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happy holidays from the foxes

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The world was quiet as snow fell softly on the ground outside, the streetlights warm and the air crisp in the early winter morning. It was so early that it was still dark out, the streets and sidewalks washed in a soft orange-yellow glow by the lampposts, every sound muted by the fresh blanket of snow on the ground.

In an apartment building on a peaceful city side-street lined with thin snow-covered trees, there was a frosted window framed by a string of blinking Christmas lights. In that window, there was a cat.

Two cats, actually, as a second jumped up onto the sill to join the first. The first was gray and very fat, and the second was black with white markings on its paws and face. Their names were Sir Fat Cat McCatterson and King Fluffkins. King Fluffkins (the black one) lifted one of his paws and began to groom himself regally, while Sir Fat Cat (the very fat one) curled up on the wide window sill for a nap.

The owners of the cats were curled up in bed together, buried in impossibly soft white sheets.

Andrew ran his hand idly through Neil’s auburn hair, curling it around his ear. It was getting long. But they both liked it that way.

Neil made a sleepy sound and turned his scarred face into the pillow, inching closer to Andrew on the mattress. He yawned as he threw an arm around Andrew’s waist and pulled him closer, lining their bodies up. “What time is our flight?”

“Six,” Andrew said, his fingers tracing over Neil’s neck, feeling his fluttering pulse.

“And what time is it now?” Neil moved his face to nuzzle Andrew’s neck, nose skimming along the skin, lips pressing soft kisses to Andrew’s throat.

“Four,” Andrew said, his hand going back up to Neil’s hair as Neil kissed his neck. The alarm had woken them up only twenty minutes earlier. For a moment when it went off, Andrew regretted every single thing that had lead them here, to this decision. He was not a morning person. Especially not this early in the morning.

But then Neil had blinked awake, smiled sleepily, and said, “Morning,” in that quiet, raspy voice he always had when he just woke up, and Andrew’s heart fell steady and calm.

Neil sighed, and Andrew felt his breath warm against his throat. His hand moved from Neil’s hair, down over his face, brushed over his shoulder, and forged a path down Neil’s side until Andrew’s hand was around his waist. His thumb rubbed gentle circles into the skin under Neil’s t-shirt, a ratty old remnant of their days at Palmetto that Neil refused to throw away.

“We should probably get up, then,” Neil said. “If we miss our flight, Dan will kill us. And you know we won’t be able to find another one. Not this late, and definitely not on a holiday.”

“I know,” Andrew said, biting the words into Neil’s lips as he tilted his face up.

“So let’s get up, then,” Neil said, the words murmured into Andrew’s mouth.

“You first.” Andrew didn’t care if they missed their flight. He would’ve preferred to spend Christmas alone with Neil at home.

Neil frowned at him. Andrew smoothed the crease between his eyebrows with his thumb. “Everyone’s expecting us. I already told them we were coming. They’re all gonna be there. The whole family.”

Family. Andrew’s family was right here with him. A stubborn auburn-haired man and two cats.

But it might be nice to see his cousin, if Andrew was being honest with himself. It had been a while since he’d seen Nicky. He and his husband Erik didn’t often take the long trip back to the states from Germany; they were happy there, and they did keep in touch through Skype calls every now and then.

Andrew sighed. He supposed it wouldn’t be terrible to see Aaron, either.

In the end, Andrew decided he was going for Bee. She would be disappointed in him if he skipped out on her. She’d sounded excited on the phone when he told her he and Neil had booked their flight. He would go for Bee, and if everyone else was there too, that was just circumstance.

“Fine,” Andrew said. Neil smiled.

“I thought we banned that word.”

“Shut up.”

Neil’s smile turned into a grin. He kissed the tip of Andrew’s nose and rolled out of bed. Andrew wasn’t long behind him, only because Neil had been providing most of his warmth, and the bed was cold and empty without him.

