The scary men were at the house again.
One was lanky and tall, sickly pale with a shock of brittle white hair. His partner was shorter, dark, with eyes the color of a rotten tangerine. They both wore gray suits that didn’t fit them very well, and had a habit of running their gaze around the house like they wanted to eat it- hungry and horrible.
Adam’s mum had told him to stay in his bedroom, while she and his father spoke to the men in the parlor, but Adam remembered what had happened the last time they’d been there. How he’d come into the parlor when they’d left and found his mum crying, and his father with an arm around her, patting her rather awkwardly on the back.
She’d straightened up when Adam had come in, quickly wiped away her tears, and when he’d asked what had happened she’d said, nothing you needed to worry about, go off and play, dear , and his dad had just shook his head.
Adam didn’t like seeing his mum cry.
So this time, when he overheard his father on the kitchen phone, saying something like Sure, Mr. Hastur, we’ll be at home, alright, see you then, he had plenty of time to prepare his revenge.
When the tall one sat down on the sofa, right where he’d sat the last time, he screeched an awful, animal cry and leapt to his feet, twisting and pawing at his behind.
The short one reached over, and pulled out a metal fork from between the cushions. Its tines sparkled cheekily at him, and he grimaced up at his mortified partner.
Mrs. Young looked at her husband, who sighed, put a hand to his forehead, and then shouted, “Adam!”
In his spying place, crouched between the bars of the banister halfway up the staircase, from where he’d had the perfect view of his success, Adam stiffened.
“Adam, you get down here right now!”
He trudged reluctantly down the stairs, and stood, hands in his pockets, in the doorway to the parlor.
“Adam, did you put that fork there?” Mr. Young asked.
Adam crossed his arms, saying nothing. He knew from his mum’s cop shows that he didn’t have to say anything that would get him into trouble. That was the law.
The tall one leered down at Adam. “Shouldn’t you be playing outside? It’s such a lovely day.”
“Can’t imagine why,” said the short one. He muttered something under his breath that could’ve very well been little brat, but Mrs. Young didn’t seem to hear.
“Adam, apologize to Mr. Hastur,” said Mr. Young, with a pinched expression.
“I won’t,” said Adam, “not until they promise to never come back here and bother you again.”
“Ah, no can do, sonny boy,” said the short one, leaning back on the sofa like he owned it. “You’ll be seeing quite a bit of us this month.”
“Why’s that, then? Why not go bother someone else?” Adam protested.
“It’s grown-up business,” scowled Hastur, giving his bottom one last rub and sitting down, absurdly tentatively, on the very edge of the sofa. “You wouldn’t understand it.”
Adam looked plaintively to his mother for some kind of backup, but she avoided his gaze.
“Apologize, Adam,” Mr. Young repeated, “and then go back to your room. We’re busy down here with Mr. Hastur and Mr. Ligur.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Adam as insincerely as possible. He gave Hastur and Ligur one last deadly glare before leaving the parlor, stomping as noisily as possible up the stairs, and slamming his bedroom door behind him.
“I ought to have put a pincushion down instead,” he said to Dog, who was staring at him attentively from his favorite napping spot at the foot of Adam’s bed. “He should’ve had to pull the pins out one by one, that awful man. Dunno what kind of business they’ve got, making Mum and Dad upset like that. Cos they were upset, but not at me, at that lot, I could tell. ”
Dog gave a soft yelp of agreement. He was a good dog like that.
By the time the two men left, after half an hour of frustratingly muffled voices from the parlor below, it had begun to rain outside. Adam watched with unconcealed disgust from his bedroom window as Hastur and Ligur tramped across the puddled lane to their shiny black car and trundled away.
He flopped back down on his bed, but before he could reach for one of his comic books to distract himself, the door opened with a creak and his father’s head poked its way inside.
“That’s another week stuck at home for you,” said Mr. Young sternly, “on top of the last one." He paused. “And don’t look at me like that, what did you think would happen, pulling a stunt like that?”
Adam patted Dog aggressively and said nothing, as his father looked over the top of his glasses at him.
Then Mr. Young’s glasses slipped even further down his nose, and he sighed in frustration, taking them off and inspecting the frames.
