Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot
But the Grinch who lived just North of Whoville did not
The Grinch hated the noise and the mess and the waste
The Grinch regarded it all with no small distaste
The Grinch liked the peace and the quiet of being alone
The Grinch much preferred being all on their own
The journey to Mount Crumpit required a flight, a boat ride, a drive, wishing upon a star, two hours of snowboarding through the rudest kinds of snow, and finally a grueling uphill hike. Tony found it all rather nostalgic. He arrived a week after receiving the Grinch’s letter. Breaching the summit, he was greeted by the strangest of sights.
The Grinch was wearing some sort of military coat, with tassels and buttons, on top of what appeared to be a kilt, but was maybe just a tablecloth. This wasn’t unusual for the Grinch, who enjoyed costumes and generally behaving however the hell they pleased. What was unusual was the small assortment of tiny Who children lining up in front of the Grinch. None of whom looked particularly terrified.
“Attent-SHUN!” howled the Grinch, and the children straightened up. They were all holding misshapen piles of—things. Ganglywotsits and assortamajigs. Then the Grinch lifted a baton, which was actually a repurposed coathanger, and Tony realized with horror that the thingamawats were instruments, which the children somehow intended to play. He got his paws over his ears just in time.
The thing about Whos, Tony knew from experience, was that they were not musically talented. Unfortunately, they were absolutely musically inclined. That is to say, they very much enjoyed making noise, and they were not discriminating about it. Tony had spent many a night by the Grinch’s (suspicious smelling) fireplace, drinking (suspicious tasting) hot chocolate, trying to enjoy what would be an otherwise peaceful evening, if not for the utter pandemonium of whistles and shrieks seeping through the cave walls. It was the Whoville Christmas marching band, the Grinch explained with a very dead look in their eyes. They practiced once a week, all year round. But in December—oh, in December they practiced every night. For hours.
Tony had sort of understood why the Grinch wanted to destroy everything that Whoville stood for, after that. Sort of. Because the thing about the acoustics of Whoville geography—well, they were very good. Which, to the occupants of Mount Crumpit right next door, was very, very bad.
That was years ago now, but people who have witnessed the horrors of war never truly forget. Tony wrapped his paws around his ears and ducked, out of sheer instinct. Ducking wouldn't actually help, but it made him feel better.
And the children started playing.
It was...it was not actually like any sound Tony had heard before. It was sort of...like glass, tinkling. Actually, Tony thought, looking at one of the little Who girls with her enormous Who hairstyle, it probably was glass. She seemed to be blowing into a glass jar woven through with lots and lots of glass tubes, from which dangled odd bits of shards and metal. It was rather pretty.
The sound was much more gentle than anything Tony would have expected the Whos to produce. Not particularly musical perhaps, but light and interesting. Tony, who remembered the long nights of whistles and bells and trumpets and drums, decided it was quite an improvement. Yes, he’d take it.
The Grinch was conducting wildly this whole time, strutting around and waving their arms (they had two coathangers now) in a tempo that wildly mismatched the actual music. They looked overall very bossy, and very pleased with themself.
“BRAVO!” the Grinch cried, with a voice like old nails. They strutted back and forth as they spoke, like a teacher pleased with the class. “Remarkable, excellent job, truly astounding. The flair! The performance! L’art dramatique! I’ve outdone myself, truly.” Then the Grinch turned sharply to the children.
“As for you!" They waggled a waggly green finger.
The children, inexplicably, giggled.
The Grinch sniffed, long and hard, sounding a little like a very alarmed cat.
“Adequate, I suppose.”
The children, bizarrely, giggled again.
The Grinch was about to go on, presumably to explain to the children exactly how adequate and marginally passable and suitably lackluster they were, when Tony let out a small sneeze. Which, because Tony was a tiger, wasn’t actually small at all. A number of grazing birds leapt away in alarm, which Tony thought was a bit much.
As the Grinch turned and caught sight of Tony, their face curled into a wonderful, awful, terrible smile.
A tiny, treacherous voice in Tony’s head said: It’s good to be home.
The Grinch’s fireplace always smelled strangely of sulfur. Also, the flames were always green, for no reason Tony could discern.
The Grinch had ushered him indoors immediately, out of the cold. This was mostly, Tony suspected, because the Grinch never missed a chance to be bossy.
“Sit there!” the Grinch had warned sternly. “And drink this. I have to go attend to those munchkin hooligans.” Then they handed Tony a mug of something warm and suspicious, and disappeared back to the cliffs.
Tony sat on the squishy rocking chair by the fire (it was covered in a slight layer of grime, like everything the Grinch owned) and poked a finger experimentally into his drink. It was the color of chocolate, or possibly dirt. Something in it wiggled.
The wind was howling lightly through the door (the wind on Mount Crumpit almost always howls lightly, except when it is howling ferociously). Tony could hear the Grinch ordering the little Who marching band about, helping them pack up their strange instruments and berating them in a weirdly affectionate way to be on time tomorrow, please. Cindy Lou you are a vexation and a harridan, I never once thought otherwise. Three o’clock sharp please, or I’ll use your noggins for soup bowls.
The children seemed to find this funny.
Tony was just about convinced he’d stepped into an alternate dimension, and was considering upturning his mug of hot dirt into a rather depressed looking ficus (and since when did the Grinch own a ficus) when the Grinch themself came bursting into the room. They lounged on the doorframe for a moment, grinning broadly with crooked yellow teeth.
“Well,” the Grinch drawled, pleased as anything, “Would you look at the cat who got dragged in? Tony, baby, you’re an absolute mess. You look like you’ve been stampeded upon by a herd of Hortons.”
Tony smiled despite himself. “I’ve been here two minutes and you’re already telling me how bad I look? That’s gotta be a record.”
“Nah,” the Grinch said, bounding down onto a nearby sofa. It had exposed springs and a ridiculous amount of stuffing, and bounced enthusiastically while the Grinch got seated. “I didn’t say bad, I said messy. Disheveled. Bedraggled. A bit slapdash.”
“Oh, if that’s all.” Tony didn’t know why he was smiling so widely. It felt weirdly good to be back. “Now what is going on with you and terrorizing a bunch of neighborhood children? And since when do they deliver themselves to your doorstep?”
“I,” said the Grinch, sounding very disappointed about it, “have not been terrorizing anyone.”
“That’s what I mean! Since when do you not terrorize children? No, wait, since when do you make children giggle?"
The Grinch sniffed, affronted. “I don’t control what children giggle at. Believe me, I’ve tried. They’re a bunch of hooligans. They don’t experience terror. And they’re too young to experience apathy. All that leaves, apparently, is an overwhelming curiosity about the world. Oh, and an unshakeable youthful conviction in the goodness of others, yada yada. Which is an exhausting attitude, obviously, and vaguely offensive to those of us who pride ourselves on instilling terror in our surroundings.” They sounded aggrieved on their own behalf.
“Clearly,” Tony deadpanned, completely lost.
“Yes.” The Grinch sniffed again. “Anyway, kids these days are too much for me. If I can’t even terrify small children, it was time to retire, clearly.”
“Clearly,” said Tony, still lost.
“But of course retirement leaves so many hours in the day. I’m a creative person. Being. Entity.”
It was a pedantic argument, whether the Grinch was or wasn’t a person. Tony thought it was mostly a stupid argument. The important thing, he always thought, was that the Grinch was an inventive genius. And a bit of a maniac. And an astounding drama queen. And they made Tony laugh on days when he thought he’d never laugh again.
“The point being,” said the Grinch, waggling their eyebrows, “I get bored. Deeply bored. Existentially bored. I can’t stand being bored. And now that I’m retired—I thought community service would help.”
“Yes,” the Grinch said patiently, as if talking to a drooling hospital patient, or a harmlessly demented person. “That’s what retired people do.”
Tony didn’t point out the Grinch had never had a job in their life, because he was still stuck on the part about community service. He couldn’t decide which part was more at odds with the Grinch, the community or the service bit.
“This is bizarre,” Tony said honestly.
“Hmm,” said the Grinch. “Shut up and drink your tea.”
“Tea?” Tony honestly hadn’t guessed. In fact, he didn’t think it was likely at all. “This,” he said, pointing to the mug in his paw. “This is tea.”
