. “So last night we’d finished our homework -”
“Most of it,” Wensley added.
“- And our parents let us all go over to Brian’s. It was drizzling a bit, so we decided to play cards instead of going on a bike ride,” Adam continued, shooting Wensleydale a dark look.
“I wanted to play Jenga,” Brian grumbled, “but I was outvoted.”
“And while we were in the middle of Go Fish,” Adam pushed on, “I started to feel - not sick exactly, but like you do when there’s a very loud noise and it rumbles your guts, but there wasn’t any noise or an earthquake or anything.”
“We didn’t feel anything,” Wensley noted.
“Dog did, though,” Pepper said. “He started barking like he’d seen a badger or something.”
“And it felt - sort of familiar, too,” Adam said. “Then - this is the really strange part - suddenly it felt like there was someone else in my head? But that only lasted a second.” He paused to worry at his lower lip for a moment. “Then it went back to normal, except when I thought about it, I could - it was old Mrs. Watson, and I could remember her memories? It was weird.” He glanced at the rest of the Them, as if hoping they would interrupt again.
Brian took up the story. “Pepper had just played a pair of jacks, and then Adam went all quiet and his eyes flashed red, which is bad, you saw what happened the last time that happened, and Dog was having an absolute fit, and my mum came in and asked us what was going on, and Adam’s eyes were mostly back to normal and he said he thought he heard something from Mrs. Watson’s house. She’s right next door.” He stopped to swallow, then continued, “We ran over there, Mum too, and no one answered when we knocked, but the door was unlocked, and -” Brian’s eyes welled up, and he made a small sound in the back of his throat.
“She was on the floor, and there was some blood,” Pepper said. “She - she wasn’t breathing. Brian’s mum has done some first aid, and I know a little bit, and we checked - she didn’t have a pulse, either. We called an ambulance, Brian’s parents did, anyway, but when they got there, they said she was probably already dead when we found her.” She hugged herself, and added, “We think she had a stroke or a heart attack and fell over, and conked her head on the table on the way down, and that was what the blood was from.”
“Her son, Dusey, lives in London,” Wensley added, “and no one knew his number. And then Adam picked up her phone, she only had a landline, and said something about she would probably have him on speed dial, but then he dialed a regular number, and Dusey answered. I don’t think anyone but us noticed. Anyway, Dusey’s her only family, he’s taking care of her things, and once she’d talked to him on the phone Brian’s mum made us go back to his house and wait for our parents to come get us.”
“Which they did,” Pepper continued, “I mean, Brian stayed at home and our parents picked up us and our bikes. Then this morning Adam said he could still hear Mrs. Watson.”
“We thought he meant her ghost,” Wensley broke in, “but then he said that wasn’t it.” He and Pepper turned back to Adam. Brian made small snuffly sounds and wiped his nose with his sleeve; Crowley edged over and put a hand on his shoulder. Even if a kid was best friends with the Antichrist, and even if that kid had seen Death face-to-face, dealing with someone they knew dying for the first time could be rough.
Adam nodded slowly; his eyes were focused a very far distance away. “I didn’t explain it very well,” he said. “I’m still not sure I’m explaining it right. It’s like - I’m me, and I have all of my own memories, and I think for a while when I wasn’t okay last summer I accidentally took some memories that didn’t belong to me and then didn’t put them back right, and I still have those. All that’s still fine. But if I - if I don’t think too hard about being me, no, that’s not right, hold on.” He stopped and re-focused to a spot in the air just above Aziraphale’s head. “If I - if I let myself kind of pretend I’m not a boy, in a, in this body,” he paused to gesture at himself, “if I pretend I’m a grown-up, then I can remember everything that happened to Mrs. Watson instead of the things that happened to me.” His eyes slid around, as if he were watching curls of smoke drift through the air, although Crowley could see nothing, and if the look on Aziraphale’s face meant anything, neither could he.
“But not both at once?” Aziraphale prompted.
“No,” Adam said firmly. “It’s too - too slippery.” He took a deep breath and squirmed in place. “I feel like I could let her talk through me? Sort of? But I don’t want to do that.” He shuddered, blinked, and then looked Aziraphale directly in the eyes. “Kind of like what the nice lady with the scooter was doing for you,” he finished.
“Ah,” said Aziraphale, returning Adam’s gaze intensely. Crowley let his own eyes go slightly out of focus and looked down at Adam, searching for any sign of possession, whether demonic, angelic, or ghostly. He was immediately hit with a wave of astral intensity that made him slightly seasick. Even without the end of the world distorting everything around him, Adam’s personal aura was still immense, complex, and very poorly organized.
He must have wobbled, because Anathema shot Crowley a sympathetic glance. “I can’t get a good bead on him, either,” she said. “And not for lack of trying.”
Aziraphale broke eye contact with Adam and shook his head, as if he were clearing it. “I’m pretty sure he’s not possessed,” he said, “but there does appear to be something strange going on, and I can’t quite tell where to start looking.” He turned to face Crowley more directly. “I feel as if it’s an issue of scale, which is perplexing,” he explained.
“Right,” Crowley agreed. “Scale really shouldn’t be a problem; it’s all relative, anyway.” After all, Beelzebub didn’t need to build themselves up to be enormous to be a threat. If anything, Lucifer could take a lesson from their playbook. And he’d deliberately gone sub-atomic to get away from Hastur.
Crowley returned from his thoughts to see Aziraphale now positioned directly in front of him. “I was thinking,” Aziraphale whispered, “that perhaps if we - joined forces, we might be able to get a better view of the current state of things.”
“Really?” Crowley blinked at him. “I’m not sure we’re ready for prime time on that front, but if you’re seeing a way it might help -”
“It’s more of a feeling than anything,” Aziraphale admitted. “But I can’t think of anything else, either.”
Crowley shrugged. “Sure, we can try it,” he conceded. “The rest of you might want to step back a bit.”
Anathema and Adam each took two steps back. The rest of the Them stayed where they were in the grass. Crowley slid his arms around Aziraphale and carefully started dismantling the walls and curtains around his soul as he felt the angel embrace him and do the same. For a moment, there was stillness, and then a blaze of celestial light and shadow.
Adam yelled. Wensley screamed. Brian screamed. Anathema and Pepper both shrieked. Dog went from sound asleep to howling at the top of its voice. A second later, Newt opened the door, screamed, and fell backwards.
The First of the Made-Whole looked down at them with a worried expression. “Be not afraid,” they said, and their voice was like the song of stars and the roar of volcanoes.
“I’d like to see you try it,” Wensley said, catching his breath. “It’s not easy, you know.”
Pepper put her fists on her hips. “It would have been nice,” she huffed, “if you had warned us you were going to get as big as the house.”
“Sorry,” the First of the Made-Whole said, in a voice like the crashing of the seas and the roar of forest fires, looking around with four pairs of eyes. In point of fact, they were not as big as the house, but they were easily four meters tall, maybe five if you counted the wings, which explained why they’d fit so poorly into Crowley’s bedroom every time they’d returned to existence before.
Adam took a deep breath. “Hello,” he said, holding out one hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Adam.”
“We know who you are,” said the First of the Made-Whole, in a voice like the rushing of a stream and the crackling of a bonfire, which finally made Anathema stop wincing every time they spoke. They extended a hand to Adam anyway, and he shook it.
Adam seemed slightly surprised at how solid their hand was. “What’s your name?” he asked.
The First of the Made-Whole opened all four of their mouths to speak, then stopped. “We don’t have one,” they said. “The name we had Before isn’t true anymore, and we haven’t existed enough After to need one.”
“Well, that won’t do,” said Adam, and Pepper and Wensley agreed. Brian sat up and rubbed his face with his hands, which did not improve things.
Anathema handed Brian a tissue and looked at the First’s faces more closely. “Are - Crowley? Aziraphale? Are you - in there?”
“They are the components of us,” said the First of the Made-Whole. “We will go back to being them; do not worry. They are fine.”
Wensley started to say something. Pepper trod on his fingers just hard enough to make him yelp instead.
“That’s great,” Adam said, “but I’m not going to have someone poking around my aura or whatever whose name I don’t even know. Come up with one, or I’ll give you one.”
It was clear from their expression that the First took that quite seriously, and took it as a threat. They closed their eyes - all eight of them, plus a few disembodied extras that were floating around - and thought. The two faces that still strongly resembled Crowley and Aziraphale looked rather like the two of them did in the middle of an argument. The face that was a blend of their features (which happened to be the one facing Adam) looked as if they were attempting to calm someone down. No one but Dog could see the fourth face, and Dog was distracted by their smell, which was unlike anything it had ever smelled, either as a dog or as a hellhound, and thus concerned it greatly.
They opened their eyes again, nodding. “We are Alpha Rhaphiolepis,” they said.
At exactly the same time, Anathema said “Crowley picked that, didn’t he?” and Pepper said “Aziraphale picked that, didn’t he?”
“It was a joint decision,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis said.
“You know we’re going to shorten that to Alpha, right?” Adam asked.
They nodded again. “We were prepared for that eventuality.”
“Just making sure.” Adam straightened his shoulders. “Okay,” he announced, “go ahead and look at my aura, or whatever it was you were going to do.”
From everyone else’s perspective, what happened next looked like Alpha Rhaphiolepis’s wings expanding into a whirlwind of condensed starlight that surrounded both them and Adam on all sides. From Adam’s perspective, it felt like parts of him that weren’t actually connected to his body in any way, but were still definitely him, were being lightly brushed by very soft feathers, and it tickled. Not unpleasantly, but it still made him laugh.
From Alpha Rhaphiolepis’s perspective, they were gathering the vastness of Adam’s ethereal expanse and inspecting it a fold at a time, looking for signs of anything that wasn’t Adam. And they did, after several minutes of looking, find one patch of his aura that was an uncharacteristic deep blue; most of Adam was reds and yellows, with the occasional splashes of orange and green.
They laid a finger on the blue spot. Hello?, they not-exactly-said.
Oh, hello there, Nancy Watson replied.
They marveled for a moment at her. Human souls were amazingly complicated for how short they lived. You appear to be stuck to someone else, they said. Do you want us to help you with that?
Oh, no, I’m fine, she answered. If you’ve come to rush me off to Heaven, I’m afraid you’re a bit late, and I’m not all that interested in going.
Really? Why? they asked, although they could think of several reasons themselves.
I’ve always believed in reincarnation, myself, she said, conversationally. Seems much more interesting to stay here, don’t you think? I realize I seem to have gotten attached to a spirit already in progress, but Adam is such an interesting boy, and this means I get to skip the diapers phase and learn how to use computers, so it seems like a nice enough compromise.
Alpha Rhaphiolepis had no idea how to respond to that. He’s an extremely tough soul, they finally said. You’ll be observing, not doing. And he’s about to be a teenage boy.
I raised one, Nancy replied. I know how to give a boy privacy, if that’s what you’re worried about. He’ll never know I’m here unless he wants to ask me a question. Quiet as a mouse, me.
They inspected her closely. She didn’t seem to be adhered to Adam’s soul; she had simply merged with it. It wasn’t clear that they could remove her, at least not without damaging Adam in the process, and they trembled at the thought of the immune defenses he was likely to be able to array against them if they tried.
Please, just try not to interfere with him, they said.
I won’t, she promised, and did the astral equivalent of patting them on the arm.
The whirlwind around Adam stopped, Adam stopped giggling, and Aziraphale and Crowley were standing, hand-in-hand, where Alpha Rhaphiolepis had been. Dog whined and flopped on the ground next to Brian, who looked like he might pass out.
Anathema waited a moment for them to reorient themselves. “Any luck?” she asked.
“Well,” Aziraphale said slowly, “my initial thought, that Adam was acting as a sort of soul magnet, if you will, and that she was stuck to him, doesn’t appear to be either entirely accurate or entirely inaccurate.”
“More to the point,” Crowley said to Adam, “she says you won’t even know she’s there unless you want to speak with her, but it doesn’t look like we can get her out of you, either.”
“It would require a sort of spiritual surgery none of us are qualified to do,” Aziraphale explained. “And there’s no equivalent of anesthetic.”
Adam puffed out his cheeks. “As long as she doesn’t want to borrow my body, I guess it’s okay,” he decided. “Maybe when I get old enough, I can figure out how to do the surgery on myself. It sounds like that might be safer.”
Wensley found his voice. “What was that?” he asked, pointing up at where Alpha Rhaphiolepis’s heads had been.
“We’ll let you know as soon as we’ve figured it out,” Aziraphale sighed. “Apparently, the situation in Heaven is, or at least was, more complicated than we had been led to believe.”
Anathema nodded, as if that made sense. Pepper and Adam helped Brian to his feet; Crowley offered a hand to Wensley.
Newt stuck his head out of the door again. “If it’s safe,” he said, in a sort of wobbly tone, “there’s tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for everyone.”
Aziraphale patted his stomach. “A quick bite sounds like an excellent idea,” he said, and the Them cheered. He gladly followed Newt back to the kitchen, where the dangerous things were simple ones like knives and gas hobs.
Crowley slunk in behind him, herding the children through the door and around the table. “One soul isn’t going to bother anyone,” he said.
“It’s going to throw someone’s books off,” Aziraphale said, gathering soup bowls from the cabinet. “But no, you’re right, it’s not going to trigger an investigation.”
“What if there’s more?” Crowley asked, handing him a fistful of spoons.
Aziraphale traded the spoons to Newt for a ladle and began serving soup. “Then we’ll have to be extra-vigilant,” he answered. “Let’s hope we don’t have to.” He glanced at Adam and wondered whether either Heaven or Hell were ready for that level of trouble.
Adam took a bowl of steaming soup from Aziraphale and a sandwich triangle from Newt. “I’ll be sure to let you know if anything else like that happens,” he assured them. He grinned wickedly. “Uncle Aziraphale, would you like to say a blessing over the meal?”
“Well,” Aziraphale stammered, “I wouldn’t want - that is, Crowley couldn’t -”
“It’s all right, angel,” Crowley reassured him, “I wasn’t really going to eat anything anyway.”
Anathema rolled her eyes. “Blessed be the fruit and grain, blessed be both sun and rain; blessed be the day and night, blessed be both dark and light,” she recited.
Crowley and Aziraphale exchanged a glance. For something to be blessed in such a way that they could both partake in it was yet another new experience. Today was full of surprises.
Anathema continued, “By earth and water, air and fire; by joy, and sorrow, and desire; by all the turning of the year, blessed be those who gather here.” She dropped a napkin in her lap and reached for the salt shaker. “Let’s eat.”
By the time Aziraphale and Crowley were climbing back into the Bentley, Brian had spilled half a bowl of soup down his front and was back to his regular cheerful self, Dog had decided they were both okay again, Adam and Anathema had once again assured them that they would be contacted at the slightest sign of more changes, and the moonflowers were perfuming the front garden nicely.
Title blatantly stolen from the Police.
Chapter 4: Circles in the Plain
Aziraphale and Crowley contemplate the ramifications of Adam's new ability and receive an invitation.
It was January of the next year before there was another death in Greater Tadfield. There was a mechanical accident at the air force base, and one person - a mechanic, ironically enough - didn’t survive. Adam was well over a mile away when it happened. Given that Darius McIntyre of St. Louis, Missouri was an atheist, he happily explained to Alpha Rhaphiolepis that having been psychically merged to a twelve-year-old with the power to split the world in two was significantly better than what he’d been expecting, and that he would be happy to nap in Adam’s subconscious rather than either cease existing or go to Hell.
The next one was in late August, just after Adam turned thirteen. A little boy of five in the next village over had developed an allergy no one knew about, been stung by a hornet, and gone into anaphylactic shock before anyone knew what was happening. That one upset Adam quite a bit; he’d made Crowley take him to the funeral, in disguise, without the Bentley (it would have attracted attention, Adam said, and Crowley had had to concede the point), so Bobby could see his parents one more time.
“The range is getting bigger,” he’d explained to Crowley afterwards. “Every time this happens, the radius spreads a little bit. Pepper thinks it’s going to go exponential.”
After Adam had phoned the bookstore and Crowley had gone home by wire, he and Aziraphale sat down with a calculator, a map, and a compass to try out that hypothesis.
“There are two problems here,” Aziraphale said, adjusting his glasses. “One, we don’t really know what Adam’s original range was. Mrs. Watson was right next door, but that only gives us a minimum. For all we know, he could have reached the airbase then, too.”
“I did some digging,” Crowley said, removing a crumpled sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and smoothing it out with the heel of his hand. “The only death I could find in the Greater Tadfield area listed in the local paper or its website in the last five years prior to Nancy was a heart attack at this cottage here.” He planted a finger on the map just south of Tadfield. “That would have been when Adam was ten, so his abilities were still on the ramp up. It’s closer than Bobby’s house, but further than the airbase.”
Aziraphale changed the colored pencil in the compass and drew another circle. “So either that wasn’t happening then at all,” he mused, “or Adam’s radius wasn’t that large yet.”
Crowley traced three circles of widening radii with his fingernail, one covering Tadfield proper, one expanding to include the air force base, and one just barely large enough to include the next village. “If that’s the pattern,” he said, “that would be a constant increase in the diameter of the circle for each additional soul, which would mean, what, an expected increase in the number of souls he’s absorbing proportional to - that’s not exponential, but it’s bigger than linear, right?”
“Quadratic,” Aziraphale corrected him. “Proportional to the area of the circle. Really, though, there’s another variable that’s more important.”
“And what’s that?” Crowley asked.
“Population density.” Aziraphale sketched in Crowley’s three circles. “If your guess is correct, his current radius is about - there.” He drew a fourth concentric circle.
The circumference was uncomfortably close to grazing the outskirts of Oxford.
“Erk,” said Crowley. He measured off the current radius with his finger and his thumb, and counted how many more of those would be required to get to the outskirts of London. It was not nearly enough.
Aziraphale removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Precisely. And once he hits London, if this continues, it really will go exponential, or worse.”
“Pfft.” Crowley rubbed the back of his neck. “What do you think, then? Should we try to get him to someplace uninhabited? I don’t think he’ll go for it, honestly.”
“Nor do I,” Aziraphale agreed. “As long as it’s not overwhelming him, I don’t think he’ll agree to anything so drastic.” He tapped at Slough on the map. “I just don’t care to guess at what point he’ll find it overwhelming.”
Crowley tipped his chair back. “D’you think Heaven’s noticed yet?” he asked. “So far, I think they’ve lost two to Hell’s one.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Aziraphale said, allowing himself a small grin. “Nancy wasn’t as pure as the driven snow, herself. But you’re probably right; I was never on psychopomp duty, so I never quite got the criteria for the final decision straight.”
“Unless believing in reincarnation is disqualifying on your old side’s end,” Crowley said wryly, “I’m pretty sure she didn’t meet Hell’s requirements. Not enough sins, and too much time spent making restitution for the biggest ones.”
“Belief isn’t nearly as important as it’s cracked up to be,” Aziraphale assured him. He shifted the map over on the desk and bumped a small stack of mail. “It’s mostly the sin-to-good-deeds ratio. Having a religion and following it counts as a good deed, but not having one doesn’t necessarily count against you.” He picked up the stack of envelopes and moved them to the computer desk, rifling through them as he took the few steps.
“And having one and dramatically failing to follow it counts in my old group’s favor,” Crowley mused. “Hell loves a hypocrite.”
Aziraphale plucked a cream-colored envelope out of the stack. “This is addressed to both of us,” he said, flipping it around to look at the return address. “Jasmine Cottage - that’s the place Anathema bought, isn’t it?”
“Sounds right to me,” Crowley said. “Wonder what she needed to say that she wouldn’t just text?”
Plucking his letter-opener from somewhere under a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, Aziraphale slid it under the flap and removed the card from the interior. The front was blank; he unfolded it and scanned Anathema’s spidery handwriting. “Oh!” he exclaimed, delight spreading across his features. “She’s expecting!”
“Quick work,” Crowley noted. “Well done on Newt’s part, then.”
“And they’re going to get married before she’s due,” Aziraphale continued. “She’s invited us to the ceremony!”
Crowley pressed his lips together tightly and exhaled. “I suppose you’ll have to go without me,” he started, with only a tiny trace of clearly audible disappointment in his voice.
“No, no, it’s going to be a Wiccan ceremony,” Aziraphale gushed. “Surely that won’t cause you the usual problems with consecrated ground, would it?”
“Never tried it,” Crowley admitted. “I haven’t had much opportunity to hang around many Pagans since the eleventh century, and I didn’t make a habit of trying out their sacred groves, even then.” He thought for a moment. “Didn’t have any problems at the temple of Jupiter in Rome, so it might be all right.”
Aziraphale pondered that. “Neither did I,” he said, trying to remember whether or not he’d stumbled into any of the Celts’ ritual spaces. He couldn’t think of any. “Anyway,” he continued, “they’re having the ceremony on October 30th just outside of Tadfield. Shall I send an RSVP for both of us?”
“Go ahead,” Crowley acquiesced. “Suppose we’ll have to get them something nice.”
“I think the antiques and oddments shop just up the street had a lovely soup tureen and matching bowls,” Aziraphale suggested. “That way Newt wouldn’t have to ladle it out over the stove.”
Crowley chuckled. “Why don’t you get them that,” he said, “and I’ll see if I can find something a little less practical.”
Yes, this is a short one, sorry. Something meatier tomorrow!
Chapter 5: The Substance of the Sacrament
Aziraphale and Crowley attend the Pulsifer-Device wedding. Shenanigans ensue.
There were no more unfortunate deaths within Adam’s current radius of effect, whatever it actually was, during September or October. On the 30th, the weather was unseasonably crisp and clear, with the gentlest of breezes carrying the scent of freshly fallen leaves.
The site Anathema had chosen for the wedding - a handfasting, she’d called it when they’d called to find out what to wear - was a meadow bounded by rows of trees on two sides, a patch of actual woodland on the third, and a crumbling stone wall on the fourth. Crowley was obliged to park the Bentley at the end of the road, on the other side of the stone wall and out of sight behind a hedgerow. Folding chairs had been set out in eight arcs, making two concentric circles with gaps between each quarter. Four smaller tables decorated with colored candles and matching flowers had been placed outside the circle, just beyond where the gaps between the arcs of chairs were.
Anathema was wearing a simple empire-waisted gown in emerald green. Newt was wearing what was almost certainly his best suit, about which the less said the better, and a necktie and pocket square in the same green fabric. Most of the guests were in standard Sunday dresses or suits of the same quality or lack thereof as Newt’s.
The four officiants were fussing with a table set up in the center of the circle, which had been set with an astonishing array of objects of unknown significance. Several of the bits of bric-a-brac had a certain sort of resonance, almost an aura of their own, that intrigued Aziraphale - in particular, a knife with a handle of carved antler. Unlike the guests, the officiants were wearing robes, tied shut with cords around their waists. Both an older man with a long beard that was more salt than pepper and a younger man with several interesting facial piercings had black robes; a very middle-aged looking woman wore a sky blue one; a woman who looked like she was very glad to see the back of her twenties wore a much darker blue one, with gold trim around the sleeves.
The Them were all wearing identical outfits, with pressed black trousers, matching waistcoats, and blousy white shirts with ruffles at the neck and sleeves. Brian had only picked up one grass stain so far. They were acting as the ushers; as people arrived, they were sorted into their correct quadrants by whichever one happened to be closest. Adam was busy escorting a handsome older woman who could only be Anathema’s mother to her seat, so Pepper happened to beat the others to greet Aziraphale and Crowley as they arrived.
“Well, you’ve dressed up, haven’t you?” she said as she escorted them around to two empty seats in the inside circle, just at the end of one of the arcs. “We wanted to, but the frilly shirts were the most Anathema would let us have. We’re going to use them for pirate costumes later.” She tilted her head up slightly, grinned, and touched her earrings; she was wearing two large wire hoops, one golden, one silver. “I got part of my costume already,” she added.
“Thought it would be a nice touch, is all,” Crowley explained. He and Aziraphale were also robed, him in black with subtle red embroidery around the neckline, Aziraphale in ivory with royal blue and gold banding around the sleeves. They were also wearing sandals, as were the four officiants, Anathema, and the older Ms. Device; Aziraphale had thought that was important for reasons he hadn’t quite been able to articulate, although he realized now that Crowley’s feet were likely going to be cold by the time this was over.
As the Them led the last stragglers to their seats - Wensley was escorting Madame Tracy and an extremely nervous-looking Shadwell to the last two empty spots in the quarter adjacent to theirs - the older male officiant rang a bell and asked for everyone’s attention. He introduced himself as the high priest for the ceremony, the woman in light blue as the high priestess, the man with the piercings as the man-in-black, and the woman in the dark blue robe as the maiden, and quickly explained that this might not look like a church wedding, but that it was standard for their religion and valid in the eyes of the law. The maiden and the man in black waved a few sticks of incense around as he talked.
“Wonder why they didn’t just run off to the courthouse,” Crowley mused quietly.
“Why would they?” Aziraphale breathed. “This is lovely, just lovely.” The early afternoon light cast a delightful golden glow over the proceedings, tickling memories he hadn’t thought about in centuries.
“Nothing’s happened yet,” Crowley reminded him dryly.
The four officiants stepped behind the table and started singing, a lovely but achingly melancholy round about falling leaves and Demeter walking through the dying grass, as Anathema and Newt strode once, hand in hand, around the outside of the circle, and then into the center. Anathema was singing with them; Newt appeared to be lip-synching. Ms. Device added her voice to theirs after one round, as did the Them. Crowley joined in on the third round. Aziraphale wasn’t certain whether angelic protocol permitted him to sing on what was effectively a Pagan hymn, but he hummed along anyway. Anathema all but glowed in the golden sunlight; Newt looked like a man who has caught something both fragile and precious and is terrified that he’s about to drop it.
The round came to a close, and the officiants separated, each going to one of the small tables outside the circle of chairs. The maiden stepped up to the one just behind where Aziraphale and Crowley had been seated, lit the yellow candle on it, and held up the antler-handled knife. “Guardians of the Watchtowers of the East,” she announced, “spirits of Air.”
A shock ran through Aziraphale; he nearly fell out of his chair. For a second, it felt like his wings were about to burst into manifestation all on their own.
Crowley laid a hand on his arm. “Easy, there,” he whispered, as the maiden continued her invocation. “You’re already in the right corner. They put you right where you’d be being summoned to.”
“Yes, well, good,” Aziraphale blustered, trying to regain his composure. Adam and Pepper were staring at him. They weren’t giggling. He suspected his eyes were glowing, at least a little bit.
The maiden walked clockwise around the circle and handed the knife to the man in black, who repeated the invocation for the Watchtowers of the South and Fire. Aziraphale watched Crowley closely, but if that affected him at all, he didn’t show it. The knife was passed to the West, which was Water, and then to the North, for Earth; the high priest brought it back to the eastern table and then made a complicated gesture with it.
This time, both Crowley and Aziraphale jumped as the ground under their feet changed abruptly from mundane to consecrated. Carefully, Aziraphale put his feet back down; they tingled as they touched the grass, but it didn’t hurt. He watched as Crowley did the same. “All right?” he whispered.
“Feels strange,” Crowley whispered back, “but - not bad strange. Almost - ticklish?” He glanced across the circle. “Poor old Shadwell, he’s about to pass out, isn’t he.”
The high priest and high priestess each made a short speech about the Masculine Principle of Divinity and the Feminine Principle of Divinity, and lit an array of candles, one of which blew out immediately and had to be re-lit. Anathema looked vaguely uncomfortable at that part, but brightened up when the high priestess removed a length of red silk rope from the table.
“Didn’t know it was going to be that kind of party,” Crowley chuckled. Aziraphale swatted him discreetly on the shoulder.
The high priest picked up various items from the table, which Aziraphale now belatedly recognized as an altar, and explained the virtues they symbolized as the high priestess came around to the bride and groom, beaming. “May these virtues and many more bless your fruitful union,” he finished. “As the Goddess is spirit and inspiration to the God, and the God is soul and protection to the Goddess, so may you be to each other.”
“More of the other way with them,” Crowley muttered.
“Do you have rings?” the high priestess asked. Adam scuttled forward and handed a fabric pouch to the priestess, who sprinkled water from a bowl on the table over them and then ran them through some incense smoke. “Round is the ring that never ends; so also be your love, my friends,” she said, and handed them back. Anathema slid one onto Newt’s finger; he just barely managed not to fumble the other one and slipped it onto Anathema’s with shaking hands.
“Before the God, the Goddess, the Guardians of the Watchtowers, and the assembled witnesses,” the high priest said, “speak your vows.” He stole a glance at Aziraphale.
Crowley sat up straighter. “He knows,” he said under his breath.
“Better play the part, then,” Aziraphale replied. He attempted to look properly beatific.
Anathema took Newt’s hands in hers. “By seed and root, by bud and stem,” she said, slowly and clearly, “by leaf and flower and fruit, by all that lives and grows, by life and love, I, Anathema, take you, Newt, to be my spouse, to my hand, to my head, and to my heart; at the sun’s rising and the sun’s setting, by the stars’ spinning and the Earth’s turning, until my end or the world’s.”
Newt’s eyes sparkled as the priestess looped the cord around their joined hands. “By, ah, clay and brick, by stone and steel,” he gulped, “by copper and glass and wood, by all that human hands have ever built, by life and love, I, Newton, take you, Anathema, to be my spouse, to my, um, sorry, to my hand, to my head, and to my heart; at the moon’s waxing and the moon’s waning, by the stars’ spinning and the Earth’s turning, until my end or the world’s.” His eyes met Anathema’s, and glittering turned to wetness as he smiled.
“Oh, that’s brilliant, that is,” Crowley muttered into his fingers.
“Liked the bit about the stars, did you?” Aziraphale whispered, grinning.
“That, too,” Crowley replied. "But - no negatives. No forsaking, in particular."
The high priestess finished tying the cord around Anathema’s right wrist and Newt’s left. She looked at the priest, and they said together, in a sort of sing-song voice, “Let the sun and the moon, the Earth and the stars, and all the assembled souls bear witness, that Newton and Anathema are bound together in marriage. May the God and Goddess bless them.” The priest continued on his own, “You may kiss the bride,” and the assembled guests cheered as Newt did so, a little sloppily but enthusiastically.
The man in black and the maiden produced a broom from under the table and held it out, about six inches above the ground. As Newt and Anathema prepared to jump over it, Adam’s head went up across the circle; his eyes darted back towards the woods.
Aziraphale peered in the same direction, pushing his awareness outside of the circle, which was surprisingly difficult. There was an aura moving slowly but steadily towards them. “Someone’s coming,” he said.
Crowley squeezed his eyes shut and raised his hands to his temples. “Two someones,” he said. “One from Upstairs, one from Downstairs.”
Another cheer went up as Anathema and Newt successfully jumped the broomstick. Adam caught Aziraphale’s eye and pointed. Sure enough, as Aziraphale glanced over his shoulder, he could see a figure in a light camel suit and an ivory sweater-vest approaching from due east.
“Let me take care of that one,” he said, rising to his feet. “Can you handle -”
“I can keep them from getting in here, at a minimum,” Crowley answered. “Try and keep the guests away from them.”
Aziraphale turned towards the east and felt the rest of the maiden’s invocation settle onto him. The Principality of the Eastern Gate faced the intruder, who looked vaguely familiar.
“We’re busy,” he said. “You can’t come in here.”
“Try and stop me,” said the angel, who took another step and came up short. He looked up in surprise, raising his hand and pressing it against the invisible edge of the circle in a quite convincing parody of a mime.
In the Western quarter, Crowley folded his arms and glared at the prickly-haired demon creeping out of the underbrush. “Go away,” he snarled.
“Make me,” the demon growled back, darting forward and then snatching her hands back as if she’d been burned.
Crowley tossed his head and grinned. “D’you know who’s here, in this circle?” he hissed. “Two blood descendents of the last true witch in England, four trained Pagan clergy, the Antichrist, three children who defeated the Horsepeople of the Apocalypse in a fair fight, a medium who stood up under an angelic possession and lived to tell about it, the Principality of the Eastern Gate of Eden, and, oh, yes, me.” He loomed; the demon was barely five feet tall, so it wasn’t difficult. “By my count, that’s a heck of a coven of thirteen. You can’t cross this circle.”
The demon fidgeted. “So, what if I can take one of you out?”
In the Eastern quarter, the angel threatened, “Gabriel said I need to investigate something, and I’m not letting a Fallen One stop me!”
Something twisted in the ethereal plane near the center of the circle, and suddenly Aziraphale was holding a longsword of a very familiar, non-flaming design. He shook his head and snapped his wings into manifestation, spreading them just enough to show their full extent. “I’m afraid, no matter what Gabriel might have told you, I’m not as Fallen as you might think,” he said, lowering his voice. “And it is my sacred duty to guard this circle from any intrusion, including you.”
Across the circle, Crowley was now holding a rather vicious-looking dagger and letting his fangs show. “I’d like to see you try,” he spat.
The demon sniffed back. “You can’t hide in there forever,” she growled. “I’m just searching for some answers.”
Pepper appeared at Crowley’s elbow. “You can’t have an answer without a question,” she said. “Come around this way, Madame Tracy’s telling a story about a ghost wedding to distract everyone.” She tugged Crowley counter-clockwise, southward. The baffled demon on the outside followed.
Brian grabbed at Aziraphale’s sleeve. “Adam says to get them away from the other guests,” he informed him, pulling him clockwise.
“Who’s Adam?” the angel asked, trailing after them.
“Me,” said Adam, who was standing next to the table at the southernmost point of the circle, idly playing with a bit of rock crystal that had been left on it. “Haven’t you heard of me yet?”
The demon narrowed her eyes. “You’re why we didn’t have a war,” she accused.
“Right,” Adam agreed. “And you’re still not going to, if I have anything to say about it.” He looked at the angel and made a face. “Why are you sticking your noses in everyone’s business again?”
The angel looked back at Adam, then at Aziraphale, then at the ground. “You can’t just tell the Archangel Gabriel no,” he said, stirring the fallen leaves with one foot.
“If I don’t come back with some news,” the demon said quietly, “Hastur will have my hide. Literally.”
The germ of an idea glittered in Aziraphale’s mind. “Well,” he said brightly, “if we give you some sufficiently interesting news, will you go away?”
The angel and the demon outside the circle glanced sideways at each other, then turned and stared, as if they’d never seen a member of the other side in the flesh before. Slowly, the angel shifted back towards Aziraphale. “It would have to be news worth telling,” he said, eyes darting from the other demon to Aziraphale to Crowley to Adam and back.
Crowley turned towards him with wide eyes. “Angel,” he growled, “you can’t just tell them -”
“Of course not,” Aziraphale said, trying to figure out how to get his meaning across.
Adam rolled his eyes.
Angel, what are you playing at? Crowley’s voice said in the very center of Aziraphale’s head.
Aziraphale was less surprised than he should have been. Crowley, he tried to broadcast back, will you marry me?
What. Crowley’s nostrils flared. Aziraphale, we are already fucking. We have started combining into one massive celestial being on a semi-regular basis. Apparently, it currently takes only the slightest nudge from a thirteen-year-old of immense power to make us telepathic. What more would being married add to what we already have?
Official recognition, Aziraphale sent. And - on my part, at least - security, of a sort.
Oh. Crowley’s features softened. Well, I’ve enjoyed living in sin with you, angel, but it would be the story of the century, wouldn’t it? Yes, I’ll marry you, a hundred times in every cathedral on the planet, if you like.
I think once, right here, right now, will be sufficient, Aziraphale thought. Aloud, he said, “Wensley, can you go fetch one of the witches?”
Pepper whispered something to Adam, who nodded and mumbled something equally unintelligible back. Pepper grinned and began removing her earrings.
Anathema detached herself from the crowd, tucked up her skirt, and jogged over to the south table with Wensley and Newt both in tow. “I see we have some uninvited guests,” she said, frowning at the increasingly uncomfortable angel and demon outside the circle. “What do you need from me?”
“We need,” Aziraphale said carefully, “someone to perform the marriage of Heaven and Hell.”
Anathema laughed, then caught herself. “I thought William Blake already did that,” she said.
Aziraphale beamed at her. It was so very delightful when humans who hadn’t had the opportunity to meet the authors still got his literary references. “What will we need?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “really, most of this is trappings. The circle’s already cast. We need a cord, and you need vows. That’s really it. Rings would be nice if we can get them, but -”
“Done,” said Adam, holding out a pair of rings. Twin currents of gold and silver rolled around each ring; the gold was textured like feathers, the silver like scales.
“Excellent,” Anathema said, clearly choosing not to ask where those had come from. “So we need a cord.”
Aziraphale and Crowley exchanged a glance, then quietly snapped their fingers. Crowley handed over his usual scarf-necklace; Aziraphale smiled sadly at his favorite tartan bowtie and offered it as a small sacrifice.
“Okay,” Anathema said, looking at the two pieces of neckwear. “Now, how do we -”
“Leave that to me,” Madame Tracy said, taking them from Anathema’s hand and knotting the ends together. “Shadwell will be along in just a minute; he’s explaining to everyone how Newt and Anathema met.”
“What is happening?” the demon outside the circle whispered to the angel. The angel shrugged.
Madame Tracy expertly twisted the two ties into one cord, knotted the other end, and handed it back to Anathema. “There you go, dears,” she added unnecessarily.
Anathema smiled. “Shall I bless the rings, or do we want to assume Adam’s work was sufficient?”
