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This Weary Ritual

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So Constantine thought that he couldn't hate this week any more. Thanksgiving had been a slog, it always was. He had eaten his Ma's food - which was good at least, far and away better than TV dinners - and he had listened to his Ma's prattle. She knew - she always did - that the women she asked about were years in the past now. She seemed utterly unable to accept that at thirty five years old it was possible that Constantine could look after his own romantic life without advice.

The farm was always humbling that way. Worse, since his father had died, leaving his Ma taking care of the slowly dwindling and geriatric population of animals. The chickens too old to lay and too tough to eat, scratched lazily in the dirt. It barely felt like winter yet - the year had been holding out on snow like a miser clutching pennies, so while it was cold enough, the skies did nothing but stretch grayly over bare and skeletal trees.

Constantine got up on the ladder anyway and began hanging the Christmas lights. The strings were from the seventies and had required extensive coaxing this year. He was glad his Ma had hoarded the replacement bulbs even if he'd laughed when he was a teenager. There were only two backups now, and he knew next year would be hell, talking his Ma into finally upgrading.

"Everyone else has those icicle things now," he'd tried, lamely, when he'd seen the tangle he'd left for himself from last year.

"They're so cheap looking," Ma had answered, stubborn as he was. "And we're not everybody else, Connie."

He wasn't sure when he'd started to append 'god help us' to that statement internally, but that hadn't been the time he stopped.

"Ma," he scolded, and let the rest die when she just looked at him.

So there he was. He put lights up into hooks installed years ago under the eaves of the house by his father and he wasn't sure if he hoped this was the year the damn things burned the house down or not. When he was a kid they had been brightly colored and cheerful, but age had clouded and muddled them. They were white at any distance but that of six inches now, except the new bulbs. Even careful arrangement can't hide that, so Con just puts them up and leaves them.

He barely missed a chicken as he stepped off the ladder, and sent it scattering with an indignant set of scolding clucks from under his heel. His fingers were half frozen and his face felt wind torn and frostbitten. He wanted to be in the city, his apartment maybe. A hot shower instead of the tired lukewarm trickle he'd get out here. But there would still be the tree to put up, an awkward dinner to sit through.

His Ma insisting next year he has to 'bring that girl up'. He hasn't seen her since school anyway, not since that whole fucking mess, but he'd never told his Ma about that. Only his dad. So she never knew she was ripping that scab off, over and over.

The kid would be fourteen this year. His Ma could never let shit go.

A warm, heavy nose touched his shoulder, then a deep grassy exhalation of air followed against Con's cheek. Con startled, went rigid fast enough to collide with the underside of the jaw that was about to hook over his shoulder, and startled the horse right back. A little. Oliver got over it almost as quickly as Con did, after one sharp stomp of disapproval.

"Who let you out?" Con asked the horse, but he was looking at his dog while he reached up. Some guard - the dog was sacked out on the front stoop, dead asleep. It used to be that he'd go nuts when the horses got out, but maybe he'd been in the city too long.

Constantine scratched an aging gray muzzle while the horse stood expectantly.

"I think I did," a voice interrupted, and he jumped again, this time nearly practically onto Oliver.

"Christ," Con said, clutched his chest and peered around the bulky neck. Oliver stood looking nonplussed, ears tipped back as he tried to decide if Constantine was going to do any more hopping around.

"Surprise?" his partner said, moved into Con's field of view holding a six pack of good beer and a pie.

"David, Christ," Con repeated, and glanced back toward the gate. "What are you doing all the way out here?"

"Watching you hump your ass up and down a ladder," David answered with a grin, "And freeing livestock."

The sound of David's voice finally penetrated the dog's brain, because he got up off the stoop in a slow, unconcerned fashion and meandered traitorously over to David for a pat. David passed Con the beer to free up a hand.

"Some watchdog," Con said, but he hadn't missed David's lack of an explanation. "Your Thanksgiving had to suck pretty bad if this is the better alternative."

"I can't just spread a little holiday cheer?"

"In the city, sure. You drove all the fuckin' way to the boondocks. That's an escape," Con said, heading inside. His foot hit the box - the artificial tree his Ma hated but she'd finally allowed. Con was worried the house would burn down if she kept on with the real ones.

"That's an escape," David agreed, but didn't clarify, steadying Constantine as he pinwheeled his free arm and tried not to go head-over-teacups.

"I put the tree where you could find it, Connie!" his Ma called, as she peered out of the kitchen and down the stairs at Con. She lit up when she saw David, oblivious to Con's glare. David grinned like a million bucks, and that almost made the not-cool-since-before-puberty nickname his Ma used almost okay.

"David, dear! Oh come up here. You can help Constantine decorate the tree, dear." And David, as always, handled Con's Ma with grace. It was probably easier when you didn't have thirty five years of experience.

"I'd be delighted Mrs. Fitzweiss," David answered, and gave her the required hug.

Con was so grateful, suddenly. As much as he hated the holidays, the hollow empty reminders of what he no longer had and all the physical labor involved, he realized how much he actually had.

"Yeah," Con said, "Gotta go put Oliver up, Ma. You can put this thing together, right Serkey?"

David actually laughed at him. So when Con came back in and saw the lumpy tree, he had to pause to figure out what the problem was.

The two middle sections were reversed. His Ma was straight faced, and trying to restrain her urge to help, but Con just lost it.

They left the tree that way. It was even funnier after a couple of beers.