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Bibliophilia

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Aziraphale, Principality, former Guardian of the Eastern Gate of the Garden of Eden, sole proprietor of A. Z. Fell and Co., has a nemesis.

Now, if he told anyone in Heaven this, they’d nod sagely and say, ah yes, of course, the demon Crowley.

If only it were that simple.

No, the demon Crowley, Serpent of Eden, Tempter of Humanity, is no nemesis. He’s not even an Adversary anymore, not that he ever truly was. He’s a friend — a very dear friend, and could be even more if things were different.

No, Aziraphale’s nemesis is a human — and he has absolutely no idea who it might be.

It had all begun in 1949, when a good quarto of Hamlet in excellent condition was advertised for sale. Aziraphale, having many fond memories connected to the play, naturally attempted to purchase it, but was thwarted; when he got in touch with the owner, he was apologetically informed that it had already been sold, for a sum of money that was more than twice the initial asking price.

The worst of it was, it could still have been his, had he only been not possessed of moral scruples. A few days later, Crowley had shown up at his bookshop and cheerfully presented him with the quarto. A gift, he’d said. Aziraphale knew, of course, that Crowley must’ve stolen it, his friend being, after all, a demon; but Crowley insisted that he had bought it from the owner, and eventually Aziraphale relented, and accepted it.

Of course, later, when Crowley had left, Aziraphale had sent the book back to its rightful owner with a simple miracle. Some days, he still regrets doing that — he owns many copies of Hamlet, but has yet to see another good quarto in such wonderful condition; but he knows it was the morally correct thing to do.

He’d thought it was only a fluke, back then, a stroke of bad luck, a momentary disappointment in what had otherwise been a long, positive, entirely fruitful career of book collecting; but since then, many other books have slipped through his fingers. Not all the books he’d sought to acquire, of course, and none as valuable or rare as the Hamlet quarto — but enough to infuriate him. Whoever this person is, and he has no doubt that it is one singular person, they share rather a lot of his taste in literature, and have more than enough funds to spare for book acquisition; but he cannot find out their identity, and not for lack of trying.

At least they’re human; he is absolutely certain of this. None of his fellow angels have an appreciation for books, and neither do demons. He knows this latter fact to be the truth, because Crowley himself had told him.

It was back in ‘61. He hadn’t left his bookshop for a few days; he’d been upset, although he can’t really recall, now, the reason for it. And Crowley, dear Crowley, must’ve somehow realised he was in need of comfort, because he’d showed up with gifts — two bottles of good wine and a book, wrapped very simply in butcher paper tied with twine.

Aziraphale had unwrapped the book, and stared; he’d known at first sight what it was, of course. It was a copy of the 1763 Fool’s Bible. Crowley himself had had a hand in inserting the typographical error that gave this particular misprint its name; Aziraphale had tried to obtain a copy for his collection, but had been unable to do so before all copies were destroyed. “My dear fellow, wherever did you get this?”

Crowley had looked down and squirmed, as if embarrassed. “I, uh, I was tidying my papers, and found that. You collect this kind of thing, don’t you? Thought you might like it.”

Aziraphale had hesitated. “If it was among your papers — wouldn’t Hell want it? Proof that you actually did what you claimed you did in your report?”

“Nah, they don’t care about books. Stupid human stuff, they called it. They just care about results. And besides,” Crowley had shrugged, still looking down, “even if they’d wanted it, I’d still rather give it to you. I could just tell them I lost it.”

Aziraphale could’ve kissed him, then, and he’d had to hurriedly turn away and busy himself with finding the perfect spot for the book on the shelf that held his collection of misprint Bibles.

When he’d turned back, Crowley had been looking at him, a faint smile on his lips. “Wine?” the demon had asked, holding up one of the bottles.

“Oh, yes,” Aziraphale had said. “Thank you.”

The thanks had been for the book, more than for the wine. Crowley had given him a look that said he knew this perfectly well, but had let it slide; and they’d had a perfectly lovely night of drinking.

