Chapter 1: Mistletoe
Aziraphale carefully climbed down off of his small wooden stepladder and took a step back to admire his handiwork. He dusted off his hands and smiled the contented smile that belongs only to a Good Job Well Done.
Above the door to his shop now hung, quite conspicuously, a good-sized sprig of mistletoe.
Now, Aziraphale said to himself with a wry grin, we wait.
It took a couple of days. In the meanwhile, several loved-up couples blushed and giggled in the doorway of the shop. To Aziraphale’s delight one pair of friends, clearly (to the angel and to everyone else who knew them) head over heels in love with each other but too nervous to do anything about it, finally did something about it , thanks to that angelically imbued little sprig of greenery. Aziraphale felt very much heartened by it.
Aziraphale was sitting at his desk with a cup of cocoa and a good book when he finally heard the familiar rumble of a vintage 1926 Bentley rolling to a halt outside of his shop.
The angel smiled.
Standing up and straightening his sweater vest, Aziraphale walked confidently to the front of the shop. He opened the door just as Crowley was walking up the front steps.
‘Hey, Aziraphale,’ the demon said brightly.
‘Hello, Crowley,’ the angel replied.
‘Brought whiskey,' he said, brandishing a bottle. 'Good stuff, too.’
‘Lovely, thank you.’
Crowley stopped outside. Aziraphale was standing in the doorway with his hands clasped in front of him. Crowley shot him a quizzical look.
‘All right, angel?’
‘Oh yes. Perfectly fine, thank you,’ Aziraphale nodded.
‘Er… So… You gonna let me in, or…?’
Aziraphale looked up pointedly.
Crowley looked up bewilderedly.
Aziraphale looked down at Crowley with pursed lips.
Crowley looked up at Aziraphale.
‘Mistletoe ?!’ the demon hissed incredulously.
Aziraphale folded his arms. ‘Yes.’
‘What the fuck, Aziraphale?’
The angel spread his perfectly manicured hands and shrugged. ‘A rather archaic symbolism, I know, but I think you’ll find it as efficacious as ever at warding off evil spirits.’
Crowley glared and tried to stick his hand through the doorway. His fist bounced back as though he’d punched a trampoline, and Aziraphale smirked superciliously.
‘Maybe next time you get it in your head to arrange for emergency roadworks that will prevent the running of the Christmas Parade I spent the last month encouraging the council to organise, you’ll think better of it.’
'No, look, angel, I didn't know that--'
'You bloody well did. You knewexactly what you were doing, Anthony J. Crowley. You didn't want that parade going outside your flat. I know you, you old serpent. And if you think you can swan back in here after ruining all of my hard work... Well. Think again.'
Aziraphale leaned out and took the bottle of very good whiskey from the demon's unresisting hands, and patted him on the cheek.
‘Thank you for the whiskey, dear boy. Merry Christmas.’
And then he shut the door.
Crowley shook his head.
Crowley leaned down and shouted through the letter box:
‘Yeah, Merry Christmas, you complete bastard!’
Chapter 2: Snow
Crowley stamped his feet and breathed warm air onto his hands.
‘I don’t see why we have to be out here so early , Aziraphale,’ the demon complained bitterly. ‘Why couldn’t we just show up, see the lights, and bugger off back home. You know, where it isn’t thirty below .’
Aziraphale tutted. ‘It’s barely below zero, Crowley. Do please try to be sensible...’
‘I’m cold . I cannot be both sensible and cold at the same time. It’s one or the other, angel.’
‘You must be cold all the bloody time then,’ the angel muttered under his breath.
‘What was that?’
‘Nothing. Look, Crowley, you are the one who insisted we come to see the Aurora Borealis. I would have been quite happy spending the holiday season at home with a good book and a nice fire. It was you that dragged us all the way to Finland, not me.’
Crowley grimaced forlornly as he thought of the living room of their holiday cottage on the South Downs, with its cosy little fireplace, and its deep, squishy sofa with a stack of fluffy blankets thrown over the back, ready and waiting for him whenever he started feeling a bit shivery. God, he wished he were there right now.
‘Bugger the bloody cottage,’ Crowley snapped. ‘We’ve spent the last, what, seven? eight? however many Christmases on the South Downs, Aziraphale. I’m bored of it. Just thought we could, you know, mix it up a bit. And I haven’t seen the Northern Lights in ages.’
‘Well stop complaining, then!’
Crowley waved his hands irritatedly. ‘Me complaining?! What am I complaining about!’
‘Oh. Yeah.’ Crowley huffed, vapor pluming from his mouth as his warm breath hit the cold air. He glared at it, as if it were to blame for the weather, rather than a symptom of it.
‘Look, I am sure that we will have a wonderful time,’ Aziraphale persisted. ‘And it won’t be so cold once we are inside. I expect you are rather glad I dissuaded you from your ridiculous suggestion that we stay in an ice hotel now, aren’t you?’
So, so, so glad , Crowley thought.
‘No. Ice Hotels are cool , Aziraphale,’ he said. ‘Er, pun not intended. Would’ve been ace, staying in an ice hotel. Bit different , you know?’ He shivered. ‘The glass tent things look pretty good though. You know, as a compromise.’
‘And they are precisely why we have to be here early , dear boy. The accommodation is only accessible via those awful snow mobile monstrosities.’ The angel pursed his lips. ‘Or by the much safer sled-dog--’
‘I’m not getting pulled anywhere by a wolf .’
‘They aren’t wolves, Crowley, they are huskies, and they are very well trained--’
Crowley shook his head. ‘Nope. Not happening. Not trusting my life to a domesticated predator. And anyway, you know I don’t like animal exploitation.’
Aziraphale sighed and shook his head. They’d had this debate far too many times, and Crowley knew full well the angel’s opinion on the matter. And he knew exactly what Aziraphale thought about a demon being so concerned with animal rights. But, Crowley reasoned, if Heaven was all for the animal kingdom being under humankind’s dominion, then it was really the only properly demonic stance to take to be a dedicated (if unbearably reluctant) vegan. Plus, you know, PETA were definitely infernally tainted. So.
‘Fine,’ Aziraphale continued. ‘The point is that with the unpredictability of the weather, we need to be waiting at the pick up point early so that we don’t risk not getting up there at all. If only this blasted snow would stop…’
‘Can we at least go and wait in the main hotel?’ Crowley said, fully aware of how whiny his voice was becoming, but being too cold and too irritated to stop it. ‘Why do we have to wait outside?’
‘They said that the convoy would be here soon. Be patient.’
‘I can be patient inside,’ the demon whined. ‘I can be patient with a hot mug of irish coffee, sitting in an armchair. Why do I have to be patient in the bloody snow? ’
‘We can go home if you want,’ Aziraphale said.
‘No! I don’t-- Look, this is fun, Aziraphale. The Northern Lights are brilliant. This is a very good way to spend Christmas. All right?’
Crowley stamped his feet again. His toes were going numb.
‘They said that the tent things would have a woodburner, right?’ he asked for the fourth time today.
‘Yes,’ Aziraphale answered, again.
‘And proper blankets and--’
‘Crowley, for the exorbitant prices they charge I would be very surprised if they didn’t provide the basic luxury of not being cold . Each pod comes with its own adjacent sauna , for Goodness’ sake. I am sure that you will be plenty warm enough. Please stop fussing .’
‘When’s it going to stop snowing?’
Aziraphale looked up at the sky with narrowed eyes. The clouds were thick and grey and solidly omnipresent.
‘They said within the next hour…’
‘If those clouds don’t clear we’ll be in a glass-domed tent staring up at a sky that looks exactly like our own bedroom ceiling.’
‘Won’t even be able to see the lights, at this rate…’
‘And if that’s the whole point of being here…’
‘...What are you suggesting?’ Aziraphale said, finally taking the bait.
‘Nothing. Just seems a bit pointless, travelling all that way to stay in a fancy tent in the middle of nowhere to then not even see the Aurora borealis.’
‘Crowley, we have already travelled all the way to Finland …’
‘Can’t we just, you know, rebook for another night, or something?’
Aziraphale pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Crowley, it is four days before Christmas. It took a minor miracle to get this booked in September . We will not be able to simply change our booking now.’
‘I know what you are going to say, and no. They will not rebook us because it’s a bit cloudy. They aren’t God , they can’t can’t control the weather. They can hardly be expected to run a business on that basis, can they? And no, we can’t pray for the snow to stop either…’
Crowley scowled. ‘Wasn’t going to suggest that.’
‘Do you want to go home?’ Aziraphale asked plaintively.
Yes, yes, very much yes
‘No! No. But, look, I’m just saying, it might be more sensible to-- I don’t want to, but…’
‘How about this,’ Aziraphale said. ‘If the convoy doesn’t show up within the next thirty minutes, we’ll not bother with it. We’ll find somewhere else to stay. I’m sure we could find some acceptably comfortable hotel, even at this short notice. All right?’
Ten minutes later, the convoy showed up, ready to take them on the forty-five minute trek to where they would be spending the next four days.
‘Oh, look! They’re here,’ Crowley said as happily as he could. ‘Yay...’
‘Wonderful,’ Aziraphale said, as sincerely happy as Crowley wasn’t. ‘See, dear chap, all worked out in the end. Just have to have a little faith and a little patience.’
‘Come along, then!’
Bugger. Bollocks. Bloody bollocking buggering hell , Crowley thought as he clung onto a wickedly fast snowmobile pelting it’s way through the icy Finnish landscape. Why did I think this was a good idea? Why on Earth did I think I would enjoy spending Christmas in the bloody snow, in a bloody forest, in a bloody fancy bloody tent, just to see some bloody gas particles smashing into each other? I could be curled up on the sofa watching It’s A Wonderful Life and listening to Aziraphale stumble his way through terrible carols on the piano. Goddamnit...
During the ride over, the snow stopped falling and the clouds cleared. When they reached the glass-domed tents, Crowley was pleased to find that not only were they every bit as comfortable as the brochure had suggested, but were also deliciously warm. Through the flexi-glass panels the sky encircled them, crystal clear and of the deepest shade of blue imaginable, punctured with more stars than either Crowley or Aziraphale had seen in decades.
‘You were right,’ Aziraphale said softly as they both sat back on the fluffy pillows and stared up into the night sky.
‘This trip. Much better than another year at the cottage. This is magical , Crowely. I forget, sometimes, just how miraculous this world is. It’s so easy to become wrapped up in habit and routine and the mundane. One allows one’s world to become small, almost self-limiting. But look at this. This world really is wonderful, isn’t it? So much beauty. So much worth protecting .’
Crowley turned his head from the Heavens above them and looked over at his friend.
‘Eh, it’s all right,’ he said with a warm smile. ‘But I think I prefer the South Downs, to be honest.’
Aziraphale turned to look back at him, and stared intently for a handful of moments.
‘Oh, Crowley,’ the angel said quietly. ‘After everything, after all of the nonsense getting here, after all of the stress, all of the grumbling about the cottage and all of our becoming jaded and just a little ungrateful, after me being so reluctant to do this and you being as persuasive as always… After all of the minor miracles I had to perform to get us here... You know, I really just have to say, my dear boy: You had better be bloody joking. ’
Chapter 3: Nutcracker
From out of the kitchen, Aziraphale heard a sudden clattering, as though several items, possibly breakable, had just been knocked off of the table.
He poked his head around the door.
‘Good Lord, Crowley! Whatever do you think you are playing at?’
Aziraphale had been prompted to utter this cry on account of the fact that, upon poking his head through the kitchen door, he found himself staring at his erstwhile arch-nemesis scrabbling up on the kitchen table with a horrified look on his face.
‘Get down!’ the angel demanded, as though Crowley were some sort of disobedient cat. ‘Tch! You’ve knocked my Sunderland jug over. It’s got a crack in it.’
‘What,’ Crowley said in a voice more hissed than spoken, ‘is that?’
‘What is what?’ Aziraphale asked as he bent to pick up the various items his barely-domesticated demon had shoved to the floor during his latest theatrical episode.
Crowley pointed to a little figurine on the countertop near the fridge, propped against a bowl of nuts.
‘What? The nutcracker?’
‘Yes the— That. Why is that here?’
‘Oh for Goodness’ sake, Crowley,’ Aziraphale sighed, shaking his head in exasperation. ‘Are there any Christmas things that aren’t demon repellants? I should have just decked your apartment out in Yuletide decorations instead of giving you that Holy Water, would have been a great deal more efficient…’
‘No, Nu— those things aren’t—‘ Crowley scowled in that particular way Aziraphale recognised as him being reluctant to say something that he knew he really ought.
‘Spit it out, dear boy,’ he said as he set the jug back down on the table, eying the sizeable crack and wondering to himself whether it was worth miracling it repaired.
‘Look just… I don’t want you try and use a N--gk— one of those things as a defense if Hastur or Ligur or whoever unexpectedly shows up one day. Mistletoe, yeah, maybe,but not…’
Azirphale chuckled at the idea of himself facing down any would-be Hellish assassins with a sprig of mistletoe in one hand and a little wooden nutcracker in the other. It would certainly give them pause for thought, at least. Perhaps, Aziraphale wondered, that was why Crowley always insisted on being so imaginatively out-of-the-box. Keep Hell on the back foot.
‘It’s not funny.’
Aziraphale dutifully sobered up.
‘What you are trying to say, in so many words, is that Nutcrackers do not, in fact, hold any intrinsic power against evil spirits? Correct?’
‘Yes. Or, I mean, not really. I think they are sort of a good luck charm, or maybe they once were or…’He trailed off, glancing warily at the offending wooden soldier.
‘Then what on earth is the problem?’
Crowley grimaced, and he looked so wretched that Aziraphale felt quite guilty, both for scolding him and for laughing. The angel put his hand on the demon’s back and patted it reassuringly.
Crowley exhaled irritably. ‘They just freak me out, all right?’
Aziraphale blinked. ‘...I’m sorry?’
‘Well, look at it. Its dead-eyed wooden face with that weird mouth and those horrible teeth... I don’t like it. It's creepy.’
Aziraphale stared at Crowley for a few moments. ‘Creepy,’ he repeated blankly.
‘Yeah. Don’t you think?’
Aziraphale pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘I thought you liked “creepy”. You are a demon .’
‘Yeah, but, I mean-- That’s for-- Those things aren’t meant to be creepy. They’re meant to be… I have no idea what they are meant to be, actually. They’re just wrong. I hate them,’ he shuddered.
‘Crowley, are you telling me that you jumped onto the kitchen table, knocking over my antique jug, among other things, because the nutcracker frightens you? ’
‘Look, it startled me, okay?! There I was, making a cup of tea, minding my own business, then suddenly this, this, this face is leering up at me!’
‘And you are on the table why?’ Aziraphale said, exasperated.
The angel sighed. He was being a bit hard on the chap, really. Crowley may be a bizarre, dramatic, mercurial ball of neuroses in human-shaped-form, but he was Aziraphale’s bizarre, dramatic, mercurial ball of neuroses in human-shaped-form, after all.
‘Would you like me to dispose of the Nutcracker?’
‘It’s not irrational, Aziraphale.’
‘Would you like me to dispose of the Nutcracker?’
‘Look, I don’t-- It’s not-- I know you think I’m over reacting, but I’m telling you, those things are--’
‘Would you like me to dispose of the Nutcracker ?’ Aziraphale repeated for the third time.
Crowley narrowed his eyes. ‘“Okay ”? That’s it? You’re not going to-- I don’t know, argue about it? Try to convince me that I’m being dramatic?’
Crowley looked a little put out. ‘Why not?’
‘Honestly? I’m inclined to agree with you. They are rather horrid little things, aren’t they, now that you mention it.’
‘Yes! They are! I knew I wasn’t wrong about that. Are you sure Heaven didn’t have some hand in making them? They’ve got that weird, misguided, “someone-who-doesn’t-quite-understand-how-humans-work ” heavenly handiwork written all over them if you ask me.’
Aziraphale inspected the little figure from across the room. ‘No, I’m fairly certain they are entirely mundane in their origins.’ The angel pulled a face. ‘Oh, but they really are rather unnerving when you look at them properly, aren’t they...’
‘What did you buy it for?’
The angel frowned. ‘You know, I don’t-- I don’t recall acquiring it at all, actually.’
Crowley swallowed nervously. ‘Hah. Very funny.’
‘But I must have done,’ Aziraphale continued, half to himself. ‘At some point or another. Or someone must have gifted it to me, or…’
They both stared at the Nutcracker, it’s uneven and unfocused blue eyes boring into them from where it stood on the counter top.
‘Did it just open its mouth?’
Aziraphale didn’t say yes, but he also didn’t say no.
From the living room, the radio suddenly and without warning began to play Tchaikovsky’s Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy .
‘Did you do that?!’
Aziraphale shook his head.
‘Oh bugger this ,’ Crowley snapped, and he sprung down from the table, snatched up the offending decoration, and skittered into the living room. Aziraphale followed, and watched as the demon hopped over the back of the sofa and chucked the Nutcracker into the burning fireplace.
They both stared, half expecting a plume of coloured smoke to burst forth, or an eldritch scream to pour from the figure’s open mouth.
‘Huh,’ Crowley said.
‘Did we,’ Aziraphale began in a ponderous tone of voice, ‘two supernatural entities older than the earth itself, who have in our long history achieved such feats as facing down Satan himself, and sitting through the entirety of the 2012 production of Jesus Christ Superstar , just allow ourselves to become genuinely afraid that a Christmas Decoration was, for want of a better word, possessed ? Crowley, we need to stop watching so many horror movies. This is getting ridiculous. This is the fourth thing we’ve thrown in the fireplace since Halloween.’
Somewhere in Hell a demon rematerialised, slightly singed.
'Any luck?' Ligur asked.
‘Nah,’ the demon Hastur said, dusting himself off. ‘Those two are impossible. Cottoned on straight away, they did. Threw me in the bloody fire.’
‘Told you it wouldn’t work,’ said Ligur, patting his friend on the back. ‘They’re too smart.’
‘Well, it was worth a try.’
Chapter 4: Cranberry
It is a well known fact that although demons dance terribly, they nonetheless do so with great enthusiasm. A lesser known fact is that their singing follows suit.
♫But you see! It’s not me! It’s not myyyyyyy fa-muh-leeeeee, in your he-ea-ad in your head, they are fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiightin’!♫
♫With their tanks! And their bombs! And their bombs! And their guns! In your he-ea-ead, in your head, they are cryyyyyyyyin’...♫
♫IN YOUR HE-EEEAAAAA-EAAAAD! IN YOUR HEEEE-EEAAAA-EEAAAAAD! ZOOOO-OOOOO-MBBIIIIEEE! ZOOOO-OOOOO-MBBIIIIEEE♫
These latter lines were accompanied by some equally enthusiastic head-banging, which made Aziraphale clutch desperately at the Bentley’s passenger-side grab-bar.
The radio’s on-off switch clicked.
♫ZOOOO-OOOOOMBIEE EH EH EH OH OH♫ ‘ --Oh…’ Crowley glanced at the now-silent radio, and then at the angel in the passenger seat. ‘Where did the music go?’
‘I turned it off.’
‘Why? That is an excellent song, Aziraphale.’
‘Hmmm…’ Aziraphale murmured in a tone which suggested that whilst this particular opinion was not one which he shared with his would-be-punk-rocker demon associate, he was experienced enough to know which battles to pick, and that was not one of them. ‘It’s not very festive . Can we not listen to Christmas music? Get into the spirit of things.’
‘Crowley, don’t you try and posture with me, my boy. I know that you like Christmas songs just as much as I do.’
Crowley raised an eyebrow. ‘I do not . And anyway ,’ he said, sliding into the serpentine tone of voice he always used when trying to be persuasive, ‘Zombie is sort of a Christmas song. A case could definitely be made for it.’
Aziraphale folded his arms. He knew that tone all too well. ‘Now, I know that I am not what one might call an expert on modern music , but I think I know enough to be quite confident in stating that the song that you were just singing, rather loudly I might add, is about as far from a Christmas song as you can get. Isn’t it about the IRA? Not exactly what I’d call Joyeux Noël ...’
Aziraphale had slid into the tone of voice he always used when baiting Crowley into an argument. Crowley knew that tone all too well.
‘Right,’ Crowley said, setting his jaw firmly. ‘Firstly, the band is called The Cranberries.’
Aziraphale frowned and stared out of the window for a few moments.
'The Cranberries ,’ Crowley repeated, glancing back and forth between the angel and the road.
