"What do you think of that one?" Ryan asked, tossing a thumb at a handsome Scotch Pine. It was seven feet in height if it was an inch, and probably taller.
John gave it a quick once-over, and then shook his head. "Too tall. My dad'll shit if the top bends against the ceiling. You know how he is."
Ryan sighed. "Most of the trees left here are either really tall or really short." He eyed the Scotch Pine again. "You could always cut a little off the bottom."
"Maybe. But let's keep looking. We'll find the right one."
They continued up the dirt path between the rows of trees, with Ryan stopping before each one and looking hopeful, and John frowning, and then shaking his head. They reached the end of the first row, and turned into the next one.
"A lot of the good ones are already gone," Ryan noted. "I knew we should have come in yesterday. The hordes have worked this place over pretty good."
They were at a lull in business, it seemed. When they had walked by the Christmas tree lot the day before, the place had been aswarm with people, so thick that it had deterred them - or at least, deterred John - from stopping, even though John's dad had expected them to come back with a tree. They had spent the afternoon at a get-together with other friends, and by the time they came by the tree lot it was already getting dark. John had decided to skip stopping for the tree, and his dad had not been happy about it.
"It's five days until Christmas, John," the man had said, after his son had come home empty-handed. "You were going to get this done last week. Your mom and I are depending on you. You really need to get on the ball here, you understand me?"
"Yeah, dad. I'm sorry. I'll do it first thing in the morning, I promise."
His dad had rolled his eyes and left it at that, but John had gotten the message plainly.
"Yeah, I know we should have stopped yesterday," he told his boyfriend. "It was dark, and this place isn't well lit, and..."
"You were making excuses," Ryan finished. "Just because you're fifteen now, and sour on Christmas, you think it's not important."
"I'm not sour on Christmas. I just don't believe in all that goody-goody stuff anymore." John offered up a small pout. "You're the same age as me - you should understand."
Ryan grunted, and cast an annoyed look at his boyfriend. "It's not about goody-goody stuff, John. It's not about Santa Claus, and reindeer, and all that. Christmas is about family, and friends, and enjoying some special time with both. Everyone's busy during the year, and they like that one day to relax and be together. That's the way your mom sees it, that's the way your dad sees it. And that's the way I see it, too." He gave a short sigh. "The holiday's about what you focus on, John."
John winced. "I'm trying."
"Then you could at least help with things, a little." Ryan went on. "Your dad is depending on you."
"I'm trying," John repeated. "I'm just kind of stuck. Christmas is just not fun anymore. It's..." he broke off, seeing the look on his boyfriend's face. "I'm trying," he repeated, a third time.
Ryan shook his head. "Well, try a little harder. Sometimes I think you don't care about anything."
John grinned, and stuck out his tongue. "I love you."
That brought a reluctant smile to Ryan's face, and he looked quickly about to make sure they were unobserved, and then leaned over and kissed John on the cheek. "Just shut up and keep looking."
John smiled, feeling forgiven. He knew he had been dragging his feet on Christmas this year, but...well, what of it? It wasn't like when he was little, with magic in every single day of the week leading up to the holiday itself. These days, it seemed all about Black Friday sales that lasted a week, and crowds at the mall, and people pushing, and grabbing at everything in sight. The rush to buy stuff and get it wrapped, to find a tree and get it decorated, to get the house lights up - all of it had become a pain. Dad was busy at the office, mom was busy at her job, and John was busy with school. But as the least busy, most of the work of getting ready for the holiday had fallen to him. It hadn't been terribly fun, either.
He'd climbed the old wooden ladder and strung the lights across the front of the house, and in the little firs at each end, just like his dad had asked. He'd braved the crowds at the mall and gotten a few of the things on his mom's list, and a few of the things on his dad's list, and a few of the things on his own list; and then he'd given up on the sheer madness of it, and gone online and bought the rest, and paid outrageous amounts for priority shipping. So much for the money he'd been saving for a new laptop.
The fun of the coming holiday was just not there, not anymore. What the heck had happened?
They continued down the row of trees, with John scarcely paying attention as he mulled over the problem of what had happened to Christmas. Ryan pointed at a few more likely candidates as they walked, but John just automatically shook his head, and kept going. Stupid Christmas trees.
