Of all the tasks Paul or Patryck had been assigned by their commander, this was easily the most bizarre. Neither of the two had any reason to question his leadership, certainly not since he’d joined the Red Army and risen through the ranks faster than any recruit before him...
But ordering them to decorate the base for Christmas? Really?
“It’s an old tradition of mine,” was the only explanation Tord offered. “I always used to go all-out for Christmas to annoy and old…friend of mine.”
The way his mouth had twitched into a devilish smirk on the word “friend” had made both Paul and Patryck shift uncomfortably. Loyal as they were to their army’s cause and their superior, sometimes he frightened them. When it came to Tord, there always seemed to be something seething under his surface, some pent-up, focused angry energy that leaked out whenever a reminder of his time before joining the army was brought up. He seemed so level-headed and organized, but somewhere in his psyche was a chaotic spirit, fueled by something like…vengeance? Obsession? There was no telling with him.
In their time since being placed under his direct command, Paul and Patryck had developed a mutual respect for Tord. It wasn’t until they both were assigned this holiday task that they gained enough common ground with each other to become comrades in more than just arms.
“Make sure the lights are as bright as possible!” Tord commanded, surveying his two subordinates as they carried out cardboard boxes into their base’s main room. “And see what you can do about the garlands. Try to only use the red ones, but add some green if you must.”
With a heavy thunk, Paul set down the box of tangled, shiny garlands on the cramped base’s floor. He hoped untangling the reds from the golds, silvers, and greens would be easier than it looked. The garlands were essentially tied into a single knot, hopelessly interwoven in a mass of Christmas colors.
“Ah, is that the last one?” Tord absently asked when Patryck walked in with a final box of miscellaneous decorations.
“Last one I could find, sir,” Patryck reported, carefully balancing his box atop a few others gathered in the room.
“Excellent.” Tord smiled and put his hands behind his head, reclining into them and turning to leave. “I’ll be in my bunk if you need me. Good luck decorating.”
The very instant Tord was out of the room, Paul exhaled tiredly. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
“Hmm?” Patryck’s head popped up from peering into one of the numerous boxes.
By then Paul was too preoccupied wrangling the ball of garland to respond. He tugged fruitlessly at the mess of reflective strands, growing more frustrated by the second. He gave up before so much as a minute could pass, lowering the balled garland and sighing.
“You any good with knots?” Paul asked.
Though he’d been watching Paul’s struggle with quiet amusement, Patryck really did feel bad for him, so he answered, “I’ll…see what I can do, I guess.”
It turned out that Patryck was good with knots, as shortly after the garland had been handed over to him, he’d separated the strands by color and mostly unraveled them. Though the process was exceedingly itchy, he’d won an easy triumph.
“Wow,” Paul praised when Patryck handed him the first red strand. “That’s, uh, pretty impressive.”
“It’s easy,” Patryck replied proudly as he continued working on the garlands. “I guess I just have the right kind of fingers for it. I used to play piano.”
Paul snorted. “What kind of soldier has the free time to learn an instrument?”
“I…wasn’t always a soldier,” Patryck sheepishly answered.
Pausing, Paul fiddled with his garland. “Ah, right…” He stood up, placing the prickly red rope along a shelf on the wall. “What drew you to the Red Army, then?”
“I’d always wanted to be a pilot,” Patryck answered, handing his companion another red strand. “A recruiter found me while I was on vacation in England, and long story short, I’ve never left. Haven’t been home in a long time, but now I get to be a pilot, so it works out.”
Hoping to find out more about his normally quiet coworker, Paul pressed further. “Where’s home for you?”
“Poland. I was living in Kielce.”
Paul’s famously thick eyebrows rose. “Oh, okay…I always knew you weren’t from around here, but I never knew where.” He huffed a laugh as he situated another garland. “So it turns out we’re a Dutch, a Pole, and a Norwegian living under the same roof. Imagine that.”
“You’re Dutch?” Patryck asked incredulously. “I never could place your accent…”
Taking another crimson garland as Patryck fed it to him, Paul explained, “I’ve lived in many places other than the Netherlands, so my voice is a little…weird. That’s mostly because I was stationed at a lot of different military bases.”
“I take it that you’ve been a soldier for a while, then?”
Stepping back to admire his handiwork, Paul barely even paid the inquiry any thought. “Basically born and raised in the military. The Red Army recruited me when I was stationed in England a while back.” A forlorn weight tugged at his features in the room’s dimness. “Would’ve been nice to have a break to do something else. Like…learn piano, for example.”
