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The Bookshop

Chapter Text

Zhu Irzh considered the shop again.

Technically, he was meant to be in the area they called The City. Trade delegation. Infernal business affairs. That usually meant tedious meetings, even more tedious people and the worst kind of food. Even demons should have some kind of standards. And western meals were so bland.

He was meant to be there an hour ago, but the streets were so tangled he’d ended up getting turned around. He hadn’t even been able to find someone who could see him to point him in the right direction, even a demon.

According to the reports he’d read, infernal interference in Europe varied by country. Technically, there were hands-on staff, but from the sounds of things, both sides used propaganda more than anything else. There were plenty of churches everywhere. Throw a rock, you could probably hit one.

And that really didn’t explain the book shop.

Tucked between neon lights of the strip bars and defiantly unheterosexual pubs, it looked out of place anyway: old-fashioned windows, even more old-fashioned leather-bound books. Hells, it even had a hand-painted sign.

But that wasn’t what had caught his attention.

It was the feeling of the place.

It felt… good.

At home, it was easier to tell. Celestials had a particular scent, all peach blossom and incense. Holy wasn’t usual tea – Earl Grey? – and old paper and sandalwood. It definitely wasn’t wreathed in the stench of the pleasure districts, where sex hung in the air.

A sex deity, then? But they rarely radiated warmth and comfort.

Gods damn it all, he was too curious and if he didn’t get the answer, he knew it would bother him all the way home.

He could imagine his father’s ire when the only thing his erstwhile son brought back from London was an unanswered question. On the other hand, they had sent him to London in the first place. They knew his foibles and yet, they still seemed to think he would be a compliant useful member of the clan. Was it his fault when there were questions that needed answers?

He strode towards the door, decision made.

The brass handle didn’t burn his skin, which was good, but strange. Zhu Irzh frowned. There were no protections against demons – even local ones. He stretched out his senses, frown deepening. There were no wards at all. What kind of Celestial didn’t protect itself?

The door swung open, the bell above it jingling.

If the feeling of warmth and comfort was strong outside, it was like stepping into sunlight inside.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Crowley!” A voice called out, further in. “Shut the door! You’re letting the wind in!”

Zhu Irzh shut the door. “Excuse me?” English wasn’t his strongest language. “I am not Crowley.”

There was a muffled sound from the back of the shop, hurried footsteps. A small, plump golden-haired man in a pale suit bustled in, then stopped short, eyes widening.

“Oh my!”

Zhu Irzh’s own words dried up. Small and unassuming as the man might appear, the aura of power around him was enough to make any demon take a cautious step back. Zhu Irzh could see the shadow of pale wings behind the… the what? Celestial, definitely, but European mythology… an angel? A messenger of the Western God? An old one too. The scent of paper and dust was more than that. Parchment and oil and a sharp, bitter fruit.

The angel was looking at him now, eyes still wide. “What do–” His brows drew down. “Pardon me, but why are you here?”

Zhu Irzh pointed at the door like a stupid child. “I saw the shop. I come in.”

The blue eyes narrowed. “Yes. But why?”

Because he couldn’t help his curiosity? He had walked into a Celestial domain uninvited. The rules in these lands might well be different. There were plenty of tales of angels slaying demons. Custom and propriety were…

The angel sighed. “Look, I’m rather busy. Are you here to attack me or are you looking for a book? If it’s neither of those things, then I really must insist that you be on your way.”

Technically, it wasn’t running away if you were asked to leave, was it?

Zhu Irzh hesitated. Maybe it was pushing his luck, asking for help from a Celestial, but it was easier than trying to flag down a cab in an alien city, where only a tiny minority of people could even see him. “I go to the City?” he asked. “Which way?”

The angel’s expression softened. “Ah! I can give you directions.” He hurried across the shop and riffled through a pile of paper. “I ought to have a map… aha! Here we are.” He unfolded the map and traced out a route with a finger. “It’s not too far. Along here. Up here. A right there... and there you are.” He smiled up at Zhu Irzh as he held out the map. “Not far at all.”

Zhu Irzh bowed his head. “It is very kind.”

The angel flapped a hand dismissively. “Oh, I’m only doing my job. Enjoy your stay!”

Zhu Irzh nodded, bewildered. He hadn’t encountered many celestials before, but he couldn’t think of any who would say helping a demon was their job. He groped behind him to pull the door open, a gust of cool night air bringing the reek of sulphur, flame and the same sharp, bitter fruit.

A man – no, not man. A local demon was standing on the doorstep. It lifted a pair of sunglasses away from blazing golden eyes. Zhu Irzh nodded in hasty greeting, stepping around it into the street.

Behind him, the demon spoke.

“Entertaining foreign demons, eh, angel? Trying to make me jealous.”

“Oh, don’t be silly.” The angel’s laugh was warm. “Come in. It’s awfully windy.”

Zhu Irzh glanced back as the bell tinkled and the door closed. Demons and Celestials were allies in this province? He wrinkled his nose. Western countries were definitely very strange.

Chapter Text

Harry eyed the fire warily.

“I’m not sure–” he began.

“Nonsense, dear,” Mrs Weasley said, holding out the pot of Floo powder to him. “You saw what Ron did. Easy as you like. Powder on the flames, then say where you want to go and focus on it and you’ll arrive right behind him.”

Harry nodded doubtfully. Maybe it was all those fire safety videos they’d shown in primary school that always made a big fuss about definitely, absolute not standing in fires, but he really didn’t like the look of it. Still, Ron had done it, so it wasn’t like he couldn’t not do it. Or try to.

He took a handful of the powder and stepped into the flames, the powder slipping between his fingers. He dropped the rest and the flames burst into green.

“Diagon Alley!” He shouted as loudly as he could. Or tried to before the dust and smoke and heat made him cough and he doubled over and went whoosh into the flames. Bookshop! He thought frantically. Get to the book shop!

The world spun around him, then he crashed out onto the floor, bouncing on a broad stone fireplace and rolling to a stop on a rug. There was a horrible crunch from his glasses and he could feel the ache spreading out from both of his knees.

“Ron?” he croaked hoarsely, throat full of ash. He rolled onto his side, peering through his glasses. There was a crack right across one lens. But at least he could sort of see and he was… well, it was definitely a book shop, so that was good, wasn’t it? And it had to be a magical one, if the Floo network connected to it.

It looked like the ones in Diagon Alley with books piled on every surface, all old and yellow-paged and leather-bound. He was in a little side alcove and he could see a bigger rounder room through a doorway and daylight coming through dusty windows.

“– don’t know what could be making such a racket.” A man’s voice was nearby, approaching.

Harry hastily scrambled to his feet, trying to dust himself down.

“Thought you said you’d locked up for the day.” Another voice, drawling.

“Well, yes!” The first speaker stepped through the doorway, stopping short.

Harry swallowed hard. “Um.”

The man stared at him. “Good Lord…” He dressed like a wizard, sort of old-fashioned. Tidier, though. A curly white-blond hair. Not a beard through. “Where on earth did you come from, young man?”

Harry sheepishly pointed at the fireplace. “I– I was meant to go to Diagon alley,” he said helplessly. “I think I got lost.”

“I should say so!” The man hurried forward and brushed at Harry’s robe with one hand. The grimy green dust seemed to vanish at his touch. “Diagon alley…” He echoed, shaking his head. “For Heaven’s sake, they were meant to disconnect me an age ago.”

“Got sick of wizards falling out your fireplace, did you?” The second speaker was standing in the doorway, not much more than a skinny shadow. He was leaning against the door frame. “Thought you liked that lot. What about that Nicholas chap?”

“Nicholas had his moments,” the blond man said with a sigh, “but they’re awful for popping in uninvited.” He looked Harry up and down. “Oh dear.” He reached up and before Harry could stop him, plucked the glasses right off his face. “This won’t do.”

“Sorry,” Harry mumbled, fidgeting. “Um. Can you help me get to Diagon alley, please?”

The man – probably a wizard, Harry decided – ran his hand over Harry’s glasses, then handed them back. “I’m sure we can,” he said with a smile so bright Harry didn’t even need to have the glasses on to see it. “I don’t have any Floo powder, but it’s not too far to the Leaky Cauldron. I’m sure we can give you a–”

“Angel!” The other man exclaimed, straightening up from the door. “I’m not a bleeding taxi service!”

Harry shoved his glasses back on, then blinked, startled. They weren’t only fixed, but everything was much clearer than it had been seconds earlier. “Er…”

“Use your eyes, would you?” the blond man said sharply to his friend.

The dark man turned his full attention to Harry, leaning forward and tilting his head in a strangely familiar way. “Well, I’ll be damned…” he murmured a few seconds later.

Harry flushed. Of course. Where there were wizards, people were going to recognise him.

“Oh, ignore him, dear boy,” the blond man said amiably. “He’ll behave himself and he’d be more than happy to give us both a lift.

Harry risked a sideways look at the other man, who definitely didn’t look more than happy. More wary and suspicious than anything. He looked like he should be in some kind of heavy metal band, all dressed in black with red hair in all directions. He was even wearing sunglasses, even though they were inside and it was almost September.

“I have enough for a taxi,” he said cautiously, looking back at the blond man. “I don’t want to be a bother.”

The blond man put an arm around his shoulders, his hand settling gently between Harry’s shoulder blades. “You’re not being a bother,” he said so reassuringly that Harry almost sagged with relief, as he was guided towards the door. “I’d feel much better knowing we saw you safely on your way and I need to have a word with them about disconnecting my fireplace properly anyway.” He gave Harry a warm smile that felt like it washed away all the panic and confusion. “We’ll get you safely back to your family.”

They’re not my family, he wanted to say, but he could only nod.

The dark-haired man grumbled all the way out into the street, only stopping when Harry saw the biggest, flashiest, fanciest old car he’d ever seen in his life.

“Whoa!”

Immediately, the dark-haired man’s face lit in a grin that went from ear-to-ear. “You like it?”

Harry nodded, staring at it. Uncle Vernon had gone to a car show once, and he’d come back talking about getting a big, fancy old car. Vintage, he was always saying. Good, solid, British makes. Always the best. Funny that he’d ended up with the same old Fiesta year in, year out.

The man pulled the door open. “Back seat for you, angel,” he said, grinning at his friend. “Kid gets to ride shotgun.”

“Oh, really…”

“You made me a taxi service,” the man said, laughing. “I get to make the rules.”

The blond man was still smiling, though, as he climbed awkwardly into the back seat. When Harry sat down in the deep bucket seat in the front, a biscuit tin popped over his shoulder. “Shortbread?” the blond man offered.

“Angel!” the dark-haired man shoved the tin back. “What have I told you about food in the car?”

Harry glanced between them, then quickly snatched a biscuit before the tin could disappear. The blond man – maybe his name was Angel? – looked pleased and settled back in the back seat, nibbling on a biscuit of his own.

“Fine…” The dark-haired man sighed and held back one hand, accepting a piece of shortbread. “One for the road, then.”

Then he touched the ignition and Harry was thrown back in the seat as the car sped forward. He didn’t get many chances to ride around in cars, especially not big, fancy cars and especially definitely not through the middle of London. The dark-haired man was grinning and the car was going a lot faster than all the other traffic.

“The speed limit, Crowley!” The other man exclaimed. “He’s a child. Set a decent example!”

The dark-haired man shot a grin at Harry and even though Harry couldn’t see his eyes, he thought the man might be winking. “I am!”

Harry grinned.

It didn’t take them long to get to The Leaky Cauldron and the man called Crowley peered up through the windscreen. “Still looks like a dump,” he said. “Want us to come through with you?”

Harry nodded, relieved. “I don’t know how to open the doorway yet,” he admitted. And he remembered his first time in the pub. Last time, Hagrid had kept people from crowding around him. Having two grown-ups beside him would probably be enough and Crowley looked like he’d be happy to scare anyone away.

He clambered out of the car, opening the seat to let Angel out. 

Angel smiled at him. “Thank you,” he said, patting Harry gently on the shoulder. “Lovely to see a young man with manners.”

Harry flushed, ducking his head. “You gave me a lift. Should be thanking you.”

The man chuckled. “Well, yes, but if we start thanking each other for every little thing, we’ll be here all day.” He glanced over the car. “Are you coming in too, Crowley?”

Crowley shrugged. “Nothing better to do,” he said, sauntering around the car. “Wouldn’t mind getting some firewhisky. Been a while since we had any of that, eh, angel?” His teeth flashed in a white grin. “Remember last time?”

Angel went pink. “I’d rather not,” he said. He put his hand lightly on Harry’s back. “Come along, my dear. Your family will be worried.”

Harry nodded, taking a deep breath before opening the door of the pub.

Just like last time, every face turned to see who was coming in. Even after a year of getting used to being famous, it was still weird. But then, he noticed, confused, no one was looking at him. Everyone was staring at the two men on either side of him. A few of them even fled for the door on the other side of the building.

Crowley sniggered. “Looks like they remember the last time too, eh, angel?”

Angel sighed. “So it would seem.” He patted Harry on the shoulder. “Come along, Harry. Ignore them.” He gave his friend a pointed look. “And him as well.”

“Don’t blame me,” Crowley said, trailing behind them as they walked towards the door that led to Diagon Alley. He sounded like he was trying not to laugh. To Harry’s astonishment, people backed away, clearing a path around them. “I wasn’t the one who went all ‘look what I can do’, was I? Oh no. Who was that again?” He snickered. “Oh yeah–”

Angel made a face that reminded Harry a lot of aunt Petunia when the neighbour’s cat got into her begonias. “Do shut up, dear.”

“Do they know you?” Harry asked, looking up at him. “They look kind of… scared.”

Angel looked around with that same warm smile, which made several more people retreat a step or two. “I think you would call it wary respect. Caution, perhaps.”

“Bollocks!” Crowley said, laughing, as they emerged into the courtyard that led to Diagon alley. He snapped his fingers and Harry jumped when the bricks started moving, peeling away from the middle of the wall to form the doorway.

“How did–” he began, staring. Wandless magic was hard, but to do it with a fingersnap, Crowley had to be really powerful.

Crowley blew his fingers and pretended to holster them. “Trade secret.” He nudged Harry with his arm. “Come on.”

It was weird walking through Diagon alley and hearing people gasping and whispering, but not about him. People were stopping and staring at the two men. One young witch even walked straight into a shop door and someone else tripped over their own robes and fell on their face.

“Why does everyone know you?” he asked, curiously, looking up at Angel.

Angel wrinkled his nose. “We were – for a time – rather famous. Knew some significant wizards and witches and such.” He gave Harry a quick smile. “But you know all about that kind of thing, I’m sure, don’t you?”

Harry nodded. “It’s boring,” he confided.

Crowley burst out laughing. “Well, he’s not wrong, is he?” He waggled his fingers in a wave that made three wizards turn and sprint for an alleyway. “Ah!” He pointed up ahead. “Think we’ve found your lot!”

The red-haired mass of the Weasley family were hurrying towards them, but as one, they slowed to a dead halt.

“Oh…” Mrs Weasley went from white to pink, one hand to her chest. “Er…”

“Isn’t that–?” George muttered.

“Mm-hm.” Fred nodded.

“But weren’t they–”

“Merlin,” Percy stammered. “They knew Merlin.”

Harry blinked, then turned to stare at them. “Merlin?” he echoed. “Actual Merlin?”

“Knew him? Yeah. Unfortunately.” Crowley snorted in disdain. “Bloody git wouldn’t leave me alone, would he? I mean, I know I looked good in a frock, but come on…”

“Crowley.”

“What? It’s true! Kept on trying to rescue me when I wasn’t in the Black Knight get up!” Crowley made a face. “Dirty old goat spread it about that ‘Vivian’ was his true love! Can you believe it? Do I look like a Vivian?”

 “Crowley,” Angel said with a stern look that made him shut up, grinning. Angel looked back at Harry. “You’ll be all right now, Harry,” he said, bending down to look him in the eye. “Your family will take good care of you.”

Harry stared up at him. Old enough to know Merlin but he looked young enough to be Mr. Weasley’s brother. “They’re… they’re not my family. Just my friends.”

Angel smiled. “Oh, I think you’d be surprised how often the two overlap,” he said, then lifted his hand to brush a fingertip over the scar on Harry’s brow, easing a dull ache that Harry hadn’t even realised was there until it was gone. “Take care, Mr. Potter. You have a busy future ahead of you.”

Harry opened his mouth to thank them, but then he was alone with the Weasleys in the street and he couldn’t remember quite how he’d got there.

“Oh, there you are, Harry!” Mrs Weasley caught him by the shoulders, looking him up and down. “Where on earth have you been?”

Harry frowned, shaking his head. “I don’t know.” There was something in his hand and he stared at it. It was a piece of shortbread, crumbs and sugar all over his fingers. “I got lost.”

“Well,” Mrs Weasley smiled. “You found your way back. Now, come along. We’re late.”

Harry nodded, falling in with the rest of the Weasleys.

“Had time to nip to a cake shop?” Ron said with a grin.

“’Parently.” Harry broke the biscuit in half and offered a piece to him. “Want some?”

Three seconds later, mouths full of the shortbread, they both stopped dead in their tracks and turned to stare at each other. The memories crashed in on him and from the look on Ron’s face, he’d got his share back as well.

“Were you just with–”

Harry turned, looking over his shoulder. In the distance, he saw Angel wave at him, and Crowley grin, and then they vanished. “Yeah… I think I was.”

Chapter Text

“You’re sure that’s the place?”

Ethan leaned out from the doorway, then nodded. “Biggest collection of magical books anywhere, they said. Heard the Watchers’ council got their knickers in a knot when they realised they were missing some of them.”

Ripper grinned. “And in a dump like that.” He looked out across the street again. The shop stuck out like a sore thumb between all the flashy lights and tarts in mini-skirts out on the game. Pillars and old books in the window and a peeling sign that he couldn’t quite read. “You ever been in?”

“Nah.” Ethan made a face. “Bloody hard to catch it open. Heard the shopkeeper can be a bit of a grumpy arsehole as well. Doesn’t like people touching anything. Or buying anything. Or breathing from the sounds of things.”

“Just as well we’re not going to bother him.” Ripper hefted his backpack off his shoulder. “You know where the back door is?”

“Ah. That might be the problem.”

Ripper gave him a look. “One way in and out?”

Ethan nodded. “I can cast an obscuring. Should cover us from anyone on the street.”

“Not like they’d notice,” Ripper said with a wry look at the very distracted and happy punters getting hustled off for a quickie. He checked his watch. “Can you hold it for five minutes? Gives me time to get the lock open and in.”

Ethan snorted. “Easy. Want me to come in after?”

Ripper shook his head, pulling his lockpicks out of his pocket. “Keep an eye out. If the bill come by, distract them, yeah?”

The feral grin on Ethan’s face told him his mate was going to enjoy the chance. “Quick as you can then, Rupert, old boy.”

“Piss off.” Ripper stepped out of the side street. “When I hit the pavement, cover me.”

He felt the whisper of the enchantment as soon as he stepped up off the road. Ethan was bloody good at charms like that and it was only all those years of practise at home that stopped him getting distracted by it.

Lock was easy enough. Basic simple, triple tumbler. Took him half a minute and it clicked open, then he twisted the handle and slipped in the door.

Compared to the street, the shop was dark and quiet. Flashes of coloured light gleamed through gaps in the wooden shutters that looked about two hundred years out of date. It smelled like the library at home, dry paper, old leather and dust.

Ripper reached into his backpack and pulled out his torch, turning it downwards as he switched it on.

Okay, yeah, he knew there were going to be a lot of books, but he almost swore under his breath, stunned. They were everywhere, stacked almost to the ceiling on shelves and in piles and on tables. This didn’t feel like a library. It felt like someone’s massive collection, stacked up everywhere until they had time to read it.

He took a cautious step forward, testing the floorboards. They barely made a sound, so he moved towards the nearest set of shelves. Classics. Next set of shelves. Science? Then music? That made no sense. There was no order to it, at least not any that he could see.

It took him a good ten minutes of searching to find what he was looking for, scanning the torch along each shelf. His heart thundered when he recognised a familiar occult symbol on one of the spines, and hurried closer. The shelf was thick with old books, some of the covers blackened leather and curled pages. They were stacked haphazardly, but there could be no mistaking the subject matter.

Ripper pulled off his backpack, unzipping it and reached out to grab one of the books.

“Oh my dear boy.” A voice spoke softly, close to his ear, and he whipped around, lashing out with the torch. There was no one there.

Ripper stared around wildly, then turned back to the shelves. Get the stuff and get the hell out.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Ripper spun around, crashing back against the shelves, the beam of his torch slashing around the empty shop. It flashed across a pale face and golden curls.

A man was standing in front of the closed door, hands folded in front of him. He looked like something out of some daft period drama, but there was something off about him. Even though the shop was dark, he almost looked like he was glowing.

“What the hell–?” Ripper’s hand was shaking, the torchlight bobbing unsteadily.

The man smiled pleasantly, eyes invisible behind small, shining, round glasses. “Quite the opposite, my dear.” His voice was mild, but there was something in it that felt like it was turning Ripper’s bones to water. “Oh dear, Rupert. Your father will be so… disappointed in you.”

“H-how do you know my name?” Ripper croaked.

The man stepped closer, the torch caught between them, casting terrifying shadows across his face. “Because I know you,” he said, still smiling. “You’ve been a very naughty boy, haven’t you?”

It was bloody stupid to throw his torch at the bastard.

Really bloody stupid.

 

_________________________________

 

He’d been in there more than half an hour.

Ethan rocked from one foot to the other. He was only meant to be on lookout duty. Wasn’t meant to go in. But then Ripper was meant to be in and out in ten minutes, give or take. He wasn’t someone who’d hang around and get himself caught.

He gave it another ten minutes, then slunk across the street, glancing around. No one really noticed him. Useful thing about being a skinny average kid. No one ever looked.

He bent to peek through the letterbox, but the handle twisted and he jumped back, groping in his pocket for a cigarette and acting as if he’d been using the doorway to shelter himself so he could light it.

Ripper stepped out, staring blankly ahead. He didn’t even notice Ethan, which sent every alarm bell ringing. Ethan glanced at the door, which swung closed behind Ripper. And then he heard the click of the lock being turned.

Oh. Oh, shit.

He darted after Ripper, who looked like he was sleepwalking, his feet dragging, his face as grey as three-week-old milk.

“Ripper?”

Green eyes rolled towards him and he almost stopped dead. “That place,” Ripper said hoarsely – and he sounded like he’d been screaming, “is a no-go.”

“Yeah?” Ethan glanced back warily. “They– he was– was he in? What happened?”

Ripper shuddered, shaking his head. “Don’t.”

“Magic?” Ethan couldn’t help poking the wound. “Was it magic?”

