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,
This was really not how Aziraphale had planned on spending his night.
He reflected, as he trembled at the bottom of the plastic cup being held by the human Young boy, that perhaps all of those lectures he’d received from Gabriel over the years about never venturing out into the House alone, and certainly not at night, might have really had something to them.
I swear to all that is House and Home, he thought to himself fearfully, if I get out of this alive, I promise I’ll never disobey again, I’ll hardly ever leave my room, just please please make him let me go!
The human boy— Adam— was gazing down at him with bright, fascinated eyes. “I knew it!” he breathed, his face lighting up in unmistakable delight.
Aziraphale was trying to stop himself from shaking in terror, hands slipping against the slippery sides of the cup as he tried to make his mind stop shouting at him in Gabriel’s voice. If they find you they’ll kill you, the warnings went, if they find you they’ll kill all of us, and it’ll be your fault.
Though, as terrifying as Adam was, Aziraphale had to note through his haze of panic that the boy did not look particularly murderous. He looked determined, and curious, and excited, but not dangerous …
Despite this reasoned observation, when Aziraphale tried to say something, all that came out was a pathetic sort of squeak.
“I know you can talk,” Adam said. “I just heard you say oh, dear.”
“Right,” Aziraphale said. “Well. Yes. Rather.”
“What’s your name?”
“Aziraphale,” he answered automatically, and then winced immediately. He should’ve come up with a fake name, or something, House above, he was an idiot!
“You live here, don’t you?” said Adam. "In the house, under the floors."
Aziraphale managed to keep a hold of his tongue this time, as his heartbeat subsided from full-tilt panic to mere frantic worry.
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
Adam looked around, as though trying to work out where Aziraphale had come from, but the small, angel-shaped door down by the molding near the foot of the desk seemed to escape his notice.
He brought the cup up so that his eye filled the whole of its aperture, and Aziraphale instinctually cringed away.
“You’ve got wings,” Adam said quietly, in an awed voice. He reached a stubby finger inside, rubbing it along the soft feathers.
“Please, please have mercy,” Aziraphale whined, the invasive, harsh touch of the human causing his insides to roil with discomfort. “Don’t hurt me!”
Adam quickly drew the cup away again, and Aziraphale could see his expression— he looked shocked at the very idea. “Oh, no! I could never— did you think I was going to keep you? Or kill you?”
“You have trapped me in a cup,” Aziraphale pointed out, smoothing down his wing where Adam’s touch had ruffled it.
“But you would’ve run away otherwise,” Adam said, “and I just wanted to— well, I wanted to prove that you were real.”
“Of course I’m real!” Aziraphale said. He straightened the sleeves of his jumper with prim offense. “And now you have your proof. Any further plans?”
Adam frowned. He clearly hadn’t expected to get this far. “I guess not,” he admitted. “You’re right. I ought to let you go now.”
Aziraphale suddenly realized that if he let Adam discover how he’d entered his room in the first place, he could very well be putting the others in even more immediate danger than he’d already done. The passageway below the desk had to remain a secret.
But if he could just get to the roof somehow, then he could get back inside via the angel-steps lining the inside of the chimney. He’d often taken them up and down with the other angels, on borrowing missions and on clear evenings for stargazing.
“If you’d be so kind as to open the window and let me out,” he said, “I can find my way home quite easily.”
“But— you didn’t come in from that way,” Adam said, darting a look over to the window, which lay securely closed and locked.
Aziraphale’s wings fluttered nervously.
“Oh, are you not allowed to leave the way you came in?” Adam asked, before Aziraphale could even come up with an excuse. “Is that one of your— rules?” He said rules winkingly, as if he was referencing something known, knowledge shared between the two of them, but though the angels had many rules, Aziraphale didn’t know of any regarding what kinds of exits one had to leave through. But if Adam thought there was…
“Yes, that’s exactly right,” said Aziraphale confidently. “One of our rules.”
“ Our? So there are more of you! I knew it!” the boy exclaimed.
Dash it all. These slips of the tongue were surely going to add up to nothing more than a great stinking pile of trouble soon enough. He didn’t trust himself to come up with a convincing lie, so he just shook his head, tight-lipped.
“I understand,” said Adam solemnly. “Don’t worry. Your secrets are safe with me, Aziraphale.”