Patryck brightened as he piled the remaining non-red garlands back into their respective box. “M-maybe I could teach you sometime!”
That made Paul utter a short, genuine laugh. “Yeah, good luck with that. I’m not a very musical person, so I’d be tough to teach.” He moved on to the next box, this one brimming with Christmas lights. “I’d honestly prefer to draw. That’s what I used to do with any free time I did have.”
“You draw?” Patryck was impressed. “I wish I could do that…”
“Well, maybe I can teach you something too, then,” Paul quipped, pulling out a bundle of wires and tiny lightbulbs. “…Actually, for right now, you could teach me the art of untangling.”
The wires were in even worse shape than the garlands, so Patryck happily obliged. He sat down beside Paul, taking half of the twisted wires and setting to work.
“You have to be delicate about it,” Patryck instructed. “A-and patient, that’s important too. Take it one wire at a time.”
Humming thoughtfully and taking his own half of the lights, Paul took one portion of wire and began the lengthy process of pulling it out from its companions. Though Patryck had told him to have patience, he was growing weary of the monotonous process, eventually resorting to tugging on the rope of lights.
“Whoa, not like that!” Patryck cried as soon as he noticed what Paul was doing. “Here, just…let me show you.”
Abandoning his own work-in-progress, Patryck reached over to gently take Paul’s selected portion of wire. His fingers brushed over Paul’s in the process, making both of them tense, but Patryck quickly returned to retrieving the wire to hurry past the odd awkwardness before it could settle in.
“Uh, here…” Patryck held up the wire. “Don’t be too harsh with it, or it’ll just get more tangled.” He carefully slid the wire out from the tangled mass, its lights clinking against each other. “Like this.”
Slowly nodding his head, Paul chose another wire at random from the pile, copying Patryck’s slow process as best as he could. He still could barely stand the slow pace, exhaling gruffly but forcing himself to maintain his sluggish speed.
“That’s how you do it,” Patryck encouraged. “If both of us keep at this, we’ll have these up in no time.”
Though still troubled by the delicate work, Paul shared in Patryck’s optimism. Sure enough, through their combined efforts, they did untangle the entire strand of lights, each of them meeting in the middle. It was a moment reminiscent of the famous pasta scene in Lady and the Tramp, except instead of spaghetti they had Christmas lights, and instead of being dogs, they were two soldiers in a secret underground army.
They strung up the lights around the room’s ceiling, holding them in place with some tape, and plugged them in. The sight was magnificent, alternating greens, reds, and blues illuminating the dark room.
After that, the rest of the decorating was much smoother. Patryck tied up stars with red ribbons to any suitable surface he could find while Paul set out a tacky Christmas rug and lit some peppermint-scented candles. All throughout, they kept up casual, friendly conversation, getting to know each other better beyond their professional lives.
The pair stood in the center of the room to survey their hard work. Though the base was a dreary, minimalistic place, the addition of holiday décor certainly made it feel homelier. They were certain that Tord would be pleased with the results, and they themselves were also rather pleased with the fruits of their labor.
“That just about does it,” Patryck decided, glancing at the now mostly empty boxes behind them. “We did a good job, huh?”
Paul nodded his head in acknowledgement, still silently viewing the Christmas lights and the colorful refractions they cast over the room. His gaze eventually landed on Patryck, who watched him with an expectant, giddy glint in his eyes. For whatever reason, this made something warm twist in Paul’s chest and he reflexively smiled. Though it was getting late and they had to be up bright and early for a training exercise tomorrow, he didn’t want this evening to end.
Clearing his throat, Paul asked as casually as he could manage, “Now that we’re done, would you want to…” His face heated up and he faltered. “Maybe…come back to my bunk and…look at some of my drawings?”
Patryck hadn’t expected Paul’s offer, but the giddiness in his eyes grew massively once it registered. “I-I would love to! Maybe you could show me some drawing tips?”
That giddiness of Patryck’s must have been contagious, because Paul was starting to feel faintly giddy himself at Patryck’s enthusiasm. He couldn’t recall being this excited for something in a long, long time.
And so, the two of them set off towards Paul’s bunk. The threat of keeping each other awake all night was ever-present, but somehow, neither of them cared. If they were to be groggy and sleep-deprived at their training session the next morning, so be it; at least they got to spend the evening cultivating what would prove to become much, much more than a friendship.
Thus ends the first day of Christmas.