Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis retire at the same time, without any warning or anything. Warlock doesn’t need a nanny anymore and it doesn’t matter who the gardener is, but . . .
But they retire without any warning, and they don’t even say goodbye.
Not to him, at least.
Not like it matters, Warlock tells himself, alone in his room and staring at the screen in his hands, trying to keep his mind occupied with the game he’s playing. He doesn’t need a nanny anymore, and it doesn’t matter who the gardener is.
None of it matters.
And Warlock doesn’t care, he tells himself.
Obviously they don’t, so . . .
In the game, obviously.
The level restarts, and Warlock puts all his attention into playing it. It’s a stupid game, an old one he’s had for years. He just grabbed it for something to do, because he’s sick of all his new ones and nothing interesting is coming out anytime soon. It used to be his favorite, but that was ages ago. He’s not a little kid anymore.
He just grabbed it for something to do.
He dies again.
He throws the stupid game across the room as hard as he can. It hits the wall with an awful crack, but he doesn’t care enough to go pick it up and see how badly he’s damaged it. Whatever. It’s just a stupid game.
He doesn’t care.
Warlock flops down on his bed and stares up at the ceiling. He’s alone. He could get online or call one of his friends, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t have that many friends anyway, and he doesn’t especially like them either. He likes being alone.
He’s used to being alone.
It’s not like it’s anything new.
Except it is, because even though Warlock doesn’t need a nanny anymore and it doesn’t matter who the gardener is, Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis were always around. Even when they weren’t supposed to be working, if he went looking, he’d always find at least one of them, and they’d always look at him like he was the most important person in the room, or the garden, or wherever.
They were just the hired help, he tells himself. They were just nice to him because it was their jobs.
Warlock rolls onto his side and looks over at his game on the floor. It’s probably broken, he thinks, but it’s just an old game he barely ever plays anymore. It doesn’t matter if it’s broken. It used to be his favorite, but . . .
He squeezes his eyes shut and covers his head with his arms and just—fumes. Getting angry won’t get him anything, but he’s angry. He’s angry, and he wants to break something. Nanny Ashtoreth always told him to do that kind of thing. Brother Francis always told him not to.
He really wants to break something.
Nanny Ashtoreth always used to know when he felt like this, somehow. This is right when she should be knocking on his door and telling him that he deserves to burn the world down. Or if he were outside somewhere, Brother Francis would be finding him and telling him to be merciful and gentle and at peace.
They’d both always tell him not to listen to the other, but Warlock had never really been able to decide which of them was better to listen to. Both of them gave good advice; both of them went to ridiculous extremes; both of them looked at him like he was the most important person around.
Had looked at him.
Warlock scrubs his hands through his hair in frustration and squeezes his eyes shut. He wants to go stomp on his game. He wants to kick a hole in the wall. He wants to tear something apart or smash something to pieces or just wreck something.
He wants to not care about this.
Why does he care about this, when they so obviously don’t?
Warlock feels like he doesn’t fit in his skin today. He feels like that sometimes. He’s tired and he feels weird and wrong and stupid, and his skin doesn’t fit.
It’s . . . frustrating.
Normally he’d be able to ignore it. Normally he’d be able to go talk to Nanny Ashtoreth or Brother Francis and forget about it. Normally he’d just be normal.
He’s not normal.
His parents really aren’t helping. They’re arguing across the breakfast table—well, his mother is mad at his father, at least, but his father’s distracted and on the phone with somebody presumably important, which is just making his mother madder.
When Warlock was little, he used to pretend they weren’t his parents at all. They’re not very good at being parents, so he’s never felt bad about that.
They don’t eat together very often, but this barely counts, he thinks. They’re all here and they’re all eating, but that’s it. He keeps his eyes on his own phone and the game he’s playing on it, not in the mood to watch his parents fight. It’s annoying enough to be listening to it.
He wishes they’d shut up. He wishes his father’s phone would just—
“Hell!” his father curses, dropping his suddenly smoking phone. It lands in his breakfast and chips the plate. The screen is cracked and dark.
Warlock feels a little better, but only a little.
Warlock spends the afternoon in a tree in the backyard. He doesn’t usually spend too much time outside, but his phone is fully charged and he’s close enough to the house to get on the wi-fi, so why not? It’s not like anyone’s going to be looking for him or needs to know where he is.
Nobody does anymore.
Warlock’s just messing around in his latest game because there’s really not much else to do, and he’s bored out of his mind. He wants something to happen. He wants to go to bed. He wants his skin to fit right and for Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis to not have just . . . left like that.
They were just employees, he tells himself. There was no reason for them to have left any other way.
It was a perfectly normal way to leave.
Warlock’s not normal, though.
In the game, obviously.
He exhales, dropping his head back against the trunk of the tree. He tries to remember when the last time he saw Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis was. He hadn’t thought it was important enough to remember, at the time.
He hadn’t known he’d never see them again, of course.
He doesn’t know if he’d have done anything differently if he had. Especially if he’d known they weren’t even going to say goodbye.
Warlock isn't normal.
"Warlock," Warlock's mother says. Warlock ignores her. He's texting a couple of his friends, but he's not that invested in the conversation or anything; he just doesn't want anything to do with whatever she wants. "Warlock!"
"What?" he says irritably, not looking up. She only ever talks to him when she wants something.
"Come here," she says, because of course. Warlock makes a face.
"I'm busy," he says.
"Don't be difficult, Warlock," she says. This? This is not difficult. Warlock can be difficult.
"Leave me alone," he says. His mother makes an outraged sound.
"That's no way to talk to your mother!" she says.
She doesn't even talk to him enough to know how he talks to her.
"What do you want?" Warlock says.
"It's time to go to the fundraiser," she says. Warlock can't think of a single damn thing he wants to do less. "Why aren't you dressed yet?"
"I'm dressed," Warlock says.
"You are not wearing a sweatshirt to an event like this!" his mother snaps, putting her hands on her hips.
"I can wear what I want," Warlock says. She didn't even tell him there was a fundraiser today, much less that she wanted him at it or what the dress code was. She probably forgot again. She does that a lot.
Nanny Ashtoreth never forgot things like that.
"Go put on your good suit!" his mother says, pointing up the stairs. Warlock, again, can't think of a single damn thing he wants to do less.
"I hate that suit," he says. He hates suits in general, honestly. He doesn't like how they look or how he feels in them.
"Warlock, we are going to be late!" his mother fumes.
Warlock really doesn't see how that's his problem.
There's a snake in the overgrown bushes that Warlock is crouched in front of. Not a huge one; less than two feet long. It's an adder, Warlock thinks, except it's black. Melanistic, he recalls vaguely from some science lesson or another.
They're poisonous, he recalls much less vaguely—the only poisonous snake native to England, he's pretty sure—though he's not really worried about that. Brother Francis said to be kind to every creature and things would be fine and Nanny Ashtoreth said to destroy anyone or anything who wronged him in unholy fire, but also liked snakes. She used to talk to them, when they found them in the yard.
They talked back, when it was her talking.
Warlock wonders . . .
The adder hisses. Warlock hisses back. The adder . . . pauses.
"Are you hungry?" Warlock says. The adder slinks towards him. "I don't have any mice or anything, but I bet there's something I could cut up for you in the kitchen."
The adder hisses. Warlock can't tell if it's trying to threaten him or not.
"Sorry," he says. "If Nanny Ashtoreth was here, she'd understand you."
The adder hisses again.
This time it sounds . . . different.
". . . yeah," Warlock says after a moment. "But she's not here anymore."
The adder slithers out from beneath the bushes. Warlock watches raptly, laying a hand on the ground between them. The adder slides over it and wraps around his wrist and forearm.
"Miccccce," it hisses.
"Okay," Warlock says, an odd feeling squeezing in his chest. "Let's go find some mice."
The cook walks in on them and screams, but they did find a mouse in the pantry.
Warlock expects his parents to find out and get angry, but they aren't really paying attention when the half-hysterical cook tries to explain why she dropped lunch on the floor and the snake hides up Warlock’s sleeve.
"Set some mousetraps, woman, it'll be fine," his father says wearily, then leaves the room. Warlock sneaks out while the sneaking's good.
No one ever comes upstairs and tells him to put the snake back outside, so he doesn't. He lets it sun itself on his windowsill while it digests and just lays down on his bed and looks up at the ceiling. The snake dozes.
Warlock wonders what a snake needs and how much of it he can borrow or buy without his parents noticing. That's probably a little presumptuous to be wondering, though. He hasn't even asked the snake if it'd like to stay.
He'd just like it if it would, is all.
It probably won’t want to, though.
He closes his eyes and goes to sleep.
There’s not really anything else to do around here.
Warlock wakes up with the sun much lower in the sky and the snake curled up on his chest. He blinks at it. It lifts its head and looks back at him.
“Oh,” he says. The snake tilts its head.
“Cooooold,” it hisses, then slithers inside his hoodie.
“Sorry,” Warlock says. He could get it a heat lamp, probably. If it stays, or wants to visit, or . . . whatever. Snakes like those, right? “You okay?”
