Apologies for any confusion – this is a backdated post, necessary b/c I’m rebuilding the website. No new content, here.
“The partridge is supposed to be in the pear tree,” Dan said. RJ was pretty fascinated by the scene regardless of authenticity, but Dan wasn’t interested in praising half-assed workmanship. A toddler might think that looking out to his front lawn and finding a huge cage with a potted tree and a captive bird was enough, but it really wasn’t what Dan was looking for.
“What did you want me to do?” Evan’s voice crackled a little over the phone, as well it should considering how far away he was, but Dan could still hear the familiar affectionate frustration. “Should I have wired him onto the branch?”
“You just jump to the most efficient method, without worrying about how cruel it is? What about training the partridge, Evan?”
“Oh. Training.” Now Dan could hear the just-as-familiar smugness in Evan’s voice. “Interesting idea. You see the little bell on the top right of the cage? Why don’t you lift that down and give it to RJ? Tell him to give it a good ring.”
Dan did as he was told and after a little coaxing RJ went along with the plan. And the damn bird flew up into the branches of the potted pear tree and perched there, calmly preening.
“If you had time to train a damn partridge,” Dan said into the phone, “You’ve known about this for a while. It didn’t just come up like you said it did.”
Back to affectionate frustration as Evan replied, “I’m not the only rich guy who’s ever screwed up around Christmas time, Danny. There’s a whole industry at work, here. Someone else trained the partridge.”
“This isn’t what I want,” Dan said. “You know what I want.”
Evan didn’t answer, not right away. Eventually he quietly said, “I love you,” and hung up before Dan had time to decide whether he was ready to return the sentiment.
“I was wondering why the cage was so big,” Dan said into the phone. RJ was merrily throwing tiny handfuls of birdfeed through the wire of the bird enclosure. The feed was being gobbled up by the partridge and the two turtle doves that had joined it that morning. “So I looked up the words to the song. That is a shitload of birds, Evan. I always sort of thought it was an even mix of stuff, but when you really look at it, it’s birds and people. That’s all.”
“There’s the rings….”
“I already have the only ring I want from you.”
But this time it was Dan who ended the call. He leaned back into Jeff’s chest and they both watched RJ together.
The French hens were chickens. Dan probably should have been able to figure that out, but he guessed he’d never really given it much thought. They came with a wooden coop and a wire-enclosed run, all set up in a little clearing half-way to the horse barn. Jeff was busy explaining eggs to RJ, who was responding with limited understanding and unlimited enthusiasm.
“Eggs!” he exclaimed, pointing at the birds. Then he frowned in confusion and looked back to Jeff. “Eggs?”
“Not right now. The eggs will come later. Right now they’re just chickens. But they’ll give us eggs soon.” Jeff looked over at Dan. As was his custom, he was staying out of the current disagreement between Dan and Evan. But now he said, “We’d talked about maybe getting some chickens. You were the one who wanted to do it.”
“If I’d wanted to do it, I’d have done it. I don’t need Evan to supply me with chickens.”
Jeff nodded slowly. “Still,” he said. “They’re nice birds.”
They were nice birds. But they weren’t what Dan wanted.
The calling birds weren’t what Dan wanted either. They were stuck in the big cage with the other non-chickens, and they sang nicely enough, and flew from one perch to another and seemed fairly content.
“RJ’s trying to learn how to fly,” Dan reported into the phone. “Jeff gave him the basic lessons before going to the gallery. Now RJ’s practicing.”
“The basic lessons?” Evan asked carefully.
“Flapping, mostly. A bit of hopping.”
“Is he getting anywhere?”
“Covering a lot of ground horizontally, but I haven’t seen him lift off yet.”
“He’s got to do his ten thousand hours of practice before he’s a master flyer.”
“I think he’d settle for being a novice, if he could just get some altitude.”
They were quiet for a while, Dan watching their son while Evan looked at… who knew what? “You still like the hotel?” Dan finally asked.
“Yeah,” Evan said. “I guess. I mean, I’d rather be at home. But—”
“If you’d rather be here, you’d be here,” Dan interrupted. Evan had made his choice, and there was no point pretending otherwise.