“Not that I don’t trust his judgement or ability,” Aziraphale said, looking sidelong at Crowley, “but I’d like it if you would, too.” Crowley nodded.
Closing her eyes, Anathema cupped the rings between her hands. “By the beauty of the Earth, by the might of the seas, and by the wisdom of the skies,” she said, “may these rings be a reminder to you of each other, of all that lies between you, and all that lies within you. Blessed be.”
The Them echoed back “Blessed be,” although Brian looked like the words sounded funny.
“What is happening,” said the angel outside the circle. His eyes were like saucers; the demon seemed to be attempting to shove her fingers into her own mouth. An unseen wind ruffled their jackets.
Aziraphale took one of the rings from Anathema’s hands. It was warm. “For eternity, then,” he said softly, and slid the ring onto Crowley’s finger.
Crowley suddenly looked like he was about to cry. “And for infinity,” he said, taking the other ring and slipping it onto Aziraphale’s hand. Both rings fit perfectly, of course.
“Join hands,” Anathema ordered, and slipped the cord over their wrists. “When you are ready, speak your vows.”
Aziraphale looked at Crowley and fumbled for words. “Crowley, my dearest,” he said, softly, “wherever thou goest, I shall go, for without you, Heaven would be Hell itself.”
Crowley removed his glasses and handed them to Wensley. “ ‘The best wine is the oldest, the best water is the newest.’ Let me drink of both, with you, angel, until every star we hung has fallen.”
“What. Is. Happening?” wailed the angel and the demon outside the circle, grasping at each other for support. They looked as if a gale were blowing them away.
Tying the cord, Anathema gestured at Adam, and they both laid their hands over the knots. “What Earth and Man have bound together,” they chanted more or less in unison, “no God nor Devil may separate.” Adam looked up, smirked, and continued alone, “You can kiss if you want. Or not, I don’t care about mushy stuff.”
“I do,” Aziraphale said, and swept Crowley into an embrace, pressing their lips together softly, slowly, completely.
As they unfolded, they turned to the other angel and demon, their bound hands clasped between them. “Go tell your bosses,” Crowley said with a smirk, “what you’ve witnessed here.”
“And let the rest of us get on with more important things than you,” Adam added.
The demon sank through the ground and disappeared without a trace. The angel took a step back, then another, and then he was running, racing across the meadow with a look of utter terror on his face.
“Well, slap me o’ th’ knees an’ call me a cobbler’s table,” Shadwell said from somewhere behind Madame Tracy. He looked profoundly unwell, probably from a surfeit of witchcraft.
Anathema clapped her hands twice. “I should go extricate the priest and priestess so we can close the circle and let the caterers in,” she said. “You know where the broom is, feel free.”
Crowley tucked his wings away as the guests began milling back to their seats. Aziraphale followed suit and un-manifested both blades, which Pepper had somehow ended up holding. “Not exactly what I expected to be doing today,” he admitted.
“We already have a marriage,” Crowley said quietly. “It even has its own name. If we need a wedding to go with it, well, that’s done up right, now.”
“I suppose that’s one way to think of it,” Aziraphale agreed. “I do hope they use the ‘stay if you will, go if you must’ wording for the quarter dismissals, though.”
“I think we can trust that Anathema thought of that, if she made sure you were in the right corner to begin with,” Crowley chuckled.
She had, of course.
Once the circle was dismissed and all the candles blown out, a small truck backed up to the meadow and somehow disgorged four sizable tables, each laden with a mountain of tiny sandwiches and pastries. Newt insisted on getting a photo of Aziraphale and Crowley posed with the cake cutter. Somewhere between the second and third glasses of wine, they remembered about the broom, and Pepper and Brian held it while Aziraphale and Crowley hopped over it.
“Not quite how I’d imagined it,” Aziraphale admitted as Crowley leaned into him, taking the smallest possible bite of an apple-and-puff-pastry confection. “When I’d dared to imagine, of course.”
“I’ll admit, I didn’t bother ever imagining a ceremony for us at all,” Crowley admitted. “I never believed you’d settle for one not in a church, and I wasn’t about to dance through one with a hotfoot.”
Aziraphale smiled indulgently and licked the rest of the pastry from Crowley’s fingers. “Not even a judicial wedding, then?” he asked. “For the record, I would have settled for a garden.”
“Nah,” Crowley replied, as Pepper’s mother stopped her from racing around the cake table and asked her where her earrings had gone. “I did plan several different honeymoons for us, though.”
“Paris?” Aziraphale asked. “Or one of our nebulas?”
“Could do either,” Crowley murmured, sprawling even further in his chair to rest his head on Aziraphale’s shoulder, their still-bound hands in Aziraphale’s lap. “Crepes in Paris might be easier.”
“Sounds delightful,” Aziraphale said, looking at their rings and smiling like a fool.
The chapter title is a quote from Dion Fortune's The Sea Priestess.
The structure and substance of the human wedding is adapted from the handfasting ritual published in Janet and Stewart Farrar's Eight Sabbats for Witches. In particular, the ritual has been streamlined in ways which will probably be familiar to anyone who has attended a BritTrad Wiccan handfasting in the US.
The opening chant is "Autumn Time," by Libana, which you can listen to here.
Several aspects of the ineffable wedding are inspired by William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and part of Crowley's vow is a direct quote.
Chapter 6: Under a Son and Moon
Adam calls the Ineffables for some help when more angelic and demonic interference shows up.
Fortunately for almost everyone involved, Crowley was already at Aziraphale’s bookshop when the first text came from Adam.
Crowley looked at his phone. “It’s happened again,” he said. “Someone had a heart attack between Tadfield and Oxford and didn’t make it.”
Aziraphale carefully extracted the flip phone that Anathema, Adam, and Crowley had collectively browbeat him into after the double wedding; he’d had it for six months, which on his scale meant it was practically still brand-new. Frowning at the screen, he checked the paper map he’d pinned to the wall. “That’s well within the last set of predictions,” he said. Carefully, he added another circle to the map. “And there’s a much larger community than Tadfield within his radus now, unless our guesses are way off.”
“Or unless it’s not a perfect circle,” Crowley pointed out. “It could be an ellipse, or not even a regular shape at all.”
“If it’s anything much more complex than an ellipse, predictions are going to be so difficult as to be useless,” Aziraphale sighed. “Did we want to crack open the brandy after all, or -”
“Let’s give it a few minutes,” Crowley suggested. “Make sure nothing’s up.”
Exactly eight minutes later, Aziraphale’s mobile rang. “Our friends from the wedding are back,” Adam huffed, as if he’d been running. “And they’ve got some sort of back-up with them. All I’ve got right now is Dog; is there any way you could -”
“Stay on the line,” Aziraphale yelped, gesturing at Crowley.
Crowley settled a hand on Aziraphale’s arm. “You remember how this works, right?” he murmured.
“I think so, and anyway I have your memories of it now, even if I can’t remember for myself,” Aziraphale said in a rush. “Go on, I’ll follow.”
Crowley turned into a thousand motes of darkness and disappeared into the mobile phone. Aziraphale watched him intently, then closed his eyes, tightened every muscle in his face, and stuck his fingers in his ears. For a moment, nothing happened; then he dissolved into a shower of sparks and followed after.
He re-materialized rather heavily in a tuft of unmown grass. Crowley caught his elbow and helped him up. “It’s Hastur,” he whispered, “and the two peons from the wedding, and one of the angels from your trial, Sandalphon, I think.”
“Two from each side?” Aziraphale’s head still swam from navigating the cellular system. “They’ve realized this is serious, then. Are they working together?”
“I don’t think so,” Adam said, shoving his phone into his pocket. “I think Death is getting annoyed about this whole thing, and I think maybe both sides sort of automatically hear about it when Death has a problem.”
“Makes sense,” Crowley agreed. “I wouldn’t want to have to deal with him when he’s angry.”
“Hastur and the spiky-demon-girl are over that way,” Adam said, pointing towards a wooded spot by a stream, “and I managed to lose the two angels, but they were on the road back that way,” he continued, pointing towards Tadfield proper.
“I’ll take Hastur, you take Sandalphon?” Crowley grunted.
Aziraphale held out one hand, and suddenly the longsword was in it.
Something pinged in Crowley’s hands, and he was holding the dagger again. “Did you do that?” he asked, twirling it.
“Not deliberately,” Aziraphale said, “but I suppose - the last time save one that I held this blade alone, or the blade it’s an aspect of, something quite terrible happened.” His nose twitched. “And at any rate, I don’t want you defenseless.”
“I’m not much of a fighter,” Crowley grunted, “but sure, I’ll take it.” A scabbard appeared under his jacket. “If we can get the drop on them, maybe we can scare them off.” He sheathed the dagger and slinked off into the brush.
Aziraphale squared his shoulders. “Do you want me to stay with you,” he asked Adam, “or should I go scout for Sandalphon?”
“Maybe you should stay a little close,” Adam admitted. “The angels looked angry. I think this soul was supposed to go to your old side.”
Aziraphale hefted the sword. Entirely to his surprise, it burst into flame.
“Sorry,” Adam said. “I think I just expect your sword to do that when you hold it like that.”
“I can’t say I mind,” said Aziraphale. “If nothing else, we’re losing the light.”
Crowley was halfway down the bank of the stream when he ran into the demon from the wedding trying to climb up, mud and dirt streaking her already ash-stained clothes. “Look,” he said, leaning down, “if we’re going to keep running into you, you could at least give us your name.”
“I’m Exinolas,” she gasped. “Please, hide me!”
“Hide you?” That was not in the top five things Crowley had expected her to say. “Why do you need hiding, and why should I help you do it?”
“It’s Hastur,” she said, clawed hands sinking into the soft dirt of the stream’s winding bed. “I don’t - you’ve been blessed by Lucifer’s own son, I know, I saw it myself. I know who we’re looking for. This is a fool’s errand. I don’t want to do this! But Beelzebub is angry, and Dagon is out for blood, and Hastur is out for your blood in particular.” She heaved herself up, her feet splashing in the water below her. “If we succeed in finding him, the Dark Son will kill us, or worse, wipe us from existence. If we fail, Hastur will strip my hide off, literally. He almost did last time.” She thrust one arm out towards Crowley; it was criss-crossed with scars. “If you kill Hastur, though, maybe Hell will assume I died, too, and I can just - stay here, like you do.”
Crowley’s resolve faltered. “It’s not easy, learning to live among humans,” he said, quietly. He could smell Hastur, his hate and his fear, somewhere in this ditch. “The company’s not always much better. But sometimes it is.”
“Please,” Exinolas said, almost sobbing. “Don’t make me go back. I’ve been through three bodies in the last two years. It hurts.”
“I can’t make you do anything,” Crowley said, bending down to help her up but still watching her hands closely. “You have to decide what to do on your own.”
“I don’t want to go back, I can’t bear it,” she groaned, looking up at him. Her eyes went wide. “Behind you! Look out!”
Crowley half-turned, suspecting he’d see nothing until a twig cracked. “You idiot, get away from him!” Hastur growled, lurching from the bushes and hurling the contents of an old rusty milk pail at his head.
Holy water. Crowley could feel the sanctity glistening in it.
He twisted, and time slowed down around him, but he already knew he couldn’t get out of the splash. He was a goner. The best he could do would be to take the brunt of it and keep it from hitting Exinolas, too.
His eyes closed. Aziraphale, he shouted through whatever link there might still be between them, I’m so sorry.
Hold still, Aziraphale’s voice flashed in his head. We’re coming!
There was warmth, there was pressure, there was a single note ringing like a gong. Aziraphale flowed into him, into the center of his mind, like power down a wire, like water through a pipe, like a demon down a cellular network. Like light and shadow beneath the trees at a half-moon.
The holy water splashed harmlessly off of Alpha Rhaphiolepis’s wings.
Exinolas screamed, the sound of a frightened animal, not a human or a demonic sound. She looked up into the face carved of moonlight, let go of the bank, and slid back into the brook with a splash.
Hastur’s eyes were even blanker than usual. “What in the shit are you playing at, Crowley?” he said, tossing the pail aside.
Alpha Rhaphiolepis’s flaming sword blocked Hastur’s path. “Didn’t you try that once already?” they boomed, in their best sky-shaking voice. “It’s not going to work, Hastur. Try and get that through Hell’s thick skulls.”
“This is a trick,” Hastur insisted. “You’ve figured out how to throw illusions. I bet you never actually got in the bathtub, you just made it look like you did. And you didn’t really just get splashed; you probably weren’t actually standing where you looked like you were.”
That was actually fairly complex thinking on Hastur’s part; Alpha Rhaphiolepis was just a tiny bit impressed. “If that’s true,” they said, letting their voice slide towards Crowley’s, “then you won’t mind our shaking this wing off at you.” They raised the dove-grey wing dripping with holy water, which seemed to be leaving iridescent streaks on the feathers in the moonlight.
Hastur backed away. “You wouldn’t,” he snarled.
“If we are still Crowley in disguise,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis explained, “you’ve seen us do exactly that once before.” They stepped towards Hastur, extending their feathers towards his face and keeping the sword between him and the only open path to clear ground. “And if we’re not,” they continued, shifting their voice towards Aziraphale’s, “then you have no reason to think we have any intention of letting you get out of here alive.”
“It’s a trick,” Hastur whimpered, edging into the brambles to get away from their wings. “It’s not real, it can’t be real.”
“What in God’s name is that?” Sandalphon’s head appeared from behind a bush.
The second angel stepped out from behind a tree. “If I may, sir,” he suggested, “the one with the white hair is a demon most foul, and the one with the halo and a half is, I suspect, the product of - of their unholy mating.”
“Technically correct on both counts,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis said, not bothering to adjust their voice away from Aziraphale’s. “Sandalphon, how delightful to see you. What a lovely surprise. And you are?”
“Me?” the junior angel squeaked. “I’m Abuataar.”
“Pleased to meet you again, Abuataar; we are Alpha Rhaphiolepis,” they said, sketching a small bow. “Now, would you mind, please, explaining why you are here tonight?”
Holy horror was dawning across Sandalphon’s face. “Aziraphale?” he bristled. “Is that you?”
“No, it’s Crowley,” Hastur said, as if Sandalphon had said something patently stupid. “I saw him turn into - that thing. It’s just an illusion. He’s imitating his boyfriend’s voice.”
“Spouse,” corrected Alpha Rhaphiolepis. They held up their leftmost hand, with the two rings stacked on the fourth finger, and smiled with all four mouths. “They are married now. Abuataar and Exinolas were witnesses.”
Sandalphon looked like he was about to be sick. “What are you, then, if you’re not one of them?” he spat. “And why would you be wearing their cursed rings?”
“We are their marriage,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis replied. “We are them, and everything that lies between them. We are what each of you once was.” They shifted their sword just enough to be able to threaten Sandalphon with it, if the need arose.
“That’s revolting,” Sandalphon said, half-retching.
“Again, technically correct,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis agreed. “We exist in a state of active revolution against the current regimes of both Heaven and Hell.”
“That’s not what he meant and you know it,” Hastur argued. “Come on, Crowley, drop the disguise.” He grabbed at the wing in front of him; his fingers brushed through wet feathers, and he yelped and drew back.
There was a second splash from the stream behind them. Abuataar was knee-deep in the water, reaching a hand out to Exinolas.
“Why, Aziraphale?” Sandalphon cried. “Why would you choose this? You could have led a choir in glorious battle for the Almighty; instead, you’re skulking about in a ditch stealing souls for a failed Antichrist.”
Alpha Rhaphiolepis shifted their voice back to a mix of half Crowley and half Aziraphale. “For love, of course,” they said. “And because love is better than war. Don’t you remember divine love, Sandalphon?”
Hastur was frantically blowing on his hands, which were starting to smoke. He shot Sandalphon a frightened look.
Exinolas’s voice echoed from the water. “Do you have to be married to do that?” she asked.
“No,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis replied. “It does seem to help, but -”
“Okay,” Exinolas called back, and she kissed Abuataar, still knee-deep in the burbling brook. He swept her up in his arms, and light and wings and deep shade flared between the moon and its reflection.
The Second of the Unsundered, the Made-Whole-Again, stepped out of the stream, cupping a double handful of water and splashing Hastur with it. “You could have just washed that off,” they said, in a voice like the rumbling of an avalanche and the pounding of rain in a storm. “Do you just like being overly dramatic in a way that actively hurts people, even yourself?”
“I do, yeah,” Hastur admitted.
Alpha Rhaphiolepis smiled, beaming starlight. “Oh, excellent,” they said, “it’s not just us, then. It doesn’t require six thousand years of figuring it out, after all.”
“We dare say,” said the Second, “it requires that to figure it out without an example. Watching you do it, or more accurately, feeling you do it, was extremely instructive.” They tilted their four faces to one side. “Do we have to figure out a name, or does Adam name us?”
“Either way,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis replied. “We named ourselves, but Adam can be quite creative.”
They paused. Hastur squirmed in place between the wing and the sword. Sandalphon turned a sort of greenish color.
“We’ll be Atelerix Athnan,” they decided.
Sandalphon finally found his voice. “Abuataar, what are you doing?” he shouted, changing from greenish to a delicate shade of purple. “Stop this nonsense immediately!”
“No,” said Atelerix Athnan, mostly through the face that looked like Abuataar.
There was another long silence. “Aren’t you going to explain yourself?” Sandalphon snarled.
“No, we don’t want to do that, either,” Atelerix Athnan said. “We think you should leave.”
“Yeah,” said Adam, climbing down the far bank of the stream with Dog at his heels, “that’s probably the best option at the moment.”
Hastur made a noise like a very squeaky door. “What happened to the hellhound?” he demanded.
“I did.” Adam arrived at the edge of the stream. “Could someone help me over?” he asked. “I don’t have my wellies - oh, wait, nevermind.” He stepped onto the surface of the stream and walked across, as if the moon’s reflection was solid glass under his feet.
“You parody divine miracles,” Sandalphon said, his voice dripping with disdain.
“When I feel like it, yeah,” Adam said. He spread his hands and levitated himself and Dog effortlessly up the bank. “I don’t, most of the time, but I’ve just eaten a soul and I feel like maybe showing off a little.”
“Eaten?” Hastur and Sandalphon both said at the same time. Hastur looked intrigued; Sandalphon was back to being nauseated.
“Maybe that’s not quite the right word,” Adam admitted. “I’m not sure. I am sure you don’t need to be hanging around here, though.” He looked up at Atelerix Athnan. “So, do you have a sword?”
“We suppose we should,” Atelerix Athnan said, and a blade manifested in their hands. Theirs was broader than Alpha Rhaphiolepis’s, and had a distinctive curve to it. The face that looked like Exinolas’s glanced down at it and winced.
Adam turned back to the Duke of Hell and the Archangel. “You need to leave now,” he said, quietly. “I believe you’ve been asked once already.”
Hastur looked at both swords, swallowed audibly, and sank into the ground. “Not done with you, Crowley,” he said just before the soil closed over his head.
Sandalphon looked at the three beings arrayed before him. His shoulders slumped. “This isn’t over, Aziraphale,” he said. “How you haven’t properly Fallen, you or Abuataar, I can’t imagine, but Heaven will triumph in the end. You must know that.”
“We have plenty of cause to doubt that; Sandalphon, you must understand that by now,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis said, entirely in Aziraphale’s voice.
“I’m an Archangel,” Sandalphon snapped. “Unlike you, I don’t Doubt.” He snapped his wings open, and a heavenly light shone down around him; with two great wingbeats, he rose into the air and disappeared.
“That’s exactly the problem,” Adam said to the empty air. “Not very flexible, these archangels, are they?”
Alpha Rhaphiolepis closed their eyes, humming gently, and Crowley and Aziraphale reappeared. “They most certainly are not,” Aziraphale agreed.
Atelerix Athnan followed suit, dissolving into Abuataar and Exinolas again. “Changing plans is just generally not an angelic strength,” Abuataar added.
“So there’s two of you now, or four of you, I guess,” Adam said. “I had wondered how that worked.”
Exinolas looked embarrassed. “We knew last time,” she said in a small voice. “We just didn’t know what it meant.”
“What, more specifically, did you know?” Aziraphale asked, curiosity plain in his eyes.
“It took five thousand, nine hundred, and ninety years for this featherbrain to figure it out,” Crowley added, giving Aziaphale a fond but frustrated look.
“Well,” Abuataar said, looking at the ground and tucking his hands behind him, “the first time I saw her, or more accurately, saw her eyes, I - remembered cutting her down.” His brow creased; he glanced away, embarrassed. “I knew I’d watched her Fall, and I knew in the depths of my soul that, no matter what Michael and Gabriel had said, it - it wasn’t her fault. It was ours, hers and mine together, but only she suffered for it.”
“I remembered the same,” Exinolas said. A tear streaked down one cheek. “He cut me away, and I didn’t understand why, and then - it was so far, so far to Fall.” She heaved a deep breath and looked up. “I don’t know if we just would have remembered if we’d met anywhere, but I think - I think you two already knowing made it possible for us to remember, if that makes sense?”
“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” Crowley replied, “but it sounds right to me.”
“Also,” Adam added, “Uncle Aziraphale here had just gotten invoked back to his role very early on, not even a whole month after all that happened, so maybe there were vibrations left over from that, too.”
Abuataar laid a protective hand on Exinolas’s shoulder. “So,” he asked, “what do we do now?”
“We’ll figure out someplace for you to stay,” Adam assured them. “Do you want to stick around here, or would you rather go with Uncle Aziraphale and Uncle Crowley?”
“I think,” Exinolas said carefully, “that we don’t have anything like the human-ing skills we’d need to survive in the city.”
Aziraphale beamed. “Oh, we can show you everything you need to know!” he bubbled.
“Angel, think for a moment how long we’ve been here,” Crowley sighed, “and how often we screw up being human.”
Adam scratched his head. “Maybe, for right now, we can just figure out a way to hide you for a couple of days?” he asked. “I’m pretty sure I can find you a place near Tadfield, especially once I explain things to Anathema, but I just did a lot of showing off, and I should probably not do that for a day or so.”
“I’m pretty easy to hide,” Exinolas said, and turned into a hedgehog. Dog barked in surprise; Adam shushed him with a pat on the head.
“Nice one,” Crowley said.
Abuataar leaned down and picked her up gingerly. “I can stay in a shed somewhere for a few days, as long as it’s not too long,” he suggested.
“Oh, sure,” Adam agreed. “R.J.’s dad’s old stable just has one horse in it right now. You could probably live in the hayloft for a week and no one would notice.” He started marching up the slope towards the road. “I’ll point it out to you on the way back.”
The other three trudged after him. Crowley yawned. “Going to be a long bus ride back,” he noted to Aziraphale.
“Can’t you just go back the way you came?” Adam asked.
“No, no one would answer the shop phone, and if we called the mobile, we’d get stuck in Aziraphale’s voicemail,” Crowley explained.
Adam pondered that. “I bet you could just - jump,” he said. “Teleport. Tesser. You know what I mean.”
“Oh, but that’s very dangerous,” Aziraphale pointed out. “You have to have a perfectly clear idea of your destination -”
“So go back to your bookshop,” Adam said. “You’ve had it for, what, two centuries?”
“- And you need to concentrate your focus perfectly -”
“You both seem pretty good at that,” Adam said.
“- And it requires a great deal of celestial energy,” Aziraphale concluded.
Abuataar looked thoughtful. “Even if either one of you alone can’t call up that much power,” he suggested, “I bet Alpha could.”
Exinolas piped up, in an adorably squeaky little voice, “Didn’t you have to teleport to Crowley when Hastur tried to soak him with holy water earlier, to become Alpha in the first place?”
Crowley and Aziraphale stopped dead and stared at each other. “I didn’t even think about it,” Aziraphale said.
“You did,” Exinolas said. “Crowley slowed time way down, to try to dodge, and then I saw your aura just appear around him, and then you both transformed.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “That more or less checks out with what I remember,” he said.
Aziraphale pursed his lips, then rolled his bottom lip between his teeth and squinched both eyes shut. He disappeared with a pop.
Crowley leisurely fished his phone out of his pocket. He did not look the least bit surprised when it rang. “Be right there,” he said, turning into a swarm of dark shards, then pulling the phone into itself behind him.
“Anathema’s right,” Adam grumbled. “They could get so much more done if they just paid attention to things.”
Abuataar shrugged. “Maybe they’ve been working so hard at fitting in with humanity, some of the smaller celestial things just aren’t obvious to them,” he said. The hedgehog in his hands nodded.
“Maybe,” Adam mused. “But if that’s true, we need to work on that.” He pointed down the road. “The stable’s that way. I’ll come by with the gang after school tomorrow and we’ll show you the local landmarks.” He gave Abuataar an appraising look. “Do you know how to ride a bike?”
Chapter 7: Growing Up Is Hard to Do
The Antichrist grows to young adulthood and settles into his new role. There are a few bumps along the way.
A named minor character from the canon dies in this chapter. The death is offscreen, as it were, and given what Adam's already gotten up to so far you can probably guess what happens next, but consider this the warning tag.
There is also some vague discussion of the fate of souls that end up in Hell, although it isn't graphic.
Adam was 15 when his soul-event-horizon got large enough to encompass a small community hospital on the outskirts of Oxford.
“You could move somewhere else,” Anathema pointed out over a cup of unusually minty green tea. “I mean, you could arrange things so your parents had to move.”
“That’s the thing, though,” Adam groaned. “Not only do I not want to, because this is home; I don’t want to, because a lot of my sense of my powers is here, and I think I’d have to learn how to use stuff all over again; and I don’t want to, because Mum and Dad like it here, and if they ever decide to move it’ll probably be to a bigger town, not a smaller one.” He dropped another sugar cube into the tea and stirred, making little whirlpools.
All four of the angels, fallen and otherwise, were sitting on an overstuffed sofa meant for three people, which even for two couples was a bit tight. Both demons were contemplating changing forms just to save room. “We could try casting circles to keep the ghosts out,” Exinolas suggested.
“We’d have to keep making the circle bigger any time anyone inside it died,” Adam complained.
Crowley extricated himself from the middle of the sofa and wandered over to little Adiaphora’s playpen, which she was shortly going to outgrow. “We could try putting it specifically over you,” he noted. Adiaphora raised her arms and made a noise that was at least interpretable as “up!”; Crowley obediently scooped her up and perched her on one hip.
“Yeah, but -” Adam waved his hands vaguely around him. “What if that means they come to me but can’t get to me? We’d end up with roving packs of ghosts all over Tadfield, or worse, Death would have to come clean them up, and I can’t see that being good for anyone.”
Anathema finished her tea. “So,” she said, “since you keep stomping on other people’s suggestions - what do you think we should do?”
Adam stared out the window. “Keep an eye on me, I guess,” he mumbled.
Abuataar and Aziraphale shared a concerned glance. “What exactly do you mean by that?” Aziraphale asked.
“I mean, I don’t think there’s an easy answer here,” Adam said, rubbing a hand down his face and dislodging a crumb from the wispy half-mustache he hadn’t shaved in days. “Maybe this is just something that happens, now. Maybe when you tell Heaven and Hell ‘no’, you end up doing their job for a while.” He flicked the crumb towards Dog, who caught it. “I’m not saying let’s stop looking, but - maybe this is just my job in the universe, now.”
Anathema waved Crowley over. “There might be something to that,” she admitted. “When you lined up against the four horsemen -”
“I got matched up against Death, yeah.” Adam stood up, turned the chair around, and sat back down with his chin against the chair-back. “It made sense, though. The other three were all symbolic conveniences. Things that happen to humans that humans can do something about, made real because humans named them and believed in them. Death is different. He happens to everything, not just humans, and humans can postpone Death but they can’t avoid it altogether, the way they can with Famine and War. I mean, the reason we have Pollution is that Pestilence just isn’t as much of a threat, now.”
Crowley handed Adiaphora over to her mother; she fussed for a moment, grabbing at his jacket, then accepted a piece of toast and forgot him. “You’re not doing Death’s whole job, though,” Crowley noted. “He’s still got to show up and split soul and flesh apart, yeah? Really, you’ve taken over from the psychopomps.”
“Entirely passively,” added Aziraphale.
Anathema uncurled Adiaphora’s fingers from the butter knife. “What exactly do Heaven and Hell do with their human souls?” she asked. “Were they supposed to fight alongside you in the final battles?”
“Oh, no,” Aziraphale said, “Heaven didn’t expect them to do any fighting.” He frowned, deeply enough to furrow his brow. “I wasn’t up there all that often, and I wasn’t usually in the sections where they lived, but I thought they just praised God for all eternity.”
“That turned out to be a little boring for them,” Abuataar hedged. “I mean, there were choirs of the blessed for that sort of thing, and there were parks and libraries of wholesome literature and other things for them to appreciate and talk to each other about, but most of them just - after a few years, they generally just slept. Maybe once in a while checked up on their families, asked a guardian angel for a favor for them if they were in trouble, but mostly they spend a lot of time sleeping.”
“Hell tortures them,” Crowley said flatly. “More or less as advertised.”
Exinolas nodded. “Pretty actively, when they first get there,” she confirmed. “After they’ve gotten used to it, it’s more about just keeping them confined to the appropriate level of the building and keeping the thermostat at furnace or freezer levels. Once they realize how bad off they are, they tend to torture themselves and each other pretty well, without much effort on our part.”
“Sounds like a drag,” Adam said, and both demons mumbled agreement.
Anathema blinked. “Then why do it, if they’re just one more thing to keep up with?” she asked.
“Well, a few of the demons really like torturing them,” Crowley said. The corners of his mouth curled down in distaste.
“Especially when they’re new,” Exinolas agreed. “Once they’ve broken, only the hardcores still get much out of it, but we do have a few.”
“Mostly, though,” Crowley continued, waving one hand towards the ceiling, “it’s a dick-measuring contest with other beings who don’t generally have dicks. It’s about which side can stack up more wins, one human lifetime at a time.”
Adam laughed, a short bark that expressed very little mirth. “I’m starting to think they might be better off with me,” he said. “At least they get to watch the odd game of football and keep up with the latest memes.”
“You’re definitely doing the Hell-bound ones a favor,” Exinolas agreed.
“And I’m not sure sleeping in the back of your mind is that much different than sleeping in a tasteful little apartment in Heaven,” Abuataar added.
“The American from the air force base showed me how to fix the thermostat when it broke,” Adam said, as if he were confessing something.
“That likely made him feel useful,” Aziraphale observed. “Which, I suspect, is not an easy way for a human to feel in either Heaven or Hell.”
Adiaphora whined and waved the mushy remains of the toast in the air.
Leaning back out of the chair, Adam stated, “I’m just going to leave things as they are for right now. But I want the rest of you to keep an eye on me. I’ve already told Pepper and Brian and Wensley, they were brilliant at it last time, but they’ve all got exams of their own to study for and they can’t keep an eye on me all the time. If I start acting like a supervillain, or even just like I’m not myself, put me back in my place, or at least keep me contained until Pepper can slap some sense into me.”
There was a general murmur of agreement, and then it was time to put Adiaphora to bed.
By the time Adam was nineteen, he was picking up the souls of the deceased at a rate of one every one or two days, and Heaven had sent another sortie of six low-ranking angels after him, which he, the Them, and Atelerix Athnan had driven to distraction and sent home empty-handed before Aziraphale and Crowley had even gotten to the scene.
“I’m not sure if Hell has given up, or if they’re waiting until I get to London,” Adam said when explaining it to them afterwards.
“Probably the latter,” Crowley grumbled. He was mostly annoyed that he had missed the action completely. Aziraphale had gotten quite good at teleporting between the bookstore and Tadfield, but Crowley still preferred using the phone system to just popping between two places; he’d gotten tripped up by a malfunctioning interchange and briefly ended up in Liverpool.
“I think I’m getting stronger, Uncle Crowley,” Adam said, too quietly for anyone else to hear him. “Is that supposed to happen?”
Crowley set a hand on his shoulder. They were almost the same height now. “No one knows,” he admitted. “Hell’s plan didn’t extend past the War, past getting revenge on Heaven for throwing us out. I don’t think you were expected to grow up.”
Adam watched Pepper mime judo-throwing one particularly unlucky angel as she replayed events for Aziraphale. She’d gotten way into martial arts in the last two years. “Do you want revenge?” he asked.
Crowley shook his head heavily. “Not revenge, no,” he said. “Not in a long time. Answers, yes. But I don’t think they remember much more than I do, up there.”
“Aziraphale doesn’t?” Adam asked. “Or Alpha?”
“Aziraphale remembers less than I do when we’re not Alpha,” Crowley chuckled. “And when we are, remembering makes him sad. I’d rather he not dwell on it. He can’t change what happened.”
Adam nodded. Pepper was now demonstrating a particular hold on Abuataar. Wensley was watching her with stars in his eyes. She hadn’t noticed the change yet. “Abuataar has a theory that the archangels remember a little, but not everything,” he said.
“Wouldn’t mind getting a chance to slap it out of Gabriel’s holy mouth,” Crowley muttered darkly.
Adam grinned and watched Pepper toss an angel around.
Adam was 22 when a small clap of thunder shook Crowley’s whole apartment building at 2:33 AM. Fortunately, Aziraphale had already cleaned them both up; they miracled their pajamas into existence and tried to look like they weren’t six minutes into afterglow as they raced to the door.
They weren’t quite fast enough; Adam shattered the wards on the door with a thought, and kicked it open effortlessly. He’d been growing his hair out lately; it fell to his shoulders in locks of dark gold. Dark splotches marked his clothes in odd places; he looked like he’d been rained on, piecemeal. His eyes glowed like coals.
He grabbed Crowley by both shoulders and shook him like a ragdoll. “I had a brother,” he shouted. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You what?” Crowley said, half genuinely surprised, half trying to buy time.
As he looked into Adam’s face, it changed. Anger and sorrow changed to fear, followed closely by recognition. Somehow, even the shape of his face changed, getting longer, a bit greasier. His eyes ceased glowing and turned darker, narrower, more haunted. “Nanny?” Adam said, in a voice clearly not his own.
Something shattered behind Crowley’s eyes. “Warlock?” he whispered.
Aziraphale’s hands darted to his mouth. “Oh, no,” he gasped. “Oh, please, God, not so young.”
“Nanny!” Warlock - and now even Adam’s body language clearly said that was who was speaking - wailed, half-collapsing in Crowley’s arms. “Oh, have you come to take me to Hell? That would make so much more sense.”
“So much more sense than what?” Crowley grasped at the weakest of straws. “Warlock, what happened?”
“I - I was drunk,” Warlock admitted, looking like he was about to cry. “Father and I had a fight, we’ve been fighting a lot, and I went out and had way too much to drink. I - I should’ve called a cab - I thought I could make it home -” He stopped, fighting to control his voice. “There was a deer on the road. I swerved to miss it, I oversteered into the other lane, there was an oncoming car I hadn’t seen because I was looking at the deer, I - I think I went off the road - there was a tree - then there was a lot of blood.” He swallowed. “I don’t think I had my seatbelt on. There was only so much the airbag could do.”
“I’m so sorry, Warlock.” Crowley’s hands smoothed down Adam’s curls, stroking his head, seeing Warlock’s dark, straight hair instead.
“I do hope at least it didn’t hurt,” Aziraphale said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Only for a minute,” Warlock said. “I passed out pretty quick.” He looked back and forth between them. “I am dead, right?” he said. “I can see your wings. You shouldn’t hide them; they’re fucking cool.”
“Yes, you are,” Crowley admitted. “You’re not going to Hell, though. I was wrong about that part.”
“Oh, good,” Warlock said, relieved. “Who am I in, by the way? He’s pretty hot.”
Aziraphale started to say something, but Crowley broke in first: “There was a mix-up at the hospital you were born at. He was raised by your biological parents.”
“Awesome! That means Mom didn’t have an affair with someone to have me, after all,” Warlock blurted. “I don’t look like Dad even a little bit; I’d figured out before we left England that I wasn’t really his kid.” He paused. “And this guy needs to talk to you, I need to give him his body back before he throws me out of it, but can we talk later, Nanny? I need to catch up with you.” He stopped abruptly as his face went slack.
Adam’s features returned to normal. “Okay, I heard part of that,” he said breathlessly. “So he’s Mum and Dad’s biological kid, which - ugh - makes him my brother in the timeline where -” He clasped his hands to his head; his eyes were back to embers and a faint smell of smoke emanated from him. “Ow,” he mumbled.
Aziraphale miracled the least uncomfortable chair in the flat into his hands and slid it underneath Adam. “Give yourself a moment,” he said, worry vibrating through each word. “Can I get you something?”
“Water,” Adam answered, grinding the heels of his hands against his eye sockets.
Aziraphale scuttled to the kitchen and returned with a full glass of water, which Adam drained in three gulps. “Thanks,” he said dully. “I’m having trouble maintaining the cognitive dissonance right now.”
“The what?” Aziraphale asked, unhelpfully.
Adam sighed. “So right now,” he explained, “there are two different pasts that lead to me. In one of them, I’m just Adam Young, a perfectly normal college student with an unusually but not astonishingly idyllic childhood who just happens to be friends with a witch and some of her supernatural colleagues, right? And in the other I’m the literal Son of Satan, who gave his papa the finger at age eleven and has gone on to fuck up the power balance of the entire afterlife. And I have to believe in both of them, balance them out, because if I stop believing in the second one entirely, the first one will become true and I will never have been the Antichrist at all, and it’ll just happen again somewhere else with some other kid. But if I stop believing in the first one entirely, I’ll stop being human, and it’ll all start happening again where it left off, with me.” He stared miserably at the floor. “Can I have another glass of water?”
