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blame it on christmas

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The Bennetts descend on them as soon as they pull the car in the drive.

Riley hugs and kisses her mom as her dad hefts both of their suitcases out of the trunk and heads inside with a cheerful, "Hello, girls!"

After letting go of Riley, Mrs. Bennett turns around and envelops Abby too, hugging her close. Abby was prepared for a deluge of parental affection, after Thanksgiving – she now knows both of Riley's parents are big huggers – but she still gets a little choked up when Mrs. Bennett squeezes her gently and says, "So nice to see you again, dear."

"Thank you so much for inviting me," Abby says, as Riley grabs her own handbag and Abby's backpack. She means it, too – after Christmas last year, when she'd essentially stole their daughter away, she had her doubts about whether they'd want her back.

"Anytime," Mrs. Bennett reassures her. "Now, let's get you girls settled in… we have so much to do, and so little time!" Abby and Riley trail her into the house, Abby remembering to grab the bag of presents. "Freshen up, and then it's time to decorate the tree! I've been saving it for you," she adds.

"Saving it" apparently means that Mrs. Bennett restrained herself and decorated it with "just the basics, dear!" "The basics" are fairy lights and tinsel packed so tightly Abby can barely see the tree itself. Riley and Abby are supposed to add the ornaments, a motley assortment of school children's salt-dough ornaments, fancy filigree, and fine-blown glass pieces.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennett unpack the ornaments carefully on the rug, hands touching every so often. Their living room feels like a home: the fireplace burns with a gentle glow, photos litter the walls, and gentle orchestral music plays in the background.

Riley places each ornament with careful consideration, stepping up and down from the stepladder to judge where best to put a crystal sleigh, a felt Santa, a blown-glass bauble. Abby watches in awe of her exactitude, the serious way she holds them up against the tree. She's so beautiful, cheeks slightly flushed from the fire, head tilted just so.

Abby thinks she could watch her forever.

By the time they're done, the tree is absolutely groaning with decorations. Riley says, "Wait a second," and runs upstairs, returning with a small box. She calls her parents in for a ceremonious unboxing.

"It's a tradition," she explains to Abby, smiling wide. "New ornament each year."

Abby nods sagely. This year Riley has a small wooden bauble with overlapping curlicues engraved around it. All three of them ooh and aah over it before Riley decisively places it on the tree, right in the middle.

"Perfect," Mrs. Bennett declares. "Here, I made one too."

She produces a small elf figure, handing it to Abby to feel. It's soft, made of felted wool. "Wow, you made this?" Abby says, handing it back.

"Yes!" Mrs. Bennett says. "But you do the honors, Abby," Mrs. Bennett says. "You're part of the family now."

Abby chokes for a second, then nods, stepping forward to pick an appropriate spot. She's surprised to find her eyes blurring a little with unshed tears. She takes a deep breath to stave them off and hangs the ornament in a tiny opening of green leaves, stepping back to admire her handiwork.

Riley and her parents stand in a semi-circle, heads all tilted to the right to best judge the tree's composition. Abby suppresses a smile at the sight of the three of them, lined up with the same expression.

"Perfect," Mrs. Bennett says again, bestowing a glowing smile upon Abby.

 

The next day, Christmas Eve, they are willingly roped into helping Mrs. Bennett prep some dishes for tomorrow. She coordinates them as they stack the fridge high with chopped potatoes, whipped herb butter, pumpkin wedges marinading in olive oil and garlic… The works. More than the works. Abby's parents were extra on Christmas, but not like… Martha Stewart extra.

Still, she doesn't hate it – it's nice to get to know Riley's parents better, for longer than a Thanksgiving dinner, and it's a vast improvement on last year. And indeed, many of the years before that, dating back ten years.

She's happy, peeling a mound of potatoes, when a Christmas carol that her parents used to listen to on repeat starts playing. Her hands stutter for a second, a pit opening up in her stomach. She swallows, surprised to realize that being here, with Riley's family, helps. She doesn't have to dwell on her parents' absence. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are no replacement, but it's nice to be part of a family again, even if it's not her own. Yet.