“There are people at the company who’ve devoted years of their professional lives to this deal. I can’t screw it up because I want to be home with my family for Christmas!”
Knowing it was true didn’t make it any easier to accept. “RJ made his first friend,” Dan said. He wasn’t sure if the story was his apology or if it was another accusation, one more part of RJ’s life that Evan was missing. “His name’s Luke. They were at the Play Place together last week and had a great time, and when I took RJ in today they recognized each other and headed right for the sandbox together.”
“Nice,” Evan said. He seemed willing to accept the topic chance. “This kid seems like the right sort of people? He’ll be a good influence on Robbie?”
“He’s a bit of a sand-thrower. But his dad stopped him, so… that’s good.”
“Yeah. One of them. He’s got two.”
“Two, like a dad and a step-dad? Or they’re a couple?”
Yeah, Dan had done that on purpose. He wasn’t exactly proud of himself, but it wasn’t like he was lying. And if Evan got a little jealous, and if that made him come home a little faster? Dan would be okay with that. “A couple,” he said casually. “Paul’s a doctor, and Austin runs some sort of web design business. They seem really nice.”
“Jeff’s met them?”
“I don’t think so. They’re pretty new to town. They moved out from the city when Luke got old enough to start moving around.”
“Huh,” Evan said. He didn’t sound impressed.
“I’d better go. RJ’s getting tired of flying and I need to get to the barn. Thanks for….” Well, Dan hadn’t really meant to go that far. Was he actually going to encourage Evan’s insanity? “Thanks for all the birds,” he said grudgingly. “Have you got a plan for what to do with them when Christmas is over?”
“We can eat them.”
“A different plan?”
“Yeah. The guys will take them back, if we want. Or we can keep any that we like.”
“I think we should keep the chickens.” There. That was Dan’s apology for being crabby and for making Evan jealous.
“Great,” Evan said. He sounded like he meant it.
“The Rio Olympics,” Jeff mused. He looked at the paperwork in his hands, then at Dan. “Hotel reservations for Evan and me and RJ. Not for you.”
Dan nodded slowly, then reached for the phone. “Thank you,” he said as soon as Evan picked up.
“Yeah.” Going back to Rolex and winning? That had been for Justin, and for the Archers. But the Olympics? That was Dan’s dream, all on his own. Evan hadn’t wanted to even think about it. He’d been a nervous wreck for the weeks leading up to Rolex, too aware of the history and the danger, and he’d wanted Dan to retire from competitive riding as soon as he’d gotten the win. There had been a time when Dan had been happy working behind the scenes, training horses for other people to compete on. But he didn’t want that anymore. He wanted the Olympics.
And now Evan had found accommodations for himself and Jeff to be there, but he hadn’t reserved a spot for Dan. Because Dan should be in the athletes’ village. “I’m always careful,” he said now. “It’s as safe as it can be.”
“That’s not too reassuring,” Evan said, but it was pointless of him to keep arguing when the reservations made it clear he was giving his support to the idea.
“The Olympic rings aren’t all gold, though. There’s five of them, sure, but they’re all different colors.”
“Well, apparently the ‘calling birds’ were really supposed to be ‘coaly birds’, so you know… we’re taking some liberties.”
“Okay,” Dan agreed. “Thank you,” he said again.
“Please be careful.”
“They aren’t a-laying,” Jeff pointed out. He was standing behind Dan, his arms draped over Dan’s shoulders in a loose, comfortable hug, and they were both staring out at the geese paddling around on the pond.
“I was afraid to mention it to Evan. I thought he might have some bell we could ring and one of the poor things would have to squeeze out an egg on command.”
Jeff’s chuckle was as warm and familiar as his embrace.
“Swans are assholes. One of them almost bit RJ. They can stay for another five days, I guess, but they’re out of here on the day after Christmas. Okay?”
“Are they beautiful, at least?”
“They’re gorgeous. I guess that’s part of the plan. Lure an innocent tot toward you with your soft white plumage, then go apeshit and try to bite the poor little guy. Assholes.”
“You want them gone before Christmas? I can call the guys and they can come pick them up.”
