August 1973. A dingy old bookshop in Soho.
The door swung open, its bell clanging sharply in the silence, and in the back room Aziraphale clutched desperately at his teacup. He distinctly remembered locking that door.
He knew he shouldn't have left the lights on.
In the next instant he was crouched in the shadows behind the till, watching as two laughing boys tumbled inside.* One had messy black hair and kept pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with one smudged finger. The other boy also had black hair, though his was a little longer and neatly combed, and he was slightly taller and a good deal more handsome than his friend. Even to Aziraphale's decidedly unstylish eye, they were dressed oddly in long, robe-like garments. The boys dusted themselves off and gazed around at the tall, dusty shelves surrounding them.
"How did you find this place, James?" asked the taller boy.
James shrugged. "I found the address in my dad's desk. He's always going to second-hand bookshops. Mum can't stand it. She says he has enough books at home to open his own shop." He wandered over to the low shelf by the window and opened a book at random, coughing at the cloud of dust that floated lazily upwards in the sunlight as he flipped through the pages.
Clearing his throat, he glanced at his friend, who had knelt down on the other side of the shop, his head tilted to the side to read the titles on the shelves. "What's your mum going to do when she realises you gave her the slip?" James asked.
The other boy smirked. "I don't care," he said lightly, but Aziraphale could tell by the way the boy's shoulders had tensed that there could be trouble.
Suddenly James laughed. "Oi, Sirius, come and look at this," he said, holding up a book with a battered brown leather cover. "Witch trials!"
Sirius hurried to James' side and peered over his shoulder, grinning. "Rubbish," he said, pointing at an illustration of a wailing woman burning at the stake. "If that were a real witch, she would have Apparated already."
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow. So these boys were magic, as he had suspected. But what were they doing in his shop of all places? Surely they hadn't sneaked away from their parents to laugh over illustrations of seventeenth century witch trials.
As if they had heard his unvoiced question, the boys returned the book to its shelf and glanced around. "Doesn't anyone work here?" Sirius asked as he looked into the shadows. His eyes slipped right over the angel.**
"Well, the door was locked," James pointed out. The boys shared a mischievous smile. "Let's just look around on our own. I don't know what we'd tell the shopkeeper anyway. We can't exactly mention Remus' furry little problem."
Aziraphale shifted guiltily. He considered himself more of a collector of books than a seller. In truth, he made it his business not to sell anything, and would go to extreme measures to discourage a sale. Dust and damp, flickering lights and dark corners, strange rattling noises, and an odd smell that was a blend of a wet woolen scarf and week-old curry which wafted through the shop at frequent intervals did much to discourage the average customer.
But, Aziraphale thought urgently, it seemed that James and Sirius had been delivered to the shop for help – his help – in order to do something good. They were trying to help someone, that much was certain. Perhaps this Remus they had mentioned was one of their little friends. He might even be in terrible trouble. And, the angel thought, feeling rather wretched, surely helping a young boy was worth the sacrifice of a few of his beloved books.
He consoled himself with the thought that the boys would not likely be interested in the Oscar Wilde first editions.
"Good afternoon," Aziraphale said politely as he stepped out of the shadows. "May I be of some assistance?" Both boys jumped in fright, their hands instinctively straying to the pockets of their robes before they remembered where they were.
Sirius recovered first. "Yes, sir," he said, his voice and posture suddenly becoming very formal. "We're looking for books on people who transform into animals."
"For an assignment," James added quickly. "An essay."
"Oh, dear," Aziraphale said, glancing from one boy to the other. "It's a pity that you have schoolwork to do over the summer holidays." Both boys nodded unhappily. "What school do you attend?"
"We don't think you'd know it, sir-"
"It's in Scotland-"
"No one around here's ever heard of it."
Aziraphale smiled kindly. "Well," he said, rubbing his hands together briskly. "If you're interested in folklore, there are a few volumes over here that involve tales of shapeshifting. But if you prefer something with more, er, practical value…"
His voice trailed off as he led the boys to a rickety bookshelf near the back of the shop where he kept the books on magic. Not the sort of magic Aziraphale himself liked to perform, the sleight of hand tricks and pulling rabbits and doves out of various articles of clothing. No, these were proper wizarding books, filled with the sort of magic the boys were familiar with.
Their eyes grew wide as they glimpsed some of the titles: I, Animagus: One Wizard's Tale; Becoming an Animagus in 10 Easy Steps; Finding Your Inner Animal; Of Men and Beasts: From Transfiguration to Registration; The 25 Most Common Side Effects to the Animagus Transformation and How to Treat Them.
"Thanks very much!" they said enthusiastically. "We'll just have a look around."
"Very well," Aziraphale said pleasantly. He busied himself with tidying the shelves at the front of the shop and directed his sharp hearing to the boys' whispered conversation.
"Look James, this one is a revised edition of that book we found in the Restricted Section. It has two chapters on new spells."
"This one looks good too. Lots of illustrations. It's in Latin, though, we'll have to use a Translation Charm on it; it'll take too long to read otherwise."
"This one shows you how to remove tails and horns. You know, if there are any accidents."
"I think we should buy the whole lot."
A few moments later Aziraphale found himself wrapping eight books in sturdy brown paper and string. Between them the boys had an astonishing amount of money but seemed to have no idea how much the notes were worth and needed Aziraphale's help in counting them.
"There you are," Aziraphale said, handing them the change.
"Thank you, sir," they said in unison, both boys smiling broadly over the stacks of books in their arms. The bell jingled merrily as they left the shop, and the boys lingered outside for a moment.
"Sirius, you don't think… you don't think he was a wizard, do you?" James asked, glancing back into the dim interior of the bookshop.
The other boy looked thoughtful. "I don't know," he said. "But I don't think he was a Muggle, either. He wouldn't have had all those books, for one thing. And he seemed to know exactly what we were really looking for." Sirius shrugged. "It doesn't matter anyway. Now we have what we need to help Remus."
"Right," James agreed. "Come on, we'd better go back now." He and Sirius turned and disappeared down the street as Aziraphale watched from the window with a pleased smile.
*Angels can move very quickly, though no one would expect it, looking at Aziraphale.
**Aziraphale was very good at remaining unseen when he wished, though he wasn't really trying to here. His bookshop was just that dim and dusty.