Riley notices her pause and raises an eyebrow, checking if she's okay, and Abby smiles and nods and returns her attention to the potato in her hands.

Sometime over the course of the day, before making the desserts that will keep until tomorrow but after peeling a vast number of carrots and potatoes, while joking and chopping and laughing and singing along to Christmas music on the radio, Abby transitions from thinking of Riley's mom as "Mrs. Bennett" to thinking of her as "Maria."

Maria, of course, notices this immediately. She puts a gentle hand on Abby's shoulder the first time she calls her "Maria" unprompted. "Excellent. Now you have to work on thinking of me as 'Mom'!"

"Mom!" Riley immediately protests.

Abby just laughs, ducks her head, not entirely sure how to respond.

 

Come the evening, Riley's parents head out for the Caldwell's White Elephant party. Riley and Abby had discussed whether they should attend – Riley's parents had received two invitations, one saying, "Maria & Marcus Bennett are cordially invited to the annual White Elephant Party at the Caldwell residence" and the other for, "Riley Johnson & partner," which all four of them take to mean that the small-town grapevine has done its work: i.e., everyone (and by extension, Tipper Caldwell) knows that Riley is dating Harper's ex.

Although Abby offers to go, for the sake of the Bennetts, all of them pick up that she's uncomfortable, and the second she expresses a slight ambivalence about attending, they declare that she and Riley should stay home.

"I'll tell them you have a terrible stomach bug," Maria says delightedly. "Maybe they'll stay away from us too."

Abby snorts.

So, instead of braving the Caldwells' holiday festivities, the pair of them pick up some takeout to eat while watching the designated holiday film (Home Alone) on the TV. After they eat, Riley chucks the takeout containers and picks up the list Maria left for them: instructions to set up the dining table ready for Christmas tomorrow.

"Okay, if you go upstairs, third door on the left, you'll see a closet. There should be some table decorations, wreaths, centerpieces, that kind of thing. Can you find… three, maybe? And bring them down? I'll sort out the nice silverware."

Abby goes upstairs obligingly, counting the doors on the left side of the hall until she gets to the third one.

Upon opening the door, a deluge of small items spill over her and onto the ground. She jumps backward, staring them down.

It's needle-felted hell. There's everything from llamas to Lego figurines, not to mention the Christmas decorations. Abby represses a snort as she picks up a few Santa ornaments. They're impressively well-made, impeccable attention to detail, but they are still essentially Santa-shaped teddy bears. She scans the rest of the cupboard and concludes that the requested table decorations are probably the painstakingly ornamented wreaths, each one a confection of felted flowers, leaves, and berries.

She puts these aside and takes the time to slot the spilled toys back into the cupboard.

"I got buried up there," Abby tells her when she gets back downstairs.

"Oh yeah, my mom is obsessed with it. Took it up in July, hasn't looked back. What possessed her to take up a wool-based craft in high summer will never make sense to me."

Abby just shrugs, arranging the three wreaths equidistantly on the table.

"Good enough," Riley says affirmatively. "Now we just need some candles…" She pulls open a drawer in the crystal cabinet and adds two candleholders to the tableau.

Abby takes a step back to admire. It's not exactly her style, but she can't deny that it looks spectacular. The silverware glints under the overhead light as Riley wedges some new candles into the candleholders. Everything is going to look festive when they turn off the electric light and light the candles. Even the wreaths look wonderful from a few steps back: the different colours melt into each other, making the larger-than-life berries pop just right against the green wool.

"I'm just going to check we've gotten everything on Mom's list," Riley says, running a finger along the side of the note. While Riley mouths "wreaths" and "dessert forks" and other WASP-type accoutrements to herself, Abby takes the opportunity to more closely inspect some of Riley's childhood photos.

