Chapter One

Twas the Night Before Christmas

“Are you sure?” Aedan Gallagher said. “Could you check? I really need a dozen in ice blue.”

The sales assistant blinked slowly at him. “It’s Christmas Eve. Most people have had their decorations up for weeks.”

“Ah, well, I’m not most people,” said Aedan with a laugh.

The guy stared blankly back at him.

Aedan cleared his throat as people jostled around him. He wasn’t going to be intimidated. “You see,” he continued in a cheery tone, “they really are beautiful. But I don’t know if three will make enough of an impact on the tree.”

The sales assistant looked like he was in his mid-twenties, the same as Aedan. Although he was wearing a cheery Santa hat, his stony expression suggested he was a hundred percent done with the festive season, not to mention the heaving throng of people currently bustling through the large shop.

Aedan took comfort from the fact he wasn’t the only poor sap stuck out on Oxford Street on December 24th, desperately trying to get everything sorted for the big day tomorrow. Ordinarily, he avoided Britain’s busiest high street like the plague. It was always jam packed with slow moving tourists and utterly impractical for normal shopping needs.

But Aedan and his boyfriend Matt had both been so busy with work and getting their new flat redecorated, there had been little time left to get themselves into the Christmas spirit. Luckily, Aedan had finished work at lunchtime that day. His manager had insisted everyone deserved a trip down the pub, but Aedan sadly declined. This was his last chance to get presents, decorations, wrapping paper and anything else he’d not been able to pick up during the rest of December.

Oxford Street was the closest set of shops to his office, and, in theory, had everything he could need. But even on Christmas Eve, it seemed there was only so many miracles to go around.

Normally, he had all these things planned since halfway through November. Christmas was his favourite holiday. The perfect chance to see as many friends as possible and legitimately have cheese and wine for dinner as much as you liked. But it had been such a busy year, his time for preparations had vanished faster than the chocolate from an advent calendar.

Matt was terrible. He’d already gone through three calendars since the start of the month, always giving in to the hidden chocolates before the days they were supposed to be eaten. Thinking of his adorable guilty face when Aedan discovered him each time made him calm down. Once Aedan got through this dreadful shopping trip, Matt would be home not long after and they could start their holiday together.

He did his best to smile at the sales assistant. “Is there not any stock out back?” Aedan was tired; he could hear his Irish accent getting stronger. “You see, I’ve got this whole Arendelle, ice palace vision. These hanging crystals are just perfect, but I couldn’t see any more on the shelf.”

The guy sucked his teeth, eyes narrowing. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. His mocking tone sent an immediate shiver down Aedan’s spine. He looked Aedan up and down; from his sparkly, Kohl lined eyes, down past the rainbow broach pinned to the coat fitted perfectly to his slim frame, along very skinny jeans to his perfectly shined shoes. Aedan jutted his chin out defiantly, even though he felt uncomfortable. “But like I already explained,” the guy sneered, “it’s Christmas Eve, and this is the final stock clearance. Everything will be reduced on Boxing Day, then chucked on New Year’s Day.” He flicked an eyebrow. “If you wanted to make a fairy castle, perhaps you should have started sooner.”

Without another word, he slouched off into the depths of the department store, scowling at anyone else who dared come near him.

Aedan swallowed. His feet were killing him and he was stressed, worrying how he was going to get everything sorted, even with the shops being open until late. Normally, he would brush off shitty homophobia like that without a second thought. But he didn’t have the energy to laugh at the guy. Instead, he bit his lip and readjusted perfectly coiffed blond hair.

Fuck that guy. He didn’t matter. What mattered was getting Christmas perfect for him and Matt. Their first one in their own place was extra special, and Aedan was woefully behind on his schedule. Still, it would have been better not to have been spoken to like that.

A tut came from his right hip. Aedan looked down to see a girl of about eight years of age shaking her head.

“Elsa was a snow queen. Not a fairy.” The girl pushed her glasses up her nose and looked up at Aedan. “He doesn’t know anything.”

Aedan had to laugh, immediately feeling a little comforted. “No, he certainly doesn’t.”

The girl sighed. “I hate shopping,” she said.

In that moment, Aedan had to agree. “Sometimes it can be fun. Are you with your parents?” he asked.

