Aaron padded his way into the kitchen of the apartment, rubbing sleep-grit from his eyes as he got the coffee started. It had been a shit shift at the hospital yesterday – holidays always were, he was learning fast, and nothing apparently said “let’s get into a car accident” like goddamn Christmas Eve. At least he had today off. The hospital gods had deigned that the residents shouldn’t have to work both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Coffee ready, he swiped a cookie from the tray on the counter and went to settle on the couch to wait for Katelyn, and that was when he saw it.
A lone box – large, oblong, and strangely lumpy – underneath the gaudily-decorated Christmas tree. Aaron eyed it warily. He was still standing there when Katelyn came up softly up behind him, still in her ridiculous sticky-bottom fuzzy socks, and slipped her arms around his waist. She went up on her toes to rest her chin on the top of his head just for a moment, before slipping down and placing a small kiss behind his ear.
“Merry Christmas, Aaron. Having a stand-off with the tree?” She asked, nuzzling her nose into the crown of his hair. Aaron just sighed and leaned back into her a bit, turning his head to press an answering kiss to the edge of her jaw.
“We said no presents, Kay.” He reminded her.
It wasn’t that Aaron had anything against Christmas, particularly. It was just… a bit of a mixed bag, was all. He’d been dragged to church with the Hemmicks a few times when he was little, back before his mother’s addiction meant she couldn’t be left alone. Then it was a lonely, cold string of Decembers with only her for company. A few Christmases were spent with his cousin and brother, Nicky forcing festivity down his throat and Andrew treating the holiday with the same icy apathy he’d treated everything else in his life. He’d spent exactly one Christmas with the Foxes getting dragged around every soggy tourist trap in New York City, and the rest with Katelyn.
So it was growing on him, maybe. Slowly. It helped that Katelyn preferred old-fashioned Christmas music to the newer, obnoxious pop nonsense. It helped that they always got a basket of his favorite German chocolates from Nicky, currently sitting on the counter next to the cookies. It helped that they had been able to compromise on decorations – besides a few modest strings of white lights, the small tree was the only festive thing in the apartment, but it was covered in enough ornaments for one twice its size.
Later in the day, they would make the drive to Katelyn’s family in the suburbs, and Aaron would tolerate it for her brilliant smile, her wine-pink cheeks, and her parents’ admittedly companionable dog. Nicky was sure to call at some point, inconveniently but welcome, sure to calculate the time difference incorrectly as always. His brother he would call sometime next week. Andrew (and Neil, Aaron conceded) had an even more fraught relationship with Christmas these days than Aaron himself. December tended to eat at their bones, and Aaron had discovered – to both his initial discomfort and eventual relief – that the best thing was just to let them ride it out together. But next week, he and Andrew would spend a few minutes catching up like they did these days and pretend, as usual, that the holiday had never happened. It was something.
The morning though, was just his and Katelyn’s. There was a layer of grimy snow lining the freezing Chicago streets, but inside the apartment was always warm. He didn’t even mind the decorations, really – the soft glow of the lights was sort of calming, and the tree was so Katelyn he couldn’t not like it a little. But they had said no presents, and there was a present there. One that was definitely not from him.
“Nothing expensive, I promise.” Katelyn assured him. “I just walked by it one day and, well, you’ll see.” Aaron sighed again, more fondly this time. She was so predictable, really. Except for the times she completely surprised him. Well, luckily, this time he was prepared.
“Hang on a minute.” he told her, slipping out of her arms and into the bedroom, pulling a small wrapped box out from under the bed.
“You absolute bastard!” She laughed delightedly when she saw it, a ringing sound better than any stupid Christmas song. “Trying to make me feel guilty when you got me something too!” She laughed again when she got a good look at the wrapping paper.
So the shipping had been delayed. So he’d waited until the last minute to buy the paper and all the hospital gift shop had left was sparkly new baby nonsense. So sue him.
“Only because I knew you wouldn’t be able to help yourself.” he told her as they settled on the couch, a half-truth she accepted with a knowing smile. (It really was mostly the truth. If she actually hadn’t gotten him anything, Aaron had planned on just saving it for her birthday.) “You first.”
He watched as she settled herself and began carefully unwrapping the gift, fingers slipping deftly beneath the tape to pop off the paper, artful and precise. When she noticed him watching, she balled up the paper and tossed it lightly at his head. For once, Aaron didn’t even try to catch it.
“I’ll use them on you when we get home later.” She promised him with a wiggle of her fingers, and a warmth Aaron had once assumed himself incapable of settled contentedly in his chest. “How’s the shoulder, by the way?”
“Stiff.” He admitted. It was an old injury from his senior year at PSU, a parting gift from dear old Exy that still acted up in the winter sometimes. He’d stopped hiding his pain from Katelyn years ago, and besides, she was finishing her doctorate with a concentration in sports medicine, inspired by her time with the Vixens. Her fingers were a gift straight from Heaven itself. And if she occasionally pressed her lips to his skin while she worked – soft and careful and something Aaron refused to call “reverent” even though it was probably accurate – well, he wasn’t about to complain.
Katelyn gasped in delight when saw the memory foam slippers, quickly taking them from the box. She plucked off her fuzzy socks, tossing them carelessly across the room, and pulled the slippers onto her feet. Her eyes widened as she stood to try walking around in them.