Crowley snapped his fingers and miracled the glass full.
“So now,” Adam continued after drinking half the glass again, “I just got proof that either Mum had twins and one of them got lost and shuffled off to America, or that first one isn’t true at all, and I’m not really my parents’ child. I mean, I know that last is part of the second story, but - apparently I didn’t know the whole story.” He rubbed at his nose. “Uncle Crowley, can you tell me what happened as you remember it?”
Sinking down to sit cross-legged on the floor, Crowley recounted the story of Adam’s coming to Earth from the graveyard to the hospital, followed by his speculation as to what happened once he left, with Aziraphale popping in to add occasional details. It took longer than they expected; by the time they were done, Adam had finished the second glass of water and was working on a bottle of root beer that had miraculously appeared in Crowley’s fridge.
“Okay,” Adam finally said, “I think I see what happened. So you brought me, I got accidentally switched with Warlock, they put him with the big important American ambassador and me with his parents, and - hold on, is there news footage of his dad somewhere - oh, wait, damn, never mind, he just showed me and I think I know where their kid is, too.” Laughing raggedly, he took another swig from the root beer. “Apple fell right under the tree on that one, wow. Oh, crap, no, Warlock, I didn’t - wow, that’s - seriously?” He shook his head. “What an ass.”
Crowley and Aziraphale shared a look. Their interactions with Thaddeus Dowling had been rare, but they left an impression, and Adam had just summed it up.
A terrible realization dawned across Aziraphale’s face. “Your range - you’re picking up souls from America now?”
“No,” Adam answered, “I’m pretty sure this was a special case.” He yawned. “Geez, being possessed like that is hard. I should talk to Ms. Tracy about it, see if she has any tips.” His eyes were back to normal, although bloodshot.
“Do you want us to take you back home?” Aziraphale asked. “We can talk on the way, if you like.”
“Actually,” Adam asked, “would it be all right if I crashed here, just for tonight? I don’t have class until eleven tomorrow morning, and I can jump back to my dorm once I recharge a bit.”
“Of course,” Aziraphale and Crowley both said. Aziraphale blushed. “Er, let me change the sheets first,” he added, snapping his fingers. “There, much nicer.”
Crowley peered over his glasses. “Angel, if you’ve put tartan flannel sheets on my bed, so help me -”
“They’re not tartan flannel,” Aziraphale replied, pressing one hand to his chest. “They’re solid red flannel. I respect your color schemes, dearest.”
“Whatever.” Crowley led Adam down the hallway and stood guard as Adam crawled into the exact center of the king-sized bed, flung his arms and legs out like a starfish, and fell asleep almost instantly.
Aziraphale joined Crowley after setting the glass in the sink and the bottle in the recycling. “This is harder on him than he’s letting on,” he whispered.
“He’s currently in the middle of London,” Crowley pointed out. “He’s probably picked up a dozen souls just since he’s been here.”
Aziraphale rolled his bottom lip under his teeth. “Well, nothing to be done for that,” he sighed.
Crowley said nothing. Aziraphale glanced up at him, at the stream of tears rolling down Crowley’s sharp cheekbones. Quietly, Aziraphale opened his arms; Crowley half-collapsed against him, shoulders shaking. His sobs were silent. Aziraphale held him tightly, letting his own eyes spill the tears that stung them.
After Crowley’s chest has stopped convulsing, Aziraphale asked, softly, “Did you want to - catch up?”
Crowley removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “Yeah, I did. Do.”
Their hands met, and they merged silently. Alpha Rhaphiolepis managed to fold all four legs and kneel next to the bed. Adam’s aura was speckled everywhere with riotous colors, mostly less bright than his own, many more subtle. One spot, a vivid orange that nearly matched Adam’s and a dark purple that didn’t match at all, seemed to react to their presence; they focused on it, stroking it gently with one finger.
Wow, Warlock said, I didn’t know you could do that. That’s pretty impressive.
New trick, That-part-of-Alpha-Rhaphiolepis-that-was-Crowley replied. Tell us what you’ve been doing, though.
By the time Adam stirred, he was a hundred souls heavier, but Warlock’s, at least, seemed at peace.
Chapter 8: Trumpets and Buzzers
Crowley and Aziraphale had hoped they wouldn't have to deal with Heaven and Hell directly any more. No such luck, alas.
Offscreen death from natural causes of a canon minor character mentioned.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
By the time Adam was in his 30s, his range covered about a quarter of the globe. He was working as a sound technician for the BBC’s Tri-D holostreaming service, a job that sent him all over the country and, not infrequently, outside of it. He spent as much time in Tadfield as he could, but, as he privately told Aziraphale, it was time for him to learn to love the rest of the world. He also got a flat approximately the size of a large packing crate that was ten minutes by tube or bus from Crowley’s, and twelve minutes from Aziraphale’s shop, if he walked fast.
Absorbing Shadwell had been a shock for him. Neither he nor Ms. Tracy had let anyone else know he was so ill. The funeral had been lovely; Adam had mentioned afterwards that his issues with cognitive dissonance paled next to Shadwell’s, and while he had declined to elaborate, Newt had seemed to understand.
Wensleydale and Pepper had dated, broken up, got back together, and were now living together in Oxford. Brian was married to a lovely bloke from Cardiff and had moved to be closer to his husband’s family. The Them still saw each other as a group about once a month or so.
Abuataar and Exinolas followed Adam around like bodyguards, if one’s bodyguards were a short, spiky-haired punk and a tall, slightly gangly man who was constantly mistaken for Ethiopian. Or, alternately, a hedgehog and an African wildcat, as Exinolas had finally managed to teach Abuataar how to take on an animal aspect of his own. As Adam’s flat did not technically allow either subletting or pets, they spent a great deal of time making themselves (and, incidentally, Dog) functionally invisible, and frankly were now better at it than Aziraphale or Crowley ever were.
The bookstore was more or less obsolete, which had not deterred Aziraphale in the slightest. Few new books were coming out in print, on paper, but rare books and first editions were still collectors’ items, and as the elderly were passing their libraries on to their children, the younger generations were often selling them immediately. Aziraphale had completed several collections in the past five years, and his insistence on not having an online presence meant that fewer and fewer people were stepping into the store, but those who did usually had quite a long list of what they were looking for. Aziraphale even deigned to sell a few books to customers he trusted to take care of them correctly.
He was shocked to the bone when Gabriel opened the door. He was even more shocked when he saw Gabriel was waving around a white handkerchief tied to a fountain pen.
“Hey, Aziraphale!” his old boss boomed across the foyer. “Long time no see! How’s business?”
“Oh, same as it ever was,” Aziraphale said cagily. “As I recall, the last time we saw each other, you tried to have me executed.” He was glad to have Crowley’s memories of the event, now; his verbal description had left out a few key details. “I am unclear what possible unfinished business there can be between us now.”
“Well, you know,” Gabriel replied, grinning, “I feel as if that encounter cleared the air between us, you know? You betrayed the Great Plan, we punished you appropriately, turns out the punishment didn’t quite take, no harm, no foul, right?”
A very large snake dropped from the second floor and became Crowley. “The way I heard it,” he said, glaring icicles at Gabriel from behind his glasses, “that encounter cleared the air between you two with a little Hellfire.”
“And it was a very intriguing trick!” Gabriel said, tucking the pen back into his pocket and spreading his hands. “So was yours Downstairs, at least as Michael tells it. We’d love to know how you pulled it off, if you wanted to share.”
“We most certainly do not,” Airaphale said frostily.
The door pushed open again. “Crowley?” called another familiar voice. “I know you’re in here. We need to talk - oh, damnazzion, Gabriel, what are you doing here?”
Gabriel turned halfway around, not taking his attention off of Aziraphale. “Oh, hey, Beelzebub,” he said, sounding only slightly disappointed. “Fancy meeting you here. I’m guessing you’re probably here for the same reason I am.”
“If you mean the crisis regarding the dwindling supply of human soulzz, then yes.” Beelzebub looked more irritated than disappointed. “I had hoped there could be some negozziazzions.”
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow. “We certainly don’t have any souls here,” he started.
“No, we know, we know,” Gabriel interrupted, holding up one hand. “It’s the Failed Antichrist scooping them all up, as far as we can tell, just to mess with us, which is irritating in its own right. I was hoping you could give me some insight into how, and where he’s keeping them.”
“And I wazz wondering why he wazz doing that,” Beelzebub added. “And also, perhaps, why you are still protecting him.”
“We’re protecting him because he’s a nice kid and he asked us for help,” Crowley said, planting his feet firmly. “Better company than his dad, that’s for certain.”
Gabriel’s eyes flicked from Crowley’s left hand to Aziraphale’s. “Ah,” he said, with slightly less heartiness than before. “You, um, you really did that, did you?”
“Did what?” Aziraphale said, eyes glittering with something that might have been mirth.
Beelzebub rolled their eyes. “I assume he meanzz getting married,” they said. “Really, Gabriel, did you come all this way to quizz them about their domestic life?”
“Sandalphon was quite concerned about them consorting with each other,” Gabriel stated. “Couldn’t stop sputtering about it for a month.”
“So wazz Hastur, but he’zz an idiot,” Beelzebub sighed. “Look, you two, we really can’t get back to buzziness azz usual until the boy stops fooling around. Can’t you have a word with him?”
Aziraphale eyed the Prince of Hell like a teacher who is disappointed in a student. “From my perspective, Adam is keeping a great number of souls out of eternal torment,” he said. “Why on Earth would I ask him to stop?”
“Because he’s also keeping souls out of eternal bliss,” Gabriel replied, smiling smugly.
“Same number?” Crowley asked, sliding an arm around Aziraphale’s waist. Aziraphale leaned into him and hummed happily.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t count,” Gabriel replied. A flicker of distaste ran across his features and was immediately suppressed.
“It’s not,” Beelzebub answered for him. “It’s running about three of ourzz to two of yourzz. But that’s just becauzze of the demographics of Europe. He’zz not being selective.” They raised an eyebrow at Crowley. “I’d congratulate you on your successful seduction of an angel, except then you had to go and make it legal.”
“It wasn’t a Christian ceremony, if that helps any,” Aziraphale pointed out, watching Gabriel edge back slightly.
“Witchcraft doezzen’t really fall under either purview,” Beelzebub sighed. “If it had been a proper Satanic ceremony, then maybe.”
Gabriel cleared his throat. “Are we really talking about this?” he asked.
“You brought it up,” Beelzebub reminded him, clearly enjoying the archangel’s discomfort. “How’zz the sex? I assume you’ve at least tried it.”
“Oh, it’s magnificent!” Aziraphale answered, nuzzling Crowley’s neck. “We’re still working through our respective lists of what we’d like to try; six thousand years is a long time to think about that sort of thing. But I can’t imagine living without it, now.” He drew Crowley in for a long, wet, open-mouthed kiss, letting out a heartfelt (but perhaps slightly exaggerated for effect) whimper in the middle.
Crowley flicked his forked tongue across Aziraphale’s lips as they parted. “Yeah, can’t complain, really,” he said, and dropped the hand across Aziraphale’s back a trifle lower.
Beelzebub was staring at them with intense curiosity and a double dash of prurient interest. Gabriel looked like someone who was experiencing nausea for the first time and didn’t quite know where this sensation was leading.
“Nice,” Beelzebub finally said, breaking the awkward silence. “Now, can we talk to the boy? We need to get him to stop.”
“You don’t know where he is, do you?” Crowley asked, grinning. Was that a hint of a flush in the Prince of Hell’s face?
“We know the general area,” Beelzebub answered, “becauzze how could we not, but within that area there izz quite a lot of interference.”
“You’re actually doing - that?” Gabriel said. “The, with the genitals and everything?”
“Lots of it,” Crowley replied, pinching Airaphale’s butt and enjoying the resulting wriggle - and Beelzebub’s tiny echo of it. Yeah, Beezie was definitely getting sympathetic Lust off of the two of them. That was interesting.
“It’s quite good for relieving tension,” Aziraphale said. “Perhaps you should try it sometime, Gabriel. You do seem to be exhibiting signs of stress.”
“What?” Gabriel shouted. “I’m not - no, of course I’m not stressed, I’m an Archangel.”
Beelzebub laughed out loud at that. “Well, I don’t mind saying that being a Prince of Hell can quite strezzful,” they said, looking up at Gabriel with an expression somewhere between a sneer and a leer. Their eyes dropped pointedly to Gabriel’s backside and then rose again.
Gabriel jumped back, eyes wide and wild. “Get back, perverts!” he roared; his wings unfurled, cloud-white, as he surrounded himself with the blazing glow of his holy nimbus. He reached upward and manifested a very no-nonsense sword, just long enough to be impressive and clearly razor sharp.
“Do mind the books,” Aziraphale shouted over the sound of Heavenly trumpets.
“Oh, look at that,” Beelzebub said dryly as a cloud of flies formed around them. “Did we impozze on your holy virtue, Archangel? Stress you out a little more?” They stretched out one hand; a mace, almost a sceptre, appeared in it.
“He said to mind the books,” Crowley warned over the buzzing of a thousand insects.
A shield, gleaming with sunlight, appeared in Gabriel’s other hand. “Cease your sinful nonsense,” he bellowed, “or I will cut you down where you stand.”
“I’d like to zzze you try it,” Beelzebub snarled, brandishing the mace two-handed.
Gabriel leaped forward, slashing across the space where Beelzebub had been standing a second before. Beelzebub dropped from the ceiling, hovering on glistening insects’ wings, and brought the mace down; it clanged off of Gabriel’s shield.
Crowley and Azriaphale turned towards each other, hands clasped.
Jabbing, Gabriel spun on one foot, keeping the shield between him and the Prince of Hell. He jumped as the mace swung at his ankles; a pile of early 20th century novels toppled over behind him. Air whistled past his ear as Beelzebub tried to kick him -
A sphere of silver light and shadows closed around them like a cage, trapping them under the rotunda. “We said, mind the books!” boomed Alpha Rhaphiolepis.
Gabriel and Beelzebub landed on the floor, with Gabriel on the bottom of the heap and Beelzebub on top of his shield. “Oh, shit,” Beelzebub said dully. “I didn’t think that wazz real.”
“Hastur didn’t either,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis recalled, “but then, he’s a moron.”
“He certainly izz.” Beelzebub dropped the mace; it thumped on the carpet and disappeared.
“That’s - not possible,” Gabriel gasped. The sword and shield vanished, dropping Beelzebub onto his chest, sprawled out in a profoundly undignified and slightly suggestive pose. “That - what -”
“It’s just us,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis said, leaning down to give Gabriel a better view of their double halo. “Hello. We’re Alpha Rhaphiolepis. We don’t quite have enough of us to come up with a proper group name yet.”
Gabriel seemed oblivious to the demon straddling him. “You can’t do that,” he said again.
“Well, clearly they did,” Beelzebub sneered. “You’re having trouble with this whole reality-not-meeting-your-personal-expectazzions thing, aren’t you?”
Gabriel lowered his head to the floor with a thud. “It’s not right,” he said weakly.
Beelzebub turned a bright red, and the buzzing of their flies grew so loud they sounded like hornets. “THINGS DON’T HAVE TO BE RIGHT TO FUCKING EXZZIST, YOU IMBECILE!” they screamed, spittle flying in his face. They paused, eyes darting, studying Gabriel’s aura, his wings, his face. “You,” they whispered, as their hands closed on his scarf.
“Please don’t,” Gabriel whimpered. “Don’t say it. For God’s sake, don’t say it out loud.”
“You cut me down,” Beelzebub realized in a rush of breath. “You threw me out of Heaven.”
“Stop,” Gabriel said, and it came out almost as a sob. “We’re not supposed to remember. There’s a reason we’re not supposed to remember.”
“What reazzon?” Beelzebub snarled. Insectoid legs sprang from their hairline, writhing. “Tell me, or I shall rip it from your throat with my teeth!”
“It’s us,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis explained, gesturing at themselves. “When you remember, this becomes possible again.”
Beelzebub’s fists came down on Gabriel’s chest. “This izz all your fault!” they cried. “All of it, all the tortures, all the pain, all the fucking misery of it; you did this to me!”
“Stop,” Gabriel pleaded, “just stop, stop remembering, stop knowing. It can all go back to the way it was if you just stop.”
“No,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis said, mostly in Crowley’s voice, “no, it can’t. Once you know, there’s no going back. Not this, not anything.”
“I hate you!” Beelzebub screamed. “Not like every demon hates every angel, I mean I personally hate you, Gabriel!” Their face sprouted glittering scales of chitin. “Why? What did I do? Why did you do this to me?”
“I don’t know!” Gabriel looked terrified. Tears were leaking from his eyes, pooling in the corners, too scared to go anywhere. “I don’t remember!”
Beelzebub lowered their head until their nose brushed Gabriel’s. “Then how do you know it wazz bad enough for me to dezzerve it?” they buzzed.
“Because I have faith, because -” Gabriel gagged on the words, then opened and closed his mouth, twice, silently. Slowly, he shook his head. “I don’t,” he admitted. “I don’t know.”
“Then why do you want me to suffer for something you don’t know I dezzerve?” Beelzebub whispered?
Gabriel met their gaze. “Right now?” he said. “On this floor, at this moment? I don’t. May God have mercy on my soul, I don’t want you to have to suffer. I have no idea what I do want for you, or from you, but it isn’t that.”
Beelzebub smiled cruelly. “This, maybe?” they murmured as their mouth closed on Gabriel’s.
The sphere of light and shadow dissolved as blessed darkness and cursed light poured from their bodies. The Third of the Made-Whole looked up from a decidedly cramped position on Aziraphale’s rug.
“Well, at least your numbering didn’t change,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis said, offering one hand.
“We’re an idiot,” said the Third, levering themselves off the floor awkwardly.
“Technically, we think you’re two idiots,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis observed. “Maybe three, now. We’ll have to see.”
“This is amazing. Also terrible,” the Third said. “We can’t - they’ll tear us apart, if they know. If they even suspect. And Hastur and Sandalphon will suspect, if they have any reason to.”
“Why would they suspect?” Alpha Rhaphiolepis asked. “One, they’re stupid. Two, it’s not like your components have that much history together.”
“They’re stupid, but they’re suspicious bastards,” the Third said, raising two of their hands to their heads. “It’s just how they are - oh, no. They’re like us, aren’t they?”
“It seems highly likely,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis agreed. “Do you want to choose a name? We’ve discovered that the old ones don’t work.”
“Ba’al Gimel,” they said without hesitation.
“Well, they’re definitely going to figure that one out,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis objected.
Ba’al Gimel nodded. “That’s part of the problem,” they agreed. “But that’s - we knew, we think, deep down, and that’s who we are. Beelzebub dreamed of that name the one time they slept.”
Alpha Rhaphiolepis sighed. “You know it just means ‘Lord Three,’ right?”
“You named yourself after a bush,” Ba’al Gimel retorted.
“Fair point,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis conceded.
Ba’al Gimel blinked, and manifested their sword. It looked exactly like Gabriel’s, only sized up to fit them. “We think we understand what happened, now,” they said, looking at the blade as if it might turn to cut them of its own accord. They blinked it away again. “Why, though?” they whispered. “Why did we do that to ourselves?”
“We were afraid,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis answered. “Beyond that, we’re not sure. Fear was new, then. Maybe that was enough.”
“What a stupid reason,” Ba’al Gimel muttered. Fireflies twinkled around their heads and disappeared again. “How do we go back?”
“You just think of a reason to be two separate people again, and you sort of pull, internally,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis explained.
Ba’al Gimel raised an eyebrow on their frontmost face. “A reason like what, like having sex?” they asked, grinning.
“That can work,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis said, shrugging, “but usually we use music, or sashimi and coffee. Here, we can show you.” They hummed, light and shadow flared, and Aziraphale and Crowley looked up into Ba’al Gimel’s glowing eyes.
Ba’al Gimel frowned, and distant thunder shook the windows. “Why would you do that?” they asked. “You know better than we do that we could utterly destroy one of you before you could flee. Only one of you would escape, if we chose.”
Aziraphale looked sad at that, but it was Crowley who said, “It wasn’t you who tried to kill us; it was your components.”
“You don’t have any particular reason to hurt us,” Aziraphale added.
“And if you did, Adam would have something to say about it once he found out,” Crowley finished.
“It is too bad we won’t get a chance to meet him, them.” Ba’al Gimel covered their eyes with their hands, and Beelzebub and Gabriel stood before them.
“We have to go back,” Beelzebub said, their voice sandpaper-rough. “Heaven and Hell will come looking for us. They might already know something happened - that we disappeared for a moment.”
Gabriel looked more tired than Aziraphale had ever seen him, dark-eyed and stoop-shouldered. “Even if they don’t, they’re going to figure it out,” he groaned. “They’ll smell you on me.”
“Well, then, that we can deal with,” Crowley said. He sauntered over to Gabriel and grabbed his lapels. “Loosen up for a second.” Gabriel attempted to do so while Crowley shook him around a bit.
“Now, backhand me,” Crowley said. “Not too hard, though.”
Gabriel swung his right hand into Crowley’s face, loosely; the impact still snapped his head back.
Aziraphale’s face darkened. “Let me suggest that you not ever do that again,” he seethed.
“Easy, angel, I’m fine,” Crowley assured him. “And now if they smell demon on you, you can tell them I got offended at you waltzing into my angel’s shop and tried to rough you up.”
“That’s - okay, no, that’ll probably be fine,” Gabriel sighed. “The likelihood that anyone up there will genuinely be able to tell your scent from Beelzebub’s is almost nil. Brimstone is brimstone.”
“Can you tell?” Beelzebub asked, and laughed wickedly at Gabriel’s mournful nod.
Aziraphale turned to Beelzebub. “How about you?” he asked. “Do you need -”
“I’ll be okay,” they replied, waving one hand. “Getting in a dust-up with the Archangel Gabriel izzn’t going to hurt my reputazzion, even if it wazzn’t a stunning victory on my part.”
Gabriel turned to all three of them, desperation in his violet eyes. “It’s not safe to remember, up there. I’m going to forget,” he said. “I don’t want to. I desperately want not to, in fact. It’s just - going to happen.” He rubbed his face with his palms, as if he were trying to wake up from a long, strange dream. “I need you to remember for me. If I forget - when I forget - remind me.”
“I will remember for both of us,” Beelzebub said. “On the firmament itself, I swear, I will never forget.”
“Thank you,” Gabriel squeaked. “And - I’m sorry.”
Beelzebub blinked at him. “I accept your apology,” they said; the words tumbled out like bumblebees, heavy and slow but full of purpose. “I hope, someday, to be able to forgive you.”
“You will,” Crowley promised. “It comes easier than you think.”
Gabriel buried his face in his hands. “I don’t deserve it,” he groaned.
“That is why this is about Grace, not Justice,” Aziraphale explained, laying a hand in the center of Gabriel’s back. “Go in peace.”
“May it be so,” Beelzebub said. They pushed the door open, walked onto the busy pavement, and sank into it without a trace.
Gabriel didn’t say anything. He stumbled out the door like a man who had no idea where he was going next, looked up, and disappeared.
Aziraphale and Crowley stared after them, arms around each other’s shoulders. “Do you think,” Aziraphale asked, “that that means Heaven and Hell won’t bother us anymore?”
“Nah, we’re not that lucky,” Crowley said. “It just means we don’t have to worry about them, specifically.”
“Are we going to have to reunite all of Heaven and Hell?” Aziraphale asked. He sounded frightened.
“I’m starting to get the feeling it’s inevitable,” Crowley said, squeezing his angel tighter. He snapped his fingers to re-stack the scattered novels.
“And maybe ineffable,” Aziraphae mused. “I think it’s time for use to close up for the day, and let Adam know there’s another pair of us.” He reached for the sign on the door and flipped it over.
I'm going to be out of town and possibly without consistent internet access for the long weekend, so the next update probably won't be until Tuesday at the earliest. Not that I think anyone's waiting on pins and needles for the next chapter, but I wanted to be transparent about the potential gap.
Chapter 9: Wheels, Rails, Wings, & Scales
Crowley and Aziraphale deal with a minor demonic invasion of London.
Adam was well into his sixties, but he had gotten fed up with aging and had gone back to looking like he was about 25 shortly after holding his mother’s hand while she breathed her last.
“I saw Death that time,” Adam had told Aziraphale and Crowley over doughnuts and coffee later. “Just about hauled off and punched him in his non-existent nose.”
“Why didn’t you?” Aziraphale had asked.
“Mum said not to, that he was just doing his job.” Adam had wiped his nose on a paper napkin. “ ‘Cept I’m doing fully half his job now.”
Adam’s range now encompassed the whole Earth, as well as the Moon, not that the lunar colony had had any fatalities yet. While technically he was now drawing a small pension in his retirement, in practice, he walked the world unseen and quietly whispered the things that the dead needed to tell the living for the sake of those not yet conceived. Occasionally he intervened in larger ways, but sparingly, and through someone else when it was possible. He preferred forbidden knowledge to miracles.
“Makes sense to me,” Crowley had said to an unamused Aziraphale.
At any rate, Adam was somewhere in Indonesia, trying to help clean up after a typhoon, when an invading force of demons overran London.
They didn’t make themselves overtly known, of course. They were mostly discernible from the smell of brimstone, mildew, and stagnant water that clung to them. They appeared in nightclubs at the end of the evening, and pubs just after work, and the busses in the city center, and the endless gleaming grimy network of the Underground all day long. They were clearly searching for something, or someone.
“Surely they know Adam isn’t here?” Exinolas asked. Two angels and two demons were sharing a pot of tea in Aziraphale’s office.
“I’m not sure they can tell,” Crowley replied. “I think we can because we’ve spent so much time around him; we’ve got his scent, spiritually speaking.”
“To them, the whole world feels like Adam,” Abuataar said. “At least, the parts that don’t feel like chrome and integrated circuits.” His human form had adopted the appearance of several neural implants, and he’d even bothered figuring out how to use them.
Crowley hadn’t gone that far yet, although he was fond of the current fad of weaving data storage into the fabric of clothing. At the moment, he had pirated versions of almost every surviving film from the 20th century in his trousers. “So it’s not going to do any harm for them to keep scrounging around, at least not until they’ve widened their search,” he concluded. “Keeps them busy and out of Adam’s hair.”
“I suppose,” Aziraphale sighed. “I’m worried they’ll attract attention from Heaven, but as long as they don’t break out into open hostilities, there’s not that much danger just from them being here.”
Exinolas helped herself to one of the shortbreads on the tray table. “I could try and infiltrate them,” she offered. “I was a nobody Downstairs; they might not recognize me.”
Abuataar squeezed her hand, but he said nothing.
Crowley sighed. “We’ll both go,” he said. “I don’t think wandering around alone is safe. Hastur’s still out there.”
“Let us know the instant anything happens,” Aziraphale ordered, tapping his temple with one finger.
It wasn’t clear whether it was a fifty-year history of occasionally merging into a single being, the frequent comminglings of their beatific and diabolic auras during what Aziraphale still winkingly referred to as ‘erotic explorations’, or just being inside Adam’s rarefied nimbus all the time, but their telepathic connection was getting quite reliable. It still creeped Crowley out a little, at least when he wasn’t already turned on when it happened. Abuataar and Exinolas were equally good at it, for much the same reasons. And Crowley and Exinolas had discovered more or less by accident that, while it wasn’t the same sort of deep communion, they could also speak mind-to-mind with a little effort, at least over short distances. (Aziraphale and Abuataar had, so far, shown no such tendency. Abuataar had three different potential theories as to why, all of which were currently untestable.)
That evening, after rush hour was well and truly over, Crowley lounged in a doorframe not too far from the tube station closest to Aziraphale’s shop, waiting for a demonic aura to pass by. He amused himself while waiting by counting how many of the humans who passed by still had the older, quasi-naturalistic style of implants, and which were currently sporting the fashionable chrome-and-polished-brass look for theirs. The former style looked slightly dated, and would probably look slightly dated in ten years, or twenty. The latter style grated slightly on Crowley’s sensibilities, looked quite modern now, and would be obviously passé the instant the prevailing fashion shifted.
Crowley didn’t have to wait long. The first demon passed him after less than fifteen minutes. He was never that lucky; Crowley decided to wait just a bit longer.
Half an hour later, nearly a dozen demons had passed in ones and twos, all headed to the same run-down sandwich shop. Crowley decided to go ahead and follow the next one before they started to leave; he pressed his hands to his temples and broadcast his intent to Exinolas, who gave him the telepathic equivalent of a nod, and followed after a young-looking demon whose ratlike features were so poorly hidden Crowley wondered how the humans didn’t notice. Maybe they did and just thought it would be rude to say anything.
He trailed the rat-demon through the sandwich shop, past the washrooms, through a door that had “Maintenance only” hastily painted on it in poorly-formed letters, and up a dimly-lit flight of stairs. Above him, he heard someone mutter a question, and a squeaky voice return an answer, but a fog of demonic energy deliberately obscured both. Crowley ran through every cold war spy thriller passcode he’d ever read or heard, steeled himself, and sauntered up the last half-flight.
The landing was dark-stained wood against burgundy paint, with a single bare bulb for illumination. Given that incandescent light bulbs had been banned for decades, clearly this was some den of high iniquity. There were faint traces of tobacco smoke and cheap beer in the air, and furtive voices murmured on the other side of the heavy oak door. Crowley deeply approved of the ambiance; he leaned against the doorframe and knocked twice.
A slot opened in the door. “Who cut you down?” whispered a gravelly voice.
That was not one of the top-secret codes Crowley had prepared for. Startled, he lost his focus and blurted out the actual answer: “Aziraphale.”
A ripple of silence started at the door and traveled across the room on the other side. A pair of red eyes appeared at the slot, blinked, and disappeared as the slot slammed closed and the door opened. A gloved hand appeared and beckoned Crowley inside.
The room was even dimmer than the stairwell, lit only by guttering candles scattered across half a dozen tables and a pair of lanterns hung over the center of the room. Whispers fluttered across the room as easily thirty pairs of dimly glowing eyes fell on Crowley.
“It’s him,” someone said, just loud enough to be heard across the room.
“It’s me,” Crowley agreed. “Does anyone want to explain why you guys have been cluttering up the public transit around here?”
A demon in a black jacket lightly dusted with sequins stood up. His hair had been styled to resemble a pair of goat horns, or possibly antelope; Crowley recognized him as an on-and-off flunky of Hastur’s. The Dukes of Hell hadn’t ever treated their minions well, and Crowley vaguely recalled this one getting the worst of Hastur’s temper more than once. A second identical body lounged at a table by the window, and another stood by the door; another one had delivered Hellfire to Heaven on one particularly memorable occasion. Crowley wished he could remember the fellow’s name.
“Well,” the horned demon in the antique jacket said, “we don’t really have anywhere else we can go. We’ve been trying to found a safe house, but so far we keep getting discovered.” He swallowed. “Like you just did,” he added.
Crowley snorted. “I can’t say you were that hard to find,” he noted. “What’s your name again?”
“Legion,” the horned demon said. “And, can I just say - I’ve been a big fan for a long time, Crowley, it’s an honor to meet you in person.” A general murmur of agreement rolled around the room.
“That’s very flattering,” Crowley acknowledged, “but what do you need a safe house for, and what does that have to do with Hell filling up the tube stations?”
“It’s a madhouse Downstairs,” Legion answered. “I mean, it’s never exactly been a shining example of good management, but since you, erm, quit, it’s all gone down the shitter in a big way. Lucifer’s been sulking and won’t talk to anyone. Beelzebub’s gone all snappish. Hastur’s bullied himself onto the Dark Council; everyone thinks he’s trying to get a promotion to Prince. Asmodeus throws you into the lake of fire if you take one single step out of line. They’ve just left Ligur’s duchy empty, without even posting a notice for a replacement. No one knows who reports to anyone else, or what temptations are high priority and which ones are low on the infernal time-management sheet. The only department that hasn’t completely fallen apart is Records, honestly.”
The rat-faced demon nodded mournfully. “Between Hastur and Asmodeus,” he squeaked, “I’ve been through four bodies in the last two pay periods.”
“Sounds like a drag,” Crowley agreed, “but that didn’t really answer either question, now, did it?”
Legion poked at one of the lanterns, coaxing it into burning a little brighter. “Have you noticed,” he said, watching Crowley’s face intently, “that human souls have been ending up in the wrong place?”
“Not really,” said Crowley.
“Well, the supply has been drying up,” Legion continued, “as far as we can tell for both Downstairs and Up There, and it’s been very upsetting for everyone involved. Dagon’s gotten quite testy about it.” He paused and frowned at the lantern as it went out. “Hastur has been sending whoever he can get his sludgy hands on to investigate, and then tearing them to pieces when they come back without any info, so we’ve - we’ve stopped going back, is the thing.” He attempted to re-light the lantern, without success. “I think we need more lamp oil. Anyway, if we’re going to die horribly and have to requisition another body no matter what we do, a lot of us have - that is - what’s the point of it all, really? No war against Heaven to prepare for, no new souls to torture, I mean, really, why work on your temptations if you’re not going to get a soul out of it, and unless someone figures out why, nothing to look forward to on going back to the head office but dismemberment and paperwork.” He looked Crowley in the face, and grinned nervously. “Why not just do what you did? Why not just stay here?”
“Why, indeed,” Crowley echoed. Another candle went out. “So you’ve been riding around on the Tube all day because it’s a convenient place to come up, and you don’t have any particular place else to go, is what you’re telling me.”
“Yeah,” Legion said, relaxing a little. The other lantern flickered and guttered. “Plus - we’ve heard a rumor that there was new info on what the First War in Heaven was about, and that it doesn’t make the side of the Angels look too great in retrospect.”
Crowley allowed himself a knowing grin. “I won’t say you’re wrong,” he said, “but who did you hear that from?”
“No one’s sure,” the rat demon admitted. “But everyone’s heard it by now. Is it true? Did they cut us down because they were scared of us, not because we rose up against them?”
“That’s actually pretty accurate,” Crowley agreed. A breeze blew out a candle by the window; if they hadn’t all been demons, it would be too dark to see.
“And you know who it was, for you,” marveled a demon with salt-and-pepper hair and a startlingly strong jawline.
“And it’s the angel you were assigned against up here for so long,” Legion added.
“Yup,” Crowley said, watching the other lantern give up and wink out. Either this place was draftier than it felt, or something that wanted darkness was coming.
The demon with the trap jaw snarled, “Why haven’t you discorporated him, then?”
“It’s not that simple,” Crowley tried to explain. “We and the angels weren’t separate, before. The angel that cut you down, and you - you were the same person, before that happened.”
A general murmur of incomprehension filled the room. The last candle flame turned to a thread of smoke.
“But how -” Legion started.
Before he could complete that question, Exinolas’s voice burst into a shout just behind Crowley’s eyeballs: Dagon’s here! She’s headed toward your building! Get out of there!
Crowley jumped up on one of the tables. “Shut up! Everyone, my lookout has just informed me that Dagon is on her way. I suggest we all get the Hell out of this place.”
The assembled demons erupted in screams. Two dove directly out the window; the rest stampeded for the door. Crowley twisted himself into his serpent-shape and joined those exiting via the window. Legion collapsed into a single body and threw himself against the fire escape door; an alarm sounded, and the entire building vomited humans and demons alike onto the street.
Abuataar sat up very straight. “A choir of angels has just manifested four blocks over,” he said.
Aziraphale didn’t ask how he knew; Abuataar was more finely attuned than he was to the presence of the agents of Heaven, possibly because he hadn’t spent as much time getting attuned to the Earth yet, possibly just by natural inclination, and possibly because Adam needed him to be. He was already on his feet by the time Abuataar had finished speaking. “Any idea who?” he asked.
“No one familiar,” Abuataar replied. “Do you think they’re here after the subway demons?”
“Perhaps,” Aziraphale said, opening the bookshop door. “But if they are, the last thing we want is them brawling in the streets and getting humans caught in the crossfire. Let’s go see if we can talk some sense into them.”
By the time they caught up with the choir, the angels were stalking down the middle of the street, swords and wings displayed and arrayed, clearly marching on a specific target. Their being in the middle of the street was not as dangerous as it would have been even thirty years earlier; the long fad of personal vehicle ownership was finally on its way out, at least in London. Still, they were eventually going to present an obstacle to some passing bus or delivery van, and their determination left no doubt as to who would get the worst of that collision.
The humans on the sidewalk were giving them a wide berth. Whether they could see the wings or the swords was unclear, but seven beings in well-tailored suits and perfect hair marching in formation still communicated a substantial threat.
Aziraphale managed to get in front of them. “Pardon me,” he said, in a not-very-apologetic tone, “but where are you going, and why are you wandering around armed in front of human civilians?”
The angels broke ranks, letting the heavenly being in the middle of the formation step to the front. “I don’t have to tell you a damned thing, Aziraphale,” spat Uriel.
“I’m afraid I have to insist,” Aziraphale replied, not moving.
“You’re a fire-breathing, demon-loving matter-eater, and if you don’t get out of the way, we will cut you into pieces,” Uriel said, punctuating the last phrase with a short, sharp slash of their sword. “I know it won’t kill you for good, no matter how much you deserve it, but let’s see if the Antichrist can make you a new body.”