Ripper didn’t reply.

“But did you get the books?” Ethan continued. “You were meant to–”

Ripper swung around, grabbing him by the shirt and propelling him hard against the nearest wall. “You go there, you die,” he said. Not a threat, Ethan realised, staring wildly at him. A fact. Ripper let him go. “Don’t go there.”

“Right.” Ethan nodded shakily. “Yeah. Okay. Don’t go there. Fair enough.”

He looked back at the dull little bookshop.

Ripper wasn’t easy to scare. Whatever was in there had to be terrifying.

Chapter Text

Mike checked the address, then looked up at the door of the building again.

The sign above the door was an old-fashioned one, all painted and fancy, with the name A. Fell, so it was definitely the right one, but the doors were shut and locked and the lights were off. There was a sign in the windows with the opening hours, but after reading it six times, he still couldn’t work out when it was meant to be open.

He knocked, just on the off-chance.

A light went on inside and he peered through the gap between the blinds and the window of the door. Someone was definitely inside, so he knocked again and a bit harder. “Hello!” When that didn’t work, he rattled the letterbox a few times. “Scuse me!”

Ten minutes later, the door was pulled open by a blond man with a grumpy look on his face. He looked like he was out of Downton Abbey! Even had one of those watch-on-a-chain thingies in his pocket. “Do you mind?”

Mike waved, hopefully. “All right? I’m looking for a book.”

The man gave him a long, hard look like a school teacher. “The shop,” he said slowly, as if Mike was thick, “is clearly shut. Banging on the door will not make it open any faster.”

Mike winced. “Yeah, sorry about that, but it’s very important.” He held out a piece of paper. “Everyone I asked said this was the only place I can get this book and I want to help the missus, so…” He shrugged. “Thought I’d ask.”

The man eyed him, then took the piece of paper. His eyebrows rose. “A book on communicating with the dead?”

“Yeah.” Mike hooked his thumbs into his belt, hoping he didn’t sound as daft as he thought he did. “My wife– she says there are dead people in our house. Wanted to see if there was any way to stop them bothering her. I mean, without people thinking she’s one sandwich short of a picnic.”

“Dead people in your house,” the man said slowly.

“Mm.” Mike nodded. “She says so. Loads of them.” The man was staring at him. “Er… I mean, not real dead people obviously.”

“When did these dead people appear?”

Mike hesitated. “In the summer, just after we moved in.”

The man’s lips went thin and he beckoned Mike into the shop. “Wait here.”

Mike followed, looking around the shop that looked more like a dumping ground for old books. Smelled like dust and paper as well.  He closed the door behind him, then wandered in a circle around the shop.

“Are you getting me the book?” he asked hopefully, when he reached the doorway through to the back of the shop. “I mean, I need to know how much it’ll be before because we’re kind of renovating now and–”

The man wasn’t even paying attention to him. He was on an old-school phone with the spinny dial and everything. “No, I don’t think I’m overreacting, Crowley. If the dead are present, then there’s a chance that a latter part of the prophecy is still in effect.”

“Prophecy?” Mike echoed, frowning. “What d’you mean ‘prophecy’?”

The man waved a pudgy hand. “Do be quiet,” he said sharply. “No, not you, Crowley. We really need to make sure. Better safe than sorry.” He was quiet for a few seconds. “Yes, I do insist. And if there are dead people running about, you are far better equipped to deal with them than I am!”

Mike rocked awkwardly on the balls of his feet.

“Fine!” The man sighed. “Fifteen minutes. We’ll be waiting.” Another pause. “Well, of course we need to take the hu– the fellow back with us. He needs to show us where to go.”

“Whassat now?” Mike interrupted. “Take me? Take me where?”

The man hung up the phone and turned to look at him. “My associate and I will be coming back to your house with you.”

Mike gaped at him. “You will? What for?”

“And death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them:” The man sounded like the minister who used to come to assemblies at school. “And they were judged every man according to their works.”

“Er… okay?”

The man gave Mike the same look him mum, nan and every single maths teacher had given him since primary. “What I’m saying is that we may be able to deal with your… dead problem.”

“Oh!” Mike grinned, relieved. “Great!”

 

_______________________

 

“Ooh!” Kitty exclaimed. “Your husband is home! And he’s brought friends!”

Alison glanced up from the magazine she was reading – along with Pat over one shoulder and Thomas over the other. “What was that?”

The ghost waved at the window. “Michael. There’s another carriage with him. A big black one.”

Alison groaned, rolling off the couch and grabbing her phone. No messages, of course, but then that wasn’t unusual. [u brought people?]

[To help w 👻! from lndn]

“Ugh…” She looked down at her trackies and the t-shirt. Well, London or not, they could take her in a peanut-butter-stained couchwear and like it. She hurried through to the hall, but paused in the doorway of the living room. “Stay put, okay? I need to see what this is about.”

“But they won’t even–” Julian began, getting up from the chessboard.

Alison pointed a finger at him. “No. Stay. If they’re who Mike says they are, I’ll bring them through.”

“I’ll bring them through,” he groused, making a face. “Of course you will.”

She sighed, rolling her eyes and shut the door behind her, before opening the front door and stepping outside. Mike was just getting out of their car, and behind it, she could see the car Kitty was talking about. It was big and it was old.

Two men got out of it. One of them looked like he was the bodyguard for the other one, all dressed in black with sunglasses. Or Mafia. He could have been Mafia. The other one was smiling brightly, looking around at the building. He looked well old-fashioned, but somehow, it seemed normal after the people not-living in her house.

“Mike?” she prompted. “Are you going to introduce us?”

“Oh!” Her husband beamed at her. “Yeah. This is… uh…” He pointed from one man to the other. “You know, I didn’t actually bother to ask for their names. That one runs the book shop I told you about…”

“Mr. Fell,” the blond man said, stepping forward and offering a hand, which Alison cautiously shook. “And this is my partner–”

“Friend,” the other man interrupted sharply. “Enough niceties. Can we get on?”

“Um… it’s very nice to meet you.” Alison forced a polite smile for their guests, then nudged Mike. “What’s going on?

Mike gave her his best sneaky wink, “They’re here about the G-H-O-S-T-S.”

Alison gave her husband a look. “He runs a book shop, Mike. I think he knows how to spell.”

“Oh.” Mike was bloody lucky he wasn’t easily embarrassed. “Yeah.”

“Your husband mentioned there was an issue with the dead rising in your home,” Mr. Fell said. “Do you mind if we look around?”

Alison shot a look at Mike, who gave her a shrug. What’s the worst that could happen? He seemed to be saying. “Why not?” she said with a shrug of her own. “Not like it can get any weirder.” She beckoned them into the house, pushing open the door of the living room. “Everyone, got some visitors.”

For once, the ghosts were crowded together at the far end of the room, instead of listening through the door. That usually meant trouble when they huddled up like the penguins from Madagascar.

She didn’t know who was more surprised, her or the ghosts, when the man in black shoved his sunglasses up and gave a great shout of laughter.

“Jules, you pervy old bugger! Fancy seeing you here!”

Alison and Julian gaped at him.

“You can see him?”

“He can see me?”

The man in black snorted. “Course I can!” He strode down the room, holding out a hand. “How’ve you been, you randy old goat? I mean… you know… apart from dead and stuck in limbo between life, death and everything?”

Mike tugged on Alison’s elbow. “Alison…” he whispered. “What’s happening?”

Alison watched as the black-clad bookshop man’s boyfriend clapped his hand around Julian’s and the ghost stared at him, then at their hands. The man’s hand didn’t pass through Julian’s. He was touching him like he was solid and real.

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“Wait a minute…” Julian was staring at the man in front of him. “Good God! Tony! Long time, old boy! You haven’t aged a day!”

“Tony?” The fair man echoed. He didn’t sound impressed.

His… partner gave him a well-what-can-you-do shrug. Alison recognised it from far too much experience. “Listen, Jules… you guys haven’t just risen from your graves, have you? We’ve been dealing with an apocalypse and with that bullshit about the dead rising–”

“Perhaps,” his partner said a bit too loudly to Alison, “we can talk somewhere else?”

“Did he just say apocal–” She began, then yelped as the fair man gently but firmly caught her and Mike by the arms and hurried them out of the room and into the hall. “Oi!” She swatted at him. “Geroff!”

The man puffed up, indignant. “Madame, there are some matters which you should not be privy to.”

“What’s a toilet got to do with it?” Mike inquired.

The man blinked at him, then waved his hands. “It’s all very well and good that you can see ghosts, madame, but technically, it shouldn’t be possible. We just need to take all necessary precautions to ensure you won’t be in harm’s way.”

She stared at him. “I think you’re a bit late for that, mate. House of ghosts trying to drive me nuts. It’s been going on for months now.”

The man’s blue eyes studied her intensely and she had a funny feeling like she was back at school in front of the head. “How many months, would you say?”

“Since we moved in,” Mike put in helpfully. Of all the people in the room, he didn’t seem bothered by someone else talking to the ghosts instead of her. “I mean, not right away. She did have that knock on the head when she fell out the window.”

The plump little man was suddenly close in her personal space and her world felt like it was just those blue eyes. And just as suddenly he stepped back and smiled a terrifyingly bright smile.

“Crowley! My dear?”

“What is it, angel?” The other man’s voice drifted through from the living room.

“It’s all right. Nothing we need to worry about. We can go now.”

“Wait, what?” Alison exclaimed. “What do you mean go? I have ghosts. Your… partner-friend can see them too. And you’re just going to leave?”

The smile remained bright and friendly. “I’m afraid we have rather more important things to deal with than your post-death interactions.” He turned and trotted back towards the front door. “Crowley, do hurry up!”

“My what?” Alison stormed after him. “What the hell are you on about?”

“But she’s not dead!” Mike exclaimed, running after both of them. “Definitely not… unless I can see her ghost?”

“I’m not a ghost, Mike!” Her footsteps crunched on the gravel as she ran after the surprisingly fast little dumpy man. “Hey! Hey! What do you mean post-death?”

The man sighed and turned. “Unless I’m sorely mistaken you were – very temporarily – dead, weren’t you? Quite recently? Perhaps immediately after your head injury?”

“Ohhhhh…” Mike breathed behind her. “Oh, he’s right.”

“But I’m not– I’m alive now.”

“But you were dead.” The man sighed impatiently and looked beyond her. “For Heaven’s sake, Crowley! Haven’t you got the fellow in enough trouble already?”

His partner came sauntering out of the house, Julian beside him and the other ghosts flocking around him. “Speaking of which,” he said to the former MP. He reached out and tapped Julian in the middle of the chest, his fingers sparking, then winked a terrifyingly yellow and red eye. “Call it compensation for limbo.”

“Can’t say I didn’t make my own bed,” Julian grinned at him. “Several in fact.”

“What– what was that?” Alison demanded. “You sparkled!”

The dark man looked offended. “I did not ssssssssparkle.” He glanced back at Julian, then slid on his glasses. “Don’t do anything you haven’t already done.”

“Oh, that’s an extensive list!”

“What did you do?” Alison wailed. “Why won’t anyone tell me what the hell is going on?”

“Good choice of words,” the darker man said with a grin. He leaned closer to her and his face flared into something from Mike’s favourite horror films. She shrieked – so did at least four of the ghosts – and slammed back into Mike.

“What the f–?”

“Really, Crowley?” The smaller man sighed. “Please excuse him. Demon, you know.”

“D-demon?” Alison could feel Mike’s arm tighten around her.

“I’ve got salt!” Mike declared, even though his voice was shaking. “M’not afraid to get it and use it.”

The dark man grinned even more widely. “I’d like to see you try, sunshine.”

Crowley!” The short man exclaimed. “Stop bothering the humans! We have work to do!”

The… demon made a face. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, angel. Y’never let me have any fun.”

He snapped his fingers at the car doors sprang open. He slid in like a snake and grinned at Alison until his partner got into the car. She saw the smaller man swat him firmly on the arm, which made the grin soften into a smile.

The engine roared to life and surged away up the drive, throwing gravel up behind it.

“Mike?” Alison said in a small, very shaky voice.

“Yeah?”

“No more weird bookshops, okay?”

His chin knocked on her shoulder as he nodded. “Yeah. No. No bookshops.” He shuddered. “Ugh.”

“Er…”

Compared to their latest guests, Pat’s self-conscious voice was a relief.

“What is it, Pat?” She asked, staring down the driveway. Gravel, she thought, shouldn’t be able to smoke.

“Er… I think the Captain’s fainted.”

That made Alison turn, twisting in Mike’s arms. The soldier was laid out flat on the ground. “Oh Jesus. Is he… what happened?”

“That…” Pat waggled his fingers in front of his face. “I think it gave him a little turn.”

“Yeah. Don’t blame him. Will he be all right?”

Pat shrugged as much as the arrow in his neck would let him. “Probably. He’s the Captain, in’t he?”

Mike squeezed her waist. “Something wrong?”

“One of the ghosts fainted,” she said, leaning into him a bit more than she’d like.

“Hey!” Julian exclaimed. “Look at this.”

“What?” She turned her head and her heart sank. The bloody man was carrying a mug.

Julian beamed at her. “Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Tony must’ve fixed me up. Cracking bloke. Demon. Person.”

“Oh God…” She groaned. Just when things couldn’t get any weirder.

“Shit!” Mike yelped, ducking behind her again. “Ghost cup!”

Chapter Text

“As you can see, sir, this is a fine, respectable property.”

The prospective buyer – a gentleman of some sort, but clearly an uncommon one to do his own business so directly – looked around with a thoughtful nod. “A fine building,” he said. “Your employer no longer requires it?”

Jessup folded his hands together and shook his head. “The family have a number of holdings inherited from various cousins and such. As my Lord tends to spend much of his time at his estate, he thought it wasteful to leave such a building empty and unused.”

“Oh, certainly,” the man agreed.

Privately, Jessup thought it would be far better for his Lordship to sever all ties with the property as soon as possible, though they were have a deuced difficult time being rid of the place. 

It had served its purpose while his employer was… engaged in particular activities on the continent, but with the revolution well and truly over, the need for subterfuge and safe houses had become unnecessary. Once, it had played the part of a tailor’s, a fine front for the gentlemen of the league to attend with no one being the wiser, but no one needed to connect Sir Percy to the building and learn the truth of the matter.

“It has been used for trade before?”

Jessup nodded at once. “It was leased to a well-reputed tailor,” he lied smoothly. “A number of gentlemen patronised the establishment.” He paused, wondering if it might be overegging the pudding, then added, “I believe they might continue to patronise any future… developments here. The area has a fine reputation.”

The man nodded again, walking about the room, a pensive look on his face. He was an elegant fellow, Jessup thought. His clothes were well-made and his hair uncovered and dashingly short, fashionable enough to even impress the Prince’s set. Even so, he carried and wore no hat, which was odd in and of itself. Still, eccentricity was no fault in a man. He could scarcely judge, given his own employer’s peculiar habits.

“I don’t suppose,” he finally said, “that I might have the privilege of meeting your employer? I would rather like to get the measure of the man I am doing business with.” He met Jessup’s eyes and Jessup had the peculiar feeling he was being picked apart by the man. “One can never tell what a man is like through an intermediary.”

Jessup sighed inwardly. Anonymity was a mask very few of the nobility had access to. “I can speak to my employer. If it is possible, you may need to travel to his estate. He does very little business in town, you see.”

The fair-haired man smiled. “That would be lovely, thank you.”

 

____________________________________

 

“It’s a little odd, isn’t it?”

Sir Percy, Bart, stood by the window of the drawing room, watching the carriage rattle up the drive. “Certainly, but one can hardly fault the man for being cautious,” he said. He glanced back at his wife with a smile. “After all, one must know who one is getting into bed with.”

His wife gave him a half-amused, half-reproachful smile. “Something I learned too late, wouldn’t you say?” She offered him a hand and he laughed, crossing the floor to bow over it and kiss her knuckles gallantly.

“Lud, m’dear, we have made up for lost time well enough.” He straightened up, releasing her hand, glancing to the window again. “I hope the fellow is a decent one. Jessup seemed to think so.” It was strange how much it ached to think of that building no longer being his. “It has served us all well, that old pile. Almost a shame to see it away.”

Marguerite gazed up at him. “You don’t need to be rid of it.”

She knew him so well, his little wife, but as he had shed the trappings of the role he had assumed, so too did he have to be rid of the unnecessary props that tied him to the name. All it would take was one wrong mention to the wrong ears and the secret would come falling down about them.

“Best to have it all done with,” he demurred, then flashed a crooked smile at her. “Can’t be falling back into old habits, eh?”

She nodded. Though she had never given voice to the thought, he knew she was relieved to see – little by little – pieces of the role and the mask set aside. There was no one left to rescue. There was no need to keep up the grand game. No need to dance on the edge of the guillotine any longer.

He turned as the door opened.

“Mr. Fell to see you, my Lord,” Frank, his butler, announced.

Instinct slipped into place the moment his guest stepped across the threshold. A decade and more of playing the fool was a hard habit to shake. “Lud, sir!” Percy exclaimed in all honesty. “You must tell me who does your tailoring! Your suit is exquisite!”

The man – close to Percy’s own height – looked pleased. “Of course, Sir Percy,” he said with a courteous bow that was deep enough without being excessive. His eyes – which seemed to contain a maelstrom of colours – however, did not leave Percy’s face. There was something uncommon intent in his expression. “I’m delighted you agreed to see me.”

“Tush!” Percy waved a hand. “Think nothing of it. You are the one who made the journey to see me. How could I receive such a guest ungraciously.” He motioned for Mr. Fell to take a seat and settled on his own chair once the man was seated.

Mr. Fell smiled, though his gaze was so unwavering that Percy felt quite like a child again. “I won’t take much of your time,” he said suddenly. “I only wanted to be sure of the kind of man I was doing business with.”

“And my man’s word was insufficient?” Percy arched an eyebrow. “Heaven preserve us, Margot. Do my staff make me look ill?”

Marguerite was gazing across at their guest, a stern set to her pretty mouth. “Your staff do you great credit.”

“Your man,” their guest said mildly, “had plenty of reasons for discretion, I believe. Don’t you think so, my Lord? After all, one cannot have all of one’s… business publicly aired.” His mouth turned up in a small, almost approving smile. “Particular in foreign affairs.”

Marguerite closed her hand on Percy’s and he knew at once she must have felt the same sinking dread that caught him below his breast.

“So it can be said, sir,” Percy said as airily as he could. “And that is the matter you have come to discuss? My… foreign affairs?”

The man shook his head. “As I said,” he said with that same small smile. “I only wished to know the manner of man I am doing business with.” He bowed his head politely. “I’m glad to see it is someone respectable and upstanding, such as yourself. One must be cautious, after all.” His eyes flicked back to Percy’s face. “You can count on my utmost discretion, sir.”

Percy gazed at him, trying to deduce whether the man was in earnest. If he – as he implied – knew of Percy’s role in the revolution, then he could be a powerful enemy. If he did not and was only making false allusions, better to know now than live with the fear of being unmasked.

“I do wonder,” he said mildly, “if you have interest in my foreign affairs.”

Mr. Fell smiled. “Only to say they were well done, sir. As one who faced the troubles you dealt with, I have to give you credit.” He held up a hand. “But we’ll say no more of it. That business is done with now, I believe.”

Marguerite’s hand was painfully tight about Percy’s.

“Quite so,” Percy managed to say. “We’ll say nothing more of it.”

The man gave them such a radiant smile. “Pon my oath,” he promised. He leaned forward, and as if he were picking the emotion from Percy’s mind, he added, “And I will cherish that building of yours, have no fear of that. I will take very good care of it, if you will allow it.”

Percy glanced to Marguerite. Why he felt he could trust this odd man, he could not be sure, but his wife’s expression suggested she felt quite the same. “I see no reason why not,” he said, “though sir, if we are to be friends, would you do us the honour of joining us for dinner.”

If it were possible, the man’s smile grew brighter still. “Oh, I would be delighted!” He beamed at them both in a most indecorous fashion, but Percy could not help but smile in return. “I do love to cross paths with such interesting company.”

“Quite so,” Percy agreed, wondering who on earth he had just invited to his table and wondering if it would be better not to find out. A man, after all, had to have his secrets.

Chapter Text

The streets of Soho were packed with the Saturday evening crowd, rain bouncing off the glowing lanterns on the edge of Chinatown. No one was giving much notice to the two shabby-looking young people winding their way through the West End revellers.

“But,” Richard said, in what he thought was a quite reasonable voice, “I thought all the books about Below would be... well... Below?”

“You’d think so,” Door said, “but you’d be dead wrong.” She flashed a grin up at him. “Sometimes, you find unexpected help in strange places.”

Richard thought of the many strange places he’d seen ever since he’d picked up an injured homeless girl in the street, all those months ago. “Yeah, I’m starting to get that.” He side-stepped around a giggling group of girls. “What’s so special about this one?”

She hesitated long enough to make him suspicious. “You’ll see when we get there.”

When he paused, she caught him by the hand, hauling him onwards and suddenly, they were in front of a shop that looked like a Victorian building had had its way with a Greek temple. It had pillars around the door and slightly dusty windows with a name painted in beautiful – and very old-fashioned – letters.

“A. Z. Fell,” Richard read aloud, frowning. “Never even heard of it.”

“Most people haven’t, until they have.” Door reached out and tried the handle.

“Looks closed,” he added helpfully. There was a light in the shop, but it was dull, probably from the back room or something. No wonder really, on a Saturday night. And there was a sign stuck to the glass. He smeared the raindrops away to read it, then snorted. “Yeah. Definitely not the kind of place that likes being open. Very indie of them.”

“Indie?”

“Independent. Ones with weird opening hours and stuff. Usually go bust pretty…” He considered the sign above the door again. “Well, if they’ve been open for two hundred years, they can’t be going bust, but still.”

Door grinned. “Lucky for you I’m here, then.” She wrapped her hand around the door handle again and he heard the familiar click.

“You can’t just break into someone’s shop,” he said. It was force of habit now, kind of like scratching an itch. Felt better to say it than not say it, even if it did sod all. And it didn’t stop him wandering into the shop after her. Anything to get out of the rain. He ruffled the water from his hair and looked around curiously.

If the shop looked old-fashioned from the outside, it seemed even older inside. Most of the books were heavy, leather-bound things that would pretty good as a weapon in a bar fight. A few of them even had locks. The whole place looked like it had been dropped out of a Harry Potter film and left there.

It felt, he realised, like Below. Not quite… real in a way, but somehow more real and solid than the street and people outside.

“See?” Door said. “It’s not what you’d think.” She slammed the door a bit harder than was necessary, making the bell jangle. “Mr. Fell?”