They were already packed; they had zipped up their suitcases and carry-ons last night after dinner. Neil was excited for the trip. They hadn’t seen anyone except Kevin and Thea in months, and Neil missed the rest of his family. Andrew was always enough for him, and being able to play with him and Kevin on the same team made his life more than worth living, but Neil needed these annual reunions like he needed air to breathe. And Andrew never denied him, no matter how much he may have liked to complain.

Neil wanted to take the cats, but Andrew drew the line at that. They had gotten their neighbor across the hall to promise to sit for them. Neil liked their neighbor, and he trusted her, so that was enough for Andrew (though he had still given her half-threatening warnings about keeping the cats comfortable and fed and well-taken care of while he and Neil were away).

“Bye, babies,” Neil said fondly as he and Andrew powered down the lights and brought their luggage to the door. The cats had followed them, curling around Neil’s ankles. Neil picked them up one at a time and kissed the tops of their heads, nuzzling his face into their fur. “We’ll be back in a week. Love you guys.”

“Don’t kill each other while we’re gone,” was Andrew’s only parting remark to the creatures. Neil smirked at him.

On the way to the airport, Andrew asked, “We left Kelly with the key, right?”

“Yes. And a list of instructions for the cats.”

“And we left them with enough food?”

“Yes.”

“They have all their toys - “

“Yes, Drew,” Neil said, taking one of Andrew’s hands over the glovebox, a soft smile on his face. “They’ll be fine. Kelly loves those guys. She’ll take good care of them.”

Andrew nodded and fought off the annoying concern in his chest. Maybe he should’ve let Neil bring the cats along, after all.

The airport was crowded, but it was Christmas Eve, so that was expected. Andrew was used to airports by now after years of traveling for games and traveling back and forth for Fox reunions such as these. Flying was always easier with Neil in the seat next to him.

They made their flight in record time, and Neil fell asleep against Andrew’s shoulder less than an hour in. They were supposed to touch down at Upstate Regional at 9:30 am. The flight was only three and a half hours, and Wymack and Abby were picking them up at the airport. Kevin and Thea had flown out already, a few days earlier, with their daughter Amalia; Kevin had wanted to spend a few extra days with his father before the holidays officially arrived. It surprised both Andrew and Neil that he willingly took the extra time off from the court, but Neil had smiled when Kevin told them on the phone.

Andrew made it through the flight perfectly fine with Neil’s head on his shoulder. He spent the three hours resisting the urge to text Kelly to make sure she really had everything she needed for the cats.

Andrew gently prodded Neil awake when their flight landed safely in South Carolina. Surprisingly, it was snowing there, too. It would be a white Christmas.

“We’re here,” Neil said when he realized why he’d been woken up. A grin stretched across his face. Andrew didn’t smile back, but he felt Neil’s happiness mirrored in his chest. They grabbed their carry-on bags and followed the rest of the passengers off the plane. As promised, Wymack and Abby were waiting for them at the gate with big smiles and open arms.

“Christ, it’s good to see you,” Wymack said as he crushed Neil in a hug. Abby kissed his cheek. She squeezed Andrew’s shoulder with a smile that made her eyes wrinkle around the corners, and Wymack shook Andrew’s hand. “How’ve you guys been? Was the flight okay?”

“The flight was fine, and we’re doing well,” Neil said, walking beside Andrew as they moved towards baggage claim. “How are you guys? Is everyone else here already?”

“Yes,” Abby said. “Renee just arrived last night. Emilio and Patrick couldn’t make it, unfortunately, but they send their well wishes.” Emilio was Renee’s husband, and Patrick was her youngest child; Renee and Emilio were in the Peace Corps together, and getting time off from their work was rare. Andrew was silently grateful that Renee had managed to make it back to Palmetto for the holidays, especially since she’d left her husband and Patrick behind. He knew Patrick had medical issues. “Dan and Matt have the house all set up. It looks wonderful. Renee and Winona are staying with them, Allison got a hotel for herself and the kids, as did Nicky and Erik, and Aaron and Katelyn are driving up from Charleston this afternoon. Kevin, Thea, and Amalia have been staying with us.”