When he had been young, he and his dad and his mom had all gone out together the weekend before the last full week before Christmas, to find a tree. It was ritual. The fun of that was that they did it together. It wasn't work, it wasn't a chore - it was an adventure. Parker was a small town, and there was only one place to buy a Christmas tree, at the little field by Jack Henderson's house where his dad sold garden supplies - azaleas and flowers and fill dirt and pine bark mulch - all year long. They would drive over in dad's pick up, and carefully tie their purchase in place in the back, and John would turn around in the seat and watch it through the rear window all the way home, to make sure that it didn't blow away, even though both his mom and his dad had told him that could never happen.
And then they had taken the tree into the house and set it up, and decorated it together, while Christmas music played on the stereo. After decorating the tree, they'd placed the gifts under it - the ones mom had bought, anyway. Santa would bring the rest, John thought back then. And when the magic morning came, he would get up and run downstairs, to find that the number of gifts beneath the tree had magically doubled in the night!
They would open them together, while a fire burned in the fireplace, and again music played in the background. They'd nibble on the chocolate chip cookies that John and mom had made together, and sip hot chocolate together, and it would be...it would be...Christmas. The day would be memorable, and by the end of it, he would be tired, and fall asleep with a smile on his face.
What had happened to all that? What had happened to the fun?
Ryan reached out and stopped him. "Look, man, if you walk past this one, I'm going home. It's too cold out here for farting around!"
John turned to look at the tree in question. This one was a Fraser Fir, about six feet tall, and it was perfect. How it had not already been snatched up was anybody's guess. But there it was, pretty as a picture, and John could already see it dressed up in lights and ornaments.
He found the tag hanging on it, and whistled, "Wow. Eighty-five bucks!"
Ryan blinked, looked at the tree again, and then laughed. "Holy crap. I thought ours cost a lot at seventy dollars!"
John nodded, and peered around the tree, then reached into the branches and felt the needles. They were long and soft - Mr. Henderson did a good job of keeping his trees fresh. No way dad could gripe at this one.
"Help me pull it out, and we'll take it up to the counter."
They leaned the tree towards them, and then dragged it out into the path. John held onto the bole of the tree about two feet down from the top, while Ryan went around and grabbed the base by the wooden stand. They hefted the tree, and both of them gave a grunt as they started towards the counter where Mr. Henderson stood.
"Crap!" Ryan groaned, "This thing is heavy!"
John laughed. "It's more bulky than heavy."
"That's 'cause you're on the light end! This end is heavy, dammit!"
They managed to get the tree to the counter at the edge of the field, where Mr. Henderson was standing, watching the few other customers looking over trees.
"Hi, John. Find what you want?"
The boys stood the tree upright again, and John came around to the counter. "Yeah. Not bad looking, is it?"
The man nodded. "I like Fraser Firs. The space between the branches makes them easy to decorate, and they hold onto their needles a long time." He pointed at the tree. "No mess on the floor around this one the day after Christmas."
John nodded. "Um...about the price. Is it negotiable?"
Mr. Henderson smiled. "You know, if you buy a tree like this in the city, it costs nearly double what I charge?"
John looked around at the few houses nearby, and then laughed. "We're a long way from the city. Sure you can't give me a deal?"
The man's smile broadened. "Maybe. How are you and Jack getting along these days?"
Jack Henderson was on the school soccer team with John, and he and John had butted heads a few times in the past year. Jack wasn't a bad guy, but he had a macho streak in him, and he was the type of personality that got wound up easily. In the heat of some of their intense practice games, he had made several inappropriate statements about John and Ryan being boyfriends, which John had refused to ignore. This had led to a couple of wrestling matches on the soccer field, after the third of which Coach Randall had lost his patience and given them both a week off to think about it. They each had thought about it, and there hadn't been any more problems after.
"Oh, we're buddies now. He said that all gay guys should play soccer."
Mr. Henderson's eyebrows went up, and he laughed. "Really? Well, that should be good for ten percent. How does seventy-six fifty grab you?"
John and Ryan grinned at each other. John's dad had given him a hundred dollars to cover the tree, and told them they could use whatever change was left for a pizza or something. Almost twenty five bucks was a pizza and a half!
"Sure, I'm good with that. Thanks, Mr. Henderson!"
John handed over four of the five twenties he had, and pocketed the change the man gave him. Then he and Ryan went back and hefted the tree.
Mr. Henderson looked around, and then waved at them. "Hold up, guys. You didn't come in a truck?"
John shook his head. "No, we walked. We'll just carry it back."