The snake just hisses lowly, curling up again. Warlock zips up his hoodie in case it’ll help.
“Do you wanna go back outside?” he asks.
“Not essssspeccccially,” the snake says.
“Okay.” Warlock resists the urge to pet it. He doesn’t know if snakes like that. “Uh . . . what’s your name?”
“The unbearable presssssence of the dark,” the snake says.
“What?” Warlock blinks.
“The unbearable presssssence of the dark,” the snake repeats. It takes Warlock a moment, but—
“That’s your name?” he asks.
“Yesssss,” the snake says.
“Oh.” Warlock doesn’t really know how snakes get named, so . . . “I’m Warlock.”
“A warlock?” The snake sounds curious.
“No,” Warlock says. “It’s just my name.”
“Ah,” the snake says. “How interesssssting.”
“I think a nun came up with it,” Warlock says.
“Hm,” the snake says. Warlock . . . wonders. He’s never talked to a snake before. Maybe he’s going crazy. He doesn’t think he’s going crazy, but probably most crazy people don’t. At least, not the ones crazy enough to hallucinate talking to snakes.
“Did you know Nanny Ashtoreth?” he asks, even if he is crazy.
“Oh, yesssss,” the snake says. “We all know THEM.”
“Did she say goodbye to you when she left?” Warlock asks.
“No,” the snake says, and Warlock, oddly, feels a little better.
“Me either,” he says. “I didn’t even know she was leaving.”
“They were a busssssy one,” the snake says.
"I guess," Warlock says. "Hey, can I just call you the Dark?"
"You may," the snake replies.
"Cool," Warlock says.
The Dark sticks around. Warlock gets used to sneaking around with it—him—her—them?
He asks the Dark and the Dark doesn't care, so Warlock decides to just go with "them". He likes that best, personally. The Dark, again, doesn't care.
Warlock wishes he cared about a few less things, himself. The Dark is much better at not caring than he is.
Warlock gets a big rock from the garden—his parents still haven't gotten around to hiring a new gardener, so there's no one around to notice—and sets it up in the sunniest part of his room for the Dark. He'll buy a heat lamp soon, he decides, but he doesn't know what the right kind to get is. He guesses it doesn't matter, as long as it's warm enough for the Dark's taste.
Warlock looks up some options. It's something to do. So is making sure the Dark gets food and stays safe, so he just . . . does those things.
He orders a heat lamp and some frozen mice in case the Dark has trouble hunting. He'll just keep them in the back of the freezer, he decides. He can hide them in a popsicle box or something.
His parents never ask what's in his packages anyway, so it's not like it matters.
The Dark slithers up around his shoulders. Warlock pets their head—he knows they like that now.
"Let'sssss go outssssside," the Dark says. Warlock wouldn't, usually, but the Dark is more interesting than staying in with a game or bumming around the house.
"Okay," he says, and they do.
He almost doesn't think about Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis as much.
But only almost.
Warlock's tired. And bored. Mostly tired, though. His mother dragged him out of the house so she can do . . . something, he has no idea what. She didn't actually explain herself, as usual. They're shopping for something, definitely, but he doesn't know what. She dragged him out with so little warning that the Dark is sleeping in his hood. She hasn't noticed.
"Don't slouch, Warlock," his mother says, checking her makeup in her compact mirror. Warlock might hate her a little bit right now.
Maybe more than a little bit.
He wishes the car would—
The engine sputters out, and the driver makes an alarmed noise. Warlock's mother drops her mirror.
"What happened?!" she demands, and then they hit the curb and the back of a parked car as the driver tries to steer them off the road.
They don't hit hard, at least, so that's something. Warlock's mother yelps, Warlock winces, and the Dark stirs in his hood with a drowsy little hiss.
His mother's too distracted to hear the Dark, at least, and immediately starts yelling at the driver. Warlock has no idea why she is; it's not his fault. He'd say that, but she never listens anyway. He slouches lower in his seat. The driver gets out of the car to look at the damage, and Warlock's mother gets out to keep yelling at him.
Warlock rubs at his temples. The Dark winds around his neck.
"What'sssss all the fusssss?" they ask sleepily.
"Don't worry about it," Warlock says. "Mom's just being . . . Mom."
"Being 'Mom' is LOUD," the Dark says dubiously. Warlock snorts.
"You're telling me," he says.
Someone comes out of a restaurant a few doors down and sees them, and then the yelling really starts. Apparently they're not very happy about their car getting hit while they were eating, although Warlock guesses most people wouldn't be.
The police show up and Warlock groans. They're going to be here all day now.
Maybe he didn't really want the car to break down.
Little late to fix that now, though.
The adults all start arguing. Warlock slinks out of the car with the Dark. He really doesn't want to listen to all that. There's gotta be a store or something they can hide in until they're done. Nothing looks particularly interesting on first glance, but anything is better than the arguing, he figures.
"Oh," the Dark says, sounding mildly surprised. They're looking down the street. Warlock automatically looks too, but all he sees is a thin red-haired man in dark clothes strolling into a . . . bookshop? Is that a bookshop?
That's a weird thing for the Dark to be interested in, Warlock thinks.
Maybe there'll be mice.
Warlock glances back at his mother—still yelling at the driver and arguing with the other car's owner and the police—and decides she won't miss him. He'll come back when the fuss has died down.
He heads down and across the street to the bookshop and walks inside. It's stuffed to the brim with old books and smells like . . . well, old books. There's no sign of any other customers or anyone who might work in the place, which is fine by Warlock.
"Sssssmellsssss ssssstrange," the Dark says.
"'Strange'?" Warlock wrinkles his nose, letting the door shut behind them.
"Ssssstrange," the Dark agrees without elaborating. Warlock looks around. It's just a bunch of dusty old books, and he's never been much of a reader, honestly. Maybe that's why the Dark thinks it smells strange.
"Okay," he says, walking deeper into the shop. He's not much of a reader, like he said, but it's something to do.
Honestly, Warlock does a lot of things because they're something to do.
He doesn't bother looking for an employee or owner, just runs his fingers along the spines of the books as he walks and looks around. The Dark slithers down his arm, flicking their tongue out of their mouth. It's quiet in here, at least; he can't hear anything from outside.
Warlock likes that, definitely.
He peers closer at the books. The one he's touching looks like its title is . . . French, he thinks? That looks like French. Not that he's an expert or anything. The next one over is English, and the one after that is very old English and looks like it might fall apart if he touches it.
Warlock thinks about it, then touches it. It's . . . not one of his best impulses.
Fortunately, the book doesn't fall apart. He doesn't think he could afford to replace somebody's obvious antique, and his mother's already mad enough right now.
At least, he assumes it's an antique, if the owner thinks it's worth keeping around. But maybe it's just really old. There's a difference, Warlock assumes.
"Angel!" a man's voice calls from deeper in the shop. Warlock startles, and the Dark wraps tightly around his arm, then slithers back up to his shoulders.
"One moment, my dear," another man's voice says. Both voices sound . . . Warlock feels like he should be able to place them, for some reason. Only just barely, though, so maybe he's imagining things.
He imagines a lot of things, probably.
"A moment to do what, eh?" the first man says. The second one titters.
"Never mind," he says. "Oh, don't drink that, let me get down the good wine."
"Well, if you insist."
Warlock feels an odd itch to go searching through the shelves to find them and see their faces, like he thinks he actually would recognize them or something. That's weird, though, so he doesn't do it. He assumes they're the owners, from how they're talking—or at least the second man is.
Well, it's not like he's here to buy anything, so if they're drinking it doesn't matter, he figures.
The Dark flicks their tongue out again with a considering hiss, then curls up in Warlock's hood. Warlock keeps walking along the shelf, letting his fingers trail along the spines again. There's nothing really interesting on the shelves, so far as he can see, though the shop's definitely bigger than he'd expected it to be. There's probably something interesting in here somewhere.
Or at least some mice, anyway.
"There you go, my dear," the second man says.
"How old is this?" the first one says.
"Oh, at least as old as trouble."
The first man lets out a bark of a laugh. The second titters again.
"Dinner tonight?" he asks.
"Dinner every night, angel," the first man says firmly. Warlock guesses they're married or something. Maybe just dating. His parents probably wouldn't be thrilled knowing that he's in a bookshop that belongs to a gay couple, but Warlock's not even talking to them so he doesn't see why it matters. Anyway, who cares about that kind of thing anymore?
Some of the assholes he knows, admittedly.
Warlock looks at another book. It's . . . German, maybe? Maybe. The two men keep talking, their voices low and affectionate. Warlock can't imagine his parents ever sounding like that.
He isn't sure where that thought came from.
He shakes it off, then moves on to another row of shelves. There's still nothing really interesting on them, but it's better than going back outside to all the fuss.
He'll go back in a minute. His mother will get upset otherwise, assuming she actually notices he's gone. He'd be surprised if she has yet. Shocked, more like.
The Dark peers out of his hood. Warlock absentmindedly lifts a hand to pet them and they hiss contentedly, nuzzling into it. Warlock wonders if all snakes like being petted or if the Dark is weird that way.
