A recap for those of you who didn’t read the entire series to date: after a long series of mishaps and adventures, Crowley and Aziraphale married and embarked on a grand tour of a honeymoon. They were joined by Frederick, their charming and slightly amoral snake companion, and gifted partway through the trip (as punishment really) with the company of a minor demon named Rat, who is rather too fanstruck about the Serpent of Eden and therefore could no longer be tolerated in Hell. He is now Crowley’s personal assistant, much to his dismay.
Crowley yawned and stretched as he stood blearily in front of the fancy coffee machine, waiting for Aziraphale’s morning latte to finish brewing, and then his. He picked up the angel’s white winged mug as it was finished, used a little demonic power to make a lovely Christmas tree in the foam topping, and delivered it to him at the kitchen table before heading back to the machine to put in his cup (black of course) for the second one.
“Oh, thank you my dear!” Aziraphale murmured, looking up briefly from the pile of post he was sorting through. “Very thoughtful of you. Oh, and a tree! How festive!” He took an appreciative sip, trying not to disturb the foam art.
The coffee machine dinged a second time and Crowley tightened the belt on his fleecy bathrobe before wandering back to get his mug. He paused for a moment, finger extended, and then chose a design for himself – a snake sigil, of course. Pleased, he plopped down in the chair across from Aziraphale and absent mindedly dug through some of the flyers that had arrived with the post.
“Junk,” he said, snapping to disintegrate a market flyer. “Junk! Junk… More junk…” He paused. “Oh wait, now, this could be interesting…”
Aziraphale looked up, his small gold reading glasses glinting. “What do you have there?”
Crowley waved the flyer at him. “Father Christmas is taking pictures.”
Aziraphale looked puzzled. “And? Surely you don’t want us to get our pictures taken. I am not sitting on some stranger’s lap.”
“No,” Crowley said. “He’s taking pet pictures. See? Bring your dog or cat down to have a picture with St. Nicholas. Santa. Kris Kringle. The Big Man.”
“Let me get this straight,” Aziraphale said, setting down his cup. “You want to unleash Frederick on Father Christmas?”
Crowley grinned. “Could be fun!”
Aziraphale shook his head, knowing somehow that he was going to end up agreeing to this lunacy. “I think it’s a terrible idea.”
NOW WHO IS THIS SANTA MAN AGAIN? Frederick shrieked as he and Crowley curled up in a weak beam of midwinter sun.
“He brings gifts to people, at Christmas,” Crowley explained for the third time. “People write him letters and tell him what they want.”
BUT I CAN’T WRITE!
“And that’s why people can go see him in person,” Crowley said. “Tell him their wish.”
SOUNDS SKETCHY, Frederick shrieked, then curled up and thought that one over. He knew what gifts were – sometimes the fluffy and pointy ones gave him an extra mousicle and called it a gift. Every once in a rare while something more impressive showed up – a new rock for his heat bed, a new shelter to hide inside for his box. Gifts were good, he guessed, and he took them as somewhat his due, to be honest. But wishes? Wishes were something else all together.
Wishes he understood. He had many, many wishes. So far, the creatures he lived with had failed to provide on most of them. How hard was it to give a snake a pair of wings, anyways?
As always, hard thought put him to sleep, but his dreams were filled with images of flying around the bookshop, zapping creatures who ticked him off with a magic death ray, and bending those stupid gorillas at the zoo to become his personal servants. He’d always wanted a servant. The dreams were delightful, and he snored happily until the sunbeam slipped away for good and woke him up.
Crowley was sleeping too. He nudged his ear with his snout to wake him up.
“Wha – what?” Crowley said, rousing reluctantly. “You up, Freddie?”
COLD, Freddie shrieked. ALSO, I’M IN.
“You’re in on what?” Crowley said, feeling stupidly tired.
TAKE ME TO SEE THE BELLY-JIGGLING WISH GRANTER. I’M IN.
“Oh good!” Crowley said, fighting a yawn. “We’ll get right on that tomorrow.”
Later that morning, they both heard someone try the front door of the bookshop. It was currently locked, as the shop was closed. Nonetheless, it continued to rattle insistently, and they heard the faint echo of someone shouting something. It sounded like “Dude!”
Aziraphale looked up from his cozy armchair and grinned at the demon currently sprawled out bonelessly on the couch. “I believe your assistant is here.”
Crowley frowned. “He’s awfully persistent, isn’t he?”
“Now, Crowley,” Aziraphale said kindly. “He’s not a bad chap.”
Crowley pushed up from the sofa and wandered down to open the front door. A cold rush of winter air swirled in, pushing a few stray snowflakes with it. Sure enough, erstwhile and now banished low-level demon Rattitorioth, more commonly called Rat, stood at the front door. His thin frame was hunched over in the cold, and his ash-gray hair was spiky and disorganized, with two clumps sticking up on each side to look like ears. He grinned up at Crowley and his black eyes glittered.
“Hi boss,” he said, before shivering pathetically. “Can I come in?”
Crowley stood back and let him pass by, observing as he did that Rat’s usual gray trench coat was in tatters and did little to insulate him from the winter chill. His boots clearly had holes in them and he wasn’t even wearing a muffler.
“For Hell’s sake, Rat,” Crowley scolded. “I understand you’re trying to make a fashion statement here, but it’s winter. You need an upgrade.”
Rat looked down at himself. “What’s wrong with my clothes? I like them. They’re all – wretched and worn.”
His thought process was interrupted as Aziraphale came down the stairs to join them in the back room.
“’lo Mr. Aziraphale, sir,” he said.
Aziraphale frowned. “I’ve told you, you don’t have to call me that.”
“Oh right,” Rat breathed. “I forgot, dude.”
Aziraphale sniffed and handed him a mug of something warm and steamy and enough on the bitter side to suit his demonic inclinations.
Rat took a sip and made a face. It was disgusting and bitter and he liked it very much. “You burned the beans again! Just for me?”
