Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Tony wasn't feeling Christmas this year. The tree, the stockings, the mistletoe, the whole shebang--all of it lacked the festive glitter of Christmases past.

Not that the presentation wasn't up to its usual standards; if anything, his family had gone to even greater lengths in an effort to make up for his lack of enthusiasm. All of his childhood homemade ornaments, from the cotton ball snowmen to the pinecone Santa, had mysteriously materialized from some dusty box in the attic. His favorite holiday cookies were cooling on a rack in the kitchen. Even the family dog had surrendered himself to having a ribbon tied to his collar.

None of it helped. He knew he'd be grateful for the effort they were putting into it in a few days, after the hum of the holiday had worn down, but at the moment, with Christmas Eve dinner a heavy lump in his gut and a long night ahead of him, what he wanted most was to go back to his place and brood through the hap-happiest season of all.

Instead, he slumped into the far corner of the couch and watched his sisters jockey for the best position in front of the tree. Katie might have been older, but Cam fought dirty for an eleven-year-old. He caught himself placing a mental bet on her and slouched into himself a bit more. His dad simply watched sleepily from an armchair nearby, looking ready to sleep off dinner.

His mom bustled into the room, holding a stack of gift-wrapped boxes. "Time to open a present," she said cheerily. She spotted him on the couch. "Tony, go on, join your sisters."

"No thanks, Ma," he said.

"Toooony," whined Camila. "Come sit by me."

"Caaaam," he whined back, matching her intonation. She stuck her tongue out at him. "I'm comfortable here."

"It's tradition, so you have to," she said triumphantly.

Tony rolled his eyes. "I don't have to do anything."

"No fighting on Christmas Eve," his mom interjected sternly. Then she turned to him and smiled again. "It won't even take five minutes, so go ahead and sit with your sisters."

He felt all the frustration and unhappiness of the past few days--hell, the past few months, if he was being honest with himself--bubble up all at once and manifest in the urge to pick a fight.

"Christ, fine!" he said explosively. He pushed himself up and stalked around the coffee table, nearly tripping over the dog laying in his way. This just pushed him into a fouler mood. "But I don't see what the point is. We all know what the presents are going to be anyway. They're going to be matching Christmas pajamas that we'll all wear tomorrow morning so everyone can coo about how sweet we are and take a million fucking pictures, and then they'll go in the closet and we'll never wear them again.

"I'm twenty-two, Ma. I think I'm a little bit old for this tradition."

His mom drew herself up to her full height. She was an inch shorter than even he was, but somehow she managed to seem forbidding on such occasions. Tony braced himself for a shouting match, but they both got distracted when his dad pushed himself out of his chair with a yawn.

"Why don't you pass out the boxes, Joyce? I'm going to get us all some eggnog to drink while we open." He shuffled a few feet toward the kitchen before turning casually. "Come help me carry, Tony?"

Deprived of an outlet to vent his Christmas frustrations, Tony decided that he might as well follow. At least if his dad attempted to lecture him, he'd get another chance to blow some steam.

His dad was reaching into the cupboards and pulling down festive, mismatched mugs when Tony reached the kitchen. He hesitated briefly in the doorway, then briskly crossed the kitchen floor and pulled open the fridge. His hand was curling around the carton of eggnog when his dad cleared his throat. Tony stiffened, the carton bulging where his fingers had tightened around it.

"You're right," his dad said.

Tony opened his mouth angrily, then closed it. He looked cautiously over the fridge door. "What?"

"You're right that you're too old for matching pajamas," his dad continued. "But since that's not the real reason you're upset, I don't think it's fair to yell at your mother and sisters."

It was a struggle to hold onto his anger in the face of his dad's relentless calm, but Tony grasped at the strands of it and pulled it closer. He slammed the fridge shut. "Who fucking cares if it's fair? It's not like anything else is."

Ignoring his outburst, his dad took the carton from him and began pouring. "It's only two months until he comes home for good."

Tony deflated.

He dropped into a chair at the table. "I got used to Christmas with Sean around," he admitted after a pause. "God, I've been a bastard."

"Yeah."

Tony snorted with laughter. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"Any time." His dad turned to face him, one hip leaning against the counter. "I know it's hard getting used to having a loved one in the military. We miss having Sean around, too." He grinned. "If nothing else, he certainly livens up the atmosphere."

"He probably would have kicked my ass for being such a brat."

"Language, Tony."

Tony rolled his eyes as he stood. "Yes, sir." He snagged his mug of eggnog and downed it. His dad mimed a swatting gesture at his head, but instead let his freckled arm fall heavily along Tony's shoulders, pulling him into a brief hug.

"I wasn't done filling those, you know," he protested.

"That's okay," Tony said. He gestured at the counter, where five remaining mugs were lined up. "You made an extra."

"So I did. That's what old age does to you."

"Not that old," he laughed.

"Why don't you go out and open that present? You could use a little Christmas cheer," his dad urged.

"Maybe," he said, shrugging. "You need help carrying those out?"

"Actually, I think I can get them. You go along, I'll be out in a minute."

