Title: Wishes and Words to the Wise
Author: Ask me no questions; I'll tell you no lies.
Characters/Pairings: International Express Delivery Man, Shadwell/Tracy, Aziraphale/Crowley, Newt/Anathema—it's a bit of a large cast, actually, part of which is secret till the end.
Notes: I took the photo included in this story on location exactly where the story cites it. The subject was too bizarre, beautiful, and appropriate not to use somewhere in a GO context.
Summary: Somebody has to deliver the presents in the Universe's grand gift exchange.
He'd had worse lists the week of Christmas, but Maud wasn't going to be happy about it.
The Tadfield address would be easiest, so he'd save that one for last. He always saved the easy ones for last, because he'd learned as a rule of thumb you need all the time you can possibly get for tracking down the odd ones. There were only three entries on his clipboard, and the four packages in his truck were really quite small. He hadn't quite worked out the extra package, as it didn't belong to any of the addressees.
The trouble was mostly that his truck wasn't going to do him any good on the delivery that had to be delivered to "The Ocean Princess, Cabin 999, Middle of the Baltic."
It would, however, do him a spot of a favor on those rough roads in Cornwall.
Resolutely, Frank O'Rourke of International Express (Deliveries LTD) put on his cap, his spectacles, and kissed his sleeping wife goodbye. He left a note on the bed stand that read, "I love you." You could never be too sure, especially about those foreign lorry drivers.
Just to be safe, he'd start off with Cornwall.
"Get doon hair, wumman!" Shadwell barked, frowning into his thermos. There was nothing worse than cold tea on a cold morning, and that morning's visibility was completely shite. He squinted out the window at the ocean, which was annoyingly calm.
"Now, now, dear," said Madame Tracy, soothingly, flouncing down the stairs in one of those…those abominations that Shadwell had no name for, no matter how many times he asked her. "What's the matter? I'm just tidying up the bedroom."
Shadwell muttered into his thermos, averting his eyes. Had she no shame, not even for the both of them?
"Oh, poor love," Tracy cooed, flouncing over to pry it out of his hands. "I'll have that fixed up in no time, there's a dear." She paused, squinting out the window.
"Nothin' as would interest ye, lass," Shadwell said, wearily. How in the devil's name was he to keep watch on his woman and his household if there was nothing to watch for? He was sure he'd never heard of a place called Shangri La in bloody Cornwall, but they'd taken care of that by naming the cottage. What he did know about Cornwall was that there were pirates, and where there were pirates, there were witches. His retirement wouldn't be spent in vain after all—or so he'd thought.
On her way to the kitchen, Tracy patted him on the shoulder. "I'm sure they'll be along soon, love," she said, reassuringly, and flounced down the hall.
Shadwell squinted out the window again, still muttering. Truth be told, there were mornings when he thought he'd seen something—a boat off in the mist, the mast of a ship just beyond the horizon—but he'd never quite been able to make it out before it vanished. Sure sign of sorcery, that, he thought darkly. Witches. Pirate witches.
There was a knock at the door of a decidedly unsorcerous nature.
"Wumman, whair are ye? Summat's hammerin' doon the door!"
"Would you mind getting that, love?"
"Yes!" Shadwell shouted, and answered it anyway.
The small, bespectacled man on their doorstep was unremarkable except for his suspiciously pointy cap. He cleared his throat and held up a clipboard with one hand, hefting an oblong box under his other arm that, while not overly large, looked heavy.
"Blustery cold, sir, isn't it, morning by the sea? You'd think they'd have more accurate weather reports by now, wouldn't you, but the radio says one thing and the folks in the post office say another—and nice folks they are at your post office, sir, had to ask them where to find you, as all the cottages hereabouts look similar, that's not to say as you haven't done anything original with the place, because I really can tell you've—"
Vaguely uncomfortable, Shadwell called over his shoulder, "Wumman, I'm givin' ye to th—"
"Very well," said Madame Tracy, hurrying in with a towel in her hands. When she spotted the delivery man—warlock, if Shadwell had anything to say about it—she brightened and put the towel down on the nearest piece of furniture.
"My, you must have caught a chill by now! Come in, come in!"
"That's very kind of you, ma'am," began the delivery man, "but really I just need one of you to sign right here, and then I'll give you your package and be on my way, that's always best, I think, given the time of year and all, busy as it is for every—"
Shadwell grabbed the clipboard, eyeing it suspiciously. That was their address, sure enough, but the name of the recipient was smudged by what looked like water. There were no curious sigils or code anywhere on the page, which he found disappointing.
"Just there, sir," said the delivery man, tapping the blank line under the address.
Shadwell scrawled his signature, which had not changed since the day he learned his letters.
"There, now, that wasn't so hard," said Tracy under her breath.
"Oot o' here, wumman!" Shadwell barked, snatching the box away from the delivery man. It was heavy, and rattled a bit. He hoped it wasn't a bomb. The Witchfinders had had many a nasty incident involving good old-fashioned explosives, which most witches seemed to be quite skilled with. Why couldn't they just use hexes?
