Summary: Christmas...a time when friendships are born and old wounds are healed.
Characters: Doug, Tony, mentions of Ann and Jerry
Second Star To The Right
"Isn't it funny that at Christmas something in you gets so lonely for...I don't know what exactly, but it's something that you don't mind so much not having at other times."-Kate L. Bosher
The last Christmas Tony celebrates is in 1939. He remembers the tree towering over him with glistening lead icicles draped from each branch, and a handful of lovingly wrapped gifts beneath. The entire house smelled like the tree, pine needles and sap, and he leaned his face against a branch, only to be scratched.
"Some beautiful things hurt." His mother says gently, as she kisses the scrapes and smoothes his hair. "Next year just be more careful."
There is no next year.
In the summer his mother is already ill, and by Thanksgiving she's gone like the whisper of the wind through the trees, so quickly he could almost think it was only a terrible nightmare. His father has no heart to buy or decorate a tree when Christmas comes, but Tony goes into the boxes neatly packed away and hauls out the Creche, piece by piece, carefully arranging them on the table, Mary's face gazing tenderly down at her Son.
It isn't truly like Christmas, but he pretends, and his father's eyes mist when he sees it, crushing Tony into the front of his shirt. He feels his father's body shake as he holds him and he clings back, small hands fisted into the coarse material of his uniform, and he thinks he's lost all he can already, that nothing will happen to his father because life couldn't be that cruel.
It happens December 7, 1941, a day of Infamy and bombings, death branded into childish eyes that grow old, a war he already understands too well, and the loss of another parent, never found beneath the rubble.
There's no tree and no presents that year. There are relatives, ill-prepared to suddenly raise a child and awkward at relating to one who stares into a telescope for hours on end and asks far too many questions about time, but, like the kingdom of the White Witch in his book it's never Christmas, and always winter.
Children never grow up, not really. Not like Peter Pan, though, but more like Wendy, with Peter only dust in her toy box but still a kind of dust, unable to be erased and completely moved beyond, the love lost and never found again but still remembered.
He supposes he was too old for Christmas even then.
Truth be told, Doug doesn't know why he doesn't hate Christmas. He was like every child, he supposes, asking for unrealistic gifts from Santa, and in retrospect it isn't what he received that lingers with him but what he didn't. His parents didn't come home from their vacation in time for Christmas the year he was five, or any year after, and he learned to not be disappointed with it, as he learned to be happy with the deluge of gifts they sent from Europe to make up for them never tasting the cookies he eats until he gets sick because no one tells him not to take that many. And he never got a brother, someone to join in his games and someone to talk to because the Phillips' only son was tutored and kept away from his age-mates, none of whom his mother considered suitable to make his acquaintance, because one child was enough, and any more would have only been a burden.
He supposes there was a tree every year, his nanny would have seen to that, and one year at least he must have built a snowman or gone sledding but he can't recall any of those things. But while Christmas may not fill him with the joy of the season, he doesn't hate it, and in his own way, at least, he celebrates it.
He's a grown man, his parents are long dead, and he still remembers the year he asked for a brother and didn't get one, the year he learned what money can and cannot buy, and that life doesn't give you what you want. Not at the time, at least.
Anthony Newman arrives at Tic Toc with little baggage: a single suitcase whose contents look like they belong to someone in a movie instead of a living, breathing human being. There's a few changes of clothes - neatly folded, a razor, and a toothbrush. Nothing sentimental like Ann's houseplants that don't survive a week under the harsh lighting of the building, or Jerry's photograph of his parents.
Doug doesn't attempt to befriend him - no one does - but he works alongside him, developing a grudging respect for his talent, the nearly furious way he tackles every problem. He's not rude, simply standoffish, as if forming an acquaintanceship or saying a friendly word requires ripping himself apart and baring his soul to someone, but Doug thinks he understands that. Tony's file is concise and to the point, filled with praise for his intelligence and skills, the way he sped through school years ahead of everyone around him, and the potential for his future. His personal life consists of a single notation listing "parents: deceased, no siblings" and Doug can only guess at anything else. The man seems like someone plucked him out of time and set him down without strings and fetters, no family, no friends, no ties, and no wish to change any of that.