“Awesome,” Neil said, grinning happily. “I can’t wait to see everyone.”

Andrew wasn’t looking forward to all the screaming children, but that couldn’t be avoided. Winona was Renee’s oldest child; Andrew remembered sending her a birthday card in the mail recently. She’d just turned four. Allison had two kids, one who was the same age as Winona and one a year younger. Dan and Matt had two with one more on the way - Dan was four or five months pregnant. Their oldest was six and the second child was four. Amalia was three years old now. Andrew liked Amalia well enough, and he liked Renee’s children the most by default, but the others he could live without.

The drive to Dan and Matt’s house was spent with Neil regaling Wymack and Abby with stories of his and Andrew’s life since they’d last seen each other. They would be spending a week in Palmetto with the rest of the Foxes - how they had all managed to get an entire week off at the same time, Andrew would never know (maybe Christmas miracles were possible) - and Andrew and Neil would fly back to Colorado after New Year’s. Andrew had never been a fan of the holidays before he’d moved into the apartment with Neil, but on their first Christmas in their new home together, Neil had suddenly developed a newfound enthusiasm for the winter holidays. That enthusiasm was ratcheted up when Dan and Matt hosted the first annual Fox reunion the year they moved into their house with their first child. Every year, Neil looked forward to Christmas more and more. And every year, a little bit of his excitement rubbed off on Andrew. Andrew tried to resist it at first, but it was impossible. He’d stopped trying to resist the things Neil did to him a long time ago.

When Wymack pulled his truck up to the front of Dan and Matt’s house, they were all greeted with the sight of picture-perfect suburban life: Christmas decorations were thrown over every inch of the Wilds’ property. Lights strung up on the roof and every tree, lights illuminating the path to the house, a large wreath over the garage door and a smaller one hung over the front door, a small family of twinkling wire reindeer huddled off to the side of the lawn, next to a figure of a happy-looking penguin and a polar bear with a Santa hat. And in the center of the lawn, a blinking electric orange fox wearing a Christmas scarf. That was there every single year. Andrew still had no idea where Dan had managed to find it.

There was a shiny car in the driveway that could only belong to Allison, parked next to Dan and Matt’s family-sized SUV. A rental car was pulled in behind them, probably Nicky and Erik’s. Andrew didn’t see his brother’s car, but he did see Bee’s, and that was enough for now.

The front door of Dan and Matt’s house was opening before Andrew and Neil even got out of Wymack’s truck. Matt stood in the entryway, ebullient grin on his face, arms stretched wide.

“Neil!” he shouted.

Neil stretched out his arms from where he stood on the sidewalk, his grin matching his friend’s. “Matt!”

Dan ducked her head out from behind Matt, hand on her slightly protruding belly. “My Foxes! You made it! Come in, quickly, before you get cold.”

Neil and Andrew left their things in Wymack’s truck - check-in to their hotel wasn’t for another couple of hours - and headed inside. Matt and Dan caught Neil in a group hug, and after they glanced at Andrew with expectant smiles, Andrew allowed them to hug him, too. The house smelled like gingerbread and pine, and the inside was even more garishly decorated than the outside. Matt always went all-out for Christmas. “It’s for the kids,” he claimed. “They like it.” There was a huge tree in the living room, decked out top to bottom in lights, tinsel, and sentimental ornaments. Most of them were orange. There were already presents under the tree, which some of the kids were currently trying to guess at. Nicky and Erik sat on the couch in the living room, watching the little ones. Allison and Renee shared the loveseat, Allison with a glass of wine in her hand, her blonde hair done up in an elegant style. Kevin and Thea stood by the window with Amalia, who watched the other children while she held her father’s hand.

Nicky’s face lit up when Andrew and Neil came into the living room. “You’re here!” He was off the couch and hugging them both in an instant. Andrew raised his arms to hug his cousin back. “I’m so glad you guys made it. Aaron and Katelyn should be here soon, and then we’ll have everyone.”