She identifies one in particular, the wedding photo featuring Riley as the flower girl at their wedding and the kid she assumes in Leo in a mini tux. She wants to know about him, where he fit into this family. How well Riley knew him.

 

Riley watches Abby scanning the row of photos, measuring the pair of them against one another. There are family holiday photos, every year since Riley was two through to her sophomore year. She waits until Abby gets to her high school graduation, no Leo in sight, and Abby exhales slightly. She can tell that Abby wants to ask what happened, but doesn't want to pry. It's time to tell her, Riley thinks. Rip the Bandaid off. She inhales deeply. "He died when I was in high school. He was a competitive swimmer – we both were – and he and his swimming buddies went out to a lakehouse the summer after he graduated, got drunk, and drowned. I was a sophomore."

"Shit," Abby says. "Riley, I'm so sorry." Her eyes track across the family photos, obviously cataloging the timeline.

"It was a long time ago," Riley says, the same line she's heard Abby use about her parents multiple times.

Abby offers her a gentle smile, squeezing her hand. "You were adopted?" she asks, moving the conversation on. There is a notable dearth of photos of Riley or Leo before the ages of two and five, respectively.

Riley snakes an arm around her waist, leaning her head against Abby's shoulder. "Yeah. I mean, my dad is actually my biological father's cousin or something. CPS sent us to them after our biological parents died. I was only two; I don't remember any of it. Leo never talked about them. We were lucky, I guess."

"Of course," Abby says. "Your parents are lovely."

"Yeah," Riley agrees. Her parents are pretty great, especially given the nastiness that went on in some of the WASP households in this town. They were a little… stunned by her coming out, but they didn't kick her out, and they didn't make her go to church, so she counts that as a win for the late '90s. She still wishes she had known more about Puerto Rico and her family there growing up, but her parents did their best with what they had.

"Shall we finish Home Alone?" Abby asks. Riley suspects that she can sense that Riley wants to move on from talking about her childhood.

"Definitely," Riley says. "How else can we know if Kevin will take out the burglars?" 

 

Riley wakes up tangled in Abby's arms. Abby's still asleep, snoring a little, mouth open. Riley grins delightedly and presses a kiss to her forehead. Abby snuffles and groans. "'s too early," she says sleepily.

"Noooo," Riley says. "Merry Christmas."

"You hate the holidays," Abby says, pulling a pillow over her head.

"Not this year," Riley whispers to the pillow. "Not with you."

"Hnnngh," Abby says. Riley rolls her eyes and wriggles her face underneath the pillow to kiss Abby's temple. Abby lets out a small, happy sigh.

Riley tucks her arm under her head, staring out the window. She hadn't quite closed the curtains properly last night and she can see a perfect mound of snow settled on the windowsill like a pillow. A white Christmas! If this doesn't get Abby in a festive mood, Riley doesn't know what will. It's even putting Riley, a chronic grinch, in a decidedly Christmassy mood.

Although… that might have more to do with the anticipation she feels about the ring, and associated proposal.  

No, she's not going to propose to Abby right now – they've only been properly dating for a few months, and she doesn't want to bring up any proposal-related trauma from last year, but yesterday, while Abby was showering, she retrieved her grandmother's wedding ring (with her dad's permission) and put it in her luggage, in preparation for getting it professionally cleaned and fitted back in Baltimore.

She's going to marry this woman.

She kisses Abby's shoulder one more time, then gets out of bed. She showers and dons slacks and a festive, deep red blazer, then picks up the bag with the presents in it and takes it downstairs.

"Morning, honey," her dad says. "Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas," she says, grinning. "Merry Christmas, Mom." Her mom is wearing a creamy blouse and a large red necklace with black slacks, mostly obscured by her staple blue apron. Her outfit is understated, but Christmassy. Her mom always likes to try and out-class Patricia at Christmas, and this year is no exception.

"Merry Christmas, sweetheart!" she says, brushing her hands off and hugging Riley.

