Summary/Notes: The prompt for this story suggested a parody or model on the short story The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, and I had a great time with it. The odd narration style, as well as a good bit of the plot, is based on that story.
Ten hours and forty-seven minutes. That was all. Crowley consulted the illuminated digital clock on his Bentley’s dashboard once again and cursed, for the number of precious minutes allotted had dropped now to forty-six. Ten and three-quarter hours and unlimited funds, and what good was the money of this world when one was searching for the appropriate Chr— wintertime gift for an angel?
Crowley’s eyes had taken on a sinister reddish cast behind his darkened glasses as he concentrated. Not an unusual event under such circumstances, for he was, it must be confessed, a demon of the aforementioned angel’s acquaintance. Six thousand years and more they had known each other, and while much of that time had been spent in useless struggle one against the other, the greater part had passed in something like a decreasingly grudging friendship. Six thousand years, and already it seemed that every conceivable barb, insult, favor, kindness, incursion, and indeed, benefaction had already passed between them. There was simply nothing left - certainly nothing worthy of the great prominence of this occasion. For since their Arrangement (and so it was called, though the term was hardly appropriate any longer to describe the whole of their present relationship) had warmed to affection of a more openly declared kind only a month ago, it was the first Christmas they would spend as an official twosome. The occasion, therefore, had not inconsiderable weight, and Anthony J. Crowley was damned (forgive the rather obvious pun) if he was going to leave the angel disappointed when they met for lunch on Christmas Day.
But what to bring? Aziraphale clearly needed any number of items: an updated wardrobe, a renovation of the dusty warren he called a bookshop, perhaps a mode of transportation more efficient than his feet and less conspicuous than his much-neglected wings. But the angel could come by all these things for himself if he so desired, and if Crowley was honest (which he wasn’t, not if he could possibly help it), he might privately admit that it was in part these antiquated quirks that he found so endearing.
Crowley racked his brain viciously as the traitorous clock flicked yet another minute off his remaining time. He needed something impossible, something that would make Aziraphale’s eyes light up the way they rarely did when contemplating anything other than a rare edition of Wilde or the Ritz’s chocolate torte. There was, in fact—there had been one item which had sparked just such a degree of rapt attention from the angel, but it no longer existed. The Further Nife and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, sequel to the book which had caused them both no end of trouble not two years prior. But the Further Prophecies, as a rather self-satisfied young man with the unfortunate name of Newt had explained, had been burned in the fireplace of the Device-Pulsifer home on the very day of its delivery. And oh, how the excitement had dissolved on Aziraphale’s face when he heard, leaving an appalled dismay in its place. It truly had been a sickening sight, and Crowley had done his best not to look. Within a few moments the conversation had turned in a stilted fashion to the tedious details of Newt’s upcoming wedding. And so the single item in all the mortal world which Crowley knew to be worthy of a gift was impossible to procure.
Crowley’s infernally handsome features hardened in the rear-view mirror. Despite all his vacillation, the facts remained. He had come to the unpleasant conclusion that there was simply not a single item in all the mortal world that would possibly do for this angel. It was therefore a stroke of extreme luck that Crowley had access to other means of purchase, denied or shunned by mortal shoppers. He knew, of course, that dealers in such things exacted a hefty price from those who were so clearly desperate, and it would be difficult to imagine a soul at this moment who was quite as desperate as Crowley. But what else could he do? He’d known the very moment he’d heard of that book that it had to be Aziraphale’s. The angel was a notorious collector; he adored his books beyond measure and this would undoubtedly become the jewel of the entire shop. The Bentley’s tires squealed dramatically as Crowley changed course for a nearby graveyard. A deed as dirty as this one was liable to become would require the help of a Duke.
“’Coooourse I’ll help you get that book back,” Duke Hastur simpered in a frankly insulting tone of voice. “Not a demon on the earthly plane that wouldn’t give his flashy sunglasses to know what the future holds, am I right, Crawly?”
