And Also It Was Christmas

Jacky's cousin Sean moved in with him when they were still young enough to call him "Jacky" to his face. Tony was never quite told the full story and knew better than to pry when he got old enough to be curious, but he knew Sean's dad was in jail and his mom had left home when Sean was a baby. Jacky's house wasn't that much of an improvement, since Jacky's dad got mean when he drank and yelled until he made Jacky's mom cry, but Jacky and his mom and Sean made a club just for three where they were safe and not afraid of anyone. At least that's what Sean told Tony once when he slept over at Tony's house and they were staring into the darkness long after their proper bedtimes. Tony never forgot it; he had an excellent memory, especially when it came to things Sean said.

He also never forgot the day he met Sean. Maybe because it was Christmas, although he didn't think so. Sean had a way of being memorable without any help from Jesus.

Tony had spent the better part of the day with his nose pressed against the cold glass of the living room window, avoiding as best he could the passing noogies and wet willies from his seventeen cousins. When the Jacobs kids spilled out their front door and Ryan came down the street to join them in their yard, Tony begged his mother to let him go play with his friends and was out the door in his new red boots before she finished saying "Well, I guess..."

By the time Tony crossed the street Matty had joined them and was showing the others his new toboggan. Tony barely had time to start bragging about the new bike he was going to ride everywhere when the snow started to thaw before Jacky announced his presence with a snowball down Ryan's collar.

There was a strange boy with him, small and wiry with fair hair glinting in the cold winter light. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and appraised them with enormous gray eyes that dared them to mess with him.

"This is my cousin Sean," Jacky said, gesturing with a mittened hand. "He's gonna be living with me now, but I still get the top bunk."

Sean glowered.

Matty, always friendly, shoved a hand in his pocket and came up with a broken and lint-covered gingerbread man. "Hi, Sean. Want a cookie?"

Sean sneered elegantly at it. "No."

"Oh." Matty did his best not to look hurt and failed impressively. "Okay."

"C'n I have one, Matty?" Ryan asked, sabotaging his own efforts to sneak up on Jacky with a snowball.

Matty brightened. "'Kay!"

The cookie distribution process was suddenly drowned out by the sound of Davey and Sarah arguing over who had made the better snow angel. Jacky was called in to arbitrate, and Ryan followed him, still in stealth mode, and Matty followed him, still in cookie mode. Sean stayed where he was, sinking somehow even deeper into himself, eyes and shoulders caving in like a blond, rosy-cheeked turtle in snow pants.

"Snow angels are stupid," he grumbled.

Tony privately agreed, but he also thought Sean was a jerk. "You're stupid."

Sean blinked. Tony met that gray stare, lifting his chin slightly because Sean was taller than him (like everyone, and when was he gonna grow already?).

"What's your name?" Sean asked.

Now it was Tony's turn to be surprised. "Tony."

"Wanna build a fort?"

Tony liked forts much better than snow angels. "Okay."

"But I get to be general." Sean's jaw jutted out like he expected Tony to argue.

"I like being spy best anyway," Tony admitted.

Sean smiled.

Tony decided right then and there that he was going to make that happen again.

*

Jacky's mom always wrapped kids' presents in the funny papers (which Tony would have liked more if he was better at taking the paper off in one piece) but she was also a good wrapper, while the present Sean handed Tony was crumpled and round-cornered and held in place with about thirty pieces of tape. Tony peeled back Hagar the Horrible's face and found himself holding a deck of cards, crisp red and white packaging shining in the plastic wrap.

He gave Sean a questioning look. "What?" Sean asked, shrugging and looking away. "Remember a couple weeks ago you were going to teach me to play poker but your brothers lost all the cards? So I got you your own."

"Oh." Tony scratched the back of his neck, feeling squirmy. "I, uh, didn't get you anything."

"Whatever." Sean punched him in the arm, hard enough to be macho but just shy of actually hurting. "Anyway, you can make it up to me when you teach me how to play and I win all your money."

Tony grinned. "Yeah, you wish. Race you to my room!"

"Eat my dust, Higgins!"

