“Children,” Aziraphale calls. “Bedtime, darlings!”
Yay story story story, and five little streaks of white and black dart out from various dark spaces in the bookshop, converging on the sofa. They zip up a little tunnel Crowley has made from a cardboard tube that runs behind the sofa from the floor to the armrest on the other side, at which they separate and go in different directions. Two curl up in Aziraphale ‘s lap, one tucks itself into his breast pocket, one drapes over his shoulder against his neck, and the last one darts into his sleeve, turning around so the tiny head peeps out, tongue flickering.
“Now, what shall we read, my dears? I have three books here, you see; you choose.”
Roly Pudding Roly Pudding
“Really? Again? ”
Roly Pudding please, Azirafather, the little white snakelet with sapphire-blue eyes says, peeking up at him from her warm little den inside his sleeve. He gazes down at her fondly.
“Rosa, my dear, I will, of course, if you wish it. But are you all quite, quite sure?”
Affirmative, excited hisses from the others make the sofa sound like a kettle for a moment. Aziraphale laughs and reaches carefully for a red hand-sized book, worn but obviously well-loved.
“The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, or, The Roly-Poly Pudding, by Beatrix Potter,” he reads.
Kitten get et this time?
“Angelica, the story doesn’t change, my dear. It’s the same each time I read it. It’s printed, you see?”
Better if kitten et.
“Clem, we don’t eat kittens. The kitten escapes being baked into a meat pie and goes home, having learned his lesson.”
Lesson good food wasted.
“While you are quite right that we ought not waste food, Datura, my darling, the kitten in this book is the protagonist. We are to feel for him. We feel his cockiness, his fear, his gratitude at his escape, and his proper contrition at having behaved badly and disobeyed his mother’s instructions.”
There is a general uncertain hissing, as if this doesn’t sit quite right with the snakelets.
Azirafather, Junior says. Can tell us new story? Not printed?
“What, make one up?”
A chorus of delighted hissing answers him. One of the snakes in his lap coils and pumps its head up and down like a little spring in excitement.
“Oh, dear, children—that’s not my forte at all. I can’t—I’m dreadful at making up stories. I can't even—”
“He is absolutely pants at it,” Crowley says, swinging through the bookshop door with a pasteboard box tied with string dangling from his fingers. “It’s sad, but the Almighty’s own truth.”
FATHER! The streaks launch toward the end of the sofa nearest the door, hissing like delighted little fireworks. Crowley sighs and says, “Yes yes, spawn, hullo. It’s past your bedtime. I see Aziraphale let you stay up late again.”
“Unintentional, I assure you,” Aziraphale said. “I lost track of time while reading Sufi poetry. What have you got there?”
“Petit fours from that place you love but is never quite along the way to wherever we’re going. Right, you lot, off you go, beddy-bye.”
But story, Rosa says sadly.
“Nope, we’re past story now. Much too late. Off you go, spawn.”
“You lot drive a hard bargain. Fine, fine. On top of your feed of baby mice next week, I’ll toss in a live cricket for each of you.”
Crowley scoops a couple of the babies off the sofa, dropping the box in Aziraphale’s lap as he moves past him. The others race him to the enclosure, where he tosses them in one by one, pretending to use much more force than he actually does. With much giggle-hissing they slither into the little noodly knot they like best to sleep in.
“Night, spawn. No getting up extra early tomorrow, you hear?”
A chorus of hisses answers him.
“Right, you lot. Dream of catching toads and tiny birds.”
“I say, Crowley,” Aziraphale protests. Crowley sighs.
“Right, Angel Dad is squeamish. Dream of sunny rocks, then.”
Aziraphale joins him at the enclosure, box in hands.
“Goodnight, children,” he says lovingly. Another round of quiet hisses answers him.
They move toward the stairs, Crowley switching the shop lights off on the way.
“You’ll spoil those children rotten,” Aziraphale says quietly as they began climbing the steps.
“Says the father who reads to them five times a day.”
“Oh, but they love it so, my dear. And reading to children helps them develop their sense of language, you know.”
Crowley gives him a sideways smirk.
“And you oughtn’t to use food as a motivator. It can cause problems later on, I’ve read.”
Crowley laughs aloud as they reach the flat. “That’s rich, coming from you, angel. Food is your primary motivator.”
“I beg your pardon,” Aziraphale says primly, placing the box of cakes on the kitchen table. Crowley laughs again, more fondly this time, and slides an arm around Aziraphale’s shoulder.
“May I tempt you to a petit four?”