The delivery man tipped his hat politely. "Good day, sir. Merry Christmas!"
Shadwell slammed the door in his face and carried the box over to the coffee table. A few flicks of his penknife took care of the heavy tape-job, and the thing inside rolled apart in several dusty, but still functional, pieces. Shadwell rubbed his hands together.
By the time Tracy returned with a fully stocked tea tray, Shadwell had more or less got the theodolite in working order. Just like the Army had had in the old days, he thought, ignoring the enquiry of whether he wanted one lump or two, and focused the telescope lens as he adjusted the angle on the contraption. Perfect. There was still nothing, but it was at least nothing that he could see with perfect accuracy and clarity.
"Mister S, what are you—"
"Nothin' o' yer concern, lass," he said, deciding he ought to thank her for it later. "Two."
"Did you know," said Crowley, "that most people take cruises in the tropics this time of year?"
"Mm," said Aziraphale, absently, pausing to admire what was left of a medieval wall painting. It looked as if there had once been an entire manger scene, but all that remained was the faint outline of the Christ child in swaddling clothes, round eyes staring.
"That's creepy," Crowley insisted. "Bloody creepy. Remind me why we docked here again?"
"Because it's on the itinerary," Aziraphale said, and grabbed his sleeve. "Wouldn't you just look at this? There's still some blue paint. I'm quite sure it wasn't meant to be that durable. Humans are clever things, aren't they, when you get down to it."
"Took them long enough to learn perspective," muttered Crowley, dismally.
Aziraphale tutted, dragging him along. The church was absolutely lovely, and he wasn't about to let Crowley's dour determination ruin the experience. Warnemunde wasn't a resort town, and neither was Rostock, but they'd paid extra for the bus excursion further inland, and he was going to get their money's worth whether Crowley cared or not.
"I don't know about you, but I'm not going to waste my time on medieval watercolors while there's a big, impressive, interesting Reformation-era clock over there," Crowley said, and pulled free of Aziraphale's grasp only to take hold of his wrist. "Come on."
Aziraphale sighed, but went willingly. At least Crowley was making an effort.
He had to admit that the clock was, in fact, impressive. The woodcarving was spectacularly detailed, and the paint, whether original or not, had been kept in a brilliant state of repair. Tiny civic figures from the community, coats of arms, animals, angels, demons—and, crowning it all, there was a face both familiar and unfamiliar all at once.
"That's creepy, too," said Crowley. "A more interesting kind of creepy, see?"
Someone tugged on Aziraphale's sleeve. Crowley cleared his throat and let go of Aziraphale's other arm, pretending to examine one of the stained glass windows to their right. Aziraphale turned around, somewhat puzzled by the gentleman standing to his left. He was sure he'd seen the chap somewhere, but they hadn't been in Germany for years.
"Delivery for you, sir," said the gentleman, plucking a pen from behind his ear. "All you've got to do is sign here and my work is done. I had no end of a chore finding your whereabouts, to be sure, as the Ocean Princess seems to have docked twice already, and neither my Dutch nor my Danish are what they ought to be, but it seems they got the idea when I asked around here, so nice and organized, these folks, you wouldn't believe—"
Aziraphale shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, then took the clipboard and pen. He signed quickly, less legibly than usual, and made note that the name to which the delivery was being made was unclear anyway, and so was the number to which the charges were being made. He had the unshakeable sense he'd done this before.
"Right, then, here you are," said the gentleman, handing a small cardboard box to Aziraphale as he took back the clipboard. "A bit fragile, I think, but nothing broken."
"Thank you," said Aziraphale, and watched him glance uncomfortably up at the clock before tipping his pointed cap and wandering back to the church entrance.
"What on earth is that?" asked Crowley, wandering over to examine the box.
"I don't know," said Aziraphale, taking the opportunity to rid himself of it. "I think it might be yours."
"Well, if it isn't, somebody made the mistake of sending it to me anyway," said Crowley, and undid the tape rather more easily than a creature masquerading as human should be able to. He opened the box and peered inside, brow furrowed.
"Some mistake," he said, pushing it back at Aziraphale. "Must be yours." He wandered back off to stare at the stained glass some more, but Aziraphale noticed his hands were trembling.
The box was full of bubble wrap, but it was clear the bubble wrap was protecting some sort of book. Some sort of very old book. Aziraphale turned it over in his hands, too absorbed to care that he'd dropped the packaging. This copy of the Malleus Maleficarum was ancient indeed, and inside the front cover were written the names of a good many gentlemen, real and imagined, whose names were all too familiar.
Crowley must have paid a fortune for it.
Clearing his throat, Aziraphale tucked the book inside his coat and joined Crowley in front of the stained glass windows. He took hold of the nearest of Crowley's hands he could find, which was difficult, because now his hands were shaking, too, and it wasn't from the combined chill of winter and ancient masonry, either.
"My dear," Aziraphale murmured, squeezing Crowley's fingers till they were still.