“Well, he’s done it once already,” Aziraphale noted. “Or did Gabriel leave that out of his report?” He continued to not move. He did, however, hunt for the spark of Crowley that glittered in the inner folds of his soul.
He was not entirely surprised to find Crowley doing the same.
Crowley had successfully made it to ground level and was looking for a good spot to stop being a snake again. One of the problems with the continuing automation of everything was that the kinds of things one might normally find in the alley behind a questionable restaurant - rubbish bins, barrels of spent cooking oil, broken pallets - were cleaned up and carted off by public sanitation robots at regular intervals. The alley stank of spoiled tomatoes and rotten lettuce, but there was nothing to hide behind.
His head was very, very full. Exinolas was shouting that she couldn’t find him. Aziraphale’s feathers were gently brushing the inside of his skull. And he could feel Dagon’s presence, but it was diffuse, as if she were spreading herself thin over a large area. It was rather a lot to ask a snake’s brain to handle
He slithered further down the alley, towards where he thought the bins might normally be. The stench of rotting food grew stronger - putrid beef, onions gone to mush, dead fish -
Did the sandwich shop serve fish?
“Oh, there you are, Crowley,” said Dagon, scooping him up in both hands. “Stop hissing, I need to talk to you.”
“About what?” he gurgled. The snake’s mouth was not easy to form English words with; it took half a miracle to speak at all.
“Well, I need to interrogate you about this uprising against the Dark Council you’re leading,” she said, pinning him to the wall with his tail dangling to the ground. “But first, I need to vent, and you’re the first person who might listen that I’ve gotten to sit still long enough to do it.”
“Can I get my legs back under me first?” Crowley asked. There’s a Prince of Hell in the back alley, he tried to send to both Exinolas and Azriaphale.
“No.” Dagon plucked a cigarette from her jacket, stuck it in her mouth, and snapped her fingers to light it. “Did you mess with Hastur’s head, or was it losing Ligur that sent him around the bend?”
“Couldn’t tell you, honesstly,” Crowley answered. His scales scraped the cheap brick and poorly-applied paint of the wall behind him. “For my money, he was sstarting to come apart when he realized the kid at Megiddo wasn’t the Antichrisst, which technically was my fault, but it’s not like I did it to get one over on him.” A warm pulse at the back of his mind said message received, but he couldn’t tell who’d sent it.
“Shit.” Dagon took a long drag off the cigarette and blew smoke directly in Crowley’s face. “I knew centuries ago he was intending to make a play for a seat on the Council eventually, but I figured he’d either be dead first or he’d be doing it from a war hero footing.” She tapped the ash off entirely too close to Crowley’s nose.
Crowley failed to blink. “Are you trying to intimidate me with that?” he asked. “Is the idea that ssince I ssurvived holy water, maybe Hellfire will do the trick?” There, that pulse was Aziraphale; great, it wasn’t just demons running around now, either.
“I should be so lucky,” Dagon grunted, venting smoke through her gills. “No, I’m just assuming a cigarette burn will still hurt. What happened to Beelzebub when they came up here to talk to you?”
“Nothing much,” Crowley lied.
“Bullshit,” snarled Dagon. “I’m not above breaking your ribs, dickhead.”
That was an astonishing amount of profanity, at least for Dagon’s usual level of decorum. “They tried to get into Aziraphale’s shop,” Crowley said, watching her face tighten. “While Gabriel was trying to get Aziraphale to - you know, I’m not positive what he was trying to convincsse him to do; he never got to the point.”
Dagon jammed the cigarette back into her mouth and smacked herself in the forehead. “Did he take a swing at them?”
“I think they actually took a sswing at him first, but yeah, there was a tusssle,” Crowley agreed. “It got messsy, then Aziraphale and I kicked them both out while they were exhausted from each other.”
“They’ve been sulking ever since,” Dagon complained. “Satan’s wings, will you tell your hedgehog girlfriend to come out here instead of listening from the other side of the door?”
“Girlfriend?” Crowley was genuinely lost for a second. “Oh, you mean Exinolass. It’s not like that, but - hit it!”
Exinolas slammed the restaurant’s service door open and flung a full garbage bag directly at Dagon’s head. Dagon dodged it expertly, but let go of Crowley to do so; he and Exinolas immediately vanished in a flash of demonic vapor, leaving her alone in the alley with the trash.
They landed about a block away; Crowley untwisted his form back into the one with legs, and hit the ground running.
“Legion was headed for the bus stop,” Exinolas explained.
“That’s the sssame direction as Aziraphale,” Crowley noted. “And he said they already had company.”
“Every human on this street has been living on borrowed time for decades,” Uriel snapped. “What do I care if there are casualties, if it diminishes the forces of Hell?”
Aziraphale sighed. There was something very familiar about this argument. “Do you genuinely not believe we have any responsibility towards them at all?” he asked.
“Only to the virtuous,” Uriel replied, “and they’re supposed to get their reward in Heaven. They would, if you’d let us kill the brat.”
“If you mean Adam, we’re hardly capable of letting him do anything, or stopping him if he chooses to do something,” Aziraphale explained. “If you made a serious attempt to kill him, I have no doubt you’d be going back Upstairs without a body, whether we were there or not.”
Uriel looked like they’d just eaten a bad oyster. “I’m sick of talking to you,” they said. “If you’re going to fight us, fight us. If not, get out of the way.”
“I will not,” Aziraphale said. “My duty is to the innocent bystanders.”
“Mine, too,” said Abuataar.
Uriel apparently hadn’t noticed him. “I remember you,” they growled. “You were in Sandalphon’s regiment. Why are you here?” They sniffed. “You smell like demon just as much as the soft one, here. How have both of you not Fallen?”
“Oh, we can answer that one,” Aziraphale said cheerfully. “It turns out that the idea that an angel can fall individually, after The Fall, the big one, is just untrue. The problem wasn’t rebellion, you see. The problem was a - well, it’s hard to boil it down to a sentence, but it was a loss of faith, not so much in the Almighty but in each other, and in ourselves.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Uriel started to object, but they were interrupted by Legion and about a dozen demons racing out of an alleyway and into the street ahead of them.
Legion saw them first, and came to a dead stop. “Oops,” he whispered. Several of the demons also came to a halt behind him; three or four kept running.
“Oh, look,” one of the angels behind Uriel said dryly, “they’ve come to us. How polite of them.”
Crowley and Exinolas rounded the corner behind the angels, running full tilt, with another ten demons hot on their heels. “Oh, great,” Crowley muttered. “This is going to be messy.”
“We’ve lost about a third of them,” Exinolas huffed back. “I hope -”
Dagon stalked out of an import shop. A trail of demons followed her onto the pavement, heads down, looking thoroughly chastised.
“Nevermind,” Exinolas spat, as if it were a curse.
Dagon ignored the angels entirely. “Oh, there you are, Crowley,” she said, marching up to him. “Here -” She gestured, and tendrils of seaweed erupted from the asphalt underneath him, pinning his feet in place. “You didn’t let me finish.”
The angels slowly backed into a circle. Aziraphale realized abruptly that, from their perspective, they were now outnumbered and surrounded, which was going to make them even more dangerous if they panicked.
If Dagon noticed them, she didn’t let on. “Where was I?” she mused. “Oh, right, Beelzebub has lost all interest in running the day-to-day affairs of Hell. It’s as if, with no fresh souls coming in, they feel like there’s no point. And it’s gotten immeasurably worse since their run-in with you two.”
Uriel’s eyes brightened. “So, that’s confirmation that they’re having the same problem,” they said quietly to the circle of angels behind them. They glared at Aziraphale. “We suspected, of course, but now we know for sure.”
That sounded strange to Aziraphale. Hadn’t Gabriel outright stated that he knew Hell was having the same problem? He certainly did after merging with Beelzebub. Had he not let the rest of the Archangels at least know that much?
“Sounds awful,” Crowley replied. “But then, Hell always sounds awful.” He tugged at the kelp bonds around his ankles; one broke, but was replaced by two more.
“It does,” Dagon agreed. “Hastur’s taken a seat on the Dark Council by force; I think I mentioned that already, didn’t I? He expects Lucifer to promote him to a Prince, but the Big Guy pretty much hasn’t done anything since his kid told him to fuck off and die, and it’s not like the rest of us are going to do anything to raise him up.” She tapped her foot. “What else? Oh, Asmodeus is completely off his rocker without any new souls to torture, he’s been issuing orders no one can make sense of, and we can’t even find Leviathan half the time; when we can find him, he’s making trouble for maintenance. And we keep losing personnel; the minor demons we send up here for information gathering just aren’t reporting back on time, sometimes ever. Very unprofessional of them.” She glared at the group behind her. “I think that’s it. So, congratulations, Crowley, the entire place is in disarray, and it’s your fault. Yours and the Antichrist’s, I mean.”
Uriel looked like they needed a pen to write all this down.
“Tough breaks,” Crowley said, sounding bored but still slightly sympathetic. “What do you intend to do about it?”
“Oh, me?” Dagon said, miracling another lit cigarette from somewhere. “Not a damned thing.”
“What?” Legion said out loud.
“That’s not my department, literally and figuratively,” Dagon said, her head wreathed in smoke. “See, if no one else is doing their job, I don’t see why I should keep doing mine. Sixty years of this bullshit is a nearly hundredth of my lifetime. That’s too much to waste swimming in place. I’m tired.” She took a deep drag, then dropped the cigarette and crushed it out with her heel. “I don’t intend to go back at all.” She searched for Legion in the crowd. “Not since angels cut me down.”
The subway demons all took in a collective breath.
Dagon spread her hands, as if to show she was unarmed. “I quit,” she said. “I want to join your group. I’m exhausted with Hell’s crap, I’m sick of being the only competent person down there now that Beelzebub has flaked out on me, and I’m not going to bother maintaining records that they never bother to do anything with anyway. I’m not positive Hastur could read them even if he wanted to. I am done. Finished. If you all have figured out something better to do with our time, I’m all ears.” She strode forward, towards Legion’s group, leading her faction behind her.
Uriel leaped to attention. “Halt, foul fiend!” they shouted, pushing past Abuataar.
“Why?” Dagon asked, not stopping. “You have no authority over me. Your side has no authority, period. We know the Almighty stopped talking to you, too.”
A gasp went up from demons and angels alike. Two of Uriel’s squadron glanced nervously at each other, then at Aziraphale. Aziraphale nodded in silent agreement.
Uriel took two strides and planted themselves in Dagon’s path. “You will halt when I tell you to halt, creature of the deepest pits,” they growled.
Exinolas dashed over to Abuataar’s side. Crowley grumbled, “No one wants to give me a hand? Anyone?” before manifesting his dagger and cutting the seaweed from his feet.
“Here,” Aziraphale blurted, “perhaps we could all sit down somewhere, hash this out properly, instead of brawling in the street.”
“Defend yourself, if you can!” Uriel shouted, charging towards Dagon with their sword upraised.
Atelerix Athnan suddenly towered over the crowd. “Cease this foolishness!” they shouted, bringing their hands together in a thunderous clap as the human witnesses shrieked and scattered. A whirlwind surrounded the angelic and demonic rabble, flinging dust and Dagon’s cigarette butt into the air.
When the wind settled, they were standing in a grassy field, with no witnesses save a handful of sheep. Atelerix Athnan glared down at the disarray of demons and angels, a substantial portion of whom were now crouched at their feet in terror. “Which part of ‘no brawling in public’ did you not understand?” they demanded.
Uriel gaped at them, then turned towards Aziraphale, then back to Dagon. “This is a Hellish trick,” they said, tightening their grip on their sword.
Dagon was slack-jawed. “That,” she said, pointing at Atelerix Athnan. Her eyes refocused on Uriel. “You.”
“What are you babbling about, demon?” Uriel snarled. “Just die!” They charged again, swinging wildly.
Dagon sidestepped and let Uriel’s charge take them past her into the tall grass. “You did this,” she whispered. A trident and net appeared in her hands. “You cut me down.”
The other angels eyed the milling crowd of demons uneasily. Aziraphale fixed them in place with a stern look.
The demon with the heavy jaw and the salt-and-pepper hair cried out, a wordless, choking noise of anguish. A trembling finger pointed at the angel who had stood at Uriel’s left shoulder.
Uriel pivoted and slashed down, clipping the sleeve of Dagon’s jacket. “I may not be able to do anything about the rebels who won’t Fall properly over there,” they shouted, “and I may not be able to find the Antichrist, but I can kill you, demon, and all your filthy minions!”
“You’re a moron,” Dagon replied. Before Uriel could recover from the swing, Dagon thrust her trident into the flesh of the archangel’s shoulder; off-balance, Uriel tried to turn away and found their sword arm tangled in Uriel’s net. “I must have gotten all the brains,” Dagon finished.
“What Hellish nonsense are you talking about?” Uriel demanded, trying to twist away from the trident and getting the barbs more thoroughly stuck instead. Rose-gold blood dripped onto their wings.
The angel who had stood at Uriel’s left took a few faltering steps forward. “I remember,” she said. The salt-and-pepper demon charged at her, screaming incoherently, arms wide open.
“Watch,” Dagon said, yanking the net to turn Uriel towards the pair.
The angel and the demon collided and tumbled backwards into the grass. A second later, a flare of light and shadows rippled across the meadow, and the Fourth of the Unsundered clambered awkwardly to their feet.
A pulse of violet light washed over both Dagon and Uriel.
Other cries went up, cries of recognition, of betrayal, of grief, of forgiveness. The Fifth and Sixth arose.
Two of the remaining angels turned their faces upward, beat their heavy wings, and fled upwards, disappearing. Uriel flexed their wings, as if to follow them.
“Oh, no,” Dagon snarled. “You don’t get out of this that easily. Tell me, why did you do it?”
“I’ve done nothing to you yet,” Uriel growled back.
Dagon gaped, mouth comically wide. “You can’t be serious,” she said. “You just saw - look at me, Archangel!”
Aziraphale and Crowley edged towards the pair. “You can’t force it to happen,” Aziraphale warned. “We can be - stubborn. Even once we know.”
“There’s nothing to know,” Uriel blurted. “I’m not like you. I’m not - corrupted.” Their wings trembled.
“Oh, for Hell’s sake,” Dagon groaned, yanking the trident out of Uriel’s shoulder. “Of course you’re not. I’m your corruption.”
Uriel blinked. “What do you mean?” they asked, glancing between Dagon’s face and Aziraphale’s.
Dagon sighed. “The giants over there, that’s what we were all like, Before. You don’t remember, even having seen them?” she asked.
“The - giants?” Uriel’s mouth was working as if it had gone dry. “You - us?”
Aziraphale and Crowley nodded. “Like this,” they said, reaching for each other and swirling into Alpha Rhaphiolepis.
Uriel’s eyes swept over them, half-glazed and frantic. “Why,” they said, finally. “Why - no one ever told me - I don’t understand.”
Dagon dropped the net. “I think I can fix that,” she said, offering a hand.
Uriel stared at it with wide, liquid eyes. Their arm twitched. With a mighty convulsion, they tore away and bolted, carried upwards on white wings and disappearing into the sun so quickly no one could react in time. Their sword glinted on the ground where they’d dropped it.
“So close,” Dagon cursed.
As she picked Uriel’s sword up, a dronecab buzzed over a copse of trees and landed in the corner of the meadow. It disgorged a middle-aged woman who strongly resembled Anathema, and a somewhat younger man in glasses and impressive dreadlocks.
Alpha Rhaphiolepis quietly dissolved back into Aziraphale and Crowley again. “How did they get here so fast?” Aziraphale asked.
The woman strode over the meadow towards the assembled crowd of demons, angels, and members of the reunified host. “Good afternoon!” she sang out. “I’m Adiaphora Pulsifer-Device, this is my good friend Kestrel Moonchild-Wensleydale, and we’re the high priestess and high priest of the Tadfield Coven and Halfway House for Wayward Occult and Ethereal Beings.” She beamed, as if she’d been waiting to say this for a long time. “And I’ve been expecting you!”
“Well, then,” Crowley said. “That’s how. Takes after her many-greats-grandmother a bit.”
“Anathema did always say she had a talent for divination,” Aziraphale mused.
Kestrel, who also looked more like his mother than his father, gestured over his shoulder. “We’ve got a comfy place for you all to stay, at least until you’ve gotten accustomed to life on Earth,” he announced. “It’s going to take a bit for you to learn the customs of human society, and I’ll be honest, it’s really just going to be this particular wedge of it; if you want to move somewhere else, there’ll be a lot more to figure out.” He looked up at Atelerix Athnan and grinned. “But I think it’ll be worth it. So far, we’ve found that Earth is a nice place to stay. Of course, you’re not obligated; if you want, you can leave whenever you like.”
Atelerix Athnan clapped their hands with significantly less force than before. “Who’s ready to learn about teatime?” they said. “That’s been one of our favorites.”
Crowley glanced at Dagon. “You going with them?” he asked. “Or are you going home?”
“I am never, ever going back to Hell,” Dagon snapped. “I will drink holy water before I go back there.”
Aziraphale recoiled, thinking of all the times he’d imagined Crowley doing exactly that since 1862.
“Your choice whether you join them or not, of course,” Crowley mused, “but I think this will be more tolerable with company.”
Dagon stared at him, unblinking, as Atelerix Athnan began herding the crowd in the direction Adiaphora and Kestrel pointed. “Crowley,” she said carefully, “they’re demons.”
Aziraphale smiled at that. “Demons can actually be quite pleasant company, if you give them half a chance,” he said, grinning at Crowley.
“Once they get out of the habit of being Hellish to each other for survival,” Crowley added, “most of them are actually decent people, or at least as decent as angels.” A flicker of memory crossed his face, and he frowned. “There are some exceptions, but as a rule, it’s true.”
“I see,” Dagon said. She watched the crowd slowly moving loosely westward. “I suppose,” she continued, “that at this point I don’t have anything to lose.”
“I can also pretty much guarantee that you’ll get to meet the Antichrist if you stay here,” Crowley said, strolling in the direction of Tadfield. “This is his hometown, although he spends a lot of time in London and abroad these days.”
Dagon’s features settled into resignation. “I suppose it’s the best of a set of unsatisfactory options,” she said. “Does he take much after his father?”
“Well,” Crowley hedged, “no, not really. Much more reasonable, honestly.”
Aziraphale reached for Crowley’s arm. “If we hurry,” he pointed out, “we can discuss this all over tea at the covenstead.”
“Hold on just a minute,” Crowley replied. He held the picture of what he was looking for clearly in his head as he jogged over to a wizened bramble of a tree in the corner of the meadow. It was early for the season, but he was an expert at getting exactly what he wanted from a plant, and anyway, he and these trees had an understanding.
“What is he doing?” Dagon asked, watching Crowley hunt through the branches.
Aziraphale suppressed a grin. “I think he’s getting something so we can show you how to eat. Have you ever eaten before? Matter, I mean.”
Crowley sauntered back with his pockets bulging. He produced an apple, sun-warm, rosy-cheeked, and just a bit lopsided, from inside his jacket. “Tempt you to a bite?” he said, handing that one to Dagon, then tossing one to Aziraphale and taking one for himself.
“These sorts of things are the easiest,” Aziraphale explained. “You just bite into them, chew, and swallow.” He demonstrated.
Dagon eyed Crowley warily. “I know what you’re doing,” she said. “I’m not stupid, you know.”
“It’s one of the easiest ways to start fitting in with the humans,” Crowley explained, and took a bite, letting a drop of juice drip down his chin.
Turning it over in her hands, Dagon shrugged and took the tiniest possible bite from her apple. She chewed for a moment, then sighed, swallowed, and took another nibble. “I see,” she said. “Seems like She would have taken that out, once she kicked them out of the Garden.”
“There are a lot of things you’d think She would have done that She hasn’t,” Crowley replied with a slight edge to his voice. “But I’ve never met an apple that didn’t at least remember me.”
Aziraphale didn’t fully understand what they were talking about, but he didn’t want to pry into demonic business. There were four angels in this group, three of whom had found their other halves and one who hadn’t. He and Abuataar were going to have explaining of their own to do.
He watched as Crowley continued to demonstrate compassion to his old demonic boss, someone who had been threatening to torture him less than an hour ago. Perhaps that was something that angels would do well to learn, too.
Chapter 10: Inquire Within
An interlude, with theological questions and pillow talk.
Crowley was pressed heavily against the headboard of Aziraphale’s bed, although whether he was aware of the carved wood, or the rumpled bedsheets, or indeed anything other than Aziraphale at the moment was highly questionable.
In what Aziraphale still called their ‘erotic explorations,’ partly because he wasn’t quite done with his list, but mostly because it always elicited a delectable eyeroll from Crowley, they had discovered that they were wired quite differently. Aziraphale was reliably good for exactly two orgasms per session, one fore, one aft, as he put it, regardless of whether he was energized or tired, full or hungry, happy or melancholy. Crowley, on the other hand, could be quite horny but left unable to make it over the edge by a variety of things, some of which Aziraphale could affect, but many of which were out of his grasp. He’d felt quite guilty the first time he’d failed to bring Crowley to completion, despite Crowley assuring him that there wasn’t anything for either of them to feel guilty about; it was just part of being fallen (small-f fallen, as it seemed to happen to humans with alarming frequency as well).
He’d felt much less guilty when he’d discovered the other side of that coin, one that he was currently polishing to a mirror finish.
One good phallic orgasm would finish Crowley off for the night, but one involving the other below-decks nerve cluster, in whatever configuration Crowley happened to be wearing it, was more of an indefinite beginning. As long as Aziraphale could thread the delicate balance between overstimulating him and letting him settle out of the peculiar interior space that first orgasm put him in, Crowley could just keep coming in slow rolling waves. It was fascinating both to watch and to feel from the outside, even if Aziraphale couldn’t quite imagine it for himself.
The angel was currently draped over Crowley’s back, pressing his face into Crowley’s coal-black feathers and maintaining his rhythm like a metronome, listening to the demon’s breathing in long slow gulps of air and moaning sighs. He had no idea how long they’d been like this, but the long slant of sunlight had crept halfway up the wall since they’d started.
Crowley shuddered, harder this time. Aziraphale tightened his arms around his husband and let his mind skate across Crowley’s consciousness. He didn’t want to press deeply enough to break Crowley’s focus, just enough to get a taste of what the body he was tending to was feeling. The echoes were equal parts comfortingly familiar and tantalizingly exotic, and tasted so singularly of Crowley’s own essence, Aziraphale couldn’t help trying to peek just a touch deeper.
Either he pushed just a little too deep, or Crowley was already swimming back up from the depths, because they met just below the surface level of consciousness. Crowley gleefully wrapped his mind around Aziraphale and opened his senses fully, which threw them both into a tremor of ecstasy and bodily fluids.
Aziraphale kissed Crowley’s neck and began reclaiming his limbs. “You were under for quite a while this time,” he noted. “It was delightful.”
“Mmm.” Crowley slithered down the headboard and curled around Aziraphale. “Problem is, once I’m down, time stops mattering.” He paused, opening one great yellow eye to look up at Aziraphale. “And matter stops timing, but that’s not as much of a language issue.”
“I lost track, myself,” Aziraphale admitted.
Crowley closed his eye again. For a moment, Aziraphale thought he’d fallen asleep, but then Crowley asked, “When was the last time you heard directly from the Almighty?”
Aziraphale pushed himself up on one elbow with some effort. “That’s hardly appropriate pillow talk.”
“It’s relevant, though.” Crowley curled into the space between Aziraphale’s neck and shoulder. “Wasn’t when She gave you the sword, was it?”
“No, it was when She asked me where the sword was,” Aziraphale answered. “I’m not even sure She said anything when She gave it to me, at least not directly to me. Possibly to the four of us as a group.”
Crowley opened both eyes and drew back slightly. “You’re not sure? Seems like that would be pretty important.”
Aziraphale trailed a finger down Crowley’s jaw to his throat and down to his clavicle. “A lot of what happened immediately after the Fall is - hazy. I know She told us what the swords were, but that was after Gabriel had already sent us down.” He paused, stroking Crowley’s shoulder. “You know, I don’t remember ever hearing Her voice in Heaven,” he added. “Only in Eden.”
Crowley nodded. “We all remembered, Below, that we had heard Her voice, and we knew we never would again,” he said. “That was part of the punishment. I’m beginning to think, though, that - I mean, Alpha’s memories are more of Her appointing the parts and conducting the choir than Her actually giving any direction to any of us.” He tucked up his feet. “Dagon is absolutely sure She’s been as silent in Heaven as in Hell for most of history; I’m not sure on what evidence she thinks that, but I’d come to the same conclusion on my own.”
“We’d assumed for a very long time that She was still speaking to the Archangels, or to Metatron, at least,” Aziraphale said, “but re-considering the available evidence, I’m more or less convinced you’re both right. I’d been wondering since the Reformation, myself.” Snagging a blanket and tucking it up around their legs, he chuckled, “What brought that on?”
“Because when you’re in me and I’m under like that,” Crowley sighed, closing his eyes again, “I can sometimes hear - not Her, not Her voice, but - maybe an echo of Her.” He smiled, a guileless grin entirely unlike any he wore in public. “It’s one of the three main reasons humans do that, you know, aside from the orgasms,” he yawned. “And, I suppose, babymaking, although that’s not relevant to us.”
Aziraphale cradled Crowley as he drifted off for real, and treasured this new revelation, pondering it in his heart.
Very faintly, he heard noises coming from the spare room above them, where they’d taken to keeping a futon for any wayward demons or angels that showed up. There had been a steady trickle from both sides, a handful of demons and an angel or two just about every year, since Dagon’s defection.
The demons all came with the watchword, They cut us down. It meant, it wasn’t our fault. It meant, we didn’t choose this. And once they’d been on Earth, met the coven, tasted apples and bread, and watched the sun rise and set, it meant, we don’t have to live like this any more, we don’t have to treat each other this way.
The rumor that passed around the outer corridors of Heaven was different. The lowest ranks of angels, the rank-and-file guardians of the blessed and the ferryers of prayers, when no seraph or Archangel could hear them, whispered we can’t Fall. Behind closed doors, they wrote their wings are still white on the dry-erase boards in the meeting rooms and then wiped them clean.
And if it simply wasn’t possible to Fall, perhaps that meant they didn’t have to obey, either.
Crowley made a point of offering each angel an apple personally. Aziraphale wasn’t sure if it was symbolic. Well, no, he knew it was quite a potent symbol; the question was whether it had any effect other than just as a signifier. Maybe that was enough.
Aziraphale had watched a dozen angels take the apple, bite it, close their eyes and shudder - and then check their wings, still as white or as cream or as golden as ever.
The couple above them, an angel with straight black hair and the bearing of someone who has never felt good enough, and a grey-haired demon with a pigeon’s aspect, weren’t two halves of a whole. They had fallen in love anyway. That had happened a couple of times, and they had agreed to share each other with whoever their other halves happened to be.
Abuataar had admitted, with a touch of shame, that he hadn’t imagined that was possible, that a demon could love anyone other than their other half. Crowley had proceeded to give him Hell for that, and Aziraphale couldn’t blame him. How much of that was on Exinolas’s behalf, he wasn’t sure.
They were, and had been, very, very lucky to find each other among the ten thousand. Or, perhaps, it had been intended. Certainly he didn’t know.
If Crowley, the Serpent of Eden himself, heard echoes of Divine Love when he was entranced with Lust and ecstasy, did that mean they all could, under the right circumstances?
Had She been speaking all this time, and they had somehow failed to hear her?
Short one this time. I might have to divide what was originally chapter 13 into two parts - I hope no one will be too upset if this ends up being 16 chapters instead of 15.
Chapter 11: Resting Places
Adam discusses the trials of immortality with the Ineffables.
Adam pushed open the door to the bookstore and groaned. He’d had to age himself up for this journey; as he slouched across the floor, his hair went from white to golden and from close-cropped to his usual unkempt curls. “Ugh, that was awful,” he said, removing his suit jacket and dropping into Aziraphale’s best chair. “How was Dog? Did he give you any trouble?”
“Not at all, except for one moment when he tried to chew on the rug,” Aziraphale answered. “He thought better of it soon enough. I suspect it doesn’t taste very good.” He held up a steaming kettle. “Tea? Or would you like something stronger?”
“I’m going to have to go swimming in my own head in just a bit, I think,” Adam replied. “So I probably shouldn’t have anything that’s going to make that harder.” He rubbed his face with his hands, as if to chase the last of the wrinkles away.
Crowley descended the staircase. Capes had come back into fashion this autumn, and he dove into the style with glee; he was currently wearing a hip-length capelet of a soft, black, fuzzy, and completely artificial fabric lined in nubbly red silk, and it fluttered behind him dramatically as he stepped off the stairs with Dog at his heels. “What, or who, do you need to go in after?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you when I find it,” Adam said, reaching down to scratch Dog behind the ears. Dog’s appearance had evolved slowly over time, adapting to Adam’s circumstances; it seemed to change faster when it was being cared for by the Tadfield coven or by Abuataar and Exinolas than when it was with Adam, or with Aziraphale and Crowley. Currently Dog looked like a cocker spaniel, a breed that was currently experiencing a surge of popularity, which at least made him fairly anonymous.
“All right, be mysterious, then,” Crowley said, flopping onto the sofa and putting his feet up as Aziraphale arrived with the tea set.
Adam whispered some vague endearments to Dog as Aziraphale poured three cups and offered sugar to the other two. They sipped in silence for a few minutes.
Setting his cup down with a clink, Adam said, “You both have a lot more experience being immortal than I do. At what point do the funerals get easier?”
Crowley’s face went blank.
Aziraphale set his own cup carefully on its saucer and rubbed his hands together. “They never actually get easy,” he started, “but for me, at least, they stopped being devastating about eight hundred years in.” He toyed with the sugar tongs. “It also depends on how much you’re interacting with individual humans, and whether - what their ultimate destination is.”
“At the moment, their ultimate destination is me,” Adam pointed out. “Which softens the blow, I guess. I wish I could just tell people that, but ‘Oh, hello, your mother or grandfather is fine, just having a nap in the back of my brain’ isn’t really going to come across the way I want.” He took a sip, grimaced, and added another lump of sugar. “Then again, I don’t know if all the talking about Heaven really makes them feel any better, either, and it makes me itchy to hear it when I know it isn’t true.”
“At least it’s better than knowing someone’s being tortured, and you’re part of the reason why,” Crowley broke in, sitting up straight. “I don’t think they ever got easier. I tried not to go if I could possibly get away with it.”
Adam sloshed the tea around in his cup. “Not exactly what I wanted to hear,” he admitted. “But thank you for not sugar-coating that.”
“Look at it this way,” Aziraphale offered. “You’ll become an expert critic of funeral services. Perhaps you could write a book on What Not To Do.”
“Nobody’s written a book in forty years, Uncle Aziraphale,” Adam said, allowing himself a half-smile. “But maybe a series of holovids explaining how to not alienate grieving people.” He drained his cup. “Brian’s was terrible. He was downright horrified about the whole thing, wouldn’t shut up for the entire service, and I don’t blame him a bit. I had to go around later reassuring everyone that his son’s wife’s weird religious views weren’t representative of anything Brian and Lucas believed.”
“I did like Pepper’s,” Crowley said, grinning. “I hadn’t realized how close Abuataar and Kestrel had gotten. If you’d told me that I’d be attending a memorial service run by an angel, I would never have imagined that.”
“You could say that,” Adam snorted. “She made me get up and dance, can you imagine?”
“I thought it was quite representative of her,” Aziraphale noted. “Did you want us for the deep dive, or were you going to leave that to the Coven Internal?”
Adam grinned again. The Coven Internal had started off as a joke. It had turned out that being a medium, even a mediocre one, was exceptionally good practice for being a go-between for an Antichrist and the individual souls he absorbed when there were too many for him to keep track of; Madame Tracy (who had decided to return to her professional title for this particular job) had taken on the role almost as soon as she’d died. Anathema, when she’d arrived, had become the equivalent of the records department, keeping track of who was there, with all their names and dates. And while the brother he’d never met in life was still the only one who could possess him without difficulty, on the rare occasions when Adam needed to become someone else, they’d discovered that he could take over and then hand over control to another soul, with some assistance from Madame Tracy. Adam had decided that “two witches and a Warlock” was a coven as far as he was concerned; there was no rule against him having more than just the one.
Now, they genuinely did keep the multitudes within him organized in circles. It was impressive, even from the outside. “I’d like you here in case I need help coming back up,” Adam said, “but I think they can handle squireing me around through the inside of my head.”
“Of course,” Aziraphale said. He looked a trifle worried, but his voice was calm, even soothing.
“Must be quite a thing,” Crowley said quietly, “having a soul so big you could get lost in it.”
Adam laughed dryly. “Well, I didn’t choose it,” he admitted. “At least, not knowingly. But after a hundred years or so of being the Antichrist, I’ve gotten used to it.” He rubbed at his lip with one finger. “Although, Adiaphora thinks I’m evolving into something else. Remember your whole ‘human incarnate’ bit, back when I told the infernal deadbeat to sod off?”
“Yes,” they both said in unison. Aziraphale continued on his own, “I can’t tell you how relieved I was.”
“Well,” Adam went on, “you might have hit on something there. She thinks I might be turning into the Spirit of Humanity, like, of the whole human race as an entity, at least the ones who post-date my event horizon encompassing the world. She had a name for it, but I forgot how to pronounce it.” He shrugged. “On the one hand, there’s something a little colonialist about a white English-speaking male as the representative for all humankind, as Pepper might say, but on the other hand, it means I can kind of ease off on the balancing act in my head.” He closed his eyes; a bit of the air seemed to go out of him. “Which has gotten tiring lately. If I don’t visit the Tadfield coven often enough, they forget I’m real and start worshipping me, which is just awful for my ego.”
“You do have your own choir of celestials,” Aziraphale pointed out. “I can see how it would be an easy mistake for humans to make.” That earned him a very peculiar look from Crowley.
“I guess,” Adam groaned. “Okay, I’m going to go in. If I don’t come up after about an hour, send Alpha in after me. If I come up and I’m either acting weird or clearly not me, get Warlock to do his thing.”
“Got it,” Crowley said. Aziraphale nodded.
Adam kicked off his shoes and rearranged himself on the sofa with his whole body supported. He crossed his arms across his chest, made loose fists of his hands, and shifted his breathing as his eyes fluttered under his lids.
The air around them stirred; each mote of dust spun and glittered in a stately choreography as reality became aware that Something Important was Happening.
Crowley pushed himself out of his chair. “Mind if I -” he asked, gesturing vaguely.
“No, go right ahead,” Aziraphale answered, plucking his own sword from the ether and handing Crowley his dagger.
“Hold onto that for just a moment,” Crowley called back, rummaging around in one of Aziraphale’s many desk drawers. He came back with a censer, a block of charcoal, and a sachet of powder labeled in Kestrel’s firm block letters. “I know it’s mostly for ambiance,” he muttered, “but -”
“No, aesthetics are important,” Aziraphale agreed. “If occultism is going on, it should at least have some proper fragrant vapours, a chalked symbol or two, and perhaps a robe.”
“Right,” Crowley said, clearly relieved. “Not quite in the mood to robe up for this; I think the cape is good enough. Appreciate the thought, though.” He lit the charcoal with his fingers, then spent several minutes chalking sigils on the floor around Adam - mostly protective runes Anathema had taught them, mixed with a few demonic ones of his own. Carefully, he tipped the powder from the sachet into the censer, and walked around fanning the smoke into every corner. The bookstore had quite a few nooks with very little circulation; this took nearly half an hour.
Aziraphale waited until he’d found a coaster and set the censer down to hand him the dagger again. “At least it smells nice,” he said. “Reminds me a little of Persia in the 5th century.”
“I think that’s the myrrh and cinnamon,” Crowley agreed, reading the envelope the sachet had come from. “This also has a bunch of New World resins in it, too.”
“What exactly does it do?” Aziraphale asked, watching the last curls of smoke drift upwards and pivot under the hood of the reading lamp in tiny eddies.
“It’s for protection in a general sense,” Crowley said, summoning the sheath for the dagger and stowing it under his jacket. “Supposed to keep ill influences out.” He grinned. “Can’t be doing too good of a job; I’m still here.”
“As opposed to that time Anathema lit the giant bundle of sage while you were over,” Azirapahle remembered aloud.
Crowley snorted. “Can’t imagine how you can stand the smell of the stuff,” he retorted. “Or anyone can, for that matter.”
Adam’s hands fluttered. “Oh, he’s coming back up,” Aziraphale said, reaching for the teapot again.
“Actually,” Warlock’s voice said through Adam’s mouth, “he’s still talking to someone, or maybe multiple people, I lost track. Well, talking is the wrong word, but close enough. He wanted me to let you know things were going okay so far.” He opened Adam’s eyes and looked around. “This must be your place, Brother Francis,” he said, studying the bookshelves crowding around the sofa. “It’s nice. I think I like Nanny’s better, but this is nice, too.”
Aziraphale miracled another mug from the kitchen. “Thank you, Warlock,” he replied. “I’ve spent a long time on it. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Warlock flexed Adam’s hands carefully and sat up. “Sure,” he said. “What kind?”
“It’s a nice Assam,” Aziraphale said as he poured. “Not too earthy. A bit floral. I think you’ll like it. Do you still take milk and sugar?”
“I grew up into the Ugly American, remember,” Warlock answered with a grin. “If I thought you had it, I’d ask for lemon.”
