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the word is out about the town, to lift a glass and don't look down

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He’s paused at the bar, talking to the Serpent that helps out when Hog Eye’s off for the night. Topaz, he thinks, her eyes the golden color of gemstones. He doesn’t know her that well; the kids who join feel like they keep getting younger and younger. But she’s taken Jug under her wing and FP is grateful for that.

“Can I get you anything?” She looks up from wiping down the bar, and he shakes his head.

“No, thanks.”

Somehow, he hears her all the way from the other side of the Whyte Wyrm. The sound of her cuts through the static of the crowd between where he stands and where Alice Cooper is, dressed like somebody who got lost on her way home from the PTA.

“I gotta…” FP leaves his sentence unfinished, missing the knowing smirk on Toni’s face as he’s drawn to the drop-off spot for holiday donations.

She looked so different the last time she was here--or she looked the same, and the way she’s dressed now is really what counts as different. He can’t tell anymore, with Alice, which is the real her and which was a lie. But she looked great at his retirement party.

Now she’s buttoned back up and carrying two big gift bags in green and red.

What’s the classic line? He steps closer. Of all the bars in this town, here she is in his? Something like that. He’d be able to recite it word-for-word if he wasn’t already catching a hint of her perfume. 

“Alice Cooper.” He enjoys the way she whips around, startled by him despite being on his turf. Serves her right.

“FP. How are you?”

Strange thing is, she sounds like she means it. It occurs to him that the last time he saw her, he was throwing his second chance away. No wonder she's wary.

“I’m fine. Snakes don’t stay down for long.”

Alice rolls her eyes. She was a Serpent too, but it was FP who became so enamored with snake imagery that he started confusing the gang insignia with the creature itself. What a silly quirk to have survived the years between them.

“What are you doing here?”

“Toys for Tots.” She lifts the bags and shakes them a little. “Toys.”

“Ah.” It’s not much of an explanation. He's certain the Northside has toy drives of its own, along with school supply collections and fundraisers she could donate to. Why here, a place she spends so much time trying to tear down?

“I felt like...doing something,” she says when he keeps staring. “Giving back. I remembered we always did this. Decided to see if it was still happening, and here you are.”

“Here I am.”

And here you are, he thinks, dragging his eyes away from hers long enough to scan her thin pink blouse and skirt under a heavy winter coat. “Come with me. Oh, give those to Sweet Pea,” he adds as an afterthought.

“What? Where are we--” They are almost to the bar, his hand on the small of her back, before she relaxes.

“What’s your poison?”

“I still have to make dinner,” she says with a hint of sigh in her voice. “I’ll just have some wine.”

“The wine here sucks,” Toni tells her firmly. “Nobody drinks it, so they won’t let me bring in better. Please, if you care about your tastebuds, order anything else.”

“Okay…”

FP leans in. “She’ll have two shots of strawberry vodka with a chaser of that lemonade you fixed up fresh this afternoon.”

“Gotcha. Be right back.”

“I can’t believe you remember that.” Alice stares at him.

“There’s a lot I remember.” He takes the liberty of tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. She's in his den, after all. Normal rules feel suspended here. “Why Toys for Tots, huh? We do it every Christmas. I’ve never seen you.”

“I have my reasons. And we have the money.” She shrugs. “Why not?”

“Until my party, you hadn’t set foot here since...before you got married. Is this gonna become a habit? Not complaining,” he adds. “Just wondering.”

“That was a one-time occurrence. I don't exactly belong here anymore. But, ‘tis the season.”

She pokes his chest with a perfectly manicured nail. “Where’s your holiday spirit, FP? You should be happy.”

“About what? I hate the holidays.”

“I know you used to. You’re a father now. You’re no longer that kid whose dad refused to put up a tree."

“Yeah, well. I try to make it special for Jug. I do. But he’s growing up--he doesn’t want Santa stories and snow angels anymore.”

“Some traditions we grow out of,” Alice agrees, with a parent’s sorrow. “But some grow along with us. Don’t stop trying, FP. Your kids will always be your kids, if you let them.”

“Wow, somebody’s philosophical.”

“No, somebody’s impatient. Where’s my drink?” Alice turns away from him, drumming her fingers on the bar until she spots Toni.

“Sorry, Tall Boy wouldn’t wait his turn. You know how he gets,” she tells FP. “Here’s your shots and chasers.”

Alice narrows her eyes when the girl sets down the shot glasses and only gives one to her. The other is in front of FP. Wasn’t he done drinking?

“I never said I would share,” she protests, reaching across him to grab it.

“It’s a free drink, Alice. Stop complaining.” FP tosses his back, following it with the chaser. Alice smiles at the way his mouth twists around the tartness of the lemonade.

“I don’t know how you can stand that berry stuff,” he says as Alice drinks hers in half the time. She pats her mouth with the napkin in front of her and grins.

“It’s disgusting.”

FP’s laugh fills the space between them. It does more to warm her than the liquor.

“Hey, I didn’t order it! You did.”

“Because it used to be your favorite.”