Tony allowed himself to be shooed from the kitchen. Katie and Camila had already opened their gifts and changed by the time he returned to the living room. This year's theme in pajamas was apparently tiny reindeers. Tony shook his head ruefully as he made his way over to his mom.

He took his package from her as he leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Sorry I was a jerk," he said.

"That's unusual how?" she retorted, but he could tell she was pleased.

"Hey, I'll have you know that I was raised to be a jerk by the best."

She whacked him on the arm.

"Mom, I'm gonna go back to my place for the night," he said more seriously. He'd decided in the kitchen that he needed some time alone to get over the whole Grinch thing before he threw another tantrum. She might be upset with him for a little bit, but it was better for everyone in the long run.

Sure enough, she immediately protested.

"You're not going to stay the night? But all your stuff is here!"

"I promise I'll be back in the morning. I might even bring these," he said, holding up the package and shaking it.

Along with the muffled noise of cloth sliding inside the box, he heard a gentle tinkling sound. His eyes narrowed.

"You didn't include bells with the reindeer pajamas, did you?"

His mom held her hands up. "Hey, do I look like the kind of mother who'd do that to her children?"

Tony stared.

"Okay, fine," she conceded, laughing. "But I swear those aren't bells. Just open it and see."

Sighing deeply, he considered the trio of hopeful faces surrounding him. Against his better judgment, he ripped into the shiny red wrapping paper, exposing a plain white box. He lifted the top and let it drop to the floor with the shreds of paper. Inside, as he'd expected, was a set of pajama tops and bottoms with tiny, prancing reindeers on them that matched the nightgowns his sisters were wearing. But questionable fashion choice aside, there was nothing unusual about them.

Tony began to feel around under the pajamas, fingers questing for anything suspicious. Katie giggled at the frown of concentration on his face. Finally, a loop of something cool and metal hooked around his ring finger. He snagged it triumphantly and brought it to dangle above the box.

From a long chain dangled a set of military issued dog tags. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but it hadn't been that.

He shot a startled glance at his mom, who made motions urging him to look at them more closely. Coiling the chain into his palm until he could feel the individual beads clenched between his fingers, he turned his attention back to the small piece of metal. Etched into the surface was the name "Conlon, Sean" and all of Sean's information. He read it several times to be sure.

"What is this?" he asked, looking up again. "They aren't actually his, are they?"

"Yes they are," said a familiar voice behind him, "and I can get in trouble for not having them, so you better fucking give them back."

Tony whirled, his skin flushing hot and cold with his shock.

"What...?" he said.

"Merry Christmas!" chorused his family.

Sean was lounging in the doorway, still in his uniform with the strap of a bag slung over his shoulder, looking cockier and more darkly freckled than ever. One eyebrow was lifted in the self-satisfied way that had led to many heated arguments in the past couple years, usually followed by even more heated nights of sex. He noted with a distant sense of amusement that Sean's hair was shorn into a military buzzcut.

Tony tossed the box aside. In three long strides, he had his arms around Sean, his nose pressed to the stiff collar of his uniform. He heard a clattering thump as Sean let his bag drop to linoleum floor of the kitchen, then Sean's arms were around him too and they were involved in a struggle to see who could squeeze the other hardest. He couldn't say he minded if he lost this fight.

He was angling his lips to complete the embrace with a kiss, when a thought occurred to him. He disentangled himself just enough to speak.

"How did you get here?"

"Your dad let me in through the kitchen door," Sean said with exaggerated slowness. He hiked a thumb over his shoulder. Tony glanced into the kitchen, at his father who was politely not watching their reunion, then turned his gaze back to his boyfriend.

"No, I meant how are you here? As in not overseas?" He paused. "You didn't desert, did you? If I have to spend Christmas smuggling you into Canada, I'm going to be very pissed."

Sean sighed deeply and aggrievedly. "It's called leave, dumbass. I found out I was getting leave over Christmas and emailed your parents so I could surprise you."

Tony twisted to look at his mom. "You guys planned this whole thing?" She nodded and he groaned. "I suck so much."

"Yeah, I hear you were doing your best to fuck up my awesome entrance. Which, I might add, was the best ever. You should have seen your face!"

"I wonder," Tony mused aloud, "if I rub your hair like a troll doll, will it bring me good luck?"

"I learned five new ways to rip off your hand if you try."

He'd definitely missed the sounds of Sean casually threatening maiming or chuckling in glee over his own witticisms. Suddenly he felt much more filled with holiday cheer; a grin spread across his face.

"Ma, for this, I'll wear the pajamas without complaint," he announced magnanimously.

Sean leaned in and breathed into his ear, "You won't be wearing anything tonight if I have anything to do with it."

As he grabbed the back of Sean's head and yanked him in for a kiss, Tony thanked all holiday deities for the best Christmas Eve gift he could possibly have hoped for.

He was definitely feeling Christmas this year.

*

Note: Probably not quite what was meant by "opening a gift on Christmas Eve," but for some reason I pictured Spot in the Marines, wreaking merry havok and tormenting his commanders, and just had to use that somehow. I imagine he'd be able to add a few things to the list of Things Skippy Can't Do (http://www.skippyslist.com/skippylist.html ) .

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