The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
A small thing for the Single Dad/Hot Teacher AU
Winter rolls around, bringing slush and runny noses.
Rey catches a cold the first week of December and stays home from school, eating canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches and watching Mythbusters on Netflix. For three days, Ben’s Google search history is a string of desperate inquiries:
difference between cold and flu
is throwing up normal with a cold
how long does the flu last
diseases similar to flu
symptoms of anthrax
is it anthrax or flu
how much tylenol safe for kids
100 degree fever
when to take kids to the hospital fever
She sleeps on the couch, a sad, sniffly little burrito in her favorite Wonder Woman blanket, and he calls out of work to bring her juice and rub circles on her back with his palm, like he used to see her mom do when she was a baby. When her throat hurts and she whimpers because she can’t sleep, Ben honest-to-god cries. He’s never felt so useless in his life.
The second day, Rey’s teacher texts Ben to ask how she’s doing.
The December snow is thin, not good for much more than coating the sidewalks in a thin layer of white that’s quickly trampled dirty brown. It’s a shame- Ben remembers winters when he was a kid being a lot more impressive. He has vague, probably exaggerated memories of giant snowmen and building ice forts in his backyard with his dad.
The local kids manage to have some fun with it anyway, scraping snow off ledges and fences around the apartment complex to fling at each other. In the mornings he bundles Rey off in her hat and scarf. The early morning frost turns her nose and cheeks pink as she walks to school with a neighbor kid, a boy named Finn who lived in the next building and had recently lost one of his front teeth.
“That’s so cool!” Rey squeals when Finn holds it up in one glove, beaming a gap-toothed grin.
After school, Ben waits outside the playground doors so that he can walk home with Rey. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the pack of stay-at-home moms waiting for their kids outside the school. On top of being a fucking giant, he’s the only guy there. The first few days he kept half-expecting one of them to call the cops on him.
Now they just ignore him, flashing wary smiles before going back to comparing snack-time recipes off Pinterest and swapping pregnancy stories like some of the guys he used to know in prison did scar stories.
Some of the shit he accidentally overhears makes him want to cringe in horror. He’d butted in once, unable to contain a horrified, “That can happen?” and they’d giggled at him in a way that made him feel like he was back in high school and had just embarrassed himself in front of the popular girls.
When Rey’s mother was pregnant she’d still lived at home with her parents. It was her mom, and to a lesser degree Leia, who’d done all that pregnancy stuff with her. Ultrasounds and doctor visits. He’d tried going shopping for baby clothes with her a couple of times, but somehow it always managed to end in a stupid fight. Like every other fucking thing they did together.
The week Rey was due he’d run off in his dad’s old van, overwhelmed with fear at the responsibility of it all, desperate to escape what felt like the end of his life. By the time his dad and his uncle finally tracked him down and dragged him back, Rey was already home from the hospital.
“You’re the one who got yourself into this mess, kid.” He can still feel his dad’s hand heavy on his shoulder, marching him up to the door like he was a kid who’d just broken the neighbor’s window. At the time, it had felt like a death sentence.
On the last day of school before winter break, 3:30 hits and he waits, hands fisted in his coat pockets and breath frosting the air, while kids trickle out. They’re all wrapped up in their puffy winter jackets, the kindergartners looking like little marshmallows with legs. A sea of colorful bobble hats stampede around his knees as their moms herd them off.
“They have parts on the back called the stabilizers and they can fly this- look- this close-” He hears Rey before he sees her, gushing about her new favorite thing this week, the Blue Angels. They’d watched a couple of videos on YouTube after he told her how his grandpa and his uncle both used to fly with them, and she’d been hooked.
“Really? That sounds very dangerous.”
Ever since The Incident, Mr. Hux had taken to walking her out of the school building most days. Today, in concession- or maybe it’s in surrender- to the holidays, he’s decked out in a pastel green shirt and a festive tie.
Ben crosses his arms as Hux steers Rey straight to him.
