We drove up the snowy, winding road toward the cosy A-frame cabin, as I lamented all of the life choices that had led me to this moment.
Was it only a week ago that I'd been happily living my life in the city, with my boyfriend and a job I enjoyed?
I smiled as I looked down at my phone, where three different contacts had just proclaimed themselves victims of Whammaggedon, followed by either a frustrated or crying emoji. I never bothered playing; my Boss had agreed to hold off on the Christmas Soundtrack until December 1st, rather than mid-October, but in retaliation, the very first song on the playlist was WHAM's "Last Christmas". There were no survivors.
Another text ping, and I had to clap my hand over my mouth to smother a burst of laughter. My boyfriend, Josh, had sent me a group photo of the "Ugly Christmas Sweater" finalists, with himself front and centre. A bunch of grown men and women in suits or pantsuits, hideous punny sweaters pulled over the top (the suit jackets were piled on a nearby chair), grinning unrepentantly.
Shaking my head fondly, I texted back.
Honestly, why was it so hard for my Boss to grasp that some of us liked the Double-Time-and-a-Half that came with working Public Holidays? Or prefered to avoid the family gatherings that came with the season? I'd taken time off during Thanksgiving and Independance Day purely so that it wouldn't be weird that I offered to be on-call during Christmas!
Don't get me wrong, I loved my family, but they were Salt-of-the-Earth, corn-fed Country People, and it never showed more than over the Holidays.
I could just about stand it when I was only there over a long weekend - between travel and celebrations, there wasn't time for them to do more than drop a few anvil-sized hints about 'that nice young man from Church' that I must remember going to high school with - but the entire two weeks over Christmas? I just knew that the entire fortnight would be filled with "accidental" run-ins with whichever still-single man they'd selected as this year's sacrificial lamb, and excuses to leave us alone together while both of our families hid and eavesdropped behind a corner.
Another 'ping' broke me out of that depressive mindset.
This time I did laugh out loud.
How many times had I complained that going home for Christmas was like the set-up for a trashy Hallmark Seasonal Movie. All I needed was for this year's Set-Up to proclaim himself the secret Prince of Christmas or Santa's Heir, Fleeing His Sacred Duty To Find A Wife, and the scene would be set! It was so nice to have a partner who understood my sense of humor.
I sent back a heart and a ROFL emoji, my good mood temporarily restored. A glance out the window showed that I needed to get off my phone and prepare to fight my way out at the next stop.
I was off the train and elbowing my way through a pushy throng of people crowding around as soon as the doors opened. There was a small grocery store next to the station that specialised in all the things a harried 9-5 worker might want to pick up on the way home, and kept extended open hours for that purpose. Despite the cost of extra staff and high rents, it was a business model that was definitely working out for them.
Good thing, too. UberEats was terrible at throwing a packet of instant raspberry jelly, cranberry jam or apple sauce in as a substitute for the actual cranberry sauce we ordered. I grabbed a small tub of sour cream for the mashed potatoes, too; we'd used up the last of ours making nachos for dinner last night.
Pulling my hat down over my ears against the biting wind, I hurried the final ten minutes home. Walking was faster than attempting to catch a taxi at this hour, and it wasn't that far. Ringing bells - and a wide berth in the flow of foot-traffic - heralded the presence of those collecting coins for "Charity".
I worked in an auditing company. I knew exactly how much and how little those donations did to help people in need. My money went to soup kitchens and Refuge Centers directly, rather than lining some middle-man's pockets.
A rush of warmth flowed over me as I opened the door to our townhouse. Professional fanart and amateur portrait sketches in a variety of mediums decorated the walls. (Josh liked to dabble and was actually quite good at it.) Classical music drifted out from the Kitchen, along with some tantalizing smells, as I hung up my keys and coat. Home sweet home; why would I ever give this up for life in a country town?
I smiled as I poked my head into the kitchen. "So, did UberGrocery come through this time?"
Josh sent me a disgruntled scowl, though his dark eyes laughed, before kissing my cheek. "Grape jelly, can you believe it? Not even the decent grape PB&J, but the instant powder that you have to turn into jelly yourself!"