He's weird, so . . .
"Did you hear that?" the first man says.
"Hear what?" the second asks, and Warlock hears footsteps coming towards them. He feels an irrational urge to hide. Who cares, though? It's a public shop. The door wasn't locked or anything.
The thin red-haired man from before steps around the corner, and Warlock . . . blinks. He's wearing dark glasses, and he looks exactly like . . .
No way, Warlock thinks as the man stares at him. That doesn't make any sense.
But . . .
"Nanny?" he says blankly.
"Warlock!" the man says, and then . . . yeah, then Warlock recognizes his voice. Her voice. "What the heaven are you doing here?"
"Mom wanted to go shopping," Warlock says, feeling stupid, and then feeling stupidly angry as Nanny Ashtoreth keeps staring at him. He bites the inside of his cheek, shoulders tightening.
"Dear?" the second man says, stepping around the corner too and then looking very surprised. And . . . almost familiar. He's dressed in very pale clothes and holding a wine glass, and his hair's a mess. "Oh! But—oh!"
"I wasn't doing anything," Warlock says, feeling even stupider. He doesn't get it. What's Nanny Ashtoreth doing here, and why's she dressed like a man, and who's this guy?
"It's fine," Nanny Ashtoreth says, stepping towards him. The Dark hisses, and Nanny Ashtoreth looks even more surprised, like she's just noticed them. Warlock still doesn't get it. Any of it. "Who's this?"
"The unbearable presence of the dark," Warlock says, and Nanny Ashtoreth . . . pauses.
"Sorry?" she says.
"The unbearable presence of the dark," Warlock repeats uncomfortably. "I just call them the Dark."
"You named them that?" Nanny Ashtoreth says, looking bemused.
"No," Warlock says, a little defensive. Maybe he is crazy. Maybe Nanny Ashtoreth is going to think he's crazy. Maybe—"They told me."
". . . huh," Nanny Ashtoreth says. The man looks baffled.
"Told you?" he says.
"Yes." Warlock folds his arms, still defensive. He doesn't know this guy. He was talking to Nanny Ashtoreth, not him.
"Assssshtorethhhhh," the Dark says.
"Hello again," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "You're much bigger than I last saw you. It's just 'the Dark' now, then?"
"Yesssss," the Dark says.
"Alright then," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "Warlock, where's your mother?"
"Outside," Warlock says. "I . . . kind of crashed the car."
"Kind of?" Nanny Ashtoreth says, eyebrows raising. Warlock flushes.
"Only a little," he says, hiding his hands in his pockets. He didn't really mean to do it.
. . . okay. He kind of meant to do it. The crashing was just an unfortunate side effect.
"Well, I feel terrible for the car but your mother probably deserved it," Nanny Ashtoreth says.
"She did," Warlock says.
"Now, Warlock, you shouldn't speak ill of your mother," the man says. Warlock gives him an incredulous look.
"Who the hell are you supposed to be?" he says.
". . . er," the man says, immediately looking awkward.
"Don't worry about it," Nanny Ashtoreth says, waving a hand. "Does she know you're in here?"
"No," Warlock says. "She's busy yelling at the driver."
"Of course she is," Nanny Ashtoreth mutters. "Well, come here, let me look at you."
"Why?" Warlock says, but he does head over to her. Her hair's so short now, and she looks . . . different.
"So I can look at you," Nanny Ashtoreth says, peering down at him through her dark glasses. They're not even the same glasses, Warlock thinks. "Oh, have you grown? I think you've grown."
"I haven't," Warlock says, although maybe he has. He hasn't checked lately.
"You have," Nanny Ashtoreth says. She dusts something nonexistent off his shoulders. He doesn't really know what to say.
"Why are you dressed like that?" he asks awkwardly, which is a pretty stupid thing to ask. It falls out of his mouth, though, and it's too late to take it back.
"Hm?" Nanny Ashtoreth says, looking down at herself. "Oh, this is just how I dress sometimes."
"I've never seen you wear trousers before," Warlock says, looking down at her too. She really does look different.
"Honestly skirts are more comfortable, but I do look good in trousers," Nanny Ashtoreth replies with a dismissive shrug, smoothing her shirt. "Why, does it matter?"
". . . no," Warlock says, because it doesn't, but . . .
But he's not sure what.
"Good," Nanny Ashtoreth says. Warlock’s not sure what to think. The Dark curls around his neck and he feels a little more settled, but it doesn't help as much as he wishes it would.
"Why didn't you say goodbye when you left?" he asks, and that's a really stupid thing to ask. Nanny Ashtoreth looks surprised. Warlock feels his face burn. "Never mind. Sorry. Ignore that."
"Oh," the man says, looking surprised too.
"Oh, heaven," Nanny Ashtoreth says with a grimace. Warlock hates himself for asking. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. "Warlock—"
Warlock turns towards the front door. It's his mother's voice.
"Oh dear," the man says, looking alarmed. "Crowley—"
"Heaven," Nanny Ashtoreth says again.
"What?!" Warlock says, and his mother turns the corner and bears down on him as the Dark hides in his hood again.
"Warlock!" she says again. "You had me worried sick!"
She doesn't look worried; she looks angry. But that's not a surprise.
"I'm fine," Warlock says, like it even really matters to her. She still looks angry.
"You shouldn't have wandered off!" she says. "What was I supposed to think?!"
"My fault, Mrs. Dowling," Nanny Ashtoreth interjects smoothly, and Warlock's mother blinks at her in confusion for a moment, and then—
"Ashtoreth?" she says disbelievingly. "What are you wearing?"
"Black," Nanny Ashtoreth says, looking a bit put out.
"You look like a—" Warlock's mother cuts herself off, looking embarrassed. Nanny Ashtoreth raises her eyebrows.
"Yes, Mrs. Dowling?" she asks.
"Nothing," Warlock's mother says stiffly. "Just—nothing. What are you doing here?"
"Visiting a friend," Nanny Ashtoreth says. Warlock's mother looks at the man, and her lip curls slightly at the sight of the wineglass in his hand. It's his turn to look put out.
"I see," Warlock's mother says frostily. Nanny Ashtoreth cocks her head.
"Mrs. Dowling, Mr. Fell," she introduces. "Mr. Fell, Mrs. Dowling."
"A pleasure," Mr. Fell says politely, though he clearly doesn't mean it. Warlock doesn’t exactly blame him.
"Yes, of course," his mother says. She clearly doesn't mean it either.
"Of course," Nanny Ashtoreth says dryly.
Warlock should probably stop thinking of her as "Nanny", honestly, now that he thinks of it, but the idea of just calling her "Ashtoreth" is . . . weird.
"Come along, Warlock," his mother says. "It's time to go."
"Right," Warlock says, his chest sort of . . . clenching. He doesn't want to go. He wants to talk to Nanny Ashtoreth more, and find out why she left so suddenly, and if she knows where Brother Francis is, and . . .
Mr. Fell is looking at him, he realizes.
There’s something . . . strange about his expression.
"Mm," Nanny Ashtoreth says, looking a little strange too. Warlock can tell her eyes are narrowed behind her glasses, and she’s frowning. He feels stupid and obvious and like she knows exactly what he's thinking, even though of course she doesn't.
Though she just about always used to, really.
"Goodbye, Ashtoreth," Warlock's mother says, heading for the door. Warlock doesn't want to follow her.
"Bye," he echoes uselessly.
"Goodbye, Warlock," Nanny Ashtoreth says, still giving him that strange look. Warlock's chest clenches again, and he turns and leaves. He feels terrible, and his chest hurts and there's something in his throat and his eyes are dangerously close to burning.
Is this what he would've done the last time he saw her, he wonders? If he'd known then, before he'd known what it'd be like without her around? Without her knocking on his door and Brother Francis outside in the garden and . . . and . . .
Warlock feels like he's about to cry, but he's not going to do that where anyone else can see.
He still feels like it, though.
He still doesn't know why they left to begin with.
The car gets towed and they take a cab home. Warlock spends the whole ride silent and miserable and only comforted by the weight of the Dark in his hood. His mother doesn't say a word to him. She spends the whole time complaining on her phone.
He wishes she'd just be quiet. He wishes her phone would just—
No. No, he doesn't.
Warlock exhales. He looks out the window and watches the other cars on the road. It's . . . better, he tells himself. It’s better.
He wishes her phone would just—
He grits his teeth, and just wishes they were home.
That's not the kind of thing he can do, though.
They get home. Warlock's mother keeps complaining on her phone, then complains to his father over dinner. It's been weeks since he's been at dinner, but Warlock doesn't care about that. He's never at dinner.
It just seems stupid, that it's been weeks since his father's been home this early and his mother is spending the time complaining about her day.
Warlock finishes his dinner and goes to his room and sits on his bed and feels the most miserable he thinks he's ever felt in his life. Nanny Ashtoreth doesn't knock on the door, and he can't see Brother Francis out his window.
"Warlock," the Dark says, slithering over his shoulders.
"What?" Warlock says, just looking at his floor. There's nothing else to really look at anyway.
