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The Season of Joy

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There were a lot of people waiting in front of this particular room. A lot of people who mostly didn’t get along very well, so everyone was waiting in sullen silence, looking warily at those around them. Lion took a quick peek at all the other operators, trying to discern why they were all gathered here, and came up blank. A massive mission or training exercise, maybe? Whatever the reason, he hoped Harry would arrive soon and deliver them from the awkwardness setting in.

Five minutes -that felt like five decades- later, Harry finally arrived, accompanied by Ash. Their expressions couldn’t be more different, Lion noted. While he looked pleased, Ash barely hid a grimace upon seeing the group of operators gathered here. Lion couldn’t blame her, he had a bad feeling about this as well. It only got worse when Harry opened the door and Lion saw the inside of the room.

There was nothing, except for a circle of chairs, each one with a name tag on it, detailing the order in which they would have to sit. Lion was seated between Doc and Thatcher, the unease he felt only worsening because of the sitting arrangement. But it was on purpose, he soon noticed. Clash sat on the other side of Thatcher, looking none too happy about it either. Ash was sandwiched between Mira and Kali, and all three women were glaring daggers at the others. The Bosak sisters were next, then Valkyrie and Caveira. And the circle was closed by Ying being flanked by Echo and Fuze. What was the purpose of this? Unless Harry was looking to aggravate everyone, Lion couldn’t understand what he was playing at.

“You’ll be probably wondering what are we doing here,” Harry broke the uncomfortable silence after everyone sat down. “There’s been an increase in interpersonal friction and conflict lately, and it’s time we tackle this issue head on. You’re all professionals, you’ll be working together and you will learn to get along. That’s the goal.”

Several whispers and coughs cast doubts over Harry’s words. None of these people could stand each other, a more realistic objective would be to get everyone to tolerate each other better, but getting along? Pigs would fly before that happened. Lion himself couldn’t imagine being friendly with Thatcher nor Doc, much to his dismay. There was too much bad blood between them.

Seeing as the unhappy murmurs didn’t quiet down, Harry addressed the room. “Okay, raise your hands if you’d rather be anywhere else. And be honest.” All the hands went up in the air, and Harry smiled. “Excellent, you’re already finding common ground.”

Undaunted by the hostile atmosphere in the room, Harry instructed them in the exercise of the day: they were to say two truths and one lie about themselves, and the person next to them had to guess which one was the lie. Lion supposed it worked as an ice-breaker, but Lion wasn’t keen on the idea. Mostly because he didn’t know how personal or superficial he should go with these facts. Was his favorite color an appropriate fact, or should he disclose something more personal? This group counseling setting was new for him, before he only talked about these kind of things when it was just him and Harry.

Doc was instructed to go first, so he turned to glare at Lion, as if this was his fault. “I travelled to more than ten different countries outside of Rainbow’s operations, my favorite drink is coffee, and I always wanted to be a doctor.”

“The last one is a lie,” Lion pointed out, memories of long nights under the African night sky and endless conversations briefly flashed in his mind, before they vanished in a cloud of smoke and anger. 

If Doc was surprised he still remembered, he gave no indication. Only a curt nod to signal he was right. And now it was Lion’s turn. He turned towards Thatcher, trying to keep a neutral expression. He wanted to make him trip, get the answer wrong so Thatcher would realise he knew nothing about him, despite his claims to the contrary the day they fought.

“I have a son, I play the drums, and my father disowned me when I was barely eighteen.”

Thatcher gave him a long look before saying, “Last one has to be a lie, you’re far too full of yourself for someone who was disowned.”

“I play the guitar, not the drums.” Lion’s grin back at Thatcher was too full of teeth, more of a grimace in fact. 

The rest of the session was as awkward and uncomfortable as the start, even if Lion was already done with his part. Although he did learn more personal facts about his fellow operators in that hour than he did through the whole year. Caveira being a family person was a huge surprise, but he also gained a new appreciation for the struggles some of the people in Rainbow had gone through. Then again, he never had any problem with Mira, or Fuze, or Ash, or the Polish sisters, for example. He could have made some comment about Thatcher living on a boat, yet he had the impression it was Clash who was biting her tongue the hardest when she heard the name Iron Maggie

Overall, Lion would say this session hadn’t really accomplished anything, despite Harry’s apparent satisfaction. “We’ll meet twice weekly, see you all on Thursday.”

For how long would this torture go on? If he had to sit for long between someone who hated everything about him, and someone who punched him during their first disagreement ever, he would go insane.