Spending time with Crowley always made him feel better. Unfortunately, after that, they had spent the next few decades meeting only a few times a year; and although Crowley occasionally brought him a book as a gift along with wine, it had not been anywhere near enough, especially since his nemesis’ book purchasing activities had dramatically intensified.

Eventually, one night, deep in his cups, Aziraphale had blurted out to Crowley his frustration about all his thwarted attempts to buy books he’d wanted for his collection.

Crowley had let him finish, and then had given him a long, thoughtful look. “And you’re certain this is a human you’re dealing with?”

Aziraphale had nodded, pouring himself another generous measure of wine. “I’m the only angel with a ninc— an intre— the only one who cares about books. And no demons do, you said it yourself.”

“Well.” Crowley had squinted at the wine bottle he was holding, and had then shrugged and drunk directly from it, draining it. “At least you know they’re going to die eventually.”

“There’s that,” Aziraphale had agreed, morosely. “But it’ll be a while yet.”

“Not so long, if you think about it. This started when, in the fifties?”

“1949.”

“So — hang on. Have you got a bit of paper? Can’t do math in my head when I’m this sloshed.”

“Over there.” Aziraphale had gestured towards his desk — unfortunately, with the hand that held the still partially full glass, spilling wine everywhere. “Whoops.”

Crowley had staggered his way to the desk and sat down heavily at it, grabbing a pen and scribbling on the nearest available blank piece of paper. “1949. What year are we in, again?”

“Uh.” Aziraphale had needed to think about it for a moment. “‘82.”

“So that’s thirty-five years? No, wait, blast it. Thirty-three. And this person must have been already old enough by then to have money, so… eighteen? Twenty? Humans are grown at twenty, right?”

“Something like that.”

“So they’d be fifty-three or thereabouts by now. Wait, how long do humans live, again?”

Aziraphale had frowned. “Not any longer than a hundred years, anymore, no? Got shorter as it went on.”

“Right. Right. So that gives them…” Crowley had attempted to count on his fingers, then had remembered his piece of paper and resumed scribbling. “Forty, forty-five years, at best? To keep buying books. Then they’re gone. And that will be, uh…” Crowley had turned the paper over and scribbled some more, his tongue sticking out one side of his mouth. “They’d be ninety in… 2020? Something like that. Anyway. Bet they’d stop buying books then.”

Aziraphale had digested that information, and had unsuccessfully attempted to find it reasonable. “But that’s so long,” he’d wailed. “All those books I won’t have.”

Crowley had stood unsteadily and walked over to Aziraphale, nearly tripping over a stack of books. “There, there,” he’d said, awkwardly patting Aziraphale’s back. “I’ll keep bringing you books, alright?”

Aziraphale had sniffled and downed the remainder of his wine. “You’re too good to me, dear boy.”

Crowley had flushed and looked away, but, for once, he hadn’t argued, only suggested that they sober up.

Looking back, that’s when Crowley’s habit of bringing him books as gifts had started in earnest. It was by no means regular — sometimes Crowley had a book for him every week, sometimes months passed between one occasion and the other; and most of the books weren’t particularly rare or valuable, not like that very first one had been. Not to anyone but him, anyway.

He will never tell anyone this, but the books Crowley has given him are, to him, some of the most valuable among all those he owns. If his bookshop were to burn down — which it never will, naturally, because he is an angel, and as long as he is on Earth, his bookshop is protected — but if it were to burn down, those books would be the ones he’d run to save first.

A few times a year, he talks himself into asking Crowley to drive him to an auction. He is, of course, extremely unfond of Crowley’s blatant disregard of the Highway Code in general and of posted speed limits in the specific; and he is still very worried about spending too much time with the demon, lest they be caught together by one or both of their respective head offices; but he does enjoy their time together, and some auctions are simply too good to miss in terms of book acquisition opportunities.