Not wanting to appear overeager, Crowley immediately removed his own glasses and stashed them neatly in a pocket of his shirt. If they were to be sacrificed in the spirit of giving – repulsive as it was - he was certainly not about to let them go without a spirited fight.
“Well, I thought it might be useful, you know me. Always thinking ahead.”
“Very useful,” the Duke agreed, studying a clot of infinitely interesting bacilli beneath his razorlike nails. “But I en’t so inclined to do you any favors, Crawly. Might be that I should keep it for my own reference.”
“No – I mean, not a great idea,” said Crowley. He’d spoken too quickly, he knew, but continued in the hope that a more advantageous scheme might present itself while he was talking. It had served him well in the past, after all. “I, ah, know the descendant of the author. She can interpret the book. It’s useless without her willing to help.”
The Duke, however, was not moved to agree out of hand.
“Lemme explain this a little more clearly. If you’re asking for exclusive rights to a destroyed book of dangerous potential that you’ll do Satan-knows-what with, it stands to reason that I’m going to take a lot more off you than those stupid glasses. And stupid excuses.”
“All right, all right... I’m not saying I’ll do it, mind. What, exactly, do you want?” Crowley asked, and even as he spoke a wary air of defeat grew up around him.
With the darkest of vicious smiles, Duke Hastur nodded toward Crowley’s antique and immaculately maintained car. An unnatural silence descended, pitch-perfect, over the graveyard.
“You are one heartless son of a bitch,” Crowley said, and there was nevertheless a kind of awe in his tone. The other demon had strolled over to his beautiful Bentley and was even now running one of those sharpened nails over the paint, producing a metallic shriek.
“Just give me the book. Fast,” Crowley pleaded, closing his eyes against the noise. In a flash it was in his hands. Without another word or glance – he knew that his will would not stand up to either of them – he spread his wings and set off for his lonely flat to regroup, and it wasn’t long before he was able to revel in his success. As Christmas dawn crept over the city he spared only a wistful thought here and there for his beloved car, glancing often to the book and the promise it carried between its covers.
~ ~ ~
“So it’s definitely gone?” Aziraphale asked in a hollow voice. They were in an astoundingly comfortable taxi (the driver of which had been extremely surprised to discover a passenger-controlled stereo system in the back), headed for the angel’s bookshop and the flat above after a spectacular late afternoon lunch. Aziraphale looked a bit drawn, poor thing, having weathered the holiday anxiety of much of the world in these past weeks, and his own not inconsiderable difficulties on top of it.
“Yeah, it’s gone, angel, but I got the best thing in exchange for it.” Crowley’s enthusiasm would not be diminished, but there was uncertainty in his brief glance toward Aziraphale as he laughed. “I never pegged you as one of those types who’d only love me for my car.”
“Of course not, my dear,” the angel reassured him, sitting back and laying a consoling hand on his arm. Crowley felt his concern dissipate, and grinned into the setting sun as the taxi drew closer to their destination.
“That brute who took it from you won’t enjoy it, of course,” Aziraphale commented with some satisfaction a moment later.
“Why not?” It was Crowley’s considered opinion that his car was the epitome of comfort, style and high class, and any suggestion to the contrary was automatically met with skepticism.
“A holy protection, in effect twenty minutes ago. He won’t be able to harm it… or touch it, for that matter. I had you listed as an exception, obviously. It was all quite official. It’ll weather the next Apocalypse, they said, and so will anything inside. Or… or anyone, of course.”
Crowley’s eyes lit up – not due to any demonic luminescence this time, but an entirely human sort of joy.
“Really?” he asked, and even as he said it he realized his terrible mistake. There followed a stream of anguished profanity, the likes of which the poor taxi driver had never heard. He accelerated, and the narrow streets flew past as though they had left gravity’s confining embrace. The angel looked primly away, but his hand remained, warm, on Crowley’s arm.
“It—it’ll be fine,” the demon finally said as they approached the bookshop. “Hastur’ll never want something he can’t even touch without scarring himself. You’ve practically guaranteed I’ll get it back, angel.” But Aziraphael only looked compassionately at him, for they both knew that a demon of Hastur’s cruelty was more likely to keep such a thing out of spite, even if its possession brought no joy to himself.