The man laughed. "Okay. But that tree weighs every bit of sixty pounds, and it's not exactly easy to handle." He looked at his watch. "My wife will be here in about a half hour to break me for lunch. If you want to wait, I'll run you home in the truck."
John grinned. "It's only about a half a mile. We'll be at my house in that half hour. Thanks, anyway!"
The man grinned, but nodded. "Don't forget I offered."
They hefted the tree, and moved it to the edge of the field.
"Hold up a minute," Ryan called, and they set the tree down again.
He came around to where John was standing, and frowned at him. "Why didn't we wait for the truck?"
John shrugged. "It's a tree, not a set of barbells. We can handle it."
"Yeah, but it's cumbersome. We have to hold it up to keep the branches on the bottom from dragging on the ground. And it is pretty heavy." He put his fists against his hips and grunted. "And what's this 'half a mile' crap? It's twice that distance to your place."
"Well..." John sort of looked the other way. "I thought we could cut through Felker's field. That will cut the distance in half."
Ryan's jaw dropped. "Felker's field! Are you nuts? The last time we did that, that stupid cow of theirs chased us all over the place."
John grinned. "She's just being friendly."
"Friendly! She knocked Billy Weston down and stepped on him! Broke his leg!"
John sighed. "So we'll be careful. Stop moaning and let's get going."
Ryan blew a frustrated breath of air between his lips, but relented. "I know we'll be sorry for this. I just know it."
"Come on!" John called, grabbing the top of the tree and swinging it towards him. Ryan mumbled some things under his breath, but returned to the base of the tree and took it up by the stand.
They left the lot, and made it a whole half a block before Ryan called a halt. "Set it down a minute, okay? My arm is starting to pull out of the socket."
They set the tree on its makeshift stand, and John went around to his boyfriend. "Come on. It's not that heavy."
Ryan rubbed his hands together, and smiled. "Okay, you carry the back end when we start again, and I'll carry the little end."
"Okay, ya crybaby." But John smiled when he said it, and gave Ryan's arm a fond little pat. "Wouldn't want you to get hurt right before the holiday."
Ryan sighed. "Okay - you're right. It's not that heavy. It's just hard to hold onto without having a face full of branches. I have to hold the stand, and have my arm extended out in front of me. That's what hurts."
John leaned forward. "Poor baby. I'll make it up to you when we get to my house. My folks won't be back for hours yet."
A slow smile spread across his boyfriend's face. "Yeah? What've you got in mind?"
John looked quickly about, and kissed the tip of Ryan's nose. "Oh, I can think of lots of stuff."
"We have to decorate the tree, remember?"
"Yes. But I have lights and balls enough for the both of you."
Ryan tossed his head back and laughed. "You're on. Let's go, then. But...you carry the back for a while, okay?"
They switched places, picked up the tree, and resumed their walk. It only took a few minutes for John to see what his boyfriend had meant: he had to walk along with the stand ahead of him, his arm extended, and that put most of the weight of the tree on him. His wrist started to ache first; and then his forearm; and then his shoulder. And then all of it started to complain more actively, and John was soon gritting his teeth at the stress. He tried holding the stand with both hands, but that took a lot of the give out of their motion, and their rhythm began to suffer for it.
"What are you doing back there?" Ryan called. "I feel like I'm dragging this thing!"
"Sorry." John went back to one hand, and then to gritting his teeth again.
They hadn't even reached the end of the second block when John called a halt.
"Okay, I see you your point. It's clumsy to handle."
Ryan smiled at him. "You're a little slow, but you do learn, eventually."
They set the tree on the stand, and looked around. Ahead of them, at the end of this block, was where the road curved off to the left. That was where they would need to leave the sidewalk and start heading into the wilds on the right side of the road. Well...Parker wasn't that rural, but there was plenty of tangle around once you got off the roads, and it was enough of a wild area to think that dragging a six-foot Christmas tree through it was not going to be easy.
The town of Parker had grown up around several long established farms, and was laid out in a sort of half-moon shape, where it skirted around the edges of two of the largest. One was the Felker farm, a great dairy operation in its heyday, but now mostly shut down as a working farm. Old man Felker had sold off some of the land on the other side of the farm, away from the town, and about a zillion townhouses had sprang up there. That had forced the county to build a new school, and in that respect, it had been a good move for the locals. There was also more business in the town's stores, and just the sense that the town had grown a bit in a good way.