I laughed and held up my shopping bag. "Fortunately for us, the station store came through."
The boys back where my parents lived were used to being fed by their mothers or sisters. Josh could cook at least as well as I could, even if we did opt for take-out during busy periods. "Potatoes are boiling; I was just about to drain them."
I headed for the fridge, "I'll throw together a salad, and re-heat the bird with the rolls. Table or trays?"
The love of my life bounced in place like an excited kid, teeth flashing white against his bronze skin. "There's a new React video that just dropped. I waited for you before watching it."
Trays in front of the TV it was, then. I'd been waiting on this episode for the last week! Grown adults got to watch TV over dinner, without getting grounded for running commentary.
Two days later, I kissed Josh farewell at the security gate, got through customs with long lines but no incidents, and boarded a plane to the middle of nowhere, aka rural Montana.
My entire family - all 20 of them, including the assorted partners and spawn - met me at the gate, waving a sign decorated with flashing lights. I cringed and wondered if it was too late to get back on the plane. Probably. Why did Mom insist on letting the youngest of my niblings design and decorate the welcome signs?
At least this one wasn't shedding glitter everywhere, unlike last time...
I pasted on a smile and accepted a sympathetic pat on the shoulder from an older lady, and a fist-bump of solidarity from an average-looking man who had just spotted his own horde of relations. It was only a week. I could do this.
Dad's side of the family were farmers. Mom's side were cattle ranchers. Her brother had bucked the trend and opened a Hotel, of sorts. A few dozen A-frame cabins, nestled among a winter wonderland of snow-dusted trees. Visitors could self-cater for a discount, or be fed by my Aunt, who had run her own catering business before a brief bout of insanity led to her marrying my uncle. I still think that opening the Getaway Park was part of the terms and conditions of marrying him, because there is no way my Aunt would have settled into being a housewife.
They make a killing with people like me, who are happy to not be crammed into their childhood bedrooms and share a bathroom with a dozen other people, and agriculture company executives who come out for "team-building exercises" and striking deals with the people producing their product.
There are always a few cabins kept vacant for family or emergencies, and since it was my Uncle Harry's turn to host this year, that's where we were staying. I picked the smallest of our cabins and sprinted for the attic room before Mom's car had even stopped, my adult-sized legs beating out the three teenage niblings who clearly had the same desire to not share a room.
Dropping my backpack on the bed, I headed back down for my actual suitcase, and nearly ran into a man I vaguely recognised from past family gatherings on the way back up the stairs.
The brother of the man who married my oldest cousin on Dad's side, and seduced her into running a butcher's store in town instead of a farm, if I recalled correctly. Mom had been making noises about how he didn't have a girlfriend on the way up. I'd been ignoring her, and hoped desperately that she hadn't actually talked to him about setting us up. I set my suitcase down on the landing. "Sorry about that."
He had a friendly smile, at least, though I couldn't remember his name for the life of me. Steve? Simon? Sam? That it started with S was all I remembered. "Not a problem. I think I broke an Olympic record or two getting to the double room when we arrived."
Hm, perhaps I wouldn't need to be quite so thorough in scaring this one off. "My boyfriend had to work through Christmas this year, but apparently my Boss had concerns about how many times I've done the same, and made me take the time off. I'm sorry, but I've completely brain-blanked on your name."
He instantly relaxed. "Oh, thank God. Er, not that he couldn't come, but my brother's mother-in-law was dropping Matchmaking hints, and I hate disappointing people. I didn't want to admit that I didn't even remember you. It's Sam, by the way."
I laughed, understanding completely. I'm not normally so quick to advertise my relationship status, but past experience at family gatherings taught me to be obvious. "Same with my mother. I'm Rachael. Shall I apologize for breaking your heart now, or later?"
Another distinctly masculine cackle came from the room behind him. "What makes you think you'll be the one breaking hearts?"
Damn, the newcomer was pretty. Tall, blonde, and with a body like a professional swimmer or gymnast. Josh would love to sketch him. "Well, I don't have any plans of breaking up with my boyfriend, so I'm afraid my heart is quite safe."
The pretty one flashed a smile. "Fair enough. I'm Dean, please skip the Supernatural jokes."