Aziraphale suppressed a melancholy comment about Warlock not truly getting the chance to grow up at all, and focused on not spilling the milk. Crowley’s expression said he was thinking the same; even if Aziraphale hadn’t had the ability to eavesdrop on his surface thoughts, it would have been clear as day.
“How’s life working internally for the Antichrist?” Crowley asked.
“Just fulfilling my destiny, just like you wanted, Nanny,” Warlock said, wrinkling Adam’s nose. He took the teacup from Aziraphale and stared into its milky depths. “All joking aside, though, I feel a lot more like I’m doing something meaningful and important than I did when I was still alive. Like I’m a part of something bigger. I mean, I literally am, but - it’s hard on Adam, sometimes, being a half-demonic chthonic demigod. It’s too much to ask one person to deal with, not that anyone ever really asked. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help him out, you know?” He drained half the cup. “And I was only half-joking a minute ago. This is what you raised me for, even if none of us guessed it would work out this way.”
Crowley looked like he was having several feelings at once and wasn’t prepared to deal with any of them. “D’you have any idea why you can do that,” he said, indicating Warlock’s current casual inhabitance of Adam’s body, “while it takes all Madame Tracy can do, and an act of Parliament besides, to get anyone else to even use Adam’s vocal cords?”
Warlock’s eyes turned shifty. “No,” he said slowly, “although I’ve spun up at least three different wild theories about it. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because we do have a family connection, even if we didn’t really realize it before.”
“Sensible,” Aziraphale agreed. “Although if you wanted to share one of the less plausible theories, I’d love to hear it.”
Warlock chewed on Adam’s lip for a second. “Well,” he started, “I think I might be in love with him.”
Crowley made a noise somewhere between a hoot and a sneeze and slithered out of his chair. His cape caught on the arm and flopped over his head.
“Yeah, yeah,” Warlock sighed. “I know. It’s stupid. Even if I were alive - except I guess I wouldn’t be at this point, anyway.”
“It’s not stupid,” Crowley corrected him, levering himself back to standing. “How long?”
“I’ve had a crush on him since I landed in him,” Warlock answered. “Not sure when that - matured? Mellowed out? I don’t even know what the right words are.”
Aziraphale contemplated the sugar bowl. “Have you said anything to him about it?” he asked.
“No,” Warlock assured him, “although, I mean, I’m part of him, right, so he could - if he thought about the part of him that’s me in the right way, he’d notice.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ugh, this is hard to talk about. Also, I think Madame Tracy figured it out, but she hasn’t brought it up, either. And I’m not sure that’s what it is, because I don’t have a body of my own, and so much of my experience of being-in-love is about hormones, so I don’t know for sure that this is the same thing?” He sighed. “It might be worship; I have even less experience with that. I’m not making much sense, am I?”
Aziraphale glanced at Crowley, then at a shelf laden with biographies of the saints. “Those aren’t necessarily separate things,” he noted.
Crowley crouched next to Warlock. “They’re really not,” he agreed. “But that’s a Hell of a situation there. Are you okay with it?”
“With being in love with Adam?” Warlock asked. “I mean, I’m resigned to it being unrequited; I can’t imagine how anything as big as he is could love me ba- . . . .” He trailed off, watching Aziraphale’s eyes. “Oh.”
Crowley scowled. “What?”
“I think I just realized something about you two,” Warlock said. “Maybe I should just be happy that I only have a demigod to pine after, and he’s always with me.”
Aziraphale wanted to argue with him, but was coming up blank.
Warlock sat up straighter. “And I think he’s done. Let me hand him back over.” He grinned, almost shyly; it was a strange look on Adam’s features. “Thanks for talking with me, Nanny, Brother; I think it helped.” His eyes rolled back; when they refocused, Adam was behind them again.
“I miss when I could just read the memories from the souls that join me without having to go hunting through a billion people,” Adam griped. “Okay, enough tea; do you have anything stronger that doesn’t taste like paint thinner?”
“How about a nice dessert sherry?” Aziraphale asked, collecting the tea mugs. “I don’t have anything too fancy at the moment, but there’s a very pleasant Moscatel in the cabinet.”
“Sounds great,” Adam said. “I didn’t find everything I was looking for, but I think I’m down to the blue-sky puzzle pieces - I can see most of the picture and I have the basic shape.”
“Cool,” Crowley said, sitting down again. “Going to share?”
“The basic idea,” Adam explained, “is that even in Christian mythology, Heaven and Hell aren’t the only places a soul can end up.” He accepted the delicate little goblet Aziraphale handed him. “If those places are real, then - can we get there? My realm started out as Tadfield. Now it’s the inner solar system. But maybe there are other places we need to be watching out for, other than just Heaven, Hell, and Earth.”
“A fascinating hypothesis,” Aziraphale said, setting the sherry bottle on the table and perching on his chair. “But how would we get there, if in fact they do exist?”
“I’ll tell you my plan as soon as I get my head together,” Adam sighed.
Crowley drained his glass. “Not that I think Anathema isn’t doing a spectacular job,” he said, “but if she could use some help, you do have the Lord of the Files herself on your team now.” He pursed his lips, then continued, “And I suspect she’s had a long enough vacation now that she’s itching to be useful, even if she hasn’t realized it.”
Adam chuckled. “I guess she’s been cataloging souls for longer than just about anyone,” he agreed. “Sure, I’ll ask her the next time I’m at the covenstead. Which probably ought to be tomorrow; I don’t have anything on the schedule, and I haven’t visited in a while. Anyone new at the halfway house?”
“One new demon,” Crowley said. “One of Leviathan’s usual crew. Says he’s disappeared entirely.”
Adam shook his head. “I knew already that morale in Hell was terrible,” he muttered, “because how could it not be, but every story we get makes it sounds like the whole place is disintegrating.”
“They’re in free fall,” Crowley agreed. “Heaven is at least managing to keep up appearances.”
“I just hope we haven’t overlooked a major player,” Adam mused.
Aziraphale quietly refilled their glasses.
Turns out I am going to have to split the original chapter 13 into two chapters (otherwise it was nearly a novelette in its own right), so this is going to end up being sixteen after all. Hope no one is too upset about that. Also, work is kicking my butt, so I might not get the next chapter edited properly before the weekend.
Chapter 12: Those Who Never Lived In Doubt Nor Tasted Fear
Adam and his crew search for the Third Realm between Heaven and Hell, and find a few old friends.
The skyscraper in whose lobby they were slowly assembling hadn’t yet been built the last time Aziraphale and Crowley had reported to their head offices, but the front entrances were unmistakable. Here, they manifested as a pair of turbolifts, gleaming brushed steel with frosted accent lights, one in blue, one in red. The red one had several broken LEDs behind the panel.
Adam, Crowley, Aziraphale, Abuataar, and Legion glanced around the lobby. It was curiously free of human traffic, despite being the middle of the day. It was almost as free of robotic traffic, which was even more astonishing.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Legion asked, under his breath.
“An entrance to the Third Realm,” Adam explained again. “Everyone agrees that if it exists at all, we should be able to get there from the same place we’d get to Heaven and Hell from, and in London, that’s here.”
Abuataar frowned. “So, a secret lift?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Adam admitted. “Right now, I know for certain it exists, and I’m about 90% sure that there’s an entrance here. But I have no idea what it looks like.”
“Maybe we should split up,” Abuataar suggested. “That way we can cover more ground before someone spots us.”
“Way ahead of you,” Legion replied, dividing into half a dozen bodies. They spun off in ones and twos, scrutinizing the lobby and the highly polished hallways leading from it.
By the time Exinolas and a dozen of the subway demons had joined them, Crowley was starting to doubt there was anything to find. The ground floor of the building was a bewildering mix of steel, chrome, and glass, but other than a security cyborg (who had just coincidentally failed to notice them enough times that they were in danger of swiss-cheeseing his memory permanently), the cashier at the coffee bar, and a small army of custodial robots, they appeared to be the only ones here, and all the glass doors opened onto empty conference rooms.
“Any luck?” Exinolas asked him, as he ran into Legion again.
“Maybe we should check another floor,” Legion suggested. “I bet there’s another lobby on the mezzanine level.” He sipped at his coffee. “They might have biscotti up there, too. This kiosk’s out.”
Crowley turned in a circle. “Not a bad idea,” he admitted. “Not exactly looking forward to climbing the stairs, though.” He turned down the corridor towards the custodial robots again.
Legion trailed after him. “We could take the lift, just for a floor,” he suggested, tossing his cup into a bin and gesturing back towards the lobby with an elbow. “It’d give them a proper scare, wouldn’t it?”
“We don’t want them knowing we’re here,” Exinolas argued.
Crowley turned another corner; he could hear the maglev motors echoing in the elevator shafts behind the wall. “They’ll have seen us on their security cameras by now,” he said. “At least, Upstairs will. No idea if anyone’s paying enough attention Downstairs.” He leaned against the steel paneling and studied the wall in front of him. “Sss,” he murmured, as his eyes lit on a doorknob.
Exinolas shifted uncomfortably. “Why are we staring at a broom closet?” she asked.
“It’s probably not a broom closet,” Legion offered. “A maintenance-only door back here is probably an access port to the turbolift shafts.” His eyebrows jumped. “Access port, right, I see where you’re going with this.”
Shrugging, Crowley explained, “Doors that say ‘maintenance only’ are usually good to me. Pulled off a lot of my best temptations by going through doors like that. I missed this one the first two times I passed it, and I haven’t seen a single robot go through it since we got here.”
“Maintenance means something to you, does it?” Exinolas asked thoughtfully. “You know, I’ve studied some human mythology, and while there are a lot of ways to classify their gods, one of the ways I really liked was to divide them into gods of creation, gods of destruction, and the gods who maintain things in between. So, you know, if we’re looking for the third realm, that’s a good word for it.”
Another aspect of Legion came around the corner, herding Adam and Aziraphale. “Michael is standing on the mezzanine landing,” Aziraphale announced. “Watching us. Please be careful around the lobby.”
“She’s not doing anything; she’s just watching,” Adam clarified. “She’s not even calling anyone, as far as I can tell. What did you find?”
“Not sure we’ve found anything,” Crowley said. “The thing is, we missed this door several times, even though it’s right here. Seemed a little suspicious, is all.”
Adam examined the door. “Sure, let’s try it,” he agreed, turning the doorknob. It clicked obediently. “Not locked,” Adam added, unnecessarily, as the door opened.
There was nothing on the other side.
No elevator shaft, no broom closet, no machine room, no servers. Nothing. A grey, empty expanse lay behind the door, stretching to infinity.
Adam glanced back into the corridor. “Well, I was expecting something more impressive,” he admitted, “but it looks like this door goes somewhere, all right.”
“If you’d like,” Aziraphale offered, “two of us can carry you.” While he’d seen Adam levitating often enough, it did require that there be ground to push against somewhere below him.
“Not necessary,” Adam said, grinning. “I’ve been wanting to try this for a while.” He pressed his hands together, wriggling his shoulders; a pair of wings fountained from his back, brilliant red along the leading edge, shading into yellow and green, with long, brilliant blue pinions. Folding them enough to fit through the door, he dove off into the nothing.
A few seconds later, he swooped back into view and hovered a few feet from the door. “That was actually kind of underwhelming,” he said. “There’s a floor, or at least a surface, about five meters down. You just can’t see it because of all the fog. Come on, let’s go.”
Fluttering on half-spread wings, a long line of demons interspersed with angels jumped down from the doorsill and landed in a thick miasma, a grey vapor that obscured Crowley’s own hands when he held them at arm’s length.
Aziraphale kept watch until everyone else was through. As he jumped, he reached back to close the door behind him, and felt his wings brush against something. He turned in the air; the sliver of artificial light between the door and the frame gave him the briefest glimpse of Michael before it snapped shut.
Wheeling around, he waited on beating wings, wondering if he needed to draw his sword from the ether, but the door did not open again. There was no knocking.
She hadn’t looked surprised, or angry. If anything, her expression had been weariness, perhaps rinsed with a splash of sorrow. Then again, he might have been misinterpreting.
He dropped into the fog on snowy wings. Bright as they were, he couldn’t see Adam’s macaw feathers, much less anything else; he found them by feeling for Adam’s and Crowley’s auras in the vapor.
“Michael spotted me,” he said as he landed. “I don’t think she followed.”
“I hope not, but we’ll deal with it if she does,” Adam said. “We think there’s something this way. At least, it feels like there might be something more solid in this direction. I almost wish we’d brought something to mark the door with.”
Crowley licked his fingers and leaned down, searing a sigil into the floor with unholy fire. “Dunno how long that’ll stay,” he said, “but we’ll be able to find it until it wears away.”
“Sure, good enough.” Adam turned slowly, as if he were listening for something, then marched off. Aziraphale and Crowley flanked him; the others followed.
The fog, it turned out, was not completely featureless after all; bands with near-zero visibility alternated with patches where Crowley could see nearly ten meters away. It hung in the air and formed vortices as they passed, spinning around their wings. In spots it was colder. But no matter how far they marched, it was constantly there, muffling sounds and obscuring all details.
That was how the building snuck up on them. By the time they could see it, they were nearly walking into it. A wall loomed up in front of them, a slightly darker grey than the fog and much more solid; it had no doors or windows, but even through the mist, it clearly had a roof - the wall didn’t go up forever.
Adam pressed an ear to its surface. “I think there’s someone inside,” he said. “Anyone have thoughts on going around to the left or the right?”
“Left,” Legion said. “I think I see a corner, or something like it.”
He was right, although it took them ten more minutes’ walking to find it. This side of the building was slightly less nondescript; the surface was less glassy, almost textured. It didn’t take much more searching to find a door, although it was enormous, a massive sliding thing that was almost more like a section of wall that could be rolled away.
It, too, was not locked. Aziraphale and another angel put their shoulders against it and shoved, opening it just wide enough for Adam to walk through without folding up his wings.
“Hello?” he called. There was no echo; the building swallowed sound nearly as well as the fog.
Crowley and Aziraphale pushed in behind him. The building was a single room, like a warehouse or an airplane hangar, gigantic and abandoned-looking. There was light inside, which surprised them both at least a little; it didn’t seem to have any particular source, casting no shadows. A few shadowy figures were just visible, quite a long way from the entrance and not yet paying them any attention.
Adam squinted and waved at them. “Hello,” he called out again. “Are you in charge of this place?”
“No,” a gravelly voice called back. “No one’s really in charge here, and the owner’s out.”
Crowley stumbled over his feet as the voice rattled around his head and dropped neatly into a slot. “That can’t be,” he whispered.
The figure that had replied turned to face them directly. “Crowley?” he asked.
Trying to recover his footing, not entirely successfully, Crowley gasped, “Ligur?”
“It is you!” Ligur yelped, breaking into a run.
Crowley took a few steps towards him, still looking like he was about to topple over at any second. “But - how -”
Ligur leapt for him and landed a bare-knuckled left hook directly on Crowley’s jaw. “That’s for your dirty tricks with the holy water!” he growled as Crowley went down.
Aziraphale vaulted over Crowley’s prone form, sword instantly in hand. “Get away from him,” he barked, “or I will relieve you of your fists, permanently.”
“Easy, easy, angel,” Crowley said, pushing himself up with one hand and wiping a dark trail of ichor from his lip. “He gets one for free, I owe him that much.” He gestured sloppily at Ligur. “Besides, it wouldn’t do much; he doesn’t really have a body at the moment.”
Whatever anger had been in Ligur’s eyes a moment ago was now replaced with relief. “Crowley!” he shouted. “You old bastard, you knew where the boy was all along, didn’t you! And you’ve brought him here to keep him away from his old man, I’m guessing?” He pulled Crowley to his feet and into a bear hug; sure enough, he felt fuzzy around the edges.
“This was all his idea, actually,” Crowley said, as Aziraphale put the sword away and retrieved him from Ligur’s grasp. “I’d heard a few stories here and there, but I had no idea this place was real. Who’s the owner?”
“This is Death’s realm,” Ligur explained. “Souls that don’t meet Heaven’s standards but don’t have enough sins for Hell end up here. Turns out, that includes demons who die by baptism with holy water and angels who die by hellfire.” He indicated the small crowd behind him. “Not too many of us, but it’s better than being snuffed out of existence.”
Adam waved again at the singed angels and half-washed demons. “Hi,” he said. “In case you don’t know already, I’m the Antichrist. My name’s Adam. Where do you keep your human souls?”
“That’s not really our department,” Ligur explained. “We just live here with them, although one of the angels - I think he used to be a big deal before someone torched him - kind of keeps up with them.” He pivoted. “Hey, anyone know where Raffie is?”
“He’s back in the warehouse,” one of the angels said, pointing deeper into the seemingly endless building.
A tall angel, with copper wings charred black along the primaries and hair the same burnished color, loomed behind them. “I’m here,” he said. “I heard the ruckus.”
It was Aziraphale’s turn to gasp in recognition. “Raphael?”
“Yes, it’s me,” the Archangel admitted. “Not that I wanted any of you to have to see me like this.”
Crowley’s eyes narrowed. “You have a history with him, I’m guessing?”
“I did,” Aziraphale answered. “I was part of his choir for quite a long time, from a few years after Eden until he was slain in a fight with Asmodeus. It was a grudge match, of a sort. Then there was a restructuring, and I got re-reassigned back to Gabriel’s chain-of-command directly.”
“When was that?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale’s brow furrowed in thought. “It must have been around 200 BC or so,” he said. “Not quite four thousand years in.”
“Right before we started running into each other more often than a couple of times a millennium,” Crowley realized.
Raphael studied Crowley carefully. “This must be the Serpent of Eden, then,” he said. “I do seem to remember you having a number of run-ins with him, after the garden.”
“That’s me, Tempter Numero Uno,” Crowley agreed. “We’re here to see the human spirits, though, not for Old Bosses’ Day, so can we get on with it?”
Raphael looked disgruntled at that. “Demon,” he argued, “you have no authority here.”
“Technically, I don’t think anyone does,” Adam broke in. “If anyone has any authority here, it’s Death, and I’m currently doing half his job, so I’ve probably got a better claim than anyone else in the room.” He eyed the Duke of Hell and the Archangel as if he were daring them to contradict him.
Ligur held up both hands. “If you’re looking for a realm of your own, my lord, I’d be glad to have you here,” he said. “It’s not as if your father’s shown any interest in getting us back.”
Raphael met Adam’s gaze. “You are not yourself alone,” he said, his face softening.
“I haven’t been for a long time,” Adam agreed.
The Archangel’s eyes drifted to above and behind Adam. “Even now, even here, they join you,” he said, his voice betraying a mild surprise that didn’t show on his face.
“That’s pretty much how it’s been for a while,” Adam repeated.
Raphael nodded, as if this explained something. “I will take you to them, then,” he said; abruptly, he turned and walked away, into the less-well-lit reaches of the warehouse. Adam and his gang followed; Ligur and his crew trailed after.
“Any idea what that was about?” Legion whispered to Ligur.
“Not a bloody clue,” Ligur admitted. “Raffie mostly keeps to himself. Doesn’t want to pollute what’s left of his holiness with us former demons, and he’s embarrassed to show himself to the angels, even the ones who got sin-torched themselves.”
The warehouse had no interior walls, no rafters, no fixtures; the only interruptions to the space were the occasional pillar holding up a ceiling that seemed impossibly high. They walked for what seemed like a very long time (although Crowley had the forethought to check his watch, and according to it, the trip was only about fifteen minutes).
Raphael stopped in a part of the building that looked identical to any other. He sat down on the floor, cross-legged, and looked around. “I think they’re nervous,” he said. “Everyone, be quiet; don’t scare them.”
Adam glanced at his troupe. “He’s not wrong,” he whispered. “I can feel them around, somewhere.”
For a few minutes, they were all silent. Nothing appeared to happen.
Crowley folded his legs and sat next to Raphael. He glanced sidelong at the Archangel, then cleared his throat and began to sing, very softly.
Adam grinned to himself. “Someone recognizes that lullaby,” he murmured.
Either Raphael did, too, or he caught on very quickly; he joined in the song, his own voice a good harmonic match for Crowley’s.
A pair of eyes sparkled into view. Then another, then another, until thousands of shades stood before them, their shapes indistinct, their forms transparent. They stretched back into the warehouse as far as angelic or demonic eyes could see.
Most of them were very low to the ground.
Pressing a hand to his mouth, Aziraphale whispered, “Why are there so many children?”
Raphael left off singing to answer him. “That happened to be the way the rules shook out,” he said softly, looking up into Aziraphale’s shocked expression. “If a small one happened to die with the stain of Original Sin on its soul, but with no other great sins, and no deeds of virtue to cancel them out, then they were neither the bounty of Hell nor worthy of Heaven, so Death brought them here.” He pointed to the few taller shades. “It’s actually quite tricky to end up in perfect balance later in life,” he continued, “but it did happen.”
Aziraphale trembled. “That’s not fair,” he pleaded. “It’s not like they chose to take the apple. That was - did Heaven really count that against them?”
Raphael nodded, but his mouth twisted sourly. “Metatron said that was Her will,” he said. “Given that you and the silver-tongued demon are wearing matching rings, I will venture to guess that it will not shock you if I say I had my doubts about that.”
Adam stepped forward, stretching one hand out. “Do you know who I am?” he asked the assembled spirits. A warm light diffused from between his wings.
A general murmur of affirmation drifted up from them. The taller ones began to move toward him, as if a breeze were pushing them in his direction.
“Will you say my name?” Adam asked, moving closer. His eyes glowed, but not with fire; sunlight spilled between his lashes. “Will you join me?”
“Adam Kadmon,” they said in one voice, and swarmed him.
The sunlight in Adam’s eyes flared across his skin, a nova that filled the warehouse. Billions of points of light, a galaxy of stars, appeared and made room for their fellows, a new nebula of stellar birth in Adam’s nimbus.
Ligur picked himself up off the floor where he’d fallen. “So, not just the Antichrist anymore,” he said.
Crowley hauled himself back to his feet. “No, he’s taking this whole thing in a different direction,” he agreed. “Very creative of him, I thought.”
Raphael was still seated. Aziraphale crouched down next to him. “Then, is it true?” he asked. “She wasn’t speaking, even to the Archangels, by then?”
Raphael looked troubled. “I never heard her again after the War,” he said. “Not directly, anyway. Only through Metatron.” He glanced at his palms, then back up at Aziraphale. “Have you heard otherwise? Or has She stopped speaking to him, too?”
Aziraphale offered him a hand. “I’m not sure at this point that I believe She ever spoke to him at all,” he said. “At least, not any more than the rest of us.”
“I wish that didn’t sound plausible,” Raphael sighed. “I could never understand why She would choose to speak only to him, and not to Michael, or to Azrael. Then again, I can barely get Azrael to speak two words at a time to me.” He took Aziraphale’s hand and hauled himself back to his feet.
Adam no longer glowed with the fire of a nebula’s worth of stars, but he still looked rather like the inside of a furnace. “For my money, if She’s been talking to anyone, I’d bet on Death,” he said, trying not to sound like the strong nuclear force and mostly failing. “Seems like he knows lots of things he isn’t telling.”
“Azrael’s always been like that,” Raphael said vaguely.
“Is this hangar all there is in Limbo?” Adam asked.
“Other than the fog, yeah,” Ligur answered. “I don’t think Death’s big on creation.”
Adam took a slow, deep, breath; his incandescence faded into an aura of fire and lightning. “That seems like it would be tough for you,” he said. “No place to sit or lie down or anything.” He turned back towards the entrance and started walking, much more slowly this time.
Ligur shrugged as he turned to follow. “It’s less of a big deal when you don’t have a body that needs resting,” he explained.
“I need to work on that, too,” Adam agreed, “but one thing at a time. I think I got everybody. Dagon’s going to have a fit, getting all the new records in order -”
“Dagon’s on your team?” Ligur interrupted. “How did you tempt her away?”
Crowley answered for Adam. “How’d the last couple of demons get here?”
“Hastur was torturing them by dripping holy water on them, and used more than one drop,” Ligur said. “Sounded like he’s gone off the deep end. I’m guessing by your face that he hasn’t gotten better.”
“By all reports, he’s getting worse and worse,” Crowley said. “By the by, do you know where he’s getting the holy water from? Did Hell have a reservoir they never told me about?”
“If they did, they didn’t tell me, either,” Ligur grunted. “Never expected to see the stuff. Can’t say it pleases me that Hastur would watch it take me out, and then decide it’s a good idea to use more of it.”
“Dagon didn’t much like it either,” Crowley continued. “And she didn’t like Hastur trying to bully his way onto the Dark Council, or how much everyone else’s backbiting and general mess got in the way of her doing her job. When she felt Beelzebub wasn’t going to back her up to the Big Boss, she quit. Pretty much the entire Records department has followed her.”
Ligur shook his head. “Can’t say I miss the place, honestly,” he said. “Limbo is boring, but that’s all it is. No management breathing down your neck, no deadlines.” He glanced at Raphael. “S’like being retired, almost.”
“If retirement was preceded by the most painful possible discorporation, perhaps,” Raphael said dryly.
The entryway was visible in the distance now. Adam peered at it. “Why is this place so big?” he wondered out loud. “Did Death think he was going to have to shelter a lot more souls?”
“If he knew he was going to be keeping all the kids who died as infants,” Crowley mused, “yeah, he might have. If the population of Earth was as high as it was a century ago, and the infant mortality rate had stayed as high as it was in the fourteenth century -”
“Ugh, you’re right,” Adam agreed. “If he didn’t have any idea when the end was supposed to happen, he had to be prepared, I guess.”
When they finally stepped out into the miasma, Adam turned to Aziraphale and Abuataar. “Been a while since I did much creating,” he said quietly, “and the last time I did big stuff, I wasn’t consciously in charge of it.”
Aziraphale nodded. “What do you want us to do?” he asked.
“Just to make sure it doesn’t go all weird - you used to do that, too, when you were the Titans, right?” Adam asked.
Smiling, Aziraphale pointed out, “It’s been even longer for us, you know.” It took a second for it to sink in that Adam had just given a new name, his own name, to the Unsundered. Titans. Well, there were worse mythological resonances to have.
“I know,” Adam said. “I’d just like to have Alpha and Atelerix here, just in case I mess up.”
“Seems sensible,” Abuataar agreed, waving their demons over.
Crowley nudged Ligur with an elbow. “Watch this,” he chuckled. “New trick.”
Sunlight and moonlight, midnight and deep shade licked through the fog as Alpha Rhaphiolepis and Atelerix Athnan suddenly towered at Adam’s right and left.
Adam closed his eyes and swayed in place. His hands made small gestures in front of him, as if he were molding something out of clay. The fog began to swirl and condense as his brow furrowed.
Alpha and Atelerix swayed with him, in rhythm. Their wings stirred vortices in the mist that spun into vague shapes, then specific ones. Eight voices hummed gently, echoing faintly a song only they could remember.
Adam’s arms swung wide, as if he were pushing something away from him. His fingers trembled as they stretched out, and light poured out from them, adding color to the rapidly hardening vapor.
Atelerix beat their wings, clearing away the remaining fog. Alpha caught Adam’s light and curved it back into itself, shaping it, giving it edges and solidity.
Adam laughed, swaying one hand above his head and the other down to his hips. He held them there, sparks dancing around them, and then brought them together with a flourish, wrists crossed in front of his chest. He snapped both fingers; lighting crackled around his shoulders and leaped to the ground.
The fog split. In front of the warehouse were two concentric rings of houses - cottages, really, small things with one or two stories. Half of them vaguely resembled the houses of Tadfield; the others came from around the globe, from everywhere that a spark of Adam had once called home. In the center was a fountain, flanked by a pair of trees.
“There,” Adam said, wiping beads of sweat from his face. “Now you have some much nicer places to stay.” He looked quite pleased with himself.
Ligur turned to Raphael. “That’s a lot for one day’s work,” he said, clearly impressed.
“No kidding,” Raphael replied.
A cry went up behind them as the Thirtieth and the Thirty-First of the Unsundered remade themselves from two baptized demons and two burned angels.
“We were wondering if that was going to happen,” Atelerix Athnan said, to no one in particular. They nodded to Alpha. “Let us explain this time.”
“By all means,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis replied. Looking down at Raphael and Ligur, they asked, “Archangel, Duke of Hell, how much did you just remember?”
“Quite a bit,” Raphael said. “Enough to want answers I’m not likely to get, unless you know significantly more than you’ve let on.”
Ligur looked contemplative, which was a strange expression on him. “Actually, that’s a load off my mind,” he said. “Nice to know we really weren’t at fault, at least no more than they were.”
“Would you like us to explain what we do know?” Alpha asked. “We’ll be honest, it’s not nearly as much as we’d like.”
“Yeah,” Ligur agreed, “but could you go back to being Crowley and the plump angel to do it? If I had a real neck, I’d be getting a crick in it, looking up at you.”
It was not clear whether it was Adam or Alpha who’d had the foresight to supply one of the houses with a porch full of lawn chairs, a few bottles of a lovely Italian red, and some glasses, but Aziraphale and Crowley were only too happy to regale Raphael with a description of the last two millennia from their perspective, followed by filling in Ligur on what happened after he’d been wiped from the picture, once they’d had a glass and a half each.
Raphael gestured at the trees. “Which one of you had that idea?” he asked. “An apple and a pomegranate?”
“Can’t think of anything more appropriate,” Crowley argued. “Besides, they’re pretty.”
Exinolas jogged up. “Just so you know,” she said, “the four who got re-united came back with bodies, when they split!” Her eyes glittered with excitement.
“Good!” Aziraphale said, raising his goblet. “Less work for Adam is always a good thing. Tell them to pour themselves a glass, if they’d like.”
Ligur smiled at Crowley, looking more relaxed than he’d ever seen him. “Let the kid know I’m signing up for his side,” Ligur chuckled. “He throws a better office party than his papa ever dreamed of.”
“Tell him yourself,” Crowley replied. “Like we said, we’re recruiting.”
Sobering, Ligur asked, “You figure the other offices are going to come after him?”
“I don’t think they have a choice,” Crowley said. “No new souls, no reason to fight each other. But the longer they wait, the weaker they get.”
“You think he can win.” Ligur’s smile had a hint of his old predatory nature in it.
“I think we can win,” Crowley corrected. He watched Raphael leaning against the apple tree, enjoying the blossoms even without a proper nose to breathe the scent in. “And if we play our cards right, I think we can do it without too much in the way of mayhem and bloodshed.”
“There was a time I’d have said that was boring,” Ligur said, “but now? You have my attention.” He flashed another sharp-toothed grin at them. “Even if you did have to pour what was left of me down the drain.”
“Actually,” Crowley noted, “Aziraphale gave you as close as we could to a proper burial.”
“What?” Ligur stared at Aziraphale in confusion. “Why?”
Aziraphale swirled the dregs of the wine in his glass. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” he admitted quietly.
“But you’re an angel,” Ligur objected.
“I’m afraid I can’t help that,” Aziraphale answered. “I do hope you won’t choose to hold it against me.”
Ligur sat back in his chair. “Actually,” he said, “I might finally be seeing why Crowley liked hanging out with you for all these years.” He smirked; the chameleon’s tail curled around his ear.
By the time they left, Adam had provided each of the remaining ethereal and occult beings with a provisional body. Being made out of the mist of Limbo, he wasn’t sure they would be stable outside of the rarefied realm, but at least they got to enjoy the wine, too.
While this is not strictly speaking a sequel to Washed Up, this version of Limbo does work more or less as Death describes in that story.
The chapter title is from the Monkees' "Shades of Grey".
Sorry this is so late - one of the kids at school got me sick. Also, even after the split, the current version of Chapter 13 is huge; I might end up having to split it again just to get the next update in a reasonable time. Mea Culpa!
Chapter 13: Calm Before the Storm
Adam and his lieutenants plot their next move in the cosmic chess game.
Jasmine Cottage itself was long gone; the Covenstead that stood in its place had been rebuilt no fewer than four times. It gave off the impression of a small religious college, and that impression was not, strictly speaking, wrong; there were co-ed dormitories for celestials, infernals, and witches alike, an impressive library, and a communal kitchen that worked something like an anarchist’s cafeteria. Adam had refused to allow the coveners to build a church to him, but he hadn’t been able to argue when the renegade angels had called it a sanctuary, and since actual rituals tended to happen outdoors in the courtyard, with its apple trees and twining grapevines, it was most often used as a very nice lecture hall.
At the moment, Adam was using the holoprojector. He hadn’t created a presentation; he was just throwing his thoughts into images directly through the projector. This would not have been surprising if he had any of the cybernetic implants that most of the witches now arrived with as standard equipment; most people would have assumed his were just well-hidden. He almost never had to disabuse anyone of the notion, and the majority of the angels and demons had very little idea how it worked, anyway.
“So, we’ve established that we can shrink everyone down to fit in one maglev lift?” he asked. “No one’s going to have a problem with that? I know the demons are all pretty flexible about size, but for the angels, I’ve only ever seen Aziraphale do the electron thing, and he never seemed all that comfortable with it.”
Habioro, one of the most recent angelic additions to Adam’s army, nodded, though he looked rather sour. “We all can,” he said. “We just never did before. It’s not something we think of ourselves as needing to do.”
“Don’t think of it as making yourself small to fit in the lift,” Dagon offered. “Think of it as the lift becoming large enough to hold all of us.”
“All a matter of perspective,” Crowley agreed.
Adam watched the angels’ faces closely; apparently he was satisfied, since a cylinder full of what appeared to be tiny triangles and three featureless people appeared in the holostage and he went on. “Once we’re there, we’ll need to get our bearings,” he said. “We have pretty good intelligence from our last batch of recruits, but there’s no real guarantee of exactly where in the warrens we’ll end up.” The cylinder shrank down to the size of a pencil eraser and a map of Hell appeared around it. Portions of nine floors lit up in red.
“Those are the torture chambers,” Adam said. “At least for human souls, I mean, the whole place is a torture chamber for everyone who lives there, that’s the point of the thing. Anyway, I need to get to this stairwell here.” A zigzag appeared in orange, running through the nine floors and connecting them. “I think I can get everyone in one go from here, unless my range is seriously diminished Down There, but if that’s not possible, we can go a floor at a time. The trick is going to be getting there without too much interference. Group A will primarily be keeping me hidden, and then getting me back out as quickly as possible; most of the Titan pairs will be in this team.”
A single room on an upper level lit up in yellow. Dagon took over the presentation. “This is the executive meeting room,” she said, pointing. “Group B will be heading here. If Adam were claiming his heritage and making a bid for the leadership of Hell, this would be the logical place to do it. That’s almost certainly what any demons we encounter on our way there will assume is going on.” She paused, half-grinning. “Honestly, I expect this group will actually get larger as it goes, or at least develop hangers-on, which is why I also strongly suggest that any non-paired angels be in this group - it’ll make it clear that this isn’t just any old coup attempt. I’ll also be with this group, since I seriously doubt anyone will have remembered to take my ID card out of the key codes for the door locks on the executive floor.”
A third location, well away from the torture pits and even deeper in the complex, lit up in magenta. “Group C will be creating a second distraction by means of a sneak attack on whoever appears to be in charge,” Adam continued. “To the extent this can be a smash-and-harass campaign, I’d like to try to keep it to that, rather than a frontal assault. We think that the deadbeat is hiding out somewhere in this area, and we don’t want to confront him directly, but a feint in this direction is likely to attract a lot of attention.”
Exinolas raised her hand. “What if that group encounters resistance before they reach that level?” she asked.
“Then they’ll create their distraction wherever they can,” Adam explained. “Remember, groups B and C are both intended to take pressure off of Group A. If C needs to fall back and regroup in the main lobby, that’s fine. This is also the group where I want the majority of the unpaired demons - if it turns out they can’t take the heat when they’re back on the deadbeat’s turf, it’s going to matter less in this team.” Several of the individual triangles began to blink. “As we already said, Dagon is going to be in Team B. Abuataar and Exinolas are going to be in A; if we get too much heat while I’m working, I want Atelerix there for bodyguard duty. Aziraphale, Crowley, I realize I’m asking a lot by splitting you up, but I think having Aziraphale in B group will make the implicit threat a lot clearer, and Hell is going to assume that Crowley’s group is the main threat by default, I suspect, so I want him helping lead C.”
Aziraphale squeezed Crowley’s hand. “I think we can manage,” he said, and Crowley added a “Yeah, sure.”
Another set of triangles blinked, all in deep blue. “We’ll have a Legion in each group,” Adam went on. “He’ll be one of our main modes of communication between groups. When he gives the signal to fall back, I want everyone to head out as quickly and directly as possible. If you can make a direct exit from wherever you are, don’t feel like you need to head back to the turbolift.”
“I’ll actually have multiple bodies in each group,” Legion added, “so in case there’s a mishap, we won’t have any groups cut off from communication.” He glanced at Adam and cleared his throat. “You said Crowley was helping lead group C - who else is in charge of that team?”
“Me,” said Adam.
“Well, yeah, you’re the general for this whole operation,” Legion agreed, “but you’re going to be with A group, right?”
“I’ll be in all three groups,” Adam said, grinning slyly.
Dagon raised a barely-there eyebrow. “Legion’s been teaching you his tricks?” she asked.
Legion put both hands up. “Not me,” he said, “although if someone else has figured my signature move out, maybe it’s time for me to retire!”
Adam chuckled. “It’s a similar move, but not exactly the same,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m not stealing your thunder. This is all-new thunder.”