There was a sound from the back room, a clatter of glass on wood, then someone swore. Richard shot a worried look at door, who grinned and shook her head. She poked her hands into the pockets of her oversized coat and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet, watching the doorway that led to the back of the shop.

There were footsteps, then a sturdy blond man bustled into the room, beaming. He looked about as antique as the shop, but then Richard saw his face and convulsively took a step back. He’d seen that kind of serene glow before and it hadn’t ended well.

“That’s another angel,” he said, hands twitching into fists by his sides.

The ma-ngel’s face fell. “Ah…”

“He’s nothing like Islington,” Door said quickly, hurrying over to catch one of Richard’s hands. “Mr. Fell is technically… well, I suppose you could call him one of our Guardian angels.”

“It’s a rather… twee term, but not technically incorrect,” Mr Fell said, wrinkling his nose. He gave Door a reproachful look. “You could have warned me you would be coming, dear. I have company.”

“It’s all a bit unexpected,” she said apologetically. “There’s a book we’re looking for to do with the land rights of below. Father’s copy was–” She cleared her throat and Richard squeezed her hand reassuringly. “It was lost. Damaged. There’s a dispute going on between the Dogs and the Canaries over at Tower Hamlets and we need to verify claims before things get any bloodier.”

“Oh, of course!” Mr. Fell motioned for them to follow him, then paused. “Good heavens, you’re both soaked.”

“Yeah,” Richard said, feeling like he ought to contribute something. “It’s raining.”

The angel made a flicker of a gesture with one hand and suddenly Richard was warmer and drier than he’d felt in ages. And his coat was suddenly clean. And… new?

“How did–?” he began, but the angel was already hurrying through to the back of the shop. “How did he do that?” he muttered to Door, as they hurried after him.

“Actual angel,” she replied in a whisper. “Principality, if I heard the stories right. Higher than Islington. Even heard a rumour that he was at the Garden in the beginning, but retired to run the bookshop.”

“The garden?” he echoed.

She leaned closer and confided. “With the apple and the snake and everything.”

The Garden. The Garden. Adam, Eve and all the stuff they told you about in Sunday school.

Well, that wasn’t at all terrifying, was it?

The back of the shop was warm and brightly-lit by several lamps. It was also occupied. A tall, skinny man – dressed all in black and wearing sunglasses – was sprawled out in one of the large winged armchairs as if he owned the place, one leg dangling over the arm and swaying back and forth like the tip of a long tail. He had a large glass of dark red wine in his hand and gave them a lazy wave.

“Well, well, well…” He grinned, his teeth very white and very sharp. “The Lady Door.”

Door groaned. “Crowley.”

The grin widened. “Committed any petty thefts lately? Broken into any… oh… bookshops, for example?”

She gave him a cool look, which made him smirk.

Richard eyed the man, something in his primal monkey-brain raising red flags and screaming. “That’s… not another angel, is it?”

“That,” Mr. Fell said amiably, “is a nuisance. Ignore him.” The man made a face at Mr. Fell’s back, as the angel leafed through a card catalogue. “I saw that, my dear boy.”

The other man snickered. “Course you did, angel.” He waved grandly. “Take a seat. He never knows where anything is in here. He’ll be at it for a while.”

“He exaggerates,” Mr. Fell said, “but do make yourselves comfortable. There’s plenty of wine.”

Richard glanced askance at Door, then sat down on one of the chairs. It had wheels, even though it looked like part of some kind of fancy dining table set. He hastily tucked his feet behind the wheels to stop it running off.

It took him a moment to realise the darker man was watching him with interest.

“Um.”

“De Carabas mentioned this one,” Crowley said to Door, pointing to Richard with a finger of his wine-hand. Richard had a sudden flash of an image of this man and the Marquis and probably a lot of drinking and sniggering at his expense. “Didn’t know you were keeping pets.”

“I could say the same for Mr. Fell,” Door retorted, her hands on the back of Richard’s chair. He didn’t have to look up to tell she was trying not to grin.

Crowley gave a shout of laughter. “There she is!” He raised his glass to her. “Good girl. Don’t let the bastards get you down.” He waved generously to the bottles lining the desk. “Help yourselves. Some of it’s a bit recycled, but what’s that between friends?”

“Recycled–?”

“We probably shouldn’t,” Door said. “We need to keep a clear head.”

The man shrugged, a movement that seemed to involve every one of his lanky limbs. “Suit yourself. More for me and the angel.” He swung his dangling foot back and forth a few times. “So… Richard Mayhew. Enjoying life Below?”

“Er.” Richard nodded warily. “Yes. Thank you.”

The man’s lips curved. “Takes all sorts, doesn’t it?” he said conversationally to no one in particular. He pulled himself upright with the leg over the arm of the chair. “Word to the wise, young human. Trust no one and believe everything.”

Richard frowned. “That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“Or,” the man said cryptically, “does it?”

Richard glanced up at Door. “I can see why he’d get on with Carabas,” he said in an undertone.

She laughed. “Mm.” She gave the man a stern look. “Leave him be, Crowley. I didn’t bring him so you could confuse him.”

The man made a face at her, sprawling back, his wine somehow, miraculously staying in his glass. “He can’t help what he is, milady.”

“You could,” the angel said mildly, “be civil to my guests.” He was working his way along a shelf, touching the spines of each book. None of them had names on them, Richard noticed, which had to be a bit of a bugger when it came to finding anything.

“I don’t see any guests,” Crowley said dismissively. “Thieves, yeah. They broke in after all. And anyway–” He spread his arms dramatically. “I also can’t help what I am, can I?”

The look of fond exasperation the angel shot him said it all. He pulled down a book – apparently at random – and carried it back across the room to them. “I’ll spare you any more of his witticisms,” he said, holding out the book to Door. “This is what you need.”

Door took the ancient book reverently – it was beautifully bound, the pages sharp-edged and gleaming gold. “I’ll bring it back as soon as we’re finished with it. Thank you, Mr. Fell.”

“I only hope it’ll be useful.” The angel held up a hand suddenly “Oh! Wait! It’s still raining!” He hurried away between the bookshelves. There were some clatters and rustles deeper in the back of the shop and the angel’s muffled self-recriminations about putting things away properly.

“Forget his head if it wasn’t screwed on,” Crowley said with a grin that bordered on fond. He tilted his head back over the arm of the chair. “Could just miracle them up a poly bag!” He yelled. “Wouldn’t kill you, would it?”

The angel returned, a folded piece of waterproof sheet and a canvas bag in his hands. “Hardly sustainable, is it?” he said reproachfully. “We have the dolphins and such to protect after all. You said it yourself.” He opened out the sheet. “This ought to be enough to keep it dry.”

Richard got up as the angel helped Door wrap the book. “I still don’t understand why it’s up here to begin with,” he said. “The book, I mean.”

Crowley sniggered. “You’ve seen the state Below can get in, human. How d’you think their libraries look?”

Richard considered the markets and the King’s chaotic carriage with a wince. Yeah, that was a dodgy place to keep valuable and important books.

“It’s about neutrality,” Mr. Fell corrected, slipping the snugly-wrapped book into the bag Door was holding for him. “They know I don’t interfere in their affairs, so I’m accepted as an archivist and record keeper on their behalf. It makes things a good deal simpler for everyone.”

“Ohhh!” Richard understood at once. “You’re Switzerland.”

Crowley’s face split in a gleeful grin. “Ask him about their Nazi gold, I dare you.”

The angel’s lips thinned into a line, though his glare wasn’t completely convincing. “If that’s all I can help you with, Lady Door?” He smiled at her, all warmth and light.

“It is,” she agreed, then rose up on her toes and kissed him warmly on the cheek. “Thank you.”

He waved dismissively, chuckling. “Unnecessary, my dear.” He turned his attention to Richard, offering his hand. “I hope we’ll meet again, Mr. Mayhew. I’d be delighted to hear all about your adventures.”

On the couch, Crowley gave a long and pointed yawn, his jaw opening far wider than any human’s should.

Richard tried to ignore Crowley as he warily shook the angel’s hand. It was weird, the kind of fizz of energy that went through him at the points where their hands touched. Should still be terrifying, but as he met the angel’s clear eyes – were they blue? Or hazel? Or a bit brown? He couldn’t tell – he had the strangest feeling of being completely safe and happy.

“Ugh.” Crowley made a sound of disgust somewhere off... wherever he was.

“See?” Mr. Fell said, his eyes shining as he smiled. “Nothing to be afraid of.”

Richard flushed to the tips of his ears. “I never said–”

“Angel, dear boy,” Mr. Fell said gently. “One can tell. Now, off you go and take care of each other.”

The minute the shop door closed behind them, it was like a little magical bubble popped around them. Richard pulled up his hood, then looked back at the shop door.

“Real angel…” he said, dazed.

Door nodded. “And a real demon too,” she said, then stepped off the pavement and vanished into the crowds.

“Wait– what?!” Richard blinked, then lunged in after her. “Door! Wait! What do you mean ‘demon’?”

The crowds closed up behind them as they passed and the rain continued to pour.

Chapter Text

“The latest intelligence suggests that our friends Harmony and Glazier are starting to wind up their operations.”

Agent Carter pressed another photograph and pin into the board. It was rare that she had an opportunity to take the lead, but given that she had decoded some of the most critical messages, there was little cause for them to complain.

“Do we have any idea what they’re after?” Harkness asked. He was a young officer, very keen. “The mess in Southwark didn’t scream organised plans.”

“They have a new point of contact,” Peggy replied, opening out a file with a sheaf of new surveillance photographs. The half-light of the bunker shone on the images of shops and buildings. “Doctor Erskine was able to provide us with a number of names he heard while in Hitler and Schmidt’s employ and we have narrowed them down to this place.”

She pinned up a photograph on the board. It didn’t look like much. Any shop in Soho, really, with pillars and polished windows and shelves visible on the inside. It looked like an entirely ordinary, traditional bookshop. Until recently, that was all appeared to have been. For quite some time, as well, according to the records.

“What?” The incredulous snort came from halfway up the room. “You have to be joking!”

Peggy nodded. “Apparently, Kleinschmidt has been serving as a point of contact for them, though we can’t be sure what role she is playing. We haven’t been able to reach the owner himself. He keeps very peculiar hours and always seems to be elsewhere when we approach.”

“Yeah, but…” The man at the other end of the table swung his feet down from the tabletop. “It’s Fell’s. That’s the last place to get involved with Nazis. Yeah, it attracts all kinds of weirdoes, but it’s not evil.

Peggy frowned, looking at the man. Crowley, she recalled. No specific rank, but he was considered a useful asset and seemed to know what was going on all around London at any given time. “I didn’t realise you were familiar with the place, Mr. Crowley.”

“Oh– just– well…” He shrugged. “Ran into the owner a few times. Decent sort. Definitely not Nazi-spy material.”

Peggy raised her eyebrows. “Doctor Erskine’s intelligence and evidence we have seen suggests that he may not be as he seems.”

Crowley stared at her. At least, she presumed he did. It was very hard to tell when he insisted on wearing smoked glasses every hour of the day or night, even in a gloomy bunker. “Well, you’re not wrong there…” He ran a hand over his pointed chin. “Do we have eyes on them? The little trio?”

Peggy nodded at once. “According to one of our intercepted messages, they intend to complete the transaction this evening.”

“And Fell’ll be there?” 

“That, we’re not sure of, but if there is some kind of transaction occurring and they are all expected to be there–”

The man unfolded to his feet. “I’ll get on that.”

“We have operatives–” Harkness began indignantly.

“Shush!” Crowley pressed forefinger and thumb together and Harkness snapped his mouth shut. A useful trick, Peggy thought. If only it worked on everyone. Crowley walked – no, it was far closer to a saunter – down the room and held out his hand. “You know what I’m capable of, Agent Carter. I’ll deal with these clowns. And Fell, if it comes to it.”

She gazed at him. “We don’t know where the rendezvous is.”

He smiled thinly. “I know people who know people. I’ll be able to find out.”

“So I’ve heard.” She closed the file. “I’ve also heard what happened last time you… dealt with someone. It was rather… messy.”

His teeth appeared between his lips in something that wasn’t quite a smile. “Oh, surely you don’t think I’m capable of bringing down a roof of a building by will alone, Agent? Happy coincidence, that’s all it was.” He crooked his fingertips demandingly. “Whatever they’re up to, I’ll sort them out. If they have any information, any intelligence, anything we need to keep here, it’ll be kept here. And – unless they’re incredibly stupid – they’ll be kept here too.”

She leaned closer to him. “You’re not in the forces, Mr. Crowley. You have no reason for heroics.”

His not-smile widened into an unpleasant grin. “No heroics involved. I just don’t like bastards who take advantage of decent people.”

She studied him, then held out the file. “Surveillance only,” she warned. “Evidence is critical. No intervention, unless at risk of life.”

He inclined his head and snatched the file from her fingers. “You know me, Agent Carter. I hate anything dramatic.”

“Hm” was her only response.

 

____________________________________

 

The bunker was quiet.

It usually was at the break of dawn, with the change from evening shifts to morning.

One man was there when she got in, feet propped up on one of the maps of Germany, a newspaper open in one hand, a coffee – that actually smelled like real coffee for once – in the other. He didn’t even bother to look up at her.

“Agent Carter.”

Peggy folded her arms, watching him until he lowered the paper to peer up at her. “Mr. Crowley,” she said with the slightest of tight smiles. “We haven’t seen you for several days.”

“No.” He swung his legs down from the table and put his cup down on the table top. “I was rather busy.”

She arched an eyebrow.

He leaned back in the seat, one side of his mouth twitching. “You have something to say, Agent Carter?”

“I was only thinking,” she said mildly, “that you seem privy to an awful lot of convenient coincidences.”

His teeth flashed in a grin. “Oh?” He propped one elbow on the arm of the chair and cupped his chin. “I can’t imagine what you mean.”

A bombed church and three dead Nazi agents said otherwise. If she didn’t know better, she might have been convinced he was a spy himself, arranging for bombs to fall where and when he wanted it. But everything that had occurred in his proximity was entirely in the service of King and Country. It was a very paradoxical situation.

“Be careful, Mr. Crowley,” she cautioned. “Some people might not appreciate theatrics.”

His grin softened. “Worried about me, Agent Carter?”

She snorted. “Heavens, no.” She crossed the room, pausing when she was level with him. “You see, sometimes, I too, appreciate a convenient coincidence.”

He slid his glasses down a fraction, giving her a glimpse of gleaming golden eyes and he winked. “Oh, believe me, I know you do.”

It was odd, she later thought, how much that pleased her.

Chapter Text

Nanny was getting quite huffy, but Evelyn was adamant.

She had seen another bookshop, the last one, and surely it would have what she was looking for. “We have to go,” she insisted. “You said I could buy one book, but I haven’t bought one yet, so we can’t go home yet, can we?”

When she argued like that, Nanny liked to say she was using ‘semantics’. She wasn’t quite sure what they were, but she found them awfully useful.

“If you can’t find anything in this shop,” Nanny said, poking out her chin, “then we have to go home. You’ll be late for supper and you know how Master Jonathan fusses.”

That was as close to a victory as she could get and anyway, she was getting rather hungry.

She pulled Nanny by the hand, leading her on in the direction of the shop. She had seen it once or twice in passing, when they had been driving through the city, but had never been able to visit before. The sign said they dealt in rare books and according to all the other people in all the other shops, that’s what she was looking for.

The door was closed and there was a hand-written sign in the window beside it, but she ignored it and Nanny’s exclamation to push the door open. It wasn’t locked and Nanny sputtered in vexation behind her.

“The shop isn’t open, Miss Evelyn!”

Evelyn made a face and hurried inside. If the door was unlocked, then clearly, it wasn’t closed.

“Miss Evelyn!” Nanny’s hand caught her shoulder, but Evelyn was well-versed in wriggling free. Her big brother had made sure to teach her that along with how to punch a fellow on the nose. She ducked out of nanny’s grip and hurried deeper into the shop, then stopped short.

Oh, it was lovely, like a big, bright library with shelves everywhere and all of them piled high with books.

“Miss Evelyn!” Nanny caught her again. “You are being very disobedient.”

Evelyn was about to point out that Nanny hadn’t actually told her not to enter when a man came through from the back of the shop. He was quite tall and pink-cheeked, with fluffy hair that looked like feathers, and wore clothes very like grandfather’s.

“Good afternoon, ladies,” he said with a smile. “Is there something the matter?”

“I’m afraid this little madame has taken it into her head to go where she pleases,” Nanny said, her fingers like pincers on Evelyn’s shoulders. “I do apologise.”

The man raised his eyebrows, then looked down at Evelyn. “Is that so, young lady?”

Her bottom lip trembled. “I only wanted to see if you have a book,” she said in a small voice. “Nanny said I could buy one, but none of the other shops have the one I want.”

This time, when he smiled, it made her feel quite cosy and safe, as if he had wrapped her snugly in a blanket. “Well then,” he said, going down on one knee to bring his eyes level with hers. “Let me see what I can do for you. What book are you looking for?”

Evelyn shrugged her shoulder to shake off Nanny’s hand. “It’s called the Book of Amun-Ra.”

The man’s eyebrows went up again. “The Book of Amun Ra? My word. It’s been a long time since I heard about that one.”

Evelyn’s heart sank. “You don’t have it?”

“I’m afraid not, my dear,” the man said sadly. “There was only ever one made and it was lost many, many, many years ago. No one has seen it since the time of the Pharaohs.”

“Oh.” Evelyn wanted to cry. Jonathan had laughed at her when she said she was going to find the book from Father’s stories and now, he would laugh at her again. He was always such a beast when she was wrong about things.

The man gave her a gentle smile. “But I do have lots of other books about Egypt. Maybe you would like to see if we can find you something else? I know it won’t be half as good, but I’m sure there’s something you might enjoy.”

He got up and offered her a hand. She took it at once and he led her deeper into the shop. It was like Aladdin’s cave, full of all kinds of shiny things and statues and so many books that she was sure he had more than father and grandfather’s libraries put together.

“Now, have you heard of the Book of the Dead?”

Evelyn nodded eagerly. “Mummy sometimes lets me look at it. Did you know they use pictures instead of letters?”

“Hieroglyphics,” he agreed. “Yes. They are rather special, aren’t they?” He paused beside a shelf, considering it, then pulled a thin book with a black cover and gold letters out. It wasn’t very big and didn’t look like much as all. He went down on one knee again. “Now, this book… this is a very special book.”

Evelyn peered at it. “Is it?”

He opened it and showed her the pages. There were hieroglyphics all over them, beside proper English letters. “This will help you learn how to read hieroglyphics,” he said, his eyes shining. “You’ll be able to read all of those pictures.”

Evelyn stared at it, then up at him. “I can learn to read it to?”

The man closed the book and held it out to her. “Oh yes,” he said, smiling. “I’m sure you’ll be excellent at it as well.”

She took the book carefully. “Thank you very much,” she said, hugging it tightly to her chest. “Nanny has my pocket money.”

Nanny made a small, worried sound. “That looks like a very expensive volume, sir.”

The man looked up at Nanny as if he’d forgotten she was even there. He looked back at Evelyn. “And how much pocket money do you have, young lady?”

“Nine shillings!” Evelyn was very excited about it. It had taken her a lot of saving.

“Why!” He clapped his hands together. “What good fortune. That book is seven shillings and sixpence. You’ll have enough for a cake from the baker’s across the road as well!”

Evelyn beamed at him, then looked expectantly up at Nanny, who fished into her small purse and withdrew the money. Evelyn held up one hand demandingly. “I want to pay for it.” She waited impatiently as Nanny counted out the money into her hand, then proffered it to the man. “Thank you for my book.”

The man smiled warmly at her and got back to his feet. “Would you like me to wrap it up for you to keep it safe?”

Evelyn nodded at once. Everyone knew it was silly to take a book out of doors. Once, one of her books ended up in a duckpond because – as usual – Jonathan decided to annoy her.

The man took her back over to the desk and took the book from her, wrapping it up in a sheet of smooth brown paper. “I’m dreadfully sorry I didn’t have the book you were looking for,” he said, as he tied up the parcel with a piece of string. “But this one will be very useful.”

Evelyn nodded happily. “And one day, when I can read all the pictures properly, I’ll go and find the Book of Amun-Ra.”

He gave her such a big, warm smile that she felt like she could almost float off the floor. “You know, my dear,” he said as he bent down to give her the parcel. “I think you might well do that.”

Chapter Text

The Jaguar purred to a stop outside a natty old bookshop.

I’d passed it before, back in the uniform days when I’d been on the Soho patrol, but it was never open then, and from the looks of it, it definitely wasn’t open now. “I don’t think that place even runs anymore.”

Nightingale smiled. “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Fell’s has been here as long as I’ve been around. I doubt it’s changed much since my last visit.” He stepped out onto the pavement and I could see him adjusting his coat.

I got out too, glancing up at the building. “When was that?”

He considered it, as he closed his car door. “1947.”

You know, sometimes I think I’m used to the fact that he’s more than a century old and then he goes and drops a truth bomb like that. I mean, yeah, technically, I’m in a relationship with an immortal river goddess, but come on! He’s human!

“Right…” Not my wittiest comeback, I’ll admit, but I had every excuse to be distracted. Not just by the shop either, because the Jag is beautiful, but it’s got nothing on the massive gleaming vintage Bentley parked on the opposite corner. 1935 model from the looks of it. Not a scratch anywhere on it and gleaming like it had just rolled off the production line. Funny that the double-yellows on every other part of the street weren’t visible anywhere near it. “D’you think that belongs to the owner?”

Nightingale gave it a cursory look and for a second, his expression registered surprise.

Now, I’m not saying I’m paranoid, but there’s not much that surprises the man.

“What?”

A small furrow appeared between his eyes. “Be cautious,” he said as he turned his attention back to the shop. “We may not be the only visitors.”

Not ominous at all, that.

He rapped on the door a couple of times, then turned the handle. Despite the sign saying it was closed and the shutters being down, the door opened and he walked in, stick clasped loosely in his hand. I followed at once, checking the perimeter as I went.

And stopped dead.

Fuck me, I thought, staring around. It’s a TARDIS.

The place was massive. Shelves in all directions and a massive glass dome high above them. The dome outside looked like an afterthought, but from the inside, it seemed like the decorated glass of some 1920s ballroom, patterned and ornate and beautiful, but with designs far too old for the 1920s. It didn’t make any sense, not in architectural terms. The façade of the place screamed mid-Georgian, but inside was Victorian and the unnaturally massive dome was something else.

“Peter.”

I forced myself to look away from the ceiling – who had that kind of coving in a non-Gothic interior these days? – and hurried to Nightingale’s side. He was waiting directly under the middle of the dome, one hand casually resting on top of his staff.

I got to him just as a man emerged from the back of the shop.