“Where’s Bee?” Andrew asked, noticing her absence in the room.

“She just went upstairs to take a phone call,” Renee said softly as she approached Andrew. Her smile was warm, and Andrew couldn’t help but return it just a little bit as Renee held her arms out for a hug. “It’s so good to see you, Andrew. I’ve missed you.”

“You too,” Andrew said, only for her to hear. He meant it. He’d missed his best friend.

“Now that you’re here, you can entertain this one,” Kevin told Neil when they greeted each other. He tugged on Amalia’s hand. “She’s been asking me all morning when we can go outside and play.”

Neil grinned at Amalia. He and Andrew had never really taken any particular interest in the kids, but Amalia was her father’s daughter through and through, and Neil was drawn to her automatically because she liked Exy more than the others. “You want to go a few rounds? I didn’t bring my gear, but I’m sure Aunt Dan has plenty to spare.”

“Of course I do,” Dan snorted. “Who do you think I am? Kids, stop trying to sneak the presents and go outside and play.”

“Can we go swimming?” the oldest Wilds child asked.

“Sure, we can go swimming,” Matt said jovially, while Dan hit his arm.

“I’ve told you a thousand times, we are not opening up the pool in the winter.” She clapped her hands. “Chop-chop, kiddos. Boots and snow pants on, hats, scarves, and gloves. Let’s go. Uncle Neil’s gonna play with you guys.”

“Can we have a snowball fight?” one of Allison’s kids begged, tugging on Neil’s pants leg.

“I wanna build a snowman,” Winona, Renee’s daughter, piped up shyly.

“Ecky,” Amalia said. That was her word for Exy. She looked at Neil sharply, her eyes narrowed. What a look for a three-year-old. Andrew couldn’t help but smirk, especially since Neil was starting to look overwhelmed now. He’d been faced with the kids before, but all of them at once was a formidable monster he could never seem to tame. Neil glanced to Andrew for help, and Andrew just shrugged. Neil glared at him.

“I’ll help,” Erik offered, detaching himself from Nicky’s side. Nicky kissed his husband’s cheek and smiled, and Neil nodded gratefully.

“Thanks,” he said. There was madness as all the kids dressed in their snow gear and Matt scrambled to keep track of them all. Andrew tried unsuccessfully to tune out the screeching, and Renee gave him a knowing smile from where she stood by him.

Eventually, they went out the back door of the house in a line, following Neil like a line of baby ducks, Erik bringing up the rear. Matt and Thea ended up joining them, too; Matt threw snowballs at his children while Thea stood on the back porch, watching Neil try to guide her three-year-old on an invisible Exy court. Andrew positioned himself in the kitchen so he’d have a good view of Neil through the window.

“Finally,” Allison said, chugging the last of her wine and moving to refill her glass. “God, those kids are a nightmare. I regret ever having them.” Renee gave Allison a fond smile and gently hip-checked her.

“You don’t mean that,” she said.

“Alright, fine. I only half-mean it,” Allison said. Renee and Dan laughed. Dan rubbed her stomach and sighed.

“I can’t wait until this one comes out. David and Randy never gave me this much trouble, but this pregnancy has been kicking my ass. I have the weirdest cravings. It’s driving me crazy.”

“Please tell me this is the last one,” Allison said. “I can’t believe you even went to three. Two is already too much.”

“Oh God, definitely. No more after this.”

“When’s the due date, again?” Renee asked. Andrew tuned the rest of the conversation out and watched Neil through the window, eyes catching on the way the winter sunlight looked against those auburn curls.

Someone pushed a mug of hot cocoa into his hands. When Andrew turned his head, Bee was standing there. Something in Andrew’s chest felt freer and lighter with her in front of him, and his shoulders relaxed, his posture more comfortable.