“Have you seen my little glasses screwdriver?” he asked, thumbing at the loose joint where the arm met the lens. “I can’t find it, and this is getting ridiculous.”
“Not using it for any of your little inventions?”
“Would you tell me if you were?”
“Probably not, no.”
Mr. Young shut Adam’s door with a sigh, and Adam heard him muttering, “Wonder where it’s got to,” as he ambled down the hall.
“You’re late, Aziraphale.”
“I know, I’m very sorry,” said Aziraphale, “but— look what I brought!”
Gabriel took the dandelion, leaves and all, from Aziraphale, and turned it over in his hands. The fluffy yellow flower was the size of his head, and the long stalk dragged on the wooden planks of the floor.
“Excellent work,” Gabriel said, and Aziraphale beamed. “The leaves will make a wonderful soup, and Michael can use the flower to make enough of her lovely wine to last us the rest of the summer.” Then he frowned. “But I just can’t imagine where you got it. Was it growing in the window box? Surely not.”
Aziraphale considered nodding enthusiastically, spinning some fantastic tale about a miraculous dandelion, springing forth amidst the basil and rosemary. But what use would it be? Gabriel would be able to tell, he always could, and then Aziraphale would be in trouble for lying as well as for putting himself in danger.
“I… may have ventured out past the window box,” Aziraphale admitted, bracing himself for the excoriation that was sure to come. “I spotted the plant, just the one flower, just past the patio, and, well, you know how obsessive Mrs. Young has been with her weeding lately. I thought this may be the only chance we’d have to bring it home.”
Gabriel cast his eyes back at the other angels, sitting around the table, their wings folded neatly at their backs as they awaited the start of their evening meal. Then he turned back to Aziraphale, his violet eyes stern, and Aziraphale resisted the urge to wince and cower.
“Aziraphale, you know it’s dangerous in the garden—”
“I know, but if I hadn’t gone out to get the dandelion, I never would have—”
“—there are wild animals, dangerous beasts, and look at you, you’re wet, did you get caught in the rain? You could get sick! Why didn’t you come back right away?”
Here it was. “I— I, well. Something happened...” He swallowed. Surely, once the others heard this part of his story, they’d excuse his lateness. He might even be rewarded.
“Go on,” Gabriel said.
“There was— I met someone. In the garden. Another— another angel.”
A squeak came from the table. Michael had put her hand over her mouth, eyes wide with shock at Aziraphale’s admission. Uriel’s wings fluttered nervously, her brow knitted in disbelief.
Gabriel cast a reassuring glance back at the others, and then put a solid hand on Aziraphale’s shoulder. “Aziraphale, there are no other angels.”
“We’re the only ones,” insisted Gabriel. He gestured around the table at the other members of the family. “It’s just us. If you saw some thing else, well— that was no angel at all. That was something evil. One of the beasts of the Outside. A demon. It could’ve eaten you for dinner! You’re very lucky you escaped with your life.”
And that was the end of that. Aziraphale sat down at the table, taking deep, steadying breaths as the food was passed around. Simply inhaling the familiar scents of home, warm bread and steeped tea, was enough to center him, allowing him to reflect more objectively on what had happened.
No other angels. He knew that. He knew it as well as he knew his own name, as surely as he knew the ways between the walls, the structures that led to all the life-giving resources of the House— the pipes, the wiring, the pantry.
But if there were no other angels— then who was the stranger that Aziraphale had just met, underneath the sheltering spread of a leaf of lady’s mantle?
The great ginger cat hissed and clawed at the dark silhouette that darted amongst the rocks by the stream’s edge, but it wasn’t quick enough. The figure leapt from a rock to a tall reed, which tilted obligingly under the slight weight, leaning across the rushing brook in a graceful arc.
The cat howled piteously as Crowley swung out of reach. “Always a pleasure, Red,” he drawled, giving the cat a lazy salute. As soon as his feet hit solid ground on the far bank, he was running off into the grass. The reed sprang back and whipped the cat in the face with a satisfying thwack , but Crowley had already vanished.
Arriving back home, Crowley slung his pack off from his back. He unbuttoned it, and spread the fabric out flat on his smooth stone table, admiring the products of a hard day’s work of scavenging.