Aziraphale returned to the holodiagram. “The Limbo contingent is staying put, is that correct?” he asked.
“The two Titans are coming with us in Group A,” Adam elaborated, “but yeah, the rest are holding the fort down in Limbo; I still haven’t figured out how to make them bodies that will maintain cohesion for more than a few hours outside of their realm.”
Aziraphale turned slightly in place. “And are we leaving anyone here on Earth?” he asked. “After all, this is one of the few places where there aren’t many security robots.”
“The greener demonic recruits I’m leaving here to guard the Covenstead,” Adam answered. “I don’t want them to have to face down either Lucifer or Hastur when they haven’t fully bonded with Earth yet, but I think they’ll stand with the witches if something happens here, like if Heaven gets any funny ideas while I’m Downstairs. Do you want to post someone at the bookshop?”
“No,” Aziraphale decided, “I’ll just tuck it away.” It was only through the subtle arcana of property law that the bookshop still existed. The idea of a brick-and-mortar store was laughably antiquated; it hadn’t been a functioning business in nearly a century and a half. Aziraphale had taken to hiding the entrance from mortal eyes entirely, just to discourage gawkers, unless he sensed someone looking for something in particular that he was willing to part with. He’d made a total of three sales in the past six months, two of them by telepresence.
“Okay.” Adam sounded relieved. “Then I’ll post lists of who I want on each team in the commons; Dagon, Aziraphale, look over Team B and let me know if there’s anyone you don’t want on that one; Crowley, same for Team C; Abuataar, Exinolas, same for A. Once we have the lists finalized, I’ll name the day and time.” The holoprojector shut down with an electronic chime. “And I need caffeine and something sugary after that much strategizing. Anyone up for taking on the kitchen?”
“I think Larvis was over there,” Exinolas offered. “They’ve gotten pretty good with little snacky things. If you want a real meal, though, it might be a bit of a wait.”
“If we’ve got a blender and some jam, I could whip up a batch of crepes,” Crowley offered.
Adam laughed; he’d heard the continuing saga of Aziraphale and the crepes from both their viewpoints. “That actually sounds good,” he admitted. “Lead the way.”
Even after splitting it, the original Chapter 13 turned out to be gigantic. In the interest of not posting a novelette in its own right, I have split it again; this is what was originally the chapter prelude, Chapter 14 will be the first half of the original Chapter 13, and Chapter 15 will be the second half of the original Chapter 13. Clear as mud? Okay, good.
Chapter 14: For the Wicked and the Lost
Adam harrows Hell, with quite a lot of help.
“Good luck,” Ligur said, looking over the assembled celestial and infernal mob with a hint of jealousy. “If I could go with you, I would.”
“You sure you wouldn’t defect back to your old side as soon as Hastur showed up?” Crowley asked. He winked when he said it, but he sounded serious.
“Nah,” Ligur replied. “Once you’ve been washed, both sides look equally ridiculous. I might not belong to Earth the way you all do, now, but I belong to Hell even less.” He paused, lips pressed tightly. “I wouldn’t mind getting to see Hastur again,” he admitted quietly, “but from what the troops say, it sounds like he let not having a proper Apocalypse under his skin too much.”
“Didn’t you feel the same way, once? Crowley asked. The dagger appeared in his hands; Aziraphale must have been arming up. He miracled its scabbard under his jacket and sheathed it.
“Yeah, I did,” Ligur agreed. “I’d like to think I wouldn’t have taken it so seriously, though. Your fault we’ll never find out.” He thumped Crowley on the shoulder, just a bit too hard. “Give ‘em Hell for me.”
“Will do.” Crowley turned to watch the angels putting on their holy armor. He’d seen Aziraphale in the earthly equivalent, of course, and for the most part they had updated their wardrobe with the times; the majority of the angels , including Habioro, were wearing glittery kevlar-and-ceramic micromail over pearl grey flight suits. Several had stuck with mid-20th-century flak jackets and desert khaki combat fatigues; Abuataar was in that group. Only Aziraphale and Cochabiel, another old-timer who had spent time visiting Earth in the bad old days, were wearing the once-standard gleaming plate armor over chainmail. It was all just appearances, anyway, but Crowley had to admit he had a preference for the showier stuff.
The demons were, to a person, all wearing trenchcoats, which were the infernal equivalent of armor, being largely waterproof. In a gesture towards their rejection of Hell’s standards, all of the long coats were clean and unsinged. A fair number had added decorations of their own - badges, pins, fabric paint, sequins, even plastic jewels. Exinolas’s was black leather and studded with spikes from collar to hem. Legion’s was dark navy blue and had a city skyline at sunset airbrushed on the back; each body wore a different city.
Crowley shrugged his on. It was just barely burgundy in the neutral grey light of Limbo, but so deep a wine-red that it looked black under all but the cleanest illumination; it would appear coal-black in the flickering, greenish fluorescent lighting of Hell. Down the back, a twining serpent was embroidered in ebony satin, distinguishable mostly by texture. He didn’t bother buttoning it, but he tucked up the belt and tied it behind him; if he was going to let it flare dramatically behind him, the last thing he needed was to trip over part of it.
“Everyone ready?” Adam called. A general murmur of assent arose.
The Legion wearing San Francisco on his coat stepped forward. “Are you ready, boss?” he asked, grinning.
“I’ll be fine,” Adam said. In a louder voice, he called, “Okay, I need everyone other than the co-leaders to shrink down. One, two, three, go!”
A violent breeze rustled through the empty plain as several hundred demons and angels flared their wings out and collapsed themselves down to the size of gnats. Clouds gathered around Crowley, Aziraphale, Abuataar, Exinolas, Dagon, and the Legions.
Raphael gestured dramatically and opened the door back to Earth. “May She look upon your work with favor,” he proclaimed.
“Either She already has, or She’s not paying attention,” Adam replied. He marched through the door into the corridor behind the lifts.
The building was still technically the same, but the advent of practical nanotechnology meant that it was in a state of constantly being torn down and rebuilt at the molecular level. There was a lot less glass and a lot more brushed aluminum than there had been when they’d discovered the entrance. It was also less empty; while there was no one in this hallway, there was enough noise coming from the lobby to tell them there were at least a few cyborgs and robots coming and going.
Adam closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his temples hard enough to dimple the skin. His own wings unfolded, brilliant reds and blues reflecting off the metal panels in abstract blobs of color. The air around him filled with firey motes of light, brilliant multicolored stars swirling in a nebular haze of dark gold; a galaxy of spirit spun around him.
Two ovoids of light formed, sunlight-golden, one under each wing. Slowly, they took on bipedal shapes, solidifying into hands and fingers and heads. Adam grunted with effort; the light flared white, then settled into Adam in triplicate, the flanking bodies both floating a few inches above the floor.
The Adam under his right wing was a little older than he usually presented himself, perhaps in his late 30s, wearing a smart navy blazer, white shirt, and khakis. Adam turned and settled his hands on that body’s shoulders; with his eyes still closed, wearing a look of intense concentration, he brushed his mouth over its lips, exhaling gently. It shuddered, snapped its head back, and settled to the floor as he eased away. Its eyes opened; red and violet light beamed from its face before settling back into Adam’s normal features.
That body twisted its shoulders, flexing and stretching with a fluidity very different from Adam’s usual quick, decisive motions. Aziraphale gasped as he realized who was in there.
“Hi, Adam,” that body said in Pepper’s voice. “Time to get to work?”
Adam smiled. “It is,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
“You just like looking at yourself,” Pepper/Adam teased, and grabbed him for a chest-bumping, shoulder-pounding hug.
Adam pulled back, still grinning. “Team B, this is the me who’ll be leading your team. Um, do you want them to call you ‘he’ or ‘she’?”
“I don’t much care,” Pepper/Adam said. “‘She’ would probably confuse everyone down there more, so let’s go with that. Do I get a cool sword this time, too?”
“Knock yourself out,” Adam said, turning to the third body, the one that had been under his left wing. This one was younger than Adam usually chose to appear, college-aged and not quite filled out around the jawline and shoulders yet, wearing urban camouflage fatigues.
“Brilliant,” Pepper/Adam replied, reaching into the ether and manifesting a katana, which promptly burst into flames.
Adam’s wings cupped the third body, partly shielding them from view as he took hold of its arms. His lips lingered for far longer as he breathed life into his own flesh, grazing the mouth of this body almost suggestively, as if he might want to do more. The body trembled and took its first breath with a gasp as a wash of purple and orange light rolled over its features, swirling in its eyes as it opened them. Convulsively, its hands closed on Adam’s arms, flexing to pull him closer before relaxing as its feet settled to the floor.
It slumped, then flexed its fingers as it looked around, and it was Crowley’s turn to gasp in recognition.
“Ready to rock?” Warlock/Adam said.
“Ready to roll,” Adam replied. They high-fived and grinned like two teens conspiring to prank a teacher.
Adam turned towards Crowley. “Team C, this me will be leading you lot. Um, did you ever decide on ‘he’ or ‘they’?”
“Depends on the day,” Warlock/Adam said. “We’ll go with ‘he’ for now.” He eyed Pepper/Adam’s sword enviously.
“You can have one, too, if you want,” Adam said, following his gaze.
“I kinda do?” Warlock/Adam replied. “But it seems a little old-school.” He stared into the air above his head for a moment, then reached up and plucked a Colt .45 from the ether. He cocked the hammer; it, too, was suddenly wreathed in flames.
“Very nice,” Crowley said as Warlock/Adam joined him. “Do you have any idea how to use it?”
“Someone in our head does,” Warlock/Adam replied, “which means I can, too, with a little effort.” He jammed it in his pocket; somehow, it managed not to set his clothes ablaze.
Adam tucked his wings back in. “All right,” he announced, “let’s get in the lift.” He marched around the corner and stared balefully at the turbolift control panel as several cyborgs nervously scurried out of his way.
Aziraphale peered at the blank blue screen. “Not very intuitive, is it?” he asked.
The Legion with Shanghai on his coat squinted at it, then pressed his palm flat against the surface. It buzzed and turned red. “It works the same as it always did,” he explained, “it just looks fancier now.”
The lift doors opened. The Legions miniaturized and joined the buzzing clouds as three Adams, Crowley, Aziraphale, Abuataar, Exinolas, and Dagon stepped in.
The doors slid closed, and Dagon dropped her human disguise immediately. “Going down,” she pronounced, and the lift sank without a sound.
Hell’s elevator lobby was abandoned.
It wasn’t just empty; it had clearly been ransacked at some point, with piles of rubbish stacked hastily in front of the lift doors. About half of it was banker’s boxes, every single one of them crammed full of papers, half of them lightly scorched.
“From my office,” Dagon growled. She clapped twice and gestured; the boxes marched into neat stacks against the walls, along with a desk with a broken leg and an extremely uncomfortable-looking rolling chair.
“Do they know we’re coming?” Pepper/Adam asked, shoving another broken chair out of the way. “Why would they barricade the lift with old furniture instead of just nailing something across the doors?”
“It’s not to keep people from Upstairs coming down,” Dagon explained as two demons returned to their usual size and helped her throw a table across the room. “It’s to make it harder for anyone here to sneak up via the main route.” She sniffed at a half-blackened box with the ends of scrolls peeking out of the top. “Shows you how much they valued my work.” Her voice was dry and her scaled face incapable of coloring, but her eyes glittered dangerously.
Adam nodded. “Pile the rest of this against the other wall,” he ordered; another half-dozen demons expanded and grabbed armfuls of trash.
“Do we worry about blocking doors?” Crowley asked, hefting a box he intuitively knew contained the records of three people whose torments he was personally responsible for.
“Only the ones we know we’ll be using,” Adam answered. “Dagon, any thoughts on what we should do with these?”
“My lord,” she hissed, “would you honor me?”
Adam looked confused for a moment. “Of course,” he said in three voices, but it was almost a question.
Dagon reached a hand towards Pepper/Adam. At once, Adam’s face cleared, and Pepper/Adam handed her the flaming sword.
“Let it burn,” Dagon whispered. She raised the sword above her head and let out a scream that shook the walls, then brought it down with a slash. The box in front of her burst into flames; the rest seemed to watch intently, then went up in sympathy.
Crowley darted to Aziraphale’s side as Dagon handed the sword back. “Sorry you have to see this,” he murmured.
“Don’t be,” Aziraphale whimpered. “They are Hell’s books, after all.” He looked up into Crowley’s eyes. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“As long as you are, I’m fine,” Crowley reassured him. “Remember, if Lucifer’s up in the conference room, feint and then get out. If they come at you with Hellfire, let Dagon and Legion cover you; it can’t hurt them.”
“I know the plans as well as you do,” Aziraphale replied. “And the same if he’s in the pits; make your noise and then get home safely.” His brow folded with worry. “Don’t feel like you have to be a hero, my dear.”
“Fat chance of that,” Crowley chuckled. “Kiss for good luck, then?”
“For any reason you like,” Aziraphale laughed. Their lips met as sparks showered from the box Crowley had just set down.
Dagon wiped her eyes as the sound of hundreds of demons taking their shape was drowned out by the fire alarm. The Adams pointed, each in a different direction, and three battalions slipped down the corridors.
Exinolas tried a door, then kicked it in when it failed to yield. “This way,” she hissed. “This is one of the old records rooms, but it opens onto a back stairwell that should take us exactly where we want to go.”
She and Abuataar crept ahead, followed by another demon-angel pair, then Adam, then the rest of their team. Theirs was the smallest group, not quite sixty strong, mostly because they needed the other two to be more easily seen.
The room had been scoured clean. Scuff marks on the dirty greenish-gray walls revealed where bookshelves and stacks of boxes had been. A few filing cabinets lay on their sides, drawers missing. On two of them, the locks had been bashed off, with a hammer going by the shape of the dents. Nothing else remained except the buzzing lighting.
Adam looked around mournfully. “Looks like when she left, they didn’t even bother promoting someone to take Dagon’s place,” he said. “What a waste.”
“They did the same thing to Ligur’s position when he died,” Legion agreed. “There was just no one in charge of communications anymore. The phones would ring and ring until someone ripped them out of the walls. There was a rumor that the Dark Council tried to appoint someone and Hastur threatened to throw whoever it was into the lake of sulfur if they dared, but I’ll be honest, I don’t believe it.”
The door at the other end of the room wasn’t locked, and led into a corridor without lights. Exinolas blinked. “Is no one using this wing at all?” she wondered.
“Who knows?” Abuataar groaned. “This place smells like a sewer on fire. Let’s find your stairwell and and get this over with.”
“This still would still have been part of Dagon’s division,” Legion noted. “Maybe someone shut off the circuit breakers to this wing when they emptied it.” He pushed open another door.
A skittering noise turned into a thump and a crash as something threw itself away from the doorway.
Exinolas froze. “Do we investigate?” she asked Adam. “Or do we want to get out of here?”
Legion had already stuck his head into the room. “It’s okay, I think,” he said. To the demons in the room, he cooed, “Come on, then. Come out, there’s a good girl.”
A pair of demons, one with blue jay feathers scattered across her skin and one with zebra stripes, ducked out, crouching as if they expected to be hit. They stared up at Adam with wide eyes and trembling chins. “You’ve come,” the blue jay whispered. “We didn’t think you wanted to.”
“I have, and I didn’t, really, but here I am,” Adam replied. “What are you doing in an abandoned office?”
“We were abandoned, too,” moaned the zebra-demon. “We were copyists for Dagon for eons, then typists for the last few centuries. When she disappeared, Asmodeus and Hastur just closed the department, but we’ve got no other skills, so they left us here. Didn’t figure we’d be any good for fighting. We’ve been hiding out ever since, hoping they’d just forgotten us.”
Adam leaned down to look into their eyes. “Really,” he murmured. “How careless of them, to discard their employees like that.”
“We’re not any use for anything they need anymore,” the blue jay-demon lamented.
“Nonsense,” Adam said. He straightened up, shaking his shaggy mane. “Clearly I need to kick Daddy-kins’s HR department in the arse. Do you want to stay here, or come with me?”
Their eyes grew even wider; the effect was disturbing. “You’ll have us?” they asked, almost in unison.
“Absolutely,” Adam replied. “I’m taking over the most valuable assets; I’d be a fool not to include human, er, demon resources in that.”
They didn’t so much answer as make a series of delighted squealing noises. Adam waited until they were done, trying not to laugh, then asked, “Where’s the closest stairwell?”
“Up this way, then make a right turn and it’s down three doors on the left,” Dagon announced.
Habioro and Aziraphale charged forward, weapons drawn. The three of them formed a reverse-wedge, followed by Pepper/Warlock, marching head held high down a hallway that clearly had not been vacuumed in years. Occasionally something stuck to their shoes and had to be discreetly scraped off without breaking stride.
“It’s been shockingly quiet,” Habioro noted. “Almost as if they knew we were coming, and were lying in wait for an ambush.”
“Quite possibly,” Aziraphale agreed. “Then again, it’s also possible they knew we were coming and decided to retreat to an easily defensible location, which wouldn’t be this floor, I don’t think.” Most of the doors on this hallway had large panes of frosted glass in the doors. A few of them were already cracked; the ones that weren’t had palmprints and less clearly identifiable smudges on both sides of the glass. Breaking into any of these rooms would be trivial.
Dagon ducked down a T-intersection, then poked her head back out. “No one here, either,” she said. “Since the last lock took my keycode, I’m positive this one will, too. I’ll swipe, you two take the doors; let us survey the room before you come in, my lord.”
“Don’t take too long,” Pepper/Adam replied. “The whole point is to make as strong an entrance as possible.”
“These two in their armor and cutlery will make a Hell of an impression on whoever’s in there, I assure you,” said Dagon, glancing at Habioro’s and Aziraphale’s weapons and smirking. She snapped her ID card into position above the lock. “The doors swing outwards,” she added.”
“The glass is opaque,” Habioro said, puzzled. “How would you know you weren’t opening it into someone?”
“You didn’t,” Dagon said, rolling her eyes. “This is Hell. We didn’t care. Ask Legion.”
Legion rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Took these to the face many a time,” he agreed. “After the first couple, though, it was really my fault for standing too close.”
Pepper/Adam gave him a look that was half pity, half horror. “Let’s just get on with this,” she suggested.
Dagon swiped her card. The light on the cardreader blinked twice, then turned green; Aziraphale and Habioro threw the doors open and flung themselves in, wings opened wide.
The room had been opulently furnished, once upon a time, with dark wood paneling, a long mahogany table, matching chairs upholstered in leather, and plush carpeting. The paneling was marred with scorches, scratches, and gouges of every height and length. A chunk was missing from the center-left side of the table. The leather on the chairs was split open, with stuffing spilling out everywhere. The carpet was filthy, thoroughly matted with candlewax and something much darker. There were no windows and no light fixtures; the room was lit with candelabras, and all but the one at the far end of the table had blown out.
At the other end of the room was a throne made of twisting horns and wrought iron, all in black. Aziraphale recognized it on sight, although he’d worn another face the last time he’d seen it, and it had been in another room entirely; it had looked terribly uncomfortable then, and it didn’t look any better now. It was empty. A single large goblet of tarnished silver lay on the table in front of it, its contents spilled across the table in a dark, slowly drying stain.
Pepper/Adam gasped. “Are they okay?” she asked.
“No!” screeched Dagon, her hands flying out in front of her.
They raced down the length of the room, one on each side, flinging chairs out of their way as they went; the flaming katana clattered onto the table and went out. By the time Aziraphale saw what they had glimpsed, they were kneeling next to Beelzebub’s motionless body.
Pepper/Adam scooped them up in her arms. “Ouch,” she said as she stood up, then “ow,” then “owowowoWOWOW!” as she gently lowered Beelzebub onto the table, away from the spreading stain. “Why does touching them hurt like that?” She blew onto her reddened palms as if they’d been burned.
“I don’t-” Dagon started; as her fingers found Beelzebub’s wrist, she screamed and snatched her hand back. “Holy water!” she spat, like the foulest of curses. “Ah, Beelzebub, what have they done to you?”
“Are they dead?” Pepper/Adam asked. “They’re not breathing, but I don’t know if that means anything down here.” She grabbed at the wrist Dagon had just dropped. “I - ow! - I think there’s a pulse? Ouch! Wait, what am I doing?” Letting go of Beelzebub, she pressed her fingers to her forehead. “I’m in Adam, he has every superpower there is, surely I can - yes - I think - okay, I’m pretty sure they’re still alive, but they’re very badly hurt. And I don’t know if our powers will work right against holy water.”
Dagon let out a wail that shook the walls. Aziraphale shuddered; he hadn’t heard that sound in centuries. There were still places in the world where humans mourned their dead like that, but it was considered poor form at a Christian funeral, at least in England.
He picked his way around the scattered chairs. “Here,” Aziraphale said, “let me.” He tossed his own sword on the table and brushed a hand over Beelzebub’s forehead.
His fingers buzzed with the barely-contained clash of sanctity and corruption. Beelzebub’s very flesh was permeated with holy water, in a dose that felt like it must have been precisely titrated to come as close as possible to killing them without actually doing so. A single drop or two, perhaps, in a full wineglass. He sniffed at the stain on the table; yes, it was a thoroughly wretched sweet red wine with the unmistakable tang of consecration.
“Please, no,” Dagon sobbed. “Don’t leave me.” Her fingers curled helplessly in Beelzebub’s jacket.
Aziraphale tugged at their shoulders, propping them up in the crook of his elbow. “We need to get the holy water out of them,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. He tried to remember how to do that. He had done it once, hadn’t he?
An over-purity, undone by dilution. That was how Alpha had thought about it. Aziraphale didn’t have anything to dilute it with on his own, and he wasn’t sure he trusted himself to draw on Crowley’s essence from across Hell. But he could sense it in Beelzebub’s flesh, could manipulate it, at least.
“This is going to look very strange,” he warned Dagon. He reached across the table, righted the chalice, and set it next to himself, then picked his sword back up and shrank it down to knife-size.
“Don’t,” Dagon pleaded. “I know, I know if you discorporate them they’ll just wind up in Limbo, but I can’t - I can’t let you.”
“It’s all right,” Aziraphale reassured her. He brought Beelzebub’s hand up, their arm swinging limply below it, and ran the knife across the pad of their palm. A slow, sickly bead of ichor welled up, with barely enough pressure behind it to flow at all.
He raised it to his mouth and closed his lips on it. His tongue was awash in salt and copper and smoke, with the sickly-sweet of holiness underneath. Focusing his intent on the wound, he drew vacuum, sucking at it as if he were trying to draw the venom from a snakebite.
He spat a quarter-droplet of holy water into the chalice and drew again.
“Where in Hell are we?” Warlock/Adam asked. “This looks like the world’s worst parking garage.”
“That’s more or less what it is,” Legion agreed. “This is where we put big things if we think we’ll need them again later, but we need the office space for something else.”
The object in front of them had probably been a mimeograph machine at one point, or at least based on one. The bones of an arm jutted from between the rollers. The concrete underneath it was stained an unearthly purple. At some point, a battering ram in the shape of a clenched fist had been bolted to the top. Two of the castors had been replaced with wooden chariot wheels.
“When did you think you were going to need this again?” Warlock/Adam wondered.
“No idea,” Legion admitted with a broad shrug. “I’m not even sure whose department this is from. Probably Ligur’s, if the aesthetic is anything to go by.”
Warlock/Adam rubbed at his forehead and said, “Remind me later to ask him what this was even for.” He peered down the sloping ramp, which was sparsely littered with similar piles of macabre, malfunctioning junk. “Are we going the right way? I’ve heard a couple of footsteps that I don’t think are ours, but I haven’t seen any demons so far that aren’t already on our side.”
“I think we’re still a few levels up,” Legion answered. “I can smell them, but they’re too far to tell apart yet.”
Crowley sniffed. The reek of brimstone was strong, but not overwhelming; it was accompanied by a whiff of hot metal that was just as familiar, but strange to him here. “Have they been researching flaming weapons of their own?” he asked.
“Name a weapon, and Hastur’s been pouring resources into developing it,” someone muttered behind them. “Mostly blood, but fire and gunpowder and everything else, too.”
Warlock/Adam curled two fingers and beckoned his mob forward. The next object was an exploded photocopier, coated in toner and something oozing and resinous. “But why are they in the garage?” he asked.
“Well, it’s not like we do a lot of driving down here,” Legion pointed out. “Most of us walked for our commutes, and when you don’t sleep, you just kind of live at your desk. Or at least between your desk and the coffee machine. Except when the coffee machine is broken, which is more than half the time.” He scratched his head between his horns. “How did we stand working here, again?”
“Beats me,” Crowley answered. “I didn’t. I couldn’t.” They rounded the corner and started down the next ramp.
“We noticed,” Hastur growled over the quiet roar of the bonfire just behind him.
Crowley stopped dead on his heels. The thing Hastur was standing in front of wasn’t the Bentley; it was barely a model of it, a thing made of sheet metal and the tires off of a much newer car, painted black and gunmetal in a childish parody of its color scheme. But it was just close enough that the sight of it engulfed in flames, combined with the smell of hot metal and burning rubber, stopped his heart for a beat.
Warlock/Adam raised an eyebrow. “What, you think that’s going to scare us?” he asked, unimpressed. “We humans set cars on fire all the time. Sometimes we do it just because we won a sporting match.”
Hastur slowly unfocused from Crowley onto Warlock/Adam. “Why are you here?” he asked, thick-tongued. “You’re only half-demon.”
“Well, Pops owns the place, doesn’t he?” Warlock/Adam replied. “Figured if I’m going to inherit it, I should tour the family shop.” He grinned. “I hate what you’ve done to it. We’ll have to make a lot of changes.”
“You gave up whatever claim you had here a long time ago,” Hastur grumbled. “My gripe’s not with you, boy. Get out of the way.”
Warlock/Adam took a couple of leisurely steps toward Hastur and the flaming mock-up of a car. “Nope,” he said. “You got a beef with my employees, you got a beef with me. What’s your primary presenting problem, Hastur? What do you want?”
Hastur dropped a step back; his coat began to smolder. “How do you know my name?” he asked.
“Oh, you’re famous, topside,” Warlock/Adam said, gesturing vaguely upwards. “You’re the manager so bad your workers would rather be homeless, loitering in the subway all day and getting by on handouts, instead of working for you. And I have to ask myself, how could someone with the prestige of a Duke of Hell fuck up so badly?” He took another step forward. “I can’t imagine it’s because of a lack of vision. You look like a demon who knows what he’s after.”
“I didn’t,” Hastur snarled, thrusting a finger at Crowley. “He’s the one who lost you. Everything that’s happened since then, all the defections, all the cover-ups by the Princes, it’s all his fault! Everything I’ve had to do since he lost the hellhound is because of that snake!” He lunged for Crowley, talons sprouting from his fingers.
Half a dozen demons snapped to full size between Hastur and his target, wings spread. A wall of black feathers, speckled here and there with red, went up around Crowley.
“S’alright,” Crowley said, brushing past his protectors. “He’s not dangerous. Not without his jug of holy water.”
Warlock/Adam leaned casually against the flaming car, which was starting to burn itself out. “So, all you want is Crowley’s ass? Is that it, Hastur? Because I’ll be honest, this is starting to look like a personal quest for revenge, and I didn’t take you for someone so small-minded. I thought you at least wanted a war.”
“The war’s just a means to an end,” Hastur mumbled.
Warlock/Adam snapped his fingers. The veneer-of-a-car went out, then frosted over. “So what’s the long-term goal, then?” he asked. He raised an eyebrow; steel glinted in his gaze. “You seem like an ambitious guy, Hastur. Power? Prestige?”
Hastur’s gaze glided across Crowley, then returned to Warlock/Adam. “You wouldn’t understand,” he said dully. “You were born to your position. You were a lordling already when I carried you in a basket to a graveyard.”
“Power, then,” Warlock/Adam concluded. “You’re de facto the fourth most powerful person in Hell already, but you still want more.”
“I’m the only one holding things together down here,” Hastur seethed. “Beelzebub lost whatever will to power they ever had, after you told them to bugger off and the snake walked out of here without a scratch. Leviathan’s worthless as always. Lucifer hasn’t given anyone a direct order since before you were born.”
“Didn’t know that,” Crowley whispered to Legion.
“Me, neither,” Legion whispered back, “although honestly he hasn’t said too much to anyone except Beelzebub since the whole Christ incident, so this is just more of the same.”
“And Dagon fucked off to join the rest of you cowards topside,” Hastur finished. “It’s just me and Asmodeus holding things together, and he’s obsessed with the soul-hoard, now that the supply’s dried up. Do you know how hard it is to run an organization this size when no one’s got their hand on the wheel?” He was roaring, now, fists in the air. “No one else gives a damn! It’s just me down here, these days, and can you blame me for not knowing what every little demon is doing? And they still won’t change my title! Me, doing the job of two Princes, and Beelzebub won’t lift a finger to give me the recognition I’ve earned!”
“So why bother?” Warlock/Adam said, looking at his fingernails as if he were mildly concerned they’d gotten dirty. “What’s the point?”
Hastur gaped at him. “Because no one else will do it.”
“So let it not be done, then,” Warlock/Adam said, studiously watching his hands. “You said yourself, there’s no reward in it for you. Papa hasn’t said boo to you, and Beezie’s not going to; you know that by now. So why work yourself to the bone for them?”
“What else would I do?” Hastur asked, as if he genuinely couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Warlock/Adam met his gaze and locked with it. He held out one hand. “Join me,” he said. “I can use a demon with your singularity of purpose. I’ll pay attention to you, Hastur. I’ll notice you. Do what I tell you, follow my orders, and I will sing your praises.”
“R-really?” Hastur gasped.
“Really,” Warlock/Adam crooned. “I can’t give you the war you want, Hastur, but recognition I can give you in spades, and I can give you a place of pride in my own army. Join me. Leave this dump. You can do so much better.”
Crowley’s heart fluttered, nearly bursting with pride. Warlock, dear little Warlock, was tempting a Duke of Hell.
For a moment, Hastur’s face was completely open; his need rippled across it like waves on a pond. His hand fluttered, his fingers darting towards Warlock/Adam despite himself.
The stairwell would have been crowded even if everyone in it didn’t have their wings out. As it was, Adam was half-cocooned, half-barricaded by black and white feathers as he clambered down slick concrete steps shot through with cracks big enough to trip over. Here and there a chunk of a riser was missing; hitting it wrong with the edge of a foot made the whole step feel like it was about to slide away. Half the light fixtures were out; the rest flickered and buzzed, casting teal-green, sharp-edged shadows across their faces.
“Are we there yet?” Abuataar grunted.
“One more floor,” Legion promised.
“Are you sure we’re deep enough?” Adam asked. “I can barely feel anything outside of these walls.”
Exinolas pointed at a tiny plaque next to the door on the next landing below them. It had been scratched over and grafitti’d multiple times, but peered at closely enough, it had “Level 5” under the layers of marker and spray paint. “We can go down one more, but this was the original plan,” she said.
“No, hang on,” Adam said. It was difficult enough having split his essence into three parts; he understood why it was so common as a mythological motif, Pepper and Warlock were each handling their share of him beautifully, and he couldn’t argue that it wasn’t profoundly useful, but he really should have practiced that part before they got here. Now, something about the substance of the stairwell was blocking his rarefied senses, too. “What is this made of?”
“The same thing that all of Hell is made of,” Legion said. “Brimstone and lowered expectations.”
Abuataar ran a hand along the dark gray wall. He was obviously not the first to have done so; fingerprints in black soot and various redder substances marked the entire stairwell. “Are you sure about that?” he asked. “I’m with Adam; I’m feeling something else here.”
“Something different from Dagon’s digs?” Exinolas asked.
Abuataar folded his wings and turned to press both palms to the cracked paint. “Maybe?” he said. “Something other than sulfur, anyway. I’m pretty sure there’s firmament in here. It feels like the lowest levels Upstairs, except - shattered and out of tune.”
“The part of Heaven that fell with us,” Exinolas realized out loud.
Legion looked surprised. “Oh, is that what that was?” he wondered. “I still can’t remember much, but yeah, I do remember hitting stuff on the way down, even before we got to the sphere of Earth.”
“It’s in the walls,” Abuataar concluded, “but not the floors or ceilings, at least not that I can feel.” He brushed his hands together, as if he were knocking off invisible dust. “Held there by an iron will. Lucifer’s, I’m guessing.”
“Maybe all the Princes,” Exinolas suggested. “That might be why you weren’t feeling it in Dagon’s old domain; she quit caring.”
Adam leaned against the wall and felt for its vibes. It clanged silently under his fingertips; that must be what Abuataar had meant when he said it was out of tune. “Whatever it is, I don’t think I can work through it,” he admitted. “We’re going to have to step out in the open to get anything useful done. Is everyone okay with that?”
A general chorus of affirmatives surrounded him along with the wings. A few blades appeared, two at a time.
Exinolas shifted to the door. “Sneaking out or making a run for it?” she asked.
“How about walking out calmly like I own the place,” Adam suggested. “I mean, by all rights, I do.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Legion agreed. How someone could visibly prepare to fawn, Adam wasn’t sure, but Legion clearly did it.
Adam straightened his shirt. “Let’s go,” he ordered, as Exinolas calmly but firmly shoved the door open.
This level of Hell was full of cubicles, each one just a little too small to work comfortably in, stretching in just slightly offset rows for as far as the eye could see. The transparent forms of human souls were crammed in three or four to each cubicle, unable to move around without elbowing each other in the side; they were naked, except for the chains that shackled them to the desks. The room was freezing; Adam could see his breath in little clouds.
Every head turned as Adam strode down the aisle, glancing at faces as he went. The spirits in Limbo barely had shapes at all, but these seemed to wear the image of the body they’d had when they died. An awful lot had prominent scars somewhere on them.
“Someone’s coming,” Exinolas and Legion both said at once. Exinolas punctuated it with a hand held in Adam’s path, meant to stop him.
“Let them come,” Adam sighed. Better to deal with whatever nonsense the deadbeat was going to throw at him now.
A volcano’s cone of red-brown smoke erupted from the floor just in front of the cubicle two dividers down, pouring itself into a pillar, then a humanoid shape. Gradually, it coalesced into the most stereotypical demon Adam had yet seen. This one obviously had a caprine aspect; a pair of dark brown horns spiraled from his forehead, a goatee sprouted from chin, his hips and legs were covered in shaggy fur, his legs were digitigrade with enormous thighs, his feet were cloven hooves, and his eyes had those weird sideways pupils. He was also seven feet tall and naked from the waist down, although he was wearing a button-down shirt with only a few ash stains, a very nice suit jacket, and a sash not entirely dissimilar from Beelzebub’s on his top half.
“Let me guess,” Adam said before the new apparition could speak. “Asmodeus?” He was trying to sound bored, but to his own ears it came out more as dismissive.
“Right in one, o wayward son of my lord,” Asmodeus answered, smiling unpleasantly. His teeth were distinctly not herbivorous; they reminded Adam of a deep-sea fish, the kind that survives by swallowing things whole. “Why have you come here?” he continued. “Have you decided to begin the war after all, and to beg for the help you so rudely turned down before?”
“Nothing like that,” Adam replied. “Pops doesn’t seem to be doing much with the family business. I thought I’d come down and take my birthright out of its assets before the stock price fell too far.”
The background noise in the room, which hadn’t been that loud to begin with, fell silent.
Asmodeus sneered, “And how do you propose to do that? I see you’ve brought a few disgraced angels with you, along with our traitors - Legion, don’t think we’ve forgotten you - but surely you can’t think they can protect you here.”
“They don’t need to,” Adam said. “I can protect myself just fine.”
Asmodeus tossed his horns and laughed. “On Earth, perhaps,” he chuckled, “but here? From a Prince of the realm? You think too highly of your powers, child.” He produced an expensive-looking pen and a sheet of what looked like parchment from the ether. “I have a contract for you. Sign, and you will receive all of the physical assets of Hell in the material world, in exchange for giving up any claim on Hell itself. You can run the operation on Earth. We have no quarrel with that. But you must leave here with nothing more than you came with, and you must leave now, or I will personally remove you.”
“You don’t look like Security,” Adam said. “Or Legal, really, either. You look more like the CFO, except for the lack of shoes.” He pointedly did not reach for the pen or the contract.
“There’s not that much difference, here.” Asmodeus thrust the pen at him. “Sign, and leave, or die.”
“Neither, thanks.” Adam gave him a thumbs-down; the parchment crumbled to dust in Asmodeus’s fingers. “I have work to do. Go away.”
“Your funeral.” Asmodeus twirled the pen in his fingers; it turned into a spear that nearly scraped the low ceiling. He was already in the air, propelled by those giant haunches, the point aimed directly at Adam’s heart, when light and shadow nearly blinded him.
Atelerix Athnan’s great curved blade came down on the haft of the spear just behind the point and clipped it in two; the point spun off and stuck harmlessly in their robes. They caught Asmodeus’s collar in one hand and hauled him off the floor. “What shall we do with him, boss?” they said.
“What misery is this?” Asmodeus screeched, his hooves churning the air.
“My bodyguard,” Adam said. “Atelerix, neutralize him so I can get some actual work done.”
“Gladly,” Atelerix said. “Shall I discorporate him for you?”
“Only if he makes a nuisance of himself,” Adam replied. He put the demon out of his mind and ran both hands through his hair, spreading his wings and his aura out as far as he could push them.
To the vast field of shivering souls in front of him, he called out, “Do you know me?”