Sean did not win all of Tony's money, partially because even at nine Tony was a very good poker player and a very bad poker teacher and partially because Tony's mom caught them playing for money halfway into the first hand and made them switch over to playing for M&Ms. But they played all day, and the cards got bent and folded and stepped on, and the eight of hearts was ripped during an impromptu wrestling match, and the new deck of cards had very quickly lost its shine by the time Jacky came to bring Sean home for Christmas dinner.

Still, Tony stayed up at least an hour after his mom kissed him good night, shuffling the cards and putting them back in order by the light of his flashlight, something very like wonder on his face.

*

They buried Jack's mother on Christmas Day. Tony would always remember hating Jack's father for that, for ruining Christmas for Jack and Sean forever, but he already hated Jack's father so much that the additional loathing was barely perceptible.

It was sunny and clear and Tony thought it was terribly inappropriate, that the weather itself should be bowing its head for such a great lady. He and Ryan and Matt stood close to their parents and shuffled awkwardly. A short distance away Sarah sniffled into David's shoulder, and their mom bounced a fussing Les on her hip.

Jack and Sean stood on either side of Jack's father, somber and small against the snow in their black coats. Jack looked stricken, like he'd been slapped and didn't know why. Tony wondered if he'd spoken at all since it happened. Sean's head was bowed and his bangs hung down over his eyes, keeping Tony from reading his face. Tony didn't bother to look at Jack's father.

They stood, it seemed, for an interminably long time, while the sun shone down impudently and entirely without warmth. After a small eternity the last relative had arrived and the last conversation had died down and the priest began to speak.

"Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living..."

Sean bolted.

There was a moment of shocked silence; then Jack's father gestured to the priest and the priest gave a small cough and continued. "...for he fashioned all things that they might have being; and the creatures of the world are wholesome..."

Tony didn't decide to follow Sean; he just thought Sean and his legs were moving and his mother was calling his name and sounding -- not scandalized, as he'd expected, but more like she was about to cry. The priest didn't even falter, apparently used to fleeing twelve-year-olds at this point. "...and there is not a destructive drug among them nor any domain of the nether world on earth..."

It was easy to find Sean, a dash of ink against the snow. He was scowling into the distance as if he could hate the world into doing what he wanted it to.

"Sean?"

Sean whirled. "Leave me alone, Tony."

"No."

"Dammit, Tony..."

"I'm not going anywhere."

Sean kicked up a flurry of dirty snow. "I swear to God..."

Tony felt like his lungs were collapsing. "Seany..."

Sean ducked the proffered hand and swung at Tony. Tony felt a sharp burst of pain as his bottom lip sliced itself open on his teeth. He reeled and spat red on the ground. Dodging Sean's second punch, he caught the third in his open hand, wincing against the sting in his palm and pulling Sean in.

Suddenly Sean buckled into him and then he was crying, loud ugly sounds that startled the nearby birds into flight and hurt Tony's ears. Tony held him, making the soft nonsense sounds his mother used to shush him with when he was little. The snow got into his shoes and seeped into his church pants where he knelt, and he stroked Sean's hair clumsily, and the priest droned in the distance.

"...For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone..."

*

Neither Sean nor Jack had plans to come home for Christmas junior year of college. Apparently Jack was too busy with the school newspaper, and Sean...well, he hadn't really elaborated, but Tony figured that with Jack right there at school with him Sean saw no reason to come home. For some reason this depressed him intensely.

David was so distressed by Jack's absence that Tony, Matt, and Ryan skipped out on their families Christmas evening and took his mopey self to the coffee shop. There they sipped peppermint mochas and tried to get his mind off of it, but David could be determinedly morose when he wanted to be.

"Look," said Matt, trying to look encouraging, "I'm sure he'll call later. And he'll definitely be home for spring break, right?"

"Our spring breaks don't overlap," David said darkly.

"Boy, you're probably not going to see him until summer. That sucks," Ryan said cheerfully. "Ow!" He rubbed the back of his head. "Matty, no hitting! We talked about this!"

"Then don't be a doofus." Matt turned back to David. "You can always visit on a weekend or something..."

"David?"

They all turned. Jack was standing there looking flustered, snow in his hair and scarf.

David gaped. "Jack?"

"Your mom said you'd be here." Jack took a tentative step forward.

"I...what are you doing here? I thought you were staying in Santa Fe with Sean."

"I changed my mind, got a plane ticket at the last minute. Sean stayed at school." He dug into his pocket. "Here, Tony, he wanted me to give this to you."