“Well, that’s much appreciated. Now, if I could just… be on my way, if you don’t mind?” He couldn’t help his voice from rising querulously.
“Oh! Yeah, for sure."
Adam rolled up the sash of the window and, tipping the cup gently, set Aziraphale down on the sill.
Aziraphale sprang up, brushing himself off, and looked back up at Adam. “Thank you very much,” he said, trying not to go all wibbly in the face of the great looming human above him. “It’s been, ah. Lovely meeting you.”
“Are you going to fly away?” Adam asked.
“Yes,” Aziraphale lied, not about to make another mistake so easily, “but we’re not allowed to do it with humans watching. So you must close the window, and turn of the light, before I can leave, dear boy.”
“Gotcha,” said Adam, nodding seriously, and Aziraphale smiled as gratefully as he could, giving the boy a little wave.
Aziraphale felt a thrill of triumph as the window slid shut and the light in Adam's room switched off. It was the most marvelous feeling, to have done something, to have gone somewhere. As long as he could get home safely, Gabriel and the others would never even know he'd gone anywhere, and surely Adam would keep his word and not tell anyone of the encounter.
He patted down his jumper pocket and felt the slivers of graphite safe inside. He was going to have even more to write about now— he couldn't wait to get home.
Crowley couldn’t sleep. This was unusual for him, to say the least. Sleep was his favorite part of the day; the bed in the corner of his lunchbox home was the envy of demons the forest over, or at least it would be if any of them knew about it. He’d spent ages collecting the softest fabrics and fluffiest feathers, and handily sewn them all up into demon-sized pillows and blankets, into which he’d burrow each night, warm and snug, and fall asleep almost immediately.
But not tonight. Tonight he tossed and turned, somehow unable to find a comfortable position within the soft confines of his nest. With increasing determination he sought sleep, the refuge of dreams, and was rebuffed by his own subconscious, every time.
It was because of that damned stranger, from earlier. There was no point in denying it.
If only he’d gotten his name, Crowley found himself thinking. If only he had a name to put to that pale, apple-cheeked face, then maybe he could satisfy himself with the version of him that persisted inside his head.
But the stranger had never said his name, and so Crowley couldn’t sleep.
With a groan, he emerged from his warm cocoon, and stood for a moment rubbing his eyes, before beginning to prepare to head out.
He felt slightly separate from his own body as he gathered up his exploration kit, checking all his supplies were present and accounted for before strapping it on. As if he were floating above himself, not quite believing he was really going to do the thing he knew he was going to do.
The strange, separated feeling faded away quickly as he crept out of his lunchbox home, and all his senses became immediately attuned.
It was dangerous to go about in the night like this— Crowley had to be aware at all times of what lurked in the dark of the forest and garden. Cats, of course, always on the prowl; his arch-nemesis the badger, all manner of night-birds and bats and combative bugs.
He was lucky to not meet any of the above on his journey towards the house. An encounter with Sable or Chalky in the darkness would’ve caused all sorts of howls and clamor, and the last thing Crowley wanted was one of the humans poking its fat head out the door to see what the ruckus was about, and shining a torch onto him.
He vaulted the creek and crept through the garden on confident, silent feet. When he reached the edge of the fence that ran along the side of the house, he nimbly scrambled up one of the posts and alighted on its peak. Then, silently, he made his way along the top of the fence, leaping fluidly from post to post.
He’d almost reached the bins of garden waste, halfway to the front of the house, when he saw a light come on in a second-floor window.
He wasn’t quite sure what he was watching for, until all at once it was terrifyingly clear.
Silhouetted through the window, a shadow on the bedroom wall, was the distinct form of the human boy, holding a cup in his hands. The boy stepped forward, coming into Crowley’s view framed by the window, and suddenly Crowley could see, quite distinctly, what was inside the clear plastic cup he held.
It was none other than the pale-haired stranger.
“That blinkered idiot,” Crowley hissed under his breath, his fingers going white-knuckled around the hilt of his pin. His brain loyally leapt into action immediately, whirring away calculating distances, arcs, timing. Within thirty seconds, he’d settled up on a plan of action that would have that idiotic stranger out of the hands of the human— it’d be dangerous, sure, and complicated, but it’d look damn cool, and the stranger would be so impressed—
Before he could even get his slingshot out, and thwack the first stone against the windowpane to distract the human, the window was suddenly opening, and the cup, in the hands of the human boy, was depositing its contents gently on the sill. A few moments later, the window closed, with a slam, and the light inside switched off.