I was so glad when Castiel had been introduced as a character, and the Wincest fics took a back seat. "Reasons why fandom is a terrifying place. How are you related, new person I haven't met before?"
They exchanged a long look. a strange kind of tiredness clear in their eyes before Sam launched into an explanation he'd probably already repeated more than once. "Dean's my partner, I brought him to introduce around, but my family seems set on thinking that he's a friend who had no-where to go for the holidays."
I remembered my cousin's parents being particularly obtuse in that area. My other cousin had been pulling the Best Friend card for at least a decade, and I was pretty sure she'd married her girlfriend in Vegas and just never told anyone. I wouldn't be surprised if Sam's parents were the same way. "My sympathies. I volunteer to work the Christmas period because the one time I brought Josh home, my parents spent the entire time trying to set me up with men I remember eating crayons in first grade. The year after that, they had a list of men who were still single, and had me on blind dates with every single one of them."
Dean looked sympathetic. "I gather most modern women want someone with an achievement list longer than working in the General Store and growing up in the same small town they plan to die in."
It seemed that this year's blind set-up was more of an ally than a hinderance. "Let me introduce you to Josh and clear it with him when I video-chat tonight, but after that I'd be happy to be your beard, if necessary."
Sam let out the same kind of long sigh I had upon realizing that I wouldn't be getting out of a trip home this year. "We've tried to tell them, but I'm not sure that anything short of sex in a public forum will get it through their heads. Even outright saying 'Mom, Dad, I'm Gay' just made them congratulate me on getting into the spirit of the season."
Oof. That sounded more like denial than ignorance. "In that case, let them think what they want, and we can get through this trip before heading back to our own lives."
Dean wrapped an arm around Sam's waist. "We've got an hour before the rest of them finish fighting over rooms. Want to call your boyfriend now without interruptions?"
I wasn't even two days into this trip, but I really, really did. I could already hear the painfully polite sniping where Mom and Aunt Sarah had realized that they'd brought the same dishes for Christmas Dinner tomorrow, and my grandmothers were squaring off over whose stuffing recipe to use. "Come on, we can hide in my room and I'll introduce you."
The difference in time-zones meant that Josh was just wrapping up work for the day when I FaceTimed.
The way his face lit up when he saw who was calling warmed me more than any log fire. "Hey, Babe. Is everyone still alive?"
Sam hastily muffled a giggle behind me, and I couldn't help my own grin. "Ask me tomorrow. Grandma Jennifer just called Nana Elizabeth's stuffing over-rated."
He winced dramatically. "Ouch. Just don't make eye contact, and avoid giving an opinion."
Dean leaned into view. "Speaking from prior experience?"
Josh shook his head. "My ancestry is Mediterranean. If either of my grandmas said something like that, there would be an actual war. It's been a few years since I saw Rachael's family; should I know you?"
Sam shook his head, also leaning in. "I'm a cousin's husband's brother, though that probably doesn't help. Dean and I are sharing the room downstairs, and accepted the offer of a hiding place."
Josh had a far better gaydar than I did, and didn't need the subtext. "Nice to meet you. Are you room-mates or 'OMG, room-mates'?"
Sam shook his head. "The latter, if only the rest of the family were so observant."
No-one died, and after half a day of the rest of the family strategically avoiding both Matriarchs, they came to some kind of accord over the stuffing. Christmas Dinner was lovely, and I managed to wrangle the orange sauce recipe to take home for future reference.
After the weekend at the cabins, everyone relocated back to the assorted family homes for the remainder of my trip. I did manage to catch up with some old friends, though most of them had fled the area as fast as I had after Graduation. Moving in a pack helped deter any unwanted attention.
One youth did try to proclaim himself a Christmas Prince, but since he was all of three, we indulged him in the fantasy.
Finally, it was time to leave.
Mom drove me down the snowy, winding road, away from the farm and toward the main road that would, eventually, lead to the airport. Sam and Dean's contact information was in my phone, and we had plans to meet up for a double-date in February.
It was time to go home.
Inspired by this meme and video.
Australia doesn't get snow this time of year, (or really at all) so I had to use my imagination.
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