Dan thought for a moment. “No. They’re good until after Christmas. Probably not a bad lesson for RJ to learn. Just because something’s pretty doesn’t mean you can chase after it and hug it.”
“Okay, if he was trying to hug the swans I can see how they might have gotten a little upset.”
“They got upset because they’re assholes. Day after Christmas, Evan—they’d better be gone.”
“This is a bit surreal,” Dan said, staring at the scene in front of them.
Jeff nodded. “Yeah. I was worried about the Maids-a-Milking. I really wasn’t sure what it was going to look like.”
“I’m not sure this is the most accurate interpretation of the song.”
“It’s good for RJ,” Jeff said. “He’s learning a lot.”
“About the dairy industry. Just what every toddler needs to know about.”
RJ wandered over, still shaking the little container of cream one of the milk maids had given to him. “Is it butter yet?” Jeff asked, and crouched down to inspect the contents. “Nope, not yet. Are your arms tired?” RJ shook his head stubbornly and started shaking again.
“Between the flapping and this, the kid’s going to have some serious upper body strength,” Dan said. Then he wandered over to one of the women holding the goat’s lead rope. “What do you guys do the rest of the year?”
“I work at a library, actually,” she said after making sure RJ was too far away to hear her confession. “There’s only two year-round milk maids. They tour around to schools and do educational programming. Heavily subsidized by a certain marketing board, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
She sounded a bit cynical for a milk maid, but it was reassuring to know she had a life outside of the obvious. “And they just recruited you for this job?”
“At Christmas? All of a sudden there have to be eight of us. We do parades, and the occasional private gig.”
Private gigs. Rich men who screwed up at Christmas time, trying to apologize with seasonal flair. Dan shook his head. “How many private gigs? Like, this year. How many?”
“Five. All day long today, we’re touring around, being the eighth day of Christmas. It’s a bit weird.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“You guys are our first of the day, though. I guess someone paid extra to bump you up the schedule and make sure we got here early.”
“Someone,” Dan agreed. Evan would know that they had plans for their days. Dan needed to ride, Jeff needed to paint, and RJ had so many activities booked that Tia said she was more of a chauffeur than a housekeeper. Evan had paid extra to get their activity scheduled first. No, that wasn’t the touching part. The touching part was that he’d thought of that. He’d remembered that the whole world wasn’t an offshoot of the Evan-Kaminski-show, and he’d made sure his silliness worked in around everyone else’s plans. “Do we get to eat stuff? Like, yogurt or something?”
“Absolutely. Do you want to wait until the little guy is done with his butter?”
“How much longer is that going to take?”
“We cheated a little; we gave him a jar that was already almost done. But even so, he might need a bit of help from adult arms….”
“Hey, RJ? Can I play with the butter jar too? And then can Daddy Jeff do some shaking?”
RJ handed over his toy without much concern; it had probably stopped being fun a while ago. So Dan took a turn, and so did Jeff, and then they handed it back to RJ to finish things off. He crowed in happiness when he saw the solid blob they’d created and trailed off after one of the milk maids to spread it on toast.
“He’s a lucky kid,” Dan’s milk maid said softly.
“We’re all lucky,” Dan replied.
“I saw them as more ballerina-like, in my head.” Chris stared at the scene on the front lawn as if he couldn’t decide whether to be appalled or amused. “This is… Danny, I’m not sure these are ladies dancing.”
“Ladies of the evening, maybe.” Ryan sipped his coffee and grinned. “I like it.”
“They’re not actually indecent,” Dan said. He didn’t know if he should be shielding RJ from this or not. I mean, there’s… there’s a certain… Okay!” he said as two of the women started grinding against each other. “Hey, RJ, let’s go see what’s for breakfast! These dancers are… Daddy Evan is going to need to explain what’s Christmas-y about these dancers.”
It’s okay if we stay and watch them?” Chris asked with a grin.
Dan lifted a fascinated RJ up and frowned over the child’s shoulder at Chris. “Just make sure they clean up after themselves.”
“Where?” RJ asked. He’d gotten used to his morning surprises and was clearly a little disappointed by the lack of one on the tenth day.
