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A Visit From St. Nick

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When one worked in a small town diner as long as Ruby Lucas had, you learned everyone in town — and their usual order —  fairly quickly. She saw the same people most everyday but it was cozy rather than tedious especially during the Holidays. Granny’s Diner was a town staple and Granny Lucas herself was a force of nature likely to rival any snow storm when it came to holiday spirit.

What one also learned was everyone’s business about, well, everything. How they felt about work, their neighbor, their landlord, their families, and anyone special to them. If there was a “secret” in town you were likely to have heard it or shared it at Granny’s.

Belle French was Ruby’s favorite customer, she ran the library in town while her father, Moe French was the local florist. The best thing about Belle was that she had a smile for everyone in town and never seemed to have a grudge against anyone, or anyone against her; she was the quintessential girl next door.

Then there was Mr. Gold, the town’s landlord. Ruby would have to rank him her third favorite customer, just below Leroy — a man after her own heart with the amount of times he had come in for bacon and eggs hung-over. While Mr. Gold was prickly with everyone and a downright bastard on the best of days he was at least a good tipper and didn’t require much attention when he came in, unless it was rent day.

Ruby had quickly picked up the talent of reading people, sure they talked a lot, but there was more information to gain rather than just what they said. Take Mr. Gold for example, sure for the moment he was staring into his coffee cup looking like he was about to sue it for being too hot but there was another reason his eyes were directed down.

“Here you go Belle!” Ruby chirped happily, spinning around from the pick up window and setting down a stack of pancakes and syrup in front of her. “Hot off the griddle and Gus threw in some chocolate chips.”

Belle giggled softly at her friend’s antics. “Looks great, thanks Ruby.”

“Of course!” She answered, with a quick glance around to check that no one needed anything she leaned herself onto her arms on the counter in front of Belle. “So how is everything coming along for the library’s kids’ Christmas party?”

She nodded around a full mouth full of pancake, chewing it quickly to answer. “Everything looks good so far, all the advertisements are printed and ready to go, the tree is already up so there won’t be too much decorating left to do on the day.”

Her mouth twisted in a sour manner, “The only thing is that I still haven’t found anyone to dress up as Santa for the kids.”

Ruby nodded along, her eyes glancing around the diner once more and spotting where Mr. Gold’s gaze had fallen again. “Leroy wasn’t able too? I mean, we would have to dye his beard white, but it’s a good option.”

“No, he can’t get away from work in order to do it. I’ve asked David Nolan but he and Mary-Margaret were planning to bring in the kids to have a family outing.”

“Did you check in with Anton?”

“I did but he is heading out of town that day so he can visit his brother and uncle, also he thinks it would be too obvious who he is through the costume because of his height. Wouldn’t want the kids to second guess if Santa was real or not, ya know?”

Belle shoved a few more bites into her mouth as she thought over the problem, she was quickly going to run out of any options. The only one that really came to her was for Ruby and herself to be Christmas elves and let the children know they were sent in Santa’s place since he was busy at the North Pole.

“I’ll keep thinking about it, I’m sure there is someone in town we can find.” Ruby pointed out, pushing herself off the counter. “I’m going to check on a few people, I’ll be back.” She snagged up the coffee pot off and sauntered off to check in with diners.

It took a few minutes to do the rounds but Ruby had finally ended up at Mr. Gold’s booth table in the back, she reached over to refill his coffee cup with a nod. “So… Any plans for Christmas Eve Mr. Gold?”

Perhaps nonchalant wasn’t Ruby’s style, but she had to be careful in her approach. It was quite clear to her by now that Mr. Gold had an ever-deepening crush on Belle, his gaze lingered when they were in the dinner at the same time, occasionally he would let out breathy little sighs, and any time they spoke, even a quick hello, seemed to melt his bad attitude.

Mr. Gold raised a quiet eyebrow at the question, “No. None at this time. Bae is at his Mother’s this year.” He admitted, if it was his choice Milah wouldn’t have any visiting rights but he wasn’t going to dwell on that thought right now.