“You look like a street person,” Crowley cut in, continuing their former conversation. “And you’re going to freeze to death. You need warmer clothing. A sweater and a pair of boots without holes and mittens.”
Rat shrugged. “I dunno, man, I’m not very good with clothes. Can’t just snap and change them like you do.”
“Well,” Crowley said. “Maybe Santa will help you with that.”
“Santa?” Rat said.
“You know,” Crowley said. “Father Christmas?”
Rat choked on his second sip of his burned coffee. “Dude,” he said, looking at Crowley strangely. “You can’t seriously be celebrating Christmas, can you? I mean – you’re a demon.”
Crowley bristled. “Picked the wrong demon to emulate, didn’t you? Maybe you ought to fuck off back to hell if I’m such an insult to your demonic sensibilities.”
“Now Crowley,” Aziraphale tutted. “Be nice. You know he can do no such thing.” He turned to Rat. “It’s not necessarily a religious holiday, not to everyone.”
“Does celebrating it involve any destruction? Fires? Plagues?” Rat asked doubtfully.
“Oh sure,” Crowley drawled. “For one, the shopping is insane – people beat each other just to try to get the latest talking toy for their brats. Epic violence, every year, guaranteed. And lots of people go massively into debt buying presents they can’t afford. Just look at the car commercials, for one! No one but a psychopath buys their loved one a Lexus for Christmas as a surprise. Right Aziraphale?”
“Well, that’s hardly the best summary of the holiday, but I suppose that’s true,” he admitted despite his better judgment. “And I suppose there’s the huge environmental impact of all of that wrapping paper and bows and glitter. Quite bad for the planet.”
“And family gatherings!” Crowley shouted. “No greater opportunity for demonic mischief than big family gatherings! Everyone trying to get along with people they don’t get along with, ending up either drunk as a skunk or coming to blows over who’s for which political party. Really rather fun. I try to double the alcohol content of all the eggnog in London on Christmas night.”
Aziraphale made a disapproving noise. “I was not aware of that, demon.”
Crowley grinned at Rat. “See? Christmas is great fun.”
Rat smiled hesitantly. “Ok, boss, whatever you say.”
“In fact,” Crowley said expansively, “you need something to get you in the spirit of the season.”
“Oh, a task?” Rat said, bouncing on his feet. “You got it, what do you need?”
Crowley thought for a moment, then went over and whispered in Rat’s ear for a long moment. Rat listened, grinned intensely, and rushed out the door with garbled goodbyes thrown over his shoulder.
“What,” said Aziraphale frostily, “was that? What mischief are you up to now?”
“Oh, nothing big,” Crowley said. “I just sent him into central London to find all the fruitcakes in town and use a little demonic power to make them harder and less digestible by a factor of at least 50%.”
Aziraphale snorted. “You’re going to end up getting a lump of coal, my dear.”
Crowley scoffed. “Will not. Just try it.”
Aziraphale took a sip of his cocoa. “We should take him to the department store with us tomorrow,” he said mildly. “Let him get a look at the nice decorations and watch Freddy meet Santa.”
Crowley shrugged. “If you want.”
And, Aziraphale thought but did not say, it was always a good idea to have the overly enthusiastic Rat under their observation instead of being left to wonder what he was doing. He was, for a demon, relatively harmless, but even a relatively harmless demon could wreak a lot of havoc at the holidays.
He closed his eyes and sent a quick prayer out for a Christmas miracle to get them through the next day.
Crowley, Aziraphale, Rat, and Frederick visit the mall to see Santa.
Yes, I'm not done yet. Yes, no one is surprised by that, I'm sure. :)
Hope everyone had a great holiday!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Are you absolutely sure this is a good idea?” Aziraphale fretted as they stood in line with Freddy’s snake carrier in hand. “I don’t see anyone else here with a snake. And you know how Freddy gets…”
Crowley looked around. True, they were mostly surrounded by dogs, and mostly the pocket-sized variety, although there were a few larger varieties, including one massive wolfhound, if he wasn’t mistaken. Crowley shuddered. After knowing and working with hellhounds for a few millennia, he had to admit he preferred his dogs smaller and cuter and more like, well more like Dog, Adam’s faithful companion.
“That’s not true,” Crowley said. “There’s a man with a parrot right over there. And that little boy is holding a goldfish bowl. And I’m fairly certain I saw a ferret peep out of someone’s coat.
“Oh wonderful,” Aziraphale groused. “Two of his favorite foods and one animal who would love to eat him instead. This is going to go swimmingly.”
The line, and the resulting wait, was mind-numbingly long but was broken up by Rat’s regular progress reports as he made loops of the mall trying to understand human behavior.
“Still here then, boss?” he chirruped after one of his circuits was completed. He looked around critically. “Doesn’t look like you’ve moved much – you want me to lighten up the line a little bit for you?”
Aziraphale gave Crowley a look that had him shutting his mouth over his initial reply. “No thank you, that will not be necessary,” Aziraphale said primly. “We will do this the human way. It’s more fun.”
“Dunno what’s so fun about standing in line,” Rat said doubtfully.
The dog in the arms of the family behind them chose that moment to engage in an explosive sneeze, spraying all three of them with spittle and droplets.
“It’s sporting,” Aziraphale said, putting down the carrier for a moment and trying to hide his dismay as he brushed off his jacket. “It’s an essential part of the experience.”
He pretended he did not see Crowley rolling his eyes behind him, or the way Rat’s face creased over with the effort to go along with the boss’s joke without also irritating the boss’s husband. Life as a personal assistant had all kinds of unexpected difficulties.
Rat sprawled on a bench outside a bustling department store and watched the humans. They went in carrying very little and came out encumbered with humungous bags. Commerce. He knew about commerce; Aziraphale had taught him. But it seemed as if it was all taken up a notch or two in intensity today. There were more of them, scurrying back and forth, and they were all smiling, mostly, and they were dressed in lots of splashes of red and green, with the occasional shiny bow or sprigs of holly on a lapel. The bags were bursting with packages that appeared to be wrapped in shiny paper. People were randomly hugging each other and every once in a while, someone sang, and no one looked annoyed about it. He didn’t get it at all. This should be prime ground for mischief and misery and instead everyone was oddly happy.