‘You know. Cranberries. Like people have with Christmas dinner. Red stuff. Like jelly, except they put it on turkey and sprouts instead of having it with ice cream like civilised people. Which, by the way, what is the deal with that ? It’s practically jam. That’s not right.’
‘It’s actually rather good,’ Aziraphale said, a little dreamily.
‘Whatever. The point is, cranberries are a decidedly Christmassy… What are they? A fruit? Not a nut… Are they?’
‘...Berries, Crowley. The clue is in the name…’
‘Oh, right, yeah. Well, christmassy berries , then. So that’s one point immediately in the It Is A Christmas Song column.’
‘Even if I were to accept your frankly absurd suggestion that a band’s name has any bearing on the genre of music they produce, I would still have to question your assertion that cranberries are particularly Christmassy.’
‘Why? They are!’
‘Only since the1900s . And even then, they were far more predominantly associated with Thanksgiving in America. It’s a relatively new phenomenon.’
‘So what? So’s theDelia Smith Christmas Special . Doesn’t make it any less christmassy.’
‘Well,’ Aziraphale said. ‘The point still stands that the band’s name has absolutely zero relation to whether or not one can reasonably asservate that a song is a Christmas song. Absolutely ridiculous notion.’
‘Right. Well. Jesus.’
‘You don’t need to swear at me just because I’m right .’
‘What?’ Crowley blinked, and then laughed in spite of himself. ‘No! Not “Jesus!”; Jesus. The Nazarene. Yeshua ben Yosef. Or ben God, I suppose, depending on what view you take. That Jesus.’
Sighing, Aziraphale asked, although he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer, ‘And how are you going to spuriously relatethat to your fad song of the week?’
‘It’s not a fad, Aziraphale, it’s-- No, look, don’t distract me. Jesus. Christmas is his birthday, right?’
‘Well, no, of course not. You know that as well as I do--’
‘Ah bahbahbahbahbah!--’ Crowley shushed, shooing Aziraphale’s protestations away with a flick of his wrist. ‘In the story . That’s the whole point. None of it’s true , is it? it’s the story that matters. The mythology. That’s the good bit. Who wants to hear about another boring baby in a house in Nazareth, like a zillion other babies who have been boringly born without any fanfare whatsoever. When you could hear about The Son Of God being born in Bethlehem, heralded by a dickhead angel, born in a cow shed , and visited by Kings who were led to him by a star going on a walkabout. That’s Christmas, angel.’ Crowley tilted his head. ‘Well, that and rampant commercialism, of course.’
‘What does this have to do with anything?’
Aziraphale shook his head. ‘You’ve lost me.’
‘Well, I mean, Jesus was kind of a zombie, wasn’t he? The whole rising up from the dead , thing. Classic zombie behaviour.’
‘But he didn’t rise up from the dead. You know that. We were there --’
‘Aziraphale, what did I just say?’
‘Yes, well. In any case, that is the Easter story, not Christmas .’
The demon frowned.
‘Do you have anything else?’
‘Er. Not really.’
‘Then, my dear, that was one of your worst arguments yet. Even worse than the time you tried arguing that aliens built the pyramids.’
‘Hey, leave Giorgio out of this.’
‘Can I please put on some Christmas music, now?’
Crowley huffed. ‘Fine,’ he growled.
Then he remembered the100 Best Christmas Hymns Of All Time CD that he had shoved into the glove compartment after Aziraphale had left it on the back seat.
After Aziraphale had left it on the back seat fifteen days ago…
Crowley bit down on a smirk. Well, if he couldn’t listen toThe Cranberries , he could at least listen to Queen. Anything was better than bloody Christmas songs.
‘I think that Christmas Carols CD of yours is still in the glove box,’ he said nonchalantly. ‘Stick that in, if you like.’
Freddie Mercury’s voice filled the car.
Oh, my love… We’ve had our share of tears…
‘What’s this?’ Aziraphale said, scanning the song list on the back of the case.
Oh, my friends, we’ve had our hopes and fears…
‘This is the wrong CD. I don’t recognise this at all.’
Oh, my friends, it’s been a long, hard year …
Crowley groaned. ‘I do…’
But now it’s Christmas… Yes it’s Christmas….
‘Isn’t thisQueen , Crowley?’
Crowley made a strangled noise from the back of his throat as the angel shot him a pointed, pouted grin.
Thank Go-o-o-od it’s Chriiiiiistmaaaaaaas!
‘It seems that the Bentley is rather in agreement with me on the subject of Christmas songs,’ said Aziraphale smugly. He gave the dashboard an affectionate pat. ‘I’ll have to get her some tinsel. Maybe a little Christmas Tree air freshener.’
Crowley could have sworn the Bentley’s engine began humming along with Aziraphale.
‘Urgh… Bollocks to the both of you.’
♫Thank God it’s Christmas!
Yes, yes, yes, yes it’s Christmas!
Thank God it’s Christmas!
For… One… Da-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-y!♫
Chapter 5: Fire
December 24th, 1914. The Western Front.
It was cold.
Half-frozen pools of mud-slush sat at the bottom of the trenches. Everything was wet and so, in temperatures approaching below zero, everything was icy. Everything was bleak.
And the War was dragging ever on.
‘Come, now,’ a middle-aged man in uniform said to the group of dejected soldiers scattered around him. ‘It’s Christmas Day, my dear fellows. Is that not something to be happy about, at least? Heinrich? Otto?’
‘We should be home with our families, Captain,’ Otto replied, bitterly. ‘Not here, sitting in freezing trenches, getting shot at by the bloody English, if typhus or trench fever doesn’t kill us first. There’s nothing to be happy about. It’s just another day like all of the others. What is good is Christmas in Hell?’
The Captain said nothing. He had nothing that he could say. The man was right, of course.
Otto shook his head in disdain, and turned away.
A young soldier sat with his feet propped up on the walls of a trench, trying to keep his feet out of the way of an icy puddle as he struggled in vain to light his cigarette.
‘Your matches are damp. Here.’
‘Thanks,’ the young soldier said as he reached across to take the lighter offered by a dark-haired stranger with a gloomy voice and sunglasses. He lit his cigarette and passed the lighter back. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked. ‘Don’t think I seen you ‘ere before?’
The man took back the lighter and lit a cigarette of his own, saying nothing.
‘Well, I’m Henry,’ replied the boy - for he was little more than a boy - leaning forward and extending his hand. ‘Henry Watkins.’
‘Hey, come on, Otto, cheer up,’ a soldier whispered. ‘At least Captain Fell is trying to keep our spirits up. Could be worse. Remember Captain Weber? All he’d do is shout all the time. At least Ezra talks to us. Treats us like people . You shouldn’t be so hard on him, Otto. It’s not his fault we’re here.’
‘My sister,’ said Otto, staring up at the grey sky, ‘had a baby three weeks ago. Little girl. She named her Ottilie. Her father, my sister’s husband, he’s a solider too. I don’t know where he’s posted. Neither does my sister. Don’t even know if he’s alive.’
Otto cupped his hand to light his pipe. ‘Ottilie will spend her first Christmas without her father. And without her uncle. And if this war carries on like this, she’ll no doubt spend next Christmas without us, too. In fact,’ he continued, ‘I don’t doubt that the girl will have to spend every Christmas without her father or her uncle. Because, Heinrich, it is extremely likely that we are all going to die .’
‘Ah, Otto, don’t say things like that. You don’t know that. None of us know what--’
‘Go away, Heinrich,’ Otto cut in, dully. ‘I don’t wanna talk to you. I don’t want to talk to anyone.’
‘Okay. Well, if you change your mind—‘
Heinrich turned back towards the Captain, and called out to him. ‘Hey, Captain Fell?’
‘Yes? Yes, Heinrich? Is everything…’
Aziraphale trailed off. He had begun to say Is everything all right? But of course it wasn’t. Nothing was right about any of this.
Aziraphale had been in wars before, of course, here on Earth. On the frontlines, even, doing what he could to relieve some suffering, performing as many miracles as he could manage - misfired arrow here, a dodged cannonball there, an infection unexpectedly dying down at the critical point... He couldn’t do much, not in the grand scheme of things; he was only one angel, after all. But he did what he could. He did his best.
But this… This was different. This was… This was almost beyond words.
Aziraphale really wasn’t sure what he could do to help.
The dark-haired man sighed, and stared carefully at Henry for a few moments, before he finally leaned forward and shook the boy’s hand. ‘‘My name’s Crowley,’ he replied, glumly. ‘Anthony Crowley.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Anthony’ Henry said, far too chipper. Far too young .
‘Yeah, same. How old are you, Henry?’
‘Seventeen,’ the boy replied. ‘Eighteen on the 28th, ack’shully. Bit of an awkward birthday, that. It’s kinda funny, ‘cause me mam always bakes these incredible cakes fer me birthday, even though no-one ever wants to eat ‘em, not after all that food at Christmas, like. She still always bakes ‘em though. Says it ain’t my fault that I were born when I was, and that it w’un’t be fair fer me to miss out on a cake jus’ ‘cause everyone else’d been greedy pigs over ‘th’holiday.’ He laughed, and then he stopped, and then he bit his lip.
Crowley stayed silent.
‘Wonder what they’re all doin’ at home now?’ Henry continued. ‘Prob’ly got a Christmas tree up. Singing carols and the like. My sister, Florrie, she fancies herself as a bit of a singer. She’s only thirteen, and a right pain in the arse,’ he laughed. ‘She’d always be singing, all hours of th’day. Drove me mad.’ He looked down at his boots, heavy with mud and ice. ‘...I’d give anythin’ to hear her singing right now.’
The boy’s voice caught in his throat and he sniffed, brushing tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.
‘This i’nt no way to spend Christmas,’ he said.
‘No,’ Crowley agreed. ‘It’s not really, is it?’
He was supposed to be there to cause trouble. Unspecified. Widespread. But what trouble could he possibly create that even came close to what these humans were making other humans do to one another?
He’d say that it was Hellish, but Hell didn’t come close to this.
He wanted to leave. He kept trying to. But every time he’d decided to go and disappear to some distant tropical island with a lot of alcohol in tow, he’d meet another Henry. Another Jack. Another Tommy. Another poor, stupid kid roped into this insanity, and what was he supposed to do then?
Crowley didn’t like to learn their names. If he didn’t know their names, it was easier to leave. Easier to move on. Easier for it not to be his problem. Easier to forget.
Crowley always learned their names.
‘What do you do for Christmas, Captain Fell?’ Heinrich asked with an impudent grin. ‘Back home, wherever that is for you. What do you do?’
Aziraphale smiled at the man. He liked Heinrich. He was considerate, and hopeful, and decent, and he always had a smile on his face and a kind word for everyone, even in the middle of all of this. So resilient . He was a good person, even under such adversity. Aziraphale was determined to do whatever he could to help preserve that spark of goodness. To preserve them all, God help him.
‘Oh, well, I suppose I would be enjoying a good meal,’ Captain Fell said. ‘And then sitting by the fire, admiring the tree, perhaps even singing a few carols. Probably enjoying a good glass of port,’ he chuckled. ‘What about you, Heinrich? How would you be spending this Christmas, were it not for…’ Captain Fell cleared his throat. ‘Do you have any particular Christmas traditions?’
‘Not really. Not of my own. Not yet, anyway. My family, my mum and dad and sisters and uncles and, well, the whole lot of them, they always celebrate together, usually. Which is lovely, and-- but I’d been hoping to…’ Heinrich grinned sheepishly. ‘You see, I only got married in February. To Anna. My wife, ’ he laughed. ‘Still seems strange, saying that. Still can’t quite believe it. Can’t believe she’d have me, clever girl like that with an idiot like me? Well, anyway, I had been hoping to have a Christmas sort of away from my family, this year. I love them, of course, but I wanted to make it our own...’ He sighed. ‘Lesson in being careful what you wish for, eh?’
‘Tell me about her,’ Aziraphale said, kindly. ‘How did you meet?’
Heinrich smiled and stared up into the sky. ‘Known her ages. She grew up next door. Best friends with my sister. We used to read books together when we should have been asleep. There was this low roof that connected our two houses, and we used to climb out of our bedroom windows at night and sit on it, all curled up under blankets, and read books together. Her dad caught us once and went completely mad. Thought we were up to no good . But we were just reading. And talking.’ He smiled up at the Captain. ‘She’s my best friend.’
‘You must miss her.’
‘Yeah,’ he laughed. Heinrich always laughed. Even when he was sad. ‘I miss her so much that I really don’t know how I’m meant to bear it.’
Aziraphale put his hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What about you, Captain? Anyone back home for you to miss?’
Aziraphale smiled wistfully and looked up into the grey sky. ‘Yes. There’s one person.’
‘Just the one?’
‘Yes. Just the one.’
‘ Exceptionally so.’
‘What about you?’ Henry asked with a sniff. ‘Who’ve you got waitin’ for you back ‘ome, then?’
Crowley took a draw of his cigarette and shook his head.
‘No one, really.’
‘Aw, come off it. Everyone’s got someone.’
Exhaling a plume of smoke into the cold air, Crowley looked up into the grey sky. Ah, fuck it , he thought.
‘I’ve got a friend. Known him… well, forever, it feels like. I don’t know that he’s particularly waiting for me, but...’
‘Is ‘e a soldier, too? Like you?’
I suppose he is. Not quite like me but… Well, he’s more like me than the people he’s fighting for, put it that way.’
Henry shook his head, confused. ‘What d’jya mean?’
‘Well, maybe you’ll, I dunno, run into him som’where out ‘ere. If ‘e’s a soldier, I mean. You never know.’
‘Yeah, maybe. I haven’t seen him in a while.’
‘Oh. ‘Aven’t you?’
‘No.’ Crowley set his jaw resolutely and frowned, staring at the side of the trench pensively. Then he turned to look at the boy square on. ‘And you know what, Henry? I really bloody miss--’
Crowley stopped mid sentence and sat up straight. ‘Do you hear that?’
Otto began to sing.
Quietly, at first, almost inaudible, but not quite. And then he got louder, his voice harsh, and raw, and painfully beautiful against the backdrop of mud, and barbed wire, and fear, and death.
He sang a Christmas carol.
Aziraphale stared at him, and then glanced at Heinrich, catching the man’s eye, which was brimming with tears.
Heinrich smiled. And then he began to sing, too.
‘Is that singing? ’ Crowley said, scrabbling to his feet.
‘Get down!’ Henry hissed anxiously, pulling at Crowley’s arm. ‘It ain’t safe! Yer gonna get yerself shot!’
‘Shhh! Listen. Can you hear that?’
‘No, I don’t hear nothing--’ Henry stopped. ‘No, wait. I can. Wassat? Issat the Germans? What’re they doin’? Are they singin’? ’
‘Hah!’ Crowley shook his head with disbelief. ‘Yes they are, Henry. You bloody people. In the middle of all of this chaos and, and-- look at you. Singing Christmas songs!’ Crowley grinned wildly and poked his head above the edge of the trench. ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS!’ he shouted. ‘Er, I mean FROHLICHE WEIHNACTEN! Hah!’
From across the battlefield, a smattering of Merry Christmas! ’s echoed back to them.
Henry’s eyes lit up. Copying Crowley he stood up and cupped his hands around his mouth to amplify his gleeful, youthful shouts. ‘ MERRY CHRISTMAS! ’ he yelled out, beaming from ear to ear. ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS!’
German and English Trenches
And then everyone was singing.
Candles were pulled out of rucksacks and placed, burning, along the tops of the trenches, despite the danger inherent in doing so. In spite of the danger. In spite of the war .
In spite of everything, the soldiers sang .
No Man’s Land
Two sides of a battlefield, two sides of a war, joined together in song. An unofficial, unauthorised ceasefire.
A back and forth had broken out between the English and the Germans. Only now, on Christmas Day, they were trading songs instead of bullets and tear gas.
Aziraphale wasn’t sure where along the lines it had started, or even on which side, but gradually the soldiers, German and English alike, began to make their way into the middle of the battlefield. Into a No Man’s Land which, on this one day, became Every Man’s Land.
Heinrich and Otto and the others had swiftly decided that they would be among the number heading over the top. Once there, Otto had started an impromptu football game with some of the English lads, kicking around a tin can. It was the first time Aziraphale had seen the man laugh.
Because, of course, Aziraphale had gone with them. To try to keep people safe in case anything went wrong, obviously, but also because he was fascinated . He could feel love , in the middle of all of this. It was unimaginable . It was overwhelming. It was so human .
When Henry had seen people going over the tops of the trenches, he, in his youthful excitement, had determined to go as well. To go and meet some Germans. To see what they were like. He’d grabbed a pack of rations, hoping that perhaps one of the Other Side would swap with him. He’d always wondered what the Germans ate, he’d said. Now was his chance to find out.
And of course Crowley had followed him. He knew his name, now; he had to make sure that the kid didn’t walk straight into a bayonet, or a tank, or whatever other horrible means of mass murder these humans had invented.
But Crowley also went because he was intrigued . Intrigued by humanity’s relentless use of their Free Will. They were breaking all kinds of rules, right then; deciding that, just for now, they weren’t going to kill each other. Disobeying orders, even in the middle of all this. It was interesting . It was remarkable . It was so human .
Aziraphale and Crowley didn’t see each other that Christmas. Neither even knew the other was there, at least not until many, many years later, when it came up in conversation.
But they were there, together. On two sides on a battlefield. Two sides of a war. Two enemies with far more in common with each other than with those above them ordering them to fight. They were there with the best and the worst of humankind, standing among them. Standing with them .
And neither the angel, nor the demon, did anything but witness it. Witness people making their own choices. Witness people acting with love. Witness people declaring an unofficial and rebellious ceasefire.
On that one surreal day in 1914, they witnessed humanity, under the most unbelievable of circumstances, choosing peace on Christmas Day.
Chapter 6: Sleigh Bells
I had no idea what to write for this...
So... I mean...
Enjoy this weird, weird... Well.
Here you go, anyway.
‘Oh, Good Lord, Crowley…’
‘What? What? You said that I needed to come dressed for riding! I’m dressed for riding!’’
Aziraphale shook his head and looked his friend up and down. ‘You’re going to cause a scandal…’
Crowley grinned. ‘What? If it’s good enough for Marie Antoinette and the Parisiennes then it’s good enough for the-- Where did you say we were going?’
Aziraphale sighed. ‘I didn’t. So you’ve been in France, then… Look, when we arrive, could you at least miracle up a hoop skirt to go over those-- What are they called?’
Crowley looked down at her legs and shrugged. ‘Breeches?’
‘I suppose they are much more practical for riding...’ Aziraphale conceded.
‘Much. Have you tried riding sidesaddle, angel? Not happening. I can barely stay on a horse as it is.’ They began to walk over to where Aziraphale had tied his horses. ‘And, actually, on that note, why are we riding? You are seriously going to owe me big time for this. I hate riding…’
‘This snow has made the only road into the town impassable,’ Aziraphale replied. ‘And I promised that I’d be in attendance at their little Christmas get together. So horseback it is, I’m afraid...’ He cast a sideways glance at Crowley. ‘And I will most certainly not “ owe you ” for this. You are here because you owe me after that little run in with Thomas Knyvet… Or have you forgotten?’
They reached the horses.
‘Which one’s mine?’ Crowley asked.
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow and looked at the horses.
One was a large, elegant, dappled-grey Andalusian stallion with an immaculately braided black mane and a sprightly dance in his step.
The other was a small, heavy-set Irish cob with huge feathers on herfeet.Skewbald. She was almost asleep.
Aziraphale affectionately patted the flank of the cob. ‘This is Matilda,’ he said, smiling. ‘Borrowed her from a friend. You’ll be riding her.’
‘Uh… Why can’t I ride the pretty one?’
‘Tch. Crowley, honestly… Matilda is pretty. Very sweet little thing. And anyway, Balthazar is my horse. He’s rather lively ... I don’t think you could handle him. You’ve said yourself that you are no rider. Matilda is a solid little thing. You’ll have no problems with her.’
‘Little being the operative word,’ Crowley complained. ‘Come off it, Aziraphale. She’s barely over 14 hands! I’m a demon ! I can’t ride a pony ...’
Aziraphale looked pointedly down at Crowely. ‘Yes you can. She’s the perfect size for you.’
‘If anyone from Hell sees me on that my reputation will be ruined... ’
‘Crowley, no one is going to see you. Anyway, Matilda is a lovely little horse.’
Crowley eyed the horse sceptically. ‘Why does she have bells on?’
‘To alert people of our presence,’ the angel said officiously.