Riley deposits the contents of her Santa sack under the tree, then returns to the kitchen in search of coffee. She makes herself a double-shot, then does the same for Abby. This nets barely a disapproving sigh from her mom, who is thoroughly engrossed in arguing with her dad about the menu for today – something about not needing ham and turkey for six people.

Riley's on her dad's side, really. Just a turkey will be plenty. 

She takes the coffees back upstairs, bumps open her bedroom door with a hip.

"Rise and shine for real, sleepyhead," she says. "I made you a coffee, and there are presents downstairs."

Abby yawns, then sits up, hair completely mussed. She softens at the sight of Riley holding two mugs. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Abby Holland," Riley says fondly.

 

Patricia and John arrive early at 11 am, just in time for everything to go wrong in the kitchen.

Riley's mom looks like she's going to scream into a pillow when she puts the meat thermometer into the turkey, and it comes out cold. Riley winks at Abby over her mom's shoulder and gestures for her to head out to the living room. She can handle it in here. She's not as emotionally invested in Christmas as her mom.

Abby just nods and exits the kitchen gracefully.

"Mom," Riley says. "It's fine. Put some tin foil on it, turn the oven up. I'm going to go and head off Patricia for five minutes."

Her mom groans but nods and turns to find some foil. Riley smiles in what she hopes is a soothing manner and pats her mom on the arm before heading out to the living room.

"Hi, Patricia," Riley says, accepting the hug that her aunt offers. "Hi, John." He just shakes her hand.

"This is my girlfriend, Abby," Riley says. Abby reaches out to shake hands too.

"Lovely to meet you," Abby says.

"Nice to meet you too," Patricia says. She has a slight furrow in her brow, which Riley attributes to her mild homophobia, but there's no further comment, so she lets it slide. Abby tenses up a little, obviously picking up on the subtle slight, but she also shakes it off.

"How have you been? How is tennis going?" Riley has pre-prepared a list of relatively safe conversation topics to carry them through today, and she immediately deploys one of them in the hopes of keeping Patricia and John out here for a good ten minutes. Patricia starts to relate an involved story about unfairly losing a tennis match; Riley interjects with shocked exclamations at all the right moments. Abby stands just next to Riley, not touching her, but with an obvious current of tension running through her.

They haven't had the talk about whether to behave like a couple in front of Patricia and John, but Riley closes the distance between them and puts her arm around Abby's shoulders. Abby relaxes immediately, smiling up at her.

Her dad comes in, shakes both Patricia's and John's hands and keeps the conversation going by asking John about his job.

Abby touches Riley gently on the arm and says, "I'm going to see if your mom needs help."

"Your funeral," Riley mutters. Abby just grins in response.

 

Patricia drops a bombshell at lunch.

"Have you found a nice boy yet?" she asks as she puts more green beans onto her plate.

"A… what?" Riley says, genuinely non-plussed for a moment.

"A husband," Patricia elaborates.

Abby's eyebrows rise, across the table from Riley. Riley raises a matching one, not sure what's been miscommunicated here.

"Um. Abby and I are… together," Riley says slowly. "Like, as a couple."

"What?" Patricia drops her fork. "But… you're not a lesbian!"

Abby is frozen. Riley is just plain surprised. She racks her brains through their conversation today and in previous years. How could Patricia possibly think she was interested in men?  

She shakes her head, dismissing the question. "I… Yeah, I am a lesbian," she says patiently. "I've always been a lesbian." She is beyond confused about how they got here. She definitely introduced Abby as her girlfriend; she thought Patricia had known she dated women for years. Since high school. Just to reiterate the point, she adds: "Abby's my partner."

"Oh…" Patricia puts down her fork, brow creased in the middle.

Riley holds her breath. "Well, welcome to the family, Abigail," Patricia says.

Abby coughs in surprise, then manages a swift "Thank you."

Riley's mom's eyebrows have shot so high they look like a cartoon character's, but Riley manages a neutral expression. She's surprised by Patricia's openness, given her historic reticence towards Riley's life choices (both sexuality-wise and career-wise), but… she supposes this shows that people really can change, after all.