“Oh my god. Aaron.”
“You like them, then? They’re comfortable?” he asked.
Katelyn closed her eyes, head titled back dreamily as she smiled. Aaron took a moment to admire the arc of her throat, the soft, messy fall of her slept-on hair. For the millionth time, he looked at this brilliant, beautiful, resilient woman and couldn’t believe she had fought to have him in her life, of all people. But he was damn sure he was thankful she had.
“These” she enunciated with something like a soft groan “are the most comfortable slippers I have ever worn. In my life.” She opened her eyes. “Where did you find them?”
“Jerry. His wife apparently swears by them.” His classmate’s wife was a dancer with the Chicago Ballet, so he figured they just might be good enough for Katelyn. (Aaron had briefly considered consulting Kevin about Thea’s preferences – he figured no one’s feet hurt like a pregnant pro athlete – but decided he didn’t want to deal with the stressing and complaining and pleas for medical insight that call would have inevitably entailed.)
“They’re amazing.” Katelyn sighed, sinking back into the couch, sticking her feet out so she could continue to admire the slippers. She turned her head to the side and graced him with another dreamy look that had him dissolving from the inside out. “Thanks, baby.”
Then she said “Your turn.”
Aaron got up and hauled the large package back into his lap. It was surprisingly light. When he tore off the paper, Aaron actually laughed out loud at the explanation for the package’s weird shape. It was an amalgamation of smaller cardboard boxes, clearly rescued from their own recycling bin – pasta boxes, cereal boxes, even the box from the new microwave – taped together in an lopsided rectangle.
“I didn’t want the shape to give it away.” Katelyn explained with a sheepish grin. Curious now, Aaron tore off one side of the cobbled-together box, peered inside, and felt his breath go a bit unsteady in his chest.
“Kay?” he said uncertainly, hand closed over the neck of the acoustic guitar nestled in the homemade box.
“Take it out and look at it, silly.” she told him, and so he did. The body was all black, with pearly fret markers and a shiny metal pick guard and edging. It was clearly second-hand, but that didn’t matter. It was gorgeous.
Gorgeous, but strange.
“Kay…I don’t play guitar.” Aaron told her, which she knew, because she knew everything about him. She offered a soft shrug.
“I remember you saying you wanted to learn, when you were younger.” She said, which was true. When he was twelve he’d begged his mother for a guitar, entranced by the sound, by the way the people playing it looked like they controlled the whole world. But his mother had no money to spend on her son, certainly not on something as foolish and useless as an instrument. Before long, that brief want was put away and had lain dormant, like all the others.
“And,” Katelyn continued before he could get lost in his thoughts, “I know how stressful residency is, and being a doctor is going to be. I thought it might be a nice hobby, you know?”
“A hobby.” Aaron echoed doubtfully, hands running mindlessly over the smooth wood curves of the body, the cool metal edge-work, the rough texture of the strings.
“Yeah, Aaron, a hobby.” she said back, maybe a little mockingly, and stuck her tongue out at him. He waited only a beat before sticking his out in return, and Katelyn’s eyes nearly crinkled shut from her smile.
Aaron looked back down at the guitar resting in his lap. After a moment’s hesitation, he flipped it up into his arms. It felt a little odd, bulky against the underside of his arm, but not bad. He ran one hand along the neck and the other experimentally against the strings. The sound it made was thin and tinny. The strings needed to be tuned, maybe replaced. But the way the notes sounded at the touch of his fingertips was entrancing.
Aaron didn’t have his brother’s mixed-curse of flawless recollection, but he’d always been good at working from muscle memory. With a small frown of concentration, he placed his fingers on the strings in a G-major chord, remembering the way he’d placed them on the little piece of cardboard dotted and lined with marker, small fingers struggling to reach all the right strings. Now, he strummed a little, and the tuning was definitely awful but there was something there. Something that felt right about it, like it was something his hands were supposed to be doing. Like stepping onto an Exy court once had; like stepping into an operating room did now.
“I thought.” Katelyn said softly, eyes glued to him like he was shining, “it might be nice to have something in your life where nobody’s life was on the line.”
He almost laughed bitterly at how pointed that was. Aaron’s whole existence had always been life or death: his mother’s addiction; his own; everything about Andrew; even Exy, once Kevin Day and Neil fucking Josten had come into the picture. It was no surprise that Aaron had chosen trauma surgery – he’d spent his whole life stubbornly navigating the grey areas of his family’s black and white trauma. He was good at it.
But Katelyn, as she often was, was right. He couldn’t spend every living moment like that. Maybe it would be nice to have something he could fuck up without hurting anyone. Something just for him.
(Him, and maybe Katelyn, because Aaron had never cared for poetry but damn it if he wasn’t already writing songs for her.)
Slowly, Aaron put down the guitar and held out his arms. Katelyn slid over without hesitation, curling against his chest, legs thrown over his lap, new slippers still snug on her feet. It was his favorite way to sit with her, wrapped securely in his arms. He looked over her head at the tree with its gaudy excess of decorations, to the grimy snow outside, and it was almost unreal, to have a place called home that he always wanted to come back to.
Aaron pressed his lips against the top of Katelyn’s head and ran a hand through her hair, feeling her sign warmly into his chest.
“Merry Christmas, Kay.” he whispered. And it was.