At the auctions, too, he is frequently thwarted, however. The first time it had happened, he’d ran after the man who’d outbid him and stopped him in the parking lot, demanding an explanation; but the man had told him he was merely a proxy buyer, and had been hired over the telephone with a list of books to acquire. He could only say that his employer was a man, with a heavy Welsh accent; he’d been given the money through an intermediary, and was to deliver the books and what was left of the money the same way.

Aziraphale had been elated at finally having some information on his nemesis; but his elation had been short-lived. The proxy buyer at the next auction he’d attended had claimed to have been hired by a woman with a Scottish accent; the one after that, by a man with an Irish accent; the one after that had sworn up and down that the woman who’d hired him had sounded exactly like Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Privately, Aziraphale rather doubted that, since he could not fathom what the Queen would want with a first-edition copy of Winnie-the-Pooh.

And on, and on, and on, each proxy buyer giving him different information on their employer. Male and female, young-sounding and old-sounding, with accents spanning the width and breadth of the United Kingdom and some foreign ones thrown into the mix as well. Whoever his nemesis was, they must feel incredibly strongly about their anonymity, to go to the trouble of using intermediaries to hire other intermediaries.

Later, even that source of information had dried up — in the late nineties, proxy buyers had begun telling him that they had no information at all about their employer, since they had been hired not over the telephone, but through email.

And then, even worse, there had been no more proxy buyers, but Aziraphale had still been outbid, by what the auctioneer had called an “online bidder”. Crowley, who had spent the auction alternating between tapping idly at his phone and shooting Aziraphale increasingly concerned glances, had offered to get him a modern computer and teach him how to use the internet; but Aziraphale had declined, knowing he could never really compete on that level.

At least, he tells himself, it won’t be long now until his nemesis, being human, stops being able to compete with him at all.

And then Crowley calls him and tells him about delivering the Antichrist, and Aziraphale has bigger things than books to worry about.

* * *

And then there is after, the after Aziraphale had never dared to allow himself to even dream of, the after he had been, in certain moments, utterly sure they were never going to get. There is drinking and talking quietly on a bench, there is holding hands on a bus to London, there is Crowley leading him silently into his flat. And yes, they are going to need to figure out Agnes Nutter’s last prophecy, because their respective head offices are unlikely to leave them alone; but for now, there is only the gentle, soft togetherness of after.

Crowley takes his glasses off, rubs at his eyes, and sighs. “I, uh. There’s something I ought to show you. It’s probably not the best time for it, but we may never have a better time, and — you’re probably going to be angry at me, and honestly I deserve it, but — I just —”

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, gently. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s fine. It can’t be worse than Armageddon, can it?”

Crowley winces. “No, I guess not. But — you’ll see. This way.”

Crowley leads him deeper into the flat, through a series of darkened rooms and corridors, until they reach what looks like a blank wall. Crowley puts his hand flat on it, and the wall shimmers and disappears.

Beyond it is a room that makes Aziraphale’s chest ache, because it looks a lot more like his now-lost bookshop than what he’s seen so far of Crowley’s flat. The room is not very big, and there are books everywhere, entirely filling the shelves that span the walls and spilling out into stacks all over the floor. There’s also a book press, and a desk with book repair supplies and tools scattered on it.

“I know it’s not a substitute for your bookshop,” Crowley says, softly, “but they’re yours.”

“But — but you don’t read, you said,” Aziraphale stammers. “And they’re your books. I couldn’t possibly.”

“I don’t read much.” Crowley walks past him into the room, running careful fingers over the spines of shelved books. “Not as much as you do, anyway. And these are yours. I got them all for you.”

It makes sense, actually. He’d thought Crowley’s gifts of books were casual, he’d thought they depended on whether Crowley stumbled upon a book in the course of whatever else he was doing; but Crowley had, somehow, a knack for working out when he was in a poor mood and needed something to cheer him up, and had always had a book for him then. “My dear —”

But Aziraphale doesn’t manage to finish the rest of that sentence, because Crowley’s pulled out a book and is holding it out to him.