In the moonlight, the stranger looked like a flower, beige-stalked and white-petaled, standing tentatively on the edge of the sill.
“Oi!” Crowley shouted up impulsively. “You there!”
The stranger turned, alarmed, and looked down towards the source of the voice. Crowley gave him a wave.
“What are you doing here!?” the stranger called, pressing a hand to his heart in sudden recognition.
Crowley felt very exposed, doing all this yelling in the middle of the night, so close to the House and the humans inside. He also felt very exposed at the prospect of telling the stranger the truth, but decided, in the absence of his exciting, swashbuckling rescue plan, that it was his current best option for a demonstration of bravery.
“Looking for you!”
“Looking for— what?!”
Crowley couldn’t be sure if that was a what of astonishment or a what of mishearing. “Hold on,” he called. “I’m coming up.”
He let the pebble fall to the ground below the fence, and replaced it inside the slingshot with his grappling hook.
What followed was an acrobatic ascension, involving the grappling hook, a line of strong, thin cable, a swift swing across to the drainpipe, the replacement of the hook in his pack and the retrieval of two small magnets, which he used to assist in his climb up the side of the house, thwacking the magnets against the pipe, pulling himself up hand-over-hand..
When he finally reached the height of the second-story window, and leapt gracefully from the pipe to land silently upon the sill, the stranger was slack-jawed. “That was— incredible,” he breathed.
“S’nothing,” said Crowley with a shrug, slotting the magnets back into place in his pack.
The stranger beamed, and then seemed to catch himself, routing his gaze down and to the side, rocking slightly back on his heels. “I suppose I should say thank you.”
“For what?” Crowley folded his arms, suddenly wishing the moon wasn’t so damned bright tonight. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You would’ve, though. You would’ve saved me.” It wasn’t an accusation, or an awed realization. Simply a statement of fact.
“Yeah. Well," Crowley said, and then all at once remembered why, exactly, he’d come. “Listen. What’s your name?”
“Aziraphale,” the stranger said with a sigh, and oh, what a name. A name worth traversing the forest in the night for, a name worth going where no demon was supposed to go. A name worth the moonlight and the stars too. “And you are…?”
“I’m Crowley,” he said, and gave Aziraphale a deep, respectful bow, of the type exchanged between demons, at encounters in the wilds or at the start of each Singing. He straightened up to find Aziraphale looking befuddled, holding out a pale hand.
Crowley stared at the hand, trying to work out what kind of strange Insider greeting was being indicated here. Certainly, it was an expression of trust of some sort...
After a moment of intense analysis, Crowley grabbed the hand, and brought it to his mouth, where he pressed his lips against soft skin for just a moment, returning the offered vulnerability in kind. Aziraphale did not immediately snatch it back or look affronted, so Crowley assumed he’d intuited the exchange correctly, and felt rather smug about it.
“Well, Aziraphale,” Crowley said, testing the name in his mouth and finding it lovelier than any scavenged sweet. “You’ve gotten into enough trouble for tonight, I think. May I escort you home?”
Aziraphale’s hands twisted together nervously, and for a moment Crowley thought he’d say no, flee without another word, just like he did earlier. But his face was open and trusting, and finally a smile broke across it like sunrise, hours early. “Yes, alright,” he said, “I don’t see why not.”
Crowley tried to insist on going ahead of him, but Aziraphale wouldn’t have it— (“I’m the one that’s lived here my entire life, Crowley, I know the way, you just follow behind”)— and so it was Aziraphale that pulled Crowley up onto the roof of the House with surprisingly powerful ease. Was he hiding muscle under all that beige?
“There you are,” Aziraphale said, as Crowley clambered to his feet atop the shingled edge of the roof.
“Oh, wow,” said Crowley, looking out at the view. From their perch, the entire yard sprawled out, from the patio to the garden all the way back to the stream and the forest beyond. Crowley’s territory, cast in high-contrast underneath the full moon.
“Have you never been this high up?” Aziraphale said kindly.
Crowley scowled. “What? Course I have. Been up every tree in the forest. But… I’ve never seen it all from this angle, I guess. It all looks...”