_ _ _

Despite his earlier musings, Lion did not go insane. The same couldn’t really be said for their illustrious leader and psychologist, Harry, who seemed to be inching closer to a nervous breakdown as the days passed.

It was clear he tried to keep the group sessions controlled and calm, most of the exercises focused on finding common ground, getting to know everyone, and making the feuding people recognize some good traits in each other. And yet there hadn’t been a single session that didn’t have, at the very least, one big argument between operators. The first to crack were, unsurprisingly, Ela and Zofia. Their screaming matches were usually short but intense, and Lion was of the opinion that family drama was always deeply uncomfortable, whether one was personally involved or as a mere spectator.

“A good quality of Zo? I guess you can say she’s persistent…” Ela laughed bitterly at this. “After all, she’s been hounding me relentlessly all my life.”

“I just wanted to know you were alright!” Zofia defended herself. “You ran away to art school, and then suddenly we learnt from grandad that you became a PMC, I was worried.”

“Worried, that’s rich. Do you think I was still daddy’s little disgrace that couldn’t do anything right, so you wanted to check I wasn’t making a mess of my life? So you could feel superior again? Is that why you followed me into Rainbow even?!”

“If you pulled your head out of your ass for five minutes and let me explain, you’d know I was just trying to repair our relationship! I wanted my daughter to know her aunt, for you to be part of the family again, would that be so awful?!”

The silence in the room was so deep it was almost unnatural. At least they were all united in the unease of being witness to that family scuffle, as both sisters glared at each other. To Lion, it was uncomfortably close to some memories of his youth, when he never did anything right and all family meals ended the same way: his mother’s crying, his father’s angry shouting, and his sister looking at him with a mix of pity and cold disdain.

“Do you also distrust her due to her past as a PMC?” In the tense silence, everyone heard Kali’s stage whisper.

There was a general sense of expectation, waiting for Ash’s answer. In all fairness, the redhead didn’t hesitate for a second before replying. “No, because she did not become someone who’s barely a step above a criminal overlord with delusions of grandeur.”

“All I heard was you being petty because of my autonomy, position and success,” Kali waved her hand, as if dismissing Ash.

“Hardly. And despite what you would like to think about your own importance, the only ones here, in Rainbow , with more autonomy or higher position are the ones who are part of the staff. Like Zero.”

“Or you, right?” Kali pointed out through clenched teeth. She didn’t notice someone else was frowning at her.

“Or me.” Mira sternly reminded her. “I hate to agree with Miss Kick-in-the-door, but I am part of the staff too. You can’t keep blocking the director of R&D from inspecting every new piece of tech you bring.”

“That was just once or twice, and that tech is my property!”

“Once or twice?” Mira repeated in disbelief. “Try more like every fucking time!”

All hell broke loose when Ash voiced her support of Mira. Miracles do happen sometimes, Lion mused. Perhaps the best common ground was to have both people dislike the same thing, or person. Now all Lion had to do was find what Doc hated the most, aside from Lion himself.

_ _ _

As if those group sessions weren’t enough, Harry had taken to pair off operators randomly, so they could experience what a normal day was like for the other person. Lion thought it a waste of time, because they were all training and working anyways, nobody’s routine would be shockingly different or eye-opening. But orders were orders, so here he was, in Doc’s domain.

It was boring. For once, nobody was visiting the infirmary, so all Doc was doing was finishing paperwork. Lion did the same on his laptop, sitting on the other side of Doc’s desk. From outside, it must have looked like a peaceful scene, yet the tension in the room was almost unbearable. They were constantly avoiding to look at each other, so of course there was no idle conversation. He missed Finka and her lively commentary about her Spetsnaz teammates, or her theories and rants about her investigation, and even her friendly teasing about the counseling sessions. Lion would have never imagined silence could irk him so much. 

Tired of staring at the screen, he stretched his arms and got up from the chair. He needed a coffee, and the walk to the cafeteria would be a good distraction too. Only when he was there did Lion realize he forgot to ask Doc if he wanted anything, as it was the polite thing to do. Out of instinct, he got him a coffee too. Lion still remembered how Doc took it: one sugar, no cream. 

This - Lion bringing him something to drink or eat while both worked side by side - brought back so many memories. It was a bittersweet feeling to reminisce about the time they were thick as thieves. He had always felt a pull towards Doc, and for a time it was mutual. The elation of the almost legendary Dr. Kateb speaking to him was only rivaled by the closeness they developed, so sudden and full of promise. And it was all irreparably shattered in a single day. 

