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An Unexpected Customer

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As far as Thursdays went, it was one of the good ones. Breakfast at the cafe had been excellent (they always made their toast to perfection, or as close to it as they could), and then had come errands. While he didn’t begrudge any humans their attitude on errands, Aziraphale enjoyed a chance to wander with a goal in mind. He needn’t get in anyone’s way, and they didn’t get in his way either.

The bank had come first, then the shop for some kitchen things that he liked to have around. These were merely holdovers before the big meeting of the morning: Aziraphale had scheduled a meeting with a fellow rare book collector.

Three first editions, one of them signed, would be finding their new home in his beloved Soho bookshop, and just in time for a celebratory lunch.

The meeting was brief, which was just another ray of light on a nice day. Turned out the other collector was busy, too busy for tea and dreadfully sorry about it. Something had come up. If Aziraphale didn’t know any better, he might think he’d pulled the strings himself to make that happen.

Returning to the bookshop with three new books tucked carefully under an arm, he sighed in weary relief. The clutter, the dust, even the muted lighting felt like home. Far more than where he came from, the bookshop offered a cozy atmosphere. Even on the dreaded “busy” days, customers were usually quiet and polite. Sometimes they browsed and didn’t even try to buy anything.

He took his time wandering towards the back room of the shop, navigating around shelves and display tables, when he noticed something that drew a very put-upon sigh from him. By the register that hadn’t been updated in decades, he’d left a small plate out on the counter.

The biscuits that once piled on it were gone now, save for a few crumbs, but he regretted it all the same; he did not want to encourage mice to take up residence in the shop. Sure, he could miracle away any chewed corners or destroyed notes, but he’d always know what had happened.

He changed his course to wander past the counter so he could collect the little plate. Chances were he’d forget about it again if he went to lunch first. Those new books demanded he at least skim them to make sure they were in proper condition, and he didn’t have time for wayward dishes.

Aziraphale squinted accusingly at the counter when he reached it. He couldn’t say much about his tidiness, with the shop all around him standing as evidence, but what he’d noticed couldn’t be right. Crumbs littered the plate, and they also made a trail right off of it. He couldn’t see himself making that much of a mess, not around the books.

The crumbs left a trail that ducked behind the register, continuing until they stopped abruptly at the other side. Aziraphale huffed a frustrated sigh and gingerly set his books down (after ensuring there were no crumbs beneath them).

No sooner had he resolved to seek out the culprit than he spotted movement at the very edge of his vision. “Oh, absolutely not!” he muttered as he stepped briskly past a display table towards a pair of high shelves that formed a secluded corner of the shop.

A tiny shape dashed along the base of the shelf as if all the forces of heaven were at its heels. Not quite that much, perhaps, but Aziraphale was prepared to defend his shop nonetheless.

The notion that maybe he was overreacting did cross his mind, but not for long. Mice might be generally harmless in principle, but not to his books. He’d kept them in excellent condition since he acquired them, some of them centuries ago.

The little thief was nearing the corner between the shelves as he approached. That was when Aziraphale noticed the damaged wood at the base of one of them. Years ago, possibly decades, it had chipped away. It wasn’t much of an opening at all, but to him it may as well have been a bright sign welcoming in all kinds of vermin and things.

He huffed again, this time much more of an annoyed scoff, and paused his brisk walk. With an imperiously annoyed flick of his wrist, he snapped his fingers. Mending the bookshelf was easy and didn’t feel like cheating the way it would with his books.

As the sudden loss of its exit thwarted the little creature, Aziraphale resumed his approach to fetch it.

He knelt down as soon as the little thing fell into his shadow. One hand left his side in preparation to hastily gather the little mouse up and put it outside (no way in heaven or earth did he have it in him to kill it). But he stopped.

“Oh. Oh dear,” he murmured to himself.