White, about six foot, solidly built, middle-aged, fair haired and looked like he’d stepped straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. Fancy clothes, but a surprising amount of wear on the waistcoat, especially around the hem and the buttons. Old, then. Probably a favourite item of clothing.

“Good afternoon, gentl–” He paused, staring at Nightingale.

A quick glance confirmed Nightingale was staring at him, just as astonished.

“Thomas?”

And what do you know? Now I was joining in the staring match.

“Mr. Fell?” Nightingale sounded legitimately stunned. I couldn’t blame him, if he was face to face with the same person he’d last met in 1947. And I could understand why. Apart from the usual baseline of vestigia in the shop, there didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary there. Which – given the inexplicably large shop in an inexplicably small building – was definitely not right.

Which meant that even if there wasn’t something obvious, there was… something.

While they exchanged slightly awkward pleasantries, I breathed slowly in and out and let my senses stretch out.

It was so strange and it felt like I was groping blindly for something. I don’t know how long I was reaching when I felt it: a low level hum like giant running his fingertip around a crystal glass the size of the world. It was suddenly there and so powerful and so loud and impossible to miss, I only had time to swear before the world went black.

The world faded back in and the hum was still there, but I was definitely not under a dome and seemed to be lying on something soft but firm.

“–should have warned him.” Male voice. Mr. Fell? “We tend to keep things… masked, shall we say?”

“Ngh?” I forced my eyes open, squinting around.

Still in a bookshop from the look of things, but the back of it, darker, no dome, and more cluttered. I was lying on a couch – no, strike that, an actual chaise longue – and Mr. Fell was sitting on a chair beside me. I could feel a soft hand on my wrist and God, how could I have missed the clear bell-sharp tones ringing off the man.

“Take a deep breath, Peter,” he said gently. “You’ve had a bit of a shock.”

I stared at him, blinking. Could see Nightingale behind him, but there was something pale and translucent in the way. “Wings?”

“Oh damn!” Mr. Fell hastily let go of my wrist. The pale wings behind him vanished like mist.

There was a snicker nearby. “Smoothly done, angel.”

I tilted my head to peer at the speaker. Another middle-aged white man, but this one seemed to be made of limbs. Lanky, red-haired, black clad. Aging rockstar look turned up to eleven. And the scent of sulphur and a sharp, bitter fruit.

“Don’t look too closely,” Nightingale said, stooping over the couch to help me sit up. “How’s your head?”

The best word I could think of to describe how it felt was twangy. I felt like a ruler that had been put at the edge of a desk and twanged until it vibrated.

“What the hell was that?”

Mr. Fell gave me a sheepish little wave. “We don’t get many wizards in these days. I forgot that your sort tend to look a little more closely than the average human.”

So, a not-human then. Made sense.

“Could have warned me,” I muttered to Nightingale.

“You think he knew?” The other man burst out laughing.

Nightingale looked genuinely aggrieved. “Unfortunately, he’s right.”

“We were a good deal more cautious in the past,” Mr. Fell confirmed. “When there were wizards running about all over London. It’s been… quite some time since we’ve needed to hide in plain sight so thoroughly.” He reached up and I instinctively recoiled back from his hand. “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”

“You laid me out without touching me,” I pointed out cautiously. “You won’t mind if I’m a bit wary.”

“Understandably so,” Mr. Fell said, “but if you’ll allow me, I’ll heal any damage that was done.”

“Heal?”

“Sometimes touching the divine can have an adverse effect.”

I bit my tongue to keep from saying I touched the divine on a regular basis, sometimes very intimately, and was fine, but when a divine being offers a kindness, I’m still always a bit wary. “What would I owe you?”

The man looked surprised. “Why, nothing, my dear? I only want to undo any damage I have done.”

“So… no obligations…?”

“Ah.” Fell winced. “I forgot how petty the rules can be sometimes. No, no. No obligations or debts or any such things.”

Reluctantly, I bowed my aching head and tried not to wince when he brushed light fingertips across my brow. It was like cool water on a hot day, your favourite song coming on the radio, the sweet cocoa butter scent of Bev. And any pain was an afterthought, vanished as if it had never even been there.

“Oh… wow…”

“That’s better,” Mr. Fell said, looking relieved. He turned on the seat. “Now, Thomas, you and your young friend came here for a reason?”

“We were actually looking for a book,” Nightingale admitted, although I could tell from his stance that he was still on guard. “Our sources at the Bodelian suggested this might be the only shop in London to hold an extant copy.”

The lanky man sniggered. “You hear that, angel? They want a book. From a book shop.”

Fell gave the man a cool look, then returned his attention to Nightingale. There was a lot of shop talk. I’m sure it was very interesting, but I was distracted by the man in black. He didn’t sit like anything human, legs and arms bent at strange angles. And he was wearing sunglasses indoors, which always looks a bit weird.

He grinned at me. “Been a while, Peter.”

I eyed him warily. “I don’t think we’ve ever met.”

“Mm.” He swung his leg back and forth. “Maybe not face-to-face, but I keep an eye on interesting people.”

Interesting. Funny how I’d give my left foot to be boring sometimes.

“I’m not that interesting.”

One side of his mouth curled up. “Interested, then. Ask a lot of questions, don’t you? All the time? About everything?” He nodded approvingly. “I like that in a person.”

“I’m a police officer,” I said as politely as I could. “It’s my job.”

“Mm.” He unfolded to sit up and pulled his glasses down his nose. I stared. I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in my life, but I’ve never seen a human with eyes that look exactly like a snake’s. And they weren’t contact lenses, either. The pupils narrowed in the flare of light. “That’s a lie. As soon as you could speak, you started asking.”

I glanced at Nightingale, but he and Fell were talking heatedly about the book.

The man raised his eyebrows at me and it felt like a dare.

Right. No point beating around the bush. Cryptic is all well and good, but not when it’s creepy and unsettling. “What are you?”

The man grinned like I’d just won the jackpot. “Well, if he’s an angel…” He spread his hands dramatically. “Call me the Opposition.”

Oh shit. Mum was going to have a field day if I told her there had been a literal devil on my shoulder. And the blame herself for not beating it out of me.

And as usual, when the seesaw of one question being answered tipped down, another question tipped upwards. “So what are you doing hanging around with an angel?” I asked before I could stop myself. “I mean, if you’re the… Opposition.”

He laughed outright. “What do you think I’m doing?”

I swallowed hard. “Corrupting him?”

“Or is he saving me?” He removed his glasses completely and grinned.

“Huh.” There was something I hadn’t thought about. I studied him in his cliché black clothes and snake eyes and spiky hair. “Can you be saved?”

“What is salvation anyway, when it all comes down to it?” He countered.

“Isn’t it… I mean, if you’re– wait, wait.” I waved a hand. Yeah, I’d been dragged to Church and to Sunday school, but I’d been drummed out of Sunday school for asking all the questions no one wanted to answer. “I don’t know a lot about theology. Aren’t demons and angels opposite things?”

“Technically.”

“Technically?”

“Well, demons are ex-angels.”

I frowned. “Is it possible to get ex-demons?”

He blinked at me. “Er… maybe?”

“I mean, if an angel can be turned into a demon, can a demon be turned back into an angel?”

He snorted. “No. Demons are the angels that are Fallen.”

“But if someone falls, they can get back up.”

He pointed a finger at me, as if I’d struck a point. “Difference being angels and demons aren’t human.”

“So you should have more options?” I made a vague gesture. “I mean, you’re all powerful and magical and spiritual and linked with God and everything, aren’t you? We have to go through the equivalent of contact centres to get anywhere.”

“Er…”

“Peter,” Nightingale said. He sounded amused. “Stop tormenting the man.”

I looked up at him and Mr. Fell – the angel? They had clearly been watching my discussion with the… actual demon? Maybe not a demon? Something that isn’t an angel, but probably isn’t entirely evil?

“You should know better, Crowley,” Mr. Fell said, his eyes dancing with amusement.

“Oh, shut up, angel,” the demon – Crowley? – said with a snort. He gave me a flash of a grin. “You know I like to see what they’re made of.” He slid his glasses back on and suddenly, he looked just as human as Mr. Fell did. “Even if they are bloody annoying.”

“Hey!”

Nightingale reached down and squeezed my shoulder. “I think you should take that as a compliment, given the source,” he said with a twitch of his lips.

Crowley slouched back in his chair, flinging one leg over the arm and smirking.

I made a face at him and got up. “Are we getting the book, then?”

He and Mr. Fell exchanged looks and suddenly I could see the living incarnation of irresistible force meeting immovable object.

“Mr. Fell is rather unwilling to part with the volume in question, even though I have explained why we need it.”

“It’s the only surviving copy,” Fell said haughtily. “You’ll pardon me, but I have seen what wizards are capable of when it comes to damaging my property in the past and I’d rather not risk it again.”

I frowned. “Well, do we need the original copy? I mean, is the magic bound into the text? Or do we just need to see the text?”

Nightingale frowned too. “Well, I suppose we only need the text.”

“Oh!” I grinned. “That’s easy. If Mr. Fell doesn’t mind me coming back, I can bring a scanner or a camera or something and make a digital copy. The book doesn’t even have to leave the shop.”

Mr. Fell looked surprised but pleased. “A digital copy, you say?”

I nodded. “They’re doing it with tons of old books just now. They even put pictures of the Book of Kells and some of the Lindisfarne Gospels onto the internet so people can see them without the books getting touched or damaged.”

The angel’s face lit up. “Oh, how marvellous!”

Crowley snorted. “You just like the idea that no one needs to touch your collection anymore.”

Fell gave him a reproachful look, then turned back to me with a smile. “I would be quite happy to let you make a… digital copy. I’m afraid my computer is a little old.”

“I can bring my laptop,” I assured him. “It won’t take long.”

“Oh, wonderful!” Fell beamed. “I would like to see how to do this. I have a lot of rare first editions, you see.”

“Oh,” Crowley groaned. “I see how it is. Twenty years I try and get you to go online and if it’s to protect your bloody books…”

Fell gave him a benevolent smile. “Do be quiet, dear.” He groped in his pockets and pulled out a genuine 1920s cigarette tin, opening it up. Instead of any cigarettes, it was tightly packed with slightly yellowed business cards, one of which he offered to me. “My telephone number is here. Call ahead and let me know when you want to come and I’ll be sure to be about.”

I shot a wary glance at Crowley. “Is he here all the time as well?”

Those glasses were pulled down again. “For you, Peter?” He grinned, showing all his very white teeth. “I could be.”

“I think we can arrange it that he won’t be,” Fell said, ignoring the demon’s indignant protest. He offered a hand which I shook at once. “I look forward to working with you, Mr. Grant.”

Chapter Text

Something very odd had happened.

The Librarian considered the ball of string in his leathery hand, then the long strand that vanished off into the distance among the rows and rows of bookshelves. L-space was a precarious place at the best of times, but when you were deep in the twisty middle of it, the last thing you wanted was to feel someone tugging on your string.

Scientists sometimes to describe L-space as an interconnecting time-travelling dimension between all Libraries. It was technically true and sounded very scientific, but was also completely wrong in the same way as the Librarian was often – usually once by any given person – described as a monkey.

He considered the string carefully from all angles.

To all intents and purposes, it was the same ball of string, but magical libraries had a way of playing silly buggers with reality and he had long-since learned to be cautious. He sat down and unshelled a peanut* and waited to see if it happened again.

Five minutes later, there was another careful twang on the string.

“Ook,” the Librarian mused, getting up. He studied the array of shelves, then knuckled his way onwards, taking several left turns and somehow going in completely the opposite direction, which was exactly where he had planned to go.

Or it would have been precisely five minutes and thirty-four seconds earlier.

He emerged, as he expected, between shelves of tightly packed books, then paused, sniffing at the air. The hairs on the back of his neck rose and he cautiously knuckled forward. There were always Predators in any library, but not one that smelled like That. The shelves opened out into a wide, round room and from the far side of it, he could hear voices.

The Librarian peered around, puzzled. He knew L-space as well as any ape might and this was Not The Right Space.

“I’m sure I have it somewhere,” a voice said. It sounded human, but the Librarian had learned to be wary. “Give me a moment.”

A human-shaped person trotted out into the room, then stopped short, blinking. “Oh, good heavens.”

The Librarian stared at him. Definitely not a wizard. Too clean and hairless for one of them. No hat either. But there was a definite crackle of power around him. And, for some reason, the Librarian was fairly sure the not-human should have had wings. “Ook,” he said apologetically.

“Yes,” the man frowned. “I can see that.” He walked forward a step, looking the Librarian up and down. “Are you all–”

“Wassa matter, angel?” The other voice. The danger. A snake-man in the doorway.

The Librarian was not good at confrontation, but when a nice-smelling, soft-looking human is being tricked by a snake, someone has to do something. He grabbed the nearest book – as respectfully as he could – and lobbed it at the snake’s head. “EEEK!”

“No!” Nice-smelling man exclaimed, his hand up. The air crackled with some strange magic and Librarian’s fur rose like he’d received a static shock. The book froze in mid-air, an arm’s length – human, not Librarian – from the snake-man’s face.

“We needn’t run,” Nice-smell said quickly. “He’s a friend.”

“Angel…” The snakeman pulled off a pair of dark goggles and peered at the Librarian with yellow eyes. “Why the hell is there an orangutan in your shop? And why is he throwing books at me?”

The Librarian gave Nice-Smell a studious look. Angel. Messengers from supernatural entities. That made a great deal of sense, even if it didn’t make much sense for him to be keeping company of a snakeman that smelled of sulphur.

“Ook,” he said, peeling his lips back from his teeth. It took some time and wasn’t exactly what you’d call a smile.

Nice-Smell gave him a look. “Well, that’s hardly polite.”

The snakeman grinned. “Is it worse than anything your lot would’ve said?”

Nice-Smell made a face. “Probably not.” He looked the Librarian up and down. “Do you mind telling me how you came to be here?”

“Ook! Ook ook eeeeeek oook. Ook ooook oook ook.”

Nice-Smell frowned again. “But there haven’t been any disturbances in this dimension, at least not something of the magnitude that it would cause such wide-spread ripples.”

“Er…” Snakeman nudged Nice-Smell. “Three weeks ago.”

Nice-Smell’s eyes went round. “Oh. Oh, yes. Of course.”

“Ook?”

“An attempted apocalypse,” Nice-Smell explained. “Prevented by a small brave band of–”

“A kid,” Snakeman interrupted. “A super-powerful kid stopped it. Probably didn’t realise he’d dropped a rock in the pool of reality while he was at it.”

The Librarian snorted. Of course. Small magical children had a way of unbalancing things. He unfolded an arm, waving around the building. “Ook?”

“Well, technically, it’s a book shop,” Nice-Smell said sheepishly. “I don’t know why it would connect to L-space at all.”

“Possibly because you never sell any books?” Snakeman said. He was grinning and looked like he was enjoying Nice-Smell’s blushes immensely. “S’the Oxford definition, isn’t it? A collection of books. So, by default, you made yourself a library.”

Nice-Smell gave him a haughty look. “I do sell books! I sold one… er… well, it was some time in the past year…”

“Doesn’t matter.” Snakeman rocked back and forward on his feet, his grin wide enough to swallow a small mammal. “You connected yourself to L-space and this… gentleape accidentally ended up here.” He cocked his head, looking at the Librarian. “You going to be able to get back? I mean, if there was a dimensional cock-up? I’ve got space at mine if you need somewhere in the meantime.”

The Librarian considered it. L-space was L-space, regardless of where it was. “Ook,” he confirmed. He leaned up to peer at the Snakeman suspiciously, then grinned and offered him a peanut.

The Snakeman laughed. “Look at that, angel. Shows up here and gives me presents within ten minutes. How long did it take you?”

“Oh shut up,” Nice-Smell grumbled, but he was smiling too. “Do you need anything to help you back, sir?”

The Librarian glanced around, searching the floor, then spotted his partially unravelled ball of string. “Ook!” he said happily, loping over to pick it up. The end of the string vanished off among the shelves. He glanced back at Snakeman. “Ook ook eeeeek!”

Snakeman waved away his apology. “Don’t worry about it. Happens more than you’d think.”

“Must be your charming personality,” Nice-Smells muttered, which made Snakeman burst out laughing. “Feel free to pop in again, if you’re ever in the area,” he added to the Librarian. “It’s always interesting meeting people – well, apes – from other dimensions.”

The Librarian glanced around. A lot of the books were ones he’d never heard of. How could any good Librarian resist an invitation like that? He beamed at them, one not-human to two other not-humans, then knuckled his way back into L-Space and back to the right path.  

 

 

* Do not ask where the ape keeps his peanut. You might not like the answer.

Chapter Text

Technically, when you showed up on earth, you were meant to make a big show of it. Wheel of glowing eyes, pillar of flame, all that jazz. Little human brains needed a shock to let them know they needed to pay attention.

That was for humans, though.

That was why the angel manifested without ceremony in the back room of the old book shop.

“Shit!”

A glass smashed when it hit the floor from the opposite side.

The Metatron sighed, rolling his eyes Heavenwards. “For God’s sake… anyone would think you’d never seen a manifestation before!”

The angel was opening and shutting his mouth without a sound, his eyes flicking wildly between the Metatron and the creature on the other side of the room. Said creature had vaulted over the back of the couch and was making a game effort to be invisible.

He gave them to the count of five, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I know you’re not invisible back there.” He glanced at the shell-shocked angel and snapped his fingers a couple of times. “Wakey wakey, already! Give us some wine, will you? I’m getting one hell of a headache.”

Aziraphale, Principality and Guardian of the Eastern Gate, nodded, backing over to the desk. “I– er– I don’t mean to be rude,” he said, as he fumbled through the half-empty bottles of wine, “but why– who are you?”

The Metatron gave him a blank look. “Who am I? Bloody hell. I go on holiday for the first time in millennia and everyone forgets.”

“He’s the sodding Metatron!” The voice came from behind the couch.

The angel blinked. “But you’re– I’ve spoken to the– they didn’t look– are you sure?”

The Metatron groaned inwardly. Bloody understudies getting above themselves. “Like I said, I was on my holidays.” He held out his hand demandingly. “Wine and a bucket, if you don’t mind.” He folded his wings away and sat down on one of the chairs. “And get your arse out from behind the couch, whatever-you’re-calling-yourself-now. I know you’re there.”

The demon reluctantly inched out and to be frank, the Metatron couldn’t blame him. Last time they’d seen one another, the demon wasn’t quite as demonic as he was now. On a scale of bad days, on both their parts, it was pretty high up the chart. Still, for a demon, he didn’t look half-bad. Not as scaly or slimy as some of them. Mostly just a bit of an eye-job, but otherwise still looked like his old self.

“Crowley,” the demon reluctantly said. “My name. Now.”

“Crowley.” The Metatron nodded. “That’s what I’d heard. Wanted to be sure. Best not to offend anyone with name-dropping.” Crowley’s eyes widened in surprise and the Metatron winked. People changed their names for all kind of reasons, even ex-angels.

“Er…” Aziraphale tentatively offered the Metatron a glass of a dark red. “If you don’t mind me asking, why the bucket?”

A glance around the room took in the number of partially-empty bottles and the distinct lack of buckets. “Ah. You’ve had bodies since before the plagues, eh?” He made a face. “You dodged the bullet. The rest of us still don’t get to do any ingesting.”

That shook the demon out of his frozen state. “You what? You can’t? Christ, that’s a bit much, isn’t it?”

“It is,” the Metatron intoned in sepulchral tones, “forbidden. But that’s never stopped the pair of you now, has it?”

“Well–” Aziraphale stammered. “I mean, we never received any memos from head office about anything like a ban and it’s been quite a while and–”

The Metatron gave him a long, slow look. “F’you think I’m here to give you a bollocking about how often you get pissed, you’ve got another thing coming.” He accepted a small bowl from the flustered angel, then swilled a mouthful of the wine before spitting it into the bowl. “Sit down, would you? I’m getting a crick in my neck looking up at the pair of you.”

Both of them sat down like kids in front of a headmaster, demon on the couch, angel on another chair. The angel fidgeted, twisting his hands together, and the demon made a show of sitting upright, a guarded look on his face.

“So,” Crowley said, his hands curling over his knees, “why are you here, then? Hell and Heaven already came for us and punished us.”

“Yeah,” the Metatron chuckled. “I heard about that little shitstorm. Gabriel still won’t come out from behind the throne.” He gave Crowley a knowing look. “Bit over-the-top, but can’t break the habit of a few hundred lifetimes, can you?”

Aziraphale looked between them, puzzled. “What did you–”

“Later,” Crowley muttered, though his ears were turning red.  

The Metatron considered them both, swilling some more wine around his mouth. He spat it into the bowl, wiped his mouth, then set the glass down. “Right. Down to business.” He sat up more formally in the chair. “I come,” he said, resonance echoing in every word. Well, he was on duty, wasn’t he? Had to make an impression. “Upon the Command of the Almighty.”

Aziraphale went paler than his hair, but straightened his back, while Crowley swallowed hard, mouth a thin line.

“Wh-what does She say?” The angel’s voice was wavering, although he was trying to keep it steady.

The Metatron unfurled his wings and spread his hands. Divine light illuminated the room.

“Ta.”

The light winked out and the Metatron reached down for his glass again.

“Ta?” Crowley echoed.

The Metatron arched an eyebrow. “Did I stutter?”

“That’s it?”

The Metatron nodded amiably. “Pretty much. She was in a bit of a hurry.”

The demon sagged back in the chair, a stupid grin spreading across his face. “Of course she bloody was. Just like the old days.”

Aziraphale blinked several times. “You mean– when you say ta– that is– doesn’t that mean… thank you?”

“Yeah.” The Metatron grinned at him.  “Last time I checked.” He drained the last of the wine, then held out his glass. “Got a top-up?”

“I… don’t understand,” Aziraphale protested. “God said to… thank us?”

“Jesus Christ,” the Metatron groaned theatrically. “I didn’t think being on earth made people this thick.” He blew out a noisy sigh. “Yeah, God sent me to see you. Both of you. And to thank you. And can I have some more sodding wine?”

Aziraphale scrambled up and hurried over to fetch another bottle. Mentally, the Metatron counted down from ten and he’d just got to four when–

“But why?” The angel wailed, clutching the bottle like a security blanket.

The Metatron leaned forward in his chair and plucked the bottle out of his grip. “Reasons,” he replied in as mysterious a voice as he could manage, then sniggered and slouched back in the chair, gargling a mouthful of Bordeaux.

Crowley snorted. “Nice to see you haven’t changed.”

The Metatron tipped the bottle towards him. “Neither have you, all things considered.”

“But really!” Aziraphale interrupted, looking panicked enough that the Metatron felt a twinge of sympathy for him.

