Christmas to Andrew Minyard is chocolate shaped like a bearded man, cold weather, and an excuse for people to preach about love while practicing intolerance. He can’t say he’s a fan of any of the above. Even the chocolate - he’s more of an ice cream kind of guy.
He hasn’t celebrated it in years. At a few of his foster homes he tolerated the trees shedding leaves and glitter and the lights that threatened to give him a headache if he looked too long, at Cass’ he’d even help put them up if she needled him long enough (he wasn’t much help, given she was taller than him, but he was an extra, almost willing pair of hands). The cleaners at Fox Tower wrapped tinsel around the bannisters but his room remained untouched, despite Nicky’s best attempts at coercion. (“Andrew, the tinsel only cost a dollar!” “These lights change colour!” “It’s only a small tree!”) (Andrew had never been impressed by Nicky’s persistent energy, optimism, or continued faith.)
Songs professing what a magical time it was or movies reminding you how wonderful family is are ignored and turned over. Andrew wouldn’t even admit to appreciating a break in the monotony of class and practice.
But maybe there’s something to it.
The cats fighting baubles on a small plastic tree was at least mildly entertaining until the noise threatened to keep Andrew awake. Neil plying Andrew to let him put the small tree up with reindeer-shaped chocolates and an assortment of ridiculously-flavoured candy canes was annoying, but a better bribe than Neil’s usual fare, and held a faint sense of humour. Wrapped presents coming in the mail was definitely infuriating, as were the colourful jumpers they contained, but with some catnip the cats were persuaded to open the presents for him, and they certainly enjoy the jumpers as blankets.
The cold is unforgivable, but at least it’s to the point that even Neil admits it’s cold and turns the heating up. He goes so far as to come back from practice one night with a large, fluffy blanket with a repeating pattern of candy canes, gingerbread houses, and stockings.
He looks at it, as though for the first time, as he wraps Andrew in it like a burrito. “Oh, hey, do you like gingerbread?”
Andrew doesn’t interrupt the glare to say, “Yes.”
The next day Neil comes back with premade kits and suggests they decorate gingerbread houses together.
“This isn’t becoming a twelve days of Christmas thing,” Andrew says, and eats a corner of a gingerbread wall.
“Huh? Is that about buying gifts or something?” Neil asks, ignoring Andrew’s blatant attempt at annoying him.
“And human trafficking,” Andrew says, squeezing some icing directly into his mouth.
“Then no. I just saw them,” Neil shrugs. He’s becoming used to having money that can be spent without worry.
“You planned this,” Andrew accuses without any real heat. Neil’s poking his tongue out slightly to focus on icing a window.
He should have known Neil would take that as a challenge.
The next day’s pretty innocuous, he goes out and comes back half an hour later with dinner. Andrew doesn’t comment, but levels Neil an accusatory look.
“Hey, I brought dessert too,” Neil says, as though dessert forgives all sins. And maybe it does.
On the fourth day, Neil digs out some Santa hats they’d been given when they’d been to Matt and Dan’s for Christmas the previous year. (Now the older Foxes are starting to have children, and Christmas is less for their so-called found family and more for their offspring, no matter how young and unappreciative.) Neil tugs one down over Andrew’s eyes, then pulls it up to right it. The fluffy white ball dangles enticingly, and Sir jumps up to bat at it.
“If I get scratched, you’re paying the hospital fees,” Andrew warns Neil, who’s still definitely in his personal space.
“It’s your money,” Neil replies, which isn’t strictly true. He retrieves Sir though.
The fifth day is the 23rd, and even Neil is aware that’s the last day shops will be open. He returns with a bag that he makes a big deal of not showing Andrew and then puts on a Christmas movie from a DVD. “You’re gonna like this one,” he says. “It reminded me of you.”
It’s Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
“Did Nicky make the joke?” Andrew asks, as soon as he sees the title card.
“Yup,” Neil replies, and takes a small mint candy cane from Andrew’s stash. Insult to injury. “We’re still watching it though.”