The girl pushed her glasses up again, like she wasn’t used to them. “Yeah. My dad.” She pointed at a fraught looking man a few feet away agonising over two different scarves. “He always leaves mum’s present ‘til Christmas Eve.” She narrowed her eyes at Aedan. “Did you leave your girlfriend’s present until now too?”

Aedan sighed at his new friend. “I got my boyfriend a perfect present, actually,” he said sadly. “But it was coming from America and it didn’t arrive in time.”

“Oh no!” said the girl with the kind of earnest concern only kids could muster. “So you’re looking for a backup.”

Aedan nodded, feeling glum. “And a bunch of other things. We haven’t even decorated our tree yet.”

The logical side of his brain argued that this late in the day, the tree didn’t matter. Only Matt’s present mattered, so he should get that sorted first. But the tree was part of the whole Christmas experience. Just as much as the food and the games and the same old festive films they played on the TV every year. It all added up to make Christmas the best time of year, so Aedan didn’t want to miss a single thing.

Matt’s present not showing up had very much put a spanner in the works.

The little girl patted his coat sleeve. “Don’t worry. Like my mum says every year, it’s not the present that matters in the end. It’s the thought that counts.”

Aedan arched his eyebrow at her dad. They really were two fugly scarves.

“Thank you,” he said.

She did have a point. But Christmas was an extra special time for him and Matt. It was also their anniversary on the 27th. Aedan was extremely disappointed his gift hadn’t arrived in time, but there surely had to be something else he could get in London in the next few hours.

It wasn’t even the most expensive present. The proper gift was the one he had sorted for their anniversary. But like the girl said, he’d put a lot of thought into the one for Christmas Day, and due to its nature, it wouldn’t do much good if it arrived after that.

The little girl’s dad chewed on his lip and rubbed the cheap material between his fingers and thumbs. Someone ought to at least do well in tomorrow’s gift giving.

Aedan popped a hand on his hip. “What does your mum like doing for hobbies?” he asked the girl.

“Like, when she’s not at work?” she said, frowning. “Umm…reading books. Real books. She likes the smell of them. Otherwise, he’d get her an eReader.” She rolled her eyes, apparently having heard her dad lament this fact many times.

Aedan broke into a big smile. That was too easy. “Okay,” he said.

He put down his ornaments and pulled a receipt out of one of his bags from the presents he’d already bought. No one would want to return chocolates, of that he was confident.

“Tell your dad to get bubble bath,” he said, starting to scribble a list on the back of the receipt for her. “A ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, one of those hand painted wine goblets from the glass ware section over there, candles, bookmarks from that craft fair on the street outside, and if he’s got any budget left, book tokens. Sound good?”

The little girl’s eyes were wide as she took the list after he finished writing it. “Yeah,” she said, then grinned up at him. “You’re really good at this.”

He shrugged. If he was really good at it, he wouldn’t have left everything until the last minute. “Have a merry Christmas,” he said to her.

“You too. Good luck with your boyfriend’s present, I’m sure you’ll do great!” She waved and skipped back over to her dad, proudly brandishing the list Aedan had written.

He slipped away into the crowd, preferring to remain anonymous for his good deed. Hopefully the girl’s mum would like her present.

Aedan looked down at the three blue crystals he’d picked back up again, deciding he might as well buy them. He had a few decorations for their new tree now, but not even half the amount he’d hoped. He’d already been through most of the shops on the main high street and it was starting to get dark outside.

He huffed. Enough moping. He could get on the tube and go to the shopping mall out east. That was only a couple of stops away from their home and he still had several hours before the shops would close at ten o’clock. He really hoped he wouldn’t be out until then; he still had everything to wrap, after all. But the thought of trekking back down the long length of Oxford Street to go through the stores again made him want to cry.

He looked down at the bags in his hands. He’d gotten presents for most people on his list, but none of them felt like complete gifts yet. They were all impersonal and generic items; perfume, makeup, chocolate, soap, socks. Not that there was anything wrong with any of those. It just screamed to Aedan of not putting enough effort in.

That made his mind up. He was going to travel to the other set of shops and try again. Maybe a seasonal coffee along the way would perk him up.

He just needed to dig deep and find his usual Christmas spirit. He knew it was lurking about somewhere. It just needed a little help to find its way out.

Hopefully, some time before tomorrow. He was not going to be the Grinch who ruined Christmas.  

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