“Angel!” Crowley paced excitedly through the door to the bookshop and spun, looking for his friend. “I’ve got news!”
Aziraphale appeared a moment later, weaving around one of the light-up reindeer and picking his way towards Crowley. “What is it now?”
Crowley waved a sheet of paper at him eagerly. “You’ll never guess where I just was!”
“No, probably not,” Aziraphale agreed.
“The office—well—parlour—of the Soho Society!”
Aziraphale stopped and blinked at the demon. “What?”
“The Soho Society!” Crowley said excitedly. “Remember? They hosted that competition for the best-decorated business in Soho?”
Comprehension slowly dawned on Aziraphale’s face. “Oh, yes.”
“They judged the competition earlier today,” Crowley said, and waved the paper in Aziraphale’s direction again. “We won!”
<< ~ >>
“No, no, angel, this is the best one yet,” Crowley said, following Aziraphale as he strode along the edge of St James’s Park, leaving fresh footprints in the freshly-snow-blanketed pavement. “‘Our fervent hope is that you thoroughly enjoy your Yuletide season.’”
“What are you going on about, my dear?”
“I explained already,” Crowley said, quickening his pace so he didn’t fall behind, squinting at the webpage he’d pulled up on his shiny new iPhone. (It was one of his many presents to himself, though he hadn’t had the patience to wait to unwrap it until Christmas Day.) “It’s the name of a Christmas carol that’s been turned into synonyms.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Crowley.”
“Sure it does,” Crowley said. “It’s ‘our fervent hope is that you thoroughly enjoy your Yuletide season,’ right, so it’s ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’ get it?”
Aziraphale frowned at Crowley. “No.”
Crowley let out a short, exasperated sigh. “‘Our fervent hope’ means that you’re wishing, right?, and ‘thoroughly enjoy your Yuletide season’ means that you should have a Merry Christmas, see, because Yule is another name for Christmas!”
Aziraphale’s frown deepened. “Why would anyone do that?”
Crowley sighed again, but he still seemed to be enjoying himself. “It’s funny, angel, that’s why. It’s a game. You’re supposed to guess.”
“Well, it’s not a very fun game, is it, then?” Aziraphale huffed, but Crowley only scowled good-naturedly and swatted Aziraphale’s arm with his phone.
“Here, we’ll try again,” Crowley said as they skirted a group of pedestrians. “‘Sir Lancelot with laryngitis.’”
“Lancelot isn’t real, Crowley.”
Crowley sighed. “It’s ‘Silent Night,’ because Lancelot’s a knight, and he’s silent because he’s got laryngitis.”
Aziraphale stopped suddenly and Crowley almost kept going without him.
“Wait, I understand!” Aziraphale said suddenly. “It’s a—a—what do you call them? Puns!”
Crowley beamed. “Yes! Well, that one was at least.”
“I still don’t see why it’s a game,” Aziraphale said after a moment, and continued walking. “If they meant ‘Silent Night,’ why not just say that?”
“Shush, angel, stop sucking all the fun out of life,” Crowley chastised, scrolling down the webpage. “Here, how about ‘We are Kong, Lear, and Nat Cole’?”
Aziraphale frowned in concentration. “Cong, Lear, and natcole…well, Lear was one of Shakespeare’s fellows, wasn’t he? And cong is…doesn’t that have something to do with precious stones? Jade or turquoise or one of those?”
Crowley sighed. “All right, I probably shouldn’t have expected you to get this one. It’s ‘We Three Kings.’”
Aziraphale cast Crowley a puzzled glance. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s King Lear from Shakespeare, and King Kong is one of those American films, and Nat King Cole was a musician back in the, oh…forties and fifties? He did jazz. You’ve heard of him.”
“Well, how was I supposed to put all of that together?” Aziraphale asked. “If they wanted to pick three kings, why not pick, oh, Solomon, Agamemnon, and Nebuchadnezzar?”
Crowley missed a step and almost lost his balance. Aziraphale hurriedly grabbed his arm to steady him, and then realised that Crowley was laughing.