“Well, a type of tea.”
“Well, it comes from the ground.”
Tony leaned over and carefully tipped the muddy substance into the potted ficus. The Grinch chuckled, sounding pleased.
The Grinch had made a lot of changes, in fact, since Tony was last here. Their cave, always bursting with half-finished, half-crazed inventions, was a little more clean than Tony had ever seen it. A little more empty. And the Grinch had retired, apparently, from terrorizing Whoville, which Tony had always assumed would be a lifelong passion. That was the strangest bit.
There were other bits too. The way the Grinch was a bit less, well, grinchy. A bit less of a grouch. A tad less of a grumbler and a grouser. Tony found it all very strange.
Part of it, of course, was that the Grinch was back in touch with their adoptive mothers. The Grinch had said as much in their letter, but now Tony got a fuller picture—a story about a reunion, a reconciliation, a bizarre Christmas heist (not in that order), and the way those two “wild old biddies” were getting on in years, and could use someone big and strong and green around the house. It was sweet, honestly, if not a little bizarre, that the Grinch was returning to Whoville after all these years to look after Nana Clarnella and Nana Rose.
“But how,” Tony asked, still absorbing this information, “does reuniting with your moms translate into you volunteering for the Christmas marching band?” He felt like he had missed something.
“Oh,” moaned the Grinch. “Don’t say that word. I can’t stand the c word.”
Thank goodness some things don’t change.
“This is bizarre,” Tony said, paw held over his eyes. “But at least you still hate C—the c word.”
“I’ve evolved,” the Grinch said. “Not had a complete personality transplant. Honestly.”
"Honestly," Tony imitated.
The Grinch pinched Tony right on the tip of his tail. Tony yanked it back, wincing. It didn’t do to let one’s tail wander like that, not around the Grinch.
“The Whos and I,” the Grinch said carefully, “have struck something of an accord over the years.”
Tony snorted. Tony considered himself fairly easygoing, even if he sometimes cared a little too much about being well-liked. But even he couldn’t stand the Whos. They were a cult of in-bred extroverts, as far as he could tell. Emphasis on the cult-like tendencies. And the extroversion—any excuse to celebrate and make noise. Christmas was the worst, but Tony had made the mistake of visiting one year for Easter and, well.
(As for the in-breeding—it was hard to tell in a town where everyone had the same surname. Tony had grown up in a Catholic family—an enormously Italian Catholic family. And even he thought someone should stage some sort of intervention.)
“They’re really not that bad,” said the Grinch hesitantly, like they didn’t quite believe it themself.
Tony snorted again. He’d never really forgiven the Whos for turning the Grinch into some sort of, well, movie villain outcast. Even if the Grinch had leaned into it with an almost alarming amount of relish.
“As long,” Tony said carefully, “as they don’t make you wear a wig. You’ve got to draw the line at a Whoville style wig.”
“Tony,” the Grinch said, grinning but still smart enough not to open up that old can of worms.
(It was one of the first arguments they’d had, back when they met nearly a decade ago and discovered how much fun it was to argue with each other. The Whos had a tendency toward astonishingly, earnestly humongous hairstyles. At least a foot high, even without the added bells and whistles—which sometimes included actual, literal bells and whistles. Tony was convinced they all wore elaborate wigs, while the Grinch swore they didn’t. Tony had his doubts: who on earth would actually go to all that effort first thing in the morning?
“Hair extensions then,” Tony would argue. “Or clip-ins. Toupees. I refuse to believe those things are real."
“There are wooden frames,” the Grinch would say conversationally, “which some Whos keep in their bedroom, so that they can sort of. Prop their necks up and sleep upright. To keep all the hair in the right place, you know.”)
At this point Max ran into the room, woofing in a friendly manner. She was an old dog now, and didn’t leap on Tony, but she did waggle up to him and lick his hand politely.
“There she is!” growled Tony, pleased. “Hello old girl, don’t you look good.” He scratched her behind her ears, which she seemed to enjoy. Then another dog ran into the room, and another.
“You!” Tony said to the Grinch. “You’ve got three dogs now!” It was hard to keep the excitement out of his voice. For a tiger, Tony was inordinately fond of dogs, a fact the Grinch never failed to tease him for.
“I know I’ve got three dogs. Alright ladies, introduce yourselves.”
The dogs just looked at the Grinch, wagging their tails patiently.
“I have to do everything. Well Tony, you know our Maxy. And these new additions are Gus—” the Grinch pointed at the squat one with the funny eyes—“and Yodel Ay Hee Who.”
“Gesundheit,” Tony said loyally.
“But I call them Yoo-Who for short.”
“I’m beginning to think the Whos have rubbed off on you.”
“Don’t you dare.”
Tony got on his hands and knees so he could pet multiple dogs at once. Three dogs was, he decided, quite an improvement on one dog. The Grinch seemed to have made quite a lot of improvements.
“Gus,” the Grinch said smugly, “is short for Augustus.”
Tony took a closer look at the smallest dog, a short, squat little bulldog who drooled agreeably. Upon closer examination, his eyes pointed in two different directions, like they were having a disagreement.
“Isn’t Augustus the mayor—”
“Ex-mayor,” said the Grinch, still very smug. “He lost his re-election campaign. My grammar school sweetheart is running the city now. Did I ever tell you about my grammar school sweetheart?”
“I didn’t know you ever went to grammar school,” Tony said honestly.
“Well I did. It was awful. Our dear ex-mayor used to bully me over my beard.” The Grinch paused, stroking their green whiskers thoughtfully. “He must have been quite jealous.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” Tony agreed.
“Mm-hmm,” the Grinch hummed, still stroking their beard smugly.
“So your grade school bully has lost an election and you’ve named a confused bulldog after him.”
“That’s rude. The name is entirely a coincidence. And Gus here isn’t confused, he’s—” the Grinch hesitated, finally at a loss for words. “He’s just unhurried, is all.”
“Sure,” Tony said. Gus was in the process of chasing his own tail, but kept changing his mind about which direction to take. “Unhurried. Sedate. Leisurely paced, you might say.”
“Oh hush,” said the Grinch, examining their non-existent fingernails. They didn’t bite their nails, they just had no fingernail beds. Their fingers were long and green and had at least one extra joint each. They were also quite furry, despite being sharp enough to cut glass. Tony found this fascinating.
“As reassuring as it is that you can still be petty when you set your mind to it, I have to wonder how on earth you of all people got to be put in charge of a Ch—of a marching band.”
“Hmm. Isn’t it obvious?” the Grinch smirked. “I volunteered.”
And then the Grinch swept out of the room to go change for dinner. The Grinch was a bit of a snob about changing for dinner; they always wore a fresh bathrobe.
Dinner was—well, Tony wasn’t sure what dinner was. When it came to the Grinch’s cooking, it was generally best not to pay too much attention to the details. Some knowledge is best left unknown.
There were greens, at least, which Tony suspected had come off a local shrubbery. And there were some oddly shaped objects that looked like roots, which were roasted and actually smelled quite edible. Tony focused on that, and not the plate of gravel and broken glass. At least none of it was wiggling.
Tony learned several incredible things over dinner. The first was that the Grinch was involved in all sorts of Whoville activities, which—okay, after the marching band thing this was a bit less of a shock, but still. The Grinch was a community organizer, basically. The Grinch. It had started as part of an effort to clean up Mount Crumpit, which the Whos had been polluting for generations.
And now that the Grinch mentioned it, Tony didn’t know how he’d failed to notice the sheer lack of Stench. Mount Crumpit was famous for its Stench. It was basically a solid, physical thing—or at least it felt like one, when it was slapping you in the face. And now—well, the Stench certainly wasn’t gone, but Tony could almost taste his food over it. Not that tasting the food improved the overall dining experience, but still.
The Grinch, as they told it, had sort of bullied the Whos into a community clean-up, and had then gone on to invent several contraptions that efficiently broke down Whoville garbage. Just to keep Mount Crumpit clean, of course. Just for their own personal satisfaction. From there it was fairly simple to convert the detritus into mulch (the Grinch said mulch the way some people say words like ‘erotic’ or ‘moist’).
Mulch, and clean energy, apparently, because what else was it going to be used for. The Grinch hated waste.