That was not a mouse.

~~~

Oscar scurried like the mice he often tried to emulate. In the way they would sneak and only take what they needed, and of course in the way they would scurry. He was light of foot and he dashed as quickly as he could along the base of the shelf, thick tomes rushing by overhead, but still his heart beat frantically. His thin cloth bag bounced at his side, laden with his meager supplies and the handful of crumbs he’d gathered from the plate.

He hadn’t meant to be seen. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. The owner of the shop always seemed so focused on everything else that when he’d left out a plate of biscuits, well, Oscar had been sure he’d be able to take one without trouble.

Now he only knew regret. Even if he escaped this time, he would have to find a new shop to take up residence in its walls.

The base of the next shelf had a chip in the wood near the bottom. It formed a corner with the one he ran alongside now, and a good view of the cozy room all around. That broken chip was his goal. As far as exits went, it wasn’t the very best he had, but it was the closest. He needed to get out of the would-be giant’s sight before it was too late.

There was an annoyed huff somewhere behind and above him. Oscar didn’t understand, but it sent a chill through his heart anyway. The only thing worse than a human was an angry one.

Then there was a snap of giant fingers, and the sound almost had a physical weight. Oscar didn’t have time to contemplate it, because he reached the corner of the two bookshelves and--

His entrance to the walls was nowhere to be found.

“Oh no,” he muttered to himself, running his hands over the wood. It was old and smoothed by the passage of time, but no longer showed any damage at all. The broken piece was miraculously back in place, right before his very eyes. He was positive it hadn’t been like that earlier in the day.

As his hands groped frantically over the surface as if he might will it to open up again, Oscar’s breathing quickened to the point that very little actually seemed to reach his lungs. Tears sprang to his eyes and he shook his head. “No, no, no…”

He would be caught. He’d been careless, and he’d trapped himself in a corner, and he was going to be caught.

The floor shook with tremors he knew all too well. The shop owner continued stalking forward, each step another rumbling promise of Oscar’s fate. He could end up in a cage, or tossed out onto the street where a cat or bird might find him. He could be shipped off to humans that might study him.

He could end up under one of those approaching steps.

His vision blurred just as a shadow slid over him and the looming presence of a giant trapped him in that corner. He’d never dash out of range now, not without a huge hand or foot stopping him as assuredly as a brick wall.

He whirled around and drew in a rattling gasp that choked a yelp of fear. A hand extended towards him, the palm bigger than his fearfully hunched body. Fingers longer than he was tall curled slightly, claws ready to snare around him and squeeze until he couldn’t move.

He paid no mind to the hand even after it stopped rushing at him and hovered there. He met the shop owner’s gaze for only a second before his eyes closed and the tears sprang from his eyes at last. That surprise, that realization that he was more than the man thought he was, was no better than anger. Oscar sank to a seat and covered his head with his arms as he sobbed.

“Oh. Oh, dear.” The murmur overhead could have overpowered his own voice, if only he’d had anything to say. Oscar had nothing. He couldn’t even summon the most pitiful pleas for his life.

The man’s next sigh was much gentler than the scoffs from before. Oscar didn’t allow himself to hope yet. He could still end up in trouble.

He felt the slight heat from the man’s hand, sensed its shadow surrounding him, before he understood. As he looked up, the hand was all around him. He flinched despite it being far too late to escape, and shot a pleading look past it to the man’s face. All that met his gaze was a somewhat flustered expression lit from behind by the shop’s high, rounded skylight.

Then something nudged at his back and he found himself gathered gently against a giant palm. Though he tried to flail free, soon he was caught up in a fist. “No …” he pleaded at last, only after his stomach dropped out as he rose into the air.

He squirmed and pushed against the man’s palm, but it meant nothing to his captor. The human didn’t squeeze him enough to hurt. There was only enough pressure all around him to keep him from falling as the man stood with him in tow and turned away from the corner.

Oscar tried to glean where he was going by eyeing the gaps between the man’s fingers, but couldn’t twist himself around enough to see for more than a few seconds at a time. Bookshelves flashed by mostly, broken up by the occasional glimpse of a shop window.

A sob shuddered through his body and Oscar’s eyes blurred again. He couldn’t stop the tears any more than he could stop the man that had captured him. Whatever awaited him was out of his control, and that filled him with terror.

At length, the man’s gait slowed and the hand dropped ominously. The fingers unfurled around him, and Oscar flinched. For a heart stopping moment, a sudden sense of gravity jolted through him and he flailed his arms at the nearby thumb, anything to keep from falling.

And then he hit the table and collapsed. He couldn’t have fallen more than his own tiny height when the bookshop owner released him.
Despite the soft landing, Oscar knew better than to think he was out of trouble. He scrambled to a seat and pushed himself back an inch or two, propped up on his hands and staring at the giant standing over him. Some papers covered the surface under him, and somewhere to the side a few books were stacked haphazardly. Behind, the drawers and shelves of the roll top desk loomed and hemmed him in.

The man’s brow pinched and he seemed unsure of what to do with his hands, both of them twitching at his sides before clasping in front of himself. He didn’t sit at the desk; that escaped him too.

Finally, in that quiet, polite tone Oscar had heard from the man many times over, he spoke. “Dear fellow, it … it seems we’re off to rather a bad start.”