“The Armageddon thing,” he clarified. “Good job. Gold stars all round.”

The demon burst out laughing. “Looks like you were right, angel. Ineffable plan and all that.”

Aziraphale went pink. “Oh. Gosh.”

The Metatron gave Crowley an amused look. “S’he always like this?”

Crowley wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, a bit.” He recovered his own bottle of wine from the floor, considering it. “Fancy refilling me? You made me spill all over myself.”

The Metatron made a face. “It’s always work, work, work with you, isn’t it?” Still, he waved a hand and the level of the wine in the bottle rose until it almost overflowed. “Care to join us, Aziraphale? You’ve earned it.”

The Principality stared, wide-eyed, at him. “A drink with the Metatron?”

Crowley laughed. “He’s not that special.”

Crowley!” The angel sounded appalled. “He’s the Voice of God!”

Crowley grinned over at the Metatron. “He’s an arsehole is what he is.”

The Metatron grinned back at him. God, he’d missed his brother. “Takes one to know one.”

Chapter Text

The case I will now relate to you is perhaps one of the unusual encountered in all of our adventures. I have no doubt that many of you will dismiss it as confounded logic or nonsense, but nevertheless, everything I now write is nothing more or less than the truth.

It began on a peculiarly warm afternoon in September, when an agitated gentleman came knocking at the door.

Sherlock glanced up from the concoction he was brewing over a pale blue flame. “Ah. About time.”

“You were expecting someone?” I asked, for until that moment, he had scarcely said a word all morning, caught up in his latest experiment. I had been engrossed in my own business, a fascinating novel recently published.

Sherlock laughed. “Not at all,” said he, reducing his flame to licks of yellow and red, and removing the heavy gloves he had taken to wearing while handling his smoking beakers. “Though you will notice that autumn is coming hard upon us.”

It was true that in the summer months, we had considerably fewer callers. Sherlock insisted that the warmer weather had a soporific influence on both those who would commit crime and those who would report them. Inevitably, he had said, as the seasons turn, we will have Mrs Hudson dashing up and down the stairs far more often than was good for her.

“Yet,” I observed, “the weather is unseasonably warm, which suggests your hypothesis is not entirely accurate, wouldn’t you say?”

Sherlock chuckled delightedly. “Ah, you learn too quickly. Perhaps the fellow was agitated yesterday, when the air was brisk, and could only travel today.”

“Fellow?” said I, for while the bell had rung, Mrs Hudson and our guest had not yet arrived.

He held a hand up to his ear, and a finger to his lips. On the stair I could hear footfalls. Not excessively heavy, but a firm tread. Quick too. Over it, there was the hum of voices. One was our Mrs Hudson, the other far lower and certainly not that of a lady.

“Ah,” said I.

“Your estimates, Watson?”

I closed over my book. “A young man. Physically fit. In some state of distress, judging by the way he is rushing Mrs Hudson on the stairs. Impatient, certainly.”

Sherlock nodded with approval. “We shall make a detective of you yet, my dear Watson.” HE turned expectantly to face the door as Mrs Hudson opened it and ushered our new guest in.

The man in question was indeed young and looked in the prime of good health, save for a pallor in his cheek and a redness about his eyes. Thin, dark-eyed, and dark-haired, he was not unhandsome. He was dressed respectably, if simply, and was turning his hat around by the rim between his hands.

“Mr Holmes, Doctor Watson,” said Mrs Hudson. “This is Mr Avery.”

Sherlock stepped forward at once, his eyes searching the young man for clues that I had not yet observed. “What brings you all the way from Soho?”

Had I not been familiar with Holmes’s peculiar ways, I might have marvelled as the startled Mr Avery did.

“How did you–” Avery began, astonished.

“The shade of mud on your boots,” answered Sherlock. “A quite particular tone, only found in the streets around Leicester square.” A negligent wave of his hand indicated to some flecks on the man’s shirt. “It also seems you indulged in a halfpenny ice and most barrows of that nature are found there too.”

Avery nodded. “Yes, yes, I did.” He turned his hat again. “I– well, you see, I was hoping to see a gentleman friend of mine. He has a shop in Soho and I have not seen him for quite some time.”

“And you did not find him, I would wager,” observed Sherlock. “The marks on your shirt are barely dry and you are flushed with exertion. You have come here with some haste, which suggests some great mishap has befallen him.”

“I know you will tell me I ought to go to the police,” Avery began.

To my surprise, Holmes raised an elegant hand to silence him. “I suspect I know why you have not.”

Avery’s eyes widened in alarm, his throat working as he seemed to struggle to swallow. “I beg your pardon, sir?”

There was an odd expression on my friend’s face. “You need not worry, Mr Avery. You are among friends here.” He beckoned, motioning for the man to sit, leaving me none the wiser as to what he meant. “Come, your friend. What gives you cause to fear for him?”

Mr Avery’s eyes flitted between my face and Sherlock’s. The poor fellow was quite tense with anxiety, so I rose and fetched him a measure of sherry in a glass. For once, Sherlock did not harry the man and once he had drunk and the tightness in his shoulders had eased, Avery gave a great sigh.

“You have, I suppose, heard of recent incidents in Cleveland Street?”

I knew without looking that my friend’s expression showed naught but passing attentiveness. “The scandal,” I confirmed. “Yes. It was all over the papers.”

Avery turned held the glass tightly between his white-knuckled hands. When he next spoke, I understood what had gone unsaid between Sherlock and the young man.

“A number of my… friends have… become unavailable,” he said with great care. “This, I knew to expect, but not Mr Fell. He was not the sort of person who gave a fig for a scandal. He would not go into hiding, not from his friends.” His pale tongue touched his lower lip. “I fear something may have happened to him and given the mood in the city at present…” His voice trailed off into a dull whisper.

It was no small wonder he spoke with such trepidation, when one had heard the poisonous whispers about Sutherland and the Prince. Had he any such affiliation with places like Cleveland Street – or the other brothels that had been uncovered and shamed – he would risk shackles and Newgate. No small wonder that he had not gone to the police himself.

Sherlock was peculiarly silent and I glanced at him. His expression was not contorted in cogitation, but there was a gleam in his eyes I knew all too well. Too oft it accompanied some great ejaculation of a wondrous discovery or the solution to a mystery.

“Your friend has a shop in Soho, you say?” he said at last.

Avery nodded. “A bookshop. I intended to visit him, but the shutters were closed. I have never seen it so in the past ten years.”

Sherlock sprang to his feet with a cry of delight. “Oh, have no fear, Mr Avery. We shall investigate the loss of your friend.”

“We shall?” I sat quite nonplussed at his excitement.

“We shall indeed,” he ejaculated, eyes aglow. “Will you accompany us, Mr. Avery? To ensure we attend the correct shop?”

Avery was very agreeable, his anxiousness giving way to relief. He even went so far as hailing a cab to carry all of us back to Soho, such was his haste in the matter. The afternoon heat was unbearable, the cab a tight squeeze for three grown men, but mercifully, the journey was a short one.

I saw the shop at once when I emerged into the balmy afternoon air. It stood upon a crossroads to the north of Shaftesbury Avenue, a small and elegant shop with beautifully painted signs above and beside the door. As Mr. Avery had indicated, the windows were shuttered and a small sign hung inside the pane of the door, advising that the shop was closed.

“You have knocked, I assume?” Sherlock said, standing by my side.

“Of course,” Avery said, confounded. “I would not have come if I had received an answer.”

My friend smiled oddly. “Would you mind trying again, to be certain?”

Avery seemed as puzzled as I felt myself. He walked across the street at once and I moved to follow, but Sherlock extended his arm, preventing me from moving.

“What’s the matter?” said I, frowning up at him.

“A moment, Watson,” he murmured, watching Avery intently. “I have visited this shop before.”

Avery reached the door and rapped sharply on the glass, impatience writ on his face. “Mr. Fell?” he called. “Are you about?”

When there was no reply, he turned with expectation to Sherlock, who gave him a warm smile. “Thank you, Mr. Avery. We shall tend to matters from here.” He unfurled his fingers in an elegant gesture. “We shall meet you in the Dog and Duck forthwith.”

Mr. Avery looked even more befuddled, but he nodded in agreement and hurried off.

“What are you about, Holmes?” I demanded. “Why have him knock again?”

Sherlock gave me an odd smile. “Would you be a dear fellow and knock on the door for me?”

“Me? But Avery has just shown well enough that Mr. Fell is not there!”

“There is a puzzle about this shop, Watson, and your assistance will be instrumental in solving it.” He waved towards the shop. “You only need walk up and knock once. Nothing more.”

I could not help but feel he was playing some manner of jape on me, but I agreed and started across the road, but next I knew I was late for dinner with Mary and set about and turned for home, then Sherlock had me by the shoulders, shaking me vigorously as if to wake me from a sleep.

“What in God’s name–” I stared at him. “Sherlock?”

“Do you recall where we are?” he asked with eager urgency.

I looked about, disorientated, then recognised the streets. “This is Soho, isn’t it?”

He bore down on me, searching my face. “Yes, Soho. Do you recall why we are here? Think, Watson. You must focus or it will slip away.”

I could not help but feel flustered with him so close and I looked frantically about for some clue as to what he was talking about. But I knew, I was certain, I was late for dinner with Mary. “I’m sorry, my dear chap. I have no idea, but I must go. Mary will be expecting me.”

“Ah!” Sherlock beamed. “It affects you too!”

I stared at him in alarm. “What the deuce are you on about?”

Despite the fact he knew I ought to be going in the other direction, he turned me about and marched me twenty paces back down a street towards a crossroads. Ahead of us, there was a shop, the windows shuttered and the door closed. I stared at it, then looked to the name, and all at once, I recalled his last instruction to me.

“I was going to knock upon the door,” I said, though the nagging feeling that I ought to seek out Mary was tugging at the back of my mind. “That was what I was going to do.”

“And yet, within three steps of the door, you turned as smartly as a soldier on parade and marched off down the street,” Sherlock said with much excitement. “And I’d wager you were – and remain – sure you have somewhere else that you are meant to be?”

“How did you know that?”

Sherlock looked across at the shop, a gleam in his eye. “Because I have encountered the same matter more times than you can imagine.” He kept a hand upon my shoulder. “Plant your feet and keep your eyes on the shop, Watson. It makes it easier to recall your purpose.”

I followed his instructions, though I could feel some part of my mind urging me to turn and walk away. “What on earth is it?”

“I have no idea.” He sounded quite giddy at the prospect. “I visited the shop once, when I was much younger. A quite fascinating place. The collection of books is extraordinary and more varied than any collection I’ve seen anywhere else in London.”

“And it had no influence on you then?”

“Not then, no,” my friend confirmed. “I believe I spoke to Mr. Avery’s friend, though I cannot for the life of me recall what he looks like nor anything about him or what we might have spoken about.”

I turned to him, startled. Sherlock’s memory and attention to detail was impeccable, after all. “You cannot–”

Abruptly, my brisk walk home was interrupted and I found myself pressed back against a wall, Sherlock’s hands tight on my arm. “The shop, Watson! Keep your eyes on the shop!”

It took a moment to recall what he was about, my memory sliding over the place as smoothly as water from a duck’s wing. I stared and forced my attention to stay on it. “You remember the place,” I said, shaken. “How can you recall, if it affects me so?”

“I took notes when I was there, my dear fellow.” Sherlock eased his grip on my arms. “I also carried out some experiments to assess the proximity and so forth. You must go within five paces of the shop for its influence to directly affect you and it will continue to influence you until you are at least half a dozen streets from here, but I have noticed that – like Mr. Avery – it does not affect everyone.”

I nodded, straightening up from the wall and eyeing the shop warily. “Why you and I, then? Who else does it affect?”

“I believe,” said my friend, “that it only plays havoc with particular unwanted visitors.”

“Oh!” I declared, offended to be dismissed for a slight I had not committed. “Why would I be unwelcome, when I had not even heard of the place until today?”

Sherlock chuckled. “Unfortunately, I believe that may be my doing.”

I would that I could have given him a look of exasperation. “You imagine a shop is capable of recognising an unwanted visitor’s associate?”

“Did you or did you not try and flee to some unnamed appointment not two minutes past?” There was wry amusement in his voice. “And I don’t imagine that it has anything to do with the shop. I believe a man who can wipe himself from my memory may be something altogether more interesting.”

“Mr. Avery’s friend,” said I. “That’s why you agreed to find him?”

“And if it reassures Mr. Avery of his friend’s well-being, wouldn’t you consider it a job well done, Watson?”

Though discomfited by the very idea of someone – or some manner of creature – that could play merry hell with one’s mind, I had to admit I was rather curious. Whoever this Mr. Fell was, I could not imagine him being some terrible brute, for Mr. Avery seemed a gentle soul and not the kind of man to fall in with a cruel man.

“How are we to go about it?” I demanded. “If neither you nor I can approach the building, and I imagine that anyone you prompt to do so will succumb to the influence? Do you think there is someone hereabout who might be able to speak on your behalf?”

“I thought,” said my friend good-naturedly, “that I might try a more direct approach.”

“But you–” I began, then bit back on a profanity when I saw his arm move in an overarm bowl that would make anyone at Lord’s proud. Whatever he had been hold flew from his fingers, hurtling through the air, and crashed through one of the window panes in the front door of the shop. “Good God, Holmes!”

He caught my arm, bodily hauling me away from the shop amid shouts of shock and indignation from other people in the street. “Come along, Watson.”

“You–” I sputtered in outrage. “You cannot go about hurling rocks through windows!”

“I threw no such thing,” Sherlock said, bundling me back into the cab as if he had not caused great damage to private property. “It was a paperweight.” He watched my face for a moment as the cab rattled away down the street. “Any immediate urges to dash off anywhere?”

I blinked in befuddlement, but to my surprise, the nagging need to hurry home to Mary had evaporated. “Good Lord… you don’t think breaking the window broke the influence?”

He shook his head with a delighted little smile. “Oh, no,” he said. “I merely think I caught the attention of the person responsible and distracting you is no longer of great concern to him.”

“I hardly consider that reassuring,” said I, alarmed. “What do you mean you have caught the attention of the person responsible? Surely if they have some kind of abilities to muddle the senses, they are the last person you want to offend!”

“Mr. Avery was very worried about his friend,” Sherlock said mildly. “I only wish to let Mr. Fell know that he is causing great distress to his friends.”

It was such a lot of poppycock, but one could not undo what had been done.

“What kind of person do you imagine he is? If he can– that is to say–” I fumbled over the words, trying to grasp quite what had muddled me so much in Soho. “Damn it, Holmes, there must be some logical explanation. Mind-control is quite simply impossible.”

My friend gave me a thoughtful look. “And yet you freely admit you had the urge to rush off for no good reason?”  

I had no answer to that, but the further we got from the shop, the more distant the memory felt, as if I might have been mistaken all along. “I– perhaps I did,” I frowned at him. “If you believe it is possible, then how? Surely you don’t imagine it’s some manner of… magical art?”

He rubbed his hands together gleefully. “I have no idea, but isn’t it intriguing, my dear?” He glanced out of the cab. “Ah. Here we are.”

I supposed it was safer to return to Baker Street, but as soon as we crossed the threshold, Mrs Hudson came dashing down the stairs, quite flustered.

“Oh, thank goodness you’re back, Mr. Holmes.” She waved a hand up the stairs. “You have a visitor. A gentleman. He arrived only a little while ago.”

“A little while,” Holmes echoed musingly. “Can you be more precise, Mrs. Hudson?”

Her mouth opened and shut several times, puzzlement rife on her face. “Perhaps a quarter of an hour. Not much more.”

Almost precisely when a perfectly bowled paperweight shattered a window in Soho.

“Sherlock,” I cautioned, feeling a tremor of foreboding, “surely you don’t think...”

He threw a devil-may-care look at me and immediately strode for the staircase, hat still in hand. He loped up, his long limbs taking the stairs two at a time. I cast Mrs. Hudson’s an uncertain smile and followed as hurriedly as I could.

Whomever the gentleman was, it was enough to startle Sherlock so much that he stopped in the doorway so abruptly that I ploughed into the back of him. Both of us all but fell into the room, Sherlock catching my arm to steady me.

The gentleman was standing in the middle of the floor, his hands folded mildly before him. He was a most peculiar-looking fellow, his clothing some years out of fashion and made of very pale fabric, which ought to have been a dreadful inconvenience in the streets of the city. And yet, there was not a spot of dirt anywhere on his trousers. He did, however, have a very kind face, with soft curls of pale hair that gave him a curiously cherubic appearance.

I glanced urgently to Sherlock, whose eyes were roving the man, no doubt taking in details I had not even yet perceived. He seemed even more shocked than he had on entering the room.

“Mr. Fell?” said I, stepping forward and offering my hand.

The man looked at me and at once, I could understand Sherlock’s reaction. It felt as if his gaze was cutting right through me, sharp as a blade, then – utterly unexpectedly – he smiled and it lit his face as brightly as the sun in June.

“Ah,” he said. “You must be John Watson.” He took my hand, squeezed it briefly, then released it. “I do apologise for the inconvenience.”

I glanced back at Sherlock, then at our guest again. “You are Mr. Fell?”

His eyes moved back to Sherlock, and the sensation of a blade returned, his gaze cool and hard. “I am indeed.” He unfolded one hand and reached into his pocket, withdrawing a glass orb that I recognised as from Sherlock’s desk–

“My God,” I whispered, my heart quailing.

“I believe,” Mr. Fell said, opening his fingers around it, “that this is yours.”

The paperweight lay accusingly in his palm, which was impossible. He had arrived at Baker Street precisely when the window had broken. How the devil had he been able to get from Soho to Baker Street – with the paperweight no less – in the blink of an eye? It was impossible, yet Sherlock’s reaction suggested that it was nothing more nor less than reality.

“Holmes,” I breathed.

Sherlock blinked as one coming out of a daze. “You ought to call Mrs. Hudson, Watson,” he said slowly, though I could still see guarded alarm in his face. “It would only be polite to give our guest some tea.” His lips twitched in the faintest of smiles. “I assume your… type of people take tea?”

“I’d rather not,” Mr. Fell said, his eyes never straying from Sherlock’s face. “You have my attention, my dear. I have not come here for you to waste my time.”

Sherlock’s smile seemed more of a grimace. “Ah. Your friend was rather concerned about you, Mr. Fell. He seemed to think something might have happened to you.”

The man’s face brightened. “My friend?”

“Mr. Avery,” I offered. The brightness in Fell’s expression snuffed out like a candle.

“Oh.” His smile seemed a trifle forced. “Yes. Philip. I thought it might have been someone else.” He returned his attention to Sherlock. “But I hardly think that is why you have courted my attention so… rudely, is it?” He held out the paperweight, an accusation in his palm. “Nor why you have poked and prodded at my shop so incessantly for so many years.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened and at once, his curiosity leapt to the fore. “You knew of my inquiries?”

Fell gave him a frosty look. “It is my shop. I hear everything about it.”

Holmes’s face went a shade paler. “Everything?”

Fell’s eyes were a peculiar colour, shades of grey and green, but I would swear on the Bible, they flashed fire when he looked at Sherlock. “Everything.” He took a step closer to my friend, offering the paperweight back on the tips of his fingers. “You have questions.”

Sherlock took the paperweight back, staring at it as if he could not quite believe it. The weight of it in his palm must have convinced him, for when he looked at Fell again, his expression seemed much the same as it had been that morning. “You have been keeping me from your shop.”

“Yes.”

“What!” I declared, indignant on Sherlock’s behalf, forgetting for a moment that the man before me had seemingly harnessed power over the mind and the laws of physics. “What cause have you? He has done nothing to warrant such treatment.”

“Oh, but he has,” Mr. Fell murmured, his mouth curling sharply at both sides. “I suppose I should have let him remember, but he made such a nuisance of himself that I thought it best to be rid of him indefinitely.” He sighed. “Clearly, that did not work as well as I intended.”

“Let me remember.” Despite his clear alarm, there was a note of triumph in Sherlock’s voice. “So that’s the reason I remember nothing about the shop, save for the list of books I have!”

Fell’s eyebrows rose. “Ah. So that’s how you remembered, is it?” He folded his hands in front of him again. “Then I’m afraid I must tell you are not – and never shall be – welcome in my shop. Your behaviour today has ensured that.” He shook his head sadly. “I did try to keep it from you gently, as a kindness, but I see that will never be enough.”

I looked between them in astonishment. “What the devil has he done to be so dismissed?” I demanded.

Mr. Fell’s placid expression showed the faintest shiver of irritation. “I imagine, Doctor, you know well enough what a troublesome fellow your companion can make himself in his quest for knowledge.” He stepped closer to Sherlock, his eyes shimmering like silver coins. “Some questions are best left unasked.”

To my astonishment, Sherlock had the good grace to lower his head at the reproof. “Forgive a man his mortal curiosity, whatever I may have asked,” he said with a cordial bow at the waist. “It was not meant with ill-intent.”

Fell’s expression softened. “I know that, my dear,” he said with a gentleness that belied his earlier tone. “But a man must acknowledge one’s limits.” He stepped back then, offering both of us a warmer smile that drove away the peculiar knot of dread that had settled in my belly. “I ought to find Philip. He must have been dreadfully alarmed to come to you for aid.”

Without any further do, Mr. Fell strode out of the room and though I strained to hear, I did not hear his footsteps on the stairs, nor the door close behind him.

Sherlock stood was one in a dream, turning over the paperweight in his palm.

“What on earth was that about?” I demanded, shaken. “What manner of man was that?”

My friend looked at me, a peculiar expression on his face. “I don’t believe he was a man at all,” he said. He carried the paperweight back to the desk, laying it down on the surface, and opened one of the drawers, from which he drew a thin brown file. He touched the cover with a strange reverence. “I have had this list from his shop for more than twenty years.” Like a conjuror revealing his trick, he opened the file with a flourish, displaying a perfectly blank page of age-curled paper.

I stared in astonishment. “How– did he–” I shook my head, my heart fluttering in anxious disbelief. “How is that possible?”

Sherlock closed the file and slipped it back into the drawer, then set the paperweight in on top of it, running his fingertips across the glass before closing the drawer and turning the key. “One might call it,” he murmured, “divine intervention.”

That was the last occasion that Sherlock Holmes attempted to visit the strange bookshop in Soho and while I am still unsure of all that came to pass between Mr. Fell and my friend, I must confess it is a great relief to know that we shall not face the wrath of a man such as Mr. Fell again, whatever manner of man he may be.

Chapter Text

Everyone had their little rituals and customs.

Integra tried to ensure her own unpredictability.

It was more difficult for an enemy to pinpoint you, if you had no routines that you kept to. Diaries and schedules were a baseline for them, but she had no doubt she was far harder to track than someone who regularly attended church on Sundays like a good little Christian.