An older woman eased herself down on the bench next to him, put her carrier bag down, and leaned back with a sigh. “Oh, that’s better,” she said, stretching her feet out in front of her. She smiled welcomingly at Rat. “Quite the circus, innit?”
Rat thought. Crowley had said he should be getting more used to talking to humans. This was a golden opportunity.
“It is!” he said, making a mental note to find out what a circus was. Then he cleared his throat. “Uh, could I ask you a question?”
The woman nodded acceptingly. “Go right ahead, luv; nothing shocks me anymore.”
“What are they all doing?” Rat said, gesturing at the shoppers. “Why are there so many of them and why is everyone so happy?”
The woman looked at him more closely, taking in his strange coloring and hairstyle. “You’re not from around here are you, dear?” she asked. “Where are you from?”
Rat swallowed nervously. “Somewhere hotter,” he said. “Extremely south.”
“Ah,” the woman said. “Well, it’s just that it’s Christmas Eve, innit? Everyone’s out buying pressies for their loved ones. You must’ve heard of this before.”
“Well,” Rat said, “I’ve heard a little, but they don’t do this where I’m from.”
“Muslim?” the woman asked. Rat shook his head. “Ah well. It’s what we do here. We exchange gifts – to let someone know you care. People get gifts for their loved ones, their friends, their bosses, their employees. It’s nice!”
Their bosses? Rat thought. Oh crap. Was he missing out on an important Earth custom?
“Gotta go,” Rat said, launching himself up off the bench.
Roughly an eternity later, they’d made in nearly to the front of the line. Just two families ahead of them, one with a cute little beagle puppy, and one with a suspiciously calm feline.
“Freddy,” Aziraphale said, “wake up, we’re nearly there.”
WHAT? Frederick shouted. I WASN’T SLEEPING!
He most certainly was. But he shook himself and assumed a defensive posture, scenting as well as he could through his cage. Where were they again? Out in public, which was unusual. In a very crowded place. Not just humans but lots and lots of tasty animals.
I SMELL A PARROT! he shrieked. IS THAT FOR ME? IS SANTA GIVING ME A PARROT?
Crowley clucked his tongue and leaned down to the cage. “No, you do not get to eat a parrot, Freddy,” he whispered, trying to keep his voice down. “You have to be on your best behavior. Remember, Santa only brings presents to creatures who are good. If you get on the naughty list, you get a lump of coal.”
Frederick sniffed dubiously. What was coal? Was that supposed to worry him? He dropped the thought – worrying made him sleepy and he wanted to be awake for this. He watched closely as the drooly beagle sat on Santa’s lap like a chump and just wagged his tail and didn’t even wish for anything. What a dummy.
The cat was more his style – she hissed a little, flipped her tail around threateningly, and wished, oddly enough, for Santa to bring her cheese. And a personal servant. And something called an iPad, whatever that was. He wasn’t at all sure that Santa even understood the things the animals were saying to him, since he mostly ho ho ho’d his way through the entire interaction, but nonetheless, Frederick collected his thoughts and tried to assume his most charming manners before it was his turn.
Crowley turned to Aziraphale as Santa’s helper elf approached them.
“Last chance to back out of this foolishness,” he said quietly.
Aziraphale smiled. “I’m sure all will be well, my dear,” he replied. He closed his eyes and sent out a little wish of his own.
Please let the spirit of Christmas shine through this interaction, he asked, with a little push of his own for a miracle. Please don’t let anyone get injured.
A subtle buzz of angelic energy filled the air in a way only Crowley could directly observe, but suddenly everyone around them stood a little straighter and smiled a little more genuinely and found a new reserve of patience they had been beginning to lack. Santa’s jocular chuckle suddenly became a few notes deeper, and his beard appeared lusher and richer.
Crowley eyed him suspiciously. “Angel, what did you do?” he hissed, but it was too late, his husband was already marching up to Santa’s chair, carrier in hand.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Crowley muttered, heading along so he could translate.
Behave yourself, he warned Frederick psychically, and saw the snake give an annoyed tail flip in response.
Rat was out of his element. He had money, that wasn’t the issue. But now that he knew he was expected to provide a token of appreciation to his boss – and his boss’s husband probably – he was completely lost. He wandered through Boots, trying to decide what one got a now-disgraced demon as a token of appreciation.
A toothbrush? Deodorant? Lip gloss looked nice, but would he use it? Maybe a pot of glue? He did like to do that thing with coins, after all.
None of it seemed right. He wandered through several other stores, increasingly muttering to himself, and found himself staring at various displays and signage in outright puzzlement.
For that special someone with a sweet tooth, read a display near a large and decadent display of chocolates. He sniffed them over. Interesting, but he had no idea what a sweet tooth was or if Crowley possessed one. He didn’t want to make a faux pas.
Make them smile this Christmas with diamonds! read a sign next to a shiny pile of jewelry behind a glass case. Rat leaned in and examined these, because one thing he knew was that all demons liked rocks and shiny things. But the human behind the counter looked over his ragged appearance and glared at him suspiciously, so he quickly left. No need to get arrested. That wouldn’t be festive.
Everyone needs socks, he thought, looking at a pile of fuzzy Christmas socks piled on a table in the middle of the store. Would Crowley like some socks that were emblazoned with reindeer and lit up when pressed?
He sagged against a nearby column in dismay.
“Can I help you sir?” asked a nearby shopgirl. She was young, barely twenty, bottle blond with dark roots, and wearing much too much makeup. Rat liked her immediately just for that alone – they shared an affinity for eyeliner.
“Arg,” he moaned. “It’s just – I’ve got this boss, and – and his husband. And he’s a right demon, scary fucker, absolutely the coolest – and I’ve just learned I’m expected to give him something for Christmas. Me! Buying a Christmas present! I don’t even celebrate it! And I have no idea what a snake like him would want, do I? No, not a smidge of an idea.” He ran his hands through his hair and pulled. “What in the blazes am I supposed to do?”