There was the safety pin, a little rusty but still sharp enough to be useful. A single Smartie, pink (not Crowley’s favorite flavor but beggars couldn’t be choosers). A scrap of gorgeous blue thread he’d found half-buried by the creek.
And then there was the dandelion leaf, broad and green, nearly as tall as Crowley himself when unfurled to its full length. He’d be able to make medicine with it, cook with it, distill it down into useful compounds. It was still a little wet; Crowley brushed off a water droplet the size of his palm onto the hard-packed earthen floor, where it sank and disappeared into dampness.
The rain had come out of nowhere. As he’d skirted the very edge of his territory, right up against the patio, the closest to the House he’d been in months, he was too concerned with the ever-present threat of lurking felines to pay much attention to the clouds gathering overhead.
So when the drops had started to fall all at once, Crowley had scrambled for the nearest lady’s mantle and huddled underneath one of its leaves like a bloody idiot, shivering in his damp clothes, wondering whether it was worth it to try and make a mad dash all the way across the garden and back towards home. He had no way of knowing how long the rain would last, after all.
And then, in the midst of these calculations, he— the stranger— had appeared. He’d nearly leaped out of his skin when he’d realized the shelter he’d stumbled across was already occupied, with Crowley’s dark-cloaked figure skulking beneath the overhang.
“Hello…?” the stranger had said, softly, rather scared. Which was a reasonable thing to be, when coming face to face with Crowley.
Crowley’s hair, though soaked, was still majestic in its length, cascading down his back in a flood of sodden auburn, pulled half-back at the temples and sporting a few small braids. His black tunic was slashed at the front, exposing his wiry chest, and lengths of hard-won silver chain were draped around his neck. A shining silver pin, topped with a red ball of a hilt, was looped through his belt, and his feet were bare and callused.
All these markers of dominance had seemed to be doing their job, putting his enemy (for all other demons were his enemies by default) on edge, but suddenly Crowley’d had the inexplicable urge to counteract all of that, to somehow put this stranger at ease.
“Lucky you,” he’d said.
Crowley had pointed to the dandelion stalk the stranger held in the crook of his arm, its sunny flower resting on his shoulder.
“Haven’t seen one of those all summer. The lady’s been at them like nobody’s business. A one-human war against weeds.”
“Oh. Yes, quite,” said the stranger, blinking. “The lady— do you mean Mrs. Young?”
Crowley squinted. “How d’you know her name, then?”
“I—” The stranger’s clear eyes had been like the creek, seeming to change and flow even as Crowley gazed into them. They’d flicked over at the house, visible through the pelting downpour, and suddenly Crowley had understood.
This odd fellow wasn’t another demon at all.
“You’re from… Inside.”
The stranger had nodded.
“Should’ve known, with a getup like that.” Crowley had given the stranger a once over, taking in the thick-knitted jumper, the many-times-mended trousers, and the soft-soled shoes, all wildly unsuited to any kind of Outside venture. Compared to Crowley’s rugged outerwear, the stranger might as well have been in pyjamas. His wings, meanwhile, were as pale as his hair, and just as mussed.
The stranger had glared haughtily at Crowley, and smoothed down the front of his jumper with the hand that wasn’t holding the dandelion. “Where I come from, this is stylish.”
“Did I say it wasn’t?”
The stranger had sighed, then. “I do hope I haven’t done the wrong thing, coming all the way out here, just for a silly old dandelion... I’m not supposed to go out alone, I’m— not supposed to go out at all... ”
Crowley’d grinned, highly amused, but then the stranger had taken a nervous step back, clutching his prize, its leaves flopping down over his arms.
In the oddness of the moment, Crowley had forgotten that he mostly bared his teeth as a form of intimidation these days, scaring off Red or Dog or that wretched badger. To this soft stranger, Crowley’s smile must have seemed as sharp and dangerous as the pin at his side.
And in realizing that, Crowley had also become newly conscious of the dirt that must’ve been streaked across his bare arms, the grime underneath his fingernails, the long-healed scar that slashed through his left brow and down his cheekbone. At least his crow-black wings were neatly groomed, folded flightlessly against his back.