Of course, once in a very rare occasion, an exception could be made.

The city slid by as Walter guided the car smoothly through the traffic. The afternoon’s rain had left a faint patina on the glass, fogging the world beyond it just enough to give it a strange, dream-like haze.

She recognised the tension in his shoulders and smiled. “You don’t need to say it every time.”

“It’s an unnecessary risk,” her butler replied tersely. “Standard Holy Water is good enough. You don’t need to place yourself in such close to proximity to a threat for something we already have.”

She glanced at her reflection in the glass. “He’s no threat.”

“I’m not talking of him.” Walter said. “The… other one.”

Integra met his eyes in the rearview mirror. “I’ve dealt with far worse,” she reminded him. “I’m safer there than I am in my own building most of the time.” There, at least, there was no blood or violence or vampires clawing their way towards her. “The pax holds.”

She saw the downturn of his mouth. “Until it doesn’t.”

He didn’t know about the blade at her wrist or the blessed silver switchblade in her belt. She didn’t know if it would even work if it was required, but it was there and could be used if necessary. As much as she appreciated him, sometimes, Walter could be so damnably overprotective.

She returned her attention to the city around them. Parliament skimmed by on her left, which meant they were almost there. She checked her pocketwatch and smiled. It always took such careful timing, what with her own political intrigues and his business matters, but they had – as she had reminded Alucard as she walked out the door – an arrangement.

They swung northwards towards Soho and only minutes later, Walter parked the car outside a modest, old-fashioned bookshop.

“Wait here,” she ordered, out of the car before he could emerge to open her door. He had a terrible habit of stalking in after her like a benevolent shadow, which clearly did nothing to please her host. Alucard was just as bad, which is why she had ensured he could not interrupt either.

The door opened as she approached.

“Miss Hellsing,” her host smiled warmly at her. “Right on time, as usual.”

“Mr. Fell.” She inclined her head. “Good to see you.”

He looked mildly towards the car, beyond her right shoulder. “Your… man won’t be joining us today?” The mild reproof in his voice made her lips twitch.

“Not today, no.”

His expression brightened at once and he opened the door a little wider to usher her in. There were the usual pleasantries as he took her coat and led her through to the back of the shop: the weather, the news, the trivial things about health and happiness and such.

As usual, there was a small table laid with a tea set and two cups. A tiered platter of cakes was arranged beside it.

They both sat, he on the opulent, though worn Edwardian chair, and she on the chaise. All the little formalities, she observed, as he poured and fussed over her tea, then served her a piece of cake – how he always knew her favourites, she had never discovered – on a rose-decorated china plate.

Only once everything was laid out before her, could formalities be attended to.

For once, he began the conversation. “You’re earlier than usual this year.”

“Mm.” She leaned over, picking up a sugar lump with the silver tongs. “Unfortunately, we’ve had some trouble with the continentals again.”

He made a small sound of disdain. “Yes, they do have a tendency to cause chaos at the worst possible moment. I expect you’ll need a rather larger shipment than usual?”

Integra sliced her cake with the edge of her fork. “Unfortunately, yes. Will it be a problem?”

Mr. Fell laughed. “Oh, Heavens, no. Just send as many barrels as you need. Telephone ahead, of course. I would hate for your people to have a wasted journey.”

One side of her mouth turned up. “You could drive a harder bargain.”

His lips twitched. “I could, but then I wouldn’t be working against the forces of darkness, would I?” He took a dainty sip from his china cup, his pinkie up. He always looked so delicate, but according to plenty of sources, if he wanted to, he could unleash God’s wrath without breaking a sweat. “One must do what one can, after all.”

“Mm.” She chewed thoughtfully on her cake. “Speaking of the forces of darkness, where’s your demon?”

A blind man couldn’t have missed the rosy flush that spread across her host’s cheeks. “Oh. I… er... excused him for the day.” There was a pointed lift to one of his eyebrows, as if to reproach her without saying a word as he took another sip of his tea, then said, “What about yours, Miss Hellsing?”

She almost laughed. Always the riposte and parry. “In my basement,” she said, skewering some more cake on her fork. She met his eyes and smiled slightly. “In chains.”

Mr. Fell tutted. “Really, my dear,” he sighed, though she could recognise the mirth in his eyes. “You really ought to train him better.”

Her lips curled back from her teeth. “Coming from you,” she said sweetly, “that’s rich.”

Mr. Fell’s lips pressed together in the thin line that she recognised too well. He was trying his best to look disapproving and failing miserably. “Oh, honestly…”

It always astonished her how easy it was to talk to the… well, man wasn’t quite the right word, and she certainly didn’t want to describe him in the terms Alucard used. They were somehow far more terrifying to contemplate than something as simple as a vampire or a werewolf.

They talked a little longer about the business at hand, arranging a date for the following week, haggling over the specifics of the volume, source and quantity. He never adjusted his price, she had noticed, no matter how much more they ordered. For a businessman, he seemed to have little interest in profit.

Once, she had invited him to the Hellsing headquarters, but he had demurred. She had almost expected it. The shop was his place of power, after all. She could barely imagine him walking the halls where Alucard freely roamed.

Anyway, there was a pick-up point behind the shop, barely more than a narrow side street, but they had suitable vans that didn’t need much room. She had never seen Mr. Fell at work on their orders, though she imagined it was a far more intricate ritual than the rites that the Priests used, and yet her men had never once needed to unload the barrels from the vans.

And yet, somehow, Mr. Fell produced the most potent distillation of Holy Water she had ever come across. A single drop was enough to dissolve the worst of Hell’s creatures on contact.

Once the details were all ironed out, prices paid, and tea and cake finished, Mr. Fell fetched her coat for her.

“It’s been lovely to see you, my dear,” he said, holding the coat for her.

She slipped it back on and turned to face him with a small smile. “Thank you.”

“For the water?” He waved a hand. “Not at all.”

She shook her head. “For the…” Her eyes flicked to the tea on the table and the crumbs of cake. It was so rare for her to feel at peace and safe enough to indulge in something so simple. “For the respite, I suppose.”

He reached out and took her hand, the warmth in his smile washing away weeks of tension. “Oh, my dear,” he said so gently that she almost felt like a carefree child again, “You are always welcome here. Any time you like.”

She allowed it a moment longer, then drew her hand back and straightened up. “Perhaps.”

A little sadness touched his expression. “Yes,” he said and she knew that he understood that she couldn’t, not with all that was coming and everything she had to do. “Perhaps.”

He walked her to the door and even as the car pulled away, she could see him standing there, watching, his hands clasped neatly in front of him.

“It went well?” Walter said quietly.

Integra nodded, gazing out at the city washing by. “Yes,” she murmured, touching her hand where Mr. Fell’s soft, warm fingers had clasped hers as if she had the right to tenderness and kindness. “It went well.”

Chapter Text

So much still needed to be done.

It was growing more and more difficult with each passing day. Had it only been one, it would have been terrible enough, but to see each of them laid out, each of them still and silent. No more laughter. No more nonsense. No more tall tales and shared silliness.

As she had so often in recent days, Susan found herself brought to a standstill, the void of grief gaping suddenly before her. It felt that, if she so much as risked another step, she would tumble down and never be able to find her way out again. Or perhaps lie broken at the bottom, where none remained to come and find her.

The bustling crowds didn’t seem to notice her, shoulders knocking by her as they hurried on their way, Shaftesbury Avenue thronged with people.

It was too much all at once, far too busy, and the most she could find the strength to do was stumble into a side-street, blindly following the wall, her hand pressing against the rain-damped brick and stone and glass.

All at once, a wall – or perhaps a window - gave way beneath her hand. The abrupt memory of furs giving way to firs struck up under her ribs like a blade and she folded with a gasp of pain. Snow, she remembered. There had been snow and ice and everlasting winter.

“Oh, my dear.” A man’s voice spoke, close at hand, so kind that it made her vision blur with unshed tears. “Come in. Come in.”

A hand was at her elbow and she was guided into a room. The scent of books and dust and old leather and ink brought back a thousand other memories and she faltered. The hand at her elbow gentled as she stood, trembling and swaying and lost.

“Stay here,” the man said gently. “I’ll bring you a chair.”

Susan pressed her eyes closed, bringing up her hands to cover her face. What did it matter anymore? What did any of it matter?

The scrape of a chair on the floor behind her startled her, but the gentle hand was back and the man guided her to sit. He didn’t say a word as she wept, tears dripping between her fingers, but he moved about softly, and all at once, there was a warm blanket around her shoulders and when she gathered herself enough to lower her hands, he was standing before her, a study china mug cradled between his hands. The scent of chocolate coiled in the steam as he held it out to her.

“This might warm you a little, my dear,” he said softly. “You’re soaked through.”

She looked up at him as she took it and stammered out shivering gratitude.

The man held up a hand as if to ward off her thanks, his features as gentle as his voice. He did not look half so old, despite his shock of white curls, but there was something in the light in his eyes and the warmth of his smile that brought to mind the Professor, so many years ago. 

“Shall I join you?” he asked, “Or would you prefer a little solitude?”

Susan cradled the mug closer to her, heat spreading through her cold, damp hands. “Please,” she whispered, her voice roughened with emotion. “Stay.”

The man smiled and bustled across the room to fetch another chair. Susan glanced about, a small sigh of wonder escaping her. The place was a bookshop, full to the brim and overflowing with all shapes and sizes and colours of books.

“Is this your shop?” she asked, when the man sat down a respectable distance from her.

“This? Oh, yes.” His smile was like a ray of sunlight on a dark day, so bright and merry that she found herself smiling in response. “I know many people think it’s rather a mess, but everything has its place and I much prefer it this way.”

She took a sip of the chocolate. It was utterly and perfectly sweet, thicker and richer than any chocolate she had had since…

Oh, since a lifetime and a half ago, in a palace, surrounded by courtiers and laughter and–

Her hand leapt to her mouth and her eyes burned treacherously again.

“Too hot?” The man began to rise, concern in his voice.

She shook her head. “I beg your pardon,” she managed, though her voice betrayed her. “A memory. That’s all.”

“A distressing one, it seems.” He sounded so concerned that it made the grief well all over again. “May I be of any help to you?”

Had he been indifferent, it would have been easier, but such kindness was too much. She folded down over the cup, as if the weight of her grief had been laid upon her shoulders. “They’re gone,” she whispered, wet spots speckling his blanket around her. “They’re all gone.”

His chair scraped a little closer and his hand touched the top of her bowed head with such reverence and care that her sobs redouble. It felt like a benediction, a kindness in a world that has ripped everything away from her, everyone.

“Tell me,” he said so tenderly that she couldn’t help but speak.

It poured out of her in bursts, between ragged, wracking sobs. Her family. Her friends. Parents and siblings. The train. The telephone call to her office. The police. The carnage. The bodies laid out side by side by side, all calm, cool and still. Word by word, it spilled out, like poison draining from a wound, all the words she hadn’t been able to say to anyone, because no one is left.

For a long time, he simply let her cry. It was more than anyone else has allowed. It was more than most people have tolerated. They grow uncomfortable, you see. What does one say to a person who has seen her family live through the war – the wars, in fact, if you count ones her siblings fought in – and the Blitz and so many pieces of Hell, only to see them lost on a train journey?

I’m sorry for your loss means nothing after a time.

The man unfolded his handkerchief and offered it to her, letting her dry her eyes.

“The world,” he said softly, “can be very cruel.”

“Yes,” she agreed in a whisper. Her hands trembled around the cup. “I miss them. We had argued and fought and I never– I will never have the chance to tell them…” To tell them how much she loved them all, that she missed them, that sometimes, she even missed their silly games, their… their Narnia.

“Sometimes, we all fall on the wrong side of people we care about,” the man murmured. “But that doesn’t mean they didn’t care about you as much as you cared about them.” His smile was sadder and somehow infinitely sweeter for it. “I’m sure they knew.”

Susan nodded then took a shaking breath and sat up a little straighter. “I’m sorry. I come barging in here, weeping all over the place, and taking up your time.”

His hands closed around hers on the cup. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you need to, my dear,” he said. “Had I wished you to be gone, would I have given you chocolate and a blanket?” He shook his head with a small smile. “Sometimes, we all need a little kindness. Whether we are the one to give it or receive it, what matters is that it’s there.”

She drew on a smile in return. “Then thank you. I– it’s been… very difficult.”

“I expect so.” He sat back in his chair, folding his hands in his lap. “I always believed burden shared is a burden halved. Perhaps this will ease that burden a little for you.”

It was strange to think that the simple generosity of a kind stranger could do that, but Susan did feel a little better. Perhaps, it was simply having someone who let her grieve so openly. She sipped the chocolate which was, somehow, still as warm as it had been when she took her first sip.   

She cannot help but ask, “Why did you invite me in?”

His shoulders lifted as if it is the clearest thing in the world. “Because you needed me to.”

It was a very peculiar answer, but Susan had experienced many peculiar things in her lifetime. Her two lifetimes, if she is honest with herself.

She finished the chocolate, which somehow managed to be precisely the right amount, not too much to be uncomfortable and not little enough to leave you wanting. Her rain-sodden clothes had dried out and she was, at least, warm and dry and comfortable.

It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it had smoothed the sharper edges of the world, a little reminder of the good that remained.

“Thank you,” she said, holding out the cup to the man. “For… for all of this. It was very kind of you.”

He smiled. “You will always be welcome, should you need respite, Miss Pevensie.”

She rose and another flicker of recollection drifted across her memory as he lifted the blanket from her shoulders as if it was her riding mantle.

It was strange, she thought, that he didn’t seem like a stranger. He was close to hers now, his eyes clear and bright and a corona of colours.

“Have we met before?” she asked, staring at him. “You… remind me of someone.”

A small smile tripped across his lips. “If we did, it wasn’t in this lifetime.” He stepped back, folding the blanket into a series of neater smaller rectangles. The folded bundle, he tucked neatly under one arm. “But I am glad I have in this place and time.”

Susan nodded. “I am too,” she said. She looked down at his handkerchief, crumpled and damp, in her hand. “I should recompense you.”

He reached out, closing her hand around the handkerchief. “Keep it,” he said firmly. “To remind you where you might find a friend.”

“A friend,” she echoed, then offered him her hand. “Thank you, Mr. …”

“Fell.” His hand was soft and firm around hers. “Ezra Fell.”

“Mr. Fell.” She squeezed his hands. “I’m very grateful.”

His smile was as warming as the chocolate. “And I’m very glad I could help.” He walked with her to the door of the shop and looked out. “It’s brightening up, my dear. You should get home safe and dry from here.”

It was as if they had been closed in a bubble of peace, for the moment she stepped down from the step, the noise and bustle of the city surrounded her. She started down the street, pausing to look back at the shop, the door already closed and Mr. Fell little more than a pale shape through the glass.

Susan looked down at the handkerchief in her hand. It was very fine, far too fine for someone to simply give away, but give it he had. A flicker of gold at one corner caught her eye and she smoothed the kerchief out, her heart giving a peculiar thump at the sight of the initial embroidered in a shade of gold that gleamed like a lion’s mane at sunrise.

A.

A reminder where you might find a friend.

Miss Pevensie, she thought blankly. He knew her name. Somehow, he knew her name. Perhaps from the newspapers. They had reported about her – her family – a great deal in the initial days after the accident. But a friend…

Impossible, she thought, though some small and secret part of her whispered Once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen of Narnia.

She ran her thumb along the golden letter, then closed her fist around the kerchief and hurried back out into the real world, memories close behind her.

Chapter Text

When you’re running for your life, you don’t expect the person you’re running with to stop dead right in front of you so suddenly that you plough right into his back.

“Doctor!” Sarah Jane grabbed at his coat. “What is it? Are there more?”

“Have you seen this?” the Doctor swung around, a grin breaking onto his face. “Isn’t it marvellous?”

Sarah Jane glanced anxiously over her shoulder, but the road was clear. “What?”

The Doctor made a grand gesture to the building in front of him. “Wonderful.”

She stared at it, then at him. “It’s a bookshop.” She spun around at the rattling sound of metal-clad feet on the road. “Doctor, we don’t have time to–” She yelped in alarm as she was dragged sideways, through the open door of the shop. “Doctor!”

Insides, the shop was quiet and deserted and Sarah Jane hastily pushed the door shut and looked around. There were a couple of heavy chairs, so she threw her back into it and shoved one then the other across the floor to blockade the door.

“You could help, you know!” she said, as the Doctor spun in a circle, staring around the shop, an expression of giddy wonder on his face.

“No need, dear girl!” He chuckled. “Oh, this really is quite a splendid piece of technology, isn’t it?”

“Technology?” She straightened up, puffing, and that was when she noticed how big the shop was. Far, far bigger than it had seemed from the outside. Well, that was awfully familiar, wasn’t it? “Another TARDIS?”

The Doctor shook his head, his hat wobbling. “Oh no. I think it might be something far more dangerous.”

Sometimes, Sarah Jane wondered why they got on. But then again, sometimes, when she was hitting a robot alien with a piece of lead pipe, she knew exactly why.

“What is it?” she asked. “Will–” She pointed towards the window and the clunking shapes that were marching by. “Do you think it’ll keep them out?”

“I don’t know,” he said cheerfully, “but it’ll be fun to watch them find out.” He bounded over to the shelves on the far side of the floor, peering between them. “Hallo! Hallo? Is anyone there?” he dug about in his pocket, whipping out the sonic screwdriver. It buzzed in his hand as he scanned it along the shelves. “The energy readings are remarkable. I’m going to try–”

There was an odd feeling like static in the air and one moment there was no one but them in the shop, and the next, a man was standing between them as if he had always been there, a put-out look on his face.

Sarah Jane stared at him. Weird clothes, she was used to, especially people who looked like they should be taking tea with Jeeves or something. White-haired men popping out of thin air, not so much. “Where did–”

“Do you mind?” The new arrival snapped irritably at the Doctor.

The Doctor stared at him as if he’d seen Christmas morning. “There you are…” he breathed. “Good heavens, I didn’t think I’d ever see another one.”

The man glowered at him and made a sharp downward twist of his hand. The Doctor’s screwdriver vanished from his grip. “You could have knocked,” he said testily. “Honestly, prodding about like that is very bad form!”

“Dreadfully sorry! The Doctor’s beam was bordering on silly proportions. “Didn’t know how else to get your attention.”

Sarah Jane eyed the man warily. The Doctor said this place was dangerous and now magically appearing man were vanishing things right in front of her. The Doctor seemed very excited, but that wasn’t usually a very good barometer of threat level, because he could be equally excited about a fly in his soup or the end of the world.

She inched sideways towards the umbrella stand by the door, reaching for the walking stick there. It had a lovely big blunt silver knob on the top, very useful for giving people a sharp rap on the head, if needed.

“Well, I’m here now,” the man said. “What do you want?”

“Want? Oh, nothing at all! Only validation of a theory of conceptual psychic defences!” The Doctor clattered across the floor, bringing his face close to the man’s. “Instant teleportation as well! Do you have any idea how few species are capable of that?”

The man lifted his hand again and if he could make a sonic screwdriver disappear, it was entirely possible he could make a Time Lord disappear too. Sarah Jane charged forward, stick raised.

The air prickled and some… thing wrenched her to a halt, a hand around her upraised wrist.

“I don’t think sssssssso,” a voice hissed.

Behind her? All right then! She jabbed back hard with her elbow and kicked with a foot and felt the satisfying crunch of both of them making impact.

“Ow! Oi! Stop that!”

The Doctor burst out laughing. “Let the poor fellow be, Sarah Jane!”

Sarah Jane jerked her arm free and spun around, staring at another mysteriously appearing man. This one was all tall and lanky with bright red hair and looked like he’d borrowed his style from Sid Vicious, except for the sunglasses. He made a face at her, rubbing his middle.

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” The first man was pinching the bridge of his nose. “Look, will you explain what you want here? Where on earth did you come from? And is it anything to do with those tin menaces running about outside?”

“We were hiding from them,” Sarah Jane said, then corrected, “Well, we were trying to and then he got distracted by your… is it your shop?”

The pale-haired man pursed his lips. “It is. And it was locked.”

“Maybe it wanted to help,” the Doctor said, though he ducked around the paler of the two men to approach the second one. “My word… two of you in one place. Remarkable. I didn’t think any of you were still earthbound.”

“Hang about–” Red-haired man sounded puzzled. “What do you mean ‘two of you’?” He jerked a thumb towards the other man. “Me and him, we’re nothing alike.”

 “Really?” The Doctor peered at him. “Genus angelicus? Slight difference in energy, but much the same.”

Red and white exchanged wary glances.

“I beg your pardon.” The first man was starting to look worried. That happened a lot when the Doctor was about, Sarah Jane had noticed. She wondered if it was possible to develop immunity after a while. “How did you know that?”

The Doctor spun about with a smaller smile. “A good while ago, I crossed paths with one of yours. I look a bit different now, but I went back to see him.” He clasped his hands together in front of him. “Quite something, watching the construction of the universe, you know. Didn’t get too close, but there’s something about the energy…”

Red-hair hissed under his breath. “No…”

“Hm?”

“You!”

The Doctor turned, peering at him good-naturedly. “What?”

Red-hair ripped off his glasses and Sarah Jane squeaked in surprise. He might look human but his eyes were solid gold and looked just like a snake’s. He swept across the room, leaning right up into the Doctor’s face and the Doctor – for once – looked stunned speechless, his mouth opening and shutting. That was even more alarming than magically-appearing men.

“Doctor…?” Sarah Jane prompted, worried.

“Oh my word…” The Doctor sounded faint. “My goodness…” And suddenly, he had grabbed red-hair in a bone-crushing hug that yanked the man off his feet.

“Ngk!” Red-hair yelped, feet flailing.

“Marvellous job!” The Doctor gave him a shake. “Such a marvellous job! Alpha Centauri! Such a wonderful piece! And that nebula! The arrangement of the constellations! Fantastic!” He set the man down and before the poor man could escape, grabbed his hand and started pumping it enthusiastically up and down. “Such an honour.”

“…Crowley?” White-hair said gingerly. “Do you… know this man?”

Red-hair – Crowley, apparently – managed to yank his hand out of the Doctor’s. “Yeah, sort of.” He grimaced. “This little tyke almost crashed into me!” He bared his teeth, but it didn’t seem like he was angry. Almost like he was pleased. “Didn’t get too close, my arse. Almost took my bleeding head off, didn’t you?”

“I wasn’t that bad,” the Doctor said, beaming. He groped in his pocket and pulled out a shabby old notepad. “I don’t suppose I could bother you for an autograph, could I? For old time’s sake?”

A crash in the street outside made Sarah Jane whip around. She ran to the window, peering out.