“He sounds like a handful,” she said sympathetically.
“You have no idea.”
The salesgirl sized him up for a moment and then gave him a blinding, toothy smile. “I think I can help you,” she said. “I know a few blokes like that. Hang on just a minute while I tell Sharon that I’m going on break.”
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” Santa cried as they approached the foot of the podium leading up to his snow-covered chair. Aziraphale noted that his stomach really did shake like a bowl full of jelly. In fact, examining him closely, he had to admit that this was one of the best costumes he’d ever seen on a mall Santa. Every bit of it was perfect! Good for you, mall Santa, he thought. He did so admire a job well done.
“Who do we have here?” Santa said jovially, leaning forward to gaze into the carrier Aziraphale was holding.
Aziraphale lifted the carrier into view. “His name is Frederick, your maj – your – Santa.” He shook his head trying to clear his thoughts. “He’s a king snake. Is it ok to bring him out?”
Santa looked up at him with eyes of piercing blue that almost matched his own for intensity. “But of course! That would be just fine, Aziraphale, Guardian of the Eastern Gate.”
Aziraphale gaped. What on Earth?
Crowley stepped in smoothly and took the carrier from Aziraphale. He laid it on the floor, opened the front, and brought out a very nervous-looking Freddy.
IS THIS HIM? Freddy asked. THIS IS THE GUY?
Santa chuckled. “Of course it’s me,” he said, reaching out and taking Freddy carefully in his arms. “Now tell me, have you been a good snake this year?”
Crowley pulled Aziraphale back down the steps and turned his back towards Santa. “Did you see that?” he muttered very close to Aziraphale’s ear. “Santa could hear him.”
Aziraphale frowned. “He – he knew my name! And my title! I’m not sure what’s happening here but things feel… off somehow.”
“I think your little miracle might’ve had an unexpected consequence,” Crowley said, his face turning pale.
“What do you –”
Their attention was distracted by the realization that all had fallen silent around them. Suspiciously silent. They turned back to the podium and found Santa holding Frederick at chest height and staring into his eyes with a startling intensity. Frederick was scenting a little with his tongue but otherwise meeting him, gaze for gaze, and swaying slightly side to side.
“Is he – is he hypnotizing Santa?” Aziraphale muttered.
“I don’t think so?” Crowley said. “But I can’t tell for sure.”
“I think we better get back up there.”
They had just reached the small set of stairs up to the podium when a flash of light from the camera blinded them both. The photographer offered them an apologetic wave as they blinked to clear their vision, and then a startled gasp broke out from the crowd around them.
Santa’s chair was empty. There was no sign of either Santa or Freddy anywhere.
I know how protective you all are about Frederick, I've gotten the threats every time you think he's in danger. :) I promise you no harm is coming to him right now and he will be back soon!
The immediate aftermath of Freddy's disappearance is complicated by a really bossy elf, a shopping mission, and an unexpected part time job.
Ok. Four. Four chapters. That's it! I swear!
Aziraphale stared, unblinking, at Santa’s empty seat as pandemonium broke out behind them. The parents and kids broke out in murmurs and complaints, dogs started barking from the excitement, and gradually the sound level rose.
Luckily, Santa’s elf had the good sense to take control of the situation. She stepped forward and somehow produced a piercing whistle that snapped everyone's attention to her in an instant.
“Santa has gone to feed his reindeer for a few minutes,” she said officially. “I hope you enjoyed our latest magic tricks to create the illusion of a disappearance! Santa is magic, you know.”
The people in line looked around dubiously.
“He’ll be back in thirty minutes,” she continued. “Please wait patiently. Even Santa needs a break.”
The outrage settled down to a small buzz of conversation, and Aziraphale and Crowley sprinted back up to the podium.
“What on Earth just happened here?” Aziraphale said, voice quiet but tense. “Where is Frederick?”
“Where is Santa?” the elf said, barging in on their conversation. “It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve got dozens of families waiting in line! Do you two know anything about what just happened?”
Crowley looked indignant. “No of course not!” he snapped. “Do we look like we go around using a magic snake to kidnap Santa Claus from the mall? He took our snake, whoever he is!”
The elf looked unconvinced, but she stalked off to deal with the folks in line, leaving them with a few minutes of privacy.
Aziraphale laid his hands on the seat of the chair and closed his eyes to concentrate while Crowley kept an eye out. He stretched out his senses and tried to get a reading on who the man was and where they’d gone.
“Anything?” Crowley said.
“Well, I get the strongest sensation of…” Aziraphale made a face. “Christmas spirit? Merriment? General amusement?”
“That’s very helpful, angel, good job,” Crowley snipped.
“It seems like they went quite a long way. Almost out of my range to track it. Feels like they went – north?”
“North,” Crowley said flatly.
“Far north,” Aziraphale said. “I can’t seem to track it all the way to its source – it’s like the destination is protected in some way.”
Crowley sighed in frustration. “Any sense of intention? Evil? Harm?”
Aziraphale released the seat and wiped off his hands with a handkerchief. “None whatsoever,” he said. “There’s almost a psychic imprint of good will.”
Crowley narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps your little Christmas miracle summoned the real, actual Santa Claus.”
Aziraphale scoffed. “Oh, that’s preposterous. Santa Claus isn’t real, Crowley! You know that. He’s just a myth – used to inspire children into better behavior at the holidays.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “Really, angel? After everything we’ve seen? Pollution? War? Satan himself? You’re going to draw a line at a jolly elf who lives at the North Pole?”
The surly human elf chose that moment to reappear; she barged her way in front of them, hands on hips, looking quite irked despite her perky, jingly hat and her curled-toed slippers. They stepped back, slightly intimidated, and allowed her to shepherd them behind Santa’s chair, where they were out of sight of the crowd.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I need another Santa, and pronto,” the elf said. She eyed Aziraphale. “You’re about the right build and size. How about you?”