“Oh, angel, never change,” he said as he straightened up, patting Aziraphale on the elbow.
Aziraphale frowned at him. Had he said something amusing?
“Here, let’s try an easier one,” Crowley said after a moment, sniffing back what might have been more laughter as he looked at his phone again. “Look, I’ll even pick one I know you know. How about ‘May the deity bestow an absence of fatigue to mild male humans.’”
Aziraphale frowned, turning the clue over in his head. “‘The deity,’ that’s Father, then, ‘an absence of fatigue,’ is sleeping, ‘mild male humans’ could be, er, anything, really. So God, sleep, men. God shall make the men sleep. God-given sleep to men.”
Beside him, Crowley sniggered.
“Oh, shush, it was your idea in the first place,” Aziraphale said, and it was his turn to swat his friend on the arm.
“It’s just amusing watching your thought process,” Crowley said innocently, rubbing his arm. “You’re on the right track.”
“Right track,” Aziraphale muttered. “God gives sleep to mild male men…they’re sleeping…oh! ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!’”
“There you go!” Crowley confirmed triumphantly, and Aziraphale smiled.
“That wasn’t so bad. Here, give me another one.”
<< ~ >>
“Take that, fiend!” Aziraphale threw his weapon as hard as possible and then fell back behind his fortifications.
He heard the faint thwack of the snowball hitting something, and then Crowley yelped. “Ow!”
Aziraphale bit back a laugh and then regretted it when something exploded by his ear, showering him with snow.
“Come out and face me, coward!” Crowley called, and then his voice dropped an octave, into a deep, soothing baritone. “I assure you it’s perfectly sssafe.”
Aziraphale started gathering snow into his hands, packing it together tightly.
“Why should I trust you?” Aziraphale asked in a loud voice, buying time as he set down his snowball and started hastily forming a second one.
“My upssstanding reputation,” Crowley hissed coaxingly, and Aziraphale heard the crunch of snow as the demon crept closer.
“Your reputation, serpent, leaves much to be—desired!” Aziraphale sprang out from behind the snowbank and hurled his first snowball at Crowley. At the same time, he tried to dodge as Crowley lobbed one at him. It hit Aziraphale’s shoulder and exploded, sending the angel tumbling to the snow as he lost his balance.
“Ha!” Crowley cried, and leapt towards him.
Aziraphale rolled onto his side and threw his second snowball at Crowley in a last-ditch attempt at self-defence.
It hit Crowley squarely in the chest, but the demon ploughed forward anyway.
Aziraphale realised what he planned on doing and scrambled to his feet just as Crowley barrelled into him. “Gotcha!”
The pair tumbled to the snow, Aziraphale making some noises he would be embarrassed about later and trying to scramble away. Crowley, meanwhile, seemed intent on getting as much snow on Aziraphale as physically possible.
“Crowley!” Aziraphale said in as controlled of a voice as he could manage as he smacked the demon with a handful of snow.
He managed to splash some into Crowley’s face, and the demon hissed and released Aziraphale long enough for him to scramble free. Aziraphale retreated a healthy distance across the snow-covered park before realising he couldn’t hear Crowley pursuing him. Aziraphale let his pace drop into a walk and made a beeline for a nearby bench. He brushed the snow off it and sat down.
Crowley arrived a moment later, still pawing flakes of snow off his cheek with the back of his hand.
“Parley,” Aziraphale said, miracling a teacup of hot apple cider into existence and offering it to Crowley as the demon dropped onto the bench next to him. Crowley shook his head.
“We’re getting too old for this, angel,” he said after a moment, sitting back on the bench and rubbing his lower back.
“We’ve always been too old for this,” Aziraphale said, and took a sip of his cider.
“You can say that again,” Crowley muttered, and, with a wave of his hand, miracled a mug of hot chocolate into existence for himself.
Aziraphale peered over at the demon’s drink curiously. Crowley tapped the edge of the mug with one of his fingers, and a dozen miniature marshmallows appeared on the drink’s surface, along with shavings of what looked like peppermint sweets.
Crowley saw Aziraphale watching him. “Tastes better that way,” he said, a little defensively, and started warming his hands on the mug.