Crowley just looked at him: confusion at first, and then a hopeful smile.
"It's always one bad bulb," Newt sighed, crawling out from under the tree. "Have you got those spares?"
"Knock yourself out," said Anathema, and tossed him the tiny plastic baggie. She sat down in the nearest chair and picked up her Yule issue of the New Aquarian. It was going to be a long, long night, and if Newt could help it, neither of them would sleep.
"I don't understand it," Newt said, poking a hole in the baggie with his index finger and fishing out one of the tiny clear bulbs. "They ought to devise a system whereby one bad light won't affect the entire strand. It's ludicrous. We're living in the modern age, after all."
Anathema nodded, not bothering to look up. She didn't have the heart to tell him that she'd just bought the lights last week, and that she had plugged them in for a test and the entire strand had worked just fine. She had hoped that, after all that bad business at the Air Base (whatever it had been), Newt's technological ineptitude would no longer be more of a hindrance than a help. Sadly, that hadn't turned out to be the case.
"I might as well just pull out ten at random and replace them," he said.
Anathema read the same line a second time and gave up. The story, which put forward several occult and metaphysical theories attempting to explain the high volume of recent Elvis sightings in Iowa, wasn't all that interesting anyway. She put down the magazine.
They'd managed to replace about four bulbs when someone knocked at the door.
"You get it," said Anathema, yanking out another perfectly good bulb.
Reluctantly, Newt got up and opened the door. From across the room, she could see the International Express delivery cap. If the Modern Age ever got a mind to fix the way fairy lights worked, it might as well update certain corporate fashions in the process.
"…so you'd best just sign here," the delivery man was saying, "and I'll be on my way. Best be getting home to Maud—that's my missus—as she's no doubt wondering if I'll even be there for Christmas Eve, and let me tell you, this week's run has taken me from Cornwall to the Baltic coast of Germany to—"
"No kidding," said Newt, hastily, and there was the sound of pen scrawling. "You have a happy holiday," he added, sounding as if he wondered that was the right thing to say. There was an unassuming cardboard box in his hands, and he was holding it as if it might explode. He closed the door on the delivery man hastily and stood there, hesitant.
Anathema snapped the replacement bulb into place and got up, hands on her hips.
"Fireplace?" Newt asked, trying to keep his voice firm.
"Fireplace," said Anathema, decisively.
It wasn't until the cardboard and tissue paper burned away that Anathema noticed the name "Shipton" in the embossing on the ancient leather cover. They managed to pull the book free before too much damage had been done to the interior, and thank goodness.
"At least we have some light," said Newt, rubbing his hands together before the flames.
Anathema just nodded, engrossed in her reading.
It had been a long week, to be sure, but he'd delivered everything on the list. That still didn't solve the problem of the fourth box, which loomed tiny and somehow ominous in the vast blackness of his truck. Frank took a breath, watched it condense and steam on the air, and started to close the doors. He'd return it to headquarters the day after tomorrow. After all, a late delivery was better than no delivery at all.
A tug on the hem of his coat startled him before he could get the doors shut.
"I think you've got one left in there, sir," said the boy. He was wearing one of those knit caps that had braided ties hanging down from the ears, but his hands were bare and he was in a new, warm-looking jumper. A small mutt with one turned ear sat at his feet, tail wagging expectantly. The boy's smile was all at once innocent and disturbing.
"Yes, young man, I believe I do," said Frank. "But it hasn't got an address, you see, which means I've got to take it back to headquarters and make an enquiry."
"That's funny," said the boy, peering into the truck. "I thought I saw writing on it. It might belong to one of my neighbors. Why don't you check? I could deliver it for you. It's awfully cold, and it's Christmas Eve, after all. You should be at home."
Unexpectedly, Frank found that the young man's suggestion made a lot of sense, so he reached into the shadowy chill of the truck and pulled out the box. It was flatter than the rest, but at least as heavy as the middle two deliveries had been. He checked the label—which hadn't been there before, he was sure of it—and frowned.
"Adam Young," he read. "Tadfield. Do you know Mr. Young?"
"I do, as a matter of fact," said the boy. "I can get that to him in no time."
"Well, bless you, son," said Frank, and handed the boy the box even though some part of him was certain that wasn't how things usually went. "A very Merry Christmas to you, and to Mr. Young, too, you be sure to tell him I said so and that I'm terribly sorry I didn't—"
"Don't worry about it," said the boy, tucking the box snugly under his arm. The dog got up and pranced around its master's feet, yipping impatiently. "Peace on earth, good will towards men an' all that," he said, reaching down to scratch behind the dog's ear.
What an odd young man, and no mistake, Frank thought, and went home, where Maud was making mulled cider and her mother's secret recipe shortbread holiday biscuits.
He'd have the entire year's worth of New Aquarian back issues read by morning, but he'd save the Yule issue for the next night. After all, it was only proper.
"Just what I wanted," said Adam Young, and burrowed under his covers with a torch.