A familiar bitterness swept over him. Lion had been a fool to think Doc cared about him in any way, and it hurt. He desperately wanted to move on, but Harry's attempt at having everyone play nice with each other was only reopening wounds Lion thought closed. 

Back at the doctor's office, he wordlessly set the cup of coffee in front of Doc, and went back to his laptop again. He tried not to stare challengingly at Doc while he observed the coffee, as if it was a snake about to bite him. Eventually, he decided he wanted the drink and picked the cup. 

“Thanks.” Curt and impersonal, but it was still a thank you. Lion hadn’t been sure he would get one. 

Silence reigned supreme once more after that, and would have probably lasted for hours if Castle and Rook didn't barge into the infirmary laden with a box overflowing with tinsel of every conceivable color. Castle’s friendly smile and Rook’s excited expression made a heartwarming combo, like they stepped out from a Hallmark movie. Doc wasn’t happy to see them, though, or perhaps it was their cargo what set off his disapproval.

“No, no, you know I don’t want dusty ornaments around here,” Doc preemptively informed them. “It’s unnecessary, and if I have it my way, nobody will be spending their holidays in the infirmary.”

“It’s just a little bit of tinsel, Gus, you’ll barely notice it’s there!” Rook pleaded, using his infamous puppy eyes at Doc. That rarely failed. Seeing him falter, Rook pushed his argument. “It’s good for morale, for the people spending the holidays here at the base. Right, Olivier?”

“No amount of decoration will make me forget I’m spending Christmas here instead of with my son.”

It was the undeniable truth, and he doubted anyone would disagree. Still, it seemed he’d been a little harsh, since Rook’s mood visibly deflated after Lion spoke. As always, no matter what he said, one way or another he made someone from his team unhappy. Luckily for them all, Castle took over the conversation, offering a compromise. 

“Right, but that doesn’t mean the ones stuck here can’t try to make their holidays somewhat less depressing. What if we put minimal decorations up in the waiting room, would that be okay, Gus?”

Doc agreed to Castle’s idea, and soon he and Lion were alone in the office again. There was no more conversation after that, but Lion caught Doc sneaking glances at him at least a couple of times. For what purpose, he didn’t know, although he was sure it would be for some unflattering reason, since Doc never thought kindly about him. A stark contrast with the flirtatious or comforting weight their glances had once upon a time.

Alas, that was a recurring theme in Lion’s life: the people closest to him, the ones he loved, ended up hurting him when Lion invariably disappointed them in some way. He was lucky he had repaired his relationship with Alexis as much as he did. However, some relationships seemed beyond repair, and as crushing as the truth was, Lion had accepted it.
_ _ _

“Apologize?” Valkyrie repeated, taking barely a moment to think before declaring, “No, I don’t think there’s anything I should apologize for.”

The intonation made it very clear she thought the same couldn’t be said of Caveira. The whole room held their breath, waiting to see what would happen. In Lion’s opinion, Harry’s idea to have the feuding operators apologize to each other was backfirin rather spectacularly. Nobody went along with the plan, saying they did nothing wrong - which Lion thought was most possibly true from their point of view. So instead of an exercise in introspection, they only had argument after argument.

“You are a smothering and controlling bitch,” Caveira bit out, far calmer than anyone expected. “That is my issue with you. It’s always been irritating, but after Operation Archangel I can barely breathe without you hovering over me, watching my every move. You’re not my fucking mom, let me be!”

“So what you find annoying of me is that I care and look out for you?”

“Yes!” Caveira threw her hands into the air, exasperated by Valkyrie’s willful blindness. 

Da , it’s annoying to have a nanny following you around,” Fuze looked at Ying, who was turning red from the effort to reign in her fury.

“If you think I keep an eye on you because I care about you , you’re very mistaken!” Ying jumped from her chair, pointing an accusing finger at Fuze. “You’re a danger to civilian lives and teammates alike, and that’s why I watch every movement you make, to try to avoid a bloodbath! And I know if Tina was here, she would agree with me. Everyone knows her unit and yours are always at odds and that she thinks you are all brutes.”

After spending a fair amount of time amongst the Russians, thanks to his friendship with Finka, Lion was pretty confident in reading Fuze’s expressions. And the Uzbek was pissed, on the brink of jumping from his chair too.

“You say that every occasion you get,” Fuze drawled. “No wonder I tune you out when you speak, it’s boring always hearing the same.”