"Why are you upssssset?" the Dark asks.
"I'm not," Warlock lies. The Dark coils around his neck.
"Assssshtorethhhhh was acting ssssstrange," they say.
"She was?" Warlock rubs at his eyes, feeling stupid and weak and stupid.
"Ssssstranger than usssssual, anyway," the Dark says.
"She was dressed differently," Warlock says. "And she was with that man."
"The gardener," the Dark says.
"What?" Warlock says.
"The gardener," the Dark repeats. "Though he wasssssn't much of one. Assssshtorethhhhh wasssss always cleaning up after him."
"That wasn't Brother Francis," Warlock says, not understanding. What are they talking about? Was there another gardener at some point? He doesn't remember that.
"Asssss much asssss anyone isssss," the Dark says.
"What?" Warlock says. He still doesn't get it. That man didn't look anything like . . .
He . . . blinks, slowly, and looks at the Dark. They look back at him.
"That was Brother Francis," he says.
"Yesssss," the Dark agrees.
"But he looked different," Warlock says. So did Nanny Ashtoreth, of course, but not that different. Her face was the same, nevermind her hair or what she was wearing.
"He sssssmelled the sssssame," the Dark says.
"Oh," Warlock says.
He looked so different, though. How did he look so different? And why didn't he say anything?
Warlock doesn't understand.
"I'm hungry," the Dark says. "Let'sssss go find some miccccce."
"Okay," Warlock says, though he still doesn't understand.
They find a mouse without too much trouble, and they don't even traumatize the cook this time. Warlock spends the whole time wishing he'd thought of something better to say to Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis.
He doesn't know what would've been better, but . . .
He just doesn't know, he guesses.
The Dark spends the night digesting their dinner, and Warlock spends it thinking and overthinking and figuring out nothing at all.
Neither of Warlock's parents are at breakfast, which isn't unusual. Warlock eats alone, the Dark curled up asleep in the hood of his sweatshirt.
It's sunny out, so after breakfast he goes outside and the Dark slithers through the grass, hissing contentedly to themselves. Warlock sits under a tree and watches them. There's still no new gardener, and there's not going to be a new nanny.
Warlock doesn't care about that, but he cares that Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis aren't here.
It's such a stupid thing to care about, but he cares.
Warlock pulls his knees up to his chest and folds his arms on them and hides his face, and he feels all wrong and like his skin doesn't fit and just . . . bad. The sun is warm and bright, but he doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter. None of this matters. Nothing at all matters.
He wants to cry.
Nobody's here to see him but the Dark, so . . .
Warlock sniffles. He pushes his face harder into his arms. He feels like throwing up. He feels like just curling up and disappearing.
He should probably want to destroy someone or something like Nanny Ashtoreth always told him to, but he just . . . doesn't. A broken phone or stalled car isn't really that much destruction, anyway, and he can't really do more than that. Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis always seemed to expect him to, but he never figured out how.
Sometimes he wants things and they happen, even when they shouldn't. That's all.
It doesn't help when his skin doesn't fit right, though, or when his parents are being his parents, or times like right now. It's just another thing that isn't quite right, another way he isn't normal.
Warlock used to not care about that kind of thing, but these days he's caring about things like that a lot.
He cares a lot more than he wants to care.
The Dark slithers up to him. Warlock stifles another sniffle. He doesn't want the Dark to ask him what's wrong. He's not even sure how to explain it all properly. There's too much.
The Dark wraps around his ankle and up his calf. They don't say anything. Warlock . . . he appreciates it, he thinks.
It's still really hard not to cry, though.
"Warlock!" Warlock's mother says. Warlock hates her. Her, and his father, and just . . . everything. It’s not even their fault, for once.
"What?" he says listlessly, keeping his eyes on the game in his hands. He feels all wrong today, and nothing fits—not his skin, not his clothes, not anything. Not this house, and definitely not his parents.
He just . . . wants things to be different.
He doesn't even know what he means by "different", though.
"Get dressed, we have guests coming over," his mother says.
"I am dressed," Warlock says. His mother huffs at him.
"You are not wearing that for company," she says witheringly. Warlock looks down at himself. He's just in a hoodie and jeans. He doesn't see what's wrong with that. "Go put on a nice shirt and some slacks."
"I don't want to," Warlock says. He hates all of his "nice" shirts, and the idea of putting one on for a day like today is borderline nauseating. He just wants to disappear inside the shapeless lines of his hoodie and not have to deal with whatever strangers his mother's invited over.
"Don't be difficult, Warlock, I don't have time for it today," his mother says impatiently. "Our guests will be here in half an hour."
"Your guests," Warlock mutters.
"Get dressed! And brush your hair, too!" his mother orders, and leaves the room. Warlock hates her, and now it's actually her fault.
It doesn't mean anything, though. He's just as stuck with her as he is with his father; as he's always been with them. He's never liked his parents, and they both do their damnedest to make sure he never will.
He doesn't want to put on the stupid shirt or brush his hair. He doesn't want to deal with a fight either, though, so . . .
He goes upstairs to his room. The Dark is sunning themselves on their rock.
"Hello, Warlock," they greet him drowsily.
"Hi," Warlock says. He tries not to sound upset, but the Dark lifts their head and gives him a quizzical look. He walks over to the closet. The Dark tilts their head.
"What'sssss wrong?" they ask.
"Nothing," Warlock says. "Everything. I don't know."
"That much, mmm?" the Dark says. Warlock stares into his closet, mouth pressed into a thin line. His skin fits all wrong, and he can't stand the idea of wearing anything in front of him. He wants to grab the Dark and climb out a window and never look back. He wants to be anywhere but here. He wants . . .
He doesn't know what he wants.
Something different to be in his closet, maybe. That'd be a start.
Warlock reaches into his closet, but nothing's any different. He wants something to disappear inside, but . . .
"Warlock?" the Dark says. Warlock sniffles, rubbing his arm across his eyes.
"What?" he says.
"Sssssomething'sssss wrong," the Dark says, slithering off their rock and heading towards him. Warlock sniffles again.
"I'm fine," he lies. He doesn't lie to the Dark, usually, but . . .
"Liar," the Dark says, winding around his ankle. Warlock keeps staring into his closet. It still doesn't have anything he wants in it.
Maybe he could just disappear for real, if he wanted to badly enough. Maybe he could go somewhere else and never come back. Maybe . . .
"Warlock," the Dark says.
"I'm fine," Warlock repeats. The Dark winds higher up his leg. Warlock almost reaches down to pick them up, but he feels too terrible to even do that. Everything feels terrible. His skin doesn't fit and he doesn't want to wear any of his clothes and he doesn't want to be here. He wants to be gone.
He wants to be somewhere better.
Like that's even a thing.
"I can bite them," the Dark says, and Warlock drops into a crouch and starts crying. The Dark slithers up into his lap and curls up there, and Warlock wants their weight to be reassuring but he can't imagine what could be.
"I'm fine," he manages hoarsely. The Dark doesn't even know what crying is, anyway. Snakes don't cry. "It's fine. I just—it's fine."
"Let'sssss go find a mouse for you," the Dark says reasonably. "Or a lizzzzzard. Lizzzzzardsssss are deliciousssss."
"I'm fine," Warlock lies, and cries harder. The Dark hisses in concern. They don't know what crying is, but Warlock is being stupid and obvious and stupid. He thinks about trying to hide somewhere, but there's nowhere to really hide. His mother is going to come upstairs and find him like this and—and he doesn't know what'll happen then.
Nothing good, he thinks. Nothing that'll help.
Warlock buries his face in his hands and hot tears leak past his fingers. The Dark hisses again, tongue flicking out against them. Warlock feels worse and worse. It's not the Dark's fault, but . . .
He doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know what to do.
It's not fair.
It's not fair, and he hates it, and he just . . . he doesn't . . .
The Dark hisses. Warlock sobs.
He needs to stop. He can't look like he's been crying. He can't get caught crying. He can't.
He feels so bad.
"What about a bird?" the Dark says. "Birdsssss are deliciousssss too."
Warlock chokes on another sob, not quite able to laugh. He'd hug them, but snakes aren't really built to be hugged and the Dark doesn't like it.
"It's okay," Warlock says, wiping at his face. "Really. I'm fine."
"Too fine for birdsssss?" the Dark asks skeptically. Warlock manages not to sob again. It's not going to do anything. It's not going to help.
"I just don't want to go back downstairs," he says.
"Then don't," the Dark says.
They . . . have a point. Warlock looks into the closet. There's still nothing in there that he wants. He huddles down inside his hoodie, flipping up the hood and pulling it down over his tearstreaked face. The Dark slithers into his sleeve and up his arm. Warlock tries to figure out what to do, but not going back downstairs is the beginning and end of his ideas, and eventually someone’s going to come looking for him.
Probably, anyway. Maybe he could get away with just staying up here all night.
He doesn’t really like that idea much better, but he doesn’t think he’d like anything right now.
He just wants things to be different.
Something different would have to be better, wouldn’t it?