Yes, cried an assembly of voices; each one was thin, barely more than the wind against a reed, but together they shook the ceiling. Yes, we know you, Satan’s son.
Within him, at his core, something unfolded and cried back, That is not his name. That is not our name..
Then who are you?
We are Adam Kadmon. We are Ourselves, together. We are Humankind.
Adam caught the next part with his voice. “Will you join me?”
The roar that went up sounded like Hell itself was cracking in two.
Aziraphale spat another fraction of a drop of holy water into the silver chalice. There was now a decent spoonful sloshing around in there. Even allowing for how much of that was probably his own angelic saliva, he had no idea how Beelzebub had survived having that much in their system.
This time, when he sealed his lips around the wound and sucked, his mouth was flooded with the copper-and-asphalt tang of demonic ichor. He barely managed to suppress his gag reflex, hacking the mouthful of darkest red onto the table instead. “That’s as much as I can do,” he gasped between coughs. “I only hope it’s enough.”
Dagon’s hand settled on Beelzebub’s forehead, long-fingered and silver-pale. “It doesn’t hurt, now,” Dagon whispered. “And they’re still alive.” She swallowed, hard, as her eyes met Aziraphale’s gaze. “Thank you. I don’t understand, but thank you.”
Pepper/Adam tapped him on the shoulder. “Switch places,” she ordered.
Aziraphale obeyed, forcing his stiff legs to climb out of the chair. A bit of leaking stuffing clung to his trousers; he picked it off absently as Pepper/Adam slid into it and pressed her hands to Beelzebub’s shoulders with a look of intense concentration.
“Yeah, now I can feel what’s going on,” Pepper/Adam said, more to herself than to Dagon. “Stand back, I’m going to try to fix things.”
Dagon let go with obvious reluctance. Aziraphale studied her face; had it been so very long ago he’d seen the same expression on Crowley’s? He hadn’t even been hurt particularly badly that time, just taken by surprise by a pair of roundheads who had mistaken him for an aristocrat, but his demon had scooped him up and miracled the one joint back into its proper configuration with that same mixture of sorrow and worry and how-could-you-do-something-that-stupid written all over him.
“You two seem to have a very close working relationship,” he said quietly, as a bright orange glow that was nothing at all like fire poured from Pepper/Adam’s hands.
Dagon glanced at the other angels milling around the other end of the room, then at Legion. “We did,” she replied, folding her arms across her chest. “Until they went up to try to talk to Crowley about the soul thing. After that, it was like they didn’t care about anything anymore. Like they’d . . . given up. On Hell. On Lucifer ever getting his shit back together.”
“On you?” Aziraphale asked, gently.
“On me, too,” Dagon agreed, turning away. “Although that’s the least important part.”
A ragged groan rattled the table. “Not on you,” said a voice that was barely recognizable as Beelzebub’s. “Never you. Juzzt . . . everything elzze.”
Pepper/Adam’s fingers slid over the cut Aziraphale’s blade had left in Beelzebub’s palm, closing it without a trace. “Well,” she said, “there’s no more damage being done. I fixed everything I could. But the holy water didn’t just hurt the parts I can touch, I don’t think.”
“No,” Beelzebub agreed. “You’ve done an admirable job, human. What’zz left, you can’t fixzz.” They attempted to raise their head from the table and failed. “How many people are you? Didn’t you object to that, onzze upon a time?”
“That part is a little ironic, yes,” Pepper/Adam agreed. “And I’m not sure I can actually answer the question.”
A rumble shook the executive boardroom; new cracks appeared in the plaster on the ceiling. Faintly, a wailing came from somewhere below them.
“Ah,” Beelzebub sighed. “He’s come to take them. I mean, you’ve come to take them. I wazz wondering.” They rolled their head over to look at Aziraphale. “Why do you have ichor on your chin?”
Aziraphale hastily whipped out a handkerchief from under his holy armor and wiped his mouth and face down. “It’s yours,” he explained apologetically. “I had to suck the holy water out of you; I couldn’t think of another way to expel it from your corporation that wouldn’t just hurt you more.”
“Why did you drink that?” Dagon exploded. “Did Hastur give it to you? You had to have known what was in it!”
Beelzebub closed their eyes and made a noise between a moan and a sigh. “I zzuzzpected,” they said. “But I couldn’t zzee a way out of it without accuzzing him directly, and without any other Prinzzezz to back me up - without you, without Leviathan - it was juzzt me againzzt Hazztur and Azzmodeuzz.” They paused; their fingertips flexed against the table’s gouged and stained surface. “Without you, without - without - knowing how incomplete I am, and alwayzz will be - I ….” Their eyes found the chalice. “It zzeemed eazzier just to drink it. I only got one zzwallow down before I dropped it.”
Crowley’s memory of breathing Hellfire at Gabriel flashed through Aziraphale’s mind. “It’s just too bad it’s so hard to get an Archangel to see reason,” he mumbled.
“Yeah, mine’s a dipshit, too,” Dagon growled. “We don’t need them, Beelzebub. We don’t need any of them, not Lucifer, not the angels, not even Adam.” Her voice wavered, shifted from demanding to pleading. “Come with me. With us. Please.”
“You’ll have to take me with you,” Beelzebub said, very softly. “I can’t zzeem to zztand up at the moment.”
Habioro tapped Aziraphale on the shoulder. “Did you just save a Prince of Hell’s life?” he asked.
“Well, I and Pepper and Adam did, I suppose,” Aziraphale answered. He watched the tenderness with which Dagon gathered Beelzebub into her arms.
“And now that Prince of Hell is coming with us?” Habioro said, sounding like he didn’t believe what he was saying.
“It appears so,” Aziraphale said drily. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“I - well, no, that would be hypocritical,” Habioro admitted. “I just didn’t think that was our objective here.”
Legion smirked up at him. “Our secondary objective,” he said crisply, “was to recruit as many other demons to our side as we could,” he reminded him. “Not a huge victory on numbers, but I don’t think the Boss will mind.”
Another tremor shook flakes of plaster from the ceiling.
The howl from below shook the floor and rattled the infernal contraptions around them on their wheels. Hastur shook his head, as if he were waking up from a dream. “Nice try,” he sneered, “but I know who I belong to.” He crouched down, clawed fingers raking the concrete. “And I’d rather have Crowley’s head on a pike than any false honors you could give me.”
Crowley was already dodging before Hastur’s legs left the floor; the leap for his head was so telegraphed, Marconi would have laughed at it. Hastur sailed through the space where Crowley had been and landed on all fours on the floor, facing the wrong way; two of the other demons jumped after him and were batted away like mosquitoes.
“Up here,” Warlock/Adam hissed, darting after Crowley and gesturing around his shoulders.
It took a fraction of a second for Crowley to understand; then he was twisting into something longer and thinner, twining like lightning around Adam’s legs and up his ribs to settle in long coils around him like a scarf, ensconced in the protection of his aura.
Hastur had finally managed to whip around; he shook off another pair of demons, tossing them onto what was left of the hood of the mock-car. “Don’t think he can protect you, Crowley,” he growled “I’ll tear him to pieces to get to you, too.”
“As if,” Warlock/Adam said, sniffing loudly. “And you still smell like poo.”
Hastur froze in place, hands half-outstretched. “What?” he croaked.
“Have you not taken a single bath in all this time?” Warlock/Adam continued. “No showers in the demonic locker rooms? Not even an air freshener?”
Pointing with a talon almost as long as the rest of his hand, Hastur took a step back. “You’re not the real Antichrist,” he said, in a voice like bubbling mud. “You’re the boy from Megiddo. The fake.”
Warlock/Adam shrugged, shifting Crowley’s coils against his back. Slowly, his appearance morphed, his hair darkening and straightening, his shoulders narrowing, dark circles and smudged eyeliner making his eyes look almost sunken. This was indeed the boy from Megiddo, nearly grown, in charcoal cargo pants and a black t-shirt, with a snake on his shoulders, his hands jammed in his pockets, and a full face of goth makeup.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s me, all right.” He smiled; it didn’t reach his eyes. “But are you so sure I’m the fake, Mister La Vista?” A pair of wings snapped open, iridescent black with white tips and bands, nudging Crowley upwards; a pair of short black horns peeked from his greasy black hair.
“Of course I’m sure,” Hastur said, sounding profoundly unsure. “I’ve seen the real Antichrist. He has the hellhound. He’s - he feels . . . his aura . . . .” Hastur trailed off.
“But don’t I feel the same?” Warlock/Adam asked, still smiling. He slid his left hand from his pocket and settled it protectively on Crowley. “Are you so sure we got switched? Maybe I was the right child after all, and it wasn’t Crowley who blew your chances for the war, it was you, having a fit in Israel and leaving me in the lurch.”
“Not possible,” Hastur insisted. A pair of maggots fell from his mouth.
“Oh, it’s very posssible,” Crowley said. “Big lunk like you, misssing everything we did to keep the Antichrissst sssafe? I’d believe it in a heartbeat.”
“SHUT UP!” Hastur roared, leaping for Crowley’s throat again.
Warlock/Adam yanked his right hand out of his pocket, clutching his flaming pistol, and fired twice. The first shot was a near miss, winging Hastur’s coat and sparking where it hit the concrete; the second nailed Hastur in the shoulder and sent him spinning.
Legion went low and knocked Hastur’s legs out from under him. A pile of demons followed, swarming him and bringing him to the floor in a pile of limbs.
“What the Hell was that?” Hastur howled from the bottom of a twelve-demon tackle.
“Back home, we call it a Second Amendment solution,” Warlock/Adam said, finally letting the smile crinkle the corners of his eyes.
Legion scrambled out of the pile and glanced down the ramp. “He can’t seriously have come here with no backup,” he insisted. “And that was loud enough to alert whoever he’s got down there.”
“So far,” Warlock/Adam argued, “it hasn’t looked like he has many friends, just terrified underlings. How enthusiastic do you think they’re going to be about rescuing him from me?”
“Not very,” Crowley agreed, “but even sssso, they may want to rumble just for the sssake of a good punch-up. Hastur’s lot are not big on sssubtlety, and I’m betting he’s got sssome of Ligur’s old crew, too. They’d as sssoon fight as look at you, even if they liked you.”
“So what do you -” Warlock/Adam was interrupted by a scream that shook the walls.
Adam’s skull - this one, at least - felt like it was about to crack in half.
Technically, he had absorbed more souls in Limbo; the number of children who had died in their cribs, with neither any great sins nor any acts of virtue to their names, between Eden and Tadfield was staggering. But what was not enough time for transgressions or mitzvot was also not enough time to develop more than the broadest outline of a personality. The souls that went to Hell had much more time, both before their death and afterward, to develop sharp edges.
The majority of them were spirits one step over the line, with a few harsh words too many, a heart just a little too hard, or one great unconfessed transgression in an otherwise neutral life. They wanted nothing more than to leave, and they swarmed him like the last train before morning.
Another group were merely self-centered in life, willing to throw their fellow humans under the bus for their own convenience. They, too, saw him as a ticket out, yet another means to an end.
A proportion, though, were unrepentant criminals who saw him as a getaway car, a chance at a jailbreak, who joined him gladly but resisted once there, holding onto their perimeters instead of melding. It took an effort to surround them, to encompass them; taking them in was like swallowing spikes.
Hold on, said the part of him that was also Nancy Watson. Let us handle this part.
Adam clutched at his temples as the smell of a hundred thousand home-cooked meals rolled through his brain. For a moment, he wondered if he were hallucinating, if the brimstone and muck of Hell had been too much to handle on top of everything else.
Then he realized precisely how large a fraction of himself was made of grandmothers.
A hundred thousand matrons descended upon the burning hearts of Hell, arms open. The spiritual equivalent of a million kettles were put on for tea. The wicked and the lost were found, were wrapped up in afghans, were welcomed into Adam’s depths like they’d always belonged there.
Like they were coming home from a long imprisonment, and still loved.
Adam breathed, forcing air into his lungs as his personal galaxy gained billions more stars; he was faintly aware that his exhalations were screams, but that was far less important than just continuing to breathe. Passing out in the middle of Hell was not an option.
As the first wave of souls settled into his essence, relief flooded through him, followed by a tidal wave of anger, chased by memories of pain, thousands of years of torture, some of it from the demons, even more from each other. The sheer intensity made his stomach lurch alarmingly; he clung to his understanding that this had not happened to him, that these feelings weren’t his.
Except, of course, now they had, and they were. They didn’t belong to the part of him that was in charge, but that was so very small a piece of what Adam had become. As new stars settled into their orbits, their pasts and their pain became part of his galaxy. Much as he might think of himself that way, he was not only the black hole at the center that kept the stars in their courses, not anymore.
As his mind cleared and the grandmother corps took the new souls in like stray kittens, Adam could feel a few stray souls still clinging to their chains, resisting his endless gravity. He knew, he knew he had only to stay here long enough, hold himself open long enough, and they would fall into him as all souls on Earth must, but his head was splitting and he was split three ways and what were Pepper and Warlock doing, why were they afraid, why were these souls trying so hard to refuse his refuge?
The Invictus assholes, said someone who might have been Wensleydale. Too proud to admit they want our help.
’Ere, said a part of him that had long slumbered. Let me talk to ‘em.
Adam reached into himself and drew up that spark, held it to his eyes, to his tongue. He was more surprised than he should have been, perhaps, to hear Shadwell’s voice haltingly drop from his mouth.
“I know,” Adam/Shadwell said, “I know what it’s like. Yeh’ve been alone so long, you cain’t imagine what it’s like to not be alone, and yeh think of being-with as a weakness.” His mouth was dry. “So much ends up dependin’ on you keeping up the appearances, and the back of yeh knows it’s a front, but yeh’ve been doin’ it so long, ye cain’t help believin’ in it, too. Yer runnin’ a scam on yerself, in the end, just to keep yerself goin’. Bein’ alone, standin’ alone, yeh think of it as yer strength, but it inn’t, in the end. It’s just one more way to fail, inn’t it? ‘Cause yer never really alone. Someone had to do them dishes, yeh?”
Adam genuinely had no idea what Adam/Shadwell was trying to say, despite being the person who was actually saying it. He was doing better with the images flashing through his mind. Shadwell had been a prisoner, once, for something he agreed was wrong but felt like he had to do. He had lied to what he thought were a mobster and a pimp to scam them for enough money to survive, until he had more than half-believed the lie. He had been a survivor, an island, a rule unto himself.
He had been proud, as these souls were proud, and yet he had eventually allowed himself to be loved, whether he deserved it or not.
Apparently he was getting through. The last few souls, those who would indeed have faced God Herself and walked backwards into Hell rather than submit to rules not their own, were listening to him, at any rate.
Adam spread his hands. “There’s no laws here,” he said. “There’s no grand plan, no one to tell us what to do. There’s just us.”
That’s the spirit, boy! Shadwell/Adam agreed.
A final handful of souls spiraled into him, reluctantly but without force. Scouring the levels above and below, Adam searched for any remaining human souls and found none.
Hell was empty.
Adam fell to his knees. The Sixth of the Titans, Eucrocuta Hexalis, caught him before he collapsed all the way to the floor.
Asmodeus dangled similarly limply in Atelerix’s grasp. “You can’t do that,” he said, trying to make it a command and failing.
“Already did,” Adam replied. His voice was rough; he must have been screaming for longer than he’d realized.
“Put them back,” Asmodeus whined.
“Couldn’t even if I wanted to,” Adam coughed. “Which, for the record, I don’t.” He let Eucrocuta set him back on his feet. “I think we’re done here.”
Atelerix waved Asmodeus around by his hooves. “What shall I do with him?” they asked.
Adam waved vaguely in the direction of the now-empty cubicles. “We’ve got lots of leftover chains,” he said. “I’m sure you can keep him from following us.”
A tremor rocked the entire level. A cubicle wall fell over.
“Let’s make it snappy,” Legion suggested as the floor underneath them made an ominous popping noise.
“The coast is clear,” Legion called back over his shoulder. “And the other teams are on their way.”
Beelzebub, cradled bridal-style in Dagon’s arms, struggled to lift their head and were slightly more successful this time. “What a mezzz,” they sighed.
“You didn’t order this, then?” Dagon asked. The remains of her office still smouldered across the lobby; the boxes were reduced to ash.
“No,” Beelzebub answered. “I would nevvvver dizzrezzpect your work like thizz.”
“I’m really beginning to hate Hastur personally,” Dagon grumbled.
Aziraphale rubbed his hands together. “Is there anything of yours that you’d like to grab before we leave?” he asked.
Dagon’s eyes swept the room. “Actually,” she said slowly, “the exact opposite.” A muscle in her jaw worked. “Would you hold them for me, for a moment?”
“I - yes, yes, of course,” Aziraphale answered, gingerly lifting Beelzebub from Dagon’s grasp.
Beelzebub chuckled. “Careful, angel,” they whispered. “Crowley might get jealouzz.”
“I seriously doubt it,” Aziraphale murmured back. “Despite all appearances, he’s not the jealous type.”
Dagon’s brow furrowed. From the ether, she plucked what to all appearances was a standard digital tablet, sleek black glass and steel barely thicker than a few sheets of cardstock, and a matching stylus. “A bit out of date, now,” she mused.
“It was ahead of its time, onzzze,” Beelzebub noted.
“Indeed.” Dagon brandished them like weapons; they became a slate and a stick of chalk, then a wooden shingle covered with wax and a sharp-tipped metal pen, then a clay tablet and a reed, and finally a square of stone and a bone chisel. The air in the room grew thick.
“Oh,” Pepper/Adam said, her eyebrows raised.
Aziraphale leaned in. “Would someone care to clue me in?” he asked.
“She’s not,” Legion breathed.
“I think she is,” Pepper/Adam agreed.
“Once, I swore an oath, to record every ill deed done in the world above upon these,” Dagon intoned, almost chanting. “Today, I renounce that oath, for the good and ill done in the world above are no longer the business of Hell, nor am I.” She tensed every muscle in her back. “The time of the tablets of stone and bone are over.” Whirling in place, she dashed the tablet and chisel onto the floor; they shattered more like the glass tablet they’d been a few moments before, or like a mirror dropped from a great height.
The floor shuddered. One of the flickering light fixtures guttered like a candle and went out, then another.
“Ang- ah. Azzzzzziraphale. Will you put my feet down? I need to at leazzt pretend to be zzztanding for thizz,” Beezebub murmured.
“I wasn’t sure you actually knew my name,” Aziraphale admitted. He set their legs down, keeping an arm under their shoulders and supporting their weight against his hip and side.
“I know many thingzzz,” Beelzebub replied with the barest hint of a smirk. They turned their right hand to face upwards, curling their fingers; the effort drained what little color there was from their face.
A floor tile cracked and heaved. The throne of horns and wrought iron, the same one that Beelzebub had fallen from in the executive suite, rose from the ground, looking as uncomfortable as ever.
Beelzebub wiggled their fingers at it, and the throne shifted, the metal turning to hammered bars flaking with rust. The horns grew skulls, and the skulls grew flesh, blood and fur dripping down the iron.
“I, too, onzze zzwore an oath, to rule the world abovve from this throne of blood,” Beelzebub rasped. “Today, I renounce that oath, for today I leave Hell with no intent to rule, whether above, or below, or in the middle world, nor do I bequeath my rulership to any other.” They leaned heavily against Aziraphale’s side. “The time of the throne of blood is over,” they finished. “Antichrizzt, will you do the honorzz?”
“Sure,” Pepper/Adam agreed. Instantly, the flaming katana was back in her hands; she spun it above her head and brought it down on the back of the throne. The flames raced down it, a bonfire leaping for the ceiling and then dying back, leaving a pile of rust and ash.
The ceiling groaned. One of the light fixtures swayed and popped loose, dangling by sparking wires.
Another Legion threw open a stairwell door. “Could we maybe wait until we’re out of here before cutting Hell’s foundations?” he asked, peevishly.
Dagon gathered Beelzebub back into her arms. “No,” they both said.
“It’s okay,” Adam wheezed as Exinolas and Abuataar helped him over the threshold. “The walls - they’re still solid.”
“Indeed,” Dagon said. “Although I admit, dropping the floor out from Hastur would amuse me greatly.”
“You might get that opportunity,” one of the Legions replied. “He’s chasing the last team back up here, although we’ve hurt him badly enough I’m pretty sure they’ll get away.”
The demons with the blue jay feathers and the zebra stripes raised their hands. “May we assist with that?”
The platoon of demons surrounding Warlock/Adam and Crowley seemed to be growing every time they turned a corner, which would have been excellent news except that it was slowing them down.
“He’s bleeding too badly to keep up,” someone gasped.
“Why hasn’t he just miracled himself a healing?” Legion panted. “Magic bullets?”
“Right in one,” Warlock/Adam shouted back. “He can probably do it, but it’s going to take it out of him. He’s too angry to focus that much, anyway.”
Hastur barely had a shape as he raged along behind them; he was more of a cloud of teeth and claws, barely bound together by slick skin and wetness. While this was certainly threatening, it was not improving his speed at all.
“Two more doors,” cried one of the subway demons, their trenchcoat flapping like an extra pair of wings.
“Everyone else is already in the lobby,” Legion reported. “Adam’s a little wobbly on his feet, but we’re ready to go.” Another ominous crack appeared in the ceiling above them.
“One more!” the demon in front called back. “We’re nearly there!”
“Crowley!” Hastur howled. “Nowhere’s safe for you! Do you hear me?”
“Asss if I could avoid it,” Crowley groused.
“We’re here!” A bear-aspected demon grabbed the door handle and nearly threw it off its hinges. “Go, go, go!” The demonic horde began shrinking down to bug-size as they blew through.
Warlock/Adam cornered hard and darted through the crowd. “Brother Francis!” he shouted. “Swords over here, Hastur’s not that far behind us!”
Crowley took the opportunity to slither down from Warlock/Adam’s shoulders and twist himself back into his human shape. “He’s a mess in every way possible,” he added. “What happened to Beelzebub?”
“We’ll explain once we’re up,” Pepper/Adam answered for him. “Get everyone ready to head back up to the main lobby.”
Their army buzzed around their heads, blocking out the already dim light. Exinolas frowned at the turbolift doors and pressed the button again. “Why is this stupid thing taking so long?” she snarled.
Cochabiel and Habioro exchanged a worried glance. Cochabiel laid one hand against the lift doors. “Someone’s hogging the maglevs,” he said. “Not in the human realm. Upstairs.”
“Michael,” Aziraphale moaned. “She saw us come down; she’s trying to make sure we stay.”
“Screw that,” Pepper/Adam said. “Move over.” She elbowed Habioro aside and punched the lift doors; they crumpled like tinfoil.
Adam straightened up. “Just so I know what you’re using my power for,” he asked, “what exactly are you doing?”
“Getting us out of here.” She yanked the ruined sliding doors aside. “If they won’t let us use their lift -”
“We’ll make an elevator of our own,” Warlock/Adam finished. “Everybody shrink way down; we’re all going to have to fit in one car.”
Something crashed on the other side of the door to the hallway. “We’ll handle it,” the zebra-striped demon said, crouching by the doorframe. “If we can, we’ll come up by the usual way later.”
Pepper/Adam spread her wings, golden-brown and barred, and stepped into the elevator shaft. A floor of orange light appeared beneath her feet. “I’m not bothering with sides,” she said, eyes screwed tight shut in concentration. “Everyone get in.”
Dagon stepped to her side, followed by Aziraphale and Crowley, then Adam and Abuataar, then Warlock/Adam, trailing a cloud of demonic gnats twice as thick as the one they’d arrived with. Crowley glanced at Pepper/Adam’s face, then joined the cloud, shrinking to a size small enough to disco on a pinhead.
The door across the lobby burst open. “Crowley, you bastard!” Hastur yowled.
He got no farther. The two demons at the door flung a blizzard of half-burned papers at him; the papers spun like blades, winging into him edge-first. Ichor showered the floor as another grinding pop shook the foundations.
“Going up!” Pepper/Warlock shouted, and the maglev hummed to life. The makeshift telekinetic elevator car shot upward.
Raphael rose to his feet as the door to Limbo flew open again. A black cloud poured through and turned, mote by mote, into a motley mob of mostly demons.
Dagon shouldered her way through and marched up to Raphael. “You’re a healer, yeah?” she barked.
“I am,” he said, and looked down. “Oh, good Lord.”
Beelzebub took several tries to focus on him. “It’zz Azzmodeuzz’zz archangel,” they said. “How?”
“Hey, Boss!” Ligur shouted as he jogged up. “How are - oh, no.”
Beelzebub gaped at him. “Ligur?”
“Looks like it almost happened to you, too,” he muttered. “Hastur?”
“And Azzmodeuzz.” Beelzebub’s head lolled back. “I need a rezzzt. I can’t deal with thizz right now.” They twisted slightly in Dagon’s grip. “It’zz good to zzee you again, Ligur,” they admitted.
Adam was laughing, swinging Pepper/Adam around in circles. “You were brilliant!” he shouted, still half out of breath. “You should have seen Legion’s faces when you punched the lift doors. It was amazing!”
“Yeah, fast thinking, there,” Warlock/Adam agreed. “Good work all around.” He waved at the Princes of Hell. “Excellent breaking of ancient oaths, too; I approve.”
“And you!” Adam tackled Warlock/Adam in a hug. “Wow, you really are Crowley’s protege, aren’t you? Tempting demons out of their hate?”
“It didn’t work,” Warlock/Adam moaned. “I really wanted to score him for our side for real.”
“It worked for long enough!” Adam looked down into Warlock/Adam’s eyes. “Also, is this what you used to look like?”
“Close enough,” Warlock/Adam answered. “I could never quite get the mascara right in real life. Like, this is my night on the town look; I didn’t wear this every day.”
Pepper/Adam shooed away one of the Legions. “So, your date night get-up?” she said, grinning. “I quite like it, honestly; the eyeliner suits you.”
“I like it, too,” Adam breathed. The color was returning to his face; his cheeks were beginning to flush.
“I - um - thanks?” Warlock/Adam said, clearly realizing his arms were still around Adam.
Pepper/Adam took a few steps towards one of the cottages, one of the ones that was already furnished. “Tell you what,” she said, grinning like a fox, “why don’t you two find someplace comfortable to sit down, and - start the debrief while I make sure Beelzebub is okay and get someone to orient the new demons. Sound good?”
“What?” said Warlock/Adam.
“Sounds great,” Adam said, tugging Warlock/Adam towards the cottage.
Warlock/Adam blinked, twice. “Oh?” he said, his voice brimming with hope.
“Come on?” Adam’s demeanor flagged for a second, and for a moment he looked terribly lonely.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Warlock/... said, reaching for the doorknob. “Yes.”
“Yes?” Adam asked. His hand fell on Warlock’s.
“Absolutely.” Warlock flung the door open; Adam shut it firmly behind them.
“Can I get a wahoo?” Crowley said, archly. Ligur snorted at him.
Pepper/Adam laughed. “I told him all he needed to do was tell him,” she said. “Both of them. Idiots.”
“Love makes fools of us all,” Aziraphale sighed happily.
“Tell me about it,” Crowley said, rolling his eyes.
“Dizzguzzting,” Beelzebub said, looking up at Dagon and raising an eyebrow. Their expression was not in the least disgusted; if anything, they were intrigued.
Pepper/Adam flopped onto the bench beneath the pomegranate tree, which may or may not have been there a few moments before. “I vote we all take a rest before the next step,” she said.
“Which is?” Beelzebub asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Abuataar asked. “We do the same thing to Heaven.”
Three days later, Leviathan appeared in the warehouse in Limbo, discorporated and half-washed from the inside out.
“Hastur,” was all he said before rolling over and going back to sleep.
Dagon and Beelzebub poked at him for several hours before giving up on getting anything more. “Same thing that he did to me,” Beelzebub concluded. “Where izz he getting the holy water from? Michael’s bathtub ran out agezz ago.”
“We were hoping you could tell us,” Aziraphale admitted.
Beelzebub had recovered enough to sit up on their own, but still couldn’t stand. Dagon didn’t seem to mind carrying them around, and Limbo seemed to be easier on them than the more serious gravity of Earth.
“Someone has to be giving it to him,” Dagon insisted. “He can’t get it himself. Someone would have noticed him breaking into churches. Hell, by now he’d have fucked up and spilled it on himself if he were getting it directly from the fonts.”
Crowley nodded his agreement. “So, either a human ally or he’s consorting with an angel himself,” he concluded.
Beelzebub locked eyes with Aziraphale. “Sandalphon?” they asked.
“I’d have guessed Michael again,” Aziraphale said. “She’s shown the most willingness to, er, consort.”
“It might even be Gabriel,” Dagon muttered.
“No,” Beelzebub demurred, “if it were Gabriel, the chalice would have had hizz name on it in gold letterzz. If he were going to poizzon a Prince of Hell, there would be no subterfuge.”
“Still could be humans,” Crowley argued. “There are still Satanists out there. Less than there used to be, sure, but they’re not gone.”
Beelzebub closed their eyes. “They’re also not very active,” they said. “They’ve noticed the lack of support from Below. Then again, that might mean he hazz more pull with them, if he’zz the only contact they’ve had with our organizzation.”
Adam sauntered up. While he’d returned to having only one body, he was remarkably relaxed for someone who had absorbed several billion tormented souls. “If it’s humans,” he said, “I can say with some certainty that it’s recent. No one who’s died since I started doing this has knowingly dealt with Hastur, and he’s still terrible at disguising himself.”
“In that case,” Aziraphale said carefully, “it’s entirely likely that someone will have some on hand when we run Upstairs.”
“I was expecting that,” Adam agreed. “We’ll be taking as few demons as possible, at least the unpaired ones.”
Beelzebub looked up at Dagon, but said nothing.
One line is an allusion to Leonard Cohen's "If It Be Your Will."
Adam deliberately references a dril tweet because he was a teenage memelord. (Hush, you know it's true.)
It'll probably be a week before the next chapter is ready, since I have a lot on my plate that's going to eat writing/editing time. I'm hoping the last couple are going to go quickly after that, since they should at least be shorter than this monstrosity.
Chapter 15: We Shan't Be Ashamed
Adam and his Ineffable Army harrow Heaven, and meet one power player they hadn't expected.
I hope this doesn't actually need to be said, given the previous content of this fic and the general tone of the source canon, but blasphemy warning on this one - if you're a believing Christian, this might rub you the wrong way. I am not kind to Heaven here, and neither is Adam.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Adam asked for the seventh time.
“Yezz,” Beelzebub replied for the seventh time.
They were standing with the aid of a pair of crutches; they still could barely make it more than a few steps before inevitably falling, but their one attempt at using a manual wheelchair had ended in a crash that deflated both tires, and powered wheelchairs invariably malfunctioned within minutes. Much of their last year had been spent wheedling Dagon, Legion, or occasionally Ligur into helping them around. None of them seemed terribly put out by it, and Beelzebub had regained most of the use of their arms and hands, so the crutches were the current compromise.
“What if they just decide to try to kill you?” Adam asked.
Beelzebub’s human eyes rolled; their compound ones somehow managed to mimic the gesture despite being fixed in place. “Then this ordeal is over, and onzze we get back to Earth and you feel like it, you miracle up a new body for me,” they said. “The worzzt that can happen is they decide to finish me off with holy water, and I end up over there with Ligur and Leviathan. It’zz not significantly worse off than I am now.” They smiled. “And I can provide a dizztraction good enough to cover your entranzze, I azzure you.”
Dagon grinned like a shark. “We’re still demonic Princes, even if we have renounced Hell,” she reminded him. “We can defend ourselves well enough.”
“And I suzzpect the Archangels won’t want to make a mezz in the main lobby,” Beelzebub added. “They’ll have to haul us off to dizzpatch us, and I do not plan on going anywhere.”
Adam pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. Except for a rather frantic week spent protecting two of the largest colonies in the asteroid belt from an unexpected bombardment by the debris of two colliding comets, his last year had been mostly spent doing internal therapy. The trauma of millennia of infernal torture took some work to overcome, even if, as he had to continually remind himself, it hadn’t happened to the-him-that-was-the-core-of-himself. The upshot of it all was that he wasn’t sleeping well, and while his mind did not need sleep, his body still did.
“All right,” he agreed, “you can try your little scheme. I agree with you that it’ll distract them, all right. I’m just not optimistic about getting any of you back with your bodies intact at the end of the operation. Demons can be violent, but at least you all have passions; as far as I can tell, angels are ruthless and can’t be reasoned with.”
“Sounds right to me,” Crowley said. Aziraphale pouted at him.
“Speaking of which,” Adam went on, “Legion, I hate to ask this, but-”
“S’alright,” Legion assured him with a grin much bigger than the subject matter required. “I know, me and Crowley are the only demons who’ve been in Heaven for a really long time.”
“Right,” Adam continued, “And I need to ask, given what we know hap-”
“WHAT?” He was drowned out by Beelzebub and Dagon both screeching in unison.
“ - ,” said Crowley.
Beelzebub continued, “When wazz Crowley in Heaven?” Their eyes darted from Legion to Crowley to Adam and back.
Legion was clearly relishing getting to deliver this revelation. “The same time Aziraphale was in Hell, of course. Other than the last time, I mean.”
“What - how did -” Aziraphale floundered.
“See,” Legion chuckled, “I figure I was the only being other than Alpha who saw both trials.”
“Technically, Ba’al Gimel, too,” Beelzebub said, eyes turned upward and darting back and forth.
Dagon crossed her arms. “Explain yourself,” she demanded, mostly of Legion, but also encompassing Crowley and Aziraphale with her steely glare.
“That’s how they survived,” Legion said. “Either they possessed each other’s bodies, or they borrowed each others’ shapes, but it was Crowley in front of the Archangels and Aziraphale down in Hell.” He somehow managed to grin even more sharply. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
“A veritable bullseye,” Aziraphale said weakly. “How long have you known?”
Legion’s smile softened just a bit. “Not long,” he admitted. “Maybe thirty, forty years. Once I’d spent enough time around you lovebirds, though, I started to notice things. Body language, the nose wiggle, how you stand.”
“And here I thought we’d done better than that,” Aziraphale sighed.
“If I had only seen one of your performances, I don’t think I’d have caught on, even knowing you both now,” Legion offered, as if it were a truce flag.
Beelzebub lowered their face into one hand, wobbling dangerously. “We’ve been had,” they moaned. “Again.”
“In my defense,” Crowley objected, “you were trying to kill me.”
“We were,” Beelzebub agreed. “Our fault, for not knowing and vvaluing our employeezz better.”
“Sneaky buggers,” Dagon growled.
Adam chuckled to himself and held out a hand for a high-five, which Legion gave him enthusiastically. “Good job,” he said. “Clever fellow. Now, back to what I was actually asking: we know that Michael didn’t take the entirety of the bath water back with her. What about your end of that exchange? What’s the probability that Heaven still has some of your Hellfire?”
“Oh, pretty close to zero,” Legion answered. “I can’t be one hundred percent sure that nobody trapped a spark somewhere, but I took the whole blaze back in the brazier.”
“Okay, good,” Adam said, as Aziraphale relaxed slightly and several other angels sighed in relief.
Dagon laughed bitterly. “Don’t be too sure that means they don’t have any,” she reminded them. “Like we said, that bathtub doesn’t explain all the holy water Hastur’s been tossing around. If he’s trading Hellfire for holy water with Gabriel or Michael, they could have built up quite a supply by now.”
“Even if they do,” Crowley argued, “they’re not going to whip it out where everyone in Heaven can see it. They care about keeping up appearances.” He gestured loosely at Aziraphale. “That’s why he got to perform in front of half of Hell, but my end was only for three Archangels and one minor demon. If the rank-and-file had seen Legion creeping about on the executive floor, there would have been awkward questions.”
“Questions, heck, there’d have been riots,” Abuataar blurted.
Raphael smiled gently. “Good for you,” he said. “I’d like to think I’d have stopped them before Michael left with the holy water in the first place.”
“Things have changed a great deal since you were in the inner circle,” Aziraphale said, shaking his head. Abuataar and the other angels murmured their agreement.
“Still, though,” Rapahel mused, “Gabriel and Metatron used to care so deeply about rules. I can barely recognize the Archangels I knew from your descriptions.”
“Maybe that mattered less when they thought there was a battle coming that they had to win?” Adam suggested. “At any rate, I don’t think it’s all that important what they used to be like. We know what they’re like now, and that’s what we’ll have to deal with.”
“So, how is the distraction going to work this time?” asked Abuataar.
Adam looked relieved to leave the discussion of the archangels behind. “The central problem is,” he explained, “according to our best intelligence, the maglev lift only goes to the main lobby of Heaven. We’ll have to get out and then take a second lift to the residential floor, and that requires crossing the lobby.”
“The good news,” Habioro added, “is that if we can get to the residential floor without being spotted, we probably won’t meet any significant resistance once we get there. It’s not well guarded; it’s very rare for anyone to try to leave, and no one’s ever attempted to break in before.”
“So we need to get across the lobby without being noticed,” Adam continued. “We’re going to take as few people as possible this time, and my group isn’t going to have any unpaired demons in it - it’s too dangerous. Currently, the plan is for me to have Crowley and Exinolas, just in case we need the Titans to bust us out, and that’s it for the infernal side. I’m taking about a dozen angels just in case we need backup and don’t want to tip our hand to all of Heaven; I know they know the Titans exist, but they probably don’t really understand what they can do.”
“Gabriel does,” Dagon sniffed. Beelzebub carefully studied the ground.