“Hello, Andrew,” Bee said. She squeezed his shoulder and smiled, her eyes wrinkling around the corners. Her hair was going gray now, and her face was lined with age. “It’s wonderful to see you again. I’m glad you and Neil could make it.”

“He never lets me miss it,” Andrew said flatly. Bee gave him a look that made his chest soften, and he sighed and rolled his eyes.

The remaining former Foxes in the house gathered in the kitchen for conversation. Allison and Renee helped Dan prepare the Christmas Eve dinner, and Nicky propped himself beside his cousin, launching into a story of his and Erik’s recent trip across Europe. Kevin put on an Exy game on the flatscreen in the living room, and he was useless for anything else after that. Eventually, after Andrew had caught up with Nicky and spoken a little more with Bee and Renee, he got tired of watching Neil play with the kids and joined Kevin on the couch. They sat together in comfortable silence until Neil finally came back inside, his cheeks and nose red with the winter cold, auburn curls in disarray under his beanie.

He was grinning and half-breathless as he sat down beside Andrew, leaning into his side. Andrew put an arm around Neil’s shoulder without thinking about it; a reflex reaction. Neil laughed. “Those kids are so active. They never get tired.” He glanced over at Kevin and smiled, a light in his eyes. “Amalia is definitely headed for the pros, though.”

Kevin scoffed without taking his eyes away from the game on screen. “Of course she is. She’s a Day.”

Andrew rolled his eyes.

Neil made himself comfortable, slouching on the couch and resting his head against Andrew’s shoulder. Andrew turned his nose into Neil’s cheek, lips scraping over the scars there. Neil’s skin was cold, and Andrew blew warm, gentle breaths on him while Neil closed his eyes. Neil took Andrew’s hand and twined their fingers together. It had been years of this by now, and Andrew was past the point of being okay with touches like these in front of the others. He figured he and Neil had earned the right to them.

They were sitting like that, connected with each other, comfortable in each other’s space, when the doorbell rang. Nicky appeared in the living room again, mouth stuffed with food, eyes sparkling as he grinned. “Aaron’s here!”

Andrew didn’t get up from the couch, nor did Kevin, and he ignored the glance Neil sent him. Neil just squeezed Andrew’s fingers and kissed his cheek.

Andrew heard the sounds of his brother and his brother’s wife coming into the house, stomping snow off their boots as they were greeted by Dan. There was a bark - they’d brought their dog. Andrew grimaced. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the dog, it was that the dog was very slobbery and jumped all over him whenever he saw it. Which was not that often to begin with, but once was enough.

Neil’s face brightened when he heard the bark, and he sat up on the couch, looking over his shoulder towards the front entryway. He loved the dog. He was more of a cat person, of course, but Aaron and Katelyn’s dog was cute. It was a pug with a ridiculous name - Popo, of all things. Andrew constantly wanted to ask his brother what on earth could have possessed him to name the dog Popo. Andrew had decided it was probably Katelyn’s doing. She was a bad influence.

“Hey,” Aaron said when he came into the living room. Popo went on a frenzy and ran excitedly around the room, stopping to jump on Neil’s legs and then Kevin’s. He paused for a moment when he spotted Andrew, cocking his head to the side, tail wagging. Popo hadn’t seen the twins in the same room enough times to get used to it, but he quickly recognized Andrew as the stranger because his scent was unfamiliar. Andrew probably smelled like Neil and cats. It was enough to send Popo scurrying away after he sniffed curiously at Andrew’s ankle.

“Hey, Aaron,” Kevin said without looking away from the screen where the Exy match was still playing. “And hi, Katelyn.”

Neil gave Andrew’s brother a nod and nothing else, and offered Katelyn a wave. Katelyn smiled at Neil, met Andrew’s eyes very briefly, and said hello to Kevin.

It had been long enough by now that Andrew knew, at this point, Katelyn probably wasn’t going anywhere. Neil had tried to subtly prod him into accepting her - he wanted Andrew to be happy, he always said, and he thought fixing his relationship with his family would make Andrew feel better. Neil had become much softer and much more sentimental in his years with the Foxes, and it annoyed Andrew to no end.