Something different would have to be better.
“Are you sssssure you don't want a bird?” the Dark says. "I can get you a bird."
“It's okay,” Warlock says, shaking his head. "Really."
"Alright," the Dark says, slipping into his hood and coiling around his neck. Warlock sniffles. The weight of them feels good, but he still doesn't really feel better. He just . . . he just doesn't know.
He's tired, and he feels bad, and his skin doesn't fit, and he feels like throwing up at the idea of putting on the clothes his mother wants him to put on. He wants to be anywhere else and not have to put up with any of this.
. . . he could be somewhere else, couldn't he?
Warlock looks at the door. The Dark coils tighter around his neck. He wants . . .
He wants to be somewhere else.
So . . .
Warlock takes his backpack, a few basic necessities, and the Dark, and he sneaks out of the house. It's not hard. He's not even that good at sneaking; there's just nobody looking for him.
There never is.
"Where are we going?" the Dark asks.
"Somewhere else," Warlock says.
"Hm," the Dark says.
They make it to the road unnoticed. Warlock wants a taxi or a bus he can jump on; wants to get out of here as fast as possible. Wants an escape.
A taxi comes down the road. Warlock waves it down, and the driver lets him in.
"Where to, kid?" they ask.
Warlock gives the only possible answer.
Warlock wants to have enough money on his card to pay for the taxi ride, so he will. He wants the taxi driver not to ask questions, so they don't. And he wants his phone not to ring, so he puts it on silent.
He can do things, but only so many.
He tries to remember the name of the bookshop Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis were in, though he doesn't think he ever actually looked at it. He remembers the street name, though, so that's where they go. It's stupid, probably, but Warlock just wants to be somewhere else and it was the first place he thought of.
He doesn't have any missed calls.
He's going to get in trouble for this, definitely, but he really doesn't care.
The taxi drives down the street until Warlock spots the bookshop. He tells the driver to stop and pays the fare, then gets out and crosses the street.
It's the middle of the day, but the bookshop's closed.
Somehow that possibility hadn't occurred to him.
Warlock sits on the steps of the bookshop, not sure what to do. He doesn't even know if Nanny Ashtoreth or Brother Francis actually owns this place, and now that it's not even open . . .
He doesn't know what to do, now.
"What now?" the Dark asks from his hood. Warlock adjusts it so it'll be more comfortable for them to lay in. He still doesn't have any missed calls. He wonders what his mother's doing. She probably got distracted by her guests and forgot about him again.
"I don't know," he says. "I thought they'd be here.”
He really had. It wasn't a good plan or a logical thought, but he'd thought it all the same.
He doesn't know where else to find them.
They probably don't even want him to find them.
He can’t even explain why he wants to find them. They left without even saying goodbye. They didn’t even leave a note or send a text or anything.
Why does he want to find people who didn’t care about leaving him?
Warlock folds his arms on his knees and rests his chin on them, staring listlessly at the passing cars on the street. He feels like an idiot. There’s no reason for him to be here. It’s stupid for him to be here. He shouldn’t have come.
“Are we ssssstaying?” the Dark says.
“No,” Warlock says, closing his eyes and burying his face in his arms. He really shouldn’t have come. “We’ll go in a minute.”
“Assssstorethhhhh is coming,” the Dark says, and Warlock jerks his head back up. What?
The Dark is right. Nanny Ashtoreth is parking her big black Bentley on the other side of the street, a few cars down. Brother Francis is in the passenger seat, still looking impossibly different but unmistakable all the same. They get out of the car together. Brother Francis is wearing a neat beige suit and Nanny Ashtoreth has her hair slicked back and is in her dark glasses and a long black dress, stiffly constructed but still very different from the kind of dresses Warlock’s used to seeing her in. It’s . . . sparkly.
They’re talking to each other, and they haven’t noticed him and the Dark yet.
“Really, I don’t know why we had to come all the way back here,” Nanny Ashtoreth says. “The restaurant could’ve miraculously had the right vintage.”
“Oh, but it’s such a nice day for a drive, isn’t it?” Brother Francis says.
He should leave, Warlock thinks, heart sinking, but then Nanny Ashtoreth . . . pauses, and turns her head. She sees him, and he barely resists the urge to shrink in on himself.
“Warlock!” she says.
“What?” Brother Francis says, and then he sees him too. “Oh!”
Nanny Ashtoreth crosses the street without even looking and somehow doesn’t get hit by a car, and Brother Francis hurries after her. Warlock almost just runs away, but . . .
“What’s wrong?” Nanny Ashtoreth says, stopping in front of him.
“Nothing,” Warlock lies. Nanny Ashtoreth looks unconvinced.
“Oh dear,” Brother Francis says.
“Why do you look different?” Warlock asks him.
“What?” Brother Francis says.
“You look different,” Warlock repeats. Brother Francis gives him a blank look, then startles.
“Oh!” he says. “Er. Well. Um . . .?”
“You recognized him?” Nanny Ashtoreth says.
“The Dark did,” Warlock says. “He smells the same.”
“I suppose he does, doesn’t he,” Nanny Ashtoreth says. Brother Francis looks embarrassed, running a hand through his already-messy hair. “What are you doing here, Warlock?”
“Nothing,” Warlock lies.
Nanny Ashtoreth looks at Brother Francis. Brother Francis looks back at her.
“Alright, then,” Nanny Ashtoreth says. “Come along, we’re going to dinner.”
“This early?” Warlock asks with a frown.
“Well, it’s not a proper dinner without time for a few courses,” Brother Francis titters, stepping past him to open the front door of the shop. Warlock’s frown deepens.
“I’m not dressed up,” he says uncertainly, because both Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis clearly are and must be headed someplace nice, especially if their dinner’s going to be multiple courses. Brother Francis waves him off.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he says. “They won’t mind.”
“More importantly, we don't care,” Nanny Ashtoreth says.
“. . . okay,” Warlock says hesitantly. He stands up. Nanny Ashtoreth looks him over and brushes imaginary dust off his shoulders.
"Hello, the Dark," she says. "Taking care of our boy?"
"He doesssssn't like lizzzzzardsssss," the Dark says.
"Well, they can be an acquired taste," Nanny Ashtoreth says. Warlock shifts uncomfortably, feeling a little awkward for no good reason.
"There we go," Brother Francis says, coming back out of the bookshop with a very old-looking bottle of wine tucked into the crook of his arm. "Ready, my dear?"
"Of course we are, angel," Nanny Ashtoreth says. Warlock looks from her to Brother Francis, still feeling awkward. Are they dating now? They used to talk to each other a lot, but he doesn't remember them ever using pet names like this.
Nanny Ashtoreth leads the way back to her car, and Warlock follows her with the Dark, Brother Francis right behind them. Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis get in the front seats, and Warlock gets in the back. The Dark curls up around his neck.
"Buckle up," Nanny Ashtoreth says, then pulls the car out into the street. Warlock peers out the window at the other cars, then checks his phone. Still no missed calls.
He doesn't know why he's checking.
He puts his phone away and looks at Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis instead. The Dark hisses quietly.
"You're wearing a dress again," Warlock says uncertainly, not sure if it's something he should be commenting on.
"Mm?" Nanny Ashtoreth says, glancing at him in the rearview mirror. "Oh, yes. Picked it up in Paris a couple decades ago. It seemed like the place to get a dress."
"Oh," Warlock says, not sure what else to say. "It's, uh . . . sparkly."
"It looks a bit like a starry sky, doesn't it?" Brother Francis says cheerfully, looking into the backseat.
"Uh . . . kind of," Warlock says. It does, now that Brother Francis mentions it, though it feels weird to say it. It's a really pretty dress, though. It looks kind of retro, Warlock thinks, though he's not an expert on dresses or anything. He guesses it should, though, if Nanny Ashtoreth bought it that long ago.
"I suppose it does," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "Didn't really do that on purpose."
"Nothing wrong with taking a bit of pride in your work, my dear," Brother Francis says reasonably.
"You know I do," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "I quite enjoy my work, in fact."
"Aren't you retired now?" Warlock asks in confusion.
"Well, yes," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "But still. Principle of the thing and all."
"Still not used to the retired life?" Brother Francis says with a little laugh.
"As if you've got room to talk," Nanny Ashtoreth huffs, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. Warlock isn't sure what they're talking about. They're not still working, are they?
Maybe they're just talking about the way they used to be about work? Maybe? Although he doesn't remember Brother Francis at least taking much pride in the garden.
"I'm rather enjoying the retired life, actually," Brother Francis says pleasantly. "We get to spend so much more time together now."
"You're ridiculous," Nanny Ashtoreth says, her ears turning red. Brother Francis smiles warmly at her. Warlock feels like he's invading something private and sinks back into his seat. The Dark stretches across his shoulders.
"Oh, I'm just saying," Brother Francis says.
"You would," Nanny Ashtoreth says, turning the car around a corner. Warlock peers out the window again, still feeling like he's invading. "Are you actually hungry, Warlock?"
"Kinda." Warlock shrugs. He skipped lunch, so . . .