“Do you care for anyone other than yourself? Sometimes I doubt any of you two have feelings!” That drew a startled jerk from Echo, who turned to look at Ying confused as of why he was being dragged into their argument right now. “Sorry Masaru, that was unfair. You clearly care for your robots .”

That comment was so full of bitterness that Lion winced in sympathy for Echo. Perhaps that had been Lion and Doc’s mistake too. Allowing themselves to get too close, and now they could barely look at each other. At least, they were doing slightly better than those two, if cold silences and avoiding to be in the same room could be called better.

Romantic relationships and work could end horribly wrong, and these two were the poster child of why fraternization was forbidden in most organizations. Not in Rainbow, though. Lion had checked the regulations extensively upon joining. Not because he planned on sleeping with any of his teammates, but because he liked to know what boundaries he was supposed to keep in his new job. After years of breaking all the rules imposed by his parents, and school, and society, he now found comfort in knowing what was the path he had to follow. 

Funnily enough, that was another thing Doc reproached him. However, when he couldn’t see a path at all, rules and protocols were truly the lifeline keeping him afloat, and Lion would not apologize for that. He trusted rules more than he trusted his own instincts when it came to certain decisions. God knew he had chosen wrong plenty of times.

_ _ _

After weeks of these group exercises, none of the operators were truly showing signs of being more united, but some had agreed to disagree. It was then, the week before the Christmas break would start for most operators, that Harry thought doing trust falls was what they needed.

Perhaps it was the holiday cheer, or the notion they would soon be free of this well intentioned torture for a few weeks, but everyone was more cooperative than usual. Clash and Thatcher were the first to volunteer, much to everyone’s surprise. After that, Echo offered to catch Ying, and she complied almost happily. Valkyrie fearlessly let herself fall into Caveira’s arms, despite the latter's scowl. Ash was marginally less disgruntled about breaking Mira’s fall than anyone expected, although she wasn’t quite convinced to trust Kali yet.

When it was his and Doc’s turn, they both did as Harry instructed, both dragging on their movements as if wanting to gain more time before doing as they were told. Yet they couldn’t keep stalling forever, everyone’s eyes were on them. It was a simple exercise, and at the same time, it was unexpectedly difficult for Lion to keep a calm expression. He wondered if Doc was feeling the same. Before today, aside from some quick and efficient cures after training accidents, the last time he felt Doc’s touch was from that ill fated mission in Africa. Now Lion had him in his arms again, for a fleeting moment. Perhaps it wasn’t necessary for Lion to almost hug Doc to his chest to break his fall, but Lion wasn’t really thinking, he just acted out of impulse.

“He didn’t drop you, I’m impressed,” Kali’s sarcasm was, at the best of times, irritating. But this time Lion felt confused, as if he’d been caught doing something wrong. 

“I never had any doubt,” Doc replied, his face unreadable. “He was instructed to catch me, and if Olivier excels at something, is at following directions to the letter.”

What at surface level seemed a compliment, was in fact a well aimed barb. Nobody noticed, except maybe Harry, whose perpetual smile turned a little more forced after that. Mentally counting to ten, Lion took a deep breath and let it go. As much as he wanted to force a confrontation with Doc, now wasn’t neither the place nor the time. Going nuclear was something his old self would have done, and he needed to be better.

So he ground his teeth and tried to focus on how Fuze had taken Kali’s doubts seriously and was adamant Ying would most certainly drop him, which prompted another argument between them. Kali and Ash were pointed as the next pair to do the exercise, perhaps as a punishment or as a demonstration that nobody would be letting their assigned partner drop to the ground. However, these two started quarreling too, instead of being the example of good conduct Harry had hoped for.

"Is this a special ops team or a daycare?" Thatcher barked out, effectively shutting everyone up. “What do you say, Flament, do you fear I’d let you fall?”

“Not at all. And I suppose as long as I keep quiet you won’t hit me again either.” Lion bitingly replied. Today’s session was definitely going off rails very fast.

“Look kid, I’m not apologizing for that.” Thatcher’s cavalier attitude to their fight enraged Lion to the point of snarling at him while muttering ‘of course you won’t.’ Throwing him an unimpressed look, Thatcher carried on. “I won’t because I’m not a fucking hypocrite, and I know if I was in the same situation I’d do it again, because you are quite the asshole yourself. That wasn’t our finest hour, but none of that matters out there on the field.”

Lion supposed it was some sort of apology after all, like a backhanded compliment. It didn’t sting nearly as much as the actual punch Thatcher had once landed on him. And he did have a point, as loath as Lion was to admit it. He could be an asshole sometimes. Or often, if he took his ex-partners’ opinions into account.