People had long been cutting across the Felker's upper fields to get from one end of the arc of the town to the other. There was even a well-established path that left Borgnine Street at the curve ahead, cut through the tiny stand of woods surrounding the farm, and let out into the field beyond. It resumed again at the other side of the field, and let one out on Douglas Street, about a half a block from John's house. The savings in time were substantial compared to walking all the way around the arc.
Old man Felker seemed not to mind the traffic, either, though he did get annoyed if anyone bothered either of his two remaining cows. One of them, Josie, was a placid grazer that nothing seemed to faze. The other one, Jezebelle, was aptly named, had a fiery, intolerant disposition, and considered even the birds that sometimes landed in her field as trespassers worthy of chasing. Most of the time, both cows were penned in a smaller field outside the old barn, and it was quite safe to take the shortcut. But Mr. Felker also would let both cows out to 'stretch their legs' periodically, and you never knew when Jezebelle would be on guard duty or not. Taking the shortcut was always a little risky, though both cows tended to stay in the lower section of the field when let out to roam, and as the shortcut passed across the upper field, you generally had ample warning that Jezzy was out, and more than enough time to run across the field before she got to you.
"I think we should skip the shortcut," Ryan decided, after they had each caught their breath again. "That damn cow might be out, and we can't run carrying this tree."
John shook his head. "The cows were out loose the day before yesterday, remember? Old man Felker almost never lets them out but once a week, and this week ain't over yet."
"John...it's not a good idea."
John sighed, and moved closer to his boyfriend. "I know that. But it'll take us an hour to go by sidewalk - probably longer, because we'll have to keep stopping to rest. And then we have to set the tree up and decorate it...the whole damn day will be gone."
"What did you have to do today besides this?"
John pouted. "Well...nothing. Be with you. Try to find something fun in this Christmas."
Ryan looked pained, and moved a little closer. "John...just being with you is Christmas, for me. Don't you see that? Every day is Christmas for me. I have the best gift I could ever get. You."
John felt surprised, and then touched. "Well...I feel the same way."
"Then stop stressing over this. Stop looking for the meaning in it. There isn't one, except the one you give to it. You know?"
John considered that, and then nodded. "Maybe. Maybeso." He grinned then. "But I still want to take the shortcut. Stop worrying. We'll be fine.
Ryan squeezed his eyes closed and sighed. "You are so hard-headed."
John grinned, and patted his crotch. "It's not there yet, but just wait until I get you in my room."
Ryan looked startled, and then laughed. "You're crazy. But I love you, anyway."
"Yeah." John nodded. "I love you you, too, Ry. Now let's go."
They picked up the tree again, and reached the end of the block and crossed the street to the gap in the rusty barbwire fence that surrounded the upper end of the Felker place. The path started here, wound its way through a short section of woods, and then opened out into the field beyond. There was a drainage ditch by the side of the road, before you got to the fence, but it was dry and the ground hard, and they had only a little trouble wrestling the tree down into it and up the other side.
And then they were on the path.
"Home free now," John said, grinning.
They entered the path, being careful not to tangle the branches of the Christmas tree in the undergrowth to each side, which wasn't always easy, and made their way slowly to the edge of the field.
"Set it down a minute," Ryan said then. "I want to have a look, before we start across."
They stood the tree up again, and when it threatened to tip over on the uneven ground, John reached into the branches and grabbed the bole, to steady it. "Okay. Take a quick look."
Ryan nodded, and went out a few steps into the field, looking down the hill at the distant barn, a full half mile away. He frowned, scanned the field in both directions, and came back to his boyfriend. "I don't see anything."
John grinned. "See. We're good to go."
Ryan shook his head. "I mean, I don't see anything. I can see the small, fenced field by the barn, and the cows aren't in it."
"You see them anywhere else?"
John laughed. "There you go. They're probably in the barn today, cold as it is."
Ryan blew out a breath, watched the mist drift away on the morning air. "It is cold out, no doubt about that." He suddenly smiled then. "Feels like Christmas to me!"
"Let's go, then. Help me."
They got the tree again, and started across the field. The hard ground crunched under their feet, the grass feeling stiff and unyielding. How did cows eat this crap, anyway?, John wondered. Maybe they didn't. Maybe they ate-in in this kind of weather, and just roamed around outside to see the sights. Did cows get bored if they were stuck inside the barn?
- tinkle - tinkle - tinkle -
John slowed, forcing Ryan to slow. "Did you hear that?"
Ryan gave out an exasperated groan. "Yeah, I heard it. Keep going. We'll worry about what it is when we reach the trees!"