"Alright, good, then we're not wasting your time," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "Ever been to the Ritz?"
"No," Warlock says.
"Didn't think so," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "Well, hopefully you'll like it."
"It's very good," Brother Francis says. "Excellent desserts, especially."
"Okay," Warlock says.
"What about miccccce?" the Dark asks.
"Not on the menu, unfortunately," Nanny Ashtoreth says. The Dark hisses in disappointment. "We'll see if we can't find something more to your tastes."
"Where did the snake come from, Warlock?" Brother Francis asks curiously.
"The garden," Warlock says. "They've seen you before. Did you not see them?"
"I'm not quite as good with snakes as Ashtoreth," Brother Francis says with a sheepish smile. "Though of course all of God's creatures deserve equal love and respect."
"He's not an infant anymore, for hell's sake, we don't have to lecture him about good and evil," Nanny Ashtoreth says.
"Well, it doesn't hurt," Brother Francis huffs.
"He's not going to end the world, I mean," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "Barring some serious upheavals in Hell and Heaven."
"I wouldn't do that," Warlock says, not quite sure what she’s talking about.
"Of course not, we raised you right," Nanny Ashtoreth says reasonably. "We went to a lot of effort to make sure you wouldn't be the sort to end the world."
"What, on purpose?" Warlock says. Nanny Ashtoreth pauses, then looks at Brother Francis, who looks back at her and shrugs.
"Yes," Nanny Ashtoreth says. "Bit of a mix-up there, we thought you were the Antichrist for a while. But it all worked out in the end, don't worry about it."
"You thought I was what?" Warlock asks incredulously.
"The Antichrist," Brother Francis says. "But as Ashtoreth said, don't worry about it. Different boy, it turned out. Nice little lad from Tadfield."
"Oh." Warlock . . . pauses, and isn't sure what to say. He feels uncomfortable again for no good reason. "Uh . . . why did you think I was the Antichrist?"
"Oh, it's a long story," Nanny Ashtoreth says.
"About six thousand years long," Brother Francis says. "Give or take."
"I suppose there's no reason not to tell you at least the basics," Nanny Ashtoreth says, turning another corner. Warlock reflexively glances out the window again. "We never did explain why we left."
"Wait, what?" Warlock says, his eyes snapping back to them.
"We'll tell you over dinner, how about," Brother Francis says. "It might take a while. You understand."
Warlock really doesn't. He just nods, though. He should probably think they're crazy or making things up, but . . .
Well. He doesn't.
They drive the rest of the way to the restaurant and Warlock follows Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis inside as the Dark disappears into his hood. He's definitely not dressed for this place. He hides his hands in his pockets, looking around awkwardly for the person who's going to throw him out, but the host seems fine with his presence and takes Brother Francis’s wine and shows them all to a table without protest. Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis look at the menus. Warlock looks at one too, because he supposes he should. He has no idea what to order, though.
"Get whatever you want," Nanny Ashtoreth says. “Francis is paying.”
“Uh, okay,” Warlock says, wondering how a retired gardener affords multiple multi-course meals at a fancy restaurant for, apparently, just the hell of it and nothing else. He guesses it’s not that weird, but it does seem a little weird all the same.
He doesn’t really have room to talk about being weird, though.
“Order a bird,” the Dark suggests. “Or a lizzzzzard.”
“I don’t think this place has lizards,” Warlock says. The Dark scoffs.
“What kind of placcccce doesssssn’t have LIZZZZZARDSSSSS?” they say.
“This one, unfortunately,” Nanny Ashtoreth says. “They do have duck, though.”
“We’ll get that,” Warlock says, putting down his menu.
“I’ve never eaten a duck,” the Dark muses.
“First time for everything,” Nanny Ashtoreth says. The waiter comes and Warlock orders awkwardly, but Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis are both clearly very familiar with the menu. They drink their wine, and Warlock glances around the restaurant, still half-expecting someone to come up and complain about how he’s dressed. No one does, though.
“Well, should you start or should I, my dear?” Brother Francis asks. “Telling the story, I mean.”
“Oh, you go ahead, angel,” Nanny Ashtoreth says, sipping her wine. “I’ll interject as necessary.”
“You mean interrupt?” Brother Francis asks dryly.
“Exactly,” Nanny Ashtoreth says, flashing him a toothy smile.
“Why is it such a long story?” Warlock asks.
“Well, technically it started back in Eden, I think,” Brother Francis says, setting down his own glass. “Or on the wall of it, anyway. At least for the two of us.”
“If you want to get really technical, we could go back to the apple and the flaming sword,” Nanny Ashtoreth suggests.
“We don’t want to bore the poor boy,” Brother Francis says. Warlock feels that itch of uncomfortableness again, but still can’t pin down the source of it. He doesn’t like it, though.
“The difference between good and evil and the physical embodiment of war are boring, now?” Nanny Ashtoreth asks, arching an eyebrow.
“Well, I suppose that’s fair,” Brother Francis allows. “What do you think, Warlock, do you want the full story or the summary?”
“The full story,” Warlock says, because he still doesn’t have any missed calls so who cares. Either way it already doesn’t sound boring.
“Alright then,” Brother Francis says, and starts talking. Warlock listens. The first course arrives, but he barely remembers to eat it, because what Brother Francis is saying is . . . a lot. And it should sound crazy and made-up and wrong, but it doesn’t. The way Brother Francis tells it, it’s like it’s as normal and natural as anything.
Warlock doesn’t ask questions, even when Brother Francis glosses over certain things or Nanny Ashtoreth makes little asides that don’t make sense. It should just be a made-up story, but . . .
But it makes sense, and somehow it fits Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis perfectly.
By the time they get to Tadfield and the almost-end of the world, Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis have finished the wine and dessert is on the table, and Warlock doesn’t know what to think or say about any of it.
He’s thinking a bit about the part where the babies got switched around, though. Does that mean . . .
“Oh, and I suppose you should call us by our proper names from now on,” Brother Francis says. “Now that you know, and all.”
“What?” Warlock says.
“Aziraphale,” Brother Francis says, pointing at himself and then Nanny Ashtoreth. “And Crowley.”
“Anthony J Crowley,” Nanny Ashtoreth says.
“What’s the ‘J’ stand for?” Warlock asks, even though it’s a stupid question.
“You know, you’d be amazed how many people don’t ask about that,” Nanny Ashtoreth—who apparently isn’t really named Ashtoreth—replies. It’s not actually an answer, but Warlock is a little more concerned with the fact that she isn’t any of the things he thought she was, and the fact that she and . . . Aziraphale “retired” because the world wasn’t going to be destroyed anymore. Because he wasn’t who they thought he was.
Somehow, it doesn’t feel like enough justification for not saying goodbye.
But Warlock doesn’t say that.
“Isn’t that a man’s name?” he says instead, because it’s another stupid question and stupid questions are a lot easier to ask right now. The Dark coils around his neck. Their weight is reassuring, but it doesn’t make anything any less strange or confusing.
Normal people don’t talk to snakes, after all.
“It’s my name,” Nanny Ashtoreth—Crowley—says.
“Why do things break when I want them to?” Warlock asks.
“Do they?” Aziraphale says, looking mildly surprised.
“That’s what happened to the car,” Warlock says.
“You said before, didn’t you,” Crowley says musingly, lacing her fingers together as she tilts her head. It’s hard not to think “Ashtoreth”, still. “It still happens? Not just when we were around?”
“You’re around,” Warlock says.
“Well, at the moment,” Crowley says. Warlock’s chest tightens painfully. He makes himself ignore it.
“Does anything else happen?” Aziraphale says. “That’s unusual, I mean.”
“I don’t think most people can talk to snakes,” Warlock says, shifting uncomfortably. He thinks about telling them how often his skin doesn’t seem to fit right, but doesn’t. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing they’re talking about.
“Ah, I suppose not,” Aziraphale says. “Hm. That is odd, isn’t it.”
“I imagine it’s our fault,” Crowley says, resting her chin in her hands. “Going around expecting you to end the world and all. Seems like some of it might’ve stuck.”
“You think you made me able to break things?” Warlock says doubtfully, rubbing at the back of his hand.
“Seems likely,” Crowley says with a shrug. “Belief is an awfully strong thing.”
“You could probably fix them too, if you tried,” Aziraphale says. “Just, you know. If it ever comes up.”
“Oh.” Warlock looks down at his plate. He hadn’t thought of trying that.
He probably should’ve.
He still feels like none of this is a good enough reason not to have said goodbye. Just . . . he understands them leaving, that makes sense, but leaving without saying anything is just . . .
He doesn’t know, but he doesn’t like it. Doesn’t feel right about it.
But he doesn’t know how to tell them that, or even if he should. Or if he should ask about the babies being switched, or . . .
“Are you a man or a woman, Na . . . Crowley?” Warlock says. Another stupid question. Another easier question.
“It depends, really.” Crowley shrugs again. “Feeling a bit womanly today, obviously, but really I just wanted an excuse to wear the dress. It’s been a while since I took it out.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen it before, actually,” Aziraphale says.
