Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.
Erwin was fairly sure he’d never actually heard the final verse of The First Noel, though the lyrics were hardly surprising...why was it that every Christmas song echoed the same sentiments over and over again? Why couldn’t people at least get a bit more creative?
He wasn’t a grinch, or at least, he tried hard not to be. After all, he had a niece and two nephews who were looking forward to “Santa” bringing the gifts that they so desperately wanted, and he never failed to cook a perfectly done goose for Christmas dinner with his parents and brother. But at the end of the day, Christmas was little more than an extra day off...one of the few he would be given in a year. Even tonight, on Christmas Eve, he’d been tied up at work until eight pm. Luckily enough, the department stores had taken pity on him, and as he stood in a line of about ten other last-minute schmucks, he pushed a low industrial-style cart before him filled with the Christmas wishes of his family and contemplated the disappointingly mundane lyrics of The First Noel. What a time of year.
The cashier couldn’t have looked more displeased, and Erwin didn’t blame her. She probably had a family, people waiting for her. In his own firm, Erwin tried to make sure that all of those below a certain pay grade were given both Christmas Eve and Christmas day off. The fat cats could work late on Christmas Eve, but that’s what it meant to make six digits a year...but his secretary hadn’t worked at all today, and he’d sent out a memo to all those who made less than six figures and told them to enjoy their last minute Christmas shopping. It was the decent thing to do. And...well, if you wanted to attract the best in the business, you had to make your employees happy.
That sort of thinking made him cringe, especially on Christmas Eve, but it was true either way.
“One thousand, two hundred and seventy five, eighty three,” the cashier said, looking up at him. “Do you need help out with that?”
“Ahhh,” Erwin looked at the bags as he piled them on the cart - having the cashier do it seemed almost cruel. “No...I think I can handle it, as long as I can take the cart.”
“Of course,” she said, and Erwin realized that she hadn’t really stopped staring at him, her eyes locked on his own. It wasn’t a reaction he was unused to getting. He smiled at her with his lips, she blinked and replied, “Just...bring it back, okay?”
“I promise,” he replied, handing her an American Express black card.
When she’d given him his receipt, he smiled at her one last time and took his leave through the sliding glass doors. Between these purchases and the presents he’d had his secretary order off of Amazon last week, he’d taken care of everything on his rather extensive list. He didn’t mind buying the expensive gifts every year. He had the means and no family of his own to support. He wasn’t really planning on having one, either. The housekeeper had assured him that she had set the duck out to thaw that morning, and everything should have been more or less in order...which was just as he preferred it, truth be told. “Anal Retentive” was the preferred descriptor, but were he truly so anal if he put of his Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve?
He was shaken from his thoughts by a small, grumbling bundle of blankets plastered against the brick wall outside the department store, surrounded by coins and even a few dollar bills. Erwin wasn’t unaccustomed to seeing people begging around the entrances of stores and markets, and he always tried to leave them something when he had loose change or bills on him. After putting all of his parcels in the trunk of his Mercedes S-Class, he shut the trunk and pulled out his wallet to check for singles. As he opened it, he caught a few white flakes falling on the black Italian leather. They hadn’t had a white Christmas in years...the last one Erwin remembered was a visit home from grad school. It must have been fifteen years before.
He couldn’t help the smile that fell across his face, then, and he pulled out a twenty and folded it in his leather gloved hands. It was Christmas...that poor soul huddled in the blankets needed a hot meal, he was sure. Maybe he could keep them from starving tonight.
After returning the cart, Erwin tucked a five into the bell-ringers bucket, wished them a Merry Christmas, and made his way back out. The bundle of blankets turned out to have long, thin fingers wrapped around a cheap bottle of whiskey, but their face was shadowed by the blanket that hooded over them. Erwin dropped the twenty in front of them and murmured, “Merry Christmas,” before walking on his way.
He’d only managed a few steps when something small and hard and incredibly cold smacked into the side of his head, bounced off, and clattered against the pavement. In the golden glow of the parking lot lamps, Erwin realized he’d been accosted by one of those ridiculous one-dollar coins that no one had ever bothered to use. He’d never realized how heavy those things were, Christ. As he turned to see where it had come from, his twenty dollar bill came floating at him on the breeze and fell just in front of his perfectly polished oxford shoes. Incredulous, his eyes fell back on the bundle, which now had a face and an extremely grumpy pair of pale eyes.