- tinkle - tinkle - tinkle -
John slowed even more, and turned his head, trying to get an idea where the sound was coming from.
And so made direct eye contact with the cow, which was charging up the hill, straight at them.
"Stop!" John hissed, setting down his end of the tree.
Ryan took a further step forward, and so almost lost his grip on the tree. "What -?"
John jumped at him, took the top of the tree from his grasp, and stood the tree upright on its stand. Then he grabbed his boyfriend and pulled him behind the tree. "Be quiet!"
They heard the cow then - both the grunting of its breathing as it ran, and the steady whoom-whoom-whoom-whoom of its hooves pounding the ground. Ryan froze, and John found himself holding the other boy protectively behind himself. "Don't move," John breathed.
- tinkle - tinkle - tinkle -
Gently, John parted some of the branches of the tree and peered through them. The cow appeared at the crest of the hill and stopped, obviously looking for them.
John took one look, and it was all he could do to stop himself from laughing out loud. It had to be Jezebelle, simply because Josie would never have bothered herself to come up the hill to confront them. That the cow beyond the Christmas tree was not in a good mood was plain, and John could certainly understand why.
She was wearing a red collar around her neck, which was laced round-and-round with what looked like holly, and from which little, merry bells were hung, which tinkled as the animal moved. The collar had white fur underneath it, probably making it very comfortable for the cow to wear, but no trade-off for the constant tinkling of the tiny bells, which simply had to be annoying as heck to the the cow.
As if that was not enough of an indignity, someone had strapped a pair of antlers to Jezebelle's head. It was a small deer rack, only about a four-pointer, but it simply looked comical atop the cow's head. That someone had made her up for the holiday was plain - maybe Mr. Felker's grandchildren were already visiting. This had the mark of their type of humor, from what John had seen of it in the past.
Behind him, Ryan gave out a tiny sputter, and covered his mouth with one hand. He had also seen the cow through the branches, and was also doing his best to be quiet about it.
Beyond the Christmas tree, Jezebelle stopped, turning her head this was and that, as if looking for them. John could almost imagine what the animal was thinking...
What? I could have sworn I saw a couple of knuckleheads up here in my field! But...that's just a tree, and trees don't move. Hmm.
The idea made him grin, and he had to cover his own mouth, too. Behind him, Ryan had pushed his face into the back of John's shoulder, and was laughing helplessly and silently, trying not to snort through his nose. The sound of it made John want to laugh, and he grinned madly and took one elbow and gently poked his boyfriend with it.
"Stop it. Be quiet."
Ryan nodded, but John could still feel him gently heaving for another thirty seconds before he got control of himself.
Poor Jezebelle. Her expression was just plain indignant, as if she could not believe what had been done to her. The cow did look like she was having a bad day. It was strange how animal expressions could translate into human ones in the eye. The cow looked like she was at the end of her last nerve, with nothing left but an explosion waiting to happen.
"What are we gonna do?" Ryan whispered into John's ear. "We can't stand here all day."
John shrugged, not sure yet what they could do. Jezzy was still watching the tree, and now her expression seemed almost startled. Hey...I don't remember a tree being there before...
"Maybe we can scare her off," John whispered.
"How are we gonna do that?"
John considered that a moment, and then had an idea. Quite suddenly, he stuck his arms out through the branches and waved them fiercely, and let out a holler in a piercing, high-pitched voice: "Whoo-whoo-whoo! Whoo-whoo-whoo!"
Jezebelle's head pulled back suddenly, her eyes grew huge, and the cow danced back from the tree. Encouraged, John waved his hands even more energetically, and let out another war yell.
The cow turned and ran back a distance, and then turned to look at the tree again.
"Well, go on, you big, dumb lump," John hissed. "Beat it!"
But Jezebelle had dropped her head, and now she stamped the ground with her fore hooves, her eyes locked on the unbelievably sassy tree. She shook her head from side to side, and looked far from ready to run for her life.
"Shit!" Ryan whispered hoarsely. "You just made her mad!"
It did look that way. Jezebelle's eyes looked hard now, as she pondered charging the tree.
"Run!" Ryan bellowed, and grabbed at John, trying to pull him from behind the tree. But John stayed put, trying to hold onto Ryan, to keep him from running.
But their hands slipped apart. Ryan stumbled out from behind the tree, took one look at the expression on Jezebelle's face - and took off running.