“Rather small, yes.”
They stood there for another few moments, just watching, listening to the soft sounds of the summer night, the crickets and the rustling of the leaves in the breeze.
“Hold on,” Crowley said suddenly, turning to Aziraphale. “Hold on. What the hell were you doing in there?"
Aziraphale, valiantly maintaining that he’d really done nothing too irresponsible whatsoever, told Crowley the whole story, from the graphite to the final act of grace.
Crowley was awed at Aziraphale’s brazenness, but even more so was fascinated by what the human had done. The stories passed between demons during the Singing told of the days when demons and humans would work together in cooperation, but the stories also told of how those days were long past. Humans were the natural enemy of Crowley’s kind— why in the name of the moon had the boy set Aziraphale free?
Together, they nimbly ascended the side of the chimney, and then Aziraphale showed Crowley the screws that formed a staircase, spiraling down inside the unused vent.
“Who built this?” said Crowley, impressed, darting down from screw to screw. The moon’s glow from above was growing dimmer, as the soft light filtering in from the House at the base of the chimney brightened.
“I’ve always wondered,” said Aziraphale ahead of him, his voice echoing back up to Crowley in the cavernous space. “There must have been more angels, once. But there’s only a few of us now, hardly enough to maintain all of it. So, er, be careful.”
They were halfway down the chimney when they came to a small chink in the brickwork, a door of some kind leading into a dark passageway. Aziraphale, with the easy familiarity of someone perfectly at home, stepped through the doorway, and by the time Crowley reached him, he’d picked up a match from a tray hanging from a string on the wall.
“Oh, fudge,” Aziraphale said, staring down at the match, which was the length of his forearm. “I lost my candle back in Adam’s room. It’s far too dark to continue without it, and this match won't last all the way there...”
Crowley quickly swung his pack around, and removed from it a cylindrical, metallic object— a small, battery-powered electric torch. He’d bartered for it ages ago from Dagon, in exchange for a Mars bar he’d scavenged from the remains of the child human’s raucous garden celebrations. It was quite the trade, given that the Mars bar likely disappeared down Dagon's throat by week’s end, and Crowley was still using the torch so many years later.
“Now, be careful with it,” Crowley said, as he handed it to Aziraphale. “Batteries are hard to come by.”
Aziraphale set the match aside and turned the torch over in his hands, delicately inspecting the casing. “I’m sure they are, out there. But I know the sort this takes, and Mr. Young keeps them in the second drawer down of the desk in his office.” He blinked up at Crowley, his eyes innocent and searching. “Would you like me to get some for you?”
“Oh. Um. I’m good. For now.” Crowley fought the urge to bare his teeth at the very suggestion he was in need of any sort of charity— Aziraphale couldn’t have known of his hard-won reputation for self-sufficiency, he was just being kind.
As they ventured forth into the passageway, Crowley had instinctively adopted his most light-footed tread, an agile, nearly silent pad forwards befitting of only the deadliest of pursuits. He was deep inside enemy territory, inside the House, voluntarily, following behind a gently trotting Insider who seemed utterly at home, in perfect harmony with the unnatural structures of the humans.
Every inch of him was on high alert. So when a murmur of voices reached his ears from up ahead, he nearly leapt out of his skin. He skidded to a halt and froze in place, hand instinctively going for the hilt of the pin in his belt.
“I don’t think there’s any use in moaning about it,” said a deep, male human voice, echoing through a grate on the wall, through which golden light was striping the floor of the passage.
“But it’s just so unfair, Arthur!”
“That’s Mr. and Mrs. Young,” said Aziraphale, sounding calm but curious. He took a tentative step forward towards the grate, the light from inside casting thin, glowing lines across his round face.
Crowley was sorely tempted to snatch him round the collar and drag him back into the safety of the dark, but his own curiosity won out, and after a moment he sidled up next to Aziraphale, peering through the bars of the grate at the scene beyond.
He could see a neat human bedroom, its window looking out towards the darkened garden. The lady and the man of the House were there, deep in discussion.
Crowley was closer to them than he’d ever been before, having gone his whole life with only the distant, cautious glimpses of the dangerous humans that were befitting of proper demons. He thought about what the other demons would think of him, when they found out he’d gone inside the House. To be sure, it wouldn’t be his topic of choice at the next Singing, he’d never admit to doing a thing like— whatever this was— but somehow the news of his exploits would leak out, someone might have spotted him from the forest, and then his reputation would be utterly ruined.