“Me?” Aziraphale said weakly.
Crowley smirked at him. “That’s an excellent idea. You finish off Santa’s tasks here, and I’ll see if I can track down Freddy. Okay?”
“I really don—”
“Good, then, that’s settled,” Crowley continued, cutting right over him. He snapped his fingers and Aziraphale was suddenly suited in the familiar red plush robe with thick white furry cuffs and a collar, a long white beard spilling down his chest. Crowley looked at him critically for a moment, then snapped again and the robes changed to a rich blue covered in snowflakes. “Yes, I think that’s better. More Father Christmas for you than Saint Nick.”
Aziraphale gaped at him. “I really think this is a poor –”
“Yes, yes,” Crowley said, then gave him a shove that sent him out from behind the podium to where the awaiting crowd could see him. A cheer arose. Santa was back!
Elf lady, apparently paid much too little to be bothered by watching his clothing magically change, took him by the hand. “Thanks for this,” she muttered. “You’re a real lifesaver. Just a couple more hours and we’ll be all done.”
She pulled him up the steps to his seat and deposited him in it roughly, then turned and clapped her hands at the waiting line.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Aziraphale said weakly as the slobbery pug who had sneezed on him earlier was plunked down in his lap. How did this happen, exactly?
In between two dozen dogs, five increasingly resentful cats, a rather nice lizard, and one foul-mouthed bird, Aziraphale ruminated darkly. Had he really summoned the actual embodiment of Saint Nicholas? He doubted it. He’d met Saint Nicholas, and he was the first to admit that he looked nothing like his modern-day depictions. For one thing, he was dark-complected and lived in Asia Minor, and he had a badly broken nose and could be a bit of a quarrelsome jerk. Definitely nothing about him twinkled with merriment. He did try to help the poor and give gold pieces anonymously to those who needed it, but that was where the resemblance ended.
So no, he was pretty sure they hadn’t been visited by an actual saint – thank someone. If some saint had absconded back to Heaven with Freddy, he had no idea what to do about that. He was certainly not welcome there anymore, and he couldn’t think of anything good that could be awaiting his little friend up there.
As for Santa? He simply wasn’t real! Aziraphale had been to the North Pole, and the South Pole, and everywhere in between over the past 6,000 years. If there was a workshop full of toy-making elves hidden on one of the snowy extremes, he’d know about it. Wouldn’t he?
He turned his thoughts to Frederick. What on earth could the little rapscallion be up to? Had he been taken by Santa, or was it the other way around? Who knew what a psychic snake could really achieve if he tried? What if, he thought, instead of this supposed Santa kidnapping Freddy, it was the other way around?
The thought made him break out in a sweat. Or was it the large sheepdog on his lap? He wasn’t sure. He wiped his forehead and tried his best to look jolly.
“What’s your budget?” Rat’s new friend asked him.
“Um,” he said, feeling lost. “Budget?”
“You know – how much do you want to spend?”
Rat thought quickly. He had no idea. “I’ve got –” he dug in his pockets and pulled out a wad of wrinkled, filthy bills which he dumped on a counter in front of him – “this. I guess. So, um, that much?”
The salesgirl grinned at him and poked at the money for a minute, counting. “Okay,” she said, “not bad. So, we’ve got your evil boss, who you said is a real wanker, right? And his husband, who’s more of a goody goody.”
“Not sure I’d call ‘im a wanker,” Rat said worriedly. “He’s actually pretty cool, for a demon.”
“Yeah,” she said understandingly. “My last boyfriend was a lot like that. I know the type.”
Rat nodded, aware that he was missing something in this conversation. He was offering his best compliments to Crowley, and the woman seemed to be taking it entirely the wrong way. He didn't understand humans at all.
“So, let’s start with the ties,” she said. “You can’t go wrong with a power tie for these business types.”
Rat fingered a few ties and tried to figure out what they were used for. He couldn’t see Crowley in any of them, really. “He’s really more of the leather jacket, dark sunglasses type,” he said finally. “I haven’t seen him wear anything like these.”
“What’s he like to do, your boss?” she asked.
“Well – tempt people,” Rat said. “Glue things to the sidewalks. Drink a lot. Drive fast. Typical demon stuff.”
“I know just the thing,” she said, grabbing his hand and pulling him along to another counter.
Crowley showed back up about two hours later. He ambled his way to the front of the line, cut in front of the last few waiting families, raised a rude hand signal to their complaints, and made his way up front where he unceremoniously plopped down onto
Santa’s Aziraphale’s lap.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said acerbically. “This line is for pets only and their owners. And as I don’t see any pets or owners in tow for you, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Crowley reached in his pocket and pulled out a small, friendly looking rat. “I brought my friend Bertrand,” he said. “We want our picture taken.”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” Aziraphale said. “And what does Bertrand want for Christmas?”
Crowley shrugged. “Cheese probably. Should be easy for you, right up your alley.”
“Smile for the camera,” Aziraphale muttered, pinching Crowley rather rudely right when the flash went off. The resulting grimace would make an excellent photograph, he was sure.
Crowley tucked Bertrand back in a pocket. He moved to hover behind Santa’s chair, gamely ducking out of sight anytime a photograph needed to be taken.
“I found something,” Crowley said from behind him. “A little scroll, at home, on your desk, all decorated with flourishes and ribbons. From St. Nick, apparently. Saying don’t worry, your friend is visiting the elves and will be home tonight.”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “You can’t be serious. He’s obviously been kidnapped.” He paused to pull a beaming and entirely fake smile for the camera, then scowled at Crowley again.
“I don’t think so,” Crowley said. “I was able to connect with Freddy a little too – not enough to talk, but I can sense his mood. He seems happy and content and in no danger whatsoever.”
“Well, I certainly hope so. And if this Santa Claus fellow is real, he and I are going to have a few words about his behavior later tonight,” Aziraphale blustered. “Ho ho ho!” he added as the very last family and pet left his lap looking slightly disturbed.