“You’ll be fine,” Crowley had said. “You made it here, you can make it back. No problemo, you got this.”
“Oh,” the stranger had said, relaxing just a bit. “Oh, thank you. I was worried.”
Crowley had grunted a noise of assent, his conversational skill failing him at last. He probably should’ve been grateful it had even lasted that long— he really couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken out loud like this to something— someone— that could actually speak back.
They’d stood there for a few minutes more in silence, listening to the rain patter down on the leaves above them, drops crashing into the grass beyond their green shelter.
And then, as quickly as it had come on, the downpour had ended, and the sun had peeked out from behind the clouds. The garden had turned at once into a glittering kaleidoscope, the colors of Mrs. Young’s garden refracted in a million bright dancing dots.
The stranger had cleared his throat. “Well, er. Best be off. I’m afraid I’m already late, don’t know what Gabriel will say…”
He’d moved to step out from underneath the lady’s mantle, and Crowley had made no attempt to stop him, just watched his delicate motions with careful eyes.
But then the stranger had looked back over his shoulder, as he stepped into the light.
“Here you are,” he had said. He’d peeled off a leaf from the bundle of dandelion he carried, and handed it out to Crowley, reaching back into the shadow underneath the bough.
And then he was gone, trotting through the glimmering grass, back towards the looming edifice of the House in the distance.
Crowley had stared down at the dandelion leaf in his hands for probably longer than was necessary. Then, coming back to himself, he’d rolled it up and stowed it inside his pack, and then loped off in the opposite direction, in the direction of the forest, and more familiar territory.
Now, gazing once more at the leaf on his table, Crowley was still fixated on the sheer improbability of the encounter.
The only dandelion in the whole yard, and he’d just— given part of it away. Just like that.
Crowley wondered how purely abundant life must be like Inside, for the pale stranger to have so freely handed over such a valuable item. How different that Inside existence must be from Crowley’s own.
And, look. It wasn’t as if Crowley didn’t have a good life Outside. Sure, it was solitary, and certainly precarious at times. But his territory was magnificent, spanning the area from the eastern edge of the patio, back past the stream that marked the edge of the garden, and then into the forest, all the way to the outcropping of stones that his overturned-lunchbox home rested against. These were hard-won yards, fought over with teeth and blades and clever plans and animal allies. The other demons knew now that Crowley could defend his territory; nobody had successfully raided him in years. His reputation was one of ruthless and creative defense, all in the name of Not Being Bothered, and he reveled in it.
He did fine on his own, thank you very much. He didn’t need anyone.
And yet, as he broke off a piece of the Smartie’s pink candy coating and flopped down on his bedspread, nibbling at it thoughtfully, he couldn’t shake the image of that stranger from his mind, even as he tried to distract himself by thinking of anything, anything else.
No demon had seen one in years. Most didn’t believe they still existed.
And yet— there he’d been.
“I’m never going to see him again,” Crowley said, out loud to his empty room. As if hearing it said like that, a simple statement of fact, would make it true. As if that would make him want it to be true.
Because— and really, it was no use pretending, there was nobody there to pretend to— he was really starting to hope it wasn’t true.
Aziraphale was out of pencil lead. The last tiny fragment of graphite fell to dust in his hands, scattering across his hand-bound journal.
It was spread out on his desk, open to a half-completed entry about the strange events of the day, which cut off right after I made sure to look around for sign of any of the cats before sliding down the drainpipe.
He hadn’t had anything to add to his records in ages. Things around the House didn’t change much. Angels borrowed things from the Youngs, were careful not to be seen, and kept to themselves, within the walls, underneath the creaking floorboards. They had their traditions, and their rules, and their standards.
It had always been this way— it had to be, in order for them to stay safe, coexisting with the humans. At least, that’s what Aziraphale had been taught.
But still, he had… questions. Certainly not questions the other angels would approve of, but there was a lot Aziraphale did and thought here, in his safe little room, that the other angels wouldn’t approve of.
Who had built the byways through the walls, the staple-stairs and the screw-steps leading to all the rooms of the House? Who had cut out the tiny removable portholes in the wallpaper and the molding, in all the most convenient places to observe the Youngs from without being seen?