Tony caught the small package Jack tossed at him. "Thanks."

But Jack wasn't hearing him. "Hi," he said to David.

David matched Jack's early tentative step. "Hi."

"Hi."

"Hi."

Matt grinned and took Tony and Ryan by the elbows. "Let's leave them to it, shall we?"

In the crisp air outside the coffee shop Tony looked down at the package Jack had given him. It was small and heavy and -- he might have known -- wrapped in the funny papers, with only slightly less tape than Sean had used at age nine. Tony peeled back Hagar the Horrible's face and found himself holding a deck of cards, crisp red and white packaging shining in the plastic wrap.

Oh.

A little over six hours -- and one plane, one bus, and two cab rides later -- Tony was knocking on Sean's dorm room door. It was already late, even by Santa Fe time, and he had to thump on the door for a while before he heard Sean's growly, cranky, wonderful voice raining a hail of curses down on him and all his kin.

The door swung open and there was Sean, scrawny and pale in his boxers, his hair mussed and his gray eyes squinty with sleep. "Whaaat?" he bellowed, and then "...Tony?"

He'd meant to use words, but right at that precise moment it was very important for Tony to kiss Sean, and so he did, hauling Sean's head down and barreling them several feet into the room with the momentum of the lunge. Sean gave a little quick intake of breath and scrabbled for purchase on Tony's coat to keep from toppling over.

After a moment Tony pulled back and looked at Sean, who was pink and wide-eyed and beautiful. Sean drew in three or four shaky breaths, then leaned his forehead against Tony's.

"You too, huh?"

Somewhere in Tony's head an orchestra burst into joyous music. "Yeah. Only I didn't know till now. Not really, anyway."

"You always were a bit slow."

"Hey, aren't you supposed to be talking pretty to me now?"

Sean grinned. "Close the door first and we'll see."

And Tony did.

*

It was really very warm in bed, and Sean was stretching against him in the catlike way he had, and Tony didn't really want coffee after all.

"Merry Christmas," he said when Sean blinked sleepily at him.

"Mmmrphle," Sean replied eloquently.

"Indeed."

Sean threw an arm over Tony's chest and kissed his neck. "C'n we just stay in bed all day?"

"Nooo."

"Mmmrphle," Sean repeated more insistently. "Why the hell not?"

"We gotta go to Dave and Jacky's for lunch and my folks' for dinner, remember?"

Sean snorted into the pillow. "I can't believe you just called him Jacky."

Tony cuffed him gently on the back of the head. "Shaddup, I'm still asleep."

"You talk an awful lot for someone still sleeping."

"You argue an awful lot for someone trying to get me to let them stay in bed all day."

"Oh, like you could make me get up."

"I could if I wanted to."

Sean propped his head up on his hand and waited, watching Tony. "...Well?"

"...I just don't want to right now, is all."

"Uh huh." Sean flopped back down. "What time do we have to leave for Jacky -- for Jack's?"

"Ha!" Tony ducked as Sean returned the cuff. "We should be okay if we leave around noon."

"And what time is it now?"

Tony groped on the bedside table for the watch Sean had given him the night before. "Little after nine."

Sean looked triumphant. "Three more hours in bed it is. At least for me. I don't have to spend forty-five minutes of private time in the bathroom with my hair gel."

Tony batted his eyelashes. "I just want to look pretty for you, dear."

"Oh my God, stop that." Sean shoved the laughing Tony away and rolled his eyes. "You look like a deranged trout."

Tony rolled back into Sean and kissed his throat. "Fine, three more hours." He pressed another kiss to the corner of Sean's mouth and let his hands roam over Sean's pale freckled shoulders, golden in the morning sunlight. "But whatever will we do to pass the time?"

Sean looked thoughtful. "Hmm, Christmas traditions..." He grinned, then held up a pillow. "Wanna build a fort?"

Tony yanked Sean down and hoped his fevered kiss would convey at least a small part of what he wanted it to. He didn't have the words.

"I love you, you know that?" he said when he finally let Sean go.

Sean leaned into him, hair falling into his gray eyes. "Yeah. You too." He smiled, the soft unguarded smile that had won Tony over a decade and a half ago.

"Merry Christmas, Tony."

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