Dan poked his head cautiously out the front door and peered around. “It’s supposed to be Lords-a-Leaping,” he whispered to RJ. “Maybe they… where do you think they leap from?”
“The barn,” Jeff said from behind them. He wasn’t working that day and he and Dan had talked about taking RJ to see Santa Claus, but Dan hadn’t wanted to do it. He didn’t want to do anything Christmassy with just the three of them, not when it should always be four.
And now apparently Jeff had secrets about leaping lords. “Do you actually know that?” One look at Jeff’s smug expression gave Dan his answer. “What the hell? You and Evan are in league, now? You’re part of this?”
“Evan and I are always in league to make you happy. You know that.”
“Then get his ass home.”
“His ass,” RJ echoed softly.
Shit. The rest of the household dropped accidental curses around the kid all the time, and it was Dan’s slip that the kid picked up on? “That’s a word for grownups,” Dan said as calmly as he could. Then he took a deep breath and raised his eyebrows challengingly in Jeff’s direction. “So, the barn? There’s lords leaping at the barn?”
Jeff just smiled enigmatically. “Here’s RJ’s snow pants and jacket,” he volunteered. It wasn’t all that cold out, but a chilled RJ was unpleasant for everyone, so they tended to overdress him most of the time. “And his boots are by the door. Why don’t you grab your own jacket?”
Dan let himself be led. He missed Evan and wanted him home, but he had to admit the twelve days thing was a pretty good distraction. Now he wanted his lords a leaping.
So they bundled up and headed for the barn, stopping for only a few moments of chicken-inspection half-way. At the barn there were no apparent lords. Nothing amiss whatsoever, as far as Dan could tell. But Robyn poked her head out of one of the stalls with an expectant grin on her face, making it clear that there was a secret still to be discovered.
“What’s going on?” he asked her. This was his place of business, and he didn’t want any of Evan’s sleazy dancers showing up.
“Check the indoor arena,” she suggested.
He strode down the barn aisle, Jeff and RJ following behind him. He got to the arena railing and peered inside. A chestnut horse. Not one of theirs. What the hell?
He squinted at the animal. It looked strangely familiar… and then it started to move. A beautiful, bouncing trot, every movement speaking of athleticism and pride and balance. “Shit,” Dan whispered. He’d seen this colt almost a year ago. The owners hadn’t wanted to sell…
Robyn handed him a sheaf of papers. “There wasn’t time to change his official name,” she said. “But Evan insists that his barn name has to be Ten Lords.”
Dan fumbled for his phone, and Evan answered the call with, “You at the barn?”
“It’s too much,” Dan said. “There’s no way they sold him for anything near a reasonable price. They loved this horse.”
“Not as much as I love you. He was supposed to be your Christmas present, but I think I have something else worked out for that. He fits well on this day, right? As long as you don’t mind calling him Ten Lords. And I gave them a good price. At least, I think it was. I don’t know –I paid what I needed to.” Yeah, that was Evan’s traditional approach to shopping for things in his personal life. “But you know what really persuaded them? They saw you ride at Rolex. They liked the idea of their guy being brought along as carefully and perfectly as you did with Monty. I paid for him, Dan, but you’re the one who earned him.”
The horse set himself up and cantered over one of the low jumps set up in the middle of the arena. Free jumping, just because he wanted to. “Ten Lords is leaping,” Dan whispered. He lifted RJ up so he could see better, but RJ had seen lots of horses jumping in his short life; he was more interested in Dan’s phone. “You want to talk to Daddy Evan? Tell him about the swans.”
“Assholes,” RJ said sweetly into the handset.
“You need to clean up your mouth a little bit,” Jeff said as he wrapped his arm around them both and nuzzled in to Dan’s neck for a quick kiss.
“Yeah,” Dan said. He was still staring at the beautiful animal exploring its new home in front of them. “I still want Evan here,” he said, trying to regain a little composure. “But, damn… that horse is a hell of a consolation prize.”
“Fucking pipers,” Chris groaned. He and Ryan had moved in for the holidays the night before, and Chris and Tatiana had spent a little too much of their evening developing the perfect Christmas cocktail, all the versions of which had, of course, been tested through consumption.