The human woman was sitting on the edge of the bed and her husband was pacing in front of her, smoking his pipe. “They’re only doing their jobs, Deirdre,” he was saying.
“Doesn’t seem like that sometimes,” she said. “Seems like they’re having far too much fun snatching our dear home right out from underneath us.”
Mr. Young sighed. “If I had the money—”
“I know, I know, darling. If we had the money, we’d be able to outbid them. But we don’t, so what’s the use in imagining? It’s horrible, simply horrible!”
“It won’t be that bad, I promise. We’ll find somewhere new. I can put in for that transfer to Swindon they’ve been talking about at the office.”
“You mean— we’d leave Tadfield?” Mrs. Young’s voice quavered.
Mr. Young sat down on the bed next to his wife, and put a gentle arm around her. “I think we’d have to,” he said. “I don’t think I could bear to stay, knowing the house was gone.”
Mrs. Young nodded. “You’re right. It’ll be so awful, driving down the street after it gets demolished…”
“They’re going to demolish the House—!?” Aziraphale squeaked, altogether too loudly, and though Crowley was quick to clap a hand over his mouth, he was too late. Mr. Young sprang up from the bed and legged it over to the grate, squinting in a horribly, threatening human way.
As Crowley dragged Aziraphale onwards into the darkness of the passage, away from the grate, he could hear Mr. Young saying incredulously, “ Mice, Deirdre! I heard them, clear as day, squeaking away! Right inside the walls!”
“Mice!? Oh, how disgusting! Can you see them? Do something, Arthur!”
The shouts faded out of hearing as they turned the corner and hurried down the passageway. Crowley’s forest-tested instincts had activated, his vision going sharp and adrenaline flooding his chest.
“What are you, some kind of— danger magnet?” Crowley hissed, trying to sound merely angry instead of angry and scared.
They came to a fork in the passageway and Aziraphale navigated them wordlessly to the right, shaking his head. “No, I’ve always been very good,” he shot back.
“You really expect me to believe that?”
“Really, I only ventured out tonight because of— well, because I was rather inspired by our earlier encounter.”
“Oh, you’re blaming me for your bad decisions now?” Crowley said, choosing to take a disbelieving tack instead of fully considering that Aziraphale had spent the rest of the day thinking of him— had been inspired by him to step outside his normal routine.
Aziraphale didn’t answer— he’d ducked through another archway and, tucking the torch under one arm, began a descent down a long descent down a ladder made of heavy staples, studded into the wall.
The ladder let out down below the floorboards of the ground level of the home. “Just a few steps more,” Aziraphale said, and soon after they rounded a corner, and came at last upon a ramshackle but sturdy-looking structure, bricks and scraps and planks carefully arranged to form a dwelling large enough to fit a dozen Insiders. Electric wires ran down from the walls around it, snaking inside; a single warm bulb glowed on the porch-like structure in front, illuminating a garden of communal borrowings: plastic flowers, a blue lighter, rolls of thread, bundles of drying plants, thumbtacks and rubber bands.
Crowley felt a pang of jealousy at the expansive facade, and immediately castigated himself for it. You have a home already. You built it with your own hands, you’re proud of it. This is not yours, it will never be.
“Well, ah. Here we are,” Aziraphale said, turning to Crowley. “Home sweet home, so they say...”
Crowley tried to remember what he’d promised, at the beginning of their journey. To escort Aziraphale home, yes, and nothing more. That was done, now, but Crowley didn’t want to say goodbye. There were so many things he wanted to know.
“Suppose I’d better—” Crowley began, and then cleared his throat, started over. “I’ll just be off, then.”
Aziraphale nodded hesitantly, and made to hand Crowley back his torch, his expression undecipherable.
But before Crowley could take it, there was an almighty clatter as the door to the house swung open, and a quartet of Insiders emerged, led by a tall, square-jawed fellow with lavender wings, opened up in a defensive busk.