“Aww, that’s a shame. I hear the library is going to have this great party for the kids to go to. Hot cocoa, candy canes, art projects, music, and Belle is even trying to arrange to have Santa visit the kids for storytime.” Ruby explained, counting out details with her left hand. “Well, trying being the key word.”

“Why would that be Miss. Lucas?” His hands came around his fresh cup of coffee to warm his hands on the ceramic.

Ruby’s lips twitched in triumph, all she needed was to spark his interest.

She looked around to check that there weren't any kids that could hear her before leaning in, “She’s been having some troubles finding Santa.” Ruby informed, glancing over her shoulder to where Belle was seated at the bar.

“I know she wouldn’t complain or anything but it's the final detail that would be the cherry on the proverbial Sunday for the party, you know?” After a moment Ruby shrugged her shoulders, “Oh, well, as long as the kids have fun, right Mr. Gold?”

Gold blinked, shaking himself out of his tunnel vision of where Miss. French sat to look at at the waitress. “Of course, she has done a fine job with the children’s program, I’m sure the party will be a success.”

Ruby smirked as he nodded, sending her back off the to front, it seemed final, as if that gesture alone would guarantee the turn out; perhaps it would.

*****

Belle smiled as she put the finishing touches on the library’s decorations, with a bit of time she had managed to decorate the main areas. In the center of the building where the large round rug was set up for kid’s storytime sat a wingback chair next to a five foot Christmas tree created solely out of books — Belle’s solution to the rather tight budget.

Starting at the base she built a circle of larger books (mostly the encyclopedias) and continued to stack layer after layer of books, the book on the second layer bridging the gap of the two it rested on below.  Through the layers tree lights had been wound in and out of the books, large glittering ornaments hanging from the cord, red ribbon weaved through the layers, and everything finished off with a frosted glass star

The lobby was decorate in red bows, tied to the corner of book cases, the circulation desk, and the refreshment table that Ruby would be working at.  For the kids they would have hot cocoa with whip cream and cinnamon along with the gift of a candy cane, the adults had the options of either egg nog or hot apple cider.

Other tables had been set up as well to contain the various art projects that she had planned out for the kids, hoping that any mess would stay contained to them.  There was plenty of options for all of them but Belle was looking forward to story-time the most.

The kids had been encouraged to attend in the PJs as they would be reading together: “Twas the Night before Christmas”, the parents could as well, however  Belle didn’t think many would.

For herself and Ruby they had both found matching elf outfits that consisted of a green dress, red skirt trim and collar, a black waist belt, and peppermint swirl buttons on the top. Each dress was also paired with black boots, red and white striped leggings, and a curly hat to complete the look.

They may not have Santa visiting them this year, but Belle was determined that they would have visitors from the North Pole.

*****

Belle smiled, gazing around the space, the decorations were set, the art and crafts out, all was left to do was finish setting the refreshments. She normally wasn’t one to toot her own horn but she was pleased with how everything turned out.

“Merry Christmas Belle!” Ruby called out, popping in from the front door, her arms full of a large box.

“You to Rubes.” She jogged over, the additional jingle bells she added on her dress ringing as she moved. She reached out to grab part of the box to help Ruby take to the circulation desk.

“What is all this?”

“Well, Granny decided that if this was going to be a real party it needed more than just drinks. So she may have sent over a few things.”

“A few things?” Belle deadpanned. “Looks like she sent to whole diner!”

Ruby laughed, nodding before starting to pull out the extras that had been sent over, “Something like that.”

By the time they had unpacked everything they ended up with three dozen gingerbread cookies, twenty-four mini fruit cakes, three types of fudge, another three dozen cookies of peanut butter, oatmeal and chocolate chip, a tray of black forest brownies, and tucked in the bottom a bottle of peppermint schnapps.

Ruby held up the bottle for Belle’s inspection with a grin, “Good old Granny, never letting us down.”

“This is for the kid’s Ruby!”

“Hey! I never said I was going to share with them.” Ruby said, beaming.

Belle couldn’t help but laugh, the playful banter putting her at ease, even without Santa the two of them could handle a group full of over-excited and sugar-filled kids for one evening.