He stays over on Thanksgiving, working on equations and stacks of papers, and without knowing why, Doug stays, too, giving him a hand and exchanging a few words, a few glimpses into Tony's past, enough to know that beneath the carefully constructed facade there's a layer of pain waiting to erupt. So Doug stays away after that, because, even if he won't admit it to himself, he understands that better than anyone, and the last thing he wants is to confront that in someone else's eyes. Tony is fine on his own, Doug knows. After all, he's always been fine on his own, too.
In December the walls come up, locking into place, and whatever ounce of friendly exchanges and smiles lingered in Tony vanishes behind it. He's distant, ignoring any kindness, and it takes all of Ann's efforts to pry a single word out of him that isn't necessary to their work. Doug avoids him whenever possible, doing his Christmas shopping after work and concentrating on choosing Ann's gifts. Two days before Christmas he stops by a little record store to pick up a song he heard on the radio, when he sees an album to the left of it with Frank Sinatra's blue eyes staring from the cover. He hesitates for a moment, then adds it to his purchase.
On Christmas, when everyone else is leaving Doug glances back and sees Tony bent over the computer, typing calculations, shoulders slightly slumped forward. Doug tugs on his coat, then pauses.
"Merry Christmas." There's no response for a long moment, and Doug thinks he hasn't heard. When Tony looks up his eyes are hooded, careful.
"Merry Christmas." The words are forced, and Doug feels a twist in the pit of his stomach, some sense of familiarity. He takes the present, wrapped in plain red paper, out of his coat, and extends it, standing just close enough so Tony can take it from him. He looks startled, then slowly accepts it.
"It's a record." Doug says awkwardly. "I didn't know what you'd like. I thought Sinatra.." Tony's eyes lift.
"Thank you." His voice is quiet, and Doug nods, a half tilt that looks as ill at ease as he feels. He's about to leave when Tony's voice stops him, faint and strained. "It's the first Christmas gift I've gotten since...since 1939."
There's no explanation of the date, and Doug knows better than to question. With a single sentence he's somehow said everything, opened himself up and laid every hurt out. Doug takes a step back, slowly, with the caution he's always approached everyone. Doug takes the chair across from him like on Thanksgiving, resting his hand against the cool surface of the computer beside him, and Tony gets up wordlessly, pouring a cup of coffee and holding it out. Beneath the harsh lighting he looks younger, somehow, and Doug feels old, worn and world-weary. They sit in silence for a long time, Tony unwrapping and studying the record and Doug drinking coffee, slow sips as the hot liquid scalds his tongue.
"I never got a gift on Christmas." He says awkwardly, holding the information at arm's length, and Tony's eyes flicker almost imperceptibly. "My parents always mailed them home and I opened them when they arrived instead of waiting. Poor little rich kid." He gives a faint smile. "They never came home for Christmas." He doesn't know why he's even telling him this but the words spill out, tumbling. "I remember waiting.." His fingers slip and the coffee splashes against his hand, as he bites off a sharp word and slaps it away.
"It's funny." Tony's voice is raw, and if Doug couldn't see his eyes he'd think there were tears in it. "You think you grow up, but you never do." There's a sharp pain in the center of Doug's chest, a knife driven with the memories of all the Christmas Eves and Days, and he feels a sudden empathy, a link with the man across from him, as if all their differences mean nothing compared to this single understanding. He squares his shoulders.
"There's a Stack-O-Matic in Jerry's room." The words are sudden, and Tony's head lifts. "He wouldn't mind if I borrowed it." Doug gives a faint nod toward the record clenched between Tony's hand. It's a start, he thinks, a step forward, like reaching a hand into the darkness and waiting for someone to take hold. Tony smiles then, and it's genuine, the first true smile Doug's seen from him in all this time.
"Sinatra is my favorite." He says quietly.