‘Why would you want to do that?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps in order that we don’t accidentally plow down some unwitting pedestrian down in the dark?’
‘All right, all right, no need to get sharp.’ Crowley stared at Matilda again and groaned. ‘You can’t ask me to do this, Aziraphale. I can’t ride a bloody skewbald pony covered in bells. This outfit is the cutting edge of Parisian fashion. I should be on a, a, a… One of those big, shiny black ones with long hair.’
‘Crowley, for goodness sake, we are riding into a rural township through the woods, not going on a fashion tour. Get on the horse.’
With a growl Crowley relented, clambering onto Matilda gracelessly and sitting astride in her scandalously masculine riding ensemble.
Aziraphale swung effortlessly up onto Balthazar. ‘You ready?’
‘Yeah,’ Crowley replied gloomily.
They rode in silence for a few minutes.
Or, rather, they rode without talking, anyway.
‘This is driving me mad,’’ Crowley complained. ‘Can I please get rid of the bloody bells?’
‘This is torture. Cruel and unusual punishment . And bears will probably hear us and attack us.’
‘There are no bears, Crowley…’
‘You’re a demon.’
‘Well, yeah, exactly. Demons don’t announce their presence . Not with jingle bells anyway. I’m taking them off.’
‘No,’ Aziraphale insisted. ‘You’re here helping me out, that means I set the rules. I didn’t complain when you made me paint myself in blue dye that time in Scotland, did I?’
The demon sighed. ‘Fine . What are the specifics of this favour you need of me, anyway? You still haven’t told me. Aside from slowly killing my will to live via bell.’
Aziraphale shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. ‘...I’m sure I’ve told you.’
‘No,’ Crowley replied, ‘you definitely haven’t .’
‘Oh. Well. It’s nothing, uh-- I promised some people who live in a, um, a town that I’ve been working on that I would attend their little Winter Ball, that’s all. That’s where we are going.’
Crowley narrowed her eyes. ‘You are calling in the Gunpowder Plot favour for a ball ? That isn’t at all suspicious… And what could you possibly need me to join you for, anyway? You’re a bad liar, Aziraphale.’
‘I’m not-- And anyway, well, that temptation I covered was barely… Catesby didn’t really need any tempting , did he? I barely did any work at all. I was just, you know, there …’
‘Ah! Look! I can see some lights, we must be nearly at the estate.’
With that he spurred Balthazar forwards, breaking into an easy canter and leaving Crowley, and the stubbornly plodding Matilda, behind him.
By the time Crowley had caught up, Aziraphale had already dismounted and directing a young boy, who clearly knew more about horses than the angel did, on how he was to stable Balthazar.
‘--and he gets lonely , so please make sure that he is near some other horses, there’s a good lad. ...But not too near, as he does have a terrible tendency to bite … Ah! And here comes, er… Well, if you would please stable this horse, too. Thank you.’
Crowley swung stiffly off of Matilda with a flurry of jingling as she awkwardly caught her riding coat on a row of bells and struggled, noisily, to disentangle herself.
‘Ugh. Bloody bells …’
The boy led the horses away. Once confident that he was out of sight, Crowley waved a hand. Her riding breeches transformed into a ridiculously fashionable dress of dark red that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the court of Louis XVI, but which was somewhat incongruous for a small town in the south of England.
‘Oh, that’s… very… modern ,’ Aziraphale said haltingly.
‘Thanks ,’ she snapped irritably. ‘Now if you would please tell me what is going on …’
Aziraphale fiddled with his jacket. ‘Right, um,’ he began nervously, ‘There is a small matter I should probably raise with you before--’
The angel was cut off by some cheery shouting from the brightly lit building across the way.
‘Mr Fell! You made it! We were beginning to worry you wouldn’t be able to come, what with the snow… Oh! And you brought your wife!’
‘I’m sorry, you brought your what?!’ Crowley hissed.
‘Ah, yes, about that…’
The friendly woman, braving the snow, trotted daintily across to greet the pair. She smiled warmly at Crowley. ‘Oh, my dear lady! Oh, my, but aren’t you fashionable. And so handsome! Oh, Mr Fell, she’s lovely... We have all been so curious to meet you, my dear. Oh! but how impolite of me, I haven’t even introduced myself. Mrs Clarice Beauford. My husband is the heir to the largest estate in the county. This is our humble abode, and our little event, this evening... Oh, but I am rambling, please do excuse me, I have a terrible tendency to talk far too much, and -- Please, please, hurry along inside, you’ll catch your death out here. It’s awfully cold!’
Aziraphale glanced at Crowley, who shook her head incredulously and glared . She had a glitter in her eyes that worried Aziraphale to no end. He was beginning to seriously question this decision.
‘Look,’ he whispered to her as they walked slowly towards the impressively large house, ‘I’ve been working on turning this town around for years . It’s the model of virtue, now. I’m on track for a commendation.’
‘Oh, really? How lovely for you. Why don’t you tell me all about that?’ Crowley said with a bouncing lilt. ‘But first perhaps you might explain why you told these people that I am your wife?!’
Aziraphale grimaced. ‘Well, I didn’t. Not precisely. Look-- They kept trying to marry me off . So I told them that I… Well, that I had gotten married in the spring, whilst I was away,’ Aziraphale explained with a pained expression. ‘I thought that would be the end of it. But then they wouldn’t stop insisting that they meet this woman and…’ He shrugged.
Crowley shook her head. ‘You’re ridiculous, Aziraphale. This is ridiculous. I can’t believe you’ve landed me in this. You definitely owe me for this. You’re going to be doing temptations for the next decade . This is way beyond The Arrangement . Bloody hell, angel.’
‘And anyway,’ Crowley added with a smirk, ‘it’s not very believable, is it? Have you seen me? Like you could land a wife like this. ’
‘I’ll have you know that I was considered the most eligible bachelor in the entire county,’ Aziraphale retorted haughtily, ‘before I married you .’
‘Angel, Louis the the Fifteenth, King of France wanted to make me his mistress. I’m out of your league .’
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows. ‘Did he really? Gosh.’
‘Well,’ Crowley preened, ‘he tried , anyway. So,’ she said, turning to practicalities, ‘what kind of wife am I, then? What have you told them about me?’
‘As little as possible...’ Aziraphale muttered uneasily as they approached the large doors of the manor house.
This was definitely a terrible decision, he’d decided. Absolutely appalling lapse in judgement. Not that Antonia Crowley was an undesirable wife by any stretch of the imagination - quite to the contrary. Were she human she would, as she’d so rightly pointed out, have been quite the catch . A modern day Cleopatra, if ever there was one. But Crowley wasn’t human, and neither was Aziraphale, and they certainly were not married. Or, at least, not-- Well, anyway, the point was, Aziraphale told himself, that they were an angel and a demon , and this fiasco was just inviting chaos. And the peace and general aura of heavenly morality he’d painstakingly instilled in this once-degenerate township was still balancing on a knifes-edge. It wouldn’t take must to disrupt it and return the people to their dissolute ways. But he couldn’t see any way out of it.
Then again, perhaps he was over worrying. Crowley was a professional, after all. And The Arrangement had so far been carrying on very smoothly and to their mutual benefit. He had no reason not to trust Crowley. Except, of course, for the fact that she was his hereditary enemy whose job was to undermine everything that Heaven was working towards, and who represented the absolute antithesis of everything that Aziraphale was supposed to believe in.
But other than that...
‘Look, just please behave yourself this evening,’ Aziraphale whispered, pausing at the door. ‘Nothing dramatic .’
‘Behave myself? ’
‘We just need to briefly show our faces and then we can leave. Simple. Efficient. No chaos required. All right?’
‘You,’ Crowley said with a charming smile as Aziraphale opened the door for her, ‘are going to regret this.’
Aziraphale’s desperate protestations were cut short, as Crowley swanned elegantly into the midst of the ball, amid a flurry of excited whispers.
This, Aziraphale thought wearily to himself, was going to be a long evening .
Crowley was having far too much fun. Aziraphale nervously watched her laughing and talking from across the room. He hadn’t wanted to leave her side, but they’d both been swept in opposite directions by the enthusiastic throng. And he did need to do more work on the local vicar, but letting that man anywhere near Crowley would have been a disaster…
And, so, they remained disconcertingly separate for much of the evening.
Aziraphale kept an open ear on what Crowley was saying, but people kept talking to him and making him lose the thread of her conversations. He’d catch worrying snippets every now and then, but they only served to increase his irritation and anxiety. Generally they appeared to consist of outlandish stories about meeting the Pope, and dining with Madame du Pompadour, and various incredible adventures in mountain ranges and on tropical islands…
It was all completely ridiculous. All completely true , of course. But nevertheless, husband to the dilettante adventuress hadn’t been exactly the image Aziraphale had been hoping to cultivate.
‘Ah, now, where is my darling husband?’ Aziraphale suddenly heard Crowley purr shamelessly, the taunting amusement in her voice painfully apparent to him but evidently invisible to everyone else. ‘I do hate to be separated from him for too long.’
This elicited a mass of coos and aaahs from the gaggle of young people surrounding her.
‘Mr Fell! Mr Fell!’ a young woman called Emma called out to him, ‘Your lady wife requires you!’
They all fell about giggling, and Crowley flashed a taunting grin at the angel as he made his way over to his wife and the adoring mass of people she had attracted.
‘Antonia ,’ he said, as properly as he could manage. ‘Are you quite well?’
‘Oh, Ezra , my dearest husband ,’ Crowley simpered, attaching herself to his arm. ‘You simply mustn’t leave me alone for so long, I do miss you terribly when you are away … ’
‘You seem to be getting along just fine .’
‘One puts on a brave face, of course.’
‘Indeed one does…’
‘I was just about to tell these charming young associates of yours how we met !’
‘Oh? Were you?’
‘Yes,’ she smiled snakeishly, ‘I was. But now that you are here, why don’t you tell them the story? You do tell it so much better than I do, mon amour .’
Aziraphale tried very hard not to grimace.
‘Ah, yes. Um. Well.’ He stared desperately at Crowley, but she just mooned up at him with an extremely irritating dull-eyed moue.
She was baiting him.
The damage, he supposed, had already been done. And if it was a challenge she wanted...
Two could play at that game .
‘We actually first met in a garden ,’ he began, ‘and from that moment on, we were fated to be star-crossed lovers of a truly Shakespearean mould ...’
A sussuruss of interested and shocked whispers rippled through the crowd amassing around them. Crowley looked mildly taken aback.
‘You see, my family and hers were long time enemies,’ Aziraphale continued, falling easily into a dramatic rhythm. Aziraphale was a natural storyteller, and when butting heads with Crowley he occasionally found himself to be more competitive than sensible. And he’d had a few glasses of whisky.
‘When we first met, it was not under what one could call the most salubrious of circumstances. Our families had been at each other's throats for generations, and animosities were at a high point, if not, perhaps, their highest. We were ostensibly blood rivals . And yet, one day, nevertheless, there we found ourselves alone in a Garden, talking .’
Crowley had dropped the simpering wife act, and was watching the angel with a more recognisably Crowley-esque expression, half annoyed and half amused.
‘We weren’t even supposed to look at one another, let alone enter into a conversation,’ Aziraphale continued. ‘But she’d always harboured quite the rebellious streak , and for my part, well, I suppose a combination of social propriety and just a little personal intrigue drove me to not stop the dialogue in its tracks, as perhaps I should have done.’
‘Over the years, we found ourselves repeatedly thrown in one another’s paths. We were both great travellers, and so frequently found ourselves distanced from our, uh, our families and so…’ He shrugged. ‘I suppose we came to realise that we had quite a lot in common with one another.’
‘And then what?’ a rapt voice called out from the crowd.
‘Well, her utter lack of propriety led to her constantly seeking out my companionship. She’d pop up in the most unexpected and inconvenient of places to brazenly invite me for dinner, or to the theatre, or for long walks in the park--’
‘Excuse me ,’ Crowley interjected, ‘I think you’ll find that you were the one doing the inviting. Making me sound like some desperate--’
‘I’m merely stating the facts, dear girl.’
‘They aren’t my facts.’
‘Would you prefer to tell the story?’
Crowley stuck her tongue in her cheek and glared up at him, eyes sparkling. ‘Yes. I would.’
‘Be my guest,’ Aziraphale replied, dropping the gauntlet.
‘Right , well. As my dear husband stated, we were, in fact hereditary enemies. Well, still are , technically. Very old family feud. His side is, of course, just as in the wrong as mine, although you’ll never hear him admit it, but there you have it. Now, our families were not content with merely hating each other from a distance, but were always rather keen to sabotage one another’s business es . That’s where we came in. Saboteurs .’
A few gasps came from the crowd. Mr Ezra Fell had always been considered a most upstanding citizen, but now here he was with his strange and beautiful wife, recounting his misadventurous past? This really was shaping up to be a Christmas Ball to remember.
‘But we soon realised that our, shall we say, professional endeavours were doing little more than cancelling each other out. And so we established a non-aggression pact. We’d lie to our families, tell them that we were thwarting one another at every turn, when in reality we just, well, did nothing, really.’
Aziraphale cut in; ‘Which, of course, left us with quite a lot of free time.’
‘Which we ended up spending with one another,’ Crowley continued.
‘And then inevitably we grew closer.’
‘As tends to happen.’
‘And then one day I asked her to marry me.’
‘...And I said no, of course. Because I am a highly sought after woman with prospects of her own, who didn’t need to be weighed down by a husband.’
‘But, naturally, she came to sorely regret that decision, soon finding herself pining away, showing up at my door at all hours, complaining that I hadn’t been returning her correspondences...’
‘Well, that was just bad manners, angel.’
‘I was busy! And you were being exceptionally annoying.’
‘I can’t even remember what we had been arguing about, now.’
‘Nor me,’ Aziraphale laughed, and then he cleared his throat, remembering that they were supposed to be telling the story of how they got married . ‘Er, and uh, then one day she changed her mind and asked me to marry her, and I said yes.’
‘Can’t tell our families, though,’ Crowley added. ‘As far as they are aware, we still hate each other. Makes reunions a bit dicey, I can tell you.’
‘So, yes. That’s um. Our story .’
You could almost hear the crickets. Judging them .
‘Uh… What an… unusual story,’ their hostess said, breaking the stunned silence. ‘You are clearly a most, um… unconventional couple. I’m not sure how appropriate such a story is, in front of impressionable young girls, but--’’
Aziraphale coughed awkwardly. They had gotten a little carried away.
‘Just joking!’ Crowley cut in with a light laugh and a quick glance at Aziraphale. ‘All made up. Just our little uh, piece of… entertainment for you. The true story is so abysmally boring, you see, so we uh, we thought it might be fun to make up something a little more dramatic.’
‘Yes. Yes. Of course,’ Aziraphale chimed in. ‘Far too dull for a wonderfully lively party such as this.’
‘Exactly. Sorry if we got a little carried away. I think I used to be an actress, or something. Yes. That sounds right. An actress. That explains everything. So I can get a little... All in good fun though, eh?’
The hostess laughed nervously. ‘Oh, yes. Marvellous fun. How, um, fun .’
‘So, you aren’t actually star-crossed, then?’ someone asked. ‘Your families don’t really hate each other?’’
‘Of course not,’ Crowley persisted. ‘Can you imagine ? No. No. Ezra is far too morally upstanding for anything like that. Obey your mother and father , and all that. No, no, I love his parents. Wonderful people. Definitely aren’t arch-nemesises. Nemeses. Er. Look, if that were true, then we would be in danger all of the time, and we definitely wouldn’t be married, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do this--’
Crowley swung around and kissed Aziraphale full on the lips.
The angel blinked.
‘See? Just regular, boring, normal, married people. Completely dull. Enjoy your party! If you’ll excuse me…’
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow.
‘...Bit much?’ Crowley said under her breath as she maneuvered them both towards the exit. People hurriedly went back to their festivities, eager to move on from the strange drama the the once respectable Mr Fell had just delivered.
‘Just a tad…’ Aziraphale muttered back.
‘Sorry. I panicked.’
They snuck out of the party as quickly and quietly as they could, and rounded on the stables to collect their horses.
‘Have I ruined your model town?’
‘No. Well, maybe. But it was my fault, really. I shouldn’t have sprung this on you. Poor taste, on my part. I’m sorry.’
‘Eh, forget it. And it wasn’t that bad. There are worse husbands than you. Louis the Fifteenth, for one.’
‘And, you know, all might not be lost. I mean, they were all pretty scandalised by us, weren’t they? Quite censorious. You see, to me that suggests that they have taken your moral encouragements seriously. Proves that they are virtuous even independently of you. That’s got to be reassuring, right?’
Aziraphale looked back at the manor house, lit up against the darkness and filled with people laughing and dancing and singing christmas songs. ‘I do hope so. I could really use that commendation.’
Crowley placed a hand on Aziraphale’s arm and squeezed. ‘Angel?’’
‘Can I take the bells off of the horse now?’
Crowley was humming, again. He hummed quite a lot. And sang a lot too, at least when he thought he was alone or when the music playing was sufficiently loud that he didn’t feel self conscious. He didn’t seem to feel self conscious about humming, though. Most of the time he didn’t even seem to realise he was doing it. Especially when he was dozing half-awake on the sofa, as he was now.
Aziraphale smiled to himself.
‘Silent night ,’ the angel said, looking up from his work. ‘I knew the man who wrote that, you know.’
‘Silent Night . You were humming it.’
‘Wass I? Ssorry.’ Crowley’s voice was a touch sleep-slurred, his esses hissing ever so slightly. Ever so endearingly.
Aziraphale laughed. ‘No, I wasn’t asking you to stop. I was just saying that I knew the man who wrote it. Lovely chap. You would have liked him.’
All Aziraphale could see of Crowley was the top of his head, mop of black hair mussed up and poking out from behind the sofa as he used the arm rest as a pillow.
‘Mm. Joseph Mohr, his name was,’ Aziraphale continued, smiling the smile of fond reminiscence. ‘A priest. Rather unorthodox fellow in many respects. I got on awfully well with him, for the short time I knew him. He reminded me of you ever so much.’
The demon’s face peeked out from above the back of the sofa.
‘Me? A priest ? Lay off…’
Aziraphale chuckled again. ‘It’s a compliment to you both, my dear.’
‘The guy who wrote Silent Night?’ Crowley said, folding his arms over the top cushion and resting his chin on his hands.
‘Yes,’ Aziraphale replied, nodding and leaning back in his chair. ‘As a poem, first, but later his friend Franz set it to music for him. Extraordinarily interesting young men. Both impoverished, socially undesirable in all the ways that should have mattered, but very bright. Very hard working. And very good hearted. Joseph studied philosophy, before joining the church. Lived his beliefs, that one.’
‘Huh,’ Crowley said.
‘Such a shame that he never lived to see Silent Night ’s success. I don’t know that he ever even thought much of it. He was always mostly focused on charity work, helping children and the elderly, and suchlike. Lovely man. Franz too. Their friendship was one of those which does the heart good to see. Both of them really were paragons of humanity, and I don’t say that lightly. And in spite of all the hardships they faced, too. Quite the rebels against station and circumstance, those boys.’
Crowley grinned. ‘You’ve always been soft for the rebels, angel. You want to watch that.’
‘Do you know,’ the angel continued, shifting in his seat and leaning towards the demon, ‘he had it arranged for guitar ? When they first performed it, Christmas Eve, oh, 1817, 1818, something like that, it was just Joseph on his guitar, and the small choir. Of course that seems quite commonplace now, but back then it was quite scandalous! Guitars were for bars and taverns, drunkards and commoners, not the church . Completely socially rebellious, and done so pure-heartedly, it really was marvellous. Joseph did love his guitar.’
‘Good instrument, the guitar.’
‘Do you still play?’
‘Eh, not well...’ Crowley admitted.
Aziraphale knew he was selling himself short - he’d listened to Crowley play on the few handful of occasions he had been in high enough spirits to not feel self-conscious, whether alcohol-induced or simply as a result of the demon’s mercurial mood swings. He wasn’t a technical virtuoso by any means, but he played with such sincerity that Aziraphale, quite the connoisseur of music if he were to say so himself, found himself wondering whether he’d ever heard anything quite so wonderful.
‘You should get it out,’ the angel suggested. ‘Play Silent Night properly, as it was originally intended. I think I have a copy of the original manuscript for it laying around here somewhere, you know.’
Crowley considered this.
‘Yeah, maybe, actually.’
This surprised the angel, who had expected Crowley to vehemently brush the idea off. ‘Oh, really? Would you?’
‘Yeah, why not?’ Crowley answered casually.