“Doctor, we don’t have time for your fanclub!” she called back. “They’re starting to break in to some of the other buildings!”

“Nonsense.” The Doctor looked like a child on Christmas morning as the Genus Angelicus man scribbled something into his notebook. He was almost as red as his hair, his grin nearly as stupid as the Doctor’s. “Everyone has a moment for a fanclub.”

The pale-haired man hurried over to Sarah Jane’s side. “How many are there, do you know?”

“An army, apparently,” she replied. “Can you…” She tried to mimic his flicky hand gesture. “You know. Make them… go away?”

His lips twitched. “Possibly not so many in one go,” he said, though his brow furrowed. “Though your friend’s little device…” Another quick gesture and the screwdriver was back in his hand. He turned it over, peering at it. “I say!” He turned. “Young man!”

The Doctor turned his doting gaze from Crowley. “Hm?”

“You used this to tap into my psychic energy, correct?”

“Well, yes.” The Doctor gave Crowley an apologetic look then bobbed over to join the other man and Sarah Jane at the window. “It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of space travel.”

The man’s face lit up in a smile that made Sarah Jane stare. Whatever he was, he was almost glowing. “Do you think,” he said eagerly, “you could use it to… amplify it?”

“Amplify?” Sarah Jane echoed, then grinned. “You mean to make a mega….” She flapped her hand wildly and the man laughed.

“Yes! Precisely! With enough range and amplification, I expect I would be able to either disable them or dispatch them entirely!”

The Doctor gave Sarah Jane a nudge. “Didn’t I tell you this was a marvellous little place?”

She made a face at him. “You can be smug about it later. Right now, we need to save the world.”

He chuckled. “Quite so, quite so.” He turned his attention to the bookshop owner. “Mr. Fell, I presume?”

“If we are to work together in a professional capacity,” the man said with a flash of that bright, dazzling little smile. “You ought to call me Aziraphale.”

“I’m the Doctor.” The Doctor grinned, offering his hand, which the Genus Angelicus shook at once. “A pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Likewise.” Aziraphale stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest.

The same static power surged around them and Sarah Jane staggered back as a sudden gust of air swept over her. “Wings!” she yelped, pointing. “He’s got wings!”

“Of course he does, my dear girl,” the Doctor said, laughing. “He is an angel, after all.”

Sarah Jane gaped at him. “No! A real actual proper angel? Like in the churches?”

“Yes. But as you said, no time for the fanclub now.” The Doctor held up his screwdriver. “Shall we save the world?”

Aziraphale’s smile blazed like sunlight. “I think we shall.”

Chapter Text

“If we–”

“Damn, girl!” Alec yelped. “Tell me when you’re back in the room!”

Parker stared at him from the seat beside him. “I was sitting here for, like, ten minutes. You were staring at your screen. Sophie keeps telling me it’s rude to interrupt people when they’re doing something, so I didn’t.”

He gave her a look. “Maybe put a bell on or something? I like to know when someone’s coming.”

She made a face at him. “In case you’re looking at porn?”

“No!” He glared at her indignantly and she raised her eyebrows. “Okay, sometimes, yes but not all the time. Like right now, I didn’t want to crap my pants, but look what you made me do.”

She grinned. “I could really make you crap your pants some time,” she said.

“No. NO!” He pointed a finger in front of her nose. “No creeping on me, you got that? Not in here, not in the shower, definitely not in my bed.”

She rolled her eyes and – he noticed with concern – didn’t agree to it. Instead she hugged her knees and demanded, “If we’re going to go to England for this job, can you find my angel?”

Alec frowned. “Your what now?”

“My angel.” She beamed at him. “You’re good at finding people, right?”

“People, yeah…” He rubbed his chin, trying to find a way to ask the question so it didn’t sound crazy. “What do you mean ‘angel’?”

“My angel,” she said again. “He watches out for me when I’m on tricky jobs. I don’t know much about him, but I know he’s from England and he likes books.”

“On tricky…” Alec rubbed his forehead, then held up his hands. “Can you back it up for a second? Is this a guy? I mean, I know you don’t believe in the big G and Heaven and all that, so it can’t be any kind of–”

“No, he’s an angel,” Parker said with a shrug. “He showed up any time I had a big job, like magic.” Her eyes lit up. “One time, I got him a book to say thank you. He got all… you know how Sophie gets when she’s trying not to act like she’s gonna cry? He did that. Only with more face-twitching.”

“So he’s like your sponsor?”

Parker frowned, rocking back in her chair. “More like a good luck angel? Any time he shows up, everything goes smooth, even on the trickiest entries and hardest locks and things.”

“And he doesn’t pay you? Or give you intel or anything?” Alec stared at her, confused. “He just… shows up? Does nothing? Leaves?”

She nodded, a grin flashing across her face. “I figured I could show up and surprise him. I found a great book I think he’d like.”

Well, all things considered, that made about much sense as anything Parker did. “Okay, I guess,” he said, shrugging. “This mystery angel got a name or anything I can use?”

“He called himself Mr. Fell,” Parker said at once. “He took me out for coffee after I gave him the book.” She sighed fondly. “He bought me three muffins. One of them was double-chocolate.”

“Mr. Fell. English. Likes books.” He made a face at her. “Not much to go on. You do know England is a whole country, right? And we’re only going to London?”

“You’ll be able to find him,” she said with so much certainty he woulda blushed.

Still, first place to start was always old reliable google, but it wasn’t as if… “Huh.”

“Huh? You found him already?”

Alec stared at the screen. “If it’s your man, I think I did.”

“Angel,” she corrected.

“Angel, yeah, whatever.” He turned his laptop screen towards her. “Did he say anything about owning a book store?”

 

_____________________________

 

“You sure this is it?” Eliot had come along for the ride. Alec was pretty sure they were both as curious as each other about Parker’s ‘angel’. “It looks like it’s been closed since Victorian times.”

The book store was… old. Not just old-fashioned, but actual, legit old. They had those bubbly windows and books with leather around them and even a layer of dust so thick you could write in it. The sign was hand-painted and everything. It even had pillars.

“Only Mr. Fell I could find with books,” Alec replied. “No idea if it’s our ma– angel.”

“I bet it’s him.” Parker ran across the street without looking and Alec groaned, running after her to pull her back before she got herself smushed by a car coming the wrong way. She beamed up at him. “It’s okay! Nothing bad can happen to me here.”

“Nothing bad–” He stared at her and she grinned and wriggled out of his grip. “Parker. Parker!” He bolted after her. “We don’t even know if this is the right guy! And even if it is, it’s not like he’s got some special oogie-boogie magic to stop you getting flattened by a car!”

She spun on the doorstep of the store. “You don’t know that.”

“Uh, yeah… I’m – uh – yeah, I’m pretty sure, I do.” He shot an imploring look back at Eliot, who rolled his eyes and followed. “What with magic… you know… not being real.”

Parker made a face at him, then turned the handle and opened the door. A bell jangled above her as she went in and she looked up, delighted. “Look, Hardison! You should get one of them for your room. That way, I don’t have to wear one!”

“You actually said it?” Eliot muttered, sounding way too amused. “Man, at least I only think it.”

“Shut up,” Alec grumbled, as they followed Parker into the store.

Parker spun in the middle of the floor, an awed look on her face. “This has to be the right place,” she said. “Look at it! It’s like a wizard’s house or something!” She whipped around at a sound from the back. “Hey! Mr. Fell! Are you in here?”

Alec moved a little closer to her at the sound of footsteps, in case it was the wrong Mr. Fell and this one was some old-school English weirdo.

“Parker?” The man who appeared at the back of the shop stopped short. He looked like one of the dudes from Downton Abbey, all fancy pants and bowtie and shit.

And then he smiled and it was like Alec forgot everything except the smell of Nana’s cooking and the way it felt to crack a code no one else had cracked before. He shook himself and glanced at Eliot, who was staring just as hard.

“Good Heavens, my dear!” The man – angel – guy – said. “Hello!”

“Mr. Fell!” Parker launched herself at him. “Hey!”

For a guy who looked like he was in his fifties, he swung her off her feet, laughing in delight. She shrieked like a kid on a playground and God, Alec loved seeing her so happy. So did the guy, who – or what – ever he was.

“This is most unexpected, my dear girl,” Mr. Fell said, setting her back down gently. “What on earth are you doing here?”

She beamed at him. “We’re in England to work,” she said happily, then waved urgently at Alec. He took a cautious step closer, swinging his backpack down off of his shoulder. “I got something for you, to say thank you for all your help.”

Mr. Fell looked at Alec and Alec fumbled with the backpack.

“Uh. Hi. I’m– we’re Parker’s friends.”

“Ah,” Mr. Fell’s whole face creased up with happy lines when he smiled. “The infamous Hardison. Our young friend has told me all about you.”

“Uh… she has?”

“Oh yes.” The man glanced over at Eliot. “And I presume you’re Mr. Spencer?”

Eliot nodded. “She told you… a lot about us?”

“Duh.” Parker nudged Alec sharply. “Give me it!”

“It?”

She gave him a look. “The p.r.e.s.e.n.t!”

“Pretty sure our man can read, Parker,” Eliot put in as Alec hastily dug out the bundle from the backpack. Parker had picked out the wrapping paper and he just knew he was gonna be finding glitter in places for weeks.

“Not the point,” she said, happily thrusting out the parcel at the man. “I saw it and I thought of you.”

Mr. Fell looked like she’d brained him with a rock, eyes wide. “My dear, you know this isn’t necessary.”

Parker gave a happy shrug. “Don’t know about necessary. Thought you might like it.” She frowned suddenly, looking around. “I don’t think you have it. It’s pretty rare.”

Mr. Fell opened up the paper – somehow not getting any glitter on his hands, Alec noticed with a whole lot of jealousy – and his eyes widened. “Parker…” His voice was unsteady and suddenly Alec could see what she meant about the guy doing a Sophie when she was trying to act like she wasn’t all emotional. His face was all twitchy and his lip trembled. “Oh, my dear, this is too generous.”

“Not really,” she said, skipping to his side to look down at it with him. “It’s not like I paid for it or anything.”

“Geez, Parker…” Eliot groaned.

“He knows,” Parker retorted, wrinkling her nose. She gave Mr. Fell a broad grin. “The guy who had it didn’t care. He bought it to show he could, then locked it in a box in a safe and no one even looked at it anymore. Oh, and he was a dumbass who trafficked kids, so I figured you’d like that too.”

To Alec, Mr. Fell looked like he was trying to keep from smiling as he opened up the – god damn! Were those diamonds encrusted on the cover? – book.

“In that case,” Fell said, “I am very grateful.” He gave Parker such a warm, soft smile that Alec had that weird feeling of the best Christmas and his first score and a perfect slice of pumpkin pie, still warm. “Thank you very much, you darling girl.” He looked around at them all. “You must stay for tea. Do you have time?”

“We can spare a while,” Eliot said. He’d even unfolded his arms, which was Eliot-speak for ‘it’s all good here’.

“Wonderful!” Mr. Fell was all bright and glowy and Alec could totally see what Parker meant. If anyone was an angel, they would be like that: someone who made you feel happy and safe and warm and right. Hell, if it was even affecting Eliot, maybe the dude was a real angel after all. “Come through, my dears! Take a seat! I’ll put the kettle on at once!”

As soon as they were all sitting on the couch in the back, Mr. Fell hurried through to the next room.

“Parker,” Eliot leaned across Alec. “Who is this guy?”

“I told you,” she said happily, balancing on the arm of the couch. “He’s my angel.”

“People like us don’t get angels.”

“And anyway, he’s just a guy,” Alec added.

She grinned at them both. “We’re good guys now. Maybe we do?”

Back through in the main part of the store, the bell jangled again.

“Mr. Fell! Someone just came in!” Parker called through.

“Oh, that’s fine,” Mr. Fell appeared back in the doorway with a tray and legit tea set like something from Alice in Wonderland. He put it down on the table, bending to arrange teacups onto saucers. “I was expecting him.” He looked up with a smile. “Ah, Crowley.”

Alec didn’t have time to turn his head, before he heard some other guy swearing.

“No. No no no no no no…” A red-haired guy all in black and wearing shades was backing up towards the door. “What the Heaven is she doing here!?!”

Mr. Fell straightened up. “Don’t overreact, dear boy!” he said, holding up his hands. “Miss Parker is purely here on a social call.”

Eliot’s voice was close to Alec’s ear. “Do we… know him?”

“I remember you!” Parker grinned. “You’re my old angel!”

“Ah! No! No, very much not that!” The red-haired man edged around her like she was a bomb that was going to go off, even squeezing his way behind Mr. Fell. Man looked like he was about to climb up Mr. Fell like Parker was a spider and he was arachnophobic. “Aziraphale, for Heaven’s sake!”

Mr. Fell gave him an impatient, but fond look. Alec knew that kind of look. It had to be an English thing. Sophie used it on Nate all the damn time. “Crowley, our young friend came to bring me a gift, nothing more. There will be no… shenanigans. Stop acting like a child.”

Crowley – if that was his name – unfolded from behind him and straightened up as if he hadn’t just hid like a lil girl behind Mr. Fell. “Right. Fine.” He looked their way and even from behind his shades, Alec could tell the guy was staring. “Well, well. Mr. Hardison.” One side of his mouth turned up. “Long time no see.”

Alec frowned. “I don’t think I ever met you, man.”

“Not met,” Crowley agreed, then pulled down his glasses.

“Whoa!” Alec was behind Parker as quick as Crowley had been behind Mr. Fell. Even Eliot was sitting up straighter, wary. Crowley’s eyes weren’t even human. “Dude! What the hell?”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” Mr. Fell said impatiently. “Crowley, stop scaring them.” He gave them an apologetic smile. “Ignore him. He’s a silly old thing sometimes.” He gave the other man a look that was totally Sophie at Nate. “He’ll behave or he can go back to being Miss Parker’s angel.”

Crowley swung around to stare at him, shock all over his face. “Oh, you bastard.”

Mr. Fell smiled at him. “Quite. Now, are you going to behave?”

Crowley shoved his shades back on and Alec breathed out. It seemed better already, not being able to see them. “So… is it just the eyes that are all snakey or…?”

Crowley tilted his head in a way that no human could do. At least not without Eliot gripping their skull and twisting real hard. “Do you really want to know?”

Did he? If there were snake-men, then maybe there were angels, and then maybe there were worse and bigger and way more scary things that he totally didn’t really want to think about at all. It was way too much to unpack in a stranger’s book store.

“No, no, I think we good,” he said, inching back around the couch to sit back down. He held up his hands. “We good, man. Just here for the tea and cookies. That’s all.”

“Good call,” Crowley said, then he grinned.

Eliot leaned forward. “Just so we’re clear,” he said, “when Parker here said you were her angel…?”

Crowley made a face. “Call me her bad influence. But I wasn’t the one who made her go jumping off buildings or anything daft like that.” He shuddered. “D’you have any idea what it’s like to see someone you’re talking to throw themselves off a building?”

Alec and Eliot exchanged glances.

“Lemme ask you this,” Alec said, looking Crowley dead in the eye, “you ever the person being thrown?”

Crowley’s face twisted up in horror. “Oh fuck no. She didn’t, did she?”

“Mm hm.” Alec nodded. “First time we worked together. Threw me right off of the roof.”

“On a harness that was totally safe,” Parker said, leaning down to steal a cookie off the plate on the table.

“You see? He was perfectly safe all the time.” Mr. Fell said, sitting down on his seat and propping his arm on the other man’s thigh. “She’s not that bad at all.”

Alec glanced at Eliot, then at Crowley, all of them sharing the clear thought that Mr. Fell was a sweet guy, but didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

Chapter Text

The shop looked exactly the same, which wouldn’t have been remarkable if it wasn’t in the middle of Soho. The shops and businesses around it had changed dramatically since a certain night in the early 70s. Considerably fewer neon lights for one thing.

Rupert stared at it.

For a long time, he had determinedly pushed every thought of the place to the back of his mind.

It wasn’t a… good memory, not when it had kept him awake for almost three months afterwards.

He had hoped that it would be gone by now. A final nail in the coffin of the folly of youth. And yet, there it was, exactly the same as it had been twenty-odd years ago. A last reminder of how much he had grown and changed in the decades since.

Strange, he thought, that it was more alarming to approach a little book shop than to think about the fact he was about to fly out to his new posting on a very literal mouth of Hell.

Well, if one couldn’t face one’s own demons, how was one meant to be a Watcher. He took a deep breath and released it, then walked up to the door and turned the handle. To his surprise, it opened as once, something that – according to urban legend – never happened. The shop had always been infamously difficult to access.

It was still the same, a faint musty scent of dust and paper, the cluttered shelves stacked thick with books so old that the lettering on their spines was barely visible, and the same table in the centre of the room, topped with a statue of Eros. Or, he thought warily, another kind of cherub entirely.

And yet, by the light of day it somehow felt a great deal more welcoming.

“May I help you?”

That voice.

The same voice.

His hand tightened convulsively on the door handle. He hadn’t even realised he was still holding it until the metal pressed into his palm.

On the far side of the room, the man was standing there. The same face. The same man. The–

Oh Christ.

The man studied him, then his face broke into a smile. “Oh, hello again! Don’t be afraid!”

It should have, Giles thought, resonated and echoed off the walls. It didn’t. But it felt like it should’ve. It should have been carved on tablets of stone, etched in fire.

“Good afternoon,” he forced out through lips that were trembling. But he hadn’t been chased out yet and the man was smiling this time. Not that smile, the one that came with thousands of glowing, staring eyes, but a Nice, Normal, Human smile. Human-ish, at least. “I wanted to–”

To what? Confront metaphorical demons in the form of a literal angel?

“Apologise,” he finished, feeling rather useless. The man’s expression brightened and he took that as encouragement to continue. “I shouldn’t have broken into your shop. It was… inconsiderate of me.”

“Quite so, quite so,” the man said amiably. “But I think you’ve learned your lesson, haven’t you, Mr. Giles?”

“Several,” Giles had to admit with a crooked smile. The terror was ebbing, although the warning bell was still clattering away at the back of his mind. He hesitated, then asked, “Would you mind if I came in?"

The man laughed, beckoning. “Of course not, my dear chap.” He unclasped his plump, deceptively soft-looking hands. “Would you like a cup of tea? I think you have some questions, don’t you?”

And that was how Rupert Giles found himself sitting in the back room of a bookshop in Soho that was apparently owned and managed by an angel masquerading as a fussy little human. The contrast with his previous encounter with the… well… technically, a man was stark.

He made a pot of tea and brought out a matching pair of cups and saucers, then took great pains to serve, adding sugar lumps and milk and beaming warmly when Giles accepted the cup.

“So,” he said, plumping himself down on the broad chair at his desk. “Ask away, my boy.”

Giles held the cup and saucer carefully, trying to limit the tremor in his hand. “You are an angel,” he said, “aren’t you?”

The man – the angel – chuckled, folding his hands over his soft belly. “Well, I’m glad the Watcher training has made an impact.” He nodded. “Yes. I am, in fact, an angel. I thought the eyes might have given it away a tad last time.”

It had. They had. Giles had seen them in his nightmares for weeks, in the shadows on the walls, on the back of his eyelids, wide, silver, staring, judging, utterly inescapable.

“You know,” the angel said, leaning forward to drop a sugar lump in his own cup, “I’m afraid I went a little overboard.” He gave Giles a small, self-conscious smile. “One sometimes finds it very difficult to drive off persistent magic users. I do apologise for any alarm caused.” He glanced down the back up. “How’s the tea?”

Giles took a hasty drink. “Very good. Thank you.” He set the cup – rattling – down on the saucer again. “Why Soho?”

The angel sipped his own tea. “Why not?”

It made no sense, but no use in pressing the matter.

Finally, he asked the worrying, niggling, monstrous thought that had been sitting at the back of his mind since that night. “Are you a… good angel or…”

“Or?” The angel prompted, smiling slightly.

“Fallen?”

The angel’s smile remained, but eyes were utterly impassive. “What do you think, young man?”

He wasn’t blinking and those pale blue… or were they silver? Or some other colour? Those eyes were reminding him of the eyes in his nightmares, somehow scouring deep into his soul and his conscience. A man could go mad, trying to outstare those timeless, ageless, emotionless eyes.

“I think,” he said, looking down at his cup, “I’m going to finish my tea.”

“Very wise.”

For several minutes, they sat in a silence only broken by the tap of china on china.

The angel was the one to speak. “I hear you are off to the Hellmouth.”

Who had told him, Giles wondered, and why?

“Yes,” was all he said in reply.

The angel nodded. “I’m sure you’ll do very well, Mr. Giles.”

It was oddly comforting, in its own way.

“Thank you.” He drained his cup, set it down in the saucer and the saucer down on the table. “If you will excuse me.”

The angel rose at once, setting down his own cup. “Of course. Let me see you out.”

The hair on the back of Rupert’s neck prickled up with the angel walking right behind him. He remembered running for the door, fumbling and grabbing and screaming soundlessly. The creature behind him had rendered him in that state. And now, it – he – was walking behind Giles, playing the perfect host. It felt like a trap.

When the door opened under his hand and the bell above it rang and he caught the scent of petrol fumes and the pub across the road, relief flooded him.

“It was very brave of you to come here.”

He turned to look at the angel. “I beg your pardon.”

The angel had his hands clasped before him again. “You came here, despite your fear,” he explained. “It takes a very brave person to stand one’s ground against the thing that scares him the most.” He nodded approvingly. “I think you’ll do marvellous things in America.”

“I hope so,” Rupert said, forcing a smile of his own.

The angel offered a hand. “Good fortune, Mr. Giles,” he said, and when Rupert – after a painfully long moment of hesitation – clasped his offered hand, the angel smiled, and it was as if all the world was set to rights. “Go out and make the world a better place, my dear.”

Rupert nodded and, in that moment, it felt like he truly could.

Chapter Text

“Why do aliens like earth so much?”

The Doctor leaned around the corner of the building, then ducked back. “What makes you think we do?”

Donna gave him The Look. It was a Noble tradition, that. She’d learned it from her mum and her mum had learned it from her Nan. “Pretty much everything that keeps on happening?”

He flashed a grin. “Must be you lot. So likeable.”

“And by likeable, you mean ‘scream a lot’ and ‘blow up really well’?” she suggested. A crash from the street made her wince. “We’re going back out there, aren’t we?”

He had that daft look in his eye, the one that said I’m a mad genius, but at least I’m fun! “Oh, yes!” He grabbed her by the hand. “Don’t let go!” was all the warning she got and then he legged it around the corner, hauling her after him.

Didn’t matter how many times she gave him a good hard kick about it – usually too out of breath to say much of anything after – but the silly sod always forgot his legs were about a mile longer than hers, so a jog for him turned her into Kris bloody Akabusi.