“I also used to watch The Breakfast Club every week for a year. I was a dumb kid.”

“You were never dumb. But wow, you had crap taste.”

“In alcohol, yes. I’m happy to say my tastes have matured.”

“Also in music,” he argues. “That song you played a hundred times. You wore out the tape deck in your old car. What was it called again?”

“'Hungry Eyes?' It was in Dirty Dancing! FP Jones, that is a classic song.”

“That song drives me nuts. I still know all the words, and not by choice.”

“I’ll never understand how you could live in that trailer and be such a snob.”

“Well, you grew up in the ugliest house on the Southside, and look at you.”

She glares at him. “I can still punch you without breaking a nail, you know.”

“Meant it as a compliment, Alice. You’re gorgeous, always have been. Questionable taste, in music and movies and alcohol. In people. But too pretty for words.”

“You certainly seem to have plenty tonight.”

“Vodka went to my head.”

Her lips quirk. “You’re not that much of a lightweight. But we’ll pretend I believe you. I have to go, FP. Thanks for the terrible drink on the house. Good luck on the toy drive.”

“Stay warm,” he says, the closest he can get to goodbye. Tonight almost felt like old times. They’ve never looked more different, but something was the same. Something is still there.

“Hey, Toni.”

“You want another?”

“God, no. The woman you fixed the shot for just now?”

“Yeah, Betty’s mom.”

He glances at her, surprised.

“I used to read the Register. She’s not exactly low-key.”

“Right. I wonder...does she look like the type who might have a record player?”

“I don’t know.” She thinks it over. “I mean, her husband owns a newspaper. She might’ve gone digital. But if she does have one, I’m guessing it’s quality.”

She could have questioned him in return, about Mrs. Cooper or his sudden interest in vinyl. Toni was curious about all the undercurrents that ran through the Southside and Northside High and everywhere in between, but she didn’t ask about them. She learned more by listening and letting others do what most people did naturally: tell strangers all their secrets.

FP grabs his coat and pauses by the Meals on Wheel section to make sure the arrangements are coming together. “I’ll be back soon,” he tells Tall Boy on his way out. His bike takes him to Greendale and back with no problems--an unnecessary precaution, probably. It's not like he's doing anything wrong.

But Riverdale is full of nosy idiots.

****

Alice hears the doorbell ring, and waits for Betty’s footfalls on the stairs as she brushes flour off her hands. Eventually she sighs and goes to answer the door herself. She’s busy in the kitchen; couldn’t Elizabeth have at least come downstairs?

There are carolers on her doorstep, one of the traditions she loves about Riverdale that she had no idea existed outside of Christmas movies until she joined Hal on the Northside.

The Riverdale Children’s Choir sings a spirited, if slightly off-key, “Carol of the Bells.” After that, it’s “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and then “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

By the end, her lonely mood has perked up a bit. The group of kids and parents moves to the next door.

Maybe they’d like some of the cookies she’s been making all day, Alice thinks, before a glint at the edge of her porch catches her eye.

The flat package is wrapped in metallic gold and crinkles when she picks it up. For Alice is all the tag says. If her memory hasn’t failed her, though, she knows that handwriting.

Why on earth would he be giving her a gift?

She closes the front door, tiny carolers forgotten, and sits heavily on her couch. Betty is doing who knows what in her room; Hal is out. No time like the present for a present, Alice decides.

Even as a child, she was a fastidious unwrapper. Gifts were so rare in her house, so precious, that she relished them. She hung on to the paper for years, turning it into something new or laying it flat in a box, tucked away in wait for a life where she could take such things for granted.

She wants for nothing now, but the box has only gotten bigger, and the treasure trove of glittering bows and ribbons and glossy paper offers her the holiday spirit year-round.

On really bad days, Alice dives into that box, running her fingers over the twirled ribbons and remembering where each piece of carefully preserved wrapping came from.

FP used shimmering gold, the color he always told her looked best on her. Though her world has been falling apart for months, that makes her smile.

Pressing the tape against the white side of the paper as she goes along, Alice painstakingly peels back the gold until she can see what’s inside.

A laugh bursts out of her, and she rushes to cover her mouth like that will take it back. There is no real way to explain this gift to Betty if she asks...the circumstances, or receiving it at all. But it's perfect.

Untying her apron and leaving it on the couch, Alice takes her surprise to Hal’s study. He shouldn’t be home for hours. And since she no longer really owns records, it’s where they keep his father’s player.

Not that Hal listens to them much, either. He likes the idea of being the kind of man who does. Status and how things look matter more to him than the truth; despite her choice to marry him, they are nothing alike in that way.

Alice slides the shrink-wrapped vinyl out of the gold paper, and sets it down on Hal’s desk. She runs her fingertips along the cover of the LP. There’s Johnny, and there’s Baby. She’d been such a romantic back then, in a desperate secret way she showed only to the first boy who stole her heart. How many times had she made FP watch Dirty Dancing when her mom wasn't home and he wanted to escape?