And, most pertinently, the beast he’d met, the strange Outside creature with his tanned skin and unblinking eyes— had Aziraphale really been in as much danger as Gabriel had said?
The fellow had been a bit scary to look at, sure, all angles and ragged black clothing.
He’d talked just like any other angel, though. Made jokes, even.
Aziraphale wanted to write down what he remembered of their conversation. It was the only thing he could think of that might help him figure out what exactly it had meant.
But— no graphite, no writing.
Aziraphale heaved a sigh, and pushed his chair back. It was late enough at night that the others would be asleep in their rooms; if he was lucky, nobody would hear him pad down the corridor and out of the door.
As soon as the thought came to him, he was surprised by it. He ought to add pencil lead to the long list of items to be borrowed, and eventually in a few weeks he’d be paired up with one of the others and sent out on an official mission to retrieve it.
But he felt emboldened by the afternoon’s successful expedition out in the garden, and rather fancied himself a bit of an adventurer now. He knew very well where he could find what he needed— why shouldn’t he just go and fetch it?
Aziraphale slung his bag around his shoulder, and from a stand by the door he took a birthday candle, complete with tinfoil grip to protect his hand from splashing wax. Then he crept out of the house, resisting the urge to hum a jaunty tune.
Just outside the house, standing like a decorative statue, was a blue plastic cigarette lighter, coming up to Aziraphale’s shoulder. With all his weight, he leaned on the spark wheel. It took him a few tries, but finally, he was successful in coaxing out a flame.
Candle lit successfully, he smiled to himself, and ventured off into the dark.
Things in the Young household had a tendency to go missing. Adam’s mum chalked it up to her husband’s absent-mindedness. And Mr. Young, in turn, would blame it all on Adam.
But Adam had recently come up with a different theory about it all. He was pretty sure he knew why he sometimes found things moved around on his desk after coming home from school; why sometimes Dog would bark at nothing at all, pressing his nose to the floorboards and scratching away at the siding.
The witch who’d moved into Jasmine Cottage last month had told him all sorts of things, some more interesting than others. She’d even let him borrow some of her books and magazines, pointing out the tales that matched up with his stories about his family’s rambling old house.
He thought it was odd that the sole American in Tadfield should know more about local legends than his parents, who’d grown up here. They’d quickly dismissed Anathema’s tales out of hand as the ravings of a stoned Californian, upon hearing them eagerly repeated by Adam.
But Adam did understand why Anathema had moved here. If he were born all the way over in America, he’d end up moving to Tadfield too. Sure, America was good to visit and think about, and it made the best movies and television. But even the shining lights of Times Square, at the end of the day, had nothing on the fields and glades of Tadfield, the forest and the quarry and the market square.
Adam couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Even if stuff did go missing, even if there were things he couldn’t explain. Tadfield was his home, and it would always be.
He lay in bed, his mind racing with thoughts of brownies, kobolds, fairies. Dog was asleep under the covers, his little legs kicking as he dreamed some doggy dream, probably about racing Raven through the garden and actually winning.
And then, just as he was about to drift off to sleep, Adam saw something move. In the corner of his eye— there, right there—
He moved his head, very, very, slowly.
It was on his desk, whatever it was— it was crawling over a stack of books, towards his pencil case, which was resting against the side of a remote-control car.
The creature moved fast, but Adam was faster. With one swift movement he leaped free of his blanket, grabbed the empty cup from his bedstand, and launched himself across the room.
There was an almighty crash of toys and pens and paper, but when the chaos cleared Adam found himself holding the cup firmly upside-down against the surface of the desk.
And, yes— there was something moving inside it. Gotcha.
He slid the cup to the edge of the desk, one hand coming beneath it to keep whatever was inside from falling as he flipped it over.
Then he took a deep breath, and looked inside.
A tiny man blinked up at Adam from the bottom of the cup. He had fluffy white hair, matching the feathered wings that fluttered on his back, and wore a trembling, fearful expression.
“Oh, dear,” he squeaked.
Adam grinned down at Aziraphale, and whispered,