Bon appétit.

 

Apparently, post-dinner charades are a Bennett Christmas tradition, so they congregate in the living room after an informal dinner of leftovers. Patricia and John headed off around 3 pm, after they'd all exchanged gifts and played a couple short games of cards, in which Riley beat them all handily.

"Charades," Riley says. She pulls a legit felted wool Santa stocking from the mantelpiece, probably another of Maria's creations, and shakes it gently. "We'll be a team, obviously," Riley says, gesturing at Abby. Abby breathes a silent sigh of relief.

"We're gonna kick your asses!" Marcus jokes.

"I'd like to see you try!" Riley retorts, grinning. She fishes around in the stocking and pulls out a slip of paper. She grins, turning to stand in front of the Christmas tree. She looks at Abby. Abby takes a seat on the sofa and sits up attentively, gesturing for her to go on.

Riley frowns for a second, thinking, then winds her hand in the gesture for movie. She pauses expectantly.

"Movie," Abby tells her obediently.

Riley nods, grinning, then holds up five fingers. "Five words?" Abby suggests.

Riley nods again. She holds up one finger, then draws a question mark in the air.

"Question?" Abby guesses. Riley shakes her head, then makes the same gesture. "A question…" Abby says more to herself than Riley. "Oh! A question word. Where. Who. What." These are punctuated by shakes. "Uh… How?"

Riley nods and holds up three fingers, making an exaggerated frown gesture.

"Sad?" Abby guesses. Nope. "Depressed?" Another shake. "Uh…" She runs a hand through her hair on autopilot. "Forlorn?" Riley rolls her eyes at that, putting her hands on her hips and scrunching her brows together to make an angry face.

"I have literally no idea," Abby says, raising her hands in an I give up gesture. Riley shrugs like she expected that and holds up four fingers.

Abby nods. Riley waggles her hand aggressively and then picks up a discarded box from the morning's gifts. She tucks it inside her dressing gown with a sneaky head twist.

"Thief?" Abby guesses. Riley stops, and gestures go on. "Uh… theft. Burglar. The Hamburglar?" Riley puts her hands on her hips and glares at Abby in mock-reproach. "No. Um. Stealing." Riley holds up a hand, indicating that she's warm, and gestures, go on. "Steal. Steal. Steal. Um… Stole?"

Riley nods enthusiastically. Five fingers. Fifth word. She turns around and gestures up and down at the Christmas tree. "Tree?" Riley frowns, knocking one of the Santa ornaments. "Santa?"

Riley's parents are both giggling.

"Christmas?" Abby guesses. Riley nods. "How… sad… stole Christmas?" she says more to herself than her audience. "Oh! How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"

"Yes!" Riley grins and flops down on the couch next to Abby.

"My turn," Marcus tells them, digging around in the Santa sock. "Aha!"

He holds a hand up as a microphone. "Song," Maria says. He nods. Holds up both hands, seven fingers total. Maria pauses for a second. "All I Want for Christmas is You!"

"Too good," he laughs. "We're just too good."

Riley rolls her eyes. "Come on, you guys wrote these!" she protests.

"I think you'll find it's actually our psychic connection," Maria says. Abby allows herself a grin, looking down at her lap. "Alright, Abby. You're up." She holds out the stocking.

Abby pulls out a slip of paper, leaning away from Riley to read it.

Oh, god. Yeah, this is gonna be embarrassing. She sighs and stands up, shuffling over to the Christmas tree. She gestures song, then holds up one finger. "One word, song," Riley tells her.

Abby nods, then sucks in a breath through her nostrils. She puts one arm out straight in front of her, then the other. Flips them both, one at a time. She can see Riley fighting down laughter in the corner of her eye, and she blushes. Crosses her arms one at a time.

She can't believe she's doing the Macarena in slow motion for a game of charades. In front of Riley's parents.