It had to be at least a dozen, the poor guy. And he wasn’t wrong, she’d played this song in her car over and over, until the tape snapped inside the cassette.

It was playing when they got lost in the rain during what was supposed to be an impromptu picnic. It was playing when he quirked that smile of his and ran his hand up under her shirt the first time, when they steamed up the backseat.

FP even played it once, when she found out she might be held back because of her arrest and they would be putting her on community service on the Northside to expose her to more ‘positive influences’--like the Northside wasn't full of pompous jerks who bullied her friends.

She couldn’t stop crying, her face buried in his jacket while they sat in the cab of his dad’s truck...and then "Hungry Eyes" started playing.

“I bought a copy,” FP told her, kissing her damp cheeks. “In case of emergency. Close your eyes, Al. It’s gonna be okay.”

It wouldn’t be okay, actually. Everything was about to change--but neither of them knew that at the time. Her lashes dried, his varsity jacket left the imprint of an R on her cheek, and she laced her fingers through his. She let her favorite song and his warmth make it disappear for a while.

Now, Alice puts the record on. She closes her eyes and curls up on the small sofa in the corner, feet tucked underneath her, clad in fuzzy socks. The music flips the calendar back.

It’s 1992. She’s splitting her time between school and the local biker bar, because her home isn’t safe or happy. But she has FP. That matters more than everything else.

Her relationship is a little like her favorite movie, passionate and fun. He’s a roughneck like Johnny, with a soft side. She’s never fit in her family, like Baby. And FP isn’t really the school dance type, but he likes to put the radio on in his trailer when they’re alone and sway with her on the frayed carpet.

She spends the next hour locked in her husband’s study, the record returning her to a life before there were Black Hoods and teenage pregnancies and broken hearts. She’s just a girl who loves a boy, and he’s murmuring along to her favorite song.

Alice hopes he likes his surprise as much as she likes hers.

****

“Hey,” FP calls out to Hog Eye behind the bar as he surveys the donations table. “I thought the sorting was done.”

“It is. Everyone got the toys and meals packed up and ready for distribution, all of it. Finished this morning.”

“Then what’s this?”

FP waves a box in the air. It's wrapped in forest green paper with little white trees. Hog Eye shrugs and goes back to tending bar.

“Sweet Pea found it with the donations. Said it’s for you.”

“Huh.”

He turns it over and spies the card tucked under a silver bow. Typed out instead of handwritten, it reads, Merry Christmas, FP. From your Secret Santa.

The Serpents don’t do Secret Santa. Their money goes to holiday donations and taking care of their members the rest of the year. Plus it’s such a spoiled rich sort of idea, buying gifts for someone and not even signing your name.

Which is exactly what he did, leaving that surprise for Alice, he reminds himself. So maybe he should just open the thing.

It takes him three seconds to remove the paper. He’s never been the patient type when he gets presents; if it could get taken away any minute, you better enjoy it while you can.

Wrong Men & Notorious Women: A Criterion Collection, the cover says in black and white. Apparently Santa thinks he needs to own more old movies. Who…

He remembers the way Alice’s eyes flashed at him across her dinner table last year and smiles. Before she went for the jugular on Homecoming night, she seemed surprised to learn he still loved movies. She looked, for just a second, like she’d seen a ghost.

The ghost of Christmas Past, FP thinks, turning the DVD set over in his hands. It’s Hitchcock. Got some good stuff. Not that he’d expect anything less from Alice Cooper.

As thank yous go, it’s a good one.

Then he freezes, still holding his gift.

“Boss?”

“Yeah, Hog Eye?”

“Need a drink? You look strange.”

“I’m fine, Hog. Thanks.”

If Sweet Pea found this mixed in with the donations, then she brought it that night. She brought it before he left hers on her porch.

FP isn’t sure what that means, but he knows it means something.

He used to speak the language of Alice fluently; now he can only guess that this is much an apology as a surprise.

Trying to tear him to shreds in front of his son and her husband and daughter? Pure Alice Cooper. No hesitation, no mercy.

Giving him movies for Christmas, when he mentioned being a movie buff right before their pleasant dinner went off the rails? When she hadn’t given him anything in the twenty Christmases before?

That was vintage Alice Smith. The girl he knew would pull stunts like this, flipping from angry to apologetic, from demands to tears.

He could never quite keep up, but he had loved the ride.

The reckless part of FP that always wanted another five drinks considered giving her a call. He could pick up the phone, thank her for the movies, extend an invitation to watch one in case she was ever bored and lonely.

He knows damn well it wouldn’t end there, if it started. Any version of that phone call leads to disaster.

“I’m goin’ home,” he tells everyone and no one in the Whyte Wyrm, and he tucks the box set inside his jacket for safekeeping.

Jughead’s pissed at him for taking the Serpents back, but maybe he can get his sullen kid to watch The Lady Vanishes with him tonight. Wasn’t that Alice’s advice, to keep trying?

'Tis the season, FP thinks with a grin as snow hits him on his way out the door.

If he’s ever going to catch a break...or a miracle...it might as well be on Christmas Eve.