“All finished,” he sighed, standing up and brushing alarming quantities of pet hair and spittle off himself. “That was most unpleasant.”
“Oh, it was not,” Crowley chided. “Don’t think I didn’t notice how you blessed every single one of those animals to never get fleas and always get enough to eat.”
Aziraphale fluttered his eyelashes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said primly, snapping his fingers to rid himself of the robes and beard. “Now shall we find Rat and get out of here? I’m more than ready to go home.”
They made a loop around the mall and finally found Rat, hauling two carrier bags, and looking quite chuffed with himself.
“Where’s Frederick?” he asked, eyeing the empty carrying case.
“Long story,” Crowley said. “Let’s go home.”
Santa faces a moment of reckoning, and Christmas arrives. Freddy, at least, is quite pleased with his gifts.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Crowley repositioned himself for maximum sprawl on the overstuffed sofa in their flat and watched as Aziraphale nearly wore a hole in the expensive Turkish rug they’d chosen on their honeymoon. In Turkey. Which was now in danger of being destroyed by a supernatural entity with a grievance.
“Aziraphale, seriously, I like that rug, and it’s about to start smoking from how hard you’re treading on it,” Crowley said. “Give it a rest, would you?”
Aziraphale glared at him. “Fine, then,” he said, plopping heavily onto the other end of the couch and glaring at the fireplace where three stockings hung, “I’ll glare at the fire until Father Christmas has the nerve to appear. And then I shall give that ruffian a piece of my mind.”
Rat knocked at the door, looking more disheveled than usual. “Dudes… got any tape?”
Crowley frowned at him, then snapped his fingers and materialized a large roll of sellotape. “What are you up to?” he said. “You’re a demon, can’t you materialize your own tape?”
“You told me to do things the human way, didn’t you?”
Crowley rolled his eyes and tossed him the roll, and Rat disappeared back down the stairs into the shop. “Telling that boy to investigate the Christmas experience may have been a strategic error,” he muttered.
Aziraphale pulled out his pocket watch and checked it for the thousandth time. “It’s nine p.m., Crowley,” he said. “Where on Earth is he? Frederick is in so much trouble when he gets back.”
“’s Christmas, angel,” Crowley said, scooting over to wrap himself around Aziraphale in a way he knew was comforting. “Maybe you can give him a pass just this once? I’m sure he’s just fine. I can sense his emotions still.”
The angel sniffed. “We’ll see.”
“So Santa is real,” Rat muttered to himself as he laboriously tied a ribbon around a large box. “And demons can celebrate Christmas without bursting into flames. Nothing on Earth makes any sense.”
He stood back and took a look at his work. Two boxes, both wrapped in jet black wrapping paper with a charcoal gray ribbon. It looked dim and dingy and, he thought, rather festive. He hid them away in an unused cupboard until morning and then sat down at Aziraphale’s desk for a moment to concentrate.
He knew the boss was upset about the snake being gone. The boss’s husband was practically wrathful about it. Everyone always forgot, though, that Rat’s special ability was to find things. He was pretty sure he could figure out where Freddy had gotten off to. He liked Freddy – he was a perfect little agent of chaos.
He closed his eyes and concentrated and got a sense of Freddy being – well, in motion. Moving fast. It was surprisingly hard to pin him down as he seemed to be zipping from spot to spot in a movement that defied the patterns of physics in this world. He shook his head, confused.
He stopped upstairs to bother the boss one last time. “Dudes, I checked in on the little guy,” he said. “Can’t tell you exactly where -- he’s moving around a lot, but he seems to be getting closer to London.”
Aziraphale blinked. “Oh, thank you, my dear boy,” he said tiredly. “I do appreciate it.”
“Nice work, Rat,” the boss man said. Rat preened. Praise from the bloody Serpent never got old.
“Heading out for the night, unless you need me for anything else?” Rat said.
Crowley nodded his assent and Rat headed out towards his boss’s old apartment in Mayfair. He had several Hallmark Christmas movies saved for a viewing and an entire gallon of spiked eggnog to consume. It was going to be a pleasant evening.
Up in the night sky, Freddy peeked out of his perch inside Santa’s fluffy collar and scented the air, intensely grateful for the Nordic sweater Mrs. Claus had knitted for him. It was cold in the sled. He watched the lights of stars and houses whiz by, slightly dizzy with the speeds they were traveling at, and managed to behave himself appropriately at the first thousand stops they made. At each place, some kind of treat had been left out for the fat man and sometimes his reindeer – but he was disappointed to find that no one had left out a mouse for him. Didn’t they know that Santa had a new helper?
He burrowed back inside the furs around him to warm up, tongue flicking out contentedly.
Crowley plied his angel with warm, mulled wine, attempted to distract him with a backrub, and finally got him to relax his militant posture just the slightest bit and fall back into his arms in a combination of acceptance and defeat.
“Maybe we should rest a while,” Crowley said. “According to the general story, he never comes if you’re awake. Father Christmas, I mean.”
“I don’t sleep.”
“You do sometimes,” Crowley said. “I could help.”
“I do not want to sleep, Crowley,” Aziraphale warned.
“Do you want Freddy to get home or not?” Crowley said. “I don’t make the rules here!”
Aziraphale sighed. “Fine. Put me out. But lightly, please. If I wake up and twelve hours have gone by, I’m going to be very displeased.”
Crowley leaned in and pressed a kiss to Aziraphale’s cheek, then ghosted a breath across his temples. “Sleep,” he whispered, with a smidgeon of demonic command behind it. “Just for a little while.”
For all that he was the much more accomplished napper, Crowley was the one that found himself startled awake some indeterminate time later. Was it a noise? A draft? He cracked an eye and extracted himself from the pile that was Aziraphale to look around the room. He turned in a circle, senses on high alert, ready to fight if necessary. He wouldn’t put it beyond either Heaven or Hell to launch a retaliatory attack on Christmas Eve.
Nothing seemed to have changed.