Except that he only made it about ten steps away from the tree. A tractor had been through here when the ground had been soft, leaving deep furrows in the ground. Now they were frozen hard. His eyes locked on the cow, Ryan stepped right into one, stumbled, and crashed to the ground.
Jezebelle took one look at the sprawled figure trespassing on her turf, and surged into motion, running right at Ryan.
John's whole world stopped in disbelief. Ryan was about to be trampled!
He didn't think, he didn't plan a thing. He just acted. John leaped out from behind the tree, raced to place himself between Ryan and the charging cow, turned to face her, held up both hands, and bellowed at the top of his lungs, the loudest he had ever screamed in his life: "Stop!"
And Jezzebelle did just that, splaying her legs slightly before her as she dug into the hard earth. She stopped about five feet away from John, so close that he could feel the warmth of her breath on his hands. And then the cow and the boy just looked at each other.
John shook his head, feeling numb. "You can't," he said to the cow.
Jezzebelle just watched him, looking unsure of herself for the first time.
"You okay?" John said over his shoulder.
John sensed movement behind him, and shook his head. "Don't get up yet. Just stay put."
Jezzebelle snorted, but backed up a step. John frowned at her, and nodded. "I can see why you're pissed off. Somebody hung that junk all over you." He blinked then, surprised at his own thoughts.
What was Christmas to a cow?
Nothing, that's what. Cows did not know how to have Christmas. Only people knew how to do that.
Only people knew how to do that.
John gently lowered his hands, and took a step forward.
"What are you doing?" Ryan hissed, and John could hear the fear in his boyfriend's voice.
"Just stay there," he said, quietly. "Trust me."
He took another step towards Jezebelle, who eyed him with definite uncertainty now, as if thinking to herself, this is not the way this is supposed to go.
It only took a few steps to cross to the cow. John stopped right in front of her, while Jezzebelle watched him uncertainly.
"Nice cow," John said, softly, and laid a hand on her muzzle. She immediately shook it off, but now her eyes were plainly wondering.
John nodded, laid his hand even more slowly on the cow's muzzle, and gave it a gentle rub. "See? I'm being nice."
This time, Jezzebelle's eyes watched him, but she did not pull away from his touch.
Slowly, John slid his hand back, until it laid upon the buckle of the strap holding the antlers upon Jezzy's head. He fumbled with it, got it undone, and then Jezzy stepped back as the antlers fell from her head.
"Better?" John asked, holding up his hands. "I'm sure that's more comfortable."
He stepped closer, again gently rubbed the cow's muzzle, and then the top of her head. Jezzy stood still, and allowed him to do it. John rubbed the top of her head a moment, and then found the buckle holding the collar with the bells around her neck, undid it, and let it drop to the ground. Jezzy started at the last - tinkle - tinkle - tinkle - and looked down at the offending collar for a moment before looking back at John. And then she have a little grunt, and turned and started back down across the field.
"Merry Christmas," John breathed, relief flooding throughout his body.
He sensed his boyfriend getting to his feet behind him; and then Ryan had his arms around John's waist. He laid his chin on John's shoulder, and sighed. "You saved me."
John turned around within the other's embrace, and hugged him hard, and then hugged him more gently. "I thought I was gonna lose you."
They stood that way a moment, while thoughts whirled about in John's mind. Christmas is about people, Ryan had told him...
And it was true. And not just Christmas, either. Life was about people. Life was no good without others to share it with. He had been complaining that Christmas was no fun anymore. But...had he tried to make it fun? His parents had made it fun for him, once. But they were busier these days, trying to make ends meet. They were often too busy to be fun.
But John wasn't. They had left the few details of Christmas to him to handle this year, and he had goofed up every single one of them. Things were not fun because John had not seen anything but his own side of things. If his parents were too busy for the small things that made the holiday fun, then couldn't...couldn't John take up the slack for them? Couldn't he make it fun for them for a change? Didn't he owe them that much, in return?
And Ryan. He had been trying to be cheerful for the holiday - cheerful enough for the both of them - and John had done nothing but sour things down. He felt terrible now, knowing he owed his boyfriend much better than that.
John kissed Ryan, not once, but three times, before pulling back and grinning at him. "See how easy that was?"
Ryan gaped at him, and then swatted him. John took it with a grin, and then pulled Ryan back into an embrace. "Okay, I'm sorry. It was stupid to come this way. It could have ended badly." He let the smile slide away, and looked into Ryan's eyes. "I'm sorry."