*****

A cheerful ringing of jingle bells rang through the library as Belle trotted up to the reading nook that was marked by the wing-back chair, a large circle rug, and plenty of pillow cushions.

“If everyone wants to gather up and take a seat in the reading circle we have a very special story for everyone tonight,” Belle announced; watching as the kids hastefully abandoned their art projects to find their favorite spot.

Emma Nolan and August Booth rushed to claim a few more treats before being ushered by Ruby to the reading area, the rest of the kids who had settled down all had their eyes trained on the Librarian.

“Does everyone know what night it is tonight?”

“Friday!” Lilly giggled, hugging her dragon stuffed animal that followed her everywhere.

Hansel Tillman murmured under his breath, biting at his lip, pulling at his shirt sleeves.  “...It’s December 24th…”

“What was that?”

“He said it's December 24th!” Gretel called out, trying to help her shyer younger brother, even if it sounded a little harsh to the ears.

“That’s right!” Ruby answered, trying to give the younger sibling some encouragement. “It also means that it is Christmas Eve.”

Belle nodded along, “And we all know a very special someone stops by our houses tonight to —”

“Santa Claus!” Cried out one of the kids, sending the rest of them in a giggle fit.

“Yes, but do you know just how hard his job is every year? There is so much to do! Which is why he hired Ruby and I to help him out this year with a few things since he can’t stop to visit.”

Just as Belle was about to sit down to start story-time the front two doors of the library swung open, a gust of wind carrying a dusting of snow and a hearty laugh.

“Ho-ho-ho!”

The kids gasped, twisting in the seats others standing in up in order to get a better look at the front of the Library.

“Santa!” Emma cried out, running over to the man standing just inside the door, slamming into his leg for a hug. “You came!”

Santa chuckled again, adjusting the large black cloth bag that was thrown over his shoulder, patting Emma on her head, “But of course! Now, I have a few things for everyone, do you think you could be my helper tonight?”

Emma nodded enthusiastically as she took his hand, leading him over to the story circle were the rest of the kids greeted him with the same joy and cheer, even shy little Hansel Tillman.

Belle moved over to nudge Ruby in her side, nodding over to Santa in silent questioning. She hadn’t been able to find anyone but if Ruby had she certainly kept it under wraps. Although, all Ruby offered in response was a shrug and a happy grin.

Once the kids settled from their initial excitement, Santa finally had a chance to address the two elfs in the room.

“Why Ruby, Belle, you two have done a wonderful job! Thank you!,” he smiled, turning to the kids with a wink, “You know kids, if it wasn’t for these two doing so much I wouldn’t have been able to slip in, but good thing the team is so quick on their feet!”

“The team?!” August cried out with an audible gasp, “Can we meet them! I want to meet Blitzen!”

“Ho-ho-ho, let them catch their breath August! They have a busy night still to go.”

August turned to nudge Lilly and her dragon in delight, “He knows my name! He knows my name!”

She rolled her eyes at him, “Of course he does, he’s Santa Claus!”

“Santa, why don't you let us help you with that?” Ruby commented, nodding toward the large sack over his shoulder, “You take a seat.”

“Thank you Ruby.”

Belle and Ruby set the bag next to the chair while Santa got himself settled, while he pulled out a list they found a comfortable spot to sit close by but still in front of all the kids to keep an eye on everything.

“Hmm…” Santa grumbled slightly, fingers scratching at his white beard in thought. His deep brown eyes studying the length of parchment before him from wire glasses. “Well, well kids it appears that everyone on my list has been very good this year!”

“Ooh! Hansel and I helped Dad catch an injured swan by feeding it bread crumbs!” Gretel called out, her brother seeming to blush under the attention.

David Nolan chucked from where he and his wife were sitting in the back, both with their respective mugs of cocoa, seeing all the kids together and their antics was worth the kids staying up past their bedtimes. Mary-Margaret sat next to him smiling over where young toddler Neal playing with Alexandra and her mother Ashley Boyd. Pass the ball wasn’t Neal’s best game but the two were trying their best.

“That was a very good thing to do Gretel, I’m sure it was grateful.” Santa nodded his approval.