“I suppose you’re at least honest,” Lion grudgingly said. Perhaps this was the closest to a true patching up there had been in these sessions so far.

_

He hadn’t meant to corner Doc after the group session was over. It just happened. Although Lion had to admit he’d been thinking of little else but him and the things he said -and didn’t say- since their little charade of a trust fall.

“We need to talk.”

“Do we? I think we’ve been perfectly fine without talking,” Doc tried dismissing him, but Lion crossed his arms and stood in the doorway.

“Not true, you do plenty of talking when it suits you,” Lion tried to keep calm, but it was proving to be hard. “Like that comment implying you don’t trust me to make the right decision on my own.”

“I never said that.” Doc was infuriatingly calm, almost bored even. It was only driving Lion more angry. “But if the shoe fits…”

“This is still about Nigeria, isn’t it? Are you going to hate me all your life just for doing my job? Whatever I did, people would have died, there was no good choice there! So I followed the protocol and tried to minimize the casualties.”

The silence was heavy and uncomfortable, and Lion wanted to scream, shake Doc, do anything that would cause a reaction. He wasn’t prepared by the deep hurt in his expression when Doc finally looked straight at him.

“Your decisions killed my friends.”

“I know, and I’ll always carry that with me. But I didn’t set out to kill them, we all were in a lose-lose situation.”

“I know. On a purely logical level, I know that and I have mostly forgiven you for it.”

Shocked, Lion stared at him in disbelief. He longed to hear those words for years, unable to forgive himself yet desperate for that sweet absolution. It was one of the reasons he seeked solace in God, after all. However, despite his devotion, God had yet to give him a sign that his sins were forgiven, and thus Lion deduced only the wronged parties - Claire, his parents, Doc, Alexis - could really grant him the reprieve his soul seeked.

And now that he apparently had Doc’s forgiveness, Lion didn’t feel like it was real. For someone who claimed to understand on some level, and having almost forgiven him, Doc didn’t act like that. “You could have fooled me. And everyone else in the base for the matter! People always ask me what I did to garner your hate, because the blame must be mine, obviously.”

“My friends died and you pulled away from me!” Doc exploded. “We were close but you basically disappeared! I was grievening and you didn’t come not even once to see me, to ask how I was, or to explain what you were doing, or even to the damn funeral! I didn’t see an ounce of remorse from you until you joined Rainbow!”

“Because you didn’t care to look! You shut off everyone and focused on your work, and your colleagues were looking at me like they wanted me to drop dead, so… I thought you needed some space to deal with everything. That’s why I stayed away, why I didn’t show at the funeral. And when you started to avoid me, I thought I had done enough damage to try to force my company on you.”

Something broke in Doc’s expression, the fury giving way to a muted disappointed. “I was angry at you, yes. And still am, but not for the same reasons. I want to get over this bitterness, but I need time.”

Those were Doc’s parting words before he pushed Lion aside and left. He had been a fool to think a confrontation would solve anything except fully reopening wounds that had never truly closed. And the worst part was knowing how his actions had wounded Doc in more ways than Lion had realised. 

A miscommunication and cowardice, that was what their feud was reduced to. Things could have been so different if Lion had the courage to go to Doc’s side after his decision proved to be catastrophic.However, deep down Lion knew that, no matter what, their relationship would have never been the same after that incident.

_ _ _

The Rainbow Christmas party was the only topic of conversation lately. Other years Lion would gleefully join the speculations about who was whom in their Secret Santa. However, these days Lion was hard pressed to find an ounce of holiday cheer in him. Not being able to visit his family weighed on him, as much as his argument with Doc crushed him too.

There was a certain change in how they acted around each other, melancholy and awkwardness supplanting the tension from before. He knew the rest of the team noticed, but as curious as they might be over this change, none had asked directly. Montagne reminded him he was here for anything Lion needed, but that hardly counted as an attempt at prying, and Lion was grateful for the reminder not everyone on the team felt better avoiding him.

It wouldn’t be so bad, Lion tried to convince himself. Work was work, and more people would stay at the base, he wasn’t the only one not going home for Christmas. They all could revel in their shared misery. Or get supremely drunk at the party. That wasn’t for Lion though, after the one debauchery bender that landed him in the hospital, he swore off alcohol. It had been one of the sources of his worst decisions, and Lion didn’t need any additional help with that. 