Aziraphale hummed agreement, and for a few minutes they just sat in a companionable silence, sipping their warm beverages and watching a few snowflakes drifting lazily through the air. The frosty smooth expanse of the frozen lake in St James’s was just visible through the trees, stretched like a pale blue ribbon near the horizon. The weather had turned colder recently, bringing with it a healthy amount of snow and traffic accidents.
“Hey, angel,” Crowley said at last.
“Yes, my dear?” Aziraphale asked mildly, admiring the way the sunlight sparkled off the frost clinging to the bare tree branches.
“What do you say we go try something else we’re too old for?”
Aziraphale cast the demon a sidelong glance. Crowley had that slightly mischievous glint in his eye again, and, with a dismissive motion of Aziraphale’s hand, both of their drinks vanished. “What did you have in mind?”
<< ~ >>
Crowley swore loudly as he hit the ground hard for what Aziraphale counted was the fifth time.
Aziraphale, muffling laughter behind his hand, glided over effortlessly and slid to a stop beside the fallen demon.
“My dear,” Aziraphale began, but Crowley held up a hand.
“Don’t say it.”
“Are you sure you know how to ice skate?”
Crowley glared up at his friend, but there was no real menace in it. “Of course I know how to ice skate, angel. How do you think I get across the frozen door-to-door salesmen in Hell, anyway?”
Aziraphale shrugged loosely and reached down to help Crowley up. “Fly?” he suggested.
Crowley gained his feet and wobbled dangerously, skates shifting back and forth on the ice. “Yeah, well, how come you’re such a right hand at this anyway?” Crowley asked, gesturing at Aziraphale and almost losing his balance in the process.
“Beginner’s luck, I suppose,” Aziraphale said modestly, steadying Crowley before carefully backing away and gliding in a lazy circle around the demon. “I mean, it’s just physics, isn’t it? Sort of like dancing, but you don’t have to raise your feet as much.”
“In case you had forgotten,” Crowley said in his best drawl as he carefully moved a shaking foot forward and slid a few inches, body tense and hands raised for balance, “you can’t dance.”
Aziraphale executed a neat pirouette and skated back towards the demon. “I can dance the gavotte.”
“We’ve been over this before, angel,” Crowley said between clenched teeth as he stared at the ice, focusing on moving his feet slowly forward, skates skittering beneath him as he slowly gained speed. “The gavotte is not a proper dance.”
“If you insist, my dear,” Aziraphale said lightly as he glided past Crowley, closing the arc of his figure-eight.
“This—shouldn’t be—this hard,” Crowley grunted as he continued shuffling his feet, picking up some speed while his arms weaved wildly through the air, struggling to keep his balance. “It’s just—snakes weren’t—really designed—for legs—”
Just then, the front of Crowley’s left skate caught on the ice, pitching him forward even as his right skate shot to the front and side. Crowley’s arms cartwheeled wildly as he tried to break his fall and stay on his feet at the same time, and he ended up spinning in a half-circle.
Aziraphale had the misfortune to be passing by at that exact moment, and one of Crowley’s wildly waving arms caught him around the middle. The demon latched on, Aziraphale did a last-minute course correction to try and bank around him, lost traction, and crashed to the ice just as Crowley finally slammed onto the surface himself.
For a moment they both just sat there, stunned and winded, and then Crowley reached out and smacked Aziraphale lightly around his head with his hand. “This was the worst idea you ever had, angel.”
<< ~ >>
“See, their tree is nice and tall,” Crowley said, taking a sip of his complimentary champagne. “I don’t know why you stay on my case about ours.”
“They have the room for it,” Aziraphale said, craning his head back to look at the top of the elaborately-decorated twenty-five-foot-tall Christmas tree. The railings of the circular second-story balcony ringing the upper half of the tree glittered with strands of garland.
A man with an immaculate black suit and white gloves stopped beside them and inclined in a slight bow. The modest name tag on his breast said his name was Pierre, the word etched in elegant silver lettering beside the crest of the Ritz Hotel. “Misters Crowley and Fell?”