Aziraphale beamed. ‘ Wonderful ! I’ll see if I can find that manuscript,’ he said, standing to his feet and casting a searching eye over the Bookshop. Then his face lit up even more, which was unlikely due to how much he had already been smiling. When the mood struck him, the angel seemed to have an almost inexorable supply of brightness and cheer. It always left Crowley a little bit dazzled. ‘Maybe I can clear off the old piano in the back… We could play together! Put together something of an arrangement, or--’
‘All right, steady on….’
‘I’m a bit rusty, but I’m sure it will come back to me,’ Aziraphale said enthusiastically, flexing his fingers.
‘Yeah, no, angel, I didn’t mean—‘
Aziraphale looked over at him with a tentatively expectant gaze, eyes big and smile hopeful.
What else could Crowley do?
‘Oh… All right then ,’ he sighed. ‘I’ll go and fetch my guitar...’
Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, who wrote Silent Night actually have an awesome story!!!!! Google them! I'm a total fanboy for them now!!!!
The day was bright, if chilly, and Aziraphale found himself in an excellent mood as he made his way through the bustling Oxford crowds.
Aziraphale adored Oxford. He had in fact considered moving back there on more than one occasion, but he could never quite bring himself to leave his bookshop. And as suited as he was to Oxford, he had become rather accustomed to Soho, and indeed Soho to him, over the two centuries he had lived there. His resolve did always waver, though, when visiting this beautiful city.
Crowley would never want to live anywhere near Oxford, though. The demon was an in-the-blood Cantabrigian, as vehemently convinced of the superiority of Cambridge as Aziraphale was of Oxford (they had both undergone a brief and virulently competitive spell in the early sixteenth century which saw them, among other things, enrolling at the rival universities in a retrospectively ridiculous attempt to one-up one another. Aziraphale had earned the modern-equivalent of three PhDs in as many years. Crowley had gotten four. That still rankled,despite the fact that Aziraphale knew that several acts of minor bribery had been involved).
Anyway, with that being the case, Aziraphale had had to eventually admit to himself that he would rather live near to Crowley than near to the Bodleian. And really, as wonderful as that library was, it still paled in comparison to his own collection, with a few notable exceptions. Plus, libraries required one to share access to books. In his little Soho bookshop the angel could hoard his treasures like a mild-mannered dragon, no grubby, grabbing human hands involved.
Nonetheless, the angel did greatly enjoy his visits to the city of dreaming spires . Particularly at Christmas. Few places did Christmases in quite the way that Oxford did. Something about the architecture and the cobbled streets and the glorious weight of English intellectual history lent themselves to this time of year like no other. Every street and every college looked as though they could have leapt straight off of a Christmas card. The only way that the overall aesthetic could be improved was if it would snow, but the weather was proving to be decidedly stubborn on that front.
Aziraphale’s day, thus far, had been spent entirely contentedly. In fact, there was only one thing that Aziraphale could think of that would improve his present mood.
‘Hey! Hey! Aziraphale! Over here!’
Speak of the devil…
Aziraphale turned to see none other than Anthony J. Crowley jogging awkwardly across the street towards him.
‘Crowley? Didn’t think I’d find you here, dear chap. What brings you to Oxford?’
‘Oh, you know,’ Crowley replied dismissively, ‘this and that. How are you? Haven’t seen you since--’
‘Summer of 1952, I believe.’
‘Gosh, has it really been four years?’
‘Four and a half, now,’ Aziraphale said as they started walking. ‘Are you still in that flat in Mayfair?’
‘Officially, yeah. Job’s been a bit all over the place lately, though. That’s why I haven’t been around so much. How’ve you been? I see you’ve finally given in to modern clothing,’ Crowley said, nodding at Aziraphale’s outfit. It had a concerning amount of tartan.
‘And your obsession with it hasn’t altered, I see,’ Aziraphale said, running a critical eye up and down the length of the demon’s small frame. ‘Is that a motorbike jacket? Please don’t tell me you ride a motorbike now, Crowley…’
‘And forsake the Bentley? Blasphemy, angel. Nah, this is fashion , Aziraphale. Don’t know if you’ve heard of it... This,’ Crowley gestured to his outfit, ‘is all the rage in America. Heard of James Dean?’’
‘Didn’t he die, recently?’
‘Is that where you’ve been, then? America?’ the angel interrupted.
‘Mm,’ Crowley said dismally. ‘A bit.’
‘Are you back in England for the foreseeable future, now? Or will you be dashing off again any minute?’
‘Not sure,’ Crowley muttered gloomily. ‘Downstairs has been a bit more… demanding of my reports, ever since I, erm, well--’
‘Ever since you took a century-long nap , you mean?’
‘Yeah. Ever since that… Well, anyway, the point is that if I don’t send regular reports back now, they are going to start thinking I’ve gotten myself stuck somewhere again.’
‘That is what happens, my dear boy, when you tell your superiors that you allowed The Enemy to inadvertently trap you in a basement for eighty years…’
‘What? What was I supposed to say, that I had been asleep ? That would have gone down brilliantly .’
‘You didn’t have to drag me into it…’ the angel muttered.
‘Well, whatever, too late now, isn’t it? The point is that if I don’t get my reports in regularly I’ll have Hastur and Ligur creeping up behind me asking if I need any help getting out of troublesome angel traps...’
Aziraphale shot him a twisted smile and flashed his eyes wickedly. ‘Mm, wouldn’t want that. Quite the social dampener.’
Crowley cleared his throat. ‘But it’s all right. I think I’ve got it figured out. I’m staggering them. My reports, I mean. Pacing myself. Hell has an abysmal grasp of human timescales, and a pretty shaky concept of geography, so I can probably eke out this last trip’s work for the next decade or so. Intersperse my reports from America and Russia or wherever , with current reports from where I actually am. Make it look like I’m being globally proactive whilst actually staying at home in London. Or wherever.’
‘That’s rather clever of you.’
‘I thought so.’
‘Is that why you are in Oxford? Here to cause some trouble, are you?’
‘Nah-- Well, not that I’ll pass up the opportunity if it presents itself. Naturally.’
‘But no, I was, uh, I was here looking for you, actually,’ Crowley said as nonchalantly as he could.
‘For me?’ Aziraphale chirped. ‘Whatever for? Not that it isn’t perfectly wonderful to see you, dear boy. In fact I was just this moment thinking about you when up you popped. Quite serendipitous!’
‘Oh? Were you?’ Crowley blinked. ‘Um. But uh, yeah, no. No particular reason, really. Just… Well, you know how it is. Didn’t have anything much going on, and I hadn’t seen you in a while and--’
‘And you missed me ,’ the angel teased.
‘All right, all right,’ Crowley snapped without much bite. ‘Don’t go on about it…’
Aziraphale hooked his arm through Crowley’s. ‘Well, it is a marvellous surprise. I was actually on my way to a choral performance, if you’d care to join me?’
Crowley thought about it. ‘Where is it?’
‘Isn’t that the one you studied at? Back in the… I want to say fifteenth century?’
‘Sixteenth,’ Aziraphale corrected. ‘And yes, it is my old alma mater , although it was called Gloucester College back then. I did spend some time at Corpus Christi too, lovely little college…’ The angel’s face took on a dreamy aspect for a second before he blinked himself back to the present. ‘Anyway, the grounds of Worcester College are lovely. Beautiful gardens. Have you been?’
Crowley shook his head.
‘The concert doesn’t begin for an hour or so, if you fancied a stroll?’
‘Yes, I mean. Sounds good.’
Crowley and Aziraphale passed a very pleasant hour ambling around the grounds of the college, chatting, and laughing, and enjoying each other’s company as they always did.
Coming to the end of their long circuit, Aziraphale led Crowley back through the orchard and down the path back to the main quad with ten minutes to spare before the beginning of the carol concert.
As they approached the concert location, however, Crowley stopped in his tracks.
‘-- although it does look simply magical in the snow, it really is such a shame that we aren’t due any this year... Crowley? Is there a problem?’
‘Uh… Yeah...’ the demon said querulously.
Crowley pressed his lips together and raised his eyebrows, inclining his head towards the chapel door that Aziraphale was considerately holding open. Or inconsiderately, as the case was.
Aziraphale looked blankly back and forth between the demon and the door a few times before the penny finally dropped.
‘Oh, gosh. Oh. Oh, I am so sorry, my dear boy. I didn’t think. I completely forgot. Oh. Oh dear…’ he babbled anxiously.
‘Ah… Don’t worry about it,’ Crowley said awkwardly. ‘It’s not-- You go ahead. You’ve been looking forward to it. And I’m, you know, not-- Choirs aren’t really my scene , you know. I’ll just…’ He bobbed his head and shrugged. ‘Go on. I’ll be fine. I’ve got places I can go. Forget it, angel. I’ll… See you around.’
‘Absolutely not!’ Aziraphale snapped. ‘It’s Christmas eve , Crowley.’
‘So-- Well--’ The angel pursed his lips and drummed his fingers on the door frame. Then his eyes lit up in a way that both intrigued and worried Crowley in equal measure.
‘Wait here,’ the angel said, before disappearing into the college church.
Crowley spread his hands and shook his head. ‘Right. I’ll just… Right. Wait here then, I suppose. Yay…’
He scowled and leaned against the wall, hoping to look cool and nonchalant like Lee van Cleef or something, but forgetting that the wall bounded the chapel. With a yelp Crowley glared at the stonework before skulking over to sit gloomily on the steps in front of the quad. Some humans gave him a strange look, so he smiled charmingly and said, ‘Spider. Bit me on the shoulder. Bloody things, eh?’ and they smiled nervously and huddled off together somewhere else.
Crowley was just about to light a cigarette when a loud and urgent bell started ringing from within the chapel, followed by what every bad journalist would have termed a lively commotion. Crowley sprung to his feet just in time to move out of the way of a bustle of mildly panicked people all hurrying down the steps and onto the path surrounding the main quad.
‘CALM PLEASE,’ a burly, red-faced man hollered. ‘PLEASE CALMLY MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE QUAAAAD! But not on the grass,’ he added. ‘It’s expensive.’
Crowley craned his neck, looking for Aziraphale. He spotted him just as smoke began to billow out from the open doors of the chapel.
‘What did you do ?’ the demon hissed, circling around behind the angel and trying to keep the levels of awed admiration in his voice to a minimum.
‘What? Me?’ Aziraphale was a perfect model of innocence. ‘I’m sure I have no idea what you are talking about, Crowley.’
‘What’s going on? What’s with the bell and the panicking people and the smoke? Angel?’
Aziraphale spread his hands. ‘Nothing to worry about. Simply a… small fire. That’s all.’
Crowley raised his eyebrows and laughed. ‘A fire? What the-- A fire ? Why?’
‘Candle fell over, I believe. Onto a pile of old hymn books. Dry paper and candles, very bad mix. Very unsafe. They really ought to have known better. Real fire hazard. Accident just waiting to happen.’
Crowley shook his head. ‘But why--’
He was cut off by a priest flowing out of the chapel and announcing to the flustered crowd that the small fire was now out, and that they were just going to allow the smoke to clear and then everyone could return back inside and the concert could commence as planned, if slightly later than scheduled.
Then the heavy doors slammed shut behind him.
With the keys, so it transpired, still inside.
Aziraphale stared up at the sky with his hands behind his back, as though he weren’t paying any attention to proceedings whatsoever.
Crowley was paying a great deal of attention .
The choir were whining about how their performance had been ruined. The concert-goers were complaining loudly and enquiring of the much-beleaguered priest whether they would be able to get their ticket money back (‘ But the tickets were purchased on a donation basis!’ the priest tried to explain, ‘We’ve already used the money to buy Christmas gifts for the orphans!’ ).
And suddenly Aziraphale had materialised in the midst of the throng.
‘I don’t see why the concert must be cancelled,’ he said, voice like silk. Crowley could suddenly see exactly how the angel was always so successful when covering temptations for him... ‘A fire didn’t dissuade Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego now, did it? And Christ himself didn’t give up in the face of adversity, did he? Hm?’’
‘You’re crazy!’ a voice replied from the crowd. ‘What’re we supposed to do? Have the concert in the bally gardens ?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ Aziraphale said in a calm and deliciously persuasive voice. ‘Worcester College is in possession of arguably the best gardens in Oxford, and the weather is dry, if a little chilly. What better way to celebrate Yuletide than carols under the open stars?’’
A susurrus of approval rippled through the mass of people.
And suddenly, as though it had been the plan all along, the choir and the priest and the musicians and the crowd were marching single file through the small passageway - the same passageway which inspired Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole to Wonderland, which Crowley felt was oddly appropriate - and around to the sprawling gardens bounding the Worcester College lake.
Aziraphale and Crowley followed up the rear.
‘Angel, I have to say, I’m impressed,’ Crowley whispered as they passed through the small gated tunnel. ‘Your ability to always get precisely what you want is astounding.’
‘I have no idea what you mean,’ Aziraphale replied.
‘Yeah. Sure you don’t.’
‘I merely… advised. It would have been a shame for all of the choir’s preparations to go to waste.’
‘Mmm,’ Crowley hummed. ‘And the fire? The doors slamming themselves shut like that and locking everyone outside? Good thing you were around to help them all out, I suppose?’
‘One does what one can.’
‘Bit of bad luck though, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes, awfully bad luck.’
‘Good luck for me, though.’
‘Oh, well. I--’
‘And for you , too. Assuming, of course, that you were in fact quite keen for me to watch the concert with you?’
‘Well, I mean--’
‘Almost as though you’ve missed me , angel,’ Crowley taunted.
Aziraphale glanced at the demon, giving him a flickering up-and-down once-over. ‘I suppose I might have missed you. A tiny amount.’
‘Mm,’ Crowley nodded. ‘Just a tiny amount.’
‘Miniscule. Barely even enough to be worth mentioning.’
‘Enough to set fire to a church for me, though?’
Aziraphale tried to sigh but it came out more like a laugh. ‘Do be quiet. Listen, the choir is beginning.’
‘Yeah, all right, angel,’ Crowley grinned.
As the choir sang My Song Is Love Unknown , snow began to fall.
Aziraphale gasped, staring entranced up at the sky before turning his starry-eyed gaze onto the demon. Crowley shook his head at the millennia-old angel who was still awed and entranced by frozen water falling from the sky.
‘I didn’t think it was supposed to snow until January,’ Aziraphale whispered, leaning in close.
‘Well, weather can be a bit unpredictable, can’t it?’ Crowley replied, keeping his eyes firmly on the choir.
Aziraphale gazed down at the demon, white snowflakes settling on his dark hair, and he smiled.
‘Merry Christmas, my dear,’ he murmured, taking Crowley’s arm.
‘Yeah, Merry Christmas, angel.’
I may be somewhat biased towards Worcester College... BUT... if you do find yourself in Oxford, you really ought to visit it. It has grass you can walk on... :O
Chapter 9: Chestnuts
In Turin in December.
What on earth are you doing in Turin, dear boy? No, on second thoughts, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.
Isn’t it awfully cold there this time of year?
I am in Catania for the winter (much more clement!!), but I suppose I could make the trip North, provided I had sufficient motivation.
Duke of Savoy’s chef is excellent.
P.S. What are you doing with the Duke of Savoy?
D. of S. imported new ingredient: “Sugar”. Like honey, but not. It’s v. sweet, you’ll love it. The chef does some indecent things with it involving chestnuts.
P.S. As I said; excellent chef.
I may be convinced…
Staying near Rivoli Castle.
If you’re coming via Sicily, bring qubbayta??
My dear, you are getting quite the sweet tooth… I will see what I can find.
Is it not terribly cold in Piedmont, though? Why don’t you come to me in Sicily, instead? The climate is much more amenable here, and I know how you feel the cold.
Can’t. Working. Sorry.
Oh, that is a shame. I’ve found the most charming little taverna which sells the best red wine I have had since that Falernian in Baiae. All of that volcanic soil, I’d imagine. Grows the most exceptional grapes. They serve the most wonderfully rustic food, too. Simple, yet wanting for nothing. Exactly the sort you prefer.
The villa I’m staying at is only a short walk from the beach. Lovely and quiet, practically have the place to myself.
But I’m sure Turin will be lovely too, if you really can’t get away…
Sounds perfect... But I really can’t get away.
I understand. You are dedicated to your work. It’s admirable.
Although, if I am in Turin I will be obligated to thwart whatever schemes you are working on, if only to justify my presence there in my reports.
Just a heads up, my dear.
Should I read that curt missive to mean I can expect you in Sicily before Christmas? Let me know.
Yours, as always,
P.S. Please do try to bring some of those sugared chestnuts with you. They sound scrumptious.
You are unbelievably irritating, you do know that?
P.S. I will.
Chapter 10: Gold and Silver
‘No. No, I don’t like it,’ Crowley said, casting a critical eye over the exterior of the bookshop.
‘What do you mean you don’t like it? That’s rather rude of you, Crowley.’
‘What, you’d rather I’d lie?’
‘Well-- No, obviously not. But-- Well what’s wrong with them? I thought the lights were rather fetching. Festive.’
‘It’s not the lights themselves, it’s the colour… Look, how about this?’ Crowley waved a hand and the Christmas lights garlanding the front of Aziraphale’s bookshop flickered from silver to gold.
‘See, now that’s much better,’ the demon proclaimed.
‘Gold? Really, my dear?’
‘What’s wrong with gold? Gold’s good. Warmer, for one thing. And more Christmassy. Isn’t gold one of the gifts the kings or wizards or star-hunters or whatever they were gave to the baby Jesus in the Nativity story? Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh? Which, come to mention it, is frankly ridiculous. Who gives thoseto a baby? The gold, yeah, all right, I can sort of see that, investment for the future, pay for his university tuition or something, but Frankincense and Myrrh? Who the hell gives a baby Frankincense and Myrrh?’
‘I believe they are symbolic. Kingship, godhood, and mortality, or something like that…’ Aziraphale murmured distractedly, still frowning at the newly gilded lights. ‘You know, I really think I prefer the silver, Crowley. Suits the colour scheme of the shop more, don’t you think?’
Aziraphale nodded his head at the lights and they changed back to silver.
Crowley made an irritated noise with his tongue and shook his head. ‘No, angel, that’s-- Silver’s too cold. Too, too, too-- Silver’s like the stars, right? Distant, and, I mean, yeah, I love the stars as much as the next person, but they aren’t exactly welcoming, are they? And anyway, the shop definitely has a gold-leaning aesthetic, not silver.’
He transformed the lights back to gold.
‘Crowely, it’s my shop.’
‘Well, but-- Well I have to look at it, don’t I? You barely go outside, I’m the one who has to see it every time I come over.’
‘You leave the shop even less than I do, recently, Crowley. And anyway, I can see them through the window from my desk.’
‘Look, who is the fashionable one out of the two of us? Hm? Who knows aesthetics? I took an interior design course, angel.’
‘Why are you being so insistent?’
Silver lights. Gold lights. Silver lights.
‘Why are you being so stubborn?’
Gold lights. Silver lights. Gold--
The lights sparked dramatically and made an interesting fizzing sound in protest of being so disabused by the arguing occult and/or ethereal entities.
Aziraphale and Crowley stopped their bickering, and stared up at the shop.
‘Oh. Oh, well that actually looks pretty good,’ Crowley said.
‘Hmm,’ the angel replied. ‘Silver and gold, alternating. Yes, that really is rather pleasant, isn’t it?’
‘See, my dear boy,’ Aziraphale said smugly, as though this had been his idea rather than a mistake of over-miracling, ‘teamwork always pays off.’
‘I’m not sure that was teamwork, angel…’
‘Well, in any case, that’s that sorted. Silver and gold lights it is. Now. Cup of cocoa?’
‘Wouldn’t say no,’ Crowley grinned.
‘And afterwards you can help me decide which to place on the roof: the illuminated Father Christmas model or the neon Nativity Scene.’
Freezing on the spot for just a second before narrowing his eyes, the demon replied, ‘...You’re kidding?’
Aziraphale grinned mischievously, holding the door for his demon. ‘Of course, dear boy.’
‘Oh, thank G-- someone.’ Crowley laughed, relieved. ‘I can’t believe you actually had me there, for a second.’
‘Oh, ye of little faith,’ Aziraphale chastised. ‘Surely you know me better than that by now, my dear?’
‘Well, it did make me wonder, I have to say.’
Aziraphale headed towards the kitchenette in the backroom whilst Crowley flopped down on the sofa.
‘Because obviously I’ll be going with the Nativity scene,’ the angel added over his shoulder with a wicked smirk.