“Now, I know it's tradition to open gifts in the morning on Christmas day,” Santa started, reaching for his large bag and pulling on drawstrings, “but seeing as I am already here I don’t see the harm in starting early.”

Emma jumped up when Santa called for her, he needed his helper after all. He pulled out a neatly wrapped gift for each child, calling out their names one at a time while Emma ran back and forth to ‘deliver’ each one. Once she was settled with her own the kids were given permission to “have fun”, soon the reading circle becoming a colorful and shiny graveyard of wrapping paper, bows, and ribbon.

Santa chuckled as he watched them all tucking in, taking the chance to turn to his elves while they were playing with their toys and showing them off to parents. 

“Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without my elves.” Santa noted, turning to Ruby and Belle, each of them receiving their own package. His eyes crinkled in just the slightest bit, “If you’ll have it?”

“Oh! Why thank you.” Belle glanced to Ruby with a brow raised in question before she uncovered her gift. In her hands sat a handsome volume of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, she had been meaning to find a unrevised copy for sometime now and it seemed now she didn’t need too.

Ruby giggled excitedly as she tore through her own paper, pulling out a red knitted beanie with a fur pom pom on top along with a matching scarf that was lined with the same fur trimming. She quickly pulled off her elf hat to switch it out for the new one, unable to resist wobbling her head to shake the pom pom.

Once the kids had a chance to play and some extra snacks, the group was finally settled once again in the reading circle. Ruby couldn’t help but notice the stiff limp that seemed to be bothering their jolly visitor’s right leg, leading him over to sit in the wing-back chair while Belle perched herself on the arm, holding up their book for story time.  

She opened the front cover of the book to display the ornate illustrations as she began to read out loud.

“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…”

*****

By and by Belle was very pleased with how the party turned out. All the kids had been ecstatic over seeing Santa and him hand delivering all of them a gift, only increasing their excitement for the morning to come. Even if that morning would be a bit later than others past considering how many parents carried out children that were falling asleep on their shoulder or hip.

Ruby took a large bite of her Granny’s fruitcake, humming in appreciation of the rich dessert, her drink sitting off to the side while her feet were propped up on another chair.

“Rubes! Where in the world did you find this Santa?” Belle questioned, walking over with her own drink, “He had gifts and everything, there is no way that was in the budget.”

She cleared her throat, setting her plate aside as she dropped her feet. “Well actually it didn’t cost anything.”

“What do you mean? How could it not cost anything, that must have been an actor or something, right?”

“Well actually….” Ruby’s voiced picked up a slight whine.

“Actually what?”

“Actually I have no idea who he was either!”

“Ruby! Are you saying that could have been anyone? That stranger came in her dressed up as Santa!”

Ruby twisted a lock of her hair in her fingers to distract herself, if she didn’t have that she could far too easily spill her thoughts of who it was. If she was correct, she had a feeling they didn’t want it known.

“Well it couldn't have been a complete stranger, he had the perfect gift for every kid in the room. So it has to be someone who lives in town and heard we needed someone.”

The logic behind her words seemed to deflate Belle’s upset, her shoulders dropping as she took a seat next to her friend. “I suppose that is true.”

“Just look at it this way,” She lifted her cup in the air, hearing the echo of the clock above them striking midnight, “it's a Christmas miracle.”

Belle couldn’t help but smile at that, clicking their glasses together in a cheers. “Merry Christmas Ruby.”

“Merry Christmas Belle.”

*****

Gold knew that his actions tonight was going to play hell on his knee, but a couple of days of discomfort and pain was a price he was willing to pay. He had the time on his hands with Bae at his Mother’s this year and with the costume certainly no one would have known it was him. It had been something to do other than sit in his house alone on Christmas eve, besides, it made the kids of Storybooke happy.

He adjusted his leg on the ottoman and settled himself more comfortably in his chair, a glass of water and pain pills sat on the table next to him while a glass of scotch was in his hand. The clock sitting on the mantel chimed as the hour turned over reading 12:00 AM.

He raised his glass with a tipping nod in the direction of town. “Merry Christmas Belle.”