It’s not the worst movie he’s ever seen.
On Christmas Eve, they’re doing some kind of promotional thing with the members of their team that don’t have prior obligations. Neil has some garishly bright hat with a bobble on top, and he wraps a matching scarf around Andrew’s neck before they leave. “Don’t pretend you’re not cold. I can see your hands turning blue from across the room.”
Andrew glowers as he puts gloves on.
The kids at the event love Neil’s hat. It’s almost endearing, but they’re too loud.
The seventh day of Neil’s makeshift Christmas is Christmas Day. “You know you’ve got your twelve days wrong,” Andrew says. “Aren’t you the one with the Math degree?”
“I’m sure you care so much about the traditions of Christmas,” Neil says.
“Yes,” Andrew replies. “And if we have turkey, I’ll gut you and that will be my meal for tonight.”
Neil smiles, “Funny you should mention dinner.”
“I found Christmas ice cream. I figured that would do for dinner.”
Sometimes Andrew can remember why he hasn’t yet murdered Neil.
The next day, Neil checks his phone and says, “What is boxing day?”
“Ask Matt,” Andrew says.
Neil snorts. “So it’s about fighting to the death. Probably your favourite holiday, then.” He tries to swing out of bed, but hisses, “Fuck me, it’s cold.”
Andrew can feel it in the tip of his nose. “Turn on the heating then.”
“Nope, we’re staying here,” Neil replies and burrows into the blankets. “I’m putting my feet on you,” he says, and does.
“What are you going to do about the eighth day of Christmas?” Andrew asks. Not because he cares.
“I’m your present,” Neil mumbles.
On the ninth day, they have to go back to practice. There’s almost no point, as they’ll stop again around New Year, but their Coach says something about “Pros” meaning “professional” as though that’s new, and everyone turns up, bleary-eyed and in new outfits.
Neil hands him a black jumper with a ridiculous Christmas-themed pun. “It’s not Christmas anymore,” Andrew reminds him.
“No, but I forgot that I’d gotten it,” he says. “I got it in your favourite colour.”
Andrew wears it to practice. At least he gets to take it off to put on his goalkeeper gear. Neil wears the shit-eating grin for the whole of practice.
On the tenth day, Kevin turns up at their doorstep. Andrew looks at Neil accusingly, but he shrugs. “I was in town,” Kevin says.
“Merry Christmas,” Neil says.
“You’re three days late,” Kevin replies with a frown.
After an hour or so of what Dan would have called ‘catching up’, Neil swerves the conversation to the new Exy gear the local dedicated shop has and offers to take Kevin. He doesn’t offer to take Andrew.
“Peace is definitely a theme of Christmas,” Neil says to Andrew quietly. “Right?”
Andrew raises his eyebrows.
“You’re welcome,” Neil says, and leaves.
On the eleventh day, Andrew says he’s looking forward to this being over. Neil smiles and puts King in his lap. “I’m regifting.”
Andrew supposes the cat is warm. He doesn’t argue.
It’s the last day of Neil’s attempt at Christmas, and Andrew isn’t sure, but Neil might be the type to have a triumphant finale. Somehow, though, schedules have aligned so that Andrew has to meet with their team’s long-suffering dietician, and Neil has the day to himself.
When Andrew gets back, though, all that’s changed is that the small Christmas tree is gone. Andrew glances at where it was, and Neil shrugs and says, “It’s the last day of Christmas, right?”
“Are you claiming that your gift to me is this being over?” Andrew wouldn’t be disappointed, but there’d be something.
“Of course not,” Neil says. He throws a gift in garishly bright paper covered in cats wearing Santa hats, which Andrew catches, but reluctantly.
Andrew stares at Neil.
“Open it,” Neil replies.
It’s a DVD for a film whose name is obscured by the pictures of candy on the front.
“Matt says I’m bad at gifts,” Neil says.
“That’s unfair. I just ran out of ideas after the second day.”
Andrew stares at Neil, and puts the DVD box down slowly. Into the trash can.
“Merry Christmas, Andrew.”