Ryan simply nodded. "I don't blame you." He sighed. "I do love you, though."
John nodded. "Me, too."
Ryan watched him a moment, and then nodded. "I believe you." He looked over John's shoulder at the distant rear of Jezzebelle, now back down in the lower field. "So let's get, while the getting is good."
They returned to the tree, hoisted it up again, and crossed the rest of the field. This time, they did not put it down again until they reached the safety of the woods, and stepped inside. And then they hugged again, as the adrenalin within them wore itself out.
"Do you think that cow really would have stepped on me?" Ryan asked.
John shrugged, playing it down, even though he remembered with crystal clarity the expression in Jezzebelle's eyes as she had charged Ryan. "Probably not. She probably just wanted to scare us."
"She did that," Ryan said, smiling. "I'm still shaking."
John nodded, putting his arm around his boyfriend. "Yeah." He sighed. "I learned something, though."
Ryan laughed. "Yeah. Don't mess with crazy cows."
Some other things, too, John thought to himself. But he just nodded again, and kissed Ryan one more time.
They resumed their trek then, and this time did not stop again until they were able to set the tree down in John's living room. The stand was already there, in the corner of the room by the window. They knocked off the makeshift cross that had supported the tree at the lot, stood the tree up in the support base, added some water, and tightened the clamp. And then they stepped back to look at it.
"I think it's going to be worth the effort," John said, grinning.
Ryan nodded. "It's a pretty tree. What are we putting on it?"
John rubbed his hands together gleefully. "I'll get the stuff. But first --"
He turned on the stereo, and put in a CD of Christmas carols, and turned it down so it would be there in the background. And then he hauled out the big box of tree trimmings from the hall closet, and carried it over to the tree. John opened it, and began taking out smaller boxes of multi-colored ornaments, tinsel, and lights.
They set to work, stringing the lights, hanging the different decorations, and tossing bits of tinsel here and there among the branches. An hour went by, while they talked and laughed and worked on the tree. John found that he was having fun, and almost wished the moment would never end.
"It looks pretty good," Ryan finally said, stepping back and gazing at the decorated tree. Their Fraser Fir was aglow now with twinkling lights and baubles of every color, and draped generously with strands of gold and silver tinsel. If anything, it was slightly overdone - but to John it just looked beautiful. That Ryan was there to share it with him made all the difference.
John grinned then, and pointed at the carpeted floor. "I think you dropped a ball under there, though. Better get it, before my dad steps on it or something."
Ryan looked down. "What? I dropped one?"
"I heard it fall," John said, keeping his face straight. "I can see my dad stepping on it in his stocking feet now."
Ryan pursed his lips, but dropped to his knees and looked beneath the lower branches. "I don't see anything."
John dropped to his knees beside him, and pointed. "There, in the back."
Ryan sighed, and eyed him; but he leaned forward onto his hands and lowered himself to his belly. And then he was squirming under the tree.
John grinned, laid down, and squirmed in beside him.
"I don't see it," Ryan said, turning to look at him.
"I lied," John said then. "You didn't drop anything."
Ryan blinked at him, but then grinned as John pushed his face closer.
"So we're here for a reason?"
"Yes." John nodded, and kissed his boyfriend. "I just wanted to tell you what I learned today."
"And what was that?"
John sighed. "Well...you were right all along. Christmas isn't about Santa, and all that stuff. Or about presents. It's not even about the tree." He sighed then, and kissed his boyfriend one more time. "Christmas is about what's under the tree, I think."
Ryan grinned, and returned the kiss. "You did learn something. I'm happy about that."
John nodded. "I love you."
Ryan leaned his forehead against John's, and sighed. "I love you, too."
They stayed close, their eyes closed, until Ryan finally started to laugh. "We're not staying here until your parents get home, are we?"
John opened his eyes and grinned. "I'll say not. We have stuff to do!"
They inched backwards from under the tree, and got to their feet. Ryan looked it over, and shook his head. "What's left? It's done."
"Not that." John took his boyfriend's hand, and started to lead him towards the kitchen. "Do you know how to make chocolate chip cookies?"
Ryan stopped, and stared at him. "Are you serious?"
John nodded, his eyes twinkling. "Sure."
Ryan laughed. "Well...no, I don't know how to make chocolate chip cookies."
"That's okay. I do." John took his boyfriend's hand again and started forward. "Come on. I'll teach you."