And that was how the Grinch found themself accidentally operating a makeshift recycling-plant-turned-nuclear-power-plant and supplying all of Whoville with sustainable energy.
(“It’s not a nuclear power plant, it just uses fission.”
“That’s nuclear energy. Grinchy, that is literally what nuclear power is.”
“You’re being dramatic.”)
Which certainly explained why the Whos might be taking pains to keep the Grinch involved in the community. What was more interesting was the fact that the Grinch seemed to be playing along. This was a being who had previously become an actual, literal mountaintop hermit just to get away from their hometown.
Things had certainly changed while Tony was gone. Previously, he would have assumed that the Grinch gaining such a huge amount of power (heh) over Whoville society would inevitably lead to them running amok as a sort of Mr. Monopoly Villain, complete with top hat and monocle. (The Grinch never did miss a chance to dress up.) But that was before the Grinch had (accidentally and with utmost reluctance, as they told it) made friends with a few of the locals, and reunited with old family members, and become an involuntary mentor to a few of the Who children. The whole thing was practically saccharine.
(“And, of course, your girlfriend’s the mayor now.”
The Grinch was mischievous, but they had never been malicious. And, Tony had noticed, they were always happier when they had a project. And now that they had one—well, mostly the Grinch just wanted to get on with life, in peace and quiet and the company of a few well-chosen friends. And if that meant improving the world along the way, that was no one else’s beeswax.
And the Whos. The Whos were—well, the Whos meant well. Or, some of them did. They were just very misguided. And a bit selfish. And consumer-driven, and noise-polluting—oh goodness the noise—but perhaps they could change. The Grinch would be content just to have no more garbage dumped on their front lawn.
Tony found the whole thing hilarious, if baffling. Mostly, he was just happy the Grinch was making progress with their life. Happy, and maybe a little envious. But mostly just happy. He even tried a handful of gravel off the Grinch’s plate. It was—yes, it was completely inedible.
After dinner they had a few bottles of beer by the fire. Well, Tony had beer, and passed the empty bottles to the Grinch, who chomped merrily on the bottle necks. The Grinch appreciated the crunch.
This gave Tony time to digest all he had learned (and, to a much lesser extent, dinner). He decided he was astounded with all the changes the Grinch had made, and said as much.
“I’m astounded,” Tony said, “with all the changes you’ve made. No, honestly,” he said, when the Grinch made a dismissive little clicking sound in their throat. “I’m honestly impressed. Good for you. You’ve got—what’s the phrase? You’ve got a new lease on life.”
“If you’re going to speak in cliches, I’m leaving,” said the Grinch, who never missed an opportunity to overuse cliches.
“Hush you, I’m being serious.”
“I’m sure,” the Grinch said, munching on their bottle. “Mm, I like this one. Great texture. Fruity undertones.”
Tony, who had no way of knowing if glass could have fruity undertones, ignored them.
“I’m trying to say I’m happy for you, you tit.”
“Alright tiger, I could tell. Your tail’s wagging.”
“It is not,” said Tony, steadfastly refusing to glance behind him. A tiger’s tail does not wag.
“Figuratively wagging. You’re practically foaming at the mouth.”
Tony wiped his chin furtively, because he did actually have an issue with drool. The single drawback of fangs.
“Now that’s enough congratulations. I can’t stand being congratulated. I’d much rather be quietly smug. Anyway,” the Grinch paused, looking embarrassed. “Anyway, I’m still me, and don’t you dare think otherwise. Still mean and green with a soul full of gunk, and all those lovely things. I’ve just...made some changes, is all.”
“Well it’s a good look on you.”
The Grinch raised an eyebrow, and looked down at themself. They were wearing a feathered robe in a rather startling shade of pink.
“The changes, I mean.”
“Yes,” the Grinch said simply, which was strange because they never missed a chance to tease Tony. It had been one of their favorite hobbies, once upon a time. Tony felt oddly disappointed.
“I suppose,” the Grinch said nonchalantly, “the therapy is actually helping.” Which is how the Grinch dropped a bombshell, and Tony learned another incredible thing, namely that the Grinch, of all people, was in therapy.
“I,” said Tony, “have questions. Am I allowed to ask questions? Is that something we do?”
The Grinch spread their arms regally, draping their lacy sleeves over their chair like some sort of benevolent oligarch. “Ask away,” they commanded generously.
Maybe it was the beer (and bottles). Maybe it was the green fire with its dubious, flickering fumes. Maybe it was because Tony was finally back again, on Mount Crumpit, feeling relaxed and wanted and welcome in a way he hadn’t in years. (Maybe, just maybe, it was the tiny voice in his head whispering home, this is what home feels like, you fool.)
Whatever the case, they stayed up well into the night, chattering and whispering, and then just sitting in silence, watching the fire go down. The embers gave a sputter here and there, coughing themselves back to life. Outside the wind howled, whistling a merry tune of welcome.
Tony the Tiger was known and adored
By children and parents all over the world
But when a career ended in quick calamity
It cost him not just a job but a family
It was when Tony found himself stuck in this pinch
That he happened to first stumble into the Grinch
“I’m confused,” Tony admitted.
The Grinch made a sort of snarling noise, which meant they were lost in thought.
“See, the thing is,” Tony continued, “By your own admission the thing is, you still don’t actually like the c word. You still, in fact, refer to it as ‘the c word.’ Which for most people has a rather different connotation, I may add.”
There was a yelping sound, and then a lot of rustling.
“So you get on with the Whos now. You’re a—you’re active in the community. Not in an actively-antagonizing-the-local-villagers kind of way. No, you’re a sort of—a beloved old curmudgeon. A local character, a landmark, whatever. Am I getting this right?”
There was a concerning, rusty sound.
“But. But! You still won’t even let me say the word Chr—”
“Oof. Oh, ouch. That had to hurt.”
The Grinch had tried to sit up suddenly, which was not a well-chosen decision, given how they were currently wedged beneath several thousand pounds of Santa’s motorized sleigh. The Grinch had a few very selective, overly colorful words to say about the present situation. Tony waited until they had to stop for air.
“Anything I can do?”
The Grinch poked their head out from beneath the vehicle. Their face was obscured by an impressive pair of aviator goggles. “The wrench. Hand me the wrench.”
“Er.” Tony glanced down at a pile of tools, which seemed organized by most to even more dangerous. “Which wrench?”
“Which wr—the Nonagonal, the Nonagonalish Wrench.” The Grinch said it like it was obvious, and as if they absolutely had not made up that word on the spot. Nonagonal was not a word that real people used.
Tony took a guess and picked up one of the more lethal-looking objects from the tool pile. The Grinch grabbed it with a nod and disappeared back under the sleigh.
“So what I’m wondering,” Tony continued, ignoring the sudden plumes of black smoke rising from the misshapen lump that resembled an engine. “If you don’t like the c word, and you don’t celebrate the c word, and you won’t let me say the c word.…”
The Grinch’s voice was muffled by several tons of machinery. “Tony, spit it out or I swear I’m making myself that tiger skin rug I always wanted.”
“Oh, we’re threatening to turn me into a rug again. That’s nice.”
There was a furious revving noise, and a puff of smoke hit him directly on the whiskers. He batted it away. The Grinch was perfectly happy using diesel as body wash, but their tastes never did rub off on Tony in that regard. It was for the best; he didn’t think anyone else could survive having the Grinch’s tastes. In personal hygiene or in much else, for that matter.
“What I’m wondering is how you of all people end up being in charge of a C—a holiday marching band. And the holiday light show. And the holiday sleigh, for fuck’s sake. When you infamously hate the holidays.”
“That,” the Grinch mumbled, “is patently untrue.” They wiggled their overstuffed body out from under the sled, overalls now covered in an impressive layer of muck. Then they slipped off the overalls, revealing fur that was somehow covered in a more impressive, even muckier layer of muck.
“You astound me,” Tony said.
The Grinch flapped a hand, and leaned down to inspect the engine. “I like some holidays. Just not Whoville holidays. Or commercial holidays. Or religious holidays. Oh, and definitely not federal holidays.”
“What,” Tony said patiently, because the Grinch required a lot of patience, “is left?”