“Hey, old man, do I look like I’m fucking begging to you?” the bundle asked. The voice was low, roughened by smoke and cold, but young nevertheless. Erwin leaned down, smoothly picked up the money at his feet and walked the few paces back toward the bundle.
“I apologize,” he said smoothly. He looked down at the face before him, defiant, dirty, and daring him to make a mistake. “I’ll take back the bill, if it offends you. I suppose I shouldn’t have assumed that you needed it.”
The face was hardly mollified, but Erwin opened his wallet slowly nevertheless and slipped the bill back inside. Gesturing toward the whiskey, he continued, “You know, that snow is really coming down.”
“And?” the face spat back at him, the whiskey coming up to their lips, pouring into their mouth with impunity.
“Well, I only mention it because drinking in freezing weather is a good way to die of exposure.”
Those bloodshot grey eyes focused in on him then, and Erwin felt a shock go through him, something like recognition but it was electricity through his spine, travelling down and settling in his lower back. The sensation was so visceral that for a moment, he wondered if he’d been tazed, but the moment quickly passed. Erwin tilted his head and focused his own eyes on the creature before him, a small smile playing at his lips. “If you’re not begging, why are you sitting here right next to the door?”
“Oh ho,” the creature said, smirking with lips near as pale and grey as their eyes, “A pretty-boy asshole like you wouldn’t have the first clue. I bet you would freeze to death out here, wouldn’t you? Well fuckwad, if you wanna stay warm...you gotta find a heat source, don’tcha?” Erwin let his eyes focus on the door, and he considered how warm it had been inside, and how quickly the cold was creeping through his scarf and down his neck. Perhaps the faint bursts of heat from the door would help for a second or two, but they would hardly stave off exposure, and the store closed in half an hour anyway.
“You’re right,” Erwin replied easily, looking back down at the bundle. “I’ve never been homeless. I wouldn’t last a day out here. But...you’re drunk, and I’m afraid this place isn’t open all night.”
The bundle scoffed at him and took another swig of whiskey. The bottle was half empty. Erwin couldn’t help but wonder if they’d drank it all tonight. “Hey, I know an old fag like you probably gets off on being the dashing stranger and all, but you think you could just go the fuck away? I’m trying to have a Merry Fucking Christmas, and you’re bringing me down.”
“I apologize,” Erwin replied, and he tried to push a small smile from his face. “But did you call me dashing?”
“Fuck off,” the bundle said, but there was a difference in the quality of their tone, and Erwin hoped it wasn’t wishful thinking to imagine that the bundle could be warming to him.
“Also, there’s no need for us to be strangers. My name is Erwin Smith. And you?”
“What an odd name.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Not at all.”
Those eyes met his in silence, and Erwin noticed all at once that the snow was coming down a little harder, the flakes fat and full, settling in clumps around them both. He crouched down next to the bundle and leaned toward them. “I don’t suppose you would mind sharing a drink with me.”
“Fuck off, get your own. Clearly you can afford it.”
“That’s right, I can, and many times over. So why don’t you let me buy you a drink?”
“Is that supposed to be smooth, motherfucker?”
“I don’t know, was it?”
He stayed crouched like that for a moment before he remembered that the bundle was surrounded by coins. Erwin smiled, now, this time he couldn’t help it. “So, you’re not begging.”
“What, are you fucking deaf? I already told you I’m not, you gaping asshole. I’m sitting here for warmth.”
“Right, of course.”
Erwin watched as the creature swigged from their bottle of whiskey. Most people had the good sense to put it in a paper bag and avoid the “open container” laws, but this one, apparently, didn’t think such arbitrary rules were theirs to follow. “But you didn’t see fit to throw that coin at any other heads tonight, did you?”
The bundle scoffed. “What, you think you’re special? Maybe I just wanted a chance to steal that fucking watch, but changed my mind when I realized how fucking pitiful you are. So fuck off already before I change it again.”
Erwin looked down at his watch. He was fairly fond of it, truth be told. It was a Panarai Luminor, black, and even used, it would fetch several thousand dollars. The bundle knew his valuables...the watch wasn’t overly flashy, most people wouldn’t have focused in on it. Erwin could imagine why the bundle didn’t need to beg, then, but why live in such a way?
“Here, have it. Merry Christmas.” Erwin went to remove the watch, and the grey eyes went wide.