“You haven’t.” Crowley smooths her skirt. “Why do you ask, Warlock?”
“I don’t know,” Warlock says. It doesn’t matter, really, but it matters. Or . . . it feels like it should matter, maybe. “It's a really pretty dress.”
“Thank you,” Crowley says, preening. “I thought so, yes. Shame to waste it tucked away in a closet forever.”
“Lucky the moths didn’t get to it, really,” Aziraphale says.
“I take care of my things,” Crowley says.
“It does look like stars,” Warlock says, his skin feeling like it doesn’t fit again. It’s a really pretty dress. Much nicer than—
His phone buzzes.
He looks at it. It’s his mother. She’s going to be very, very mad, he thinks.
Assuming she’s actually noticed he’s gone, anyway. Maybe she thinks he’s somewhere on the grounds.
Well, he’s going to take long enough to get back that it’ll be obvious he wasn’t.
He thinks about not answering at all.
“Go ahead, don’t mind us,” Aziraphale says, taking a bite of his dessert. The phone buzzes again. Warlock thinks about not answering again.
“Hello?” he says.
“Warlock!” his mother says. “Where are you?”
Warlock thinks about lying, but . . .
“The Ritz,” he says.
“The Ritz,” he repeats. “I went to the bookshop.”
“What? What bookshop?” his mother demands. “How did you get all the way to the Ritz?”
“I took a cab,” Warlock says.
“I can’t believe you!” his mother says, and Warlock looks at Crowley and Aziraphale on the other side of the table and thinks, irrationally: well, they believed in me. They were wrong, but . . .
Well. He thinks it anyway.
He wonders what growing up in Tadfield would’ve been like. What parents like Adam Young’s would’ve been like. What . . .
“I’m sending the car!” his mother says.
“I can just take a cab again,” Warlock says.
“You are not taking a cab!” she says.
“It’s not like it’s hard,” Warlock says.
“We can drive you,” Crowley says.
“Who was that?” Warlock’s mother says.
“Nanny Ashtoreth,” Warlock says. “I came to visit her and Brother Francis.”
“They didn’t know I was coming,” Warlock says. “I just figured they wouldn’t mind.”
“Come home right now!” his mother says.
“Best get the bill, angel,” Crowley says, raising a hand to signal the waiter.
They drive him home.
Warlock sits in the backseat in silence, still not asking any of the difficult questions.
He could, but he just doesn’t know how to.
His mother grounds him. She takes away his phone, his games, and the TV. Warlock can’t imagine caring about such small, unimportant things after hearing about demons and angels and the end of the world. He goes out into the garden and sits there with the Dark coiled around his shoulders.
“Can other people talk to snakes?” he says.
“Not many,” the Dark says.
“Okay,” Warlock says, resting his chin in his hands and staring at the flowers. They’re getting overgrown. Probably his parents still haven’t remembered to hire a new gardener, with everything else they distract themselves with.
He could weed them, he guesses. It’s not like he’s going to have anything else to do for a while.
Warlock spends the next day weeding the garden. He’s not an expert, but he watched Aziraphale do it wrong and Crowley do it right enough times that he can figure it out. At least, he knows where all the gardening equipment is.
His skin feels like it fits wrong again today, or maybe just still feels like it fits wrong, but the weeding helps a little. It’s distracting, and it’s something to do.
He should’ve gotten Crowley or Aziraphale’s phone numbers, he thinks, but that’s assuming that a demon and an angel have actual phone numbers. Who knows if they do.
Who knows if they’d want to hear from him, anyway.
They did tell him the story, but . . .
Warlock doesn’t know how he feels about the story. He believes it, but he doesn’t know how he feels about it. It’s just so . . . so much, so big and vast and old and at the same time so recent, and . . . and he’s a part of it, but not really, not in an important way or a way that matters, and . . .
And it’s so much.
He wipes sweat off his forehead and gets dirt all over his face. He feels tired and lonely and he doesn’t actually care what growing up in Tadfield would’ve been like, he’s realizing. Growing up in Tadfield would’ve meant not having Nanny Ashtoreth or Brother Francis around, even if they were lies, and that . . .
He’s having enough trouble not having them around now. He can’t imagine what it would’ve been like growing up without them, no matter who his parents were. Or . . . are.
Warlock scrubs at his face and gets dirt in his eye and curses, though he’s not sure if it’s the pain or the frustration. The Dark slithers over his foot and up his calf.
“Miccccce?” they say.
Warlock figures that’s as good a thing to do as any.
He gets yelled at for tracking dirt in the house, and it’s honestly a surprise that his parents even noticed.
The grounding lasts a week. Warlock spends most of it in the garden. He doesn’t really know how to garden, but he can weed the flowerbeds and he can trim the bushes, and no one else is doing it, so . . . yeah. Why not?
It’s something to do.
Anyway, the Dark likes being outside so much. More birds and lizards, Warlock guesses. They’re probably getting bored of pantry mice.
Warlock wonders if he’s ever going to see Crowley and Aziraphale again. He could just go back to the bookshop, obviously, but he doesn’t know if he wants to. He doesn’t care about getting grounded, but he cares that they didn’t say goodbye to him when they left.
They’re thousands and thousands of years old. He’s probably a mayfly in their minds. The time they spent here wasn’t even a blink to them. His whole life hasn’t even been a blink to them, and won’t be even if he lives a hundred years.
He still wants to see them again.
Warlock gets his phone back.
He doesn’t have anyone to call anyway.
“What isssss it?” the Dark says as Warlock’s staring miserably into his closet, feeling all wrong.
“Nothing,” he says, because he can’t put words to it. He’s supposed to be getting dressed up for company, but he’d rather do anything else. He hates how he looks in his “good” clothes.
He wishes he weren’t a boy, for a moment. Girls at least have prettier things to wear. He could have a dress that looks like stars, and not some stiff dull suit that makes him look nothing like he wants to.
It’s a weird thought, he recognizes, and buries it.
But he does wish it, for a moment.
Company is boring. His outfit is excruciating. He should’ve run away to the bookshop again.
He should run away to the bookshop for good, he thinks.
That night, sitting on his bed with the Dark around his neck and finally out of those awful clothes, Warlock looks at his phone. He doesn’t have Crowley or Aziraphale’s numbers. He still doesn’t remember the name of the bookshop.
But . . .
He holds the phone to his ear, and it rings.
Someone picks up.
“Hello?” Crowley says, and Warlock tightens his grip on his phone ‘til it’s almost painful.
“It’s me,” he says.
“Huh,” Crowley says. “How did you get this number?”
“I didn’t,” Warlock says.
“Huh,” Crowley says again. “Well, how are you?”
“Fine,” Warlock lies.
“Hmm.” Crowley sounds unconvinced. Warlock is lying, so . . . “What did you do today?”
“Nothing,” Warlock says, and scrubs senselessly at his eyes. He’s too old to need a nanny or care about who’s doing the gardening. He’s not a little kid anymore.
He misses them both so bad it hurts.
“Well, tell me all about it,” Crowley says, so Warlock does.
Warlock waits ‘til the next time his parents are both gone for the day, and then he packs his backpack again and gets another cab and goes back to the bookshop. This time he makes sure to look at the name.
He walks in through the front door, and Aziraphale turns away from the books he’s shelving and makes a surprised noise.
“Warlock!” he says.
“Hi, Aziraphale,” Warlock says, looking around the shop. The Dark looks too. “Is Crowley here?”
“Not at the moment,” Aziraphale says, setting his last book on the shelf. “He’s supposed to be by later, though. Are you hungry?”
“Kind of,” Warlock says, though he ate this time. Aziraphale hums, then makes a beckoning gesture and bustles back deeper into the shop. Warlock follows him, the Dark draped lazily across his shoulders. He remembers all those times Aziraphale told him to do good and told him not to listen to Nanny Ashtoreth—to Crowley—and isn’t sure how he feels about it, still. He’s not who they thought he was, so they left.
He’s not who they thought he was, so . . .
Well, they would’ve left anyway, wouldn’t they. The world’s not ending anymore, after all.
Warlock shakes his head. Aziraphale picks up some takeout menus from underneath the counter and rifles through them, then holds them out to him.
“Order whatever you’d like,” he says.
“Thanks,” Warlock says. The menus are all from too-fancy places that he’s surprised even do takeout, but he guesses he’s heard weirder. He calls one of the least fancy ones and orders something almost affordable, and Aziraphale puts his little collection of menus back under the counter.
Warlock tries to think of something to say to him, but he just can’t think of anything. Aziraphale picks up a stack of books from the counter and heads back into the shelves, and Warlock follows him because he’s not sure what else to do.
“They won’t be long, they deliver fairly quickly there,” Aziraphale says, back to carefully shelving books. Warlock looks at the spines of a few of them, but nothing jumps out at him as particularly interesting. Probably that’s because a lot of them aren’t in English, but oh well.
“Okay,” he says, and keeps following Aziraphale through the shop while the other arranges and rearranges the books. Aziraphale chatters at him a bit, but not about anything important or anything that Warlock really knows how to properly answer. He’s mostly talking about his books, really, and a little bit about the French Revolution and Nazis.