“Aziraphale, oh, thank the House, there you are—” he began, eyes on Aziraphale, but then his violet gaze flickered to Aziraphale’s left, landing on Crowley, cast in the harsh light of the torch Aziraphale was holding, probably looking hollow-cheeked and haunted. “What in the—”
“Trespasser! Demon! Beast!” howled one of the Insiders at the first one’s side, and launched himself at Crowley, meaty fists swinging.
If Crowley was anything, he was fast. In a flash, he had the dumpy Insider pinned up against the wall, pin-tip to throat, well prepared to give him as many scars as he deserved for coming at Crowley like that.
But his opponent played dirty, kicking at Crowley’s ankles, twisting with surprising agility and turning the tables on Crowley, clobbering him with heavy blows and clawing thick fingers at his neck—
“Sandalphon!” boomed a voice. “Down. Now. I can handle this.”
The Insider— Sandalphon— released his vice grip, and Crowley staggered sideways, viciously embarrassed, trying to maintain his balance and his dignity in front of Aziraphale.
The big purple one was up in Crowley’s face now. “You aren’t supposed to be here. This is our territory. Our House. How dare you—”
“Gabriel, please!” whined Aziraphale. “Crowley here was just seeing me safely home.”
“Just seeing him home,” echoed Crowley. He was glaring purposefully at the assembly of Insiders, evaluating them all, heights and weights and wingspans and expressions, wondering if he’d need to take them all down…
Gabriel turned to Aziraphale, laid a hand on his shoulder. “And that’d be home from where exactly? Did this demon kidnap you, Aziraphale? Did he hurt you?”
“No! Absolutely not, Gabriel, he’d never— he very nearly rescued me when Adam caught me earlier—”
There was a collective gasp from the other Insiders, and Aziraphale immediately clapped a hand over his mouth. In jumping to Crowley’s defense, he’d just gone and gotten himself in trouble. Crowley couldn’t possibly figure out how to feel about that.
“You,” said Gabriel, pointing an authoritative finger at Crowley, “leave here, now. If we catch you anywhere near the house, or Aziraphale again, we won’t hesitate to do what we have to do.” From next to him, Sandalphon gave a threatening leer.
“And you,” he said to Aziraphale, tightening his grip on his shoulder, “have a lot of explaining to do. Which you’ll be doing, right now. Inside.”
Crowley watched, frozen, as the group of Insiders encircled Aziraphale, and led him away.
Aziraphale gave Crowley one terrified look over his shoulder, and opened his mouth as if to say something, but before he could call out, he was being hustled through the door. It slammed closed with an echoing bang, and then there was the sound of a lock being slid into place.
Crowley took a long, tense moment to breathe through gritted teeth, before stowing his pin back in its holster. He tried not to think too deeply about anything at all, most specifically everything he didn't understand about what just happened. He turned around, with legs that felt unbearably heavy, to leave this place behind.
“Fuck,” he said, gazing out into the darkness beyond the reach of the Insiders’ porch light.
Aziraphale still had the torch.
It was the faintest of scratches, a sort of dim, high, whisper, but existential terror could do the most amazing things to enhance the senses of even the most average sort of human. Currently, Deirdre Young was petrified at the sound she could swear she could hear coming, distantly, from below the floorboards in the hall.
“Arthur! Arthur, are you hearing that?!”
Arthur Young folded his bookmark into his book, and narrowed his eyes, tilting his head to catch the noise. “They’re still at it. Are they nocturnal?” He scratched his head, calmly pensieve. “You know, I thought I’d been hallucinating food going missing… Could’ve been our little friends, this whole time…”
“ Friends?! They’re vermin! Oh, just do something, would you?” Mrs. Young hiked her blanket up to her chin, looking petrified. “Call the exterminators! What’s his name, the older bloke with the van, I’ve seen him in the village!”
Mr. Young looked down at his watch. “It’s half past ten, dear, they’re absolutely closed.”
“Leave a message! They’ll get it first thing in the morning!”
There was nothing particularly exceptional about Mr. Young as a husband; he was as susceptible as the next man to a full-throttle nag. With a sigh, he clambered out of bed and padded to the kitchen, digging out the ancient flyer for the Pestfinder Army from a drawer and obediently dialing up the number listed.
“Yes, hello, Arthur Young speaking. We’re at 4 Hogback Lane, dealing with an, er, urgent rodent problem… if you could have someone out tomorrow, it’d be much appreciated. Thanks. Nighty-night.”