“No! Don’t, just. Fuck off already. Don’t you know what’s good for you? How’d you get so fucking rich when you’re so fucking stupid? Jesus Christ, Erwin Smith, go take a long fucking shit on your solid gold toilet and leave me the fuck alone.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Erwin replied, and in one smooth motion he reached over and plucked the bottle of whiskey from the bundle’s hands, jumping back quickly to avoid a swiping punch that followed. For being a half-bottle of whiskey down, the bundle was quick as hell. Fortunately, they were also a good foot shorter than Erwin. He held the whiskey above his head, and took a long look at the creature that the bundle had transformed into. Shaggy, limp black hair fell around their face and into their grey eyes, which were so pale as to be almost clear. Their skin was almost ashen, except the redness of their nose and cheeks, which would have been almost comical if it hadn’t been indicative of too much alcohol and freezing temperatures. They were wearing a threadbare coat, or something that had once been a coat, ripped countless times, and sewn back together with meticulous care. Their jeans were in about the same condition, and their feet had on a pair of sneakers that certainly weren’t fit for the snow.
What struck Erwin most, however, was how tiny they were. Slender, short, and fine-boned, they looked as though they would be tiny now matter how much they had to eat. Somehow, despite this, they weren’t at all diminutive. Perhaps it was the snarl.
“Old man, I’m going to say this once. Give it. The fuck. Back to me.”
“What’s your name?”
“Are you seriously going to-...”
“What’s your name?”
“I can promise you that even pretty boys bleed red.”
“What. Is. Your. Name?”
They stared at one another for a moment, Erwin with a fairly serene smile, the little supposed burglar with murder in his eyes.
“Come on,” Erwin coaxed, smiling, nodding his head toward the whiskey. “I’m not asking for much.”
A violent shiver went through them, then, and Erwin could see them clench their teeth together to keep them from chattering. “Fine! My name is Levi. Give me my god damn whiskey and get the hell out of here. If I’d known you were going to be such a fucking pain in my ass I would have kept your damn twenty. At least now I feel like I’ve fucking earned it.”
Erwin’s smile broadened a bit, and he nodded. “Levi,” he said, rolling the name around in his mouth. “Lovely name.”
“Yeah, shove it up your ass. Give me back my whiskey.”
“Come with me.”
Levi stared at him, eyes still bloodshot but slowly sobering up. His brow creased as he asked, “Why, you some kind of pervert?”
“At times,” Erwin replied, “But not the kind that hurts others. Not without their permission.”
“Then what the fuck?”
“You’re drunk and freezing, it’s snowing outside and it’s Christmas Eve. I have family coming tomorrow...you can stay and eat with us, or you can leave before they arrive. And I promise you’ll get a shower, bed and room to yourself with a lock on the door.”
“You still haven’t told me why.”
“Because you’re beautiful, and interesting, and I want to know you better, but I would be fine just knowing that you didn’t freeze to death on Christmas Eve.”
They stared at one another then, and Erwin could feel Levi searching his eyes, his face, his expression for some hint as to what he was doing and why, for some clear indication that his words were genuine. For his part, Erwin had been disarmingly honest, which had shocked even him. The accuracy of his reasoning for wanting to save Levi was thus that even he hadn’t truly known until he’d said it outloud. He looked down at him with clear blue eyes, waiting in silence as the snow fell around them, and the occasional car drove slowly by.
Finally, it was Levi who broke the silence.
“I bet you got a nice liquor cabinet, huh.”
“I do. I’ll be up half the night cooking side dishes for tomorrow, if you’d like to keep me company I’ll be glad to let you loose on it.”
“And what if I rob you blind?”
“I have insurance,” he replied with a shrug. “A few fancy knick knacks are hardly worth you freezing to death.”
“You’re so fucking weird.”
Levi stared a moment longer, but his decision was made, Erwin could see it in his eyes. Finally, he turned and made toward his blankets, but Erwin spoke before he could gather them up. “Leave them. You wont need them anymore.” To his surprise, Levi did leave them, just grabbed a backpack that Erwin hadn’t seen until now and shrugged it on his bony shoulders.
“Alright old man. I hope that fancy-ass car of yours has heated seats.”
“It does,” Erwin replied with a smile. He felt more than slightly triumphant and strangely...well, strangely at ease.
As they climbed into the car, Erwin pressed the button to start the ignition, and turned to steal one last glance at this lovely creature he’d managed to catch. He knew he couldn’t assume Levi would stick around beyond this night, but something...something told him that he would. They would have to see.
Levi flicked on the radio and Erwin heard the familiar strains of “The First Noel.” He saw those long pale fingers reach out to change the station, but he caught them in his own. “Leave it,” he said softly, smiling at Levi.
“Whatever,” Levi replied, and Erwin could swear he smiled back.