This time around, at least they were in London. Bit in the future, he’d said. Not far. They’d have to be careful not to run into their past selves. Or hers at least. He wasn’t sure about his. Mind you, he didn’t seem to know what day of the week it was, half the time.

“Hang on!” He stopped so suddenly that she ran right into the back of him. “This is Soho, isn’t it?”

Donna glanced around. Rainbow flags all over the place. Couple of theatres about. Chinatown down the road. “Looks like it.”

“Right…” He turned this way and that, then took out his screwdriver, waving it in the air. It buzzed and he laughed. “Brilliant! This way!”

And they were off again, and Christ, she really needed to get a better pair of trainers. He was as good as a personal trainer, him, only you didn’t pay him and he never bothered to stop and check you weren’t having a bleeding heart attack as long as you were both still alive.

“Where we going?” she managed to puff out when he shoved her into a shop doorway as a ship screamed overhead.

“I know somewhere we can duck and cover until we sort out a plan,” he replied, peering cautiously out of the doorway. “It’s probably changed hands by now, but it’s one of the sturdiest buildings I’ve seen in this part of the city.”

“Been here before, eh?”

“Oh, loads,” he said, grinning. “We just like earth that much.”

Another two blocks up and one across took almost ten minutes of ducking and diving. There were people everywhere, running and yelling and pointing their phones at the sky.

“They need to run!” she panted, trailing after him. “Why aren’t they running?”

“Curiosity,” Doctor called back over his shoulder. “Marvellous thing.”

“Ha! I’d never be that stupid.”

The Doctor very, very deliberately didn’t say anything, but it wasn’t silence. It was the very, very pointed saying of nothing, because he really didn’t have to say it and she could see he was grinning even with his back to her.

“Oh, shut up, spaceboy!”

Another block and they turned a corner and she ran right into the back of him.

“What?”

“It’s still–” He looked shocked and that was always a bit worrying. He was staring at the shop on the corner across the road, which looked far too old-fashioned and tatty compared to all the cafés and shops around it. “It’s exactly the same.”

Engines howled overhead and she grabbed his arm, bundling him forward. “Yeah, and still as sturdy I’ll bet!” She rattled the handle of the door. It swung in, ringing the bell over the door, and she hauled him in after her, slamming the door shut behind them. The bell jangled again and she let him go, looking around.

It was a book shop.

Well, technically, it was a book shop, but what it looked like was as if a library had exploded all over a fancy Victorian room. There were books everywhere, all shapes and sizes and colours and everything. Most of them were old, leather-bound, and almost all of them were covered in dust. It was like the exploded bookshop time forgot.

“You said you’ve been here before, Doctor,” she said, turning back to him.

His dark eyes were darting around the room. “Yeaaaaah…” He reached for the door handle. “Probably best we find somewhere else. Looks like no one’s about and we–”

“Oh good gracious!”

Donna spun around. A man with a mop of fluffy-white hair was standing on the other side of the shop, one hand on his chest. He looked as shocked as the Doctor had outside.

“Crowley?” The man said, approaching.

“Ah…” The Doctor gave him a very awkward waggle of his fingers. He looked like Nicky Bevan when she got caught sneaking a bottle of shandy into school one day. All smiling and awkward like he hadn’t done anything wrong. “No. Not–”

White-hair’s eyes got even bigger. “Oh Lord!” His face lit up in a grin. “Oh, good Heavens! Doctor! You’ve regenerated! You look–”

“Don’t!” The Doctor winced.

“But you–”

“Yeah!” The Doctor held up his hands. “But right now we have another invasion going on and I really, really don’t have the time to get into the details and–”

The man nodded at once, beaming. “Do you need a little… enhancement again?”

“What’s he on about?” Donna muttered from the corner of her mouth.

“Probably wouldn’t hurt,” the Doctor said with a weak smile, then leaned towards her. “He’s got a certain kind of power. Very useful in a fight.”

Donna stared at the man. He looked like one of the older teachers from when she went to college, all prim and proper, with a nice suit and a bowtie and a little pair of specs on his nose. “Him? Power?”

“Don’t judge by appearances, my dear,” the man said sternly and she got a flash of Graham Norton if he was a middle-aged Professor. “What are we dealing with this time? The Cyber-creatures from 1984? Or those dreadful mechanical things with the baubles and plungers from 1943?”

“Something different,” the Doctor said. “Have you heard of the Sontarans? Actually… wait… did you say 1943? What happened–”

“Hold up,” Donna interrupted, “You were around 1943? How old are you?”

The man gave her a small smile. “Older than your young friend here.” Young friend, Donna thought. He glanced back at the Doctor. “Sontarans ought to be our first concern, I think. Those potato-like fellows in suits of armour, correct?”

“A few rogue ones trying to take earth.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” the man sighed. “Again?” He glanced towards the back of the shop. “I really ought to call Crowley. He has something of… I think the young people call it ‘a beef’ with them. He’d be very offended if–”

“Probably best if you don’t,” the Doctor interrupted. He’d gone red. He’d actually gone red.

“I must insist,” the man said firmly, trotting away into the back of the shop.

Donna nudged the Doctor who looked like he wanted the floor to open up and swallow him. “D’you know this Crowley?”

“Mm. Met him. Once. A while back.”

“Didn’t get on?” she guessed.

“Not… exactly…” He peered out through the glass of the door, then sighed with relief. The explosions had stopped and the people were milling in the streets, no longer filming the sky. “At least they’re predictable. They’ve got a code. They’re looking for a fixed target–”

“Us,” she put in.

“Which means they should leave the civilians alone for now.” He moved to one of the side windows, peering out. “They’ll be on the ground now. Probably coming this–”

“Way?” A new voice spoke from behind them. “Good. I owe them an arse-kicking for the middle-ages.”

Donna glanced back. Then turned all the way around, staring. “Oh. My God.”

A tall, lanky man was standing in the doorway beside the white-haired one. He was all dressed in black with bright red hair and sunglasses, but none of that mattered, because…

“S’that your dad?” she demanded, nudging the Doctor. “Is it?”

“His… dad?” The man looked just like the Doctor, if the Doctor was a bit older, in the middle of a midlife crisis and dressing like Mick Jagger. He tilted his head. “The Doctor?” A grin spread across his face. “Aziraphale said you’d regenerated. Go on. Let’s have a look.”

The Doctor was as red as the new bloke’s hair when he turned around. He looked more like a kid who’d widdled himself in class than a time-travelling alien. “Ah…”

The man’s mouth opened then shut. He frowned, eyebrows pulling down, and whipped off his sunglasses. When you’re being chased by potatoes in armour, a bloke with yellow snake eyes isn’t that shocking. But once they were off…

“Blimey,” Donna said, staring, “you don’t half like him, do you?”

The Doctor self-consciously fiddled with his tie. “It’s… a subconscious thing,” he said. “It’s not as if we can control it all.” He waved a hand back towards the door. “Not the important thing right now, either! Sontarans! Whole squad of them! After us!”

The red-haired not-Doctor grinned and he had too many teeth and they were all long and sharp.

“Not quite,” he said, walking – or whatever the hell it was his legs were trying to do – across the room. “They go way back, the spuds and I. Sounds like it might be a case of mistaken identity.” He slipped his jacket off and tossed it back across the room to the white-haired man before he opened the door. “Put the kettle on, angel. I’ll be back in five minutes.”

“You’re sure you don’t need a hand, dear?”

The man grinned and his mouth kept getting wider and wider and–

“SNAKE!” Donna shrieked, diving behind the Doctor, clambering halfway up him. “SNAKE!”

“Yeah, I see that!” The Doctor flapped his hands, pushing her back. “Full transpecies expanding metamorphosis! That… that’s fantastic…”

The bloody big snake on the floor winked one golden eye, then wiggled out into the street. Donna stared out after him.

“He just turned into a snake.”

“Should we… help?” The Doctor asked.

“He just turned into a snake.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’ll be necessary, dear chap,” the other man – Aziraphale – said cheerfully. “He’s been wanting to get back at them since 1432.” He bowed a little bit and gestured to the back room of the shop. “Tea?”

“Doctor!” Donna grabbed the Doctor’s arm, shaking it. “He turned into a snake.”

He gave her a look that said he clearly didn’t see what the problem was. “Yeah?”

“That’s… not a big deal?”

The Doctor screwed up his face. “Nah. Scale of one to ten, I’ve seen stranger.”

“Yeah,” she retorted. “Like the fact you’re wearing the snake-man’s face!”

“Hey!”

“She does make a fair point,” the white-haired man said. He sounded like he was trying very hard not to laugh.

Donna eyed him. “You’re not gonna turn into a snake or anything as well?”

“Not at all,” he said. “I like this shape too well to change it. I’ve had it more than six thousand years now.”

She gawped at him. “Well… you look good for your age…”

He smiled and it was like someone turned on a light. “Why, thank you, Miss Noble. Right this way, if you don’t mind.”

He trotted off through into the back of the shop and she glanced at the Doctor. “How’d he know my name?”

The Doctor scratched the back of his neck. “Um… did you ever go to Sunday School?”

“Yeah. When I was like six.”

“Did you ever hear about the Garden of Eden?”

She nodded. “Pair of nudists went scrumping and got kicked out a garden, right?”

The Doctor nodded. “Loosely, yeah.” He jerked his head in the direction of the back shop. “He was there. One of the guards after they got kicked out.” He straightened his jacket and headed off after the white-haired man.

“WHAT!?!” She dashed after him, grabbing his arm again. “What do you mean he was there? Is he like… what? An angel or something?”

“Quite so,” the man said, beaming at her as they came into the back of the shop that was just as messy and stacked with books as the front. He was clearing a small coffee table and had laid out a plate of biscuits. “Not what you expected?”

She gave him a good, hard stare. Technically, if you tilted your head and squinted a bit, he did look kind of like the chubby cherubs they plastered all over Christmas cards and churches. Bigger, but if he was a guard – or guardian? – angel, that was fair enough.

“D’you have wings?”

The Doctor groaned. “You can’t just ask if an angel has wings, Donna!”

“Why?” She shot him a suspicious look. “Is it like a…” She waved vaguely to the front of her trousers. “I mean, I know some people get tetchy if you ask about their downstairs. Are angels wings like that?”

The angel looked like he really wanted to laugh. His eyes were twinkling. “Don’t worry, it’s hardly offensive,” he said, motioning for them to sit on the couch. “I do have wings, but they take up rather a lot of space and I kept knocking books off the shelves. It’s far easier this way.”

She plopped herself down on the couch and turned her attention to the Doctor. “Doesn’t explain why you’re wearing his mate’s face.”

“He made an impression, all right?” The Doctor said, slouching down beside her, all arms and legs. “Sometimes, stuff gets stuck in your brain and shows up when you least expect it. I mean, look at humans and that dreaming stuff you do.”

“Yeah, but my dream doesn’t show up on my face,” she pointed out.

“Time Lords are rather different,” the angel said, setting down a tray with four China teacups and matching saucers. “And I imagine Crowley is tremendously flattered that you remembered him so fondly.”

“Shame you missed the hair,” Donna said with a grin. “Is that why you picked me up, then, spaceboy? Didn’t get the ginger you wanted, so you picked up the first one that came along?”

The Doctor grinned crookedly. “First thing I checked, to be honest,” he admitted, reaching up and fluffing his hair.

The angel smiled, pouring them tea – and doing it exactly the way Donna liked it, right down to the right amount of sugar and milk and perfect shade of brown – before sitting down on an armchair on the other side of the table. “He gets so little positive feedback, I imagine this will delight him for weeks to come.”

“Little positive feedback?” The Doctor sat up indignantly. “He can do a transpecies expanding metamorphosis and he had a hand in building a bunch of star systems! Why on earth wouldn’t he get positive feedback?”

“Because he turns into a giant snake?” Donna said. “I mean, don’t know about most humans, but that’s definitely not a positive thing.”

“I think the fact he’s a demon factors rather largely, I’m afraid,” the angel said with a sigh.

“…demon. Right.” Donna picked up her cup and saucer. “And you’re an angel. You know you’re not meant to be friends, right?”

“Mm.” The angel smiled. “So we have been made aware, once or twice.”

She sipped the tea. It was perfect. Best cup of tea she’d ever had. From an angel. Angelic tea. And they were waiting for a great big snake who was a demon who–

Donna frowned. “Wait, what do you mean he built stars?”

“He did,” the Doctor had that stupid, giddy look on his face again. “It was brilliant.”

“Ah.” It all made sense. Especially why the Doctor would get so excited about someone like that that he’d use their face as a model for his own. “Took excited fanboy to the extreme there, didn’t you, Doctor? I heard of a woman who got made to look like Barbie but you did it all by yourself.”

He pulled a face at her. “Shaddup!”

The angel was giggling into his cup. “It does rather suit you,” he said, eyes dancing. “Though I must admit I do miss the scarf. It was very impressive.” The bell jangled in the front of the shop and the angel turned his smile towards the doorway. “That was fast work, my dear.”

The demon – back in two-leg-two-arm mode – sauntered in like he owned the place. “Settled a couple of old scores,” he said cheerfully. He sat down on the arm of the couch by the Doctor, peering down at him. “Is that really what I look like?”

The Doctor went very red for an alien.

“Bit less pink,” Donna said, “and more ginger. Little bit older as well.”

The demon shook his head. “That’s… weird, seeing my own face from the outside again.”

The angel cleared his throat. “The Doctor believes it’s because you made such a strong impression on him,” he said with a wicked look in his eyes. “He was such an avid admirer of your great works, after all.”

“Ngk!”

Donna looked between mortified Doctor and suddenly-blushing demon and grinned. “Now, you look the same.”

Across the table, the angel sipped demurely at his tea, but when she glanced at him, he shot her a mischievous wink and she couldn’t help feeling he was enjoying himself.  And, looking back at the immortal alien and demon blushing like embarrassed kids, she had to say she was as well.

Chapter Text

The rain was pissing down and Simon wished for the hundredth time that he’d taken the bigger and better coat when he stormed out the door. But when you’re running away from home, properly running, your brain doesn’t stop and think about stuff like the fact it’s November and it’s freeze-your-bollocks-off weather.

He stamped his feet and rubbed his hands together, blowing on them to warm them up. The doorway he was hiding in gave him a bit of shelter but not much.

He’d almost managed to scrounge up enough money for another night in the hostel, but he’d used up most of his savings getting as far as London and the rest had trickled away far too quick. It was the city. It wasn’t like… not like where he’d come from.

It was useless going out in the rain. No one gave anyone a second look in the rain, especially not some stupid kid who didn’t try and do some basic maths and packing before leaving home.

Only good thing was the rainbow flag he could see on the pub across the way. He went in there when he could, when it was open. They knew he was too young and they’d never give him any booze, but the way some of them looked at him said they knew his story and they’d let him sit in there for a while, as long as he didn’t cause trouble.

Movement down the street caught his eye and he recognised uniforms.

It wasn’t like he was really trouble, but there was that one time he got caught trying to nick a sandwich from corner shop. Always felt a bit safer to avoid them, so he hunched up his shoulders and hurried back out into the rain. Didn’t even have a hood, just a woolly hat, and the water dripped down the back of his neck. Not just rain either. Sleet now.

He was shivering, the cold right down to his bones, when he saw a shop open up ahead. The lights were on and it looked bright and clean and – best of all – warm. Five minutes inside. That’s all he needed. Just a little break from the cold and the wet.

He stumbled in through the door and jumped when a bell rang over his head. Old-fashioned, that. Hadn’t seen something like that in a shop for ages. And then he noticed the rest of the shop was pretty much the same. It was like stepping back in time, all fancy pillars and lamps and books as far as he could see.

And a pale-haired middle-aged man in an old-fashioned suit and bowtie staring at him in surprise.

“Can I help you, young man?”

Simon stared back at him. Shit. Most shops, there was no one really paying that much attention. “Um. Just looking,” he lied, then glanced around desperately. “Book. I’m looking for a book. I’m–”

The man moved a little closer. “Oh my dear boy, you’re soaked,” he said gently. He hurried to Simon’s side and took his arm so gently, so kindly, that Simon almost burst into tears there and then. “Come in. I’ll put the kettle on. You look like you could use a warm drink.”

There was no almost this time.

That was how he ended up sitting on a sofa in the backroom of a bookshop in Soho, wrapped in a thick tartan blanket, a cup of tea clasped between his hands. His host was bustling about through a doorway. He’d hung Simon’s coat up to dry and when he came back through, he was carrying a plate stacked with sandwiches.

“Here you go,” he said warmly, setting the plate down in front of Simon. “That should help.”

Simon only remembered to mumble a thank you halfway through the second sandwich, his stomach aching in gratitude. His host waved his words away with a small smile and sat down in an armchair beside the desk. He picked up his own cup of tea and sipped it, watching Simon curiously.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said, when Simon was licking the butter from his fingers. “You seem awfully young to be running around the streets on your own.”

Simon put his plate down and settled for staring into his cup. “So?”

“Only an observation, my dear boy,” the man said gently. “Do you have somewhere to stay?”

It was humiliating to admit it. He couldn’t shake his head. And he’d heard enough stories of the men who seemed kind enough right until you had to … do a little favour. Not like you were paying them for their help, eh? What’s a little bit of pleasure between friends, eh? And once you ended up going down that road, he could guess where it would end.

“I’m fine,” he lied.

The man was watching him and when he looked up, defiantly daring the man to challenge him, he found himself caught in the light of those shimmering blue eyes. He was safe here, he knew at once, without any question of a doubt. This place, this man, he was safe. The cup shook in his hand and the sob that had been sitting in his chest for the last three weeks clawed its way up and out of his throat.

No one could move that fast, but the man did and he was on his knees in front of the couch. The cup was gone and Simon folded into his embrace, sobbing and sobbing until he couldn’t breathe and his lungs burned and he couldn’t stop.

The man rocked him soothingly, stroking his back with broad, warm hands. “It’s all right, my dear,” he said, every word firm with conviction and kindness. “You’re all right. You’re safe and you’re loved and you’re fine.”

Wrong, Simon wanted to cry out, wrong about all of it, wrong about everything, but he couldn’t get the words to fit, couldn’t even cry anymore, his eyes burning and aching and run dry.

“I know you don’t believe me,” the man murmured. “I know. I know it’s hard now. I know it’s terrible and you’re hurting so very much, but it’ll be all right, it will.” He curled his hand over the back of Simon’s neck, warm and heavy and holding him – another sob tore through Simon – like a father would hold their child. “I know,” the man said so very softly. “I know. It hurts. They should love you and they hurt you so badly.”

Simon clung to him, nodding helplessly.

“They’re not the end of the world,” the man murmured, his voice warm and reassuring and kind. “There are plenty who will see the wonder you are. Plenty who will see who you are.” He drew back enough to look Simon in the eyes and when he smiled, it was like all the fear was pushed away. Not gone, but just… not important. The man brushed the tears from his cheek. “You must be so tired, my dear boy. You’ve come such a long way, haven’t you?”

He was right.

Simon was so bloody tired.

It didn’t take much for the man to guide him to lie down on the couch. Should’ve been terrified. Should’ve been running. But the man was right and he was tired and cold and the man covered him over with the tartan blanket, tucking him in as if he was a tiny kid.

“Rest, my sweet boy,” the man said softly. “Rest peacefully. Tomorrow will be a better day.”

He must’ve fallen asleep. Must’ve. At least it was dark outside when he closed his eyes, but when he opened them, it was light enough to see the face of the grandfather clock on the other side of the room. He was warm. He was dry. And he’d been sleeping on a strange man’s couch in a bookshop for almost twelve hours.

He sat up uneasily, wondering if there had been something in the tea, something to put him under. He checked his clothes, but everything was exactly as he’d left it. Nothing… fiddled with while he was sleeping. Nothing taken. Nothing touched.

Simon pushed the blanket back cautiously. His shoes were off. Hadn’t done that. But his feet were dry and the holes in his socks were miraculously gone. He shuffled into his shoes and got up, edging through to the front of the shop.

The man was there, sitting in an armchair in the main part of the shop, under the wide glass dome.

“Oh, good morning,” he said with that bright warm smile that seemed to fill up a little bit of the aching hole in Simon’s middle. “I didn’t want to disturb you.” He put a bookmark into his book and closed it, then cocked his head. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah.” Simon tried to return his smile. “Thank you.” He fidgeted. “I– I didn’t mean to get in the way.”

The man put his book aside at once and got up. “Oh, you didn’t,” he said and the warmth in his face told Simon’s it was true. “I like to offer a hand where I can to those who need it and last night, I think you needed it more than most.”

It was stupid that just that was enough to make Simon’s eyes sting again and he rubbed at them with the hells of his hands, making a small, annoyed sound.

“It’s all right,” his host said. “Truly, it is. You’re allowed to have a wobble. You’re allowed to let the tears fall.” Broad hands squeezed his shoulders. “It’s a very human thing to do, you know.”

Simon looked up at him, sniffing hard. “Feels stupid, though.”

“Only because you’ve always been told it is so,” the man said. He held Simon at arm’s length. “But now, I think you need breakfast, don’t you? You’re all skin and bones, you poor thing.”

“You don’t need to–”

“And when we’re finished,” the man continued happily, “I have some friends who might be able to put you up for a little while until you find your feet.”

Ah. There it was. Too good to be true.

“No,” he said tightly. “Thank you.”

And for a terrifying moment, those brilliant eyes looked at him, as if they could read his very thoughts, then the man chuckled. “Oh, I see. You’re concerned I might have… nefarious plans for you?” He shook his head. “My friends will be joining us for breakfast at the café across the road. You can decide whether to accept their invitation once you meet them.”

Simon eyed him warily. “I can say no?”

“Of course!” The man disappeared into the back of the shop, re-emerging a minute later with Simon’s coat. He held it out. “They were kind enough to get up early this morning, which – on a Saturday – is a miracle in and of itself.”

He had to admit he was curious enough that he pulled on his coat and followed the man – he still didn’t even know his name! – across the road to a café that was almost as old-fashioned as the man’s shop. But he saw a colourful flag pinned up behind the counter and a knot around his chest unravelled a bit.

“Ah! There they are!” His host wove through the tables and Simon stopped short when he saw the two people waiting for them.

They were beautiful. And for eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, they looked like they were both lined up for a show in the West End. One of them had a wig of chestnut curls down to her waist and the other one had gone for a blonde bob, but their make-up was sharp and their clothes were…

“Mitzy, Cassandra,” his host said warmly, “this is…” He laughed and turned. “My dear, you never gave me your name of preference.”

Simon stared at him, then at the two beautiful drag queens. And for the first time in his life, he smiled and gave the name he had picked from a song years ago.

“Lola,” she said. “I’m Lola.”