‘No, wait, what?! Angel...!'
Chapter 11: Pine
Crowley drummed his fingers on the arm of his sofa and glared.
‘You think you’reso clever , don’t you?’ he hissed. ‘You call that a threat ?’
The only reply he received was silence.
‘I won’t hesitate. I can assure you. I am quite capable of taking you out if necessary. Ask your friends. Ask them what happened to their friends. I am the Demon Crowley. Don’t underestimate me. Are you listening? Do you hear me?’
In the absolute silence, you could hear a needle drop…
Crowley snarled and leapt for his phone, dialling furiously.
‘Aziraphale? It’s me.’
Oh, hello Crowley, my dear. To what do I owe the--’
‘I need help,’ the demon cut in.
‘Oh? With what? ’
Crowley shot a menacing look towards the perpetrator brazenly standing over the scene of the crime in the corner of his living room.
‘My Christmas tree keeps shedding its pine needles.’
‘...Excuse me? ’
‘My Christmas tree!’ the demon yipped irritably. ‘I thought I’d, you know, I haven’t ever had one before and-- It’s dropping bloody needles everywhere. I’ve tried threatening it, I’ve tried pleading with it, I tried spraying it with hairspray, I even gave it some beer , but the damned thing is still turning my living room floor into a damned pincushion. One went in my foot just now. It broke the skin, angel…’
No sound came from the telephone’s speaker, other than a faintly muffled noise which sounded irritatingly like stifled laughter.
The angel cleared his throat.‘Ah. I, uh, I see your predicament, my dear.’
‘Well?’ Crowley snapped.
‘Well what? ’
‘You’ve had Christmas trees before, haven’t you? What do you do to keep them in line?’
‘Nothing. I’ve never really had a problem with shedding, not before January, anyway. And then it’s usually a good reminder that I really ought to take the thing down .’
‘You’ve never had this problem?’
‘Well, not personally…’
Crowley made a strangled sound.
‘But I’ve heard that it is a very common problem. Lots of people experience this, every now and again, even experienced horticulturalists. Nothing to be ashamed of, my dear.’
‘You’ve never had a problem with-- ngk.’
‘Well, yes, but--’
‘Is it me? Am I somehow lacking? Am I not intimidating enough? Am I not… scary ?’
Aziraphale tutted sympathetically. ‘My dear boy, of course you are. You are extremely scary. Absolutely intimidating, when you want to be.’
‘Don’t patronise me, Aziraphale.’ Crowley put his hand over his eyes. ‘I’ve lost my touch. I’m too out of practice. Ever since that blasted Banana Plant died on me I’ve… I’ve lost my mojo, Aziraphale…’ He glanced at the plants dotted all around his flat and lowered his voice. ‘And they know, angel. I know they do…’
‘ The plants! My plants! The Christmas tree! They are conspiring , angel…’
‘Crowley, I really think that you are over-reacting-- ’
‘I’m not. You don’t know plants like I do, angel. You don’t know how they think …’
‘ ’m not entirely certain that plants have the capacity to-- ’
‘I’ve figured it out! I know what I have to do, now. Thanks for your help, Aziraphale. Ciao!’
Crowley hung up the phone.
And Crowley stood up, wearing a serpentine grin.
And Crowley was suddenly holding a saw .
Crowley showed up at the Bookshop the next day, bearing gifts. Aziraphale accepted them with a cheery grin.
‘ Do you want me to wait until Christmas?’ the impatient angel asked, ‘or can I open them now?
Crowley shrugged. ‘Go ahead.’
‘Oh!’ Aziraphale chirped happily as he opened the parcel. ‘A set of pinewood coasters, how lovely! And potpourri? Is that pine scented, too?’
‘Mmhm,’ Crowley nodded. ‘Made them myself… ’
all out of darkness, we have light,
which made the angels sing this night.
- Sussex Carol
Tokyo, it is said, never stops and never sleeps. Not even on Christmas Day.
Crowley was in Tokyo.
Crowley was not sleeping.
Crowley was wandering.
Christmas in Japan had a decidedly different feel to Christmas in other cities. It felt entirely different, for example, to Christmas in London, which was what Crowley was presently avoiding in particular. He was in a dark mood, this year. He did not want to deal with Christmas markets, or obnoxiously bright lights, endless Nativity scenes, or the relentless, torturous, soul-destroying Christmas songs in every shop, and on every radio channel, and piped ceaselessly straight out into the streets. Not to mention the bloody carolers . When had that become fashionable again?
No. Crowley was in no mood to deal with an English Christmas. He was in no mood to deal with anything, really. He could feel himself slipping, again. Last time he’d felt like this he’d slept for most of a century. But that wasn’t an option, now. He’d get a bit of an early wakeup call, if he tried...
And so, Crowley was instead wandering, aimless, around the centre of Asakusa, drinking tropical-fruit-salad flavoured soy milk out of a little yellow carton, and idly wondering whether or not he wanted to go and get a strawberry cake in the little fast food joint underneath the train station.
What Crowley was emphatically not doing was thinking about the fact that the ticking time-bomb that was the Antichrist had now been on Earth for a little over a year, and that Crowley therefore had just under ten-or-so years before everything was, most probably, going to go boom.
He was also, with an equal measure of determination, not thinking about the angel Aziraphale.
What he was not thinking about the angel Aziraphale was that, once Things Kicked Off, Crowley probably wouldn’t be able to see him anymore. That on top of having to watch the world he loved so much burn, Crowley would probably have to watch it burn alone. That whether Hell won or Heaven won, he was going to lose. He was going to lose his best friend. He was going to lose his world. Lose his freedom…
And even if they succeeded in their plan to screw up Satan’s son enough that Hell would have to bake a new one from scratch, that would only buy them another ten or eleven years. How many times can you ruin a perfectly good Antichrist before they started getting suspicious? Not enough times, Crowley had thought dejectedly. A thousand times wouldn’t be enough…
Crowley wasn’t thinking about any of this.
No, Crowley was doggedly and determinedly thinking about the strawberry cake from the diner under the railway tracks.
Christmas made it worse. Everyone was always so happy at Christmas. Or, well, not everyone , obviously, but there was this general aura of hopefulness peppered all over the holiday that only reminded Crowley of how hopeless his situation was.
He missed Aziraphale. And that was Bad. That was Dangerous. It hadn’t been, before, when missing Aziraphale just meant picking up the phone, or dropping by the shop, or sniffing out the angel’s presence and lurking up behind him and saying Hi, Angel, Fancy Lunch? Missing Aziraphale now meant getting a Sneak Preview of Eternity, and Eternity had a long run time.
Crowley liked to be on his own. But he hated to be alone. There was a difference. He was feeling extraordinarily alone, right then, and deliberately so. What he was trying to do was get used to it. Loneliness. Missing the angel. He was testing it out. Practicing.
He wasn’t doing a very good job of it.
Because despite the suffocating relentlessness with which these anxieties plagued his thoughts, he couldn’t ever quite believe them. He knew that the situation was hopeless, of course - he wasn’t stupid, after all - but he didn’t believe it. He couldn’t bring himself to believe it. Not deep down. Not really... The universe couldn’t be so cruel. Could it? Could it?
It was too much to think about. Better to just ignore it, for a while. Better to give yourself some space. Better to get acclimatised to the yearning ache, vaccinate yourself against it so that when it hit in earnest, if it hit in earnest, it wouldn't rip you to pieces. Better to just bugger off to Japan and go to theatres and arcades and bustling metropolises and let all of the bright lights distract you from the dark fears that kept on gnawing away relentlessly at your soul.
Crowley wandered into the diner beneath the train tracks and ordered the cake that he didn’t want in his broken Japanese. Then he slunk into a seat next to the fogged-up windows and stared with some dedication at absolutely nothing. The place was almost empty, and Crowley paid no notice to the few other patrons that came and went, other than to shiver at the bitter draught that whispered through the warmth whenever the door was opened.
‘Are you going to eat that,’ a slightly prissy, very English, and unbelievably welcome voice said from out of nowhere, ‘or just glare at it?’
Crowley jerked up his head to find himself staring at the angel, who slid smoothly into the seat opposite.
‘Aziraphale?’ the demon gaped. ‘But-- What-- You’re-- Why aren’t you-- Why are you-- You’re supposed to be in London?’
Aziraphale carefully folded his winter jacket and placed it neatly on the seat beside him. ‘Am I? I don’t recall any rule saying that I had to be in London.’
‘Why are you here? What are-- And how did you find me?’
‘Were you hiding?’
The angel pursed his lips as though he were handling a fractious toddler refusing to eat his broccoli.
‘Don’t give me that look,’ Crowley snapped, stabbing at his cake and shoving a forkful of it into his mouth. ‘Mmnm nrt uh rnn oo yo-ed uh wiyou warwih ir ecshalayshun, oo uh-uv-uh- itsh --’ He swallowed the cake. ‘--you are. So don’t play coy with me.’
Aziraphale raised a solitary eyebrow. ‘Merry Christmas to you, too.’
Crowley glared at the angel, who folded his hands patiently on the table, serene as anything.
‘We just-- we… We can’t keep doing this,’ Crowley finally said in a low voice. ‘Acting as though… It’s…. Things are...’ The demon sighed and rubbed his forehead. ‘The Antichrist is going to grow up really bloody fast, and then everything, all this, all of-- And maybe we’ll be able to… Maybe our plan will work, but then what? We’ve only got ten years, Aziraphale. And then, if we’re lucky, another eleven after that. And then what?’
‘We’ll think of something,’ Aziraphale replied calmly. How was he so calm? It was infuriating.
Crowley spread his hands and gesticulated desperately. ‘How can you say that!’
‘The right thing will happen, Crowley. You forget, it’s planned, it’s--’
‘ If you bloody say It’s Ineffable I swear to-- to someone that I will jump over this table and throttle you myself.’
Aziraphale shrugged. ‘Well, it is.’
‘But, but, but… But what if the plan is-- isn’t--’ the demon licked his lips nervously. ‘Angel, it might not-- I mean, we might not…’ Crowley trailed off. His glasses slid to the end of his nose, and the expression in his eyes said everything he couldn’t find the words for.
Aziraphale studied the demon’s face for a few moments. ‘Well, all the more reason not to go AWOL and refuse to take my calls for four months, hm?’ He smiled kindly as he said it, which somehow made the words sting more.
Crowley growled and pushed his glasses back up. ‘It’s not as simple as that.'
‘And it’s not as complicated as you are making it either, my dear. Now, come on.’ The angel pushed himself up from the table and unfolded his coat. ‘I’ve heard that the karaoke bars are rather different in Japan than in London. Private booths, food and drinks service, multi-storey buildings with excellent views… I read about them in one of those magazines you always leave lying around the bookshop. Always thought they sounded rather fun. And now, here we are, perfect opportunity. Karaoke at Christmas. Almost like caroling.’
Crowley stared at the angel, trying to make sense of the sharp left turn this conversation had just taken, and failing.
‘Well, come on, dear boy. Don’t just sit there gawking like a fish. I believe I just requested that you take me out. It is Christmas, after all.’
The angel was standing in front of him now, elbow extended, waiting for the demon to take it.
‘Er...’ Crowley stood up and, frowning dubiously at Aziraphale, snaked his arm through the crook of the angel’s elbow. ‘Right. Well. There’s a, er, quite a new place, just the other side of the theatre district. We can go there. If you like. I suppose.’’
‘Perfect,’ Aziraphale beamed, his smile doing a much better job of chasing out the darkness haunting the demon’s thoughts than bright lights and flashy distractions had been able to. Even though, in many ways, that smile was the catalyst for those very same dark thoughts. Psychology could be a bit of a bugger.
‘Erm, angel…’ Crowley said as they left the warmth of the diner and stepped out into the brisk evening air.
‘Karaoke is not the same as caroling.’
‘If you say so, my dear.’
‘So no Christmas songs. Not even, you know, like, non-carol-ish ones. In fact, I am putting a veto on the use of the word Christmas this evening. All right?’
‘If that’s what you want.’
‘Bloody hate caroling.’
‘I know you do.’
‘So annoying . Knocking on people’s doors, singing the worst songs and always out of key, some sniveling kid always being pushed to the front, dragged along against their will by an overbearing grandmother, and yet I’m the rude one if I tell them to go away…’
It wasn’t a conventional Christmas, but then, Aziraphale and Crowley weren’t particularly conventional creatures. And, after all, if they really did only have ten more Christmases left before whatever was to come… Well. Unorthodox or traditional both sort of stopped seeming so important. None of that really seemed to matter.
The important thing, Crowley realised as he choked on a terribly mixed cocktail by laughing too hard at Aziraphale enthusiastically singing Bohemian Rhapsody, the thing that really mattered was that they lived, now. That the world lived, no. That there were still Christmases to celebrate. And New Years, and Cinco de Mayos, and St Patrick’s Days, and April Fool’s Days, and Groundhog Days, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Sundays and all of the days, all of the precious, perfect, passing days. All of the days that were left. They still had time to figure something out. They still had time.
Aziraphale sat back down and thrust the microphone into Crowley’s hand, then leaned over the state-of-the-art digital karaoke machine and keyed in a song with a worrying glitter in his eyes. Crowley groaned as I Say A Little Prayer flashed up on the small screen in an obnoxiously garish font. Trust the angel to pick something like that . Crowley sang it anyway, of course. No one could say no to Aretha. And Crowley, he had realised some time since, was never terribly inclined to say no to Aziraphale.
Glancing across at the angel, laughing and joining in with the chorus as Crowley hammed up his performance to the nth degree, the demon realised something else. He realised that, in spite of everything, because of everything, the most important thing was that he and Aziraphale were together. Come what may, they had that at least. They had now, at least. They had each other. That’s what mattered.
And, for now, that was enough to drive away the darkness.
That was enough to let Crowley’s spirit sing.
I used to live in Asakusa. I spent an extremely enjoyable Christmas just like this - possibly one of my best Christmases ever, actually. 10/10 Would Recommend. I sang Kate Bush and Green Day. And my own Best Friend sang Queen. Was great fun.
Chapter 13: Wrapping Papter
PEN AND ZOPH ARE BACK!
(and therefore this is set in Show!Canon! Although I'm really stuck in book!characterisation mode, so if the book is bleeding through a bit... *shrugs* Well, read of it as you will! Pahahah.)
‘I don’t want to wrap anything.’
‘Don’t be like that.’
‘I’ll be how I like!’
‘You don’t like being a bratty little bitch, do you, Zo? I mean, you are like, super good at it, but it doesn’t seem very fun...’
The angel Zophiel, one half of the newly appointed Earth Liaison team in Heaven, replacements for the now-renegade Aziraphale, wrapped their arms around their knees and started crying noisily.
‘Zophiel… I know you’re fake crying. Your real crying is more like--’ Penemue made a hiccoughing, gasping, spluttering noise. ‘And your fake crying is more like--’ Penemue made a sound like the mutant hybrid child of a donkey and a piglet being forcibly dragged somewhere it didn’t want to go, possibly with squeaky-toys attached to its feet. ‘And right no you are definitely fake crying. Or at least hamming it up. Dunno who for. I’m the only one here, Zo. Save your whining for, like, Michael, or something.’
‘I’m noooot whiiiiiiiiiining’, Zophiel whined. They added a pathetic little sniff onto the end for dramatic effect.
‘Dude, it’s not that big of a deal.’
‘It is that big of a deal, Penemue. It’s not fair! It’s our first year in this stupid job that I don’t even want, and, like, the only big perk was that we get to go down there sometimes, and like, I was, like, you know--’ each word was now being punctuated by a gasping little sob, ‘--like, really, really, really looking forward to iiiiiiit!’
Penemue reached over and patted their friend on the shoulder.
‘I know, babe. But it’s just one Christmas. Maybe we can convince them to let us spend it on earth next year, yeah?’’
Zophiel sniffed sadly. ‘But I was excited for this year. I had it all planned. We were gonna go see them…’
‘Well, we can go and see them next year.’
‘They might already be married by then!’
‘I don’t think they have any plans to get married…’
‘Yeah, well that’s why I wanted to go see them! I mean, aside from, you know, like, wanting to because I love them. I wanted to, like, you know, like, you know. Give ‘em a nudge.’
‘Yeah, Zo, I dunno if that’s a good idea... We talked about this. If we see Aziraphale and Crowley A) we have to do it very, very carefully so that Heaven doesn’t cotton on, and B) we have to be cool . All right? Playing Cupid isn’t playing it cool. That’s, like, the opposite of cool. We’re cool , Zophiel. Right?’
Zophiel pushed the reindeer-antler headband back up onto their head, as it had started sliding down onto their face. ‘Yeah. We are pretty cool.’
‘Exactly. So come on. Get it together. Help me wrap their gift.’
Zophiel nodded, and the bells on the antlers jingled Christmassily.
‘D’you think they’ll like like it?’ Zophiel asked, reaching up onto the desk for the selotape.
‘Yeah! Of course! Duh. It’s an awesome gift. Like, best gift ever. It’s perfect. Hold down this bit of paper for me?’’
‘All right. Michael and Gabriel and that, they won’t know we sent it, will they? Or, like, track it or anything? Last fuckin’ thing we need is them being all like We Thought We Made Ourselves Clear That No Contact Was To Be Made With The Renegades Blah Blah Fucking Blah...’
‘Nah, it’s fine. Sami sent me up one of the little masking devices that Hell uses to obscure little things from Heaven. I’ve jigged it about a bit so sending the parcel down won’t register on the track-y thingamajig for miracles.’ Penemue ripped off a strip of tape with their teeth. ‘Not that Michael pays any attention to anything we do anyway. Move your thumb.’
‘Ah, that’s lit. Good old Sami. Hey, did she say anything about whether they’ve got any plans to replace Crowley Down There, yet?’
Penemue shook their head. ‘Mm-mm. Not yet.’
‘What still !? It’s been like… How long? Like… Like, there’s been like three new series’ of Queer Eye since that Apocalypse clusterfuck. Dragging their feet a bit, aren’t they?’
‘Sami said they aren’t even sure whether they’re gonna replace him. No one really knows what’s going on, do they? Like, is Armageddon off the table for good now, or…? Fuck knows. They certainly don’t have any idea. So, like, why put agents on Earth if not to secure souls for the War, if there might not even be a War? Don’t even know why Michael gave us the job, to be honest.’’
‘Probably just to stop me emailing her about it all the time. It’s a good fucking gig, man. Won’t have to bribe Tanariel in body-issuing every time we wanna cheeky little trip to Earth. Now we’re, like, official . Epic, bro! Sam and Charlie aren’t going after the job, then?’
‘Hah! As if!’
‘What? Why not? They’re the Earth obz. team in Hell, makes sense.’
‘Duh, dude you know what Sam and Chaz are like. Not exactly go-getters, are they?’
Zophiel scoffed. ‘Oh, and we are?’
‘Uhhhh yah. Compared to them. Look, you know as well as I do that Samiaza is like, waaaay more angelic than either of us. She doesn’t give a fuck about Hell. They probably wouldn’t trust her even if she did go after it. And, like, fair e-fuckin-nough. She’d fuck them over first chance she got, Noah Fence. And Chaziel… He’s just weird...’
‘I like him. He’s cute. Quiet.’
‘All he ever talks about is the weather. Like… obsessively. That’s all he ever “observes” of earth, too. Sami told me. All the reports he sends to Lord Beelzebub, just obsessively detailed accounts of earth weather.’
‘That’s actually hilarious. I bet old Beezy fuckin’ loves that.’
‘Wouldn’t like to be in those review meetings, that’s for sure-- Ah, for fuckssake, there isn’t enough paper to cover this end. I think I’ve got some extra sheets in that drawer, would you just--’
Zophiel hopped to their feet and rummaged through Penemue’s chaotic desk drawer until finally unearthing a sheet of very, very green wrapping paper. It had frogs on it.
‘Here you go!’
‘Thanks, bro. Look, I’ll hold it here, you, like, tape it to the other bits of paper. Cover up the gap.’
‘Looks all right,’ Zophiel pronounced as they finished sticking down the last bit of tape. ‘We got a card to go with it?’
‘Yup. But I dunno if we should sign it. I mean… Is that a bit… I know we’ve got the tracker-blocker thing, but it feels a bit…’
‘Yeah, I know what you mean, man. But we can’t just put nothing, can we?’