The Grinch waved their other hand in a gesture that implied it was obvious, surely, and wasn’t Tony being a bit thick?
Tony thought he might have to sit down. Mostly because the engine fumes were getting to him. He crouched down on a workbench with a wonky leg.
“Grinchy, you’re going to have to explain that one to me.”
The Grinch looked up triumphantly from the engine, eyebrows waggling. “Grinch Day. How have you never heard of Grinch Day? I’m sure I’ve told you. Grinch Day, my favorite holiday, the best holiday, my holiday. Grinch Day.”
“Repeating the phrase ‘Grinch Day’ isn’t actually going to get me any closer to understanding what we’re talking about.”
The Grinch rolled their eyes, because the Grinch was a fundamentally unreasonable person who no one should hold a conversation with ever. “Grinch Day is my birthday. I am the Grinch. It is my day. A day to celebrate the wondrousness that is me.”
For someone who was covered in six feet of matted fur and fleas, the Grinch had a terrific amount of self-esteem. Tony quite liked that.
“Wait.” He had to think about it. “I don’t actually know when your birthday is. Why don’t I know that? I should know that.”
“It’s December the twenty-fourth, for your information,” the Grinch said, in a very mild tone.
Tony didn’t say anything, because he didn’t trust himself to say anything. The Grinch turned away to examine a mound of deadly objects pretending to be screwdrivers.
Huh. Tony was trying very carefully not to be gobsmacked. It would be rude, he thought, to be gobsmacked. Well. So the Grinch’s birthday was Christmas Eve. Oh, they must have hated that as a kid. Did this explain some things? Was Tony getting a glimpse of a backstory? Neither he nor the Grinch were the sort of people comfortable with sharing their backstories. Easier to pretend they’d both sprung up fully-formed from the earth, already middle-aged with bad knees and greying fur.
Tony patted the back of his head self-consciously. Every year there was more white mixed in with the stripes.
“We never talked about how long I’d be staying,” Tony said conversationally. He was trying very hard not to be a coward. “I assumed you wouldn’t have holiday plans, but I really should have asked. Should I get out of your hair then for, er, Grinch Day? I don’t actually know how one celebrates Grinch Day,” he finished apologetically.
“Don’t be silly, tiger.” The Grinch wasn’t looking at him, but their voice was slow and steady. For someone who sounded like they ate nails for breakfast (on account of they rather enjoyed eating nails for breakfast), the Grinch could speak in surprisingly soothing tones. Well, Tony found it soothing.
The Grinch kept speaking, using that low and normal tone they used when they were trying to be careful with Tony. Tony hated the Grinch felt they had to do that. But, it helped.
“I assumed you’d have plans to be with family—with your kids, for the holidays. That’s why I didn’t mention it earlier. But you’re very welcome, if you want to stay. I dare say,” they added dryly, “the old biddies will be falling over themselves. Whoville hospitality, you know.”
Tony forgot sometimes that the Grinch was raised by Whos. He was curious to meet the ladies whose co-parenting style could produce, well, this.
“I don’t have plans,” Tony said in an equally careful tone. “The kids are with their mom this year, actually. I’m seeing them for New Year’s, which is good.” Theoretically, he was seeing them. Junior—Anthony, he wanted to be called Anthony now—had seemed at least vaguely enthusiastic, if only because Tony was bribing him with a ski trip. Antoinette was less pleased, the way she so often was these days. It was fifty-fifty she’d end up going back to her dorm early, citing the stress of finals and the start of basketball season.
There must have been a look on Tony’s face, or more likely the Grinch just guessed it was a tender subject; when they spoke they had moved on to an airy, imperious tone, like everything had been decided. Tony always enjoyed when the Grinch was bossy. It was comforting.
“You’ll be staying then, obviously.” The Grinch waved their hand officiously. “At least until Grinch Day, or longer if you like. It’s all settled then. You’ll meet the old biddies at lunch—we’re having lunch, that’s how you celebrate Grinch Day, just so you know.”
The Grinch nodded seriously. “With lunch. It will even be edible, probably.” They looked quite put out about this. “That’s how I celebrate Grinch Day. I putter around in my workshop all morning, take the dogs for a walk, and have lunch with family and friends. Oh, and everyone tells me how marvelous I am, obviously.”
“Obviously.” Tony smiled. “But isn’t that just a normal day for you? Minus all the flattery and adoration?”
“Including, you mean. And yes, it’s fairly quiet I suppose.”
“You like quiet.”
“I do. It will be quiet, and the few people on this planet I truly like will be there, and there will be cake afterwards. That’s all that matters.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“Good things can be simple,” the Grinch said sagely. They nodded their head like they had decided something. “I like things without noise and without fuss, so that’s exactly what Grinch Day is. A holiday without noise and without fuss.” They paused. “And of course afterwards we’re going to go up in the sleigh for some good old Grinch Day aerial bombing.”
They were half-joking about the aerial bombing. The Grinch was in charge of the Christmas Eve Fireworks Show (“Grinch Day Fireworks!”). The reason they were in charge seemed to be a mixture of snobbiness on their part (“I’m much better at doing these things. All that inventive genius, you know,”) and sheer practicality—it was a good idea all around not to put the Whos in charge of incendiary devices. There had been accidental property damage three years running.
(The Grinch only ever damaged property on purpose. It was a talent.)
That, and the fact the Grinch, for reasons Tony didn’t want to get into, had gone and invented a flying sleigh. Something to do with a midnight burglary. It turned out flying sleighs were actually quite useful for light shows.
They had also gone and invented their own line of Unnoisy Fireworks.
Tony, who remembered from experience exactly how ear-splitting Whoville celebrations tended to be, decided this was an improvement. The Whos got their fireworks. The Grinch got to be a mad genius and blow things up on their birthday. Anyone with the ability to hear soundwaves and the desire to stay sane got a temporary reprieve. They should have started doing this years ago.
Also, the Grinch had been experimenting with fireworks that spelled dirty words. Tony wisely didn’t comment.
After a morning spent in the workshop, the two of them had lunch together: rancid vegetables, grub made of actual grubs, and something that might have been a stalactite. Tony swallowed what he could, and thought fondly of the meal bars waiting in his suitcase. After a short tour of the new Mount Crumpit Power Plant (the Grinch had repurposed the section of cavern they once used as a boudoir), Tony reluctantly decided to get to work. He was here for a reason, after all. Perhaps more than one.
Tony grew up in a large family. The thing about large families was they tended to be loud. And the thing about loud families was—you grew up struggling to hear yourself think. That was alright with Tony; there were a lot of things he didn’t want to think about, even as a child. He would much rather spend his time playing; and in the Tony household, there was always someone to play with. They were a sports family, pure and simple, forever kicking or throwing or swinging something around in the backyard. Tony had plenty of other kids to practice with and against. Older siblings and cousins to teach him, until he eventually outpaced them all. Younger siblings to teach and tease in turn. Tony grew up with basketball and baseball and football and hockey, and a house full of trophies his older siblings had already won. He grew up thinking he would never be the best at anything. And if he couldn’t be the best in a household full of people like him, all vying for attention, if he couldn’t distinguish himself by being better —well, at least he could be well-liked. Tony learned to get on with people from a young age, mostly by not needing things from them, and by not rocking the boat.
It was only later he realized how much this had stayed with him, and the ways he had robbed himself.
It was a pleasant surprise when he received a full sports scholarship at 18, and something of a shock when he signed with the NHL just a few years later. A few years after that he was on the front of what seemed like every brand of cereal box. He was in a new commercial every month, practically a household name. It was a lot to reconcile with for someone who still fundamentally thought of themselves as a middle child, one of several.
It was more responsibility than it should have been. Tony was the most successful of his siblings, against all odds, but he was still the peacekeeper, still the boy who wanted to be liked by everyone. Only now he was also, inconceivably, the one people looked up to, and a sorry excuse for the head of the family after his father died. And then he got married and became a father, the way he always assumed he would. And everything was just more difficult after that.
Something about growing up in a large family meant Tony always knew he would have kids. He just assumed he would be better at being a father and a husband. He assumed he would know how.