Not at the same time, obviously.
The food shows up before Crowley does, and Aziraphale takes Warlock to the back of the shop and a little space with chairs where he and the Dark can eat, so they sit down and eat. Aziraphale talks about Nazis a little more. He’s mostly complaining about their manners, but also mentions Crowley horribly murdering some. Warlock figures that’s kind of what happens when you’re a Nazi. Or at least it probably should be.
Okay, most Nazis probably don’t get bombed in a church by demonic intervention, but still. Same difference.
The food’s good, for being kind of fancy. Warlock eats most of it.
“Angel!” Crowley calls from the front of the shop.
“In the back, dear!” Aziraphale calls back. “We have company!”
“Company?” Crowley appears from amidst the shelves. She’s wearing dark slacks and a low-cut shirt today, and like always a pair of dark glasses. “Warlock! Are you going to get grounded again?”
“Not if I’m back before my parents are,” Warlock says. Crowley laughs.
“I should probably discourage this behavior but I suppose I’m not responsible for you turning out a morally neutral young man anymore,” Aziraphale muses. “Though you should of course strive to be respectful and considerate of your parents.”
“My parents are assholes,” Warlock says. Crowley laughs again.
“He has a point, angel,” she says. “Don’t tell me they were ever decent to you.”
“They certainly didn’t respect my work very much,” Aziraphale sighs.
“They still haven’t hired a new gardener,” Warlock says.
“Still?” Crowley looks appalled. “Who’s been pruning the roses?”
“Me,” Warlock says. “Although I think I cut them a little too short.”
“Better than letting them grow wild,” Crowley says. “They’ll get ideas.”
“I didn’t know you liked to garden, Warlock,” Aziraphale says, and Warlock shrugs.
“It’s something to do,” he says.
"Well, that's nice," Aziraphale says.
"I guess," Warlock says.
"Someone's got to do it," Crowley says, dropping into one of the chairs and crossing her legs. Or . . . his legs, maybe. Warlock's not sure which one she is today.
He could ask, he guesses.
"Are you a woman today, or . . . ?" he says.
"Might as well be," Crowley says, inspecting her nails. "I suppose that's what you're used to, isn't it."
"Kinda," Warlock says awkwardly. "But if you're not . . ."
"I don't much care, honestly," Crowley says. "I'm both, really, so you can call me what you like."
"Is that . . . okay?" Warlock says.
"I wouldn't say so if it wasn't," Crowley replies with a shrug. "Sometimes I care, sometimes I don't. You prefer being called a boy, don't you? It's no different."
"Um," Warlock says, his skin itching uncomfortably. "I . . . guess I do."
Crowley pauses, then tilts her head.
"Do you prefer being called a boy, Warlock?" she asks.
"I don't know," Warlock says. No one's ever asked him that before. He's never even really thought about it.
"Would you prefer being called a girl?" Aziraphale asks, and Warlock makes a face at the thought.
"I mean . . . not really," he says. He likes the thought of some girl things better than some boy things, he guesses, like with Crowley's starry dress, but not like that.
"Neither?" Crowley says.
". . . I don't know," Warlock repeats, frowning to himself. Is that an answer he can give? "Neither"? Does that even make sense?
"Well, tell us when you do, obviously," Crowley says, and Warlock . . . blinks, slowly, and isn't sure what to say.
"Okay," he says after a moment. He doesn't really have an answer, so it's kind of a relief not to have to figure it out just yet.
Maybe he'd rather care sometimes, like Crowley, but maybe he'd rather be like the Dark and not care at all. That . . . seems easier.
Warlock doesn't know.
He picks at the remains of his food. The Dark curls around his neck. Crowley and Aziraphale start talking to each other about something to do with Rome. Warlock isn't any less confused about things, but he feels better being here than he ever has at home.
At least, than he ever has at home without one of them around.
"Why did you leave without saying goodbye?" he asks, and Crowley and Aziraphale both pause, then turn to look at him. He feels stupid and embarrassed, but he doesn't take it back.
"I suppose we should have, shouldn't we," Aziraphale says. Warlock stares down at his food. It's . . . not really a helpful answer.
Definitely not the answer he wants.
He doesn't even know what answer he wants.
"Honestly? We were busy trying not to die," Crowley says. "And then we just didn't."
"But why?" Warlock says.
Crowley and Aziraphale look at each other, then back at him.
"We made a mistake," Crowley says.
"We're sorry," Aziraphale says, and Warlock bursts into tears. "Oh!"
"Sorry," Warlock manages, wiping at his face in embarrassment. "Sorry. I didn't mean to—sorry."
"It's fine," Crowley says, getting out of her chair and kneeling in front of him. She puts a hand on his shoulder. "We should have. It was the wrong thing to do."
"The world was ending," Warlock says, still staring at the food in his lap. "And you both almost died."
"Those are the reasons, yes, but not an excuse," Aziraphale says.
"Warlock," Crowley says. She takes the takeout container out of Warlock's lap and sets it aside, and Warlock rubs at his wet face.
"Sorry," he says again, feeling miserable and all wrong.
"Don't be," Crowley says, and then she puts her arms around him and hugs him for the first time in . . . maybe ever, actually. Snakes don't really hug, Warlock finds himself thinking vaguely, gripping her shirt in return. Or aren't made to be hugged, really.
He's not sure what the difference is, or why he's thinking about it.
"I missed you," Warlock says roughly.
"You don't have to," Aziraphale says. "You can come to the shop whenever you like."
"Any time," Crowley agrees. "We're not going anywhere."
"Okay," Warlock says, and cries some more. He hates it, and he hides his face in Crowley's shoulder in a reflexive attempt to conceal the tears. Crowley tightens her grip on him and runs a hand through his hair.
"It's alright," she says, and Warlock's skin still doesn't fit right and he's still not sure if "neither" is the right answer or even a real one and still doesn't know what to say or how he feels, but . . .
"Don't leave," he says hoarsely, even though Crowley already said they weren't going to, and Crowley doesn't let go of him and Aziraphale leans over and puts a hand on his shoulder, and he never wants either of them to go away again.
"We won't," Aziraphale says gently, squeezing his shoulder. "And you can stay as long as you like."
"Okay," Warlock says, and almost feels like it is.
"There you are," Crowley says. Warlock sniffles, wiping at his face again.
"I can really stay as long as I want?" he asks.
"Of course," Aziraphale says, and Warlock wonders if they'd just let him stay for good. It's a tempting idea.
Maybe someday, he thinks. When he knows how he feels about all this, and when he has answers for harder questions.
"Any time," Crowley says.
"Thanks," Warlock says quietly, and he doesn't want to go anywhere at all.
Warlock and the Dark go home, eventually, but it feels different there. His parents aren't really . . .
He doesn't have to listen to them, he thinks.
Or be like them.
He never really thought about it, but he always assumed he was going to be like them someday. Assumed there wasn't anything different he could be.
There's a lot he could be, though, isn't there.
And there's different people he could be like.
The next morning Warlock stands in front of his bedroom closet, thinking about Crowley and Aziraphale and if he actually is the person they raised him to be. If they like the person they raised him to be.
He hopes they do. Even if they left him, at least they care that they left him. They didn't just forget about him. They told him the truth.
Warlock feels . . . a lot of things, right now, and still can't ask the harder questions. The Dark wraps around his shoulders, hissing quietly to themselves.
Warlock . . . wonders.
The Dark doesn't care either way, and Crowley only cares sometimes, but he thinks he might. So . . .
. . . "they", Warlock tries out, just inside, where no one else can hear. They might care.
They might care, and they might have harder questions. They don't have to be like their parents, no matter who their parents actually are, and they can go and see Crowley and Aziraphale whenever they want. They have the Dark, and they're not normal, but being normal doesn't really matter.
Their skin doesn't always fit right, but right now . . . it actually feels okay, right now.
Warlock inhales. Exhales. Feels . . . not right, exactly, but . . . different, somehow.
"Are we going sssssomewhere?" the Dark says, peering into the closet.
"No," Warlock says, looking into it too. "I'm just . . . thinking, I guess."
"About what?" the Dark asks, and there's too many answers to even answer them with.
"A lot," Warlock says, and then, a little tentatively, "Do you think I'm a boy?"
"Not essssspecccccially," the Dark says. "Why, are you?"
". . . no," Warlock says, slowly. "I don't think so."
It's such a strange thing to be thinking about, Warlock thinks. Their parents probably aren't even their real parents and Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis are older than human history and the whole world almost ended. If Warlock's not a boy, does that really matter?
It doesn't, really.
It doesn't, so it does.
They look at the Dark. The Dark tilts their head.
"Thanks," Warlock says, because they don't know what else to say. The Dark hisses gently in reply. Warlock looks back towards their closet.
There's nothing in there that fits "them", they think, but maybe someday there will be.
Or maybe there just . . . could be.
Warlock reaches out, and skims their fingers over dark, starry fabric.
Maybe they'll go see Crowley and Aziraphale again today.