Penemue bit the inside of their cheek thoughtfully. ‘Yeah, that’d be a bit…’
‘Yeah. Like, they might be all Who The Fuck Sent Us This Amazing Gift, and you know how anxious they both are. I don’t wanna freak ‘em out. It’s ‘sposed to be a nice thing…’
Zophiel frowned and pursed their lips. ‘Well… Well, how about… You remember that time we skivved off to earth and went skating and Crowley ran you over?’
‘Well, so, I’m guessing that hitting an angel on rollerskates with your car is pretty memorable, so they probably remember that too.’
‘Where’re you going with this?’
‘Well, I mean, like, couldn’t we just sign it From Your Biggest Fans On Rollerskates, or something? ‘Cos that’s like, proper cryptic to any interlopers, but Aziraphale and Crowley are smart dudes, like, they’d figure that out easy enough, wouldn’t they?’
‘That’s actually a good idea, Zo!’
‘Don’t sound so surprised. Rude.’
‘Hey, and we sent them that letter before, right? What did we sign that with?’
‘Our human names, I think.’
‘Yeah! Yeah! What were they? I was Ash, you were… Peach? Kiwi? Banana…?’
‘That’s the bunny. We could put those, too. Then they’ll definitely know it’s from us. And then they won’t freak out! And then they can just be like Oh, Woah, What A Thoughtful And Amazing Christmas Gift From Our Absolutely Favourite Angels Ever, Hooray! Now We Will Have An Extra Super Fun Christmas, Oh And Is That Mistletoe Above Us? Oh, Well, It Is Tradition After All My Dear Boy…’
Peneume proceeded to make kissing noises whilst Zophiel giggled.
‘They’d better invite us to their wedding when they get married. I have a speech .’
‘Babe, I don’t think they’re gonna get married. S’abit, you know, like… I dunno. Marriage, really? Bit old school.’
‘Dude, they’re like, a bajillion years old. They are old school.’
‘Yeah, I guess. Well, we’ll see. For now, card! Go get your glitter pens, Zo!’
The South Downs, Christmas Day
It was 8am, and the sun was just beginning to nose its way out of bed and up into the cloudy sky. The weather was wet and windy, as was traditional for Christmas Day in England. Inside of their cottage, Aziraphale and Crowley were curled up under warm blankets, and comfortably refusing to get up. It was Christmas, after all, and for anyone without small children, not having a lie in on Christmas Morning was practically crime against the Crown.
Crowley stretched, and pulled the duvet up under his chin, blinking in the orangey-pink sunlight as it streamed in through the window. ‘Mmmnnmmm…. Morning,’ he murmured sleepily. 'Oh, yeah, and Merry Christmas.’
Aziraphale smiled without opening his eyes. ‘Merry Christmas,’ he said back.
‘Now,’ Crowley said, turning over onto his side and propping himself up on one elbow, ‘is one of us going to get up and make a pot of tea…’
Aziraphale shook his head and pressed himself back into the very fluffy pillow. ‘Too cold.’
‘...or are we going to go back to sleep until the heating gets its arse in gear and decides to warm the place up a bit?’
‘The latter sounds infinitely preferable, my dear,’ Aziraphale mumbled, drowsily.
‘And miss even more of Christmas morning, angel?’ Crowley tutted. ‘What happened to getting up early for a nice walk along the beach?’
Aziraphale groaned and turned onto his other side so that his back faced the irritating demon. ‘Go back to sleep,’ he muttered.
‘What happened to lie-ins are pointless, you don’t need sleep, Crowley, it’ll be much nicer to have a brisk stroll on Christmas morning. Hm?’
‘I’m asleep…’ the angel hissed.
Crowley laughed and prodded Aziraphale between his shoulder blades. ‘You’re a nightmare, is what you are.’
The demon flopped back down onto his back and was just falling back into a deliciously pleasant doze, when there was a loud knock at the front door.
Aziraphale groaned. ‘Blast it, what time is it, Crowley?’
Crowley glanced at his watch. ‘8:15.’
‘Who on earth could be at the door at this ungodly hour?’
‘Carolers?’ Crowley suggested.
‘Bloody keen carolers. It’s a fifteen minute drive to the nearest village!’
‘Well, I don’t know, do I?’
Aziraphale sighed and heaved himself up. ‘I suppose I’d better go and see who it is.’
‘I’ll go, if you want.’
‘No, it’s okay. I should get up, anyway. Shouldn’t waste the day sleeping, really, should I?’
If Crowley hadn’t been deeply irritated at the mysterious door-knocker before, he certainly was now. Aziraphale having a lie-in was about as rare as Hell freezing over (which actually wasn’t all that rare, as Hell’s central heating was, quite frankly, a shambles) and Crowley had been rather looking forward to it.
‘Well, look,’ the demon said, swinging his own feet onto the wooden floor and wincing at how cold it felt on his bare feet, ‘how about we both go see who it is, and then I’ll make us a cup of tea, and we can come back to bed to drink it, yeah? And have some cake for breakfast, too? Or mince pies? I’ll heat them up first…’
‘No, if we’re up we may as well stay up. And didn’t you want to go for a walk? May as well, now.’
Crowley cursed under his breath as the angel shuffled into his slippers and pulled on his dressing gown and headed for the front door. The demon trailed along behind him with his hands shoved sullenly in his robe pockets.
They opened the front door and were met with a cheery and vaguely familiar face.
‘Good morning, fellas! Cor blimey, what a coincidence, eh? Been a while since I last saw you two! Glad to see you’re still together, then. Nice pair of lads I thought when I met you. Right, well, I’ve got a package for you! Sign here, if you don’t mind!’
Aziraphale peered over his reading glasses at the clipboard thrust under his nose.
Crowley narrowed his eyes. The logo on the man’s shirt read International Express.
‘You?’ the demon hissed. He stepped protectively in front of Aziraphale, who tutted and elbowed him back out of the way, muttering about getting in his light. ‘What are you doing here? Who sent you?’
The International Express Delivery man smiled brightly and shrugged. ‘Don’t know. I just get assigned the job, no questions asked. When you get paid as well as I do, you don’t ask questions!’ He took the clipboard back off of Aziraphale. ‘Right then! Nice to see you again, chaps. Merry Christmas!’
And the International Express Delivery Man drove away.
Aziraphale and Crowley shut the door against the cold wind, and went to sit at the kitchen table. The package was set down squarely in the middle of it, and the angel and the demon stared at it, warily.
It was wrapped in holographic-silver wrapping paper printed with a design of rainbow christmas trees, apart from one panel on which there appeared to be neon green frogs.
‘What on earth…’
‘Does he… deliver regular packages, or only occult ones?’ Crowley asked anxiously.
‘I’m not sure… Certainly no regular postman delivers on Christmas day. Not even Yodel make their deliverymen work today, and you know how awful they are…’
Crowley eyed the hideous box dubiously. ‘Do you think it’s safe to open it?’
‘I don’t sense anything particularly malevolent about it,’ Aziraphale replied, although he didn’t sound confident. ‘Look, there’s an envelope attached to the side. Perhaps we could open that first?’
Crowley jiggled his leg beneath the table. ‘I don’t like this…’
‘It might not be… them. They did say they were going to leave us alone, my dear.’
‘Yeah, but it’s been a few years… Maybe they’ve changed their minds.’
‘By sending us a Christmas gift?’
Crowley glanced at his angel. ‘I suppose that is a bit, ngk, unlikely… And Hell would never send something so garish.’
Aziraphale took the envelope and carefully slid out the card.
It said "Happy Birthday Baby Jesus!" on it, alongside a picture of a cactus wearing sunglasses and a Father Christmas hat.
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow.
Clearing his throat, the angel opened the card and read aloud the writing inside:
‘Dear Aziraphale and Crowley,
First of all - Merry Christmas! We hope you are having a totally super epic Christmas day, although if that delivery dude has done his job right, then you should be getting this at like 10am or something, so Christmas hasn’t really started, I guess. We hope you’ve had a nice Christmas breakfast, at least!
We shouldn’t be sending this, really, but, you know, fuck it. You guys are awesome, and you totally, like, sort of helped save the world. And we love the world. And we love you guys. You’re the best. Seriously.
Anyway. Merry Christmas, hope you like the gift!
Hopefully we’ll be able to come and see you some time. We’ve been promoted, how cool is that? It’s not quite the same as your job used to be, cos, like, you were officially declared… I don’t know, obsolete, or redundant, or something like that, so box-ticky stuff said we couldn’t just like, have your exact job, but it’s sort of the same, ish. Point is, we get to come to… *something scribbled out* Er, that is to say, we are humans and your job is being a bookseller, and that’s what we’ve been promoted to, and we’ll hopefully get to go on a business trip or something to the South Downs or Soho, wherever you are, really, at some point, and maybe we can hang out?
Lots and lots and lots of love and Christmas Wishes,
Your Totally Super Biggest Fans, Who Are Mediocre Rollerskaters, and Definitely 100% Human,
Ash and Apple
And then, in different handwriting at the bottom: Also please if you get married please please please send us an invite to your wedding please please please. Merry Christmas. I love you!
P.P.S Super hope you like the gift, we spent ages choosing it <3’
Aziraphale finished reading and absently stood the strange little card up on the table.
Crowley pulled a face and said ‘ Ngk.’
‘Well,’ Aziraphale replied awkwardly, ‘I suppose that at least clears up who this is from… Do you want to open it, or shall I?’
Crowley, who would rather the package have been from Satan himself than from those two insane angels who seemed to treat his and Aziraphale’s life like their favourite soap opera, shook his head. God only knew what could be inside that box. For all Crowley knew it could be wedding-cake toppers of him and the angel. Or a book filled with instagram-filtered images of them together surrounded with little hearts and cliche, sappy quotes from Hallmark Christmas films. Probably was that, actually. And although his relationship with Aziraphale was far less guarded than it used to be, Crowley was still not one for being erriblydemonstrative. Or having others being demonstrative on his behalf…
‘No. You open it,' the demon said. 'They’re crazy, it’s probably, ngk., filled with exploding glitter, or something. I hate glitter.’
Aziraphale carefully peeled the gaudy wrapping paper off of the parcel.
And then they stayed silent for a few moments. Staring.
Aziraphale frowned, and finally spoke. ‘What is it?’
‘Uh…’ Crowley’s voice cracked as his face broke, against his wishes into a wide grin. ‘Well,’ he said, starting to laugh, ‘I, er, I think it’s a, uh, a Scalextric set…’
If you've reached the end of this chapter and find yourself asking "Who the fuck are Penemue and Zophiel, and why should I care?" then I direct you to my Inktober collection of short stories (geniusly titled Inkt-GO-ber...) and then to the chapters "Freeze", "Ash", "Misfit", and "Injured", wherein you will, if you are so inclined, be able to get to become better acquainted with the biggest Aziraphale/Crowley shippers this side of Port Talbot.
Chapter 14: Eggnog
‘Crowley!’ Aziraphale chirped excitedly as his poked his head around the heavy oak-framed door of the cottage’s kitchen and into the cosy living room adjacent. ‘I think I’ve managed it, this time!’
Crowley glanced up from his magazine. ‘Oh, have you? Congrats.’
‘Well, come on! I need you to taste it, dear boy. This is all on your behalf, after all…’
‘Angel, I did say you didn’t have to worry about it. Honestly, I’m not even that much of a fan of--’
‘Nonsense, Crowley. It’s traditional.’
‘Seventeen hundreds, I think.’
‘Yeah, in America, maybe. Last time I checked, we were still in England.’
‘Well, I’ve made it now, so do come and try it. I think this one has finally cracked it .’
With a sigh Crowley peeled himself up from the comfortable sofa and sauntered, dragging his feet, into the kitchen.
He was being unbelievably ungrateful, he did know that. And he did feel quite guilty over it, really. Aziraphale had always been fairly critical of Crowley’s vegetarianism , never quite trusting it (and rightly so, as Crowley had always emphatically insisted that his dietary preferences had firm origins in the infernal, and definitely had nothing to do with the fact that he was a soft-hearted, overly-sentimental old fool who spent far too many of his formative years on earth hanging around with shepherds).
But ever since Crowley had taken the further step of going almost completely vegan after the whole Buggering Up The Great Plan debacle, the angel had been weirdly accepting. It was a bit disconcerting. Crowley had had a whole defensive speech prepared, and had been slightly put out when his had work hard proven utterly unneeded. Aziraphale had been faultlessly supportive.
Unfortunately a great deal of that supportiveness came in the form of culinary experimentation .
Aziraphale was a great connoisseur of fine dining. He had throughout his life enjoyed (and critiqued…) meals prepared by the greatest chefs the world had ever seen. His tastes were refined, particular, and expensive, and his palate was second to none. When it came to wine-tasting, no one could tell their Le Pin’s from their Petrus’ as expertly as the angel. He knew what he was talking about when it came to good food and good drink, was the point.
And yet, somehow, Aziraphale was a catastrophically abysmal cook.
Enthusiastic, though. Crowley had to give him that.
That was a new development. Before the Apocafuckup (Crowley’s preferred term for the event, mostly because of how it made Aziraphale wince - less for the cursing, more for the cavalier bastardisation of the English language), Aziraphale had never been at all inclined to step foot in a kitchen, except to make a cup of tea or to have words with the new chef at the Ritz.
But since they day the world hadn’t quite exploded, Aziraphale had started getting keen on being a bit more hands on . And when they bought the holiday cottage on the South Downs, well, that was the end of it. The kitchen had an aga . It also had a newly fitted top-of-the-range electric hob, and one of those excessively large and expensive American refrigerators (Crowley had purchased that one. It had an ice dispenser that did ice cubes, tiny ice cubes, and crushed ice. Really upped the demon’s cocktail game, that).
And, now, it also had a blender, a slow cooker, a food processor, a waffle iron, an ice cream machine, and a weird thing with worryingly ominous metal hooks on it that Crowley still couldn’t figure out the purpose of.
Yet, with all of this dark gadgetry at his disposal, Aziraphale still seemed incapable of producing anything in any way edible . Thankfully he was at least self-aware enough to recognise this ( most of the time, anyway…), and so Crowley hadn’t had to try to eat the blackened, over-salted, misshapen monstrosities that the angel pulled out from, apparently, the portal to Hell situated behind the doors of the aga.
Aziraphale could, however, make an excellent eggnog.
He’d always been good at that, even right back in the day before it was associated with Christmas, and was still called posset. He was quite proud of his egg-nog creating abilities, and even had quite the creative flair - his Peppermint Schnapps version had gone down remarkably well with the Lost Generation .
And so, when Crowley had, with put-on bravado, announced that he was going plant-based , Aziraphale found himself facing a bit of a roadblock.
But he was never one to be so easily defeated, as Heaven and Hell had both learned, back in that fateful summer. After all, if the Antichrist couldn’t stop the angel, a vegan eggnog recipe had no chance .
It was certainly putting up a bloody good fight though.
Crowley stalked into the kitchen and eyed the slightly off-coloured glass of whatever it was warily. Granted, it did look more like eggnog than the earlier attempts had. It was certainly in the ballpark.
‘What’s in it?’ Crowley asked tentatively as Aziraphale pushed a glass of the stuff into his unwilling hand.
‘ Well ,’ the angel began, ‘after having, erm, limited success using tofu--’
‘Bit of an understatement…’ the demon muttered.
‘And after the interesting, but not quite right bananas and coconut cream attempt--’
‘That actually wasn’t bad,’ Crowley cut in. ‘Definitely not eggnog, but very drinkable. Add some pineapple juice and some Malibu and you’d have been onto a winner with that one.’
‘ As I was saying …’ Aziraphale continued with a pointed look, ‘I have learned from my mistakes. This version is made with cashew nuts, dates, almond milk, maple syrup, various spices, and a generous shot of bourbon. I think it tastes rather authentic. Or, at least, as authentic as a vegan eggnog can be, in any case. Go on then, dear boy, try it!’
Crowley took a deep breath. ‘Right. Okay. Bottom’s up…’
Taking a sip of the sticky liquid, he swished it around his mouth experimentally and frowned.
Aziraphale waited with clasped hands, baited breath, and an endearingly hopeful expression.
‘Wow,’ Crowley said after finally swallowing the drink. ‘That’s actually good, angel! Properly good. I’m impressed.’
Aziraphale beamed .
‘Oh, really? You’re not just saying it?’
‘When have I ever lied to you? Anyway, if I lied about that then I’d have to keep drinking something I hated, because you’d keep making it for me. As much as I hate to say it, in this scenario honesty is the best policy . Remember the aubergine spaghetti disaster?’
‘How could I forget…’ the angel murmured. Then he brightened once more. ‘Well, that’s wonderful to hear, my dear. I am so glad that you like it. And now I have the base, I can begin experimenting… ’
Crowley held up a hand. ‘No, honestly Aziraphale, I like this. Just plain . Simple. You don’t have to start adding stuff…’
‘That’s the fun bit, Crowley! Now, I have been thinking for a while of doing a xocolatl iteration, and adding some of those ghost chilis you’ve been growing…’
‘Aziraphale, if you think I’m going to drink--’
‘Just try it, my dear, that’s all I ask. It’s that or I go back to shortbread again.’
‘All right, all right. No need to threaten torture , angel!’
Chapter 15: Ghosts
Apparently it used to be traditional to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve, in England! THIS NEEDS TO BE REVIVED!
Anyway. This may be actually unreadable, as I just smashed it out iin the last hour and a half. It's now 25 minutes away from Christmas, at least where I am, and I need to get up at 530 to start cooking, because I'm antisocial and have a shared kitchen, and want to get in there before anyone else. Therefore, enjoy this in its unedited, un-proof-read, in fact un-read at all glory.
Chaos and nonsense.
Just how we like it.
‘If you’ll excuse me, my darlings, I really think I ought to be going up the wooden hill to the land of nod about now--’
‘Oh, come now, Florence, you surely can’t be going to bed yet? Why, it’s barely gone ten o’clock!’
‘Oh, yes, Flossie darling, Ginger is quite right, you simply mustn’t leave yet! It’d ruin my entire Christmas!’
‘Bobbie, I’ll still be here in the morning, I shan’t ruin anything. I’m so awful tired, the journey down was beastly …’
‘The girl is talking of retiring when we haven’t even had any ghost stories yet! Whatever next, stopping Christmas day before anyone has any Brussels Sprouts? Ending the New Year’s party at eleven thirty? Good god.’
‘Blimey, yes, that’s a bally good point there. Flossie you can’t go to bed before we tell ghost stories. What would the Baby Jesus say? Hm?’
‘Harold, that’s blasphemy !’
‘You say everything is blasphemy, Annie. You’re no fun’
‘I didn’t say I minded , darling…’
‘Oh, Flossie, please stay for some ghost stories. We’ll lower the lights, and-- Oh, Ginger, did you remember to bring down Mummy’s old ouija board?!’
A young man with extremely red hair reached under the chair and pulled out the board with a flourish.
‘Of course, sister dearest.’
‘Oh… Bobbie, really, I don’t think I like the sound of this…’
‘Flossie do stop being such a stick-in-the-mud and sit down.’
Flossie sat down next to Bobbie, who was sat next to Ginger, who was sat next to Harold, who was sat next to Annie, who was sat next to a quiet girl named Rose, who sat next to me, and I, in turn was sat, closing the loop, next to Flossie.
These names are, for the most part, irrelevant, but it does help to have placeholders for participants, don’t you think? Better than saying “Persons A, B, and C”, or neglecting to mention people altogether. Then you might get the impression I was sitting entirely alone in my room and talking to myself. Which, I suppose, for the central purpose of this narrative, wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but it really would put rather a tarnish on my social status. Make me sound rather an antisocial cad, don’t you think? Exactly. I knew you’d agree.
It was, should you have yet to have surmised, Christmas Eve. More precisely, it was Christmas Eve in the year of Our Lord, 19XX. A middling year, as years go, mostly notable, in my diary at least, for the excellent rowing by the Blues in the regatta, and for the marvellous (in the precise sense of the word…) events of that Christmas Eve…
But here I am stalling the narrative by telling you how incredible the narrative is, when I am quite sure that you are sitting there tapping your fingernails on your glass of scotch, or red wine, or perhaps, for the tee-totalers among you (my sincerest condolences), on your tumbler of orange juice, and wondering to yourself when the bally author is going to hurry up and get to the good stuff?
Patience, my dear reader. I’m getting to it.
‘Okay then,’ Bobbie said, leaning forward, eyes sparkling with her usual rigorous sense of mischief and glee, ‘who’s first?’