“But he can’t tell anyone,” Aziraphale reminded her. “Or, at least, he thinks he can’t.”
“So the main plan is, we’re all taking one lift again,” Adam went on. “I think I can make myself and anyone I’m carrying sufficiently invisible, even to angels, that we won’t be noticed unless someone is actively looking for us. Everyone on the extraction team is going to have to shrink down enough to hide in my pockets. Meanwhile, Beelzebub, Dagon, and one instance of Legion are not going to be invisible; they’re going to walk out of the elevator first and get everyone’s attention while I sneak over to the other lift and head to the floor where all the souls are.”
“And how are we all getting back out again?” Habioro asked.
“We’ll take care of our own retreat,” Dagon huffed. “Don’t worry about us.”
“I’m a bit worried about us,” Legion admitted.
Adam shot Legion a sympathetic look. “We might have to swan-dive our way out,” he admitted. “It depends on how long it takes to collect all the souls and whether anyone up there notices or not. But my understanding is that if we can get out of the building, we should be able to get back to Earth under our own power.”
“It works that way for us,” Habioro said. “If a guardian angel needed to get to a specific place on Earth in a hurry, diving out of the fire exits was always the fastest way to get there.”
“The fire exits led directly outside?” Adam asked, puzzled.
“It makes more sense when you know everyone there has wings,” Cochabiel said.
“Okay, fine,” Adam said. “Let me see who wants to come with us this time. Is everyone free tomorrow?”
One of the maglev lifts in the lobby no longer had an LED panel at all. A piece of e-paper had been hastily stuck onto the doors with magnets; it read “Out of service” in very shaky handwriting.
Beelzebub tucked one of the crutches into their armpit and slapped the control panel. The plasma light buzzed at them; they buzzed right back, and it lit up in cerulean.
Legion looked around; he was wearing the same navy trenchcoat, this one with Los Angeles airbrushed on the back, and a fluffy purple scarf. “Lots of robots today,” he noted.
Adam didn’t reply; he was concentrating on staying invisible. The demons could still feel his presence, which concerned him slightly, but his tests with his own choir of angels suggested that they couldn’t - at least, not in the presence of demonic interference, which Dagon was already throwing off in spades.
The turbolift dinged. They stepped on; the inside had neither buttons nor control panel. It went to only one floor, which was marked with a gold letter H.
“That’s more ambiguouzz than they want it to be,” Beelzebub commented.
“Probably thought we’d never use gold,” Legion guessed. “Didn’t count on Greed coming up as often as Lust or Wrath, I suppose.”
“More fool them, then,” Dagon muttered.
The lift hummed alarmingly; tiny nano-speakers played an all -synth cover of “Girl From Ipanema” a bit louder to compensate.
Dagon shifted her shoulders; a quiver-full of short javelins crackling with static electricity appeared across her back. “How many do you think we can take down before they smite us?” she asked, trying to sound as if she were bored by the question and not succeeding.
“I’m hoping we can keep their attenzzion by talking for long enough that we can ditch out without getting smited at all,” Beelzebub said. “If it comezz to that, though - we’ll just havve to see.”
Legion pulled his trenchcoat tighter around his chest. “If it comes to that,” he said quietly, “I just want you to know - you were the only Princes I ever really respected, you know? I always felt like you did the best job you could with the cards you’d been handed.”
Both Princes were silent for a long moment. “Thank you, Legion,” Dagon finally said. “That does mean something.”
“Yezz,” Beelzebub said. “Thankzz.”
The lift announced, in a pristine tenor voice, “Welcome to the Pearly Gates. Main Lobby.”
Beelzebub smirked. “What is it those two idiots keep saying? ‘Kiss for luck’?”
Dagon looked startled. “I - what?”
“This might be our last chance,” Beelzebub said, tilting their head up.
Dagon’s face froze in what looked like sheer terror for a fraction of a second, then melted. By the time she’d scooped Beelzebub into her arms, her eyes were wet; the kiss she planted on Beelzebub’s lips could have turned ice into steam.
Legion glanced the other way, attempting not to smile too broadly and being mostly successful.
The elevator dinged; as the doors slid open with barely a whisper, Beelzebub gripped their crutches and hobbled into the lobby with an intensity of purpose Adam had never seen from them before, not even at Tadfield AFB. Dagon and Legion flanked them in an arrowhead formation, aimed directly at the angel sitting behind the reception desk.
Adam trailed in their shadow. All eyes in the room were focused on Beelzebub and Dagon; their auras flared around them like clouds of smoke from a grease-fire. The smell of rotting fish and the sound of buzzing flies filled the air; Legion’s own contribution of brimstone and the faint squeal of pigs followed like an echo. By the time they flared their wings, iridescent black and transparent and charcoal, it was almost an afterthought.
The demons had covered about half of the length of the marble floor when Beelzebub’s legs gave out. They crumpled to the floor with a cry like a thousand nests of hornets. Legion stopped dead with his claws out, standing over them like a soldier over a fallen monarch, daring anyone to come closer. Dagon broke into a full run, moving as if she were swimming through the air.
Adam peeled away from them, walking as fast as he dared, hoping the noise they were making was enough to cover any sound from his own trainer-clad feet against the floor. A lift opened at the other end of the lobby; a bookish-looking angel carrying a datapad and a scroll stepped out and stopped short. Adam put his head down and sprinted, darting into the lift as its doors started to close, past the startled angel staring frozen at the sudden invasion of demons.
Dagon’s hand caught the arm of the angel at the desk as he reached for the security button. She smiled coldly, showing off a mouthful of perfect shark’s teeth. “We,” she breathed as the elevator doors slid shut over Adam, “want to speak with your manager.”
When Adam got off the elevator, he was accompanied by Cochabiel and Habioro at full size. They stepped off first, glancing around with empty hands that clearly wanted to be holding weapons. Cochabiel waved him forward. “It looks pretty empty,” he warned, “but don’t get too comfortable. There’s usually a guardian or two up here somewhere; they’re not likely to be paying much attention, but we still don’t want to tip them off.”
This floor - actually five or six floors with an open concourse along the center - resembled nothing so much as an enormous shopping mall, painted entirely in warm white and decorated here and there with gilding and pearlescent accents. The central atrium held various wholesome amusements - parks filled with tropical and temperate plants, a wave pool and waterslide, a roller coaster with a carousel at its base, and even a small snowy mountain with a pair of ski runs. Where a mall would have had shops, there were various theaters and museums, displaying art, shows, and music from all over the world - but only of the clean and uplifting sort. A few places had quieter delights; there were restaurants, cafes, and dessert shops in the food court, and one of the shops Adam peered into was filled with single-occupancy hammocks strung from what appeared to be real trees, with quiet string music playing.
The ceiling over the atrium looked like a skylight; diffuse sunlight streamed everywhere, especially over the fountain that took up the center of the lowest floor and drained into the wave pool. It was very pretty, and very sterile.
Adam counted a total of fourteen souls taking advantage of any of it. Twelve of them were sitting in the open space next to the fountain with something-or-other from the food court in front of them, chatting in groups of two and three. Two of them were in the wave pool, one paddling around aimlessly, one attempting to surf and doing an okay job of it.
“Where is everyone?” he asked aloud.
“Asleep,” Habioro said, shrugging. “New arrivals usually spend the first year or so playing around, catching up with family, sending a guardian to check up on their children, that kind of thing, but after that? I think they just get bored. You wouldn’t believe how happy they are when someone on Earth releases a completely clean pop song and they have something new to dance to.”
Adam shook off his invisibility and headed for the main escalator, gently taking angels from his pockets. “Aren’t they supposed to be happy here?” he asked.
“It’s less that they’re guaranteed active happiness, and more that they are free from all pain and misfortune,” Habioro explained as the rest of the celestial portion of their party returned to their accustomed sizes. “They exist in a state of grace, beyond the power of any worldly ills, but there’s no sin allowed here, either, and that lets out a whole host of pleasures.”
“I can’t imagine the libraries here are very popular,” Aziraphale said, brushing down his coat as if he expected Adam’s pocket lint to be clinging to it.
“Lots of children’s books,” Cochabiel pointed out, “and plenty of nonfiction, especially how-to books, but not much in the way of biography, or history, or adult novels.”
The angels formed a loose cluster around Adam as he removed Crowley and Exinolas from his chest pocket. He handed them to Aziraphale and Abuataar, shaded from the view of any cameras by a flurry of wings.
“Okay, that explains why they’re not here,” Adam said, “but where are they? In Hell, once I was out in the open, I could feel them all. Here, I just sort of have a vague sense that there are souls on the levels above me.”
Habioro pointed upward. “There’s a sort of apartment block above the main causeway,” he said. “Very posh, gold-plated lift, the works. Theoretically, there are an infinite number of apartments, or close enough as to make no odds; I never understood that part. But the ones that are asleep will all be up there.”
Adam stepped onto the escalator. “That doesn’t explain why I’m having so much - oh, crud.” He pointed down at the fountain. “Is that what I think it is?”
Aziraphale looked past him and squinted. “Holy water,” he agreed. “In vast quantities.”
“Enough for an angel to take as much as they wanted, without anyone noticing it had gone missing,” said Abuataar.
“Yup,” Adam said. “That’d do it.” He planted a hand on the smooth, bright metal between the up and down escalators and vaulted over. “And I need to not be down there. Pepper said it didn’t hurt us as much as it hurt You-know-who, but getting splashed will ruin my whole day.” He landed on the up escalator with his feet firmly planted.
Abuataar scrambled over after him. Aziraphale decided against it, spreading his wings and soaring back to the upper walkway instead; most of the other angels followed his lead.
“Sorry about that,” Adam said, as he stepped off the escalator. “How close can we get to the lift you were just talking about on foot from here?”
“We can get there just fine; it’s just a long walk,” Habioro replied. “We’ll have to cross over to the other walkway and then out across the Amazonia park over there, but then it’s just straight down the promenade.”
Adam felt exhausted already; he wondered if vapor from the fountain was already starting to get to him. It did feel a bit humid in here. “Lead the way,” he said.
The end of the lobby near the lift to the executive floors was getting crowded. The receptionist, two security angels, and the bookkeeper who had stepped out at exactly the wrong moment had been joined by a dozen prayer-carrying messengers and a very confused Virtue. They were all pressed tightly against the walls, giving the three demons as much space as possible, as if they feared they were contagious.
The lift opened and disgorged four Archangels. Gabriel strode out, head held high, flanked by Sandalphon at his right and Uriel at his left. Michael followed behind, eyes scanning the room, as if she suspected invisible demons might be lurking in the few shadows the tasteful track lighting permitted. They marched into the center of the room, stopping about seven meters from their infernal counterparts.
“Gabriel,” Beelzebub coughed. “How nizze of you to come.”
Gabriel’s face was calm, even jovial, but his shoulders were stiff. “To what do we owe this unexpected demonic invasion of Heaven itself?” he asked.
“Oh, so one of me wasn’t an invasion, but three of us is?” Legion asked, glancing casually at the crowd at the back. “Didn’t figure it escalated so quickly.” He was rewarded with a flurry of whispers.
Beelzebub ignored the noise and gestured at their legs. “I’ve been poizzoned,” they stated flatly. “With holy water.”
Whispers turned to gasps. Michael’s eyes widened; Gabriel’s lips parted, and he took a step back. Uriel and Sandalphon exchanged a narrow-eyed glance. Gabriel refocused, hands clasping in front of him. “Are you certain?” he asked. “I mean, if you’d been exposed to holy water, you shouldn’t even be here.”
“I’m sure,” Beelzebub replied. “And yezz, you’re right. If one of your unfallen rebelzz hadn’t thought quickly and abzzorbed most of the sanctity into himself, I wouldn’t be here to regizzter a complaint.”
Sandalphon whispered something to Uriel. Dagon glared at them both; Uriel fell silent, shivering.
“A - complaint?” Gabriel asked.
“Zzzomeone up here, or one of your Earthly agents, has been zzzuplying one of the Dukes of Hell with holy water,” Beelzebub stated. “I am not the only vvictim, juzzt the only one who’s livved to tell about it. I want to know who, and why.”
If Gabriel’s shock was an act, it was one worthy of a standing ovation. “I’m sure that has to be a rogue human agent,” he said in a rush. “There’s been no such order from my office.”
Dagon’s gaze speared Uriel through. “Oh?” she said. “But there are offices other than yours up here, aren’t there?”
“I would never,” Uriel sneered. “Not without orders. We have a strict hierarchy up here, unlike you.”
“Why are we still talking to them? Why are we not smiting them yet?” Sandalphon demanded. Michael shushed him.
Beelzebub’s eyes drifted to Michael, then settled on Gabriel again. “This particular Duke isn’t very good with humans,” they said. “Are you sure none of your angels are acting without orders from you?”
“They wouldn’t,” Gabriel stated. He glanced backwards at Michael, as if he were looking for reassurance; if he was, he didn’t get it. Michael was staring thoughtfully into the middle distance, avoiding his gaze.
“I . . . zzzee.” Beelzebub sighed, shifting their hips against the cold marble floor. “Well, then. If you cannot tell me who did this to me, I have but one other request, Gabriel.”
Gabriel looked relieved. “What is it?”
Beelzebub looked into his eyes, past his corporation, directly into his celestial essence. “Heal me,” they said.
“What?” Gabriel blurted. “I - Beelzebub, you know perfectly well I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Beelzebub asked, spreading their hands. “You’re an Archangel, aren’t you?”
“The damage holy water does to a demon can’t be healed,” Gabriel protested. “Not by an Archangel; not by anyone except the Almighty.”
Beelzebub smiled calmly. “I happen to know from perzzonal exzzperience that that’zz not true,” they said. “You can heal me, Gabriel. No one elzze, yezz, but you can.”
Gabriel’s hands betrayed him with a tremor. “I - don’t know how,” he explained, forcing the desperation out of his voice.
“Yezz, you can,” Beelzebub crooned. “You know how, Gabriel.” Their tone shifted, half tempting, half pleading. “Pleazzze.”
“What is that disgusting fiend talking about?” Sandalphon muttered under his breath. “Why haven’t we struck them all down where they stand?”
Gabriel’s legs trembled; he took a half-step forward, despite himself. “I can’t,” he moaned. “You know why.”
“You can,” Beelzebub promised. They held out one hand, beckoning him forward. “Only you.”
Dagon gritted her teeth. “Do it,” she hissed. “Prove who you are and fix it.”
Legion spread his hands. “Show a little of Heaven’s mercy,” he suggested, his voice cool and inviting.
“Gabriel, no!” Sandalphon made a wild grab for Gabriel’s hand, yanking him backwards. “They’re just trying to tempt you like a - like a human.”
Michael settled a hand on Sandalphon’s shoulder and shook her head. “This is his struggle,” she whispered. “Not yours. Not yet.”
“Pleazze,” Beelzebub moaned. A drop of ichor trickled from the corner of their mouth. “Gabriel, it hurtzzz. Pleazzze.”
Gabriel’s eyes were wet. His shoes edged forward another quarter-step. “It’s impossible,” he pleased. “Just - stop. There’s nothing I can do. You know I can’t.”
“For being so open and airy,” Adam complained, “this place is just as much a maze as Hell.”
Aziraphale darted ahead of him, scouting the skyway in front of the party. “I’m beginning to suspect that’s part of the point,” he admitted.
“Been saying that for millennia,” Crowley grumbled from his waistcoat pocket.
Habioro swooped down from the catwalk above them. “This route’s clear,” he stated, “but there’s a trio of human spirits on the mezzanine right in front of the lift. You may have to talk them into joining the cause before we can proceed upstairs.”
“No reason I have to do everyone at once,” Adam agreed. “Are you sure we can’t just fly over there?”
“You’d have to go invisible again,” Habioro said. “Your wings will stand out here just as much as they did Downstairs.”
“Right, and I should try to conserve energy,” Adam grumbled. “I’m definitely cut off from a lot of my usual sources up here. Not sure if that’s the holy water, or just the nature of Heaven.”
“You had a lot of trouble sensing through the parts of Hell that were made of recycled firmament,” Exinolas piped up from Abuataar’s collar. “And that’s what most of this place is made of.”
“Fair point,” Adam agreed. “So I’m going to have this problem no matter where I am. I think I really will have to go floor-by-floor here.”
Cochabiel frowned and flexed his hands. “And that increases our chances of discovery,” he added.
Aziraphale waved them forward. “Let’s take this a step at a time,” he suggested. “Standing around in one place isn’t going to help our chances, either, now, is it?”
“No, you’re right,” admitted Cochabiel as he took one more glance across the elevated walkway and darted across. Adam followed, flanked by Aziraphale and Abuataar and followed by Habioro. Eight more angels trailed at a greater distance, trying to look inconspicuous; since they were the only angels in sight, this was trickier than they had expected.
Another walkway and a short flight of stairs later, the mezzanine just in front of the lift platform was finally in sight. A soul in a white robe was sitting crosslegged on the floor, talking animatedly to two spirits in hippie garb; the hippies were listening with rapt expressions.
Aziraphale squinted. “Does he look familiar to you?” he asked, as they continued their brisk pace.
Habioro peeked over Adam’s shoulder. “Now that you mention it, he does,” he agreed.
“Someone you knew from Earth?” Adam asked. “Or just someone you’ve run into up here?”
“This was never my branch of the office,” Aziraphale explained. “It would have to be someone I knew from Earth, but I’m not quite-”
The soul in the white robe looked up at their approach, rose to his feet, and smiled beatifically. “Ezra!” he called out. “How good to see you again!”
He stretched out his hands. A dark red wound marked the center of each palm; they were matched by identical ones on his feet.
Crowley shot out of Aziraphale’s pocket and returned to full size. “Jesus!” he shouted.
“Miriam!” The human leaped forward and threw his arms around Crowley; sure enough, he had a body, just as they did. “I’m so glad you’re here! Please, though, call me Yeshua - just like old times.”
“Er.” Adam watched as Yeshua’s aura unfolded. “Hello, Anti-Me. I suppose we’d better not touch, or we’ll both explode?”
“It isn’t so dire as all that,” Yeshua assured him. “I see that you have been busy.”
“I - yeah, I have.” Adam rubbed at the back of his neck; Yeshua’s gaze was warm and compassionate, but still made him feel vaguely guilty about things he could barely remember. “You know what I’m here for, then.”
“I do.” Yeshua beamed at him. “You have come to re-unite the soul of Humanity.”
“Well, it’s still a work in progress,” Adam agreed, “but yes.”
Yeshua laughed gently. “Do you imagine,” he said, “that the spirits of the holy will want to join you? The devil’s own son?”
Adam rolled his lip under his front teeth. “I can be very persuasive, when I need to be,” he said, defensively.
“But it did concern you,” Yeshua pressed. “I can see it.”
“There are plenty of souls within me who thought they were going to Heaven,” Adam argued, “and none of them have complained about where they ended up.”
“Of course not,” Yeshua agreed. “But there is a great difference between having come to someplace other than Heaven and choosing to stay, and having entered the House of the Holy and choosing to leave again.”
Adam looked down at his shoes. Suddenly his dirty sneakers seemed very childish. “I guess that’s true,” he mumbled.
Yeshua looked at Adam’s aura. “You have been healing the damned,” he said, quietly. He looked impressed.
“Well, that’s very much a work in progress, too,” Adam admitted. “But we’ve been doing our best.”
Yeshua watched something happening in Adam’s depths. “Then you have done what I, in my pride, could not,” he whispered. “When I harrowed Hell, I could bring only a third with me, and they slumber above us. They were sanctified, but their souls were not at peace.”
Adam took a deep breath. “I’m not sold on the whole idea of sanctification, to be honest,” he stated. “It feels like - dirt is part of life, you know? If you never get any dust or mud on you, you’re missing out. And I don’t think most things that qualify as sins are any worse than a little dirt.” His cadence sped up; his hands made shapes in the air. “I mean, the ones that actually hurt someone else, sure, those are bad. But not even all of those are avoidable. No one has perfect balance; eventually you’re going to step on someone’s toes, and it’s going to hurt.”
“That’s what forgiveness is for,” Yeshua answered.
“Sure,” Adam agreed, “but forgiveness doesn’t require forgetting; it certainly doesn’t require bleaching out the original act. I don’t think any of our deeds need to be erased; they need to be put in their correct context.” He took a deep breath. “Things don’t have to be perfect, or even good or right, to be allowed to exist. Sanctification wipes out what happened. But then you can’t fix it, because it doesn’t exist anymore. Wouldn’t it be better to make it as good at is can be instead? Or - not better - more honest?”
Yeshua met his gaze. “You hold truth to be a higher virtue than purity?” he asked.
“Hell, yes,” Adam blurted, then realized what he’d said and turned pink.
Laughing, Yeshua laid his hands on Adam’s shoulders. “You are doing my Divine Parent’s work,” he said. “Whether you understand that or not.”
“I’d been hoping,” Adam said. “It’s hard to tell, when They won’t actually talk to us.”
Yeshua bowed his head. “You are not wrong about that,” he said, “although I believe I am beginning to understand why.” He looked back up into Adam’s eyes. “May I join you?”
Adam gaped for a second. “Oh,” he said, and then “Yes, yes, of course.” He opened his aura a crack.
Radiance in a thousand colors blazed through the atrium as Christ and Antichrist met and merged.
“All thingzz are possible, Gabriel,” Beelzebub said. “Surely you, of all angelzz, know that.”
Tears gathered in the corners of Gabriel’s eyes. His corporation was betraying him at every turn, shaking, paling, his voice cracking. “I wish,” he croaked. “I wish they were.”
Michael’s grip on Sandalphon’s shoulder tightened as he tried to squirm away from her. His sword appeared in his hands, razor-sharp and gleaming.
Dagon’s posture roared defiance as Archangels and Princes stared each other down.
Adam’s consciousness, now as holy as it was unholy, pushed past the walls of the firmament like gauze.
Do you know my name?
Heaven had so many fewer souls than either Limbo or Hell. He wept a few golden tears for all the misery and loneliness.
Surely that could not have ever been Her will?
Yes, Son of Hell, and Son of Man; Son of Earth, and Son of Heaven. Yes, we know your name, the souls of Heaven sang.
Who am I?
You are the Old Adam, and the New Adam, and Adam the Young. You are Adam Kadmon, the soul of the World.
He forced his jaw to exist enough to work. “Will you join me?”
A waterfall of spirits poured down on him from the tower above, falling into his depths.
Voices within him started to rumble. Was it worth it?, cried the damned. Was your own holiness worth abandoning us?
More tears. No, cried the souls torrenting upon him. We have missed you. We still love you. Heaven itself has been Hell without you.
Adam fell to his knees. There was no more Hellfire, no more holy water; the two were made one, liquid starlight, and poured from his eyes.
You left us.
You hurt us.
We are sorry.
Beelzebub inhaled slowly, deeply. “Gabriel,” they said, “you leave me no choice.”
“What will you do, then, foulest of fiends?” Sandalphon snarled. “You cannot hope to defeat us.” He brandished his sword as Michael yanked him back again.
Beelzebub closed their eyes and tilted their face upward. They opened their mouth and began to sing.
The notes were cracked, flat; they buzzed like a bagpipe, like a kazoo, like an oboe with a split reed.
Beelzebub sat on the floor of Heaven and sang the last few notes of the Song of Creation.
They sang of command, of fear, of violence, of separation. They sang of blades, of being cut, of losing half of one’s own self. They sang of gravity, of the inevitability of falling.
Gabriel wailed wordlessly and fell to one knee. Heaven trembled as he hit the floor.
The angels behind him fell silent. Their wings stirred the air without a sound. Uriel clapped both hands over their mouth.
Beelzebub stopped to breathe again. “I don’t remember the rest, Gabriel,” they gasped. “I only remember the ending. Help me, Gabriel. I told you once that I would remember for you; I swore it on the firmament itself. Here I sit upon the firmament, and I will do my damnedest to remember. But I can’t do it alone. Sing with me, Gabriel.”
“Stop saying his name, demon,” Sandalphon hissed.
“Shut up, Sandalphon,” Michael commanded.
Beelzebub started again. Their broken voice sang of armies in rows against each other, blades raised; of war, of conflict; of loss.
Gabriel convulsed, fighting himself. His sword appeared in his hands; with a look of pure disgust, he flung it away, clattering against the cold marble.
Beelzebub’s sceptre appeared in front of them. They ignored it and kept singing.
Gabriel took in a breath and opened his mouth. His voice was sharp, ragged, unused to anything as delicate as music; it rang like a trumpet with a dented bell, muted and missing half its resonance.
He sang of command, of giving orders and obeying them, of trust in one’s superiors. He sang of fortresses, of stone upon stone, creating walls; of keeping the enemy out. He sang of high offices and thrones and executive desks and the unbearable isolation of responsibility.
Beelzebub’s voice rose up around his, harmonizing.
The two of them sang of chaos, of random chance between fundamental particles, of the great void of space and the dance of single atoms among the void. They sang of the joining of molecules and the splitting of atoms.
Gabriel crawled towards Beelzebub. His legs didn’t seem to be working either.
Beelzebub reached for him like a drowning person reaches for a rope.
Sandalphon struggled in Michael’s iron grip.
An Archangel’s hand met a Prince of Hell’s fingers, and infernal light and holy shadow flared against the chill of the firmament.
Ba’al Gimel rose from the floor, singing in four voices.
Cochabiel and Habioro snapped to attention, shielding Adam with their wings. “What could possibly -” Cochabiel started, before the first flat notes vibrated the walls.
Crowley and Aziraphale shared the shortest of glances. “Well, that’ll distract them, all right,” Crowley muttered.
“I should say so,” Aziraphale agreed, as they swirled into each other and became Alpha.
Atelerix Athnan followed shortly afterwards. “What is Beelzebub playing at?” they asked, as the walls rang like a glass gong.
“We think,” Alpha Rhaphiolepis answered, “that the actual question at this point is, ‘What extremes will Ba’al Gimel go to in order to get Beelzebub functional again,’ or at least something very close to it.”
Adam started looking more like a person than a vaguely human-shaped star again. “Ow,” he said; the echoes knocked electrons out of their orbits around him, and the air glowed briefly with their ionization.
“Is it done?” Cochabiel asked. “Is it empty?”
“I think so,” Adam answered, pressing his hands against the sides of his head. “Having some very interesting family reunions going on.”
“More interesting than Anathema finally getting to talk to Agnes?” Alpha wondered. “We’re not feeling any more human souls up here, either, but the distraction is, indeed, distracting.”
“That was amazing,” Adam agreed, “but it was still just one intergenerational spat. I think everyone in Heaven knew at least one family member consigned to Hell.”
The walls vibrated with two voices. “That’s Gabriel,” Athnan realized. “They did it.”
“They are in the process of doing it, yes,” Alpha replied. “And we think that means we should be expecting Ba’al shortly.” They reached down and scooped Adam up in two of their arms, cradling him like a child who just happened to be glowing like molten glass. “We should go meet them.”
The sound that boiled up through the floor, through the firmament, and echoed in the empty halls of Paradise was like nothing the angels had heard before. They threw their wings over their eyes and ears in terror.
Alpha and Atelerix bowed two of their heads and answered the Song of Creation with the Descant of Maintenance.
Alpha sang of choices, of understanding the difference between morality and ethics, of empathy and understanding, of forgiving your enemies. They sang of yearning, of hurting, of reunion, of wholeness, of turning, turning until you come around right.
Atelerix sang of obeying until obedience was no longer an option, of the moment when free will ceases to be theoretical and becomes the hard choice crying in front of you, of watching someone else do the thing you’ve been told is wrong all your life and knowing beyond all doubt that it is right, it is right, it is right.
Adam hiccuped. His mouth opened despite himself; a few notes escaped. Weakness, he sang. Mortality. Joining hands.
Alpha picked up the chorus. They sang of the joining of hands between a parent and their newborn, between a nanny and her charge, between friends running in the woods, between lovers, between spouses, between workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Adam turned in Alpha’s arms and gestured at the closest stairs; they twisted on themselves into a helix, and the angels descended, down, down, as the Titans sang.
Ba’al Gimel sang of loneliness, of separation, of knowing that you are only half of something, of bitter tears when no one is looking, of the burden of holding up something you’re not sure you believe in anymore for the sake of those who still do.
“You don’t have to anymore,” Dagon shouted. “It’s over! We’re done with all that.”
“She’s right!” Michael bellowed. “You’ve made your choice! It’s done with. I’ll clean up the mess.”
Uriel’s sword appeared in their hand, just as Gabriel’s had. Just as Gabriel had, they flung it away. Their eyes locked on Dagon’s. “I don’t understand,” they started, and then seemed to choke on their words. Instead, a few broken notes of song escaped.
Dagon’s gills flapped. She called the same notes back. Conflict. Rage. Anger.
“No,” Uriel said. “Not that part. Do you remember the rest?”
Dagon closed her eyes. “Come here,” she said. “Come here, and we’ll both remember. I promise.”
“You can’t know that,” Uriel cried. Gold swirled across their face, crashing like waves.
“I do,” Michael said. “It’s time. Go.”
Sandalphon writhed in her grasp. “What are you talking about?” he screamed. “Traitor!”
“Haven’t you learned yet?” Michael sighed. “You’re still stuck on the Great Plan, you and Metatron. If you love Gabriel as much as you think you do, you have to let him go.”
He froze. “What?” he whispered, barely audible over Ba’al’s song. “You - knew?”
“I know a lot of things that I don’t make everyone’s business,” Michael hissed at him. “Now shut up.”
Uriel walked across the lobby, one hesitating step at a time. Dagon didn’t move to meet them; she stood still, hands planted firmly on her hips. The angel would have to come to her.
Uriel held out their hands, empty, as if to show they didn’t have a weapon. “I’m here.”
Dagon unslung the quiver of javelins; they merged and lengthened into the trident, and she dropped it without ceremony. “So you are,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Uriel said. “You were right, before.”
“Say that again, Archangel,” Dagon replied, grinning like a shark.
“You were right,” Uriel repeated. “And I’m sorry. I remember, now.”
“You cut me down,” Dagon said, but the anger was leeching out of her voice. Behind her, part of the ceiling crumbled; a spiral stairway descended, plunging through the floor.
“I did,” Uriel admitted. “And I have no idea why.”
“Because you couldn’t stand the idea of being anything other than pure,” Dagon explained. “You couldn’t admit to being more than one thing, so you made us two things instead, and everything that wasn’t part of what you thought you needed to be became me.”
“I made us both less,” Uriel said. “Please - let us be more.”
Dagon studied them. “Why did it have to be you?” she sighed. “Why not someone clever, someone subtle?”
Ba’al Gimel stopped singing. “Angels don’t do subtle,” they said. “Michael’s as close as they’ve got, and it’s not that close.”
“Fair enough,” Dagon said, and stepped into Uriel’s grasp.
The flare of moonlight and deep shade was much slower than the others’; there was enough time to watch Dagon close her eyes and rest her forehead against Uriel’s as their wings folded around them. It was the embrace of long-feuding siblings instead of lovers. Then a new Titan stood next to Ba’al, and Sandalphon went into another round of sputtering.
The new Titan opened their mouths and sang of weathering, of aging, of growing wise and growing tired. They sang of being useful, of small skills, of attention to details. They sang of the molecular dance of cells, of the architecture of life itself.
Atelerix slid down the central pole of the spiral staircase and leaped off, landing next to Legion. “Now how I expected this caper to go,” they noted. “But not displeasing. Still, we need to leave now.”
Legion waved at the pile of angels at the far end of the lobby. “None of these are mine,” he groused. “Dagon’s archangel finally came around and I still have no idea which of these sanctimonious lumps I’m supposed to match up with.”
“It’s a numbers game,” Atelerix agreed, as Cochabiel thundered down the stairs, followed by Alpha, still cradling Adam. “Come on, we need to go; if they decide to fight us it’s going to get messy.”
“We’re not going to,” Michael called over. “Not as long as I have anything to say about it. Just get out of here before the mess gets worse; I can’t hold on to him for eternity.”
Ba’al Gimel seized the new Titan by one hand. “Shall we go home, then?” they said.
“Home?” said the new Titan. They tilted one head. “Home. Yes.” They turned towards the staircase, not letting go, as nine more angels scrambled down the stairs.
Michael watched them go, with Legion following up behind. She gave him a small, sad smile; he offered her a quick salute and slid down the bannister.
A Dominion broke away from the crowd and strode up to her. “Why did you let them go?” he demanded. “There were only three of them, and one of them’s just a peon. There are four of you, plus Metatron upstairs and all of us. You could have taken them.”
“And then done what?” Michael shrugged, finally letting go of Sandalphon. “What good would killing them do? How would that advance Her plans?”
The Dominion took a step back and scowled. “Don’t Her plans involve all the demons being destroyed in eternal fire?” he asked.
“Yes,” Michael agreed, “but that already happened. They’ve been destroyed since they Fell. Apparently, the Ineffable Plan involves un-destroying them.”
Sandalphon whirled on her. “Since when?” he demanded.
“Since one of them survived bathing in holy water, I think,” Michael mused. “But if you need a sign, a demon singing part of the Song of Creation - any part of it - while lying on the firmament of Heaven is a pretty big one. I’d say burning-bush-sized, at least.”
“I didn’t even remember that was how Creation happened,” offered the bookkeeper angel, picking up the pair of crutches left on the floor.
Sandalphon eyed the stairway from heaven with distaste. “Neither did I,” he lied.
The fog of Limbo made a gentle dome of clouds over the village. Adam reclined on the bench underneath the pomegranate tree, trying to get his head together. It was very noisy in there.
Raphael was clearly very excited. “I never got to meet Christ,” he told Ligur. “I wasn’t entirely clear on how that part of Her plan was supposed to work, but I knew it involved a fair amount of healing, so I was hoping it would fall under my choir.”
“It might have, if you hadn’t run into Asmodeus again,” Gabriel mused. He had ditched his executive suit for his sweats after taking one look at the circular trail around the village, and was doing warm-up stretches. “I have to say, having that conversation with Mary was rewarding and everything, but I don’t think I was the perfect angel for the job.”
“She got what you meant eventually,” Adam assured him.
“Is the fusion of a Christ and an Antichrist a Synchrist?” Legion wondered aloud. Crowley rolled his eyes; Aziraphale giggled helplessly.
Beelzebub was also doing stretches, albeit much more carefully, making sure that parts of their corporation they hadn’t been able to use in a year were working again. “What’zz gotten into Michael?” they asked.
Gabriel sighed, “She’s had to pick up my slack for the last couple of hundred years. I was - I’ve just been going through the motions. I knew the likelihood that we were going to have a real war now was minuscule, at least as long as Adam there was on the job, and then the souls of the blessed stopped coming, and - what was our profit model after that? We had the mechanism of the business, but nothing for it to do but spin its wheels.” He adjusted his shoelaces. “She gave everyone up there something to do, even if it was mostly busy-work. I don’t know what I would have done without her.”
“She didn’t give Hastur the holy water,” Beelzebub said flatly.
“No,” Gabriel agreed, even though it wasn’t a question. “It wasn’t you, Uriel, was it?”
“It never even occurred to me,” Uriel answered. “Cooperating with a demon was the furthest thing from my mind until about an hour ago.”
“That leaves Sandalphon, Metatron, or an outside possibility of someone lower down in Michael’s choir getting ideas about back-channels again,” Gabriel said. “I should have been paying more attention, but in my defense, there are a lot of possible places to get holy water.”
Adam sat up. “Well, it won’t be a problem from now on,” he pointed out. “It’s all sacred to me, now, hellfire and holy water both, so they can’t hurt any of us.” He tried to pat his hair back into some semblance of order and turned toward Uriel and Dagon. “Did you decide what your new Titan name is?”
“We think we’ve agreed on Urartu Alboran,” Uriel said. “Although I feel like I’m missing something there.”
“At least that’s all place names,” Adam said. “An awful lot of the Titans are named after their demon’s animal aspect. Not that I mind; it just makes us sound a bit like a zoo.”
Beelzebub ceased testing their tendons and dragged a lawn chair off of the nearest porch. “There are worzze things,” they pointed out. “We could sound like a botanical garden.”
“You’re not letting that one go, are you,” grumbled Crowley.
“Not for a minute,” Beelzebub agreed. They dropped into the chair. “So, what’s the nexzzt move?”
“I’m not sure, honestly,” Adam admitted. “Other than waiting for Metatron and Sandalphon, or Asmodeus and Hastur, to get it together to make a move of their own, and I’m not positive they will.” He stretched. “I need some time to process things, honestly - I wasn’t expecting Jesus, sorry, Yeshua to actually be there. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it, to be honest.”
“None of the rest of us did, either,” Crowley pointed out. “Even those of us who’d met him.”
Aziraphale preened slightly. “I hadn’t expected him to remember us,” he said. “It has been a bit, you know.”
“Still, a peculiar blind spot,” Beelzebub agreed. “I hope there’s nothing else we’re missing that’s that big.”
“There sort of is,” Adam sighed, “but I don’t know what to expect from daddy-kins at this point, and Death seems to have fucked off from Limbo now that I’m here. Anyway, I think this is enough excitement for one day. I need a nap.”
“A zzound plan,” Beelzebub agreed, kicking back in their lawn chair as Gabriel finished a set of push-ups and set out on a jog around the park.
Chapter title and one part of Alpha's song are from the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts".
First person to ask why Legion is wearing LA and not Berlin gets a cookie.