A sudden clatter from above the ceiling sharpened his senses, and before he could react, several large thumps from the fireplace announced that they now had company. He reached over and shook Aziraphale by the shoulder. And then again.
“Wake up, angel,” he muttered as a large shape in red robes straightened up, his back still to the room, and tugged at a large sack that seemed to be stuck in the fireplace but somehow immune from the fire still burning in the grate. Finally tugging it free, the figure turned, looked around the room, and froze -- apparently surprised to find two supernatural entities staring at him with varying degrees of hostility.
“Good evening, Santa,” Crowley drawled. “Nice of you to visit.”
“You’re not supposed to be able to be awake when I’m here!” Santa protested. “That’s not how this works! There are magics at play here!”
Aziraphale stood up and straightened his cuffs in his most displeased manner. “I think you’ll find that the rules don’t apply to angels and demons, Father Christmas,” he said with excruciatingly cold politeness. “Especially when you’ve stolen something precious from us.”
Father Christmas frowned in confusion, then his face lit up. “Ho! Ho! Ho! You mean this little ruffian!” He opened up his coat and reached into a pocket and pulled out a very excited looking young king snake, who looked around wide eyed and then gave his best snakey equivalent of a grin.
YOU TWO WILL NOT BELIEVE WHERE I’VE BEEN! Freddy shrieked. He looked around at the pinched faces facing him. WHAT???
Aziraphale gestured to Crowley, who stepped forward to take Freddy from Father Christmas.
“I’ll deal with you later,” the angel said to Freddy, then turned back to his other visitor, arms folded across his chest. “But first, I have a bone to pick with you, my dear sir. What on Earth makes you think you can just abscond with a member of the family without a word of explanation?”
Father Christmas frowned in a genial way. “But, my boy, you called me. I was up in the North Pole getting ready for the busiest evening of my entire year, and suddenly I was summoned to -- where was it? Westfield London?”
“I -- I certainly --” Aziraphale sputtered. “Well that was an error on my part. I was just trying to increase the Christmas spirit at that particular gathering.”
“Well it worked,” Crowley mumbled under his breath.
“And when I arrived, I was greeted by young master Frederick,” their guest continued, “who was one of the most fascinating creatures I’d encountered in some time. He had a number of Christmas wishes that could only be accommodated back at the workshop, so I assumed that was why I had been summoned.”
Wishes? Crowley thought at Frederick.
LOOK! Frederick shouted, then concentrated and unfurled a brand new hood, black and gleaming, exactly like the cobras he had been studying in Aziraphale’s books. I CAN DO THIS NOW!
“Look, angel,” Crowley said, waving Freddy at him.
“Oh good grief,” Aziraphale said. “That was absolutely not necessary. You should have asked us before you did that.”
Father Christmas looked a tad stern. “You, young man, are behaving rather badly for Christmas Eve.”
Aziraphale bristled and opened his mouth for a biting reply, when Crowley laid a calming hand on his arm. “Angel,” he said, “let’s take a break. Before you. You know.”
The angel rounded on him. “Before I what?”
Crowley glanced pointedly at their visitor, then back. “You know.”
“I don’t, actually,” Aziraphale said evenly.
“He means before you end up on the naughty list,” Father Christmas said.
“Oh for Heaven’s sake,” Aziraphale snapped. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m expected to worry about that? I believe I’m on just about every naughty list that exists, at this point. Heaven? Check. Hell? Double check. Why not Christmas too?”
With a final huff, he stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Crowley, Frederick, and Father Christmas listened to his footsteps stomping down the stairs to the shop, and then everyone awkwardly made eye contact.
Crowley thought fast and snapped his fingers, materializing a small plate and glass.
“Biscuit?” he said, holding it out towards his guest with a winning grin.
Crowley found him a few minutes later, sitting stiffly at his desk, twirling a pencil in his fingers, staring into space.
“C’mon angel,” Crowley said, holding out his hand. “He’s gone. Freddy’s in his terrarium upstairs. Let’s go to bed for real this time.”
Aziraphale stared mutely for a moment, then reached out and took the offered hand and followed him upstairs.
They fell into an exhausted sleep far after midnight, and were awakened the next morning by the now familiar bustle of sounds that meant Rat had let himself into the shop and was making the boss’s coffee downstairs. He’d learned to do a passable job of it, so they had let him take this on as one of his personal assistant duties.
Aziraphale rolled over and pulled a pillow over his head. “Did all of that really happen?” he mumbled from beneath it.
“What, you mean the part about you summoning the real, actual spirit of Christmas and then pissing him off? And Freddy going on walkabout and turning into some kind of cobra hybrid?” Crowley drawled. “Yup, pretty much.”
Aziraphale flipped over and pulled the pillow off of his face. “I will have you know I had no idea he was real until yesterday!” he insisted. “I mean who would have thought it?”
Crowley got up and busied himself putting on a robe.
Aziraphale narrowed his eyes. “Dearest,” he said plainly. “Did you know?”
Crowley shrugged. “Had my suspicions, didn’t I?” he said. “I mean, I’ve spent a lot of years lurking around late at night on Christmas Eve. Not exactly like I’m gonna go to church and then tuck myself up in beddy bye to wait for St. Nick, is it? Demons don’t get presents from saints.”
Aziraphale blinked at him. “And you’ve seen him before?”
“Might’ve done. Once or twice.” Crowley glanced at him. “Come on, don’t be sore. I didn’t tell you because it’s never come up!”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “You’re lucky it’s Christmas, my dear, or you’d be in for quite a snit.”
“Ah!” Crowley said, latching on desperately to that sentiment. “But it is Christmas. It is still Christmas. Look, the stockings are full!”
“Mine’s probably coal.”
“Is not. Get out of bed and let’s go downstairs before Rat pours the wrong booze into the coffee again.”