These annual Christmas gatherings were somewhat of a compromise. This was the most effort Andrew would put forth towards having a relationship with his brother and his cousin, besides occasional phone calls with Aaron and Skype check-ins with Nicky once every month. But Andrew was still resistant with Katelyn.

He knew that she made his brother happy. He could see it every time he came face-to-face with Aaron. Andrew always tried to let that be enough. Sometimes it wasn’t; sometimes it was. Andrew was trying to work on that. It was easier with Neil’s constant soothing presence in his life, and Bee only ever a phone call away.

“Hi, guys,” Katelyn said, smiling as she bent down to pick up the dog. Nicky and Renee joined the living room crowd while Aaron and Katelyn got settled, just as the back door opened and the kids came stumbling back inside to say hello to the new guests, tracking snow everywhere. Katelyn adored all the children, and they all fawned over the dog. There was suddenly too much happiness and good cheer in the living room for Andrew’s taste, so he got up from the couch, keeping hold of Neil’s hand and dragging him along. Neil followed behind him back into the kitchen, where Matt was wrapping his arms around Dan’s waist from behind, rubbing her belly.

“Smells good,” he said, peeking at the Christmas Eve meal Dan was still working on.

“You could help,” Dan said.

“Hey, I was on kid duty. You gave me that look,” Matt protested. Dan smirked.

“And now you’re off kid duty. So grab a knife and get in here.” Matt sighed, but did as he was told, shooting Andrew and Neil a grin.

Wymack and Abby dropped Andrew and Neil off at their hotel later in the day, and they stayed there for the rest of the evening until it was time to go back for the dinner Dan had made. Neil was wrapped up in conversation with his family for most of the night, holding Andrew’s hand and catching their friends up on recent events in their life. The cats were good, the Exy was good, the apartment was good. Everything in their life was good. Better than good. Neil never once used the word ‘fine’ at the dinner table - that word had been banned outside of their apartment, too.

Neil was happy, and with the mood he was in, it was hard for Andrew not to catch some of it. He felt . . . at peace. Calm. He sat at the dinner table with Neil on one side of him and Bee on the other, Aaron across from him, and he enjoyed the meal. With the Foxes around him, Andrew felt almost serene.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Aaron said to his brother before Andrew and Neil left again that night. They’d barely spoken all night, but Neil smiled, and Andrew nodded.

“Yeah,” he said.

They made a promise to come back tomorrow morning in time for the kids to open all their presents, but Andrew regretted making that promise almost instantly the next morning when his phone received a string of several text messages all in a row. Dan, Matt and Renee had made their kids wait until Allison brought her children over from the hotel they were staying at, and Allison’s kids had insisted on waking up as early as possible and arriving at the house before the presents disappeared. So everyone else was already there at 8 am - the earliest Allison would allow her kids to drag her out of bed - when Andrew and Neil arrived.

Christmas Day followed the tradition it usually did since the Foxes had started these annual reunions. The kids opened their presents, there was much squealing and screaming, Neil took pictures, and then the kids spent the rest of the day trying out all their new toys and games, suitably distracted and safely contained in the basement recreation room of the house. Nicky and Erik volunteered to watch them, and Bee and Abby took shifts. The Foxes exchanged their own gifts with each other, sharing memories of their days at Palmetto, before they turned on the TV to watch the old tape of their legendary match against the Ravens in Neil’s freshman year. A silly tradition, maybe, but one they cherished. Even Kevin. Whenever Riko appeared on screen, Kevin only grinned, fierce and proud as he watched his younger self race across the court in the game of his life.

It was a good day. For Andrew, too. Neil was always beside him, there was good food and good drinks to be had, and he was in good company. He spent an hour or two talking with Renee, another hour entertaining her daughter Winona, and another hour chatting with Bee. He talked with Kevin. He even talked with Wymack. Nicky talked Andrew’s ear off, and Andrew let him, interjecting when a response was needed. Andrew even spent a few minutes with Erik, making sure he was still treating Nicky right. But Erik always did. That never changed.