It’s the Hamlet quarto.

“It was you,” Aziraphale manages to say, choked with realisation.

“Yeah.” Crowley’s eyes are earnest and pleading, some hidden emotion Aziraphale can’t quite make out twisting in their depths. “I only — I saw it advertised for sale, and it made me think of you.” He smiles, small and sad and wistful. “We have — history, with Hamlet. So I bought it. But when I tried giving it to you, you wouldn’t take it, and I had to talk you into it, and I got the feeling that the only reason you eventually agreed to take it was to make me shut up and go away. But I thought, at least you took it, yeah? But then, when I got back to my place —”

“I sent it back to the person who’d bought it,” Aziraphale whispers. “Back to you.”

Crowley nods and sets the book down on the desk. “I figured you didn’t want gifts from me, but you didn’t want to say so to my face. Decided I wouldn’t try it again. But then there was that one time, back in ‘61. You never told me what happened, but you got called up to Heaven for a report and then when you came back down you were miserable, you shut yourself up in your bookshop for months. And I had to do something. Only thing I could think that might work would be to bring you a book — I thought, even if you didn’t want it, even if you got angry and ended up shouting at me over it, at least you’d be something other than miserable. The only book I had on hand other than the Hamlet was that Bible. And the way you looked when I gave it to you —” His voice cracks, and he shakes his head. “Anyway. After that, I came to the conclusion, books in general, yes, books specifically related to our history, not so much.”

“And you started buying books you knew I’d like.” Aziraphale isn’t sure how he’s managing to keep his voice steady, because he feels anything but.

“Yeah. I didn’t mean to upset you, angel, I swear, I didn’t start out trying to buy books out from under you. I didn’t even realise I was until we had that conversation about it. And — I was going to stop. In a few more years, I was going to stop, and — and then you were going to get them all, anyway, one by one. Like I said — they’re yours. They can be the start of a new bookshop, if we make it through tomorrow.”

Aziraphale thinks back to the conversation in question, seeing it all in a new light. Crowley had not only been reassuring him; he’d also been working out how much longer he’d have left to buy books without being discovered. “Why books? You could’ve given me anything. Wine, chocolates, pastries…”

“You love books.” Crowley shrugs, a jerky, uneasy motion. “And the way you looked at that Bible when I gave it to you — you’ve looked at books that way before. When I gave you that bag of books, in ‘41. I wanted to see that look on you again. Even if —” Crowley cuts himself off and swallows, a muscle jumping in his jaw.

“Even if?”

“Even if it was only the books you loved,” Crowley finishes, very quietly, looking down and away from him.

Oh. Oh, he’d been such a fool.

“Anyway.” Crowley visibly shakes himself, like a dog shaking off water. “I’m just going to — be in the other room. Enjoy the books, don’t worry about the prophecy, I’ll figure it out.” He moves to leave the room, head bowed; but Aziraphale stands in his way. “Angel —”

“Crowley.” Aziraphale puts a hand on his shoulder, and feels him shiver.

“Aziraphale, please, just — don’t.”

Crowley,” Aziraphale says, again. “Would you look at me?”

Crowley lifts his head; his eyes are wide and terrified, shining with unshed tears. “Just — let me go, please, just — I’ve already lost you once, today, I can’t — I swear, nothing has to change, I’ll get over this — please —”

“Oh, my dear,” Aziraphale says; and gently pulls Crowley forward into a kiss.

For a moment, for the space of a heartbeat, two, Crowley is still in his arms, under his lips, almost frozen, and he worries he’s misread, overstepped. But then Crowley makes a high, broken sound in the back of his throat, almost like a sob; and his arms come up to wrap tight around Aziraphale, fingers clenching in the back of his coat; and he kisses back hungrily, almost frantically.