Crowley grabbed the stockings and was just in time to stop Rat from pouring vodka into their coffee and directed him to the kahlua instead. He bustled around the kitchen for a moment, pulling out the box of beautiful pastries he’d bought the day before and frightened into staying fresh and new until this moment, and was just finishing setting up everything in the office when Aziraphale finally made his way down wrapped in his most tartan-y tartan robe, a familiar reptilian head peeking out of his pocket.
“Oh well this does look lovely,” Aziraphale said, beaming at the beautiful spread the two demons had put together. He picked up a small tart and took a nibble, then helped himself to a coffee and sat down. “And you lit the lights on the tree!” he added, looking over to the corner near the grandfather clock where they’d set up this year’s tree.
“I didn’t turn the lights on,” Crowley said. “Did you, Rat?”
“No way, dudes, they were lit when I came in,” Rat said.
Aziraphale sat forward. “And there are a few more packages under there than I remember seeing last night,” he said. “Aren’t there?”
Crowley grinned. “Santa must’ve liked the biscuit.”
“What?” Rat said, looking around in consternation. “Santa was here? Did he steal anything else?”
Crowley explained to him about Freddy’s return trip as Aziraphale went to examine the presents under the tree. “There’s one for Freddy that wasn’t here last night,” he announced, “and one for Rat, too!”
“Presents?” Rat said. “Aw, dudes. That’s -- unexpected. You shouldn’t have!” He looked away and might have sniffed.
“We didn’t, actually,” Crowley said under his breath, but stopped when Aziraphale gave him The Look. They had, actually, Aziraphale reminded him, pointing at the additional package that was from them.
I HAVE A PRESENT? Frederick shouted. GIVE IT TO ME! I WANT IT!
Crowley duly translated.
“Now Frederick,” Aziraphale said, “you have lots of presents! There’s a whole set of them from me and Crowley. And there’s one that appears to be from Father Christmas. Perhaps we should save that for the end?”
HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND? Frederick shrieked. GIVE ME THE BIG ONE FROM THE FAT MAN NOW! HE TOLD ME I’D GET SOMETHING SPECIAL!
Aziraphale chuckled and gave in. They helped him rip off the silver paper and opened a large box and found -- something none of them quite understood for a moment. It had blades and straps and a stretchy tube of some kind and wires and... a remote control?
“What is it?” Aziraphale asked.
WHAT IS IT? Frederick shrieked.
“I think it’s a drone. You know, those annoying things that buzz around in the park? With a harness,” Crowley said. “Shaped for a snake.”
WHAT’S A DRONE? WAIT, WHAT’S A HARNESS? Frederick yelled.
“It’s a flying machine, Frederick,” Crowley said. “You climb in the little tube here and we turn it on and use this little remote control and you get to fly around.”
I GET TO FLY? Frederick said. HE GAVE ME WINGS? I GET TO BE A FLYING COBRA?
“Oh, this cannot be a good idea,” Aziraphale said.
SOMEONE TAKE ME TO THE ZOO! Frederick cackled in glee. I NEED TO SHOW THIS TO THAT ASSHOLE OF A TIGER RIGHT FREAKING NOW.
When all the presents had been opened, Rat bundled up in his new, warm wool coat and muffler, pulled on his leather gloves and cinched the knit hat down over his ears before sitting back down in his chair and grinning. Even his feet were toasty warm inside new fleece-lined boots. It was all black, so that was good, except for the muffler, which was bright red like the old guy’s robes.
“I don’t think you’re meant to wear all of that indoors,” Crowley said.
“Why the heck not?” Rat said. “I mean, if Father Christmas wants me to wear ‘em, I’m gonna wear ‘em!” He clapped his gloved hands together, delighting at the muffled sound they made. “Look at that, man, they even have fingertips! Never had a pair of gloves that wasn’t covered in holes before! Dudes, this Christmas stuff is growing on me.”
Crowley hid a grin behind his coffee cup as he took another deep sip. He sat back into Aziraphale’s arm, enjoying the peace of the moment. He concentrated for a moment and conjured a piece of mistletoe directly over Aziraphale’s head, then leaned in to take advantage of it.
“Happy Christmas, you,” Aziraphale said to his husband, kissing him gently.
“Oh!” Rat said, leaping up suddenly. “One more thing.” He dove into the back room, dug around in the cupboards for a while, and came out with the two boxes he’d wrapped last night. He handed one to each of them.
Crowley gestured for Aziraphale to go first. He carefully unwrapped his and unfolded a large, garish Christmas sweater, complete with fully functioning blinking lights and the words “Merry Christmas Ya Filthy Animal” picked out on it with white yarn.
“I’ll explain the reference later,” Crowley told him quietly. “Just look pleased.”
“Why, thank you Rat!” Aziraphale said jovially. “What a lovely and festive garment! I will be quite sure to try it on just a bit later in the morning.”
Rat looked pleased. He turned expectantly to Crowley.
Crowley ripped his apart in seconds and found -- a shiny black coffee mug, with a gold rim and fancy gold writing on it.
“World’s Greatest Boss,” he read. He looked up and found Rat watching him intently. “Uh, thanks, Rat! S’nice.”
Rat continued watching him expectantly, until Aziraphale finally whispered something to him and he snapped his fingers, transferring his current coffee-and-alcohol concoction over to the new cup. He raised it and took a sip.
“Mmmmm! Even better than in the other cup!” Crowley said.
Rat slumped back in his chair, satisfied. He thought he was doing pretty well with getting used to this human world, all things considered. He’d only been here a little while, and he’d picked up the language, the customs, the phone systems, and now -- a bit of the holidays too. He took a deep sip of his own coffee, spiked with Hellfire, of course, and watched his two bosses as they took turns using the remote control to send a shrieking, cackling Freddy up into the oculus over and over, and looked at the twinkle lights of the tree, and felt the warmth of his new clothes, and decided that maybe, just maybe, getting kicked out of Hell had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.
It was a big world out there. And he was going to understand all of it. No matter how long it took.
And that's the end of this little bit of fluff. :) Hope you enjoyed! Happy New Year to everyone and here's to a 2021 full of stories!