More than a decade of unprecedented success was followed by a series of blows. His first knee surgery, and another one just a year later. He went back on the ice too soon. He had two children at home and he was traveling too much. He wasn’t present in the marriage, he was a visitor in his own home. And then—then his mother died. Mama Tony, the immovable matriarch, an institution in and of herself. She was supposed to live forever. Tony had expected her to live forever. It was unfathomable.
Patricia stayed with him for two years after that. She would have left sooner, Tony now realized, but his knee had finally needed a full replacement. His career was over. He’d needed his wife and family more than ever, in a way that wasn’t fair to them. They had already learned not to need him.
Patricia left less than a year after he was off his crutches. The kids stayed with her during the school year. When they came back to visit for the summers, there was always a bit of awkwardness as they learned to be family again, for a few short weeks.
The first Christmas after his divorce, Tony visited Mount Crumpit.
It was worse than he’d imagined.
The Mount Crumpit caverns were winding and twisting and filled with echoes. They had been empty when the Grinch found them and set up shop all those years ago. They weren’t empty anymore. Most of them were filled with contraptions and experiments and doodads, but there was still enough space for it to feel cozy but not cramped. Except for in the trophy room. When Tony had moved in briefly all those years ago, his sports paraphernalia had ended up in a pleasant, only vaguely moist section of cave. That was a decade ago, and Tony never did get around to retrieving it all after he moved out.
It seemed to have multiplied in his absence.
To be fair, he’d made a half-hearted effort to organize the trophy room on his last visit. Or maybe it was the visit before that. Actually, it was probably going on five years now since he’d taken more than a glance at the wreckage. So it was understandable if he’d forgotten how, well, how very wrecked it was.
Not that anything in it was damaged, necessarily. Alright, some of the trophies could use a shine and a dusting. A little rust removal. And someone should definitely be vacuuming. But mostly it was just the chaos of magnitude.
Tony had never been a hoarder, per se. He’d had certain hoarder tendencies, for a few years there. It was only natural when you grew up in a house crammed full of other children—you learned to be territorial about your space and your things. His first few apartments after he moved away from home had been—well, it didn’t bear thinking about. That had mostly stopped after he married Patricia; she put up with a lot, but she drew the line at messiness. (The Grinch’s line began somewhere in between messiness and hazardous materials.) During their marriage, Tony’s tendency to stockpile had been limited to his sports room, which he filled with every trophy, award, certificate, memento, and keepsake that came his way, going back all the way to Pee Wee basketball. He had kept it more or less organized, back then. But then there was the divorce, and his first post-divorce apartment, and the storage unit, and the move to Mount Crumpit—it all got a bit messy, was the point. So all the keepsakes of his career (some of them quite valuable, all of them sentimental) sat moldering in a wet mountaintop just north of Whoville.
And now the Grinch wanted the space back, probably to fit in another nuclear power plant, or marching band. That was fine. Honestly, most people would have tossed it all years ago. But then, the Grinch was used to putting up with other people’s messiness.
Fueled by that ugly thought, Tony got to work. He’d already left it much too long.
The next morning, the Grinch was wearing enormous purple earmuffs, and flitting about the cave like a moth with an anxiety disorder. They smiled at Tony when he came in for breakfast, but didn’t speak, which meant today was one of the Loud Days.
Tony didn’t say anything, just waved and poured a mug of something steamy and ambiguous. He dunked a cereal bar in experimentally while the Grinch sauntered off towards the workshop, Max and the lopsided bulldog trailing close behind.
The Loud Days, Tony knew, were the days where noises were all just a bit too noisy, and colors were all just a little too bright. Existing hurt just a bit more, on a Loud Day. Those days when life had that extra raw edge, where nothing felt quite good, and the world kept threatening to intrude. The Grinch had explained it all in a soft, scratchy voice, one morning years ago, when they were in bed together hiding under the covers.
Life, the Grinch had said, while counting Tony’s fingers knuckle-by-knuckle, is noisy and intrusive and a fundamentally unreasonable state of affairs. We make do, but some days will always be harder than others. I can’t invent a machine that can fix that.
Tony had nodded, and thought he understood.
He would probably have the rest of the morning to himself. That was okay. Maybe the Grinch would resurface for lunch. He finished his breakfast with a grimace—the steaming liquid wasn’t coffee, and he didn’t know why he pretended it one day might be—and ambled off to the trophy room. It sat there waiting for him, like some big, fat, messy, leaking—he didn’t know what. Like some large mound of responsibility he really didn’t want to deal with. Which was exactly what it was. He had made a sad amount of progress the day before—he honestly did think the contents tended to multiply when no one was looking. Like fungus, if fungus could rust.
A pile of trophies lay before him in all their sad, slightly moist, mouldering glory. A lot of shiny successes that the years had turned into tarnished dead weight. He didn’t even play anymore. Hell, he barely even skated. He didn’t even coach. He had always thought, in the back of his mind, his children would grow up with him coaching their various youth teams. That he would be there for every little league and pee wee game. The divorce changed a lot of things.
Tony sat down gingerly, next to a dingy picture frame that on closer examination held a flattened cereal box. A cartoon version of himself, younger and happier, stared back with a grin. That endorsement deal has paid for the second home in Colorado, Tony remembered. A condo in an Aspen resort, just minutes from the lifts. He and Patricia had taken the kids there for Christmas, just the once. His first knee injury happened right after.
With a sigh, Tony tossed the frame into the junk pile. It was all headed for the scrapheap anyway.
Around noon the cavern began to shake and shudder. The walls vibrated with gusto, the stalactites tinkling overhead. Tony, assuming it was an avalanche or earthquake or combination of the two, ducked for cover behind the sofa. Then the shaking stopped.
It started again a few moments later, rumbling impatiently. Max and the other dogs all piled around the front door, barking. The buzzing stopped, but the dogs kept barking in chorus.
Cautiously, Tony approached the door and peeked through the peephole.
A little Who girl stood peering back at him, her face peeking out of the most astonishing pink parka.
Tony opened the door.
“Hello!” the girl said cheerfully, and scooted past him to get inside. It was amazing she could move so quickly beneath all that pink puffiness. Tony was too surprised to block her, though a tiny part of his brain suggested punting her back out the door like a football. Old instincts die hard.
By the time he turned around, the dogs had lined up in front of the Who child, intent on receiving head scratches. The girl petted them dutifully, then nodded to Tony. “Your sofa is overturned, did you know?”
Yes, he had been the one hiding under it. “It’s not actually my sofa,” Tony pointed out.
“Oh, that’s right. You’re only visiting, aren’t you? Mx. Grinch said you don’t live here anymore. That’s a shame. It’s a very interesting place to live, isn’t it?” She glanced fondly around the dingy cavern. The stalactites were still swaying gently.
Tony was at a loss. He didn’t want to be rude. “Is there marching band practice today?” he asked, because he thought he recognized the pink parka. And maybe the hairstyle. The girl had a remarkable cone of hair.
“No.” The girl shook her head, the cone wobbling precariously. “No, not today. Today’s Saturday. I come over at teatime on Saturdays.” The girl explained this very gently, as if Tony were a bit dim and deserving of kindness.
“Oh,” Tony said, feeling rather dim. Then again, ten seconds ago he had been busy coming to terms with dying gruesomely in a cave-in. Which reminded him: “Was that the doorbell? The um, shaking. Was that you ringing the bell?”
The girl nodded again, still very kind. She seemed to think Tony needed a lot of kindness and charity. “It’s on vibrate today. Is the Grinch having a Noisy Day?”
Tony thought he needed to sit down. He had to lean over and tug the sofa upright first, but then he went ahead and collapsed on it.
“Who,” he asked carefully, “are you?”
“Why, I’m Cindy Lou of course,” she said with surprise, as if there really was no end to his ignorance. “I come over Saturdays at teatime.”
“Yes, you did say. I’m Tony,” he said as an afterthought, “the Tiger.”
“Yes, I know,” Cindy Lou said, bobbing her head as she perched on one of the enormous stuffed armchairs. Her face was barely visible above the astounding pink parka. Tony thought a family of four could live quite comfortably in it.
“Oh. Well, good.”
“Mx. Grinch told us you would be visiting. Although they didn’t say you would be orange!” She said this as though orange was a very good thing indeed for a person to be. “You sort of match the Grinch.”