Aziraphale hums into the kiss, stroking Crowley’s cheek, wiping away the tears he finds there; and pulls away slightly to speak. “It was never the books,” he says, softly, lips brushing Crowley’s with every word. “It was you. I was always looking at you.”

Crowley whimpers. “You — you can’t just say things like that, angel.”

“Why not?” Aziraphale leans in again for another kiss, shorter but gentler, sweeter. “It’s true.”

“I didn’t — I’m dreaming, aren’t I? Must be. Fell asleep on the bus, dreaming this entire thing. Have done before. Never —” Crowley takes in a deep, shuddering breath, and releases it in a long sigh, closing his eyes, fresh tears spilling down his cheeks. “Never get to keep you when I wake.”

Aziraphale’s heart thuds painfully in his chest. “Oh, my love,” he says, kissing the tears from Crowley’s cheeks, from the corners of his eyes. “I’m here. You have me. I’m so sorry I made you wait so long.”

Crowley turns his head so the next soft kiss falls on his lips, then pulls away a little, wide golden eyes roaming over Aziraphale’s face. “You are here, aren’t you? Fuck.” He shakes his head, with a soft huff of disbelieving laughter. “Only the real you would be daft enough to apologise to me for that.”

Aziraphale blinks, utterly thrown. “I beg your pardon.”

Crowley probably intends his smile to be gentle, but it looks like nothing more than a lament. “I always knew that even if you loved me as I do you —”

“I do,” Aziraphale interrupts, “I do love you, Crowley, I do —”

“Even so, even if I told you, I knew you would never — I knew. Was an angel once, remember? I know how they can get, and — I’ve nothing left to lose.” He shrugs. “Nothing except you, if I pushed too much, so I didn’t. But you — you had everything to lose. I could never blame you for keeping yourself safe.”

“The only thing I couldn’t stand to lose,” Aziraphale says, fiercely, pulling him close and holding him tight, “is you.”

Crowley laughs, a little wetly. “What did I tell you about not saying things like that? ‘M not used to it. My heart can’t take it.”

“Well, I don’t intend to stop, love,” Aziraphale says; and kisses Crowley again, feeling rather like they’ve gone too long without. “So you’ll just have to get used to it.”

“I guess I will, then, if I survive it,” Crowley says, with a softer, truer smile. Then, quietly, more somberly, the smile dying: “If we survive. I know what they’re planning to do with us, but —”

“You do?”

“Yeah. They’ll want something permanent, something — final.” Crowley scowls. “We helped stop Armageddon by cooperating with each other, so I have a feeling they’ll think it fitting to do the same in order to destroy us. So — holy water for me, hellfire for you. What I can’t figure out is what we could do about it. If I could take your place…” He trails off, his eyes widening. “The books.”

Aziraphale frowns, confused by the apparent non sequitur. “The books?”

“They’re yours — but you thought they were mine.”

“Well, of course,” Aziraphale says, still confused. “They’re in your flat, on your shelves — oh!”

“Yes. We switch.” Crowley’s eyes are bright. “You take my corporation; I take yours. They won’t look beyond the surface, they never do. At least my lot don’t, I don’t know if yours…”

“It would work. Mine are also the type to — well.”

Crowley grins. “To judge a book by its cover?”

“Quite.” Aziraphale grins back. “Oh, you clever, clever fellow. I could kiss you!”

Crowley colours a little, then looks at him from under his eyelashes, coyly. “You could. It was — rather nice, the first few times you did.”

“Only rather nice?” Aziraphale can’t help but tease. “I ought to try harder, then.”

“You ought to shut up, is what you ought to do,” Crowley mutters, no heat in his tone; and grabs Aziraphale by the collar, and rather efficiently manhandles him, pinning him to the nearest bookshelf and kissing him thoroughly.

There will be no more talking tonight, Aziraphale thinks, but that’s alright. This is not the last page of their story.

He can’t wait to see what their new chapter will bring.