When she puts her hands on her head, Riley loses it and starts laughing.

Abby mock-frowns in her direction, but Riley still doesn't say anything. "Keep going," she encourages.

Abby restrains a grin as she slowly gyrates her hips and Riley finally gives in. "Sorry, sorry," she gasps. "Macarena. It's Macarena."

"Thank you," Abby says, lowering her hands with affronted dignity.

"That was incredible," Riley tells her, still laughing. Abby sits back down. She glances over at Riley's parents, who are giggling and thumbs-up-ing at Abby. She grins back. 

The game continues until Riley's mom is stumped by the movie Frozen. Eventually, Marcus gives in and tells her, and she calls an end to the game genially. "Good night, girls," she says.

"Night, Mom."

"Goodnight, Maria. Goodnight, Marcus," Abby says. They head up to Riley's bedroom.  

Although it's relatively early – just gone 9 pm – they get into bed almost immediately. Abby holds out an arm and Riley snuggles into her, putting a hand on her stomach.

"Was that okay? Did you have fun?" she asks, tracing an overlapping series of circles on the skin of Abby's stomach.

"Riley, that was great. Your parents are lovely. Even your aunt and uncle were nice. Sweet, even. I was expecting them to be way worse after the way you and your mom talked about them." Abby strokes her hand over Riley's hair and Riley leans into her like a cat.

"Oh, yeah. They're fine, just uptight sometimes." Riley shrugs.

"But, really, it was a great Christmas. I hope your parents really did like their gifts."

"I'm sure they did," Riley confirms, then yawns, reaching up to cover her mouth. "Wow, I'm tired."

"You woke up ridiculously early, so," Abby says.

Riley snuggles her head into Abby's shoulder. "Yeah. I'm still on my sleep schedule for work. Early mornings, early nights…"

Abby hums in agreement, rubbing her thumb over Riley's shoulder in a soothing gesture, and Riley yawns again. She closes her eyes as she drops her head onto Abby's chest, then lets out a gentle snore.

Abby suppresses a laugh. Riley really can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. She wriggles her other arm out from under the duvet to get her phone from the bedside table. She unlocks it to find a picture from John and his mom, both sporting silly reindeer ears and thumbs-up-ing the camera.

Merry Christmas, she texts back. Say hi to your mom for me.

Shan't, he responds. She's still miffed that you never came back after the birthing tape.

She texts back an awkwardly-positioned selfie of Riley asleep on her.

She's almost asleep herself when she gets his reply: 🤶 🤶 .

 

Riley is starting to realise that her family has a lot of Christmas traditions. She'd never really thought about it, but bringing Abby into their Christmas this year has really demonstrated how a lot of things she'd taken for granted, like charades, and tree ornaments, and Christmas lunches, are all part of a big, elaborate Christmas experience in the Bennett household, and that that's… maybe not so normal for other people.

On the topic of Christmas traditions, there is one final tradition that Riley is ready to initiate Abby into: It's a Wonderful Life. They go every single year on the 26th, and inevitably run into many of her parents' acquaintances. This year is no different; Riley has to do a lot of "Yes-I'm-still-at-Johns-Hopkins" and "This is my partner, Abby" and "No, I'm not that kind of doctor." Abby shakes hands and smiles and nods politely at everyone. Riley squeezes her hand every time someone else moves on. For what it's worth, Abby seems to be coping fine.

Riley's dad gets them a giant bucket of popcorn, and soda for everyone, balanced in a four-cup holder. They file into the theatre just before the lights go down, her dad ushering her mom ahead of him. Abby and Riley sit down in their seats as the opening screen starts playing.

Riley hands Abby her soda, and Abby smiles at her, then turns her attention to the screen. Riley's gaze sticks to Abby a little longer, tracing the contours of her cheek and nose as the lights flicker over her face, the shadow of her eyelashes on her cheek. She feels her heart swell as she tucks her hands into her pocket and rubs her thumb over the small ring box taking up real estate in there.

Patience.