Tony didn’t point out that tigers were generally orange, or that orange and green were not commonly appreciated as a color scheme. She was a Who after all. Tony had a theory that most Whos suffered from some sort of genetic color blindness. It would explain a lot about the town’s decorating style. A related genetic condition might explain whatever was going on with those noses.
He was curious about something else though.
“So you’re the Grinch’s...friend, then?” The Grinch had mentioned that some of the Who children had forcibly adopted them as a sort of mentor.
Cindy Lou nodded profusely, sending her hair into a vaguely violent spasm. Tony wanted to pluck it off her head and place it safely on a stable surface. He really did think the Grinch was mistaken about the wigs.
“Well, that’s good then,” Tony said, and tried to stop thinking. “And you call them a them? I wasn’t aware the Whos knew the Grinch is a them.” Or that the Whos cared, or were capable of basic decency. It was only recently they seemed to have accepted the Grinch was even a person.
Cindy Lou nodded again, even more violently. On second thought, Tony was impressed at how the hairstyle was holding up.
“They told us,” Cindy Lou said simply. Then she recited loyally: “The Grinch isn’t a Who or a what or a he or a she. They are just a they.”
“Er, very good.” Tony paused, looking for something to say. He really wasn’t good with children. Which might explain some things about his relationship with his own kids.
“So it’s really very simple,” said Cindy Lou in conclusion. She seemed to think Tony needed simple words. It was a bit patronizing, honestly. Tony could see why the Grinch liked her, given that the Grinch themself took great joy in being a bit patronizing at every possible opportunity. Even to poor, patient tigers who really didn’t deserve it probably.
Tony looked at the girl, who was all earnestness and cheerfulness, wrapped up like a potato in her humongous pink coat, and found he really didn’t know what to say. Children were so disconcerting.
Luckily that was when the Grinch made their entrance, carrying an enormous platter of mugs and teapots.
“Cindy Lou,” they said, setting the tray down on the cracked glass coffee table, “you’re early, you squirt.”
“No I’m not!” she said, squirming upright. “I’m right on time!”
“That’s what I mean. It’s rude. You should always be a few minutes late to a party. Keeps people in anticipation. You really have no appreciation for the rules of l’art dramatique.”
“You’re making that up,” said Cindy Lou.
“Probably,” the Grinch said smugly, sitting down next to Tony on a sofa which suddenly felt a bit cramped. “I see you’ve met Tony. I hope she wasn’t too rough with you, was she, tiger?” And then the Grinch winked and reached over to brush some crumbs out of his whiskers.
Tony, inexplicably, blushed. The Grinch, who ultimately was not a nice or fair person, cackled. They were wearing a flamboyant velvet housecoat, fur-trimmed and moth-eaten. It might once have been some shade of orange.
They weren’t wearing earmuffs anymore, but Tony noticed earplugs poking out of the green fur around their ears. Still a Loud Day, then.
“Feeling better?” Tony asked gently, because the Grinch wasn’t nice or fair, but they were still sometimes wonderful. And always, at the end of the day, a friend.
“Quite a bit. Just needed some quiet time. And I wouldn’t miss teatime with Cindy Lou here.” They leaned over conspiratorially. “She’d hunt me down.”
“I would not!” Cindy Lou insisted, pulling a large package from the puff of her coat. “I’m a very nice person!”
“You’re a busybody,” the Grinch said, “who uses her weekends to bother and bully the poor old local hermit. It’s quite a nuisance.”
“You like when I visit!”
“Children these days, always so dramatic.” The Grinch plucked the package from the girl’s hands, sorting through its contents. “Let’s see what you brought. Hmm. Disgusting. Tasteless. Stale. Stomach churning. Tony, would you look at this muck.”
Tony glanced down at an assortment of perfectly normal looking cookies and tea bags. His stomach gave a cautious leap of hope.
“Well, I hope you’re prepared to finish it all, young lady, because I’m not touching it.”
“You never do,” said Cindy Lou cheerfully, turning and offering Tony a packet of cookies. “I have to bring my own snacks or it’s just onions and glass. But I brought extra today. I don’t know what tigers eat.”
Tony took the packet gratefully. “Tigers are perfectly happy to dine on cookies and tea, thank you.” He glanced at the Grinch. “Real tea. Made out of tea leaves. Tea that doesn’t wiggle.”
The Grinch mumbled something about being surrounded by fussy eaters. Then they handed Tony a mug, which thankfully just contained hot water and only hot water. It only smelled very faintly of sulfur.
“I brought extra tea bags,” Cindy Lou said. “Because I know the Grinch doesn’t keep anything for guests."
"It might encourage guests to stay!" the Grinch exclaimed, scandalized. "Not," they added quickly, glancing to Tony, "that Tony isn't very welcome to stay as long as he likes." Then they looked vaguely alarmed, and moved their eyes away.
Tony looked down at the cup in his hands; the steam was making his face warm.
Cindy Lou finished laying everything out. "I didn’t bring coffee," she said sagely, "because it tastes so sad.”
“It really does,” the Grinch agreed, which was probably the first and last time they would agree with anyone on the subject of food, and what should be considered food. Tony didn’t comment, just unwrapped a teabag gratefully and let his two mismatched companions chatter on and away.
“Don’t mind him,” the Grinch said, “he’s stoic. Noble and stoic, when threatened with company.” They patted Tony’s ear reassuringly. “I’ll carry the conversation for you, you strange, strange man.”
And they did.
It was not, Tony wanted to be clear, that he didn't like kids. Children (or rather, children's breakfast cereals, which was basically the same thing) had made him an enormous amount of money over the years. He was grateful to children. He was also perfectly comfortable with children as a concept, and with their continued existence in general. He'd made two of them himself (well, he'd helped). He'd even interacted with quite a few of them, mostly by signing autographs.The fact remained, he was not actually very good with children.
So it was absolutely astounding and beyond reason to discover that the Grinch, of all people, could be delightful around children. Well, this particular child, at least.
Tony had never really seen what the Grinch was like around other people. The Grinch had always so proudly proclaimed themself antisocial, and had such a reputation for it, that it never actually occurred to Tony to wonder if it were true. He should have, probably, given that they'd been friends for the last decade. Hell, they had dated (briefly). And the Grinch, self-professed curmudgeon that they claimed to be, never had any trouble talking to him. Could be quite kind actually, in a grizzly way. And darkly funny. And deeply entertaining, though the entertainment usually took the form of rants and complaints and slightly villainous monologues. Still funny though.
For all their protestations, Tony had always found the Grinch easy to be around, natural to like. So it should probably come as less of a surprise, that the Grinch could be polite and sociable to at least one small child.
Well, not entirely polite. The Grinch and Cindy Lou spent the rest of the afternoon bickering and laughing, and being very sarcastic indeed. Then, around the second time they refilled the teapot, the Grinch got quiet and listened seriously while Cindy Lou shared her thoughts on school ('They don't even let us go to the bathroom without permission!') and her fellow students ('Are people still so mean to each other when they grow up? That's awful!' ) and her parents ('And they say it's only for a few more years, as if a few years isn't forever plus an eternity when you're as tiny as me! I'm so tiny!').
The Grinch had a few dry, mean things to pepper in, including the endlessly fascinating tidbit that their own discontents with formal education had led to a dramatic exit from Whoville circa age eight. Cindy Lou was interested in this.
("You did homeschooling, why can't I do homeschooling?"
"Homeschooling, in my experience, involves foresaking society to dwell in hermitude on a frozen, abandoned mountaintop. Which is an existence you are perfectly welcome to in theory, but! This is the only mountaintop in the vicinity, and I'm not done using it.")
For the most part the Grinch just let Cindy Lou talk, and poured her more tea, and didn't tell her that any of the things she was upset about weren't actually as bad as they seemed. Tony didn't see how this was helpful, but Cindy Lou seemed to feel better afterwards. And then everyone was quiet and companionable for a bit, and the dogs all got belly rubs, and Tony went off to refill the kettle. When he got back, the Grinch and Cindy were arguing cheerfully again, about the Fireworks Show.
"I want to go up in the sleigh, I could be helpful in the sleigh!"