‘Well, I could tell the story of the Grey Nun…’
‘Oh, god, Harold, not your bloody Grey Nun story again. Awfully dull, darling. Someone else? Anyone else? Save us from Harry, please…’
Rose, who, as far as I had noticed at least, had barely spoken a word all evening bar to thank the butler when he’d topped up her glass of port after dinner, raised a cautious and pale little hand.
‘Rose, sweetheart, you have a ghost story?’
She reminded me a great deal of a timid little bird, or perhaps some sort of small and easily startled horse. Certainly not the type of girl one would expect to have any terribly interesting ghost stories. Or any terribly interesting stories in general. Or, honestly, any interesting anything at all. She had dull written all over her. Were I to cut her in half I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the word stamped right through the core of her like a stick of Brighton Rock.
Shows what I know, eh?
As I said, Rose nodded. ‘Yes. It’s a true one, too. No one ever believes me, but I swear on my grandmother’s grave, it’s as true as anything.’
‘Oh, well now I’m very intrigued, dearest,’ Bobbie said pleasantly. Bobbie is a jolly pleasant girl, aside from all the troublemaking. ‘Let’s hear it, Rose.’
Rose stared at us all with wide eyes. ‘Okay. But please don’t tell me I’m making it up or anything, because I’m really truly not, and I haven’t ever told anyone this before... I don’t believe in making up stories. My grandfather always said that was just a step away from telling falsehoods, and I never, ever do that. So you must all promise to believe me, first?’
I caught Ginger’s eye and quickly looked away again, lest I start laughing, or set him off laughing, and hurt the poor girl’s feeling.
We all nodded sombrely and promised not to think she was lying, and to take every word from her mouth as God’s own truth. Evidently none of our grandfathers had ever drilled into us that telling falsehoods was such a cardinal sin, as we were all lying through our back teeth. Well, I was at least, and I know for a fact that Ginger and Bobbie were, too. The others could have gone either way.
‘Okay then,’ Rose said, a slight quiver in her voice. ‘I’ll tell you.’
And thus her story began:
‘When I was small, must have only been about four years old, my brother Jack and I were up awfully late one night. My father was a doctor, you see, and my mother often assisted him on emergency call outs, and as Jack was so much older than me -- ten years older, for those of you who don’t know him -- they would, on occasion, when there was such an emergency, leave Jack and me alone in the house whilst they rushed off to deal with sicknesses, or a tricky childbirth, or an accident or what-have you.
This was one of those nights. I can’t recall what the emergency was that called them away, but it must have been rather serious, as they were gone for several hours. I never liked to sleep without Mummy or Daddy in the house, and Jack didn’t like to make me cry by insisting, and so we were both sat up in the parlour, even though it must have been awfully late. Jack was reading in Daddy’s big armchair, and I was sitting by the window and staring out into the dark street.
That’s when I saw the man. Or the-- Well. I saw something, in any case, and he did look like a man, otherwise we never would have… But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?
I sat and watched the man through the window. He kept pacing up and down, walking a few yards in one direction, then turning around and pacing back the same way he’d come. He kept waving his arms around and shaking his head as though he were having an argument with someone, only there was no one else there.
Then, suddenly, he turned and stared at me. Straight at me, as though he knew I was watching him. It scared me something rotten, but I mustered up a smile and gave him a little wave, because Grandmother always taught me to be polite. But the man waved back, and then started walking across the street.
As he got closer, I was able to get a better look at his face and I... I still can’t explain it properly to this day. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since, and I hope never to again. It makes my skin crawl just remembering it. Remembering him .
It was as though he simply didn’t fit in this world. Like he was from somewhere else . And his teeth were sharp , like those pictures of piranha fish you see in encyclopaedia’s and magazine’s and the like. Horrible . And his eyes, oh good God , his eyes were completely black . Like pits. Like staring into Hell itself. Everything about him felt wrong. He felt evil .
The man, although I don’t truly believe he was a man walked right up to the window, right in front of me, and tapped on the glass. I was frozen to the spot, my heart racing like a bunny rabbit facing a fox. He pointed at the front door, then he pointed at me, and then he pointed at the door again and nodded.
He wanted me to open it.
And I can’t tell you why, even to this day, but I did . It was as though I couldn’t say no to his request. I don’t know if I was too scared, or too obedient or-- But the thing had asked me to open the front door, and so, and so… And so I did .
Jack looked up from his book as I stood up, and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was going to get a glass of water. I lied to him, to my own brother. I never lie. Never. But I could feel those black eyes watching me, and I knew that if I told Jack what I was really doing he would stop me, and somehow I knew that if Jack did that then something bad would happen. That he’d get hurt or-- And don’t ask me how I knew it, but I did . And I believe I was right, I really do. That thing would have…
I walked into the hallway, and up to the big front door. I had to stand on my tiptoes to reach the lock.
When I opened the door, the man was already standing there. He crouched down to my level, and when he smiled it felt like fingernails being dragged down a blackboard, and he smelled like dead flowers.
He stared at me for a few moments, and then held up a match in front of my face. He struck it against the stonework and it sparked into life.
“Pretty, ain’t it?” he said to me, with a voice like pebbles cracking together.
“Mummy says that matches are dangerous,” I told him,
“Do you always listen to your Mummy?”
“Well, I was just speaking with your Mummy, and do you know what she said?”
I shook my head.
“Your Mummy said she wanted you to come with me, and use one of these little matches to set fire to a big old building that no one really wants around anymore. Do you think you can do that for your Mummy?”
“I need to tell Jack…”
“Oh no you don’t,” the man snapped, seizing my wrist, “you don’t got to tell no one, girlie. Now, come with me. And don’t even think about screaming, or I’ll tell your Mummy that you were disobedient, you understand?”
The man dragged me out of the house. I tripped on the front steps and cut my knee, but he didn’t seem to notice, or if he did he didn’t care. I stumbled back to my feet and he pulled me all the way down the street to the church at the end of the road. It was a beautiful church.
“Right,” he said. “This is it. Now you, little girl, you are going to take these matches, and you are going to go into that church, and set it on fire.”
“I don’t think God will like it very much if I set His church on fire, sir. He’ll be awful cross…”
“Listen, either you go into that church and burn it down, or I go back to your house and kill your brother, got it?”
I shook my head. My grandmother had always taught me that God would protect me. That if you do the right thing, then God will always look out for you, and keep you safe, in this life and the next.
And then the man changed . Just for a second. Just for a second he became this… this… this monstrosity. I can’t even describe it.
And suddenly two more men appeared beside me.
They didn't feel evil, at all. Quite the opposite, in fact...
The man with the black eyes, the one who had dragged me from my house, he panicked and tried to run away, but the man with blonde hair tripped him up, and the other man, with dark hair, he grabbed him by the collar at the same time. The evil creature buckled, and choked, and gasped, and began trying to plead with the men.
“Oh, bloody hell, ” the dark-haired man snapped. “Who are you? No, actually, I don’t care who you are, you’re clearly a nobody. So who sent you ? Not Beelzebub or Dagon. They know better. They might not be sophisticated, but they are far too clever for this . Sending some idiotic little minion up to earth? Really?”
“That’s an Angel …” the creature wailed. “What’re you doing with an Angel , Crowley!? Why’re you attacking me, get it! ”
The other man, the Angel , stepped forward. “Oh, well, it’s rather a long story, but please rest assured that mine and Crowley's arrival here together was pure coincidence. I don't even know him. Well, by reputation, of course, but certainly not--"
"Shut up, angel..."
“Crowley, let me go! Get the Angel!”
“Tell me who sent you.”
The creature, who was looking less and less human by the second, whined. “Hastur, Duke Hastur,” it finally replied. “Wanted to… to make you look bad. Said you’d been sleeping on the job again, that they needed someone to get up here and actually do some work, I--”
The man, Crowley, growled and threw the creature to the ground and cursed. “You get back down there and you tell Duke Hastur that you are a pitiful excuse for a demon who shouldn’t be trusted to cause an explosion in a dynamite factory. And that Anthony Crowley sends his thanks for the wake up call , but is quite awake, and working . Go on, get!”
He kicked the creature, and it yelped, and then scurried away into the darkness.
“That’s just brilliant ,” Crowley muttered. “Just what I need right now…”
“I know I may have overstepped the mark somewhat with that extended nap, but after all the work I’ve put in over the years, all the effort I’ve put in…”
“And it’s not as though I’m not making up for it, now. I’ve been working overtime, lately. I’ve caught up on all of my reports, and I was over in France just last month, I swear to somebody that if Hastur doesn’t think I’ll be putting in a formal complaint over this then he’s got another thing--”
“ Crowley!! ”
The taller, blonde man crouched down beside me. Crowley stared at me and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Ah,” he said.
“Hello, my dear,” the tall man said. “Are you okay?”
I think I must have shaken my head, because I remember the tall man looking up at the Crowley man with a worried expression.
“Did that… man… hurt you, at all?”
“No. He just… He made me go away from my house. He told me to burn down the church, and that if I didn’t, he’d kill my brother…”
“Oh, subtle. Classy. Brilliant”, Crowley muttered.
“Oh, you poor little thing,” the other man said, taking my hands in his. “You’ve been very brave.”
“What’s your name?”
“Rose. Rose Illiford.”
“What happened to your knee?” Crowley said, sitting down on the floor next to me.
“I fell down.”
The two men shared a look, and then the tall man waved his hand and the cut disappeared .
“All better,” he said with a kind smile. “Where do you live, Rose? Is it very far away from here, my dear?”
I pointed to my house, just up the street.
“I think we should get you back home, Rose,” the tall man said. “Does that sound like a good idea?”
And then they took me home.
Jack hadn’t even noticed I’d gone.
They took me right up to the front door and made sure I got in safely. And before they left, Crowley took a little toy snake out of his pocket and gave it to me. I still have it. That’s how I know it was real and not just a dream. Or a nightmare. Or…”
Rose wrapped her arms around herself. She had tears in her eyes, and yet she was smiling.
“Do you know what I believe?” she asked us all, and we all shook our heads, wide-eyed. “I believe that the man, the bad man, I believe he was a ghost, or an evil spirit, or, or something . And those two men, Crowley and his friend, I believe that God sent them to protect me. Because I refused to burn down the Church, God sent me Guardian Angels to look after me. Just like my grandmother always told me. God protected me from a poltergeist …!”
The room stayed silent. Mouths hung agape. Furtive glances were exchanged.
Ginger was the first to break the silence. Naturally.
“By jove, you don’t honestly expect us to believe all of that, do you?”
Ginger never was the most tactful of lads. Excellent cricketer, no one could doubt that, but when it came to tact, he was, admittedly, somewhat lacking.
“Oh, oh gosh, Rose darling, don’t cry! Of course we believe you! Don’t we ?” Bobbie elbowed Ginger sharply in the ribs. Having personally been the recipient of that elbow on more than one occasion, I can assure you that it is a singularly unpleasant experience.
“Ow! Bobbie! Erm, no, yes, I mean, of course we believe you. All completely believable.”
“Gosh, but Rose, did that really, truly happen? All of it?”
Rose nodded sombrely and wiped away a tear.
“Let’s try and talk to them,” Harold said, leaning forward in his chair with a grin.
“What,” I said, “are you talking about?”
“Let’s use the ouija board! Talk to these Guardian Angels!”
“Oh, no!” Rose cried out. “Oh, no please let’s don’t. That’s sacrilegious!”
“No it’s not,” Harold replied jovially. “You never got to thank them, right? Well, why don’t you? That’s not sacrilegious. That’s just good manners.”
“Harry, don’t wind her up, it’s not flattering darling,” Annie chastised. Annie was Harold’s fiance.
“I’m not winding her up, sweetpea, I am absolutely serious. We should try to contact them.” He pulled the ouija board out from under Ginger’s chair and placed it on the coffee table. “What did you say the one chap’s name was? Anthony Crowley?”
Rose nodded, looking pale. Well, more pale than usual. By now she was in fact practically translucent.
And, somehow, before we knew it, we were all sitting around the ouija board with our hands on an upturned glass still containing a few drips of Bobbie’s father’s very expensive scotch, and trying to make contact with Rose’s mysterious Crowley and his nameless Angel friend.
“How do you actually summon a specific, er, supernatural entity? ” Annie asked.
“I suppose we just call out to them,” I said. I’d done a few seances in my time, mostly they were complete nonsense, to be honest, but always jolly good fun.
“O spirit known by the name of Anthony Crowley, please hear our call… We implore you, answer our message, we wish to speak with you, Anthony Crowley… Anthony Crowley, are you there?”
For a handful of tense moments we all sat in silence, just waiting. Waiting…
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” Ginger snapped. “Obviously nothing is--”
And then the glass began to move.
“Oh my gosh,” Annie whispered.
The glass began to move more rapidly.
We looked at each other.
“Er, well, my name is Roberta,” Bobbie said. “Er, there are quite a few of us here though, and--”
W-H-A-T- D-O- Y-O-U- W-A-N-T-?
“Golly, can you actually hear us, then?” Flossie said.
“Um, we have Rose Ilford here… She wanted to thank you and your friend. You saved her from a ghost or something when she was little. It wanted her to burn down a Church, and you showed up and kicked it’s backside and took her home. Made quite an impression on the girl,” I said. This Crowley chap seemed rather irritable, even if he was an angel, and I could empathise. It was Christmas eve, after all. I’m sure angels have better things to do on Christmas eve than listen to babbling young idiots.
The glass stopped moving.
“Oh, look what you’ve done now you, you young cloth-head. You’ve made him go away.”
“Well, maybe he’s just busy,” I replied laconically.
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” Ginger said, shaking his head. “Harold, you’re having us all on. You were just moving the thing around yourself.”
“I am not!” Harold retorted.
“Hah! All right then. If you are actually real,” Ginger said to the ouija board, “and not just Harry moving the glass around to toy with us, then prove it .
“Harold! Watch your language!”
“It’s not me, Annabell!”
“You aren’t real!”
M-A-Y-B-E- Y-O-U- A-R-E-N-T- R-E-A-L
“If you are real, then tell me what the name of my first dog was?”
“You’re a ghost! Or an angel, or something.”
“Don’t think I’ve ever had a ouija board laugh at me before.”
O-H- T-H-I-S- I-S- O-N- A- O-U-I-J-A- B-O-A-R-D-?
Y-O-U- A-T- A- X-M-A-S- P-A-R-T-Y-?
“Yeah. We were telling ghost stories, well, Rose told us a story, about you and your friend, and we thought we’d see if we could say hello. Rose assures us that she is telling the truth. And we believe her, of course. Sorry to bother you, if you’re busy.” This was said by me. I was rather warming to the fellow.
B-I-T- B-U-S-Y-. W-I-T-H- M-Y- F-R-I-E-N-D.
“The other angel?”
Y-E-S- T-H-E- A-N-G-E-L
“Oh, well Merry Christmas, old sport. Have a scotch on me.”
“Oh good Lord, this is a seance, not a catch up at the club, you silly rabbit. You can’t talk to a supernatural entity so casually!”
“I don’t see why not, Florence,” I replied, somewhat put out. “He seems rather casual himself, I’m simply following his lead!”
“You sound ridiculous!”
“Yes, well, your dress is ridiculous, Flossie, but you don’t hear me complaining about it!”
“Mister Crowley?” Rose said softly, interrupting mine and Flossie’s argument. “If you are there, you and your friend, I just… I just want to thank you. For protecting me. I never thanked you, before. And I-- I still have the little snake that you gave me. Thank you.”
A-Z-I-R-A-P-H-A-L-E- S-A-Y-S- H-I
H-E- W-A-S- T-H-E- O-T-H-E-R- O-N-E
M-Y- F-R-I-E-N-D- I- M-E-A-N-
S-O-R-R-Y- T-H-E- B-A-S-T-A-R-D- R-A-N- O-F-F- W-I-T-H- Y-O-U-R- D-O-L-L-
Rose gasped, at that.
“What?” I said. “You didn’t say anything about a doll, Rose?”
“No, I-- I-- It didn’t seem important, but I… the thing, the ghost, it-- It snatched my doll off of me when I fell and shoved it in its pocket. When it ran away, it took my doll with it…”
“Wait,” I said insightfully. “But… But none of us knew about that. The doll. How could…”
We all stared at the ouija board.
It spelled out.
Chapter 16: Love
MERRY CHRISTMAS, WONDERFUL HUMANS!
‘Angel?’ Crowley said, sitting across from Aziraphale on the very comfortable sofa of their very cosy living room in their comfortable, cosy cottage on the South Downs. He had a glass of wine in one hand and an Agatha Christie novel in the other, one finger acting as a bookmark between the pages as he stopped reading to look at his friend.
‘Mm?’ Aziraphale said, looking up from his own book and peering at Crowley over his reading glasses.
‘I love you.’
Aziraphale cocked his head quizzically, a small smile being hinted at in the corners of his mouth and the lines around his eyes and the movement of the muscles in his cheeks.
‘What makes you say that?’
Crowley shrugged. ‘I don’t ever really say it.’
‘No, you don’t, do you? Not in so many words, at least.’
‘But you do know?’
‘Yes,’ Aziraphale chuckled.
‘Even when I don’t say it?’’
‘Yes, even when you don’t say it.’
‘Okay,’ the angel said, still laughing softly.
Crowley laid his book down on the back of the sofa, pages splayed so as not to lose his place. ‘I’m, er, I’m going to make a coffee. And probably have another mince pie, I think. You want anything?’
‘Ooh, yes. Same for me please. Warmed up and with brandy-cream?’
Aziraphale shot the demon a quick smile before turning back to his book. As he walked behind the sofa on his way to the kitchen, Crowley squeezed the angel’s shoulder.
Looking back up from his book with a sigh and a warm and fuzzy sensation glowing in his chest, Aziraphale stared pensively into the fireplace. The embers were burning low and steady, but still smouldering strong even after the bright flames had subsided.
His eyes wandered upwards, taking in the silver and gold Christmas lights which lit up the mantle, and over the handful of christmas cards from well-meaning acquaintances and neighbours.
Cards were always addressed to them both, never to one or the other individually, even by people who’d never met them both together. Some were tentatively addressed to Mr Crowley and Mr Fell, some more casually to Ezra and Anthony. There were also a few, amusingly, to Mr and Mr Crowley-Fell, or some variant thereof. And, as always, there was one from a good old boy they’d met several decades back at some gala or concert or another, and who always, even now, sent them a card every year addressed to Mr and Mrs Fell. Crowley always did cut a fine figure in a dress.
On top of the Christmas tree in the corner sat two angel ornaments. One of them had black wings and a tiny pair of sunglasses. The other was reading a book. Aziraphale looked at them and smiled.
People never could unanimously agree on what quite to make of Aziraphale and Crowley’s relationship. Some assumed that they were married, some assumed that they were old friends, and some thought they were strangely dissimilar brothers. Others thought that they were die-hard loyal business partners, and some clearly relished the thought that they were having some kind of explicit, illicit affair (this last type tended to say things like ‘Your “Friend” Anthony… Wink-Wink…’ which always amused Aziraphale to no end, especially because it unfailingly got Crowley extremely flustered).
But, Aziraphale thought to himself, the shadow-imprint of Crowley’s hand still weighing pleasantly on his shoulder, no matter how people chose to define their relationship, they always and inevitably did define them as a set . As a unit. As two entities wrapped up in one package. It was always Aziraphale and Crowley . Or Ezra and Anthony, or The Fell-Crowley’s, or whatever . It was always them both . A pair. A twosome. A team. Partners . That was the part that mattered . All of the rest was irrelevant.
Aziraphale liked it that way.
It was Nice and Accurate .
All of this flashed through Aziraphale’s mind in a matter of mere moments.
Closing his book, the angel stood up from the sofa, walked into the kitchen and marched up behind Crowley, who was standing at the kitchen counter fiddling with the cafetiere. Weaving his arms around Crowley’s waist, the angel leaned down and hooked his chin over the demon’s shoulder.
‘I love you a ridiculous amount, you ridiculous creature,’ Aziraphale murmured. ‘I don’t think I tell you that enough.’
‘What are you playing at? Get off me,’ Crowley hissed, making no effort to dislodge the angel. He was, in fact, happily relaxing back into the embrace. Aziraphale had a solid couple of inches height on Crowley, and his hugs were enveloping.
‘No. I love you.’
‘Go away. Go and read your book.’
‘I love you! I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. ’
Crowley bit down on a grin. ‘Ugh...’
‘Don’t you make that noise at me, dearest boy. You started it.’
‘Hah!’ Crowley barked, twisting his neck to look around at Aziraphale and ending up with a face full of angel. ‘I don’t think so. Remember Jericho?’