At least he was pretty sure he didn’t fuck up with the gift for his Secret Santa partner. Jäger’s obsession with planes, helicopters and anything that flew in general was a blessing; especially because Lion was quite terrible at shopping for others. While having the present secured was a weight off of his shoulders, Lion still felt agitated and restless. The urge to lie on the bed and listen to angsty music was there, yet he rolled his eyes at his own theatrics. Comforting as that might have been, he had responsibilities and work to do.

Near the end of the week, Lion found himself alone in the lab. Most of the staff had gone to their homes already, and the operators were busy preparing tomorrow’s Christmas party, before most of them would take their leave. In all honesty, the isolation suited Lion just fine, at least this once. He wasn’t keen on being alone usually, a part of him always preferring to have company, but over the years he learnt to be fine on his own, and lately he was in an introspective mood.

He didn’t expect the knock on the door, or to see Doc in his white coat nodding at him as a greeting. Doc never came to the lab if he wasn’t looking for Finka, and he had to know she was training with her team, right? Seeing as he stood in front of his desk, furtively looking around, Lion decided to spare them both the misery and tell Doc he could leave whenever he wanted. Finka wasn’t here.

“About our last conversation-”

“If you’re looking for-”

Both started talking at once, only to abruptly shut up roughly at the same time too. Lion gestured at him to go first. If there was unpleasant news to hear, he wanted to be done with it fast. Like taking off a band-aid. He maybe should have offered Doc a chair, but he doubted the defender would stay for too long.

“You were right.” He did a double take, because that was one of the things he never imagined Doc saying to him. “I let my emotions fester and it’s high time we let the past rest and looked to the future.”

Bewildered, and hoping this wasn’t some kind of dream and he would wake up any moment now, Lion asked with a lot more confidence than he felt, “A fresh start, then?”

“I’d call it a second chance,” Doc stated, after mulling over the question for a moment. There was too much history between them to really forget it all. And a second chance was more than Lion ever thought he would get. Then Doc took something from his pocket, placing an unassuming envelope in the desk, between them. “A token of my goodwill. I’ve been told it’s very appropriate for this season.”

The small joke didn’t have the intended effect, and instead of easing the tension Lion stared at the envelope as if it would bite him.  “You didn’t have to! I know you don’t celebrate Christmas anyway, and I don’t have anything-”

“Olivier!” Doc stopped his tirade with a slightly exasperated sigh. “I know. Just open the damn present.”

Nothing about this situation was making sense to him, and trust Doc to make him look bad just by comparison! However, the curiosity was killing him, and Lion opened the envelope to reveal its content. He stared at the slips of paper, reading several times what it said before reality sunk in. A plane ticket back to France. For him. And a copy of Harry’s new schedule, showing Doc had taken his position to stay at the base for the holidays.

“Why?” Lion asked, awed and confused in equal measure. The whole situation felt unreal, but if this was a dream, he would be crushed upon waking up.

“Well, as you said, I don’t celebrate Christmas, visiting my family now doesn’t have any particular meaning,” Doc pointed out. He continued in a much softer tone, ”And I know how important it is for you to spend time with your son.”

Lion looked at him, gaping like a fish. He didn’t know what to say, how to convey his gratitude. Lion reached out to him, grabbing Doc’s hand and just holding it, before he finally found his voice. “I… thank you. Really.” 

Doc smiled at him, a small and almost timid gesture, but it was the first time in years Lion saw that expression directed at him. There was a flood of memories of, maybe not better, but definitely happier and more innocent times. Their relationship would never be as it was before, but they could build something new. That notion filled Lion with hope. He was sick of living in the past.

“I don’t know how I’ll repay you.” Realizing he was still holding Doc’s hand, he squeezed it before letting go. “You’ve made me a very happy man.”

With a self-conscious chuckle, Doc waved away those worries. “It’s nothing. Although I wouldn’t say no to spending Eid with my family.”

Lion laughed with him, yet mentally he was already signing away his next vacation so Doc could be home those days. “Might I invite you out to coffee, one of these days? It’s the least I can do.” 

It was a perfectly innocent question, delivered with a perfectly innocent look, yet there was so much more to it. Doc hesitated for a few seconds, before he answered, “We’ll see. Ask me next year.”

Lion grinned. It wasn’t quite a yes, but it was closer to that than being a no. What were a few weeks when he waited years to reach this point? He would not squander this second chance, for those were rarely given, and he was aware it was a precious gift. One he hadn’t thought he would ever get, but maybe Christmas miracles did happen sometimes.