The Grinch sighed, to signify how incredibly put upon and martyred they were as a person. "It's not OSHA compliant, I'm afraid. What sort of monster would I be to allow a small child in a non-OSHA compliant aerial vehicle?"
"I don't even know what that means."
"It means you're straight outta luck, kid." The Grinch winked and threw some finger guns in her general direction. "And also," they said, carefully examining their wrist for a wristwatch they weren't wearing and probably didn't own, "it's time for you to be getting home."
Cindy Lou was, in fact, wearing a wristwatch; she pulled it out of her enormous parka and examined it with a huff. "Oh. It actually is that late."
"Okay okay." She clicked her tongue and got out of her chair, hair wobbling. Then she shoved three cookies in her mouth at once, and swallowed them with remarkable speed. It was actually rather impressive to see, like watching a small lizard swallow an egg that should be too large for its jaw. Max sniffed at her feet for the crumbs.
"Um," Tony said, suddenly remembering that children require supervision, "Do we need to take her anywhere? How is she getting back to town, anyway?" Come to think of it, how did a small child make it all the way up Mt. Crumpet to begin with?
The Grinch waved a furry green hand. "She'll just take the Tube. There's a stop right by her house, I installed it especially."
Tony paused, because last he'd heard Whoville didn't have a metro system. Whoville was barely large enough to justify a minibus, much less a series of underground trains.
"The Tube?" he asked carefully.
"Yep" the Grinch said cheerfully. "It's pneumatic. Designed it based on all those plastic tubes they use outside of banks, the ones that go whoosh."
“You really are so strange around children,” the Grinch said later, when they were cleaning the dishes. Cindy Lou had tried to stay to help, but the Grinch had very gently picked her up and tossed her bodily out the front door into a snow mound. She had giggled for the whole three minutes it took for her to roll herself (and her coat) back to her feet.
“In my defense, that was an extremely strange child,” Tony felt compelled to point out.
“Hmm. I honestly can’t tell anymore. They’re all weird. Bizarre gangly little creatures with a horrendous amount of optimism. Can’t stand having them around.”
The Grinch could tell the most outrageous lies with only a slight smirk on their face. Tony liked that about them.
He hummed and finished rinsing a tea mug, passed it over for the Grinch to dry. “She said she visits every Saturday.”
“Hmm. Yes, for teatime. Incredibly inconvenient, obviously. Like I've said, the Whos are a town full of busybodies who can't take a hint. Terribly embarrassing for them." The Grinch gestured with a dish towel for Tony to hand over the next mug.
Tony passed it over silently, and decided not to argue. He thought it was alright that people tell stories about themselves, as long as those stories don't get in the way of living.
Tony woke up late, head full of fog and morning breath. He said as much as he trudged into the kitchen, gazing mistrustfully at the refrigerator: “My head’s all full of fog and morning breath.”
And then he yawned enormously.
He didn’t quite get his paw over his mouth in time, which was embarrassing, would be embarrassing, around anyone else. Part of it was his dental structure (which people tended to forget about until it appeared suddenly and prominently), and part of it was, well—there’s no morning breath quite like a tiger’s.
“Hmm, let’s smell it then,” the Grinch said cheerfully, slapping Tony's paw away and leaning in. They sniffed in a snobbish, delicate way. “Ah yes. Pleasantly pungent. Robust tartness, strong connotations of umami. Cerealy undertones. Excellent work!”
Tony closed his mouth to say it was far too early for the Grinch to be stringing words together at him, when the shaggy green bastard themself let out a truly masterful Belch.
It was the Belch of a genuine virtuoso, a maestro debuting the magnum opus of a lifetime. Tony would have applauded, but he was busy shielding his burning eyes. He could actually feel his whiskers wilting.
There’s no morning breath quite like a tiger’s, and thank every snowflake in the Whoville sky that there’s no chemical weaponry quite like a burping Grinch.
When the Belch was finally over, Tony cautiously lowered his paws to find the Grinch grinning in satisfaction. Steam was coming out of one nostril, and there was a tiny flame curling up from the tip of their fluffy green mohawk.
Tony licked his paw and reached over to put the fire out with a careful pinch. It extinguished with a merry little sizzle.
The Grinch was, of course, completely unfazed by a little accidental self-immolation, and kept right on smirking their trademark Grinch Smirk. Their eyes were a highly interesting shade of yellow, Tony noticed. A brighter yellow than their teeth. There were tiny specks of green around the pupils.
Tony realized how close he was standing, and took a quick step back.
“Well?” the Grinch said expectantly, demanding commentary.
“Breathtaking,” Tony said, in complete honesty. And then immediately keeled over in a massive coughing fit.
“It’s all this fresh mountain air,” the Grinch said cheerfully, nudging him out of the way with one hip to get to a nearby window. “Really opens up the lungs.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” Tony tried to say, but couldn’t quite manage through all the wheezing.
The Grinch shoved open a complaining window frame and breathed in deeply. “Mmm, L’odeur de Mount Crumpit. Nothing like it in the world.”
Tony, never quite able to shake his Catholic upbringing, crossed himself, and threw in a silent amen for good measure.
That morning, Tony spent a hopeless quarter of an hour trying to recurl his whiskers through the power of saliva and a finger twist. Nothing doing.
(That said, his sinuses remained miraculously clear for weeks to come.)
By the time Tony finally sat down to eat, a small mob of Who children had gathered threateningly on the front lawn. And alright, Tony knew it was only for band practice, but still. He leaned protectively over his breakfast (a packet of cookies Cindy Lou had slipped him with a sympathetic wink, and a cup of white liquid from a jug in the fridge).
(The liquid resembled milk but left a distinctly chalky aftertaste. Tony told himself the sediment at the bottom was supplemental calcium.)
The Grinch had garbed themself in a coat that was mostly tassels and mismatched brass buttons. Tony noticed, fondly, that the shoulder epaulettes appeared to be made entirely from an old shoe shine brush and liberal amounts of gold spray paint. The Grinch nodded their chin firmly, squaring up their shoulders, and marched out the front door.
“ALRIGHT MY LITTLE GRINCHLINGS!” they bellowed, and the door swung shut behind them, muffling the sound of children giggling. Eventually the not-quite-music started, and was once again pleasingly less-than-deafening.
Tony finished his breakfast (supplemental calcium and all) more out of moral principle than any nutritional conviction. His time on Mount Crumpit was drawing to a close, and he was determined to get that damnable trophy room sorted before he left. It was really the very least he should be doing.
He trudged back to the storage room, petrified prizes still teetering in the precarious piles he had left them. He had for some reason slightly hoped they would perhaps knock themselves over overnight. He shook the thought out of his head, and settled down to work.
Tony was feeling properly shamefaced, to be honest. As if the emotional component wasn’t enough, what sort of person leaves their ex stuck with a roomful of literal baggage?
Not that Tony thought of the Grinch as his Ex, so to speak. They were friends, had been friends longer than they’d been anything else. And, okay, maybe Tony hadn’t always been a very reliable friend. He wrote, sent postcards, telephoned occasionally, just…not as often as the Grinch.
Tony…Tony wasn’t good at initiating communication. He knew that about himself. He was self-aware enough to admit it, to acknowledge that he didn’t take the initiative as often as he should. Not with friends or with family or even, occasionally, when communicating with himself. Maybe that should be his New Year's Resolution.
(Historically, Tony’s performance vis-à-vis New Year's Resolutions was lackluster. Last January’s resolution had been a solemn promise to stick to next year’s resolution, whatever it may be. Tony had been very proud of finding that loophole.)
And anyway, he did make an effort. He visited the Grinch—he was the one who always came to visit. That’s how their friendship started out, oddly enough. Tony had come back for some of his things, months after The Big Split 2.0, as Tony had mentally dubbed it at the time.
(Even now, he still sometimes thought of his divorce as The Big Split 1.0. Grinchy’s therapist would probably say he was trying to use language to distance himself emotionally—and great, now Tony was letting himself be psychoanalyzed by an imaginary therapist. He wondered what an imaginary therapist would say about that.)