At the end of the night, after Christmas dinner was had and the kids started to wind down, Andrew went outside to smoke a cigarette. He left Neil with Kevin; they were talking about that Ravens game again, still fanatic after all these years. Thea sat beside Kevin on the couch, Kevin’s hand on her knee and Amalia falling asleep in her lap. Matt and Dan were slow-dancing in the living room to a soft, jazzy Christmas song. Nicky and Erik joined in, arms around each other. Allison, Renee, and Katelyn sat together, drinking wine and giggling. Wymack and Abby stood in the corner, talking softly, and Bee winked at Andrew on his way out.

On the front porch, Andrew took out his cigarettes and lit one, taking a deep drag. He didn’t smoke as often anymore, but being around this many people - even familiar people, people he loved - made him want one. He blew the smoke out into the night air. It was snowing again. Dan and Matt’s Christmas decorations twinkled and sparkled, and everything was quiet outside the house. The air was cold, but not freezing.

Andrew heard the front door open behind him, but he didn’t look back. His brother shuffled up next to him, hands in his pockets. He and Aaron had only exchanged a few words today, but it was something. It was something. Andrew hadn’t smiled at Katelyn, but he’d looked at her when she spoke. He nodded at her. That was something, too. He was trying. Maybe it was the spirit of Christmas that compelled him, or maybe it was Neil’s smile or Neil’s contagious bubbly attitude. Maybe it was hearing his brother laugh when Katelyn said something Aaron thought was funny, or maybe it was Nicky’s ever-present grin when he was near Erik. Whatever it was, Andrew hadn’t missed the way Aaron had looked at him a few times today. It was a look that said Thank you, a look that said I’m still your brother, a look that said I’m still here, and I always will be.

“I’m glad you came,” Aaron said into the night silence. His voice was quiet, if a bit rough. Andrew took another drag. He nodded without looking at his brother, eyes on the glowing fox decoration in the front yard.

“Merry Christmas, Aaron,” Andrew said.

There was a pause. Aaron let out a breath. “Merry Christmas, Andrew.”

After a minute, they both went back inside together.


 

A week later, the Foxes and their families watched the ball drop on the flatscreen in Dan and Matt’s living room, counting down to a new year. They all stood close together, party hats on, champagne ready, noisemakers on hand. All eyes were on the TV screen.

“I think this is gonna be a good year,” Neil said softly from where he stood next to Andrew.

“You say that every year.”

“And every year I’m right, aren’t I?” Neil smirked at the look Andrew gave him. “Will you be my midnight kiss?”

“I hate you.”

“You say that every year, too.”

When there were ten seconds to the new year, the Foxes started calling out their old numbers one by one - another silly tradition they refused to abandon, another one they cherished.

“Ten,” Neil said proudly, grin on his face.

“Nine,” Renee said.

“Eight!” Nicky shouted, pumping his fist in the air. Erik laughed.

“Seven,” Allison said. “Six.” Seth’s old number was hers too, and her eyes softened when she said it.

“Five,” Aaron said, pulling Katelyn closer. Katelyn smiled and squeezed his hand.

“Four,” Matt said, grinning wide.

“Three,” Andrew said, eyes on Neil. Neil’s eyes were on him, too, and his smile was beautiful.

“Two,” Kevin’s voice was strong and firm. Thea looked proud.

“One!” Dan shouted.

And then, all the Foxes together, “ Happy New Year!”

As Auld Lang Syne began to play on the TV screen and the clock turned to midnight, Andrew pulled Neil closer and pressed their lips together.

“Happy new year,” Neil whispered, smile soft, eyes glittering, thumb brushing over Andrew’s cheek.

“Happy new year,” Andrew replied.

Happy.

He meant it.