The taxi slowed as they drew near their destination, and for a moment Crowley forgot his distress.
“Oh, but angel, this’ll make up for it.” He tipped the driver far too much without thinking, and didn’t even bother to whisk the money out of the man’s pocket as he drove hastily away.
“You’ll never believe what I found, never. And I don’t care what Hastur does with--” But his voice died out as they crossed the threshold of Aziraphale’s shop. The once-familiar front room was clean and empty, clear of even the shelves that had once braced up so many crowded, towering stacks of the angel’s beloved collection.
"Temporary restriction," Aziraphale said in response to Crowley's sudden silence, not pausing to look around. It was clear that he was trying to add some cheer to the echoing space by proceeding toward his apartment with more than the usual bustle. Crowley, however, was still standing rooted in the doorway, too wary to take another step.
"Material possessions, you know, books," said the angel resignedly, and now, if one looked closely, one could see the disappointment lurking in the slight droop of his shoulders.
"Well, where are they? You'll have to look into some serious restocking, soon as possible," Crowley said, with a bracing clap of his hands. "I know this guy in the States who can get you a hell of a deal, pardon the expression--"
"I don't mind, really,” Aziraphale continued, apparently deaf to Crowley’s weak attempts at optimism. “It was well worth it for what I got in exchange. And it was for my own good, of course—Michael noticed that I had taken quite a liking to them over the centuries. So he thought - perhaps I ought to do without them. All of them.”
“You’re not allowed to read books,“ Crowley said in a flat tone, and the angel’s nod toward the vicinity of the floor confirmed his fears. “Those cold-blooded little sadists. I suppose this won’t be any use, then.”
He flung the book down on the nearest table, which was bare and forlorn without its usual blanket of manuscripts and bookmarked tomes stacked as high as your chin. Aziraphale stared at it, shock widening his eyes as speech deserted him. It would be charitable to say that Crowley was pleased - and he was, very much - but he was also preening quite a bit over his own resourcefulness. He sobered again, though, every time he remembered the ridiculous restrictions that had been placed on the angel’s greatest pleasure.
“Crowley. I can’t – this book,” Aziraphale stammered. He looked, dazed and beaming, up at the demon’s desolate expression. “It’s just for a hundred years or so! And think of all the things we could— to pass the time, the places we’d—er.“
Crowley glanced out the window, but the taxicab and its nervous driver were long gone. The precious book stayed where it belonged as he strode toward the shop door.
“I have to see a demon about a car,” he said, with an air of determination so strong it would shatter solid rock, had rock stood in his way. And then that warm hand was resting on his shoulder once again, and his determination melted clean away.
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m going to see him,” he amended. “And then we can go for a drive.”
“Mm-hmm,” the angel replied, already occupied elsewhere, wrapping the whole length of those arms around Crowley and quite derailing his unsteady train of thought. But Crowley’s eyes had fallen on the book, and a little of his previous resolve flickered briefly once again behind the dark glasses.
“You’re going to know what’s in that book if I have to read it to you myself,” he grumbled, and tightened his own fingers in Aziraphale’s coat.
“You know, my dear, I think I’d enjoy that very much.”
~ ~ ~
The third prophecy down on page 925 of the Further Nife and Accurate Prophecies read as follows:
2463: And feare notte, for soone the Gyfts that ye bringge sharle returnne unto theyr proper Possessores. And meantyme, be ye payshent and joyfulle in the Seasonne of Lyted Pynes, for together ye sharle be, untyl the Ende that is to comme. (Againne.)
Yet neither the reader nor the listener was in a state to fully interpret the meaning of these words. They had both been in their cups for some little while now, and they’d spent a great deal of the evening discussing possibilities contained in the nearly indecipherable prophecies, laughing at jokes that very few this side of the celestial plane would understand. They passed right by it, being otherwise distracted at the time. But any looming tragedy stemming from the oversight was averted, for by the morning it had become evident that the reassuring words of that prophecy were not, in fact, necessary at all.