Tony had practically moved in with the Grinch before—well. And then he had left in a huff, and fallen in a rut, and just never got around to hauling his things all the way back from Mount Crumpit. So he had left angry and come back nervous, had expected to be greeted with arguments or icy silence, or maybe the discovery that the Grinch had tossed all his personal belongings down the steepest available cliff to fester alongside the rest of the garbage in the Whoville Dumpit To Crump-Pit.
Tony wouldn’t really have blamed them.
And then—none of that happened. Tony had showed up with that old dark cloud smouldering over his fuzzy orange head, and the Grinch had greeted him carefully, kindly. Like an old friend who hasn’t been seen in awhile, one you need to get refamiliar with.
It had only been five months.
The Grinch had been cautiously polite, and then genuinely friendly, and then sincerely rude, which meant things were okay between them. And as Tony was leaving, the Grinch had said: “Write to me in advance next time, before turning up on my doorstep like a soggy-sorry old housecat.”
Tiger paws are not know for their dexterity, but Tony had still managed to flip a distinct finger on his way out the door. He heard the Grinch chuckle behind him.
And when Tony got home, he had sent a postcard: Season’s Greetings! it read, curling font embellished with jingle bells and mistletoe.
The Grinch had sent back a long and strongly worded missive (ending with polite enquires as to his and his family’s health). And so their correspondence had begun.
And something between them had lifted. Or shifted, perhaps.
It was a brave thing to do, Tony realized in hindsight, the way the Grinch had so carefully invited Tony in. This was years before the Grinch’s recent Lifestyle Changes, back when they still kept themself as much to themself as a self could be kept. But still they had reached out, tentatively, and let Tony back in. Not back to the way things had been but—something new. Something with a tomorrow in front of it.
They might not have spoken frequently, the pair of them, but Tony was proud of how they had kept in touch with each other. Proud of the fact that he still had a friend in the Grinch, all these years later. That somehow, without noticing, he had stumbled into the certainty that he always would. They were still careful with each other sometimes, the way people sometimes need to be careful with each other, but they were solid. No matter how frequent or infrequent his visits, Tony knew that sooner or later he would always return to Mount Crumpit.
Except. Except that wasn’t exactly true anymore, was it?
Not if the Grinch was really leaving. Not that moving down to Whoville constituted some extraordinary odyssey—no more than a stone’s throw (literally, if the stone in question was thrown from an overhanging Crumpit cliff).
It was just….
Tony came to an uncomfortable realization, sitting there surrounded by the decaying decorative detritus meant to represent his lifetime achievements. It came with a twinge of guilt, and then a tweak of alarm, followed finally by a pinch of panic. Because:
In all these years, the Grinch had never actually invited Tony to visit. Tony had always just decided on his own, showing up with the excuse of picking up some old thing or other. That had been the routine—Tony would drop in maybe once or twice year to pick up such-and-such, and the Grinch would complain about being used as a glorified storage center, and would never, ever tell Tony not to come back.
So Tony always came back.
And okay, maybe the excuses weren’t always excuses. Most of the time there was something he actually needed—old practice gear that Antoinette and Junior were about to grow into, team jerseys and an autographed hockey stick for a charity auction. But—it always felt like an excuse. Tony would have come anyway, didn’t want to wear out his welcome but was always slyly on the lookout for a reason.
It was the first time the thought had consciously crossed his mind, and he recognized it as The Absolute Truth.
Of course he was always going to return to the Grinch. They were friends. They loved each other, in their grumbling, grouching way. Tony liked visiting, liked coming h—back to Mount Crumpit. And surely Grinchy knew—surely they guessed that Tony would have come regardless, that all they had to do was ask.
But then, the Grinch had never actually asked. Or, that wasn’t true. The Grinch had ordered him to visit, just this one time around, just this once. To clean up everything for good.
Tony felt a sinking feeling open up behind one of his ribs. A black little pit, the opposite and yet somehow the twin of an athlete's side stitch, the ache that presses in when too much is demanded of the body. For a brief moment, Tony was thrust back miles and years ago, running laps at the physiotherapy center, outraged that his shiny new titanium knee couldn’t keep pace with his basic demands.
Tony closed his eyes and breathed out, slow and measured, counting only good things.
(There were uncountable good things in life, but to remember this you sometimes had to try to count them.)
Gradually, the throb in his chest throbbed a little bit less. That was a good thing too.
Tony opened his eyes and ended up gazing blankly at a poster of himself in full uniform, holding a bowl of cereal. Why on earth was he eating breakfast in the middle of an ice rink? Surely a precariously balanced bowl of milk and grains was one of the least convenient breakfast foods to eat in the middle of an NHL championship game.
(Tony never understood how advertisements were supposed to make people want to buy a product. Mostly they made him want to do the opposite, out of common sense if not simple spite.)
Tony sighed, and tossed the poster onto the junk pile.
What had he just been thinking about? It had been a sour, aching thought, something he wanted to avoid. He looked around for a distraction, a momentary salvation.
At which point: Enter the Grinch.
“Knock, knock!” boomed the Grinch, because this section of the caverns had excellent acoustics, and not a single door to knock on. Or a single window, for that matter. Or any of the traditional signs of human(ish) inhabitation.
The Grinch looked around the room (if it qualified as a room), eyes wide.
“So this is the trophy room,” they said with a low whistle. They enjoyed whistling, and practiced it often so they would be prepared when the chance came to use it for dramatic effect.
Tony lifted himself off his knees, groaning more from habit than the actual aches and pain. “You act like you’ve never seen it before. This is your house. Er, cave. Cavern system. Mountain?”
“I have squatter’s rights for most of the caverns by now,” the Grinch said conversationally. “No idea about the mountain base, though that does raise interesting questions about mineral rights. But I haven’t—I don’t come in here often.”
“Oh,” Tony said articulately.
The Grinch shrugged. They shrugged the way a very fuzzy turnip might shrug, were it trying to look casual. “This section of the caverns, that is. I don’t use it for much, so.” They trailed off, looking studiously at the ceiling. Tony glanced up automatically. None of the stalactites seemed in imminent danger of succumbing to the siren's call of gravity.
Tony looked back down, gazing dispiritedly around the room. The progress of the last few hours now revealed itself to be very slight indeed. He sighed, nudging a comically undersized trophy (Pee Wee basketball?) with his foot. It fell over with a dull clang and rolled across the uneven cave floor, vanishing down a dark stairwell.
A dark, endless stairwell, apparently, because the clang-clang-clunk-clanging went on echoing with cheerful persistence.
The Grinch put their hands delicately over their ears (or where Tony assumed their ears were located, under all that fur). They looked around the room again, seeming concerned. Tony hunted around for a topic, any topic, to change the conversation they weren’t having.
“Band practice! How did band practice go?”
“Oh!” the Grinch said easily. They had to shout over the still-clanging trophy. “Let’s put it this way, ‘twas neither earth-shattering nor ear-shattering! Which is a momentous accomplishment, considering where we started!”
Tony had to shout right back. “Benign mediocrity is what you’re aiming for?!”
“It’s what I hope and dream of! But I try not to get carried away—borderline endurable is always my main aspiration, when it comes to Whovillian culture!”
Tony giggled a most un-tiger-like giggle. The Grinch looked delighted, which meant they were planning on bringing it up later in an Anecdote. Tony decided to power through it.
“ANYway,” he lied through his fangs, “as you can see I’m making a GR-R-REAT deal of progress here, as per your instructions, so I should probably—”
The Grinch clapped their hands together, suddenly cheerful in that irrepressibly bossy way of theirs. “That’s right! Time to twitch that tail of yours and get a move on!”
This was not the first time Tony had cause to believe the Grinch was jealous of his tail, and he made a mental note to pursue this train of thought at a later date. He said instead, with great dignity:
The trophy was still clanging in the background.
“You’ve been at this for hours, tiger! It’s interfering with our social engagements. What will the neighbors think?”
Tony didn’t even know where to begin with that. He opened his mouth to see what would come out, but then the Grinch smiled their big, awful, wonderful smile.
“You and me, tiger, we’re going ice skating.”
From a great distance down the stairwell, there came one final, jolly CLUNK!
feel free to shriek at me over on biggest-gaudiest-patronuses.tumblr.com
(also I'm too sleep deprived to write a Dr. Seussian epigraph poem for the beginning of the chapter, someone else should definitely do that because I Don't Want To)