“They sound good from far away,” Dan replied. And apparently RJ thought they sounded good from up close, too, because the little guy had his hands over his ears but was steadily approaching the kilted band on his lawn.
“Is that even Christmas music?” Tat groaned.
“It might be,” Ryan said, cocking his head as if to hear better. “But really, everything on bagpipes comes out sounding like a Scottish fight song.”
Dan pulled out his phone. If Evan was going to pay for this, he should at least hear it, the way the harsh, mournful sounds rang through the still morning air. But he just got Evan’s voice mail. Probably the guy was in some big meeting, signing some big… something. Something that was more important than his family. Dan hit the button to disconnect and made himself smile as RJ turned around and came running back toward him.
“Loud!” RJ said happily.
Dan lifted the boy up and snuggled into his soft neck. “They’re loud,” he agreed, and RJ affectionately twined his fingers through Dan’s hair.
It was Christmas Eve. Dan had Jeff, and RJ. He had Chris and Ryan and Tat, and the next day they’d have Anna and Robyn. He had lots of family around him, more than he’d ever thought he’d have. And he loved them all. But that didn’t mean there was no empty spot where Evan should have been.
The drummers brought a singer. It was a little unexpected, but maybe that was the idea. With every other gift mapped out and predictable, Evan had needed to get a little creative to mix things up. The Olympics, a strangely named horse, and now a mysteriously haunting set of Christmas carols based mostly on percussion with one pure, resonant alto soaring above the drumming.
The Little Drummer Boy, already RJ’s favorite song, had new power when one singer was accompanied by that many damn drums. RJ stood between Dan and Jeff, enthralled by the music, and he led the applause when the song ended.
“I think that’s the best version of that song I’ve ever heard,” Evan said quietly.
Dan nodded, then spun around. Evan. Right there. Standing there. On the front step. He was home.
There was more of an audience than Dan would have liked. Evan was all about PDAs, but Dan and Jeff were a little more reserved. And Dan was still kind of in shock. “It’s a good version,” he agreed. His breathing wasn’t quite normal.
RJ covered for him, rocketing toward Evan’s long legs and reaching his arms up to be lifted. “Daddy Evan! Daddy-E! Drummers! Eggs—eggs?” He cast a suspicious look in Jeff’s direction, but his enthusiasm returned as he told Evan, “Butter! Assholes!”
“They’re actually called swans,” Evan corrected gently. He held RJ in the crook of one arm and wrapped the other around Jeff as he approached for a hug and a quick kiss.
“You made it back,” Jeff said softly. He looked over at Dan, then back at Evan. “You’re teaching him bad habits. Now he knows that if he’s enough of a suck, you’ll give in and do what he wants.”
“He already knew that,” Evan said. “And it’s pretty hard to argue with him when what he wants is me. When we both want me home for Christmas.”
“You’re here,” Dan said. He wasn’t sure if the others had actually drawn back into the house or just faded out of his awareness. Probably the drummers were still out there on the lawn, but he didn’t care about them. Jeff was home. RJ was home. And now Evan was home. Dan stepped forward and leaned up to find Evan’s lips with his own. He pulled away before he wanted to because RJ was right there and he didn’t really need to see his daddies totally going at it.
“I’m here,” Evan said softly.
“What about your big deal?”
“I realized that both sides have been working on it for years. They’re not going to throw away all that work just because I took a few days off for my family.”
“You said it was a thirty-hour flight each way,” Dan said. “You flew thirty hours to get here? And you’re going to go back?”
“Well, the pilots did the flying. I mostly slept. Got caught up on some paperwork. Not a hardship.”
Dan wouldn’t argue about that. He probably wouldn’t argue about anything for quite a while. He laced his fingers through Evan’s and then leaned over and gave Jeff a quick kiss too. They were together, and it was Christmas. The drummers were packing up and there was breakfast in the kitchen. Everyone Dan cared about was safe and happy and warm.
“It’s a good Christmas, huh RJ?” Dan let his fingers brush along the impossibly soft skin of the boy’s cheek.
“Assholes,” RJ said happily, and then they all went into the house.