“Yes,” Crowley said, turning and self-consciously straightening the cuff of his own suit. The demon had forgone the reindeer antlers for dinner, which Aziraphale saw as a massive missed opportunity.
“Your table is ready, if you’d care to follow me.” Pierre straightened and motioned unobtrusively for them to follow him.
They passed through a room panelled in white with ornate gold moulding, and then through another inset with mirrors. In the near distance, a live band played “Carol of the Bells” on strings. Pierre stopped and motioned for them to take a seat at one of the round tables. It was covered with a long white tablecloth and already set with shining silverware, fluted glasses, and a pair of twin candles.
“The first course will be out presently, sirs,” Pierre said, and poured them two glasses of sparkling water. He relieved them of their half-drained champagne flutes and produced two freshly filled ones.
“I wonder if they’ll have those mince pies again this year,” Aziraphale asked absently once he had gone.
“They might,” Crowley said, sipping his sparkling water. “I booked us the Christmas pudding, but we can change it if you like.”
“No need, that should be quite good, too,” Aziraphale said mildly.
Aziraphale hadn’t even had the chance to get properly hungry before Pierre returned with another waiter in tow. Delicate, white-gloved hands carefully placed two white china plates on the table. An artistically-arranged terrine of smoked salmon filled most of the space, surrounded by a zigzagging drizzle of something that might have been vinaigrette and a perfectly cylindrical dab of crab and cucumber jelly.
“What are your wine preferences, sirs?” Pierre asked politely, sweeping his hands behind his back.
“We’d like your finest bottle, please,” Crowley said. “The absolute best you have.”
Pierre nodded with the same measured politeness he had shown everything else. “Of course, sir. It will be out at once.”
Once Pierre had gone, Aziraphale lifted his champagne flute to take a sip and smiled into it.
“What are you so happy about?” Crowley asked, picking up his fork and knife and starting in on his salmon.
“Your finest bottle, please,” Aziraphale mimicked in a tone James Bond would have been proud of, and Crowley scowled at him.
“Oh, shut up, angel.”
<< ~ >>
Several plates’ worth of shellfish bisque, bronze turkey, roast potatoes, glazed carrots, chestnuts, pudding, tea, and a bottle of very old, very expensive wine later, Aziraphale sat back in his chair.
“Please tell me you still don’t want mince pie,” Crowley said in a tone not far from a groan. “Because I don’t think I could stomach so much as another one of those mint chocolate things, and they are superb.”
“No, I’m quite done,” Aziraphale said, searching for the napkin with his free hand and dabbing at his mouth with it.
“That’s what you said before the mousse showed up,” Crowley pointed out, and fished among the glasses and flutes on the table for the sparkling water.
Pierre chose that moment to reappear, as respectful and polite as always as he placed another gleaming white plate on the table. This one held a single Christmas cracker, wrapped in shining red paper and tied with silver and gold silk ribbons.
“Your Christmas cracker, sir,” he said to Crowley. “Is there anything else I can do for you gentlemen tonight?”
“I don’t believe so,” Crowley said, and Pierre nodded and made a tactful retreat.
Crowley picked up the Christmas cracker and turned it over in his hands. On the opposite side of the table, Aziraphale sat even further back in his chair and looked like he wanted to fall asleep.
“Come on, angel, help me with this.”
“I appear to have eaten too much.”
“Yeah, yeah, miracle it away later,” Crowley said unsympathetically, though he was feeling slightly queasy himself. Despite having all but invented the art of temptation, Crowley was surprisingly inept when it came to turning down excellent cooking, though he certainly had more willpower in that department than Aziraphale. “Come on, angel, I didn’t buy this thing for nothing,” Crowley said, and shook the end of the Christmas cracker at him.
Aziraphale groaned but sat forward nonetheless, holding out a hand. Crowley angled the other end of the Christmas cracker into it and waited for Aziraphale to get a grip. Crowley counted quietly, and on three they both pulled.
There was a sharp snap and the cracker broke in two, spilling several silvery strands and a small silver box onto the table.