‘Ah, yes,’ Aziraphale replied thoughtfully, tilting his head and letting his gaze flicker indulgently over his demon’s face. ‘Although I don’t think I can take all of the blame for that. You did save that little girl from those soldiers, after all. What was a self-respecting angel supposed to do, after a display like that? Hm?’
Crowley blinked and blushed and turned away, making the angel grin even more wickedly. Even now, after everything, he still got sheepish whenever Aziraphale reminded him of how much of a good hearted soul he was, deep down.
‘Oh for fu-- Aziraphale, go away. I’m trying to make coffee. You’re being a nuisance. ’
‘I will not . I am an angel , Crowley. I am a Being Of Love .’
‘You’re a pain in the arse, is what you are.’
’I can feel love, is the point, my dear boy,’ the angel persisted. ‘And, I assure you, I can feel love.’ His hand snaked up from the demon’s waist and tapped the space over his heart. ‘Right here. Love.’
‘You’re tipsy, angel.’
‘Yes, but on Boxing Day I shall, probably, be sober. But you, my dear, dear old thing, will still be completely and utterly in--’
‘ All right! Don’t keep saying it!’
Aziraphale laughed, and squeezed Crowley even more tightly for few seconds before finally loosening his grip, to the demon’s disappointment.
‘Don’t forget the brandy-cream to go with the mince pies,’ Aziraphale said as he finally untangled himself from the demon. ‘It’s in the fridge door.’
‘I know where the bloody cream is, angel.’
‘Just making sure.’
‘Yeah, yeah, whatever…’
Crowley sighed as he poured the hot water into the cafetiere.
Absolutely impossible, the demon thought to himself as he added a shot of whisky to each of their coffees. An incorrigible, deliberately irritating nuisance, that’s what he is. Completely infuriating.
He poured a generous helping of brandy cream over their warmed mince pies, adding a sprinkle of cinnamon to Aziraphale’s, just the way he liked it.
Nightmare of an angel, he thought, shaking his head and heading back into the living room. Mawkish, over-emotional, nauseatingly soppy old fool...
As Crowley handed him his cup, Aziraphale looked up at him with the brightest, softest smile imaginable, and the demon grinned dopily back as his heart skipped a beat and his face flushed with the warmth of his frankly dizzying affection.
...He’s almost as bad as me.
Aziraphale woke up with a stiff neck, a missing shoe, and surrounded by several empty bottles of champagne. Upon waking, he sat up abruptly with a start.
He then lay back down equally as abruptly having discovered, previously not having noticed this fact, that he was beneath a table. He groaned, as said discovery had been one of the tactile kind rather than the cerebral.
Falling back to a horizontal position, the angel grimaced and pressed a hand to his forehead. The thwack on the underside of the table had evidently exacerbated an already pounding headache. It felt, in fact, rather like a herd of elephants were playing roller derby with the inside of his skull as their rink.
He winced and turned his head away from a beam of bright, warm sunlight which, against all odds, had managed to find a direct path from the window, through the tablecloth, and directly into his eyes. Aziraphale swallowed down a persistently nauseous sensation which was threatening to make him do something quite uncivilized on the expensive looking rug (whose rug was this? Where was he?), but found his mouth so dry that the motion merely sent him spasming into a dry coughing fit. He rolled onto his side.
And then something bit his shoulder.
‘Ouch! Good lord !’
Aziraphale narrowly avoided headbutting the underside of the table once more, leaping up as sharp teeth broke his skin but stopping himself short just before his cranium made contact with wood. He reached, somewhat desperately, under the collar of his shirt, from whence he pulled, with no small amount of irritation, and perhaps a touch more roughness than was necessary, a small-ish black snake.
The snake hissed at him and recoiled from the sudden rush of sunlight flooding its sensitive yellow eyes.
‘ Crowley! ’, the angel hissed straight back at him. ‘You bit me!’
The snake squirmed and tried to dive back under Aziraphale’s shirt, but the angel held him firm.
‘Ughhhhhh….’ the snake somehow managed to sibilliate despite the lack of esses in the sound. ‘Where am I? What’sssssssssssssssss going on?’
‘You bit me, that’s what’s going on!’
‘What? Oh, bloody hell, I feel sssssserioussssly awful… Ssssstop sssssqueezing my head, for sssssomeone’sss sssssake….’
Aziraphale relinquished the vice-like grip he’d been holding on the evidently very hungover snake’s neck, and Crowley dropped onto the angel’s chest. The angel in turn dropped back down to lie flat on the floor.
‘What time isssss it?’ Crowley asked.
‘Don’t know,’ Aziraphale replied.
‘What day isssss it?’ Crowley wondered.
‘Erm, not certain,’ Aziraphale admitted.
‘...Do you remember where we are?’ Crowley asked, opening one eye and glancing uncertainly around their immediate environment. As this immediate environment was the underside of as table, this action didn’t prove exceptionally helpful.
‘No. Can’t remember,’ Aziraphale replied once more. ‘This definitely isn’t my rug though, so we aren’t at the bookshop.’
‘Isssssn’t my plassssce, either…’
‘Oh, I simply cannot handle this, I need to do something about this hangover...’
The angel pulled a wretched face as he did so, then blinked and stared up at the table above him rather more placidly.
‘Me too,’ Crowley groaned, or, at least groaned as much as a snake is capable of groaning.
‘Oh, gosh, that does feel better,’ Aziraphale sighed. He nodded dazedly in reply to the snake, not really paying attention, instead revelling in the the feeling of “no-more-headache-and-nausea”. He then found that pleasant sensation being rapidly replaced by the slightly less pleasant sensation of “suddenly remembering something important a fraction of a second too late”.
‘No, Crowley, wait, you mustn’t--!’
Snakes, you see, lack the necessary… whatever-was-necessaries (Aziraphale had never been a great expert on zoology) required to adequately detoxify a system flooded with alcohol. The mammalian form was far better suited to the task, particularly that of the model homo sapiens.
As such, instead of playing armchair to a small snake, the angel now found himself being squashed by a very much larger (although still, admittedly, rather small) human.
Crowley sobered up.
‘Hells bells, that was a bloody nasty hangover,’ the demon muttered grimly. ‘Must have been some party...’
‘Get off me,’ Aziraphale complained, punctuating his griping with a not-entirely-gentle shove. ‘And miracle some clothes, for goodness sake. It’s one thing for snakes to go around bare-skinned, but humans doing so is rather more frowned upon. Even in my circles...'
Crowley glanced down. ‘Oh for-- Where on earth did I leave my clothes? Remind me never to go to parties with you, Aziraphale.'
'It's hardly my fault if you have a proclivity when inebriated to revert to snake guise and find someplace warm to fall asleep...'
A fashionable black and gold-trimmed dress materialised over Crowley’s small frame. The demon rolled off of the angel and sprawled out on the floor next to him with an irritated huff.
‘Well you could have stopped me, couldn't you? Or at least picked up my-- ...Wait, was I wearing a dress or a tux last night?'
‘God only knows,’ Aziraphale muttered. ‘No one will pay any attention either way, I’m sure. It’s 1926, my dear. Anything goes.’
A dark-haired head dipped under the table with a bright smile. ‘1927 now, chaps!’ the girl barked, far too chipper for... whatever time it was. ‘Happy New Year!’
‘Right, yeah… Happy New Year, er…’ Crowley mumbled. He frowned in concentration as he tried to place the girl's face, earning a cheery grin from the human who,, Crowley began to remember, did in fact have a name. ‘...Nancy, right?’
‘Well done, old thing. I see you’re already kicking the hangover to the curb. You give it a good what-for,’ Nancy laughed.
‘Ah, of course , Aziraphale piped up. ‘New Year’s party, of course. Of course. Stephen’s, yes?’
‘Mmhm,’ Nancy replied, still half-upside-down leaning beneath the table. ‘Cracking good night, what?’
Aziraphale glanced down at his dishevelled state. ‘Evidently…’
‘David said you were a riot, Ezra, but I didn’t believe him. Well-behaved old gent like you, bookshop owner, image of propriety… Proved me wrong, didn't you, old thing! I owe Davey a five pound note, because of you. He said you’d either end up on the table or under it, and if I recall rightly, I believe you managed both.'
Aziraphale groaned internally. He was far too old for this sort of behaviour, by several millennia . Far too old and, of course, far too angelic...
But after the decade previous, the appeal of raucous partying, wild-living, and far, far too much alcohol had become incredibly appealing, to him, and to Crowley, and to the bright young things whom the angel had unexpectedly managed to fall in with. One of their set had begun referring to them as the lost generation of late, and in many ways it seemed terribly fitting. After the horrors of the Great War Aziraphale had certainly found himself wanting to get lost. The glitz and sparkle of the 1920s seemed to be designed to drive out the blackness of those terrible, awful years. He wasn't certain it was working (he knew full well that Crowley was still having the nightmares), but the chaos and glamour certainly proved a welcome distraction. Their manic brightness illuminated the dark like a flamethrower.
Aziraphale shook such thoughts from his mind. It didn't do to dwell. It wouldn't do to get maudlin. Welcome in the New Year with a smile and some optimism.
And, of course, with a pinch of resigned embarrassment.
They really had been terribly drunk last night.
The angel and the demon both crawled out from beneath the table. Which, it turned out, was a dining table of a rather large dining room, now populated with several twenty-somethings looking extremely worse for wear.
Aziraphale smoothed out his shirt, and welcomed back his prodigal shoe with a quick and surreptitious miracle. He noticed that Crowley’s hair had sprung back to it's usual coiffed perfection. Both good as new. Mostly.
‘Hair of the dog, chaps?’
Their evident host, the effervescent Stephen Tennant, shimmered into view and shoved a champagne flute into each of their hands.
‘It’s a mimosa. Excellent chap at the Ritz in Paris created it just lately, it’s marvellous. Champagne and orange juice. Just the thing for the morning after, take my word for it.’
Crowley shrugged and chugged the whole glass in one go.
‘Not bad, actually. What d’you say he called it? A mimosa?’
‘Precisely. Love the dress, by the way, suits you much better than the tuxedo.’
‘Er, yeah…’ Crowley nodded distractedly, attention suddenly caught by the view from the window. ‘Stephen, where are we? I thought we were at the Gargoyle last night, but that is definitely not Soho…’
‘Oh, no, we ditched the club at about two, don’t you remember?’
‘Oh dear me...’ Aziraphale said with a frown as he walkied over to the large bay window and looked out at the beautiful countryside beyond.
‘Well, Davey and I thought it would be a jolly good laugh to drop in on Father, and Nancy and Rex agreed, and then your friend here got rather enthusiastic about taking out that wonderful new Bentley, and--’
‘Stephen, where are we ?’ Crowley hissed, growing impatient.
‘Salisbury, that's what I said.’
‘What in the name of-- Salisbury is miles from Soho!’ Aziraphale cried out, wringing his hands.
‘Mm, yes, it is rather. Took us a fair few hours to get down here. Father dearest was just setting out with the dogs when we arrived, actually. Although we did take a little longer getting here than planned. Nancy got a bit lost . Do you really not remember?’
Crowley groaned. ‘No. Yes. Yeah. I remember, now. She nearly ran her bloody car into my Bentley. My brand new Bentley…’
‘Nearly , old thing, is not the same as actually . No harm no foul, what?’
‘What time is it?’ Aziraphale cut in, looking around the room in vain for a clock.
‘Er, about half one, last time I checked,’ Stephen replied brightly. ‘Mother dearest is putting on a late lunch for all of us, if you want to stay for it. Jolly good sport, she is.’
‘Half past one?! Oh… bother ,’ Aziraphale didn’t curse. ‘I was supposed to be meeting with an antiques dealer at four this afternoon. I’ll never make it now…’
‘Tch, that’s a shame, old sport! Hey, but you can always rearrange, no?’
‘Not really. She’s over from Italy, and going back on the third. I doubt I’ll be able to see her before she leaves. Oh, but this is infuriating …’
Crowley downed another mimosa and then clapped Aziraphale on the shoulder. ‘We can make it.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Crowley, we absolutely cannot drive all the way to London in two hours.’
‘Wanna bet?’ the demon replied, eyes glittering.
Crowley had really taken to automobiles.
‘Do you really think we might be able get back that quickly?’ Aziraphale asked hesitatingly, voice laced with both scepticism and hope.
‘Definitely,’ Crowley replied. ‘But we’ll have to leave sharp-ish. No time for lunch with Lord and Lady Glenconnor, I’m afraid.’
‘More the better…’ the angel muttered under his breath, just loud enough for the demon, and no one else, to hear.
‘You rushing off then?’ Nancy said, breezing back into the room from wherever she’d disappeared to.
‘Yep. Appointments to keep, you know how it is.’
‘Well, you and I, perhaps. To the idle youth of Mister Stephen Tennant however, the notion of keeping appointments is undoubtedly completely foreign, isn’t that right Stevie darling?’
‘One must remain flexible , Nancy dearest, or one becomes rigid , and no one wants that. Isn’t that right, Ezra?’
‘I suppose balance is what one must aim for, in all things,’ the angel replied expansively.
‘Precisely! Balance. And I balance remarkably well, between my bed, the dinner table, and the club. Perfect balancing act, my life. No one could accuse me of being anything but balanced!’
‘Yeah…’ Crowley was beginning to remember why he didn’t make a habit of hanging around Aziraphale’s friends. ‘ Anyway , we’ll be off now. Thanks for, er, having us…’
‘Yes, wonderful New Year’s celebration, my boy. Your brother’s club is coming along marvellously. You must talk me through the Matisse’s you purchased with him, I find his work most intriguing, and--’
‘Come on, angel, do you want to get back in time or not? I’m a good driver but I’m not a miracle worker. Er.’
Aziraphale shot an amused glance at the demon. ‘Of course. You’re quite right. We must take our leave. Give my best wishes for the New Year to, erm, well, whoever is still here, I suppose. No doubt I will see you all in the near future. Oh! Do you know if Evelyn is back from Buckinghamshire yet? I had been hoping to talk with him about his book--’
‘Right. Yes. Coming. Happy New Year, dear things, Happy New Year!’
And the angel followed the demon out to his car, which, much to the angel’s journeying terror, did in fact manage to get them to London before four o’clock.
I'm a bit obsessed with the 1920s again. It happens, periodically. And as we are about to enter the 2020s, I figured screw it , I'll indulge myself. 1920s fic at midnight it is. Why not.
Also I'm a bit in love with Snake!Crowley Hiding In Aziraphale's Sleeves right now. It's too cute. I love it.
As usual, this is hastily written, un-proof-read, unplanned nonsense. soznotsoz.
Chapter 18: Auld Lang Syne
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
‘Where’s your friend, Ezra?’
‘Your friend? Anthony? Is he here?’
‘Oh, no. He’s out of the country, I’m afraid. America. On business.’
‘Oh, what a shame! We had hoped he’d be here.’
‘Yes, well. These things happen.’
‘Gosh, do you just miss him terribly when he’s away? I know I miss my Bill something awful whenever he travels without me. Especially at New Year’s. I’ve made it a rule now that if he ever has to travel over New Year, he has to bring me with him. When’s your Anthony back?’
‘I’m not really sure.’
‘Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. You two haven’t fallen out, or--’
‘Oh, no, nothing like that, just... Well. You know how it is.’
‘I’m sorry. Have I put my foot right in it?’
‘No, it’s fine. If you’ll excuse me, I have just remembered that I need to make a phone call. Back in jiffy.’
‘I’ll get Bill to call in another round of drinks. Do get back before midnight, darling!’
And surely ye'll be your pint-stoup!
and surely I'll be mine!
And we'll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
‘What? Aziraphale? Is that you?’
‘Yes. Happy New year.’
‘Are you calling transatlantic , angel?’
‘Well, obviously. I’m not in New York, am I?’
‘I don’t know. Are you?’
‘Of course I’m not. I’m in England. Obviously.’
‘Obviously. ...So, you’re calling transatlantic just to wish me Happy New Year ? Bit extravagant of you.’
‘Yes, well... Has it gone midnight there yet, or are my well-wishes premature? I never can get my head around these blasted time zones. Are you ahead or behind me?’
‘Behind. It’s only six-fifty-five, here.’
‘Is it? Oh. It’s almost midnight, for me.’
‘Mmhm, I know.’
‘You at a party, angel? I can hear music.’
‘Not really a party, just a small get together. Molly and Bill invited me. Invited us both, actually.’
‘Molly and Bill? Bloody hell, I haven’t seen them in years. How are they?’
‘Oh, well enough. They’ve been living over in Sweden of all places. Their daughter is still over there, in fact. Marrying a local boy, by all accounts.’
‘But Bill and Molly have come back to England?’
‘Yes, for his work.’
‘Nice of them to invite you. Us. I mean. Surprised they even remember us.’
‘Well, I make a point to always send them a Christmas card.’
‘I think they still feel rather indebted after that whole--’
‘Doesn’t that make it a bit awkward?’
‘Are you calling on their phone?’
‘No, we’re at an hotel, they booked out one of the function rooms. Open bar and buffet, rather good, actually.They aren’t back in England to stay, you see, just for a few weeks. Then they are off to Japan, I believe.’
‘How international of them.’
‘Such is life in the technology sector. Or, at least, so Bill has told me. At great length…’
‘Hah! He always did know how to bore a room to tears.’
‘He cornered me for an hour , Crowley. I know more about Binary Electronic Systems Calculators than I have ever wished to. They have, apparently, moved on exponentially in the past five years. Main-memories of five hundred and twelve bit words are now a thing of the past, you know. The biax-type memory will be up and running by next year, so I’m told.’
‘Oh, really? Wow. Fascinating.’
‘Isn’t it just? I had to pretend to choke on an olive just to get away.’
‘I’m sorry, angel, I know I shouldn’t laugh. I really ought to have been there to rescue you, shouldn’t I?’
‘Mm, would have been handy.’
‘Hey, forty-five seconds to midnight your end.’
‘Is it? Already?’
‘Yep. Do you want to, er, get back to your party, or…’
‘Oh, well. Seeings as you’re on the line, I may as well--’
‘Yeah, right. Might as well.’
‘I don’t have a watch on me.’
‘You’re hopeless, you know that? And… There we go. Happy New Year, angel.’
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine,
But seas between us broad have roared,
Since auld lang syne.
‘The one and only.’
‘Crowley, it is five in the morning…’
‘Yeah, didn’t wake you, did I?’
‘And it’s not quite five, is it? It’s five minutes to five. Five minutes to midnight, here.’
‘ What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘No “Ah”. It’s the way you say it.’
‘How do I say it?’
‘Never mind. You weren’t sleeping then?’
‘I rarely do, you know that.’
‘ What are you doing? Are you still out? ’
‘As you are speaking to me on the bookshop phone, I’ll leave you to figure out that puzzle...’
‘Oh, yeah, of course.’
‘Are you? Out? I’ve heard that New York’s New Year’s Eve parties are, what’s the colourful phrase you use? Something else ?’
‘So they say. Not really my scene, though. I’m just at home.’
‘Home? You’ve purchased a place over there, then?’
‘Oh. Er. Right, well, no, not exactly. Just renting. Nothing permanent, or anything. Got a bit sick of hotels.’
‘You’re staying over there for a while, then?’
‘Not if I can help it.’
‘For the next few months though, at least?’
‘Mm, it’s looking that way. ’
‘Angel, hold out your hand.’
‘Just do it, all right?’
‘Don’t sigh at me. Hand out?’
‘Three, two, one--’
‘I would be right to assume that the glass of champagne which just materialised in my hand comes courtesy of the demon in the dark glasses at the far end of the bar?’
‘Far end of the sofa in his over-priced New York flat, but yes, you’ve got the right basic idea, angel. ’
‘Only proper for me to return the favour, then. Steady hand, please, and --’
‘A Grasshopper? Really, Aziraphale?’
‘I send you a champagne flute of exceptionally good vintage, and in return you send me a cocktail made of ice cream and creme de menthe? Classy, angel. Classy.’
‘I’ve seen how many sugars you put in your coffee, my dear, don’t try to act sophisticated with me. And you adore mint chocolate chip ice cream. What better than mixing it with alcohol?’
‘Not very cool though, is it?’
‘Put some ice cubes in it, then.’
‘The clock on my desk says it’s thirty seconds to, now.’
‘My watch says ten.’
‘ Do you want to do a countdown?’
‘ Not particularly. ’
‘...Happy New Year, my dear boy.’
And there's a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o' thine!
And we'll take a right good-will draught,
For the sake of auld lang syne.