“Time for the prisoner transfer,” Ben says, setting a serious look on his face. Rey rolls her eyes at him, but he’s rewarded when her teacher huffs a little laugh.
“She’s your responsibility for the next two weeks,” Hux says, matching his tone.
“I’ll rough her up if there are any problems.” Ben ruffles Rey’s hair with one large hand.
“Hey!” she yelps.
Hux laughs, and Ben is suddenly aware, with a low sinking in his stomach, that this is the last time he’ll see him until after New Years. Somehow, he’s kinda gotten used to exchanging hellos every afternoon.
“So Hux, you have any big plans for the holidays?”
“Christmas. Family. The usual.”
“Wow, don’t sound too excited,” Ben deadpans, then inwardly cringes. That’s the kind of tacky shit his dad would say.
“Is anyone our age excited to spend a week with their parents?” Hux replies mildly, and Ben can take a hint when he quickly changes the subject. “What about you two? This is your first Christmas together, I believe.”
There had been a couple of holidays when Rey was a baby, before he got arrested. The three of them together like a real family. They usually ended in shouting, and anyway Rey’s too young to remember them. He doesn’t count those. “Yeah, first one. Uh…” he says, “Probably food and presents. Normal family stuff.”
It’s still weird to say, but something about it makes him want to smile. Family stuff. Their family.
“We have a tree!” Rey interrupts with a little bounce. The yarn ball on top of her hat gives an excited wobble.
“I’m glad,” Hux says. He never used that fake ‘adults talking to little kids’ voice. It was something Ben liked about him. “Christmas isn’t the same without a tree.”
“It’s tiny. I think it’s a midget. But it’s really green and it smells like Christmas.”
Ben tries not to laugh and fails. “Rey…”
It was a dinky thing, one of those dwarf trees from the 24-hour grocery store, but it was real and Rey was crazy about it. She’d never had a tree that wasn’t made out of plastic before.
“This is going to be so better than last year!” She’d babbled, bouncing around the cart holding their tiny tree as he pushed it out of the store. “We didn’t even have a tree last year because mom forgot to get one, even though I reminded her like every day. All we had was Oscar’s stupid ugly wreath made out of beer cans. We didn’t even have lights.”
Ben had decided then that next year he was going to start saving up earlier and they’d go to one of those tree farms and he’d let her pick out the biggest one they could find.
“Have you decorated it yet?”
“Yeah! Show the pictures!” Rey latches on to Ben’s arm, clinging and letting her feet dangle. She’s small for her age, and skinny. It’s no trouble to lift her with one arm. “Pictuuuures,” she whines.
“She took about ten thousand pictures of this sad little Charlie Brown tree with my phone,” Ben says to Hux, apologetic.
“I’d love to see them.”
Somehow Ben ends up standing beside Hux, holding out his phone, with Rey crammed warm in between them while she swipes through Christmas tree pictures, offering little comments on each one. Hux actually seems interested in it, asking Rey questions and huddling closer to Ben for warmth. Hux isn’t wearing a jacket. Ben can feel the way he’s holding himself stiff against the chill.
Ben shifts to the side so that he can shield them both from the worst of the cold breeze when the wind picks up.
“Alright munchkin, we gotta go,” he says finally, “Mister Hux is going to freeze.”
“Okay, bye, mister Hux!” Rey beams. “Have a good Christmas!”
“You too, Rey.”
“Bye, Armitage.” He didn’t mean it to sound teasing. It still felt weird to call the teacher by his first name. Ben tended to ration it, like a secret treat.
“Ben,” Hux nods in return.
“Hey, nice tie, by the way,” he calls back they turn to leave. Okay, that one he meant to be teasing. The thing was red and green and covered in bright cartoon Christmas trees. Glittery ones. Ben’s pretty sure he saw that tie for sale at Walmart.
“Thank you,” Hux’s jaw is stiff. He looks like he is trying very hard not to either sigh or roll his eyes. It’s the look of defeat. “My class got it for me.”