Crowley looked at his half of the cracker and then over at Aziraphale’s, and saw that he had the larger half. “Ha! Mine’s bigger. I win.”
Crowley rifled through the silver strands on the table and snatched up the box.
Aziraphale ruefully put down his half of the cracker. “What is it?” he asked.
Crowley cracked open the box, which was embossed with the Burberry logo, to reveal a set of silver cufflinks with tiny inset diamonds.
“Diamond cufflinks,” Crowley said approvingly, plucking one out to examine while showing the box to Aziraphale.
“Real diamonds?” Aziraphale asked. “How much did you pay for this thing?” He indicated the remains of the Christmas cracker.
“You don’t want to know,” Crowley said, holding the cufflink up to his left cuff.
“Well, you can have them.”
Crowley frowned at Aziraphale as he took the box back and popped the cufflink back in.
Pierre appeared again with the bill. Crowley handed him a credit card and he vanished. Aziraphale cast Crowley his usual disapproving look.
“Here, I’ll buy us another cracker,” Crowley said. “And you can keep the prize this time.”
Aziraphale opened his mouth to say something, but Pierre reappeared just then with his usual uncanniness.
“Mister Crowley, regrettably there seems to be something wrong with your card.”
Crowley frowned at the waiter. Aziraphale gave the demon a didn’t-I-tell-you-so look.
Crowley rolled his eyes and stood up. “Here, let’s go get this sorted,” he told Pierre. He turned back to Aziraphale. “I’ll meet you at the car?”
Aziraphale nodded and took a last sip of champagne. It really was quite excellent.
<< ~ >>
“I thought you meant you were going to buy another cracker from the Ritz,” Aziraphale said, bemused, as Crowley got back into the Bentley and tossed a box of four crackers to the angel.
“Nah, you wouldn’t like any of their prizes anyway,” Crowley said as he put the Bentley into first gear and pulled out into the road in front of the Tesco’s. “This is more your style, right? And besides, the Ritz one didn’t have a joke. I like jokes.”
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows at this but turned the cheaply packaged Christmas crackers over in his hands anyway.
<< ~ >>
“Here, angel, I know you’ll get this one. How did Scrooge win the football game?”
Aziraphale frowned speculatively and drummed his fingers on the table. “A Christmas Carol, Dickens, ghosts…I don’t know.”
Crowley grinned from across the table. “The ghost of Christmas passed.”
Aziraphale groaned and picked up the next cracker, taking a moment to adjust his paper crown as it threatened to fall off.
Crowley proffered his hand and waggled his fingers in preparation. “Hurry up, angel, I want to win another tape measure.”
“’Cause you’re really going to use the one you just won,” Aziraphale said as he handed the other end of the Christmas cracker to his friend.
“Hey, I’m very attached to my tape measure, don’t mock him,” Crowley said, taking ahold of the cracker and flexing his fingers. “It’s not my fault you don’t like your tweezers and crayons.”
Aziraphale tugged at his end, and the two man-shaped beings pulled until the cracker broke open with a snap.
“Mine,” Aziraphale claimed as he glanced at his half of the cracker, which was significantly larger than Crowley’s.
“Well, I’m perfectly happy with my tape measure,” Crowley huffed as Aziraphale scooped up his prize.
“Ooh, it’s a miniature deck of cards,” Aziraphale said, turning his prize over in his hands with apparent delight.
“What’s the joke?” Crowley asked, sitting back and adjusting his paper crown.
Aziraphale found the scrap of paper and unfolded it. “What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire?”
Crowley considered for a moment. “What?”
Aziraphale looked back down at the slip of paper. “Frostbite.”
Crowley huffed something that might have been a chuckle and sat forward. “Well, that’s the crackers done,” he said, sweeping the miscellaneous scraps of paper into a pile on the corner of the table.
Aziraphale glanced at his watch; evening was setting in. “Wine?” he suggested.
Crowley stood up and stretched, pulling the paper crown from his head when it started to slide off at his movement. “Soon,” he agreed. “I won’t subject you to the Doctor Who Christmas special—I think I’ve force-fed you enough of the twenty-first century for now. You deserve a break.”
“I was thinking of something older — maybe It’s a Wonderful Life? It’s got Jimmy Stewart.”
Aziraphale gave a nod of approval; as far as he was concerned, Jimmy Stewart was the pinnacle of cinematic excellence.
“I’ll pop it in, then,” Crowley said cheerfully, and moved around the nearby sofa to the flatscreen LED TV he’d bought last year and mounted on the wall of the back room of Aziraphale’s bookshop without his permission. The sofa had been an earlier addition, also procured by Crowley when the demon decided Aziraphale didn’t have enough comfortable sitting areas in his bookshop.
“I’ll be right back,” Aziraphale said, and wandered out into the bookshop proper.
Once he was gone, Crowley cast a furtive glance around the back room and then dropped onto the floor. He reached under the sofa and moved his hand around for a few seconds until his fingers bumped into something smooth and boxy. Crowley retracted his arm, carrying a distinctly book-shaped box out with him. He moved behind the sofa, where he was out of sight of the door, and hastily unwrapped the present as he fished something out of his pocket.
When he was done with his last-minute tampering, he wrapped the present back up and shoved the box behind the side of the sofa, out of sight of the doorway. Then he scrambled to his feet and started queuing up the movie.
Crowley had just paused the movie on the opening scene, which was that charcoal grey that passes for black in old black and white movies, and spangled with white stars, when Aziraphale walked back in.
Crowley noticed immediately that the angel looked slightly guilty, and his hands were held behind his back in such a way that implied he was holding something.
“Speaking of the twenty-first century,” Aziraphale stated.
Crowley felt his curiosity pique. “What is it?”
Aziraphale moved closer, but whatever he was holding stayed firmly obscured behind the horrendous red Christmas jumper the angel had donned once they’d returned from the Ritz.
“Well,” Aziraphale began. “It is Christmas, and you are about the only friend I have—”
“About?” Crowley interrupted. “About? Who are these other friends? Michael? Shadwell? He burned your bookshop down, remember, some friend he was.”
Aziraphale opened his mouth to say something defensive, and then realised that Crowley was teasing him.
“As my friend,” Aziraphale began again, with a slight huff, “and with the extra care given to the Christmas season this year, I decided to get you something.”
Crowley flopped down on the sofa. “All right, let’s have it,” he said, in the tone of the long-suffering. “Get it over with.”
A faint smile flitted across Aziraphale’s face, and then the angel shifted the weight in his hands and drew around him a large, red-leaved poinsettia. He held it out.
Crowley blinked at it for a moment and then accepted it. It was large and bushy, with bright red leaves folding over dark green ones. The pot was wrapped in shiny red foil, and crinkled as he took it from Aziraphale. There was a small parchment-coloured tag tied to one of the branches. It looked healthy and very much alive, and like it didn’t need very much threatening at all.
“Well,” Crowley said after a moment of examining his latest victim, “thanks, angel.” He looked up at Aziraphale and adopted a tone of exaggerated gratitude. “I’m honoured you’ve entrusted me with this plant, and I’ll be sure to water it and look after it and thre—”
Aziraphale smiled at him and sat down on the sofa. “Read the tag,” he said.
Crowley cut himself off and shifted the plant onto his lap so he could open the folded-over piece of paper tied to the poinsettia. Inside was a note in Aziraphale’s neat copperplate handwriting.
“I, Aziraphale,” it read, “hereby acquiesce to participate in any modern activity selected by the recipient (Crowley) for the goal of submersion in the twenty-first century on Earth, for a period of one hundred (100) hours.”
Crowley blinked at it in surprise and then looked up at Aziraphale.
“This twenty-first century Christmas was rather enjoyable, really,” Aziraphale explained. “I wouldn’t mind trying out some other things since I am, as you insist, always behind the curve. So you can take this any way you like—I’ll watch some of those new films you’re always talking about, or you can take me to one of those concerts you insist play “music,” or even,” —here Aziraphale grimaced— “try to show me how to use one of those “computer” things again. I’ll give it my best shot.”
Crowley continued staring at his friend. Aziraphale hadn’t offered to go along blindly with any of Crowley’s plans since that time in 1758 when the angel had said they could get a drink “anywhere Crowley wanted” and Crowley had taken him to a house of extreme ill repute just to see the expression on his face.
Aziraphale must have been thinking along similar lines, because he hastily added, “Within reason, of course. There will be limits and exceptions. I can write it down if you like.”
Crowley was already flying through a list of great movies and television shows from the last six decades, but then there were so many other things, like mobile phones and Amazon and Post-it notes…
“Crowley?” Aziraphale asked, a tad hesitantly.
Crowley blinked, looked at the angel, and realised belatedly that he hadn’t said anything in a while. “This is great,” he croaked out, and Aziraphale gave him a slightly relieved smile. “Really, angel, we’re going to have so much fun. Well,” Crowley paused. “I’m going to have so much fun. We’ll see about you.”
Aziraphale grimaced. “I’ll try not to regret this too much.”
Crowley huffed a laugh and sat back on the sofa, adjusting the poinsettia on his lap. “Oh, angel, you’re going to be regretting this tomorrow,” he said, running through a list of artists and bands he was going to fast-track to the playlist on his iPhone. Should he start with the greats of rock and roll and move into modern music, or the other way around? Aziraphale was at least already familiar with Queen, so maybe easing him into it was the right way to go. Death metal and hip-hop, on the other hand, also seemed like a swell introduction to the third millennium anno Domini.
Crowley interrupted his own thoughts by remembering the package sitting hidden beside the sofa. “Hang on, angel, I got you something as well,” he said, depositing the poinsettia on the floor and retrieving the rectangular package. He returned to the sofa and handed the gift to Aziraphale.
“Suspiciously book-shaped,” Aziraphale noted as he started peeling off the wrapping paper at the tape with the air of someone who has never been told that the point is to tear it open. Once he had tugged the wrapping paper free and set it aside—likely to save for next year, Crowley thought with a long-suffering internal sigh—Aziraphale popped the lid off the box.
“Ooh, I was right,” Aziraphale said cheerfully, setting the lid aside and pulling the upper of two books from the box. “Mortimer’s An Historical Narrative. Hmm.” Aziraphale frowned at the book. “Sorry to say this, Crowley, but I already have this one. A rather nice copy, too, except there’s a water stain on the back cover…” Aziraphale flipped over the book and trailed off when his thumb ran over a water stain.
Aziraphale frowned and looked in the box again. Setting An Historical Narrative aside, he pulled out the second book. “And Ramuriel’s Inner Workings — I have this one, too…” Aziraphale frowned. “These are my books.” The angel looked up at Crowley. “What is this? You stole my own books and then gave them back to me?”
Crowley was fighting back laughter, and the disapproving, disappointed look Aziraphale gave him made him lose the battle altogether.
“Really, my dear,” Aziraphale huffed, nestling the books back into the box. “It’s one thing when you buy yourself Christmas presents, and quite another—”
Crowley struggled to get his laughter under control and pointed with a shaking hand towards the lid of the box, which Aziraphale had set down right-side-up next to him on the sofa. “The lid,” he wheezed.
Aziraphale gave Crowley a distinctly suspicious look, picked up the lid, and flipped it over. Taped to the underside, right where Crowley had put it mere minutes earlier, was a receipt.
Crowley took a steadying breath and watched as Aziraphale peeled the receipt off the lid and looked it over. Then he paled.
Aziraphale looked up at Crowley and back down at the receipt. “You didn’t.”
Crowley grinned, fit of laughter finally overcome. “Oh, I did.”
Aziraphale looked down at the receipt again, and back to Crowley. He looked like he needed some help understanding, so Crowley jumped in.
“It’s the bill for our tab at the Ritz. The entire tab, starting from back when the place first opened, remember that? I paid it earlier tonight. That’s why I went to talk to our waiter and the front desk. I gave them a credit card I’d already maxed, so the charge would bounce. Got you out from underfoot, didn't it? And then I went and paid by check for our meal, and everything on our tab.”
“But…” Aziraphale was still looking rather pale. “That’s…that has to be…thousands. Hundreds of thousands.” He unfolded the receipt to look at the bottom half, and the total.
“And with real money, too,” Crowley said, sitting back on the sofa and relishing the look of utter surprise on Aziraphale’s face. “Not the counterfeit stuff, or the extorted money, or the type that only exists on paper. That’s paid from my personal account, the money I made back in the day when I dabbled in stocks. Who knew that investing in gold in 1829 would be such a profitable venture? But it’s all honest, nothing you would consider ill-gotten.”
“My dear.” Aziraphale looked up at him and for a moment seemed unable to say anything. “That’s so…so…nice.”
Crowley grinned. “Even Scrooge is nice on Christmas, isn’t he? Don’t expect it to happen again, mind; I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”
Aziraphale nodded, a little shakily, and Crowley decided it was time to break out the wine, before the angel started to read too much into Crowley’s unexpected gesture of magnanimity.
“Here, drink it before you hurt yourself,” Crowley said a moment later, handing the angel a glass of red.
Aziraphale accepted it and took a sip. His hand only trembled a little. “Really, Crowley, thank you,” Aziraphale said as Crowley sat down next to him and put the bottle on the floor between them. “That was very commendable of you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Crowley said, fishing the television remote out from where it had fallen between the cushion and the arm of the sofa. “Really, don’t mention it. Below wouldn’t be very happy.”
“Oh, no, of course not,” Aziraphale said quickly.
“And, you know, thanks for the plant,” Crowley said. “It can help set an example for the others.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale chastised, but his tone was good-natured.
Crowley hit the play button on the remote.
“I owe everything to George Bailey…”
As the story of George Bailey’s life played out on the screen, Crowley and Aziraphale worked their way through the bottle of wine and tried to hide the fact that they had gravitated closer on the sofa. Crowley was buzzing pleasantly, and the alcohol really must have been having an effect, because he found himself thinking that Aziraphale’s hideous Christmas jumper looked very soft and comfortable, and he was feeling rather sleepy.
When Clarence arrived, jumping off the bridge to rescue the suicidal George, Crowley took the opportunity to make a few jabs about daft angels, which Aziraphale deflected effortlessly.
They neared the bottom of the bottle of wine as George walked, dazed and distraught, around a world in which everything was the same except he had never been born. The town of Bedford Falls—Pottersville now—was much worse off without him, though Crowley thought lazily that that seemed to be a rather optimistic view of a single person’s impact on the world, even if that person was Jimmy Stewart.
Crowley divided the last of the bottle of wine between his and Aziraphale’s glasses as the movie wound down to a close. George was returned to his world with the help of the bumbling yet lovable Clarence, and his home was flooded with well-wishers who’d all come together to pitch in and help him pay off an unexpected debt.
“Good idea, Ernie, a toast!” cried Harry Bailey, snow glinting where it lay dusted on his shoulders and Navy cap. “To my big brother George, the richest man in town!”
“A toast,” Crowley said, raising his own glass and clinking it uncoordinatedly against Aziraphale’s. He thought about everything he and Aziraphale had done the last month, all the experiences that were both new and old to him. This year’s celebrations were the best he had ever had, and he realised abruptly that he wished to do the same thing every year from now on. He didn’t know how to fit that into words, so he just said, “To Christmas.”
“To Christmas!” Aziraphale agreed, and they drank.
The darkness in the back room closed around them, warm and comforting, and Crowley felt himself starting to drift off again.
“Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
“That’s right. That’s right…Atta boy, Clarence.”
“Merry Christmas, angel,” Crowley mumbled, and he had never meant it more.
Beside him, Aziraphale shifted, setting down his empty wine glass and drawing the half-asleep Crowley closer to him. The demon let out a contented sigh and relaxed against Aziraphale’s side, fingers curling around the soft wool of Aziraphale’s jumper while he rested his head against his friend’s shoulder.
“Merry Christmas, Crowley.”
Happy